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Sport Fishing Magazine, August 2000

Ten Tactics Top Skippers Use to Catch Once-in-a-Lifetime Giant Bluefin

By Jim Chambers


I caught my own world-record, 927-pound giant bluefin right 'out front' here in 1940 - on a hickory rod that was later used by Ted Williams for his 400-pounder. It took me more than three hours because the drag - and my line - weren't strong enough back then. And our fighting chair was a barber chair! I was afraid I'd lose some of my inexperienced anglers over the rail as some others had, so I roped 'em into the boat. One guy fishing from someone else's boat popped up only after the line broke between him and the giant. They never found another guy [from another boat] who went over the side."


The words of Capt. Malcolm Hudson of Newburyport, Massachusetts, offer a veteran's insight into the grand tradition of fishing for giant bluefin tuna and the exciting, dramatic and potentially dangerous nature of pursuing the world's most powerful fish.


World's Toughest Big-Game Fish


Professionals who should know will usually tell you that bluefin are in fact the toughest of all big-game fish. Capt. Jack Cashman of Toms River, New Jersey - who's probably caught more big giant bluefin than anyone - says, "Big marlin are spectacular, but their jumps and acrobatics wear them out. Giant bluefin have more power and stamina than any other species. And once you've caught one, it spoils you for other big-game fishing."


Another pro in the know: Capt. Al Ristori of Manasquan, New Jersey. After catching swordfish, blue marlin in the 600-pound class and lots of giants (including a grander bluefin), Ristori says he ranks bluefin as the top game fish. "They have everything going for them - speed, power and endurance. On comparable tackle, no billfish can compare pound-for-pound with a bluefin in terms of sheer fighting ability."


Ristori caught his 1,000-pounder while fishing with Capt. Bob Pisano of Brielle, New Jersey, widely recognized as being among the best giant-bluefin captains. Pisano recalls the day in October of 1979, while fishing off Rockport, Massachusetts, when they caught four giants estimated at 800 to 1,000 pounds, but kept none because the season had closed. When they battled a fifth tuna to the boat, estimated at over 1,600 pounds, they seriously considered keeping it for the recognition despite the $25,000 fine that would mean, but released it.


In 1976, Pisano had landed what would have been the world record at 1,275 pounds, but a week later, Ken Fraser caught the 1,496-pound giant off Nova Scotia that remains the all-tackle world-record bluefin. In the last four years, Pisano has caught six granders out of Gloucester to 1,140 pounds and six off New Jersey. He holds the current New Jersey record of 1,030 pounds.


By any angler's standard, catching a massive giant has to be considered an ultimate thrill in the sport of fishing - the catch of a lifetime. Although bluefin are found in all the world's warmer oceans, the largest specimens with warm blood maintained by a unique heat-exchange system and protected by so much body mass, range into waters cooler and thus more productive. While bluefin can exceed 2,000 pounds, the term "giant" designates those weighing at least 320 pounds. However, the emphasis here will be on "large giants" - behemoths of 500 to over 1,000 pounds. As you would expect, success for such a trophy means lots of preparation with the right gear fished in the optimal way in the best areas. The following offers a 10-step approach to gearing up, finding, fooling and fighting monstrous bluefin from some of the best giant-tuna skippers in the Northeast - and the world.


1. Target Top Locations


The coast off New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces during the fall ranks among the best places in the world to target the largest bluefin tuna. Massachusetts and the Gulf of Maine are top spots for U.S. tuna boats.


Gloucester and Chatham serve as primary ports for the tuna fleet; both provide services (dock facilities, fuel and bait) needed to mount a sustained tuna-fishing effort.


Giant fishing in New England begins June 1st, peaks in September and ends in late October. The fishery is regulated under a complex system of quotas, days on/days off, size limits and other rules set annually by the National Marine Fisheries Service. (Call 1-888-USA-TUNA to apply for the required federal permit allowing you to keep tuna and to obtain detailed information.)


Since the largest bluefin migrate the farthest north, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and the Gulf of Maine all rate as tops for really big giants, especially during September. Cape Cod gets action in October as temperatures fall. For any area, of course, your best guide to when to fish will be the advice of a top charter captain in the area (see sidebar, "To Charter a Giant Bluefin Trip").


2. Fish the Edge


Primary New England grounds for giants are Jeffrey's Ledge, Stellwagen Bank, the Great South Channel and small humps throughout the Gulf of Maine. "Tuna travel along their edges," acknowledges Joe Colabella of Brielle, New Jersey. He should know, as one who's caught at least 200 giants (including one weighing 1,028 pounds - just 2 pounds shy of Pisano's state record).


Pisano's records confirm that simple fact: He says that from New Jersey to Gloucester, "Giants just migrate back and forth along the 30-fathom contour between wrecks (which attract forage), so it's just a matter of waiting for them."


"Especially good spots," Colabella adds, "are the steepest drop-offs, generally from 140 to over 300 feet deep, often on the 'backsides' of these submerged banks." Here, currents and upwellings concentrate smaller fish and other prey, attracting giant tuna. They use the wall to trap prey, which finds its only escape is up.


By name, some of the Northeast's best spots for large giants include: the Rockpile, Outer Flag, Old Scantum, Cove, Gully and Curl in the Jeffrey's Ledge area, according to Hudson. The northwest and southwest corners of Stellwagen Bank receive heavy fishing pressure, but the bluefin caught here and around Cape Cod tend to be much smaller fish, in the 250- to 400-pound range. Cape Cod hot spots include the Crab Ledge (five miles east of Chatham), the BB buoy (where Carabella caught an 800 last year), and between the BB and BC Buoys along the Great South Channel. Colabella says that traditional New York Bight hot spots include the Monster Ledge in the Mud Hole and the Bacardi Wreck. Another top bluefin skipper, Al Anderson, lists among his favorites the drop-offs south and east of Block Island (the 30 Line, Shark's Ledge and the Tuna Ledge), the Mud Hole in Rhode Island Sound and the Butterfish Hole. Anderson, author of the book, The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna ... Yesterday Today & Tomorrow, has caught over 100 giants, including a grander and 12 giants in a single day.


Trolling with daisy chains of mackerel or artificials such as squid produces best at the beginning of the season. But Pisano notes that, "A giant, which stays deep, needs something worthwhile to come up for - like a string of nine mackerel."


"The early fish don't seem to settle into the chum slicks very well. They may be more concerned with going somewhere than with feeding actively," says Ristori. But once the fish have established a daily routine and are feeding heavily, it's more productive to intercept them by anchoring over steep drop-offs and by chunking (chumming with chunks of baitfish).


This article focuses on the technique of chunking. Typically, chunkers use pieces of herring to draw tuna to "hook-baits" suspended at various depths using balloons as floats. Ideally, the anchor is positioned so that the boat stays over the middle of the drop-off as it swings around with changes of tide and wind. Pisano says, "Being exactly on the middle of the edge is critical." According to Joey Jancewicz, another top giant fisherman from Newburyport, Massachusetts, who has caught many hundreds of big bluefin (starting at age 14 with a 441-pound giant), prime times are dawn and slack tide.


3. Fish Where There's Life


Cashman and Pisano look for areas where they see evidence of abundant life - bait, whales, sharks, birds. "If you find a whale feeding, you can be sure there's a giant there," Pisano says. Even an area with a perfectly flat bottom and no apparent vertical structure nearby can be an excellent site if it supports lots of prey - and giants prey on everything they can swallow.


By using a quality color sounder, a bluefin's "mark" can be distinguished from blue sharks. Bluefin appear as red "gumballs" in either a full or partial yellow arch; blue sharks, which move much more slowly, appear as horizontal blue or green marks. Sounders also show the density and depth of schools of prey species - typically Atlantic herring, whiting (actually silver hake) and sand eels (sand lance) - that appear as reddish clouds at various depths.


4. Use the Right Tackle for the Job


Penn's 2-speed 130ST remains the standard among most would-be giant killers, matched with either a 130-pound or unlimited-class bent-butt rod.


Cashman says, "Unlimited-class rods are actually too stiff for most anglers to properly fight a large giant. The best 130-pound-class rods, 8 feet long with an 80-pound tip, were made by Hardy of England, but these days, Fenwick's 7-foot 130s are almost as good." And for fishing from the bow of smaller boats like center consoles, Cashman says, "It's fine to use Penn's 80STW with matching rod, but use 130-pound test."


Most top captains - such as Gary Cannell of Gloucester, Massachusetts - prefer 200-pound Ande or 300-pound Jinkai monofilament line, sometimes with a 15-foot fluorocarbon leader, spliced into 200-pound (blue dot or green dot) Dacron backing. Even for granders, they generally use surprisingly small hooks - double-strength, straight 7/0 or 8/0 Mustads.


"The key is to get penetration in a very hard mouth," Cashman says. He files down barbs to reduce overall diameter, dulls hook points to prevent their bending and uses vicegrips to offset the point beyond the eye of the hook to increase its chance of penetrating. Hooks are attached using a precision crimping tool and aluminum sleeves developed by the airline-manufacturing industry for crimping metal cables. Jinkai makes crimps and crimpers.


5. Chunk 'Em In


Chunking, a critical element in determining a boat's success, must attract giants, not feed them. Done correctly, they can be lured right to the transom and there be fed a hook-bait. Herring - usually the only bait available in quantity - are each cut into four chunks and, as with hook-baits, taken off ice to warm before use so a giant won't feel abnormal cold and spit out a bait.


Chunking begins as soon as the anchor goes over the side and continues throughout the day until a fish is hooked. "Dispersing chunks so that they drift down through the pattern of hook-baits is as important as it may be difficult - especially since subsurface currents can easily be very different from those at the surface, says Cannell. "We drop three or four chunks in a circular pattern about 30 feet apart and let 'em sink out of sight before dropping more."


"The boat should be anchored so that the chunks drift down to deeper water or along the drop-off, not up on top of the bank," Pisano says. "It's essential to keep the pattern constant throughout the day with no interruption of the slick."


Cashman points out, "It's also wise to avoid placing chunks in a line since giants can take them all in a single pass. You want the fish to do figure eights through your hook-baits."


Pisano and Cannell are among skippers who believe in keeping the chunk pattern constant even if a giant is marked on the sounder. Cashman disagrees, however: "If we mark giants, I'll throw lots of chunks over to get their attention and keep the fish there. It takes a large giant 30 seconds to turn around and come back. Would it do that for only one or two chunks?"


Excessive chunking draws dogfish up from the bottom to the hook-baits. They appear as faint blue or green marks on the sounder. Nor is filling the chunk pail with water to ladle over the side with chunks a good idea, tempting as it may be; the blood draws blue sharks. Once sharks find the hook-baits, it's time to move. "When both giants and sharks are present, it's best to rely on live baits over chunks," says Cannell.


6. Prepare Baits With Care


As shown, hook-baits require meticulous preparation, typically during the trip out. You want them to look like the hookless herring chunks that will be drifting down around them. Bury the hooks and insert a piece of Styrofoam to offset the hook's weight and produce neutral buoyancy, so the bait floats naturally with the currents. Some captains such as Cannell bury the hook completely but others, like Cashman, like the hook point exposed for better penetration. "Do you think a giant knows what a hook is?" he asks.


Live baits, especially bluefish, attract giants at least as effectively as any dead bait. The giants' primary prey can usually be caught on-site using diamond jigs or sabiki rigs fished just above the bottom.


Bridle them with standard techniques, securing the hook over the head using 20- to 25-pound Dacron line or copper wire. Or, like Colabella, just hook them through the back. Hudson adds that he always trimmed the bluefish's tail fin a little to slow them down and reduce line tangling.


7. Place Baits at Prime Depths


Generally, hook-baits are fished at about 30, 60, 90 and 120 feet. Cashman, Pisano, Anderson, Colabella and Hudson all consider 120 to be the best depth for large giants though the very biggest may be still deeper.


Ideally the boat is riding over the edge of a steep drop-off in something like 220 feet. Attach a sinker (8 to 14 ounces, depending on current strength at depth) about 30 feet above the hook-bait and lower very slowly (to avoid tangling) to the pre-selected depth below each balloon (which is also secured to the line by a rubber band). It's wise to mark on each reel the depth at which its hook-bait will always be fished.


Allow the shallowest bait to drift farthest from the boat (perhaps 200 feet) and fish the deepest bait (best for livies) just off the stern.


Baits should be checked frequently and replaced every hour since their scent becomes washed out. Using swivel-base rod holders in the gunwales, rotate rods as the baits drift to different positions. Often the combination of wind, tide and subsurface currents carries baits forward rather than behind the boat.


A secret weapon of top skippers: fishing a "working line" by hand, allowing the bait to float down with chunks through the optimum strike zone of 90 to 120 feet, raising it again and repeating the process. (The working line replaces the deep line fished straight down off the stern.) The technique is not advisable for novice anglers, but for those with experience it can be very effective.


"Using a split-tail bait that 'swims' in the current can sometimes be most effective for giants," Cashman points out. "Remove the entire backbone and sew the two flanks together with the hook sewn in near the vent [anus]. It works best in a strong current coming from the bow or from either side, but not from the stern. Use a 20-ounce weight placed 30 to 40 feet forward of the bait, and send it down to 120 feet or wherever the strongest currents are running."


According to the many consistently successful giant-bluefin skippers I've spoken with, in addition to the right equipment, patience and persistence are the most important factors determining success. "Believe in your strategy and stick with it," Jancewicz says.


8. Be Ready for the Hookup


Hooking a giant can produce panic among inexperienced crews. Make sure each crewmember fully understands pre-assigned roles so he will perform them as calmly as possible when the time comes. There's no room for error in giant fishing. The sport demands extreme caution. "While waiting for a hook-up, don't stand near the rods, and keep your hand off the line and reels," Cannell warns. During the hookup of a giant with Pisano, an inexperienced angler lost a thumb. (Saved in a plastic bag, the digit was successfully sewn back on by surgeons.)


Giants usually take a bait at high speed and the balloon disappears. If the giant doesn't set the hook on its own, do it for the fish immediately by reeling hard. Giants initially bolt in a straight line that often takes them under the boat, toward the anchor line or toward other anchored boats. Monofilament moving through the water so fast can easily cut right through an anchor line.


The helmsman must chase the tuna regardless of which direction it heads, before the rod man winds up "smoked." Giants are capable of bursts over 60 mph and sustained runs that can easily strip all the heavy line off a 130 before a skipper can maneuver his boat through the anchored fleet and catch up. Using a pelican hook with a line to the helm allows for quick release from the anchor line and ball.


9. Fight 'Em Right


Sport fishermen generally fight giants from a fighting chair with standard bucket harness; commercial fishermen, on the other hand, usually fight giants with the rod left in swivel-base rod holders mounted in the gunwales. "It's important to maintain constant, moderate pressure to whip the fish while preventing the hook from pulling out," says Cashman. For smaller boats, that makes rough seas (which seem to excite big tuna) a difficult and dangerous situation when trying to fight a fish in a rocking boat, according to Jancewicz.


Top rod men, like Cashman, who's caught over 300 giants, want the fish to "run as far as it can so that it will exhaust itself." He reasons, "Think how you'd feel after running back a kick-off a hundred yards for a touchdown." So while many set drags at 40 or 50 pounds and push them up to 80 or 90 when the fish runs, Cashman does the opposite.


"I never use a high drag setting because that causes the hook to pull out. In fact, I keep the drag at 25 pounds for the strike and throughout most of the fight. I may even drop it down a little to encourage a big fish to run. If he wants to make a second run, that's great. I'll encourage him to do just that by backing off on the drag." Cashman says that, toward the end of the fight, he may push the drag up or thumb the spool with both thumbs to add increased pressure on the fish.


"During the course of the fight, I'll keep steady pressure on all the time because I want the fish to head my way. I figure that to reduce the pain caused by the hook, the giant will turn back toward me. I keep the rod tip bent constantly. If I rest, so does the fish. I don't want that to happen."


Cashman lifts weights and runs throughout the year to maintain the strength and stamina needed to battle giants. "I try to have the fish whipped in less than 45 minutes," he says.


Pisano's approach is different. "Giants run for 300-plus yards whether the drag is set at 90 or 2 pounds. It doesn't matter; because they close their mouth (for maximum speed), they run until they're out of oxygen. Then, the trick is to get on top of them before they can recover."


10. Boat 'Em Safely


"In wiring a tuna," says Pisano, "never take a wrap around your arm or hand. Once I got careless and did it with a 500-pounder. Line became tangled in both hands as I tried to free myself. I ended up pinned against the gunwale. Luckily, the fish didn't take off. Without hesitation my green mate cut off the fish. Saved my hands and maybe my life."


Pisano once saw a commercial hand-liner pulled over and down to his death. He also saw a blue-marlin "expert" try to wire a giant by taking a wrap around his arm and then go flying over the rail. "He was getting really deep and, as we were trying to decide what to do, the swivel broke and the skipper could pull him up," shaken but alive.


At the end, the rod man must be ready to back off the drag to prevent any final lunges from pulling the hook or breaking the strained line. He must also watch to ensure that the line doesn't become wrapped around the rod tip. The crew also has its hands full keeping the tuna from getting under the boat where the line could be cut by the props.


Many of the best skippers recognize that the biggest mistake made by some helmsmen is to be overly concerned about a fish getting under the boat. "They try too hard to prevent this. But gunning the boat forward itself can easily cause the hook to pull or the severely stressed line to break."


However, it's hard for helmsmen to see where the giant is positioned and heading, so he must depend on getting help from the mate and angler.


Giants released can survive, according to the pros, if not injured severely and if revived sufficiently at boat-side. However, revival may be impossible after a prolonged fight of 45 minutes or longer.


When a giant that will be kept has finally been brought close enough to the boat, it's harpooned - ideally at a spot right behind the pectoral fin. With the help of gaffs, the crew tries to get lines on the tail so that it can be towed and finished quickly. Large giants must be brought over the rail using a block and tackle hung from a bracket on the tower. Under no circumstances should a large giant be brought into the boat alive.