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Schooled by Bluefin Tuna

Aha Moments

Lessons learned while on the prowl for bluefin.

Bluefin tuna

The first charter boat I ran was owned by a crusty old timer named Buzz Garrison who suffered a heart attack and his family needed me to fill in and run his trips for the rest of the summer. I was 24 years old and those were big shoes to fill since Garrison had a reputation longer than the Hudson Canyon is deep. The family never told him while he was in the hospital that a long-haired, bearded mate was running his boat in his absence.

I was surprised one afternoon after running the charters for a week to see Capt. Garrison on the dock waiting for me as I backed Storm King, his 42-foot Fortescue, into the slip. When I shut off the Chrysler motors Buzz looked at me and cleared his throat with a guttural noise that sounded like feedback from a Jimi Hendrix riff and commented, “I see you got back.” It was an aha moment, a snippet of time during which I realized what he thought of my prowess as a replacement skipper, although he did allow me to finish out the season for him.

Learning is a major part of being successful when it comes to fishing. Those aha moments come in many forms and each one is a valuable addition to a savvy angler’s repertoire whether it is learning to tie a Bimini twist or finally appreciating how effective a circle hook can be while whitemarlin fishing. Perhaps most important is that we can always learn something new and it never hurts to pass the newness on, to share what was sent our way by a generous and occasionally malcontent teacher. I recall a lesson learned early one foggy morning while I readied the boat and warmed up the radar in preparation for a bluefish charter and was asked by another skipper what my hurry was?

The fish had been biting near the Tolten, a wreck off of Manasquan Inlet. The problem was that the wreck, along with a few hills in the surrounding bottom, were in the Ambrose to Barnegat Traffic Zone used for commercial shipping. Anchoring in fog is chancy at best amid a fleet of like-size boats, but in a shipping fairway in restricted visibility, yes, what was the hurry? The party was anxious to go, but my mentor made the case for waiting a bit without forcing me to forfeit any respect from my paying clients. We left the dock an hour later and had a good day, but the real success was the education I received about understanding a bigger picture.

Passing knowledge along to others pays off big, too. Back when bluefin tuna were more plentiful in a variety of sizes one of the most effective techniques I learned from people like Capt. Buzz was how to catch the ones that did not want to bite. On calm days it was common to see schools of tuna swimming barely below the surface. As they moved at the very top of the water column, their bodies would generate wide patches of ripples that could be seen from a hundred yards away. Oblivious to colored feathered lures, cedar plugs, and even the infamous “Jap bone”—a tuna lure fashioned from the jawbone of a whale—these tuna would not be tempted by normal techniques. For the most part they were not eating and nothing could unlock their jaws. The trick was to make them crazy by dancing a silver spoon under the nose of the lead fish of the school.

But to do so meant maneuvering the boat away from the school and feeding the offering a hundred feet or more behind the stern. And Buzz’s horizontal jigging technique worked with deadly accuracy because once the lead fish bit the rest of the school would follow like clockwork. With the first fish on, a line dropped to either side of the boat would mean two more hookups and it would continue until a line broke or a hook pulled, which would scatter the school. The technique was effective on tuna from 10 to 100 pounds.

The challenge, however, was keeping less informed boats from charging through the schools dragging their lures in figure-eight maneuvers or whatever else they had tried unsuccessfully in the past. Compared to trolling with engine noise and whitewater erupting in the wake, jigging for tuna with spoons was like fly-fishing for trout. Noise and commotion were the enemy of the technique.

After a very successful day with the bluefins, a befuddled friend stopped by the boat to see our catch. He was annoyed, yet amazed at a dozen beautiful tuna glistening in the August afternoon sunlight. He had been aboard one of the boats speeding aimlessly about while our rods were warped over constantly. As we talked, I had the time to explain what we had done and why it works. More importantly, he seemed to learn not to harass in the midst of the action of others. You might say he had his very own aha moment.

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.