Strategy: Finding Bluefin Tuna around Cape Cod #211

I have noticed over the years how focused anglers have become on reports, even to a point where it might be counterproductive. Here are a few thoughts on how anglers chasing these reports are going about it in the wrong way:

  1. For starters, where the tuna are is anybody’s best guesswhen they first show up at the beginning of the season. Someone has to be first! If you don’t head out and look, the best you’ll know is where they were yesterday! Keep in mind early fish are movers too.
  2. A report just tells you where they were yesterday. Tuna move fast and the ability to find your own fish is frequently needed. I would say this is the case at least 75-percent of the time, at least to some degree. The fish may have moved only 10 miles but if you are too hung up on “the spot” you’ll miss valuable time sniffing around to find your own fish. I can’t tell you how many times I have scrambled based on a good report only to discover that the fish had moved.
  3. A report might take you to where there is unpleasant boat traffic or mediocre fishing. By running your own playbook, you might find a bigger and better situation. It’s a fact — boats put fish down. There may have been a good bite at 8 a.m. but by 9 a.m., it’s over. Have you ever pounded a spot with the fleet all day only to end up getting skunked? I never regret picking up and moving out of a crowded fishing situation with less than par fishing.
  4. It’s simply badass to skip the reports and find your own fish. After all, it’s the thrill of the hunt that keeps us coming back. The fact is, the most efficient way to get tuna is at the fish market.

Break Down The Situation

The key to success is to know when to stick around and when to run. The sharpies know how to break down the situation and make calculated decisions based on experience, rules of thumb and common sense. Here’s how I have learned to break down the situation over the years that I have been tuna fishing.

Timing:

  • Seasonality: Here on Cape Cod, you should be ready to make these loops by early June. The bite can happen earlier, but mid-June is a good starting point. The bite in this region can run hot and cool throughout the whole season. Like all tuna friendly locales, tuna baits in this area can be herring, pogies, mackerel, sand eels, half beaks, butterfish, bottom fish and small bluefish. My sense is you most frequently see sand eels and half beaks, but I have never tracked my findings. In any event, you should be prepared for any of these baits throughout the season.
  • Yesterday”: If you have good reports, start there. Replicate as much as possible and work from there to adapt to the new days’ conditions. Many times, the playbook remains unchanged, but many times, a new day in the same spot calls for a few small adjustments to fully capitalize. If the fishing is not happening, look at what has changed.
  • Tide: If you know what time the fishing was good yesterday, consider adjusting for the timing of today. Often, the bait, and consequently tuna, move with tide over the cycle. The fishing can move as many as a couple of miles over a couple hours of fishing. If you are fishing without a report, use this same concept to your advantage. The stage of the tide at hand might help suggest where to “put lines in.”
    • Slack tide is the best time for peak tuna fishing. During this time, bait will rise to the surface and this is when the action can really heat up, especially for top water action. Big moon periods have the shortest tides and are often considered less desirable. A note here; tides can be difficult to look up offshore. Once you identify slack, and record it, you’ll be able to extrapolate future times by adding about 50 minutes per day and four hours per tide cycle.
  • Time of day: Obviously a non-issue if you are replicating a report, but there’s a few good rules of thumb here. Early morning fish and sunset fish tend to be far more aggressive. Tuna can bite all day and slack is always king.

Tells

  • Birds:
    • Radar: If you have high power radar, you can use it to find birds. Most units today have “bird mode” but if yours doesn’t, you can tune yours by turning the gain all the way up and removing the clutter.
    • Size: For starters, bird size will likely tell you what size bait you’re dealing with. Any birds, including stormy Petrels, are a good sign. But the bigger birds, such as Shearwaters, Gannets and Large Gulls are usually a great sign and tend to be the best indicators of tuna.
    • Activity: You’ll want to identify the birds intentions. Obviously, the Holy Grail is tightly vertexing birds with lots of aggressive contacts with the water. What is happening here is a predator(s) is pushing up bait, allowing the birds to capitalize on the distracted and easily accessed bait. This is a no-brainer situation to put lines in. Slightly lower on the spectrum is lots of birds diving, in a fairly defined area. The bigger the better. Still worth investigating. Lastly, the weakest of the bird activity is a series of terns “kissing” the water. This often occurs from terns feeding on very small bait without any help from predators below. Ask yourself, are there any other signs?
    • Loitering: A bunch of birds “hanging” out can be a good sign, meaning that something just happened and they are waiting for it to happen again. It could also mean they are just hanging out or a dragger went by. Who knows! One way to test this is to approach the birds. If they are annoyed but try to stay close, that’s a good sign. If they simply take off, they can be written off.
  • Whales: Whales aggressively bubble feeding are a good sign that sand eels are in the area.
  • Bait: Do you see bait on the surface? On the finder? That’s a good sign. Is bait clustered? That’s a good sign if bait is balled up. It might be in defense mode. Lots of bait “paving” the finder could also be a good sign, but could also mean a lot of bait but no predators. This is a good time to rethink the birds. The birds are pretty good at knowing where the is. Do you see birds loitering and bait? That’s a pretty good sign. What do you know about the bait? What kind is it? If you don’t know species, is it big or small? Packed? Scattered? Answers to any of these questions will guide you.
  • Funky Water: This may include nervous water, boils or even rip lines that may pen bait fish, making them vulnerable to tuna.
  • Slicks: Fish made slicks often means something is getting eaten. Hopefully by tuna. If you are marking bait, see birds AND slicks, you’re three-quarters of the way there. Investigate the slicks for marks.
  • Targets/Breaking Tuna: If you see targets and nothing else, you’re in pretty good shape. If you see targets and all of the above, you’re in great shape! And breaking fish! Well, enough said.

 

The Elements

  • Current Speed: Let’s say you are marking tuna and/or bait and they are toward the bottom in 300’. Knowing your current speed is important as it will help you select lure weight and size, line type and boat speed to get down there. Strong currents can also help point to where the fish might end up over the course of the tide. Bait fish often work their way down tide.
  • Light: Thinking about the lighting will help you in a couple of ways. On dark, rainy or foggy days, tuna often feed closer to the surface throughout the day. Sometimes switching to a darker lure for greater contrast in low light will help increase the lure’s visibility. I default to matching the hatch, but adapting lure color to the light conditions is my first lure adjustment.
  • Water Temperature: Since we are talking Bluefin tuna, we’re primarily dealing with cooler water tuna fishing as opposed to gulf stream based Yellowfin, albacores, etc. THAT SAID, temp breaks do corral bait and serve as a sort of structure. Pay close attention to temp breaks.
  • Wind: I look at wind in three ways when assessing fishing for tuna.
    • Direction: Did it change from yesterday? If so, where might that wind direction have pushed the fish over the night? Did it change to the East or Northeast? Still seeing marks? Well that just stinks, because that wind kills fishing! In that case, you might be better off grinding it out where you know the fish are. You’ll be in the same boat in any other spot!
    • Wind Pull: Make sure you are casting a lure heavy enough to deal with heavy wind with line pull on the surface. If you are jigging, your boat will be drifting faster. Make sure your jig is heavy enough to deal with your target depth.
    • Impact on Migrating fish: Are fish following the general direction of the wind? Ask yourself if the past day-to-day variations on where they were was consistent with the prevailing wind direction. If they are moving with the wind, use this Intel to project where you might start.

Developing a Strategy to Find Fish

When you are tuna fishing, you really don’t have much structure to anchor fish to an area. You are pretty much at the mercy of the direction the bait is heading, the ability of Bluefin tuna to find said bait and lastly, and most importantly, hoping the fish are in the mood to eat. There are a lot of moving parts to assess, to say the least. Putting together a logical and adaptable strategy before heading out will greatly up your game.

  1. Gather Intel: List of questions to ask yourself
    1. Time of bite?
    2. Time of slack tide?
    3. Was bite best at slack tide?
    4. What bait were they feeding on?
    5. What is the wind direction and speed that day?
  2. Extrapolate: Compare conditions during last report and today’s weather and extrapolate time of slack tides and extrapolate where wind and current might push fish. If it’s a recent report, tide differences will vary only by a couple of hours. Develop your plan.
  • Obviously start where the last know information left off.
  • If no fish or inadequate tells, head the direction the wind and tide differences might have pushed the fish.
  • If still poor fishing, time to run the spots. It’s handy to have a float plan ready to go so you can gauge how long it will take you to hit the other “known areas” within rang. Sometimes a hot spot just needs a couple of hours to develop. A loop with a return could hedge that bet.
  1. Create Back Up Plan: If you don’t have any reports, a simple float plan will help you cover “the spots” efficiently. Here’s a sample plan I use on Cape Cod:

Sample Search Plan

East Of Chatham Recon – Cape Cod, South Side

This itinerary is based out of Falmouth Harbor but pertains to any harbor from Westport to Onset to Falmouth to Hyannis, with some variation of start and end points. Of course this loop can be reversed if you are coming from the more Westerly locales or have a head tide from Falmouth in a direction.

The total running distance from Falmouth Harbor is about 150 nautical miles if you run the full loop, factoring in deviations for signs of life. There’s plenty of fetch from just about any direction for the duration you’re South of Martha’s Vineyard and can be quite rough in any wind direction. Please note that it is very common for the SW wind to “honk” in the afternoon in this region so be ready for large amounts of spray on the return home. I can’t tell you how many times the roughest part of my trip has been from Gay Head back to Falmouth. Plan accordingly with wind and tide.

 Stop 1 – Crab Ledge

Crab Ledge is the closest of all the Bluefin tuna spots “out East;” about 45 nautical miles from Falmouth. I like this spot because it is relatively easy to get here for sunrise. Crab Ledge holds a ton of bait and I feel like you always have a decent shot at a fish here. I’ll stick it out here for maybe 45 minutes at sunrise, assuming I have no intel for any other spot.

Note: Once you have hit the Crab Ledge, you are in “tuna country” so any time spent running to the “next spot” is in grade. Keep eyes peeled. Just because a spot doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t mean there can’t be fish there.

Lat/Long:

  • North Edge 41° 41.000′ N, 69° 47.000′ W
  • West Edge 41° 41.000′ N, 69° 49.000′ W
  • NE Corner 41° 41.000′ N, 69° 43.050′ W
  • South Edge 41° 36.000′, 69° 47.000′ W

Stop 2 – BC Buoy

Next I’ll push East, out into a little deeper water in the Shipping Lanes and charge through the BC buoy area, about 10 nautical miles from Crab Ledge. This is a big are. I will scan this area liberally for about an hour before heading south.

Lat/Long:

  • 41° 41.390′ N, 69° 35.120′ W

Stop 3 – Regal Sword

Next stop is the Regal Sword, about 15 nautical miles from the BC Buoy. Remember, this is all fishy water so keep your eyes peeled. In every loop, I always find I have one spot I pound the hardest and longest, and on this loop it is the Regal Sword. This area is awesome and has it all. There are varied depths and multiple wrecks and it holds bait really well. I am still haunted by all the large jigged fish I lost in the season of 2017, in which the Regal Sword held tuna for over a month. I honestly can’t think of a season when I didn’t boat a large tuna at the Regal Sword. Another thing I like about this area is how good the ground fishing is. If you invest about 30 minutes driving around looking for live bottoms on your fish finder, you will catch dinner. There is plenty of tide here, so bring heavy jigs. I like 12oz or 16oz.

Lat/Long:

  • 41° 28.0626′ N, 69° 20.5562 W

Stop 4 – BB Buoy

The BB Buoy is the furthest South of the four stops and for that reason, it’s under fished. If you have not seen fish at Crab Ledge, BC Buoy or the Regal Sword, BB Buoy is your last area on this loop to try. One note worth mentioning about the BB buoy is that it is often where Bluefin tuna show up after disappearing from the South of Martha’s Vineyard. And if that has just happened, I would advise reversing the loop.

Lat/Long:

  • 41° 15.500′ N, 69° 17.641′ W