Catching Giant Bluefin on a Budget

There was a slight chop developing on the ocean’s surface as I eased the Miss Loretta into a slow drift on Stellwagen Bank’s legendary southwest corner. A cool easterly wind made it difficult to distinguish tuna splashes or whale breaches from white caps, and it was difficult to gauge how much life, if any at all, was in the area.

But the crew was ready to fish despite the gray conditions and lack of visible activity. The previous day we had caught eight juvenile bluefish while fishing in Buzzards Bay, and we were eager to send one of the hapless critters flying under the kite. I could not help but feel bad for the little blues, who 12 hours ago were top predators, feeding on silversides in 70 degree bath water. Now, 40 miles removed from his warm and safe abode, we set our first bluefish under the kite off the port side.

The breath of easterly wind was becoming more of a consistent breeze, so I decided to get my mind off the deteriorating conditions by setting another bluefish off the starboard side of the boat. I wondered how much of a weather window we would have before the breeze would send us home.

15 minutes later something strange happened. A gaping hole opened underneath the kite bait and the small bluefish disappeared.

“What just happened!” yelled Todd, our newest crew member.

After a moment the bluefish popped back to the surface and began frantically swimming in circles. His little tail beat the water into a froth just yards off the side of the boat. We all watched and hoped that whatever had initially hit that little bluefish would return to finish the deal. None of us had ever seen a giant bluefin tuna smack a bait before, so we didn’t know what to expect. Our adrenaline was pumping and we were ready for our first tango with a giant.

A second later the ocean erupted in a white water explosion and the unfortunate bluefish was sucked into the gullet of a large bluefin. I looked to the sky and watched the 220 pound mono top shot release from the kite clip. The line fell in the breeze until it gently touched the ocean’s surface. A second later the line came tight and shot off to the west. The drag on the Penn 80 was screaming!

We scrambled around the boat, clearing lines and kicking over buckets, until we finally were able to secure the rod in the port side swivel rod holder. It was pure pandemonium on deck. After years of hoping, we finally had hooked a giant and it was difficult to remain calm. Todd accidentally snapped off the kite and we watched as it flew off in the breeze towards the Plymouth coast. Mazzola, my long time fishing buddy was concerned that the initial drag blistering run would spool us, so I started the engine. I laughed a bit observing the scene, turned the bow to the west, and began following the fish.

With only 100 yards of Dacron remaining on the spool the line went slack. The big bluefin had turned and was swimming directly back towards the boat.

“Crank, crank, crank!” I yelled to Mazzola. He hustled to regain the slackened line and was soon tight again with the fish.

The tuna was digging west as the crew and I settled in for the long haul. With it being our first chance at a true giant we were more focused on just getting the fish in and less concerned with the amount of time it would require. We were fired up, and hoped to send 700 pounds of Cape Cod sushi overseas.

Two and one half hours later we had the behemoth just yards beneath the boat’s hull. It was now or never as sea conditions were steadily deteriorating. The tuna swam in a powerful death circle, which made gaining each foot of line agonizingly difficult.

Finally she surfaced 15 feet off the port side.

“Throw the poon!” we yelled to Todd. Rearing back he launched a Hail Mary shot at the fish and missed by about five feet. Strike one!

“Stick him!” we yelled. On his second swing Todd sank the dart just behind the tuna’s massive head. He eased the fish in towards the port side while Mazzola manned the rod and I readied the gaff and rope. My hands were shaking as I sunk the gaff into the fish and secured the tail rope.

“We got him!” I said turning to the crew. “And guess what? The hook just popped out!”

Wow were we lucky, and boy did we make some big mistakes. But we had our first Cape Cod giant bluefin tuna and we were all thrilled. For the moment our 20 foot Hydra Sport was a tuna boat. The most exciting part was we had made it happen utilizing a lot of free advice, free research, and relatively inexpensive gear. The best part was that the trip had cost us $100-split three ways!

Bluefin Fishing without Going Bankrupt

It is possible to fish for bluefin tuna without breaking the bank. For the guys that I fish with, cutting costs without sacrificing safety is the only option. If we want to fish regularly, then we have to come up with creative ideas for saving money.

But like most things in life, bluefin fishing carries its own set of unavoidable fixed costs-no matter how innovative you may be. If you plan on fishing and selling giant tuna, then you will need to have a general category permit, survival suits, a life raft, and an EPIRB to meet Coast Guard requirements. I do not think it would be wise to be skimpy on these items. The good news is that one or two successful catches can take care of the initial safety investment.

Of course you will also need a seaworthy boat to fish from. The great news on this front is that you do not need a grandiose sport fishermen or rugged down-easter to have a legitimate chance at a tuna because some of the best Cape Cod fishing spots are relatively close to shore. Fortunately Stellwagen Bank is only 19 miles from Plymouth and just 8 miles from Provincetown. On many days the run can be made safely in the sized boat typically used for striped bass fishing. “Pick your days” is the name of the game when tuna fishing from a small boat. Keeping an eye on the weather is vitally important.

Cutting Rod and Reel Costs

With the safety requirements and boat taken care of we can now start discussing how to save money!

One of the most financially intimidating barriers for the aspiring tuna fishermen is the cost of rods and reels. A new Penn 130 international reel will set a fisherman back about $1,200. A new bent butt big game rod can be about the same price as the new reel, potentially putting a $2,000 dent in the wallet for just one setup.

One of the benefits of the recession is the large amount of rods and reels that are available for sale online. When the crew and I first began looking around for rod and reel combos, we concentrated our efforts on Ebay and Craigslist postings. We were amazed by the amount of good deals that we found. However we chose to be patient and continued searching for the best deal.

It took a few weeks but we eventually found a gentleman from Rhode Island who was looking to sell two 80 class bent butt rods and two Penn 80 International reels. We met him in New Bedford and after a little negotiating, agreed on a price of $800 for the two setups- $3,200 less than buying them new. We Googled how to clean the reels and they now perform extremely well.

Cutting Bait Costs

Acquiring high quality bait can be one of the most frustrating tasks for a tuna fishermen-especially for the new tuna fisherman who does not have a reliable network of bait contacts. If you do not have the time to catch your own bait, then it is definitely worth befriending your local pogie fisherman. In a good menhaden year, these guys can provide you with a tank full of livies for a fair price. Our local live pogie suppliers are awesome guys and are also some of the best tuna fishermen in the area.

However we prefer to save a few bucks and have a little fun fishing for our own bait. In our neck of the woods there are a few ways to catch your own live bait. Each method requires practice, research, and some spare fishing time.

Atlantic mackerel invade Massachusetts Bay during the spring and fall and are an easy target for live bait fishermen. For spring and fall Cape Cod tuna fishing trips we utilize homemade sabiki rods (discussed later in the article) to jig up macks before departing to our tuna fishing destination. We usually concentrate our efforts in 50-70 feet of water, and keep a keen eye on the sonar until we locate an area holding a large concentration of the colorful speedsters. If all goes well, we will spend an hour jigging up a couple dozen mackerel before heading to the tuna grounds.

Once summer rolls around most of the mackerel depart for cooler waters to the north. It is around this time we put the sabiki rigs away and concentrate our bait catching efforts on bluefish. Bluefish have long been regarded as “tuna candy” and are definitely worth the time and effort required to catch them. On the day of your tuna trip Lady Luck may smile upon you, and provide you with a bluefish blitz on your way to the tuna grounds. However this is unlikely and we prefer to catch our bluefish in the days leading up to the trip.

Catching bluefish and keeping them alive is no small task, but it can be done. It can pay to have friends who enjoy fishing, and who also have small skiffs that are ideal for chasing blues in skinny water. We will spend the evening prior to the tuna trip fishing the coves and creeks of Buzzards Bay in Todd’s small skiff. We will fish until we have enough eight to 20 inch bluefish to fill the laundry basket that we drag from the side of the skiff. We then transfer the blues to a homemade live-well on the bed of a pickup truck and make the 30-60 minute drive to the marina, where we transfer the bluefish to a laundry basket hidden amongst the marina rocks and pilings. We return 12 hours later, transfer the blues from the laundry basket to the boat’s live well, and we’re off to the tuna grounds.

Sounds ridiculous but it works!

 Cutting Equipment Costs

I would not recommend cutting corners on terminal tackle. Top of the line hooks, fluorocarbon leaders, and high quality main line should not be sacrificed for the sake of saving a few bucks. It is smart, in my opinion, to rig your setups with the best terminal tackle available. One poorly made $2.00 swivel can be the determining factor between landing and losing a big fish. I like purchasing terminal tackle from local bait shops. Shopping at the local tackle shop is a great way to extend my fishing network-plus I’ll often receive recent fishing reports.

My crew and I do cut costs by getting creative with sabiki rods, kite rods, live-wells, and harpoons. Over the last couple of years we have been able to build or buy much of our equipment. By putting in some extra time and effort, we have been able to save hundreds of dollars.

Sabiki Rods

Homemade sabiki rods prevent sabiki rigs from getting tangled and allow sabiki rigs to be used multiple times. To build your own sabiki rod you need electrical tape, a five foot piece of one inch PVC, a drill, and a “retired” fishing reel. In less than hour you can build your very own homemade sabiki rod.

1.) First use the electrical tape to secure the reel to a comfortable spot on the PVC.

2.) Next, drill a hole wide enough for mono to slide through in the PVC about six inches above the reel.

3.) Run the main line from the reel through the hole, and out the end of the PVC.

4.) Tie on a sabiki rig, affix a weight to the end of the sabiki, and reel the rig into the PVC piping.

Homemade sabiki rods allow an angler to quickly take advantage of any bait catching opportunity. If a school of mackerel appear on the sonar, it’s possible to have the sabiki rig in the water within a matter of seconds. Using an old reel and a section of PVC to catch bait will take a burden off your more expensive equipment.

Kite Rods

Fishing for tuna with a kite is exciting and productive. It's like casting topwaters for bass multiplied by 100.  To learn more about kite fishing check out Kite Fishing Cape Cod for Giant Tuna.

We are not aviation experts, so instead of trying to build our own kite we decided it would be best to cough up $50 for a Boston Big Game kite. So far it has been a great purchase. The kite flies well even in a light breeze.

We did decide to build our own kite rod instead of spending $200 for a new setup. During our 2009 season Mazzola snapped a six foot spinning rod while fighting a small bluefin. He figured that the lower four feet of the rod would be well suited for kite fishing. He melted a rubber covering over the snapped end of the rod, and attached an old Penn reel we had previously used for striped bass trolling. We loaded the reel with some fresh Dacron and had a homemade kite rod for about $5.

Live-wells

The only problem with our 20 foot Hydra Sport is that it came equipped with a rather small rectangular built in live-well. We needed a larger live-well that could support a tank full of lively mackerel, bluefish and pogies. The problem was that a live-well large enough to hold these big baits could end up costing us more than $300.

Our problem was solved when a 55 gallon plastic drum washed up on Sagamore Beach during a 2010 Nor’easter. To create a live-well from the drum we followed these steps:

1) Lay the drum horizontally and saw a two foot by one foot section out of the side of the drum. Screw two three inch rubber tubing sections into the drum, allowing half of each tube to dangle over the cut out section of the drum, with one tube at each end of the opening.

2) Screw the remaining half of the rubber sections into the top of the sawed off section of the drum. This will serve as the bait door for the live-well.

3) Next drill a one inch drainage hole into the bottom of the drum. Insert a piece of hosing and seal any leaks with marine caulking. Attach a shut-off valve to the end of the hose. Make sure the hose is long enough to dangle off the stern of the boat for drainage purposes.

4) Construct a base out of two by fours that the drum can sit evenly on. This will help prevent the drum from rolling around in rough seas.

In order to keep baitfish alive in the drum it is crucial to maintain a steady flow of water. We position our homemade bait tank at the stern of our boat, in close proximity to our saltwater wash down hose. With the drainage valve closed we simply insert the wash down hose through the makeshift bait door, flip on the wash down and wait for the drum to fill with fresh seawater. We will then shut off the wash down and add our baits to the homemade live-well. It is important to drain and replenish a quarter of the water in the tank every twenty minutes to keep the baits alive and kicking.

We dedicated about four hours of our time and $15 of our money to construct our not-so-gorgeous but effective orange live-well. We have been able to keep two dozen adult pogies alive and happy for over 12 hours using the setup. Bluefish and mackerel have also faired very well.

Harpoons

Harpoons are an absolute necessity for serious bluefin fishermen. New harpoons can cost more than $250. Used harpoons are relatively easy to come by and are much less expensive than buying new.

Back in 2008 I found a used harpoon advertised on Craigslist for $100. I traveled 10 minutes to the town of Sandwich where I was shocked to find not just a harpoon, but 100’ of harpoon rope, two darts, a buoy, two Penn Senators, a Penn Jigmaster, and three wire line trolling rods. The gentleman who owned the equipment could no longer fish and was looking to make space in his garage. He sold it all to me for $200!

Later that same year we used that harpoon to stick a 170 pound tuna that we could not coax into gaffing range. In the ensuing pandemonium I dropped the 10 foot harpoon overboard and watched it plummet to the depths of the Southwest Corner.

Frustrated, we started looking online again, thinking that we would never find another 10 foot harpoon for short money. To my surprise a retired tuna fisherman was selling a 10 foot harpoon, two spare darts, a bouy, and harpoon rope for $100. We traveled to Methuen after work, made the purchase, and headed out fishing the very next weekend.

Developing a Cost Effective Game Plan

A well thought out game plan will also help to keep tuna fishing expenses under control. The weather and fishing destination can have a dramatic impact on a crew’s bottom line.

Being smart about the weather is critical when tuna fishing from a small boat. The 15-20 knot breeze that cools beach bums can result in dangerous offshore conditions for small boats. Siding with caution is of utmost importance. Catching one of these impressive fish from a small boat is a gift and not worth risking the safety of the crew.

The goal of our tuna trips is to have fun and return to the dock in one piece. We will not make the 19 mile run to Stellwagen unless the forecast calls for 5-10 knot winds. Banging through choppy seas can put a beating on the crew, the boat, and the gear and will also burn extra gallons of fuel. If you want to stay safe and conserve fuel then it is imperative to keep a close eye on the weather.

However, less than ideal weather should not ruin a tuna fishing trip for the small boat angler. There are many Cape Cod Bay fishing areas surprisingly close to shore can still produce big tuna. Just because it is too breezy to head to the Bank with the larger boats, does not mean that you have no chance at hooking up closer to shore. The truth is you may experience spectacular fishing in areas where no one even knew fish were congregating-which is pretty cool.

The past few seasons have blessed us with a few memorable experiences where we were fortunate enough to encounter tuna within just a few miles, and sometimes yards of the shoreline. One afternoon this past fall we hooked up and lost a giant tuna just a few miles outside the east entrance to the Cape Cod Canal. In 2009 we encountered blitzing bluefin three miles outside Plymouth Harbor. During October of 2009 I stood on Sagamore Beach and watched in disbelief as dozens of 150-200 pound tuna shot clear out of the water chasing tinker mackerel only a couple hundred yards from shore. Our region is certainly unique in that it offers small boat anglers a real opportunity to hook bluefin close to shore-which can translate into big fuel savings.

Tying it all Together

Our region hosts some impressive captains who possess an uncanny ability to consistently bring bluefin back to the docks. For the rest of us, bagging a big bluefin can often be a frustrating and even overwhelming task.

However the plethoras of big tunas that have invaded Massachusetts Bay over the past few years have made it possible for small boat anglers to get in on the action. It is very feasible to tackle big tuna using a boat and budget more suitable for striped bass fishing. A bit of creativity and a strong desire to put a big tuna in the boat are the most important ingredients for catching bluefin on a budget.

For additional Cape Cod tuna fishing information, head on over to My Fishing Cape Cod.

Tight lines, take care and Happy 2013!

Ryan

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