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NY, NJ, CT, RI Edition
June 02, 2010
Volume 21 � Number 4


Jigging for Tuna
by Mike Wright
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Catching tuna on jigs has exploded in popularity in the U.S. in recent years—with good reason. The spread of its popularity has been helped along by spectacular photos and videos posted on internet discussion boards, by the now innumerable globetrotting television hosts with almost unlimited fishing budgets and, in no small measure, by a well-funded marketing campaign on the part of Shimano to promote their butterfly jigs and specially designed jigging rod-and-reel combos.

From long range trips out of San Francisco specially set up for jiggers to New England charter operations who have traded their big-guns for jigging rods, jigging as a favorite method for tuna catching is clearly here to stay.

And why not? Catching big fish on relatively light tackle is fun as heck. And jigs, which bring a much more hands-on experience to the crushing strikes of tuna, and the undeniable effectiveness of the method, just add to the fun. It's no surprise jigging's popularity is spreading like wildfire. We here at Nor'east, are happy to fan the flames. Here are some things to keep in mind about your own options for catching tuna on jigs as the 2010 offshore season approaches.


Now, for Long Island and New Jersey's big game anglers, it's highly unlikely that a rocket launcher of jigging rods is ever going to entirely replace gunnels trimmed with trolling outfits. When you're hunting for tuna that typically do not show on the surface very often and are scattered across vast deserts of deep sea, there is simply no substitute for drawing the attention of an unseen hungry fish than to cover seven or eight nautical miles of water per hour with a pattern of fluttering skirts.

But that doesn't mean that jigging for tuna shouldn't be simply another, very deadly, weapon in the canyon troller's arsenal. Jigging can be a sidearm—a second weapon at the ready when the tuna attack comes. Jigs have, of course, been on canyon fishermen's radar for decades. When on the chunk, either on the overnight in the canyon or in the near-shore shallow spots, the iron has long been a great option for tempting fish that aren't biting on the chunks or for when they just get stupid. With the advent of butterfly jigs the action on iron doubled and tripled for many canyon fishermen when the fish got fussy. Having a jig at the ready anytime you're fishing from a dead boat should be mandatory.

But jigs shouldn't be just kept in the tackle locker until the chunking gear comes out. When you're on the troll, during those monotonous hours in the cockpit, don't forget to have a jig outfit or two at the ready for when the strike comes.

Tuna are pack hunters and as we all know from cover-ups, they come in numbers. But if you've ever seen National Geographic video footage of tuna attacking a bait ball you know the whole school doesn't hit at once—they charge in squadrons. So the fish that hit a trolling spread, whether it's one or 10, are often just the tip of the iceberg and far more fish are patrolling below. Yes, jiggering the throttles and keeping the lures moving will often bring more strikes to the trolling lures, but getting a bait down to where the others are waiting in a hurry can take advantage while the iron (pardon the pun) is hot.

Fishing jigs behind the boat doesn't require too much change in the fish-on routine. The hooked fish are left to run, after a brief tow of the baits the other lines are cleared. But then, out should come the jig rods, which must be at the ready and close at hand. While the hooked fish are fought (if the size of your crew allows) work jigs hot and heavy—the other fish traveling with the hooked fish will be wound-up and cruising the area. Fish are inherently curious. We've all seen bluefish following hooked brethren to the boat, snapping up whatever he's ejecting from his stomach. Tuna will do the same thing and you may be surprised how long after the strike you will find a fish below the boat.

An example: the summer of 2009 saw one of the best bigeye bites in the Northeast canyons in decades. Hundreds of bigeyes were caught the week of the August full moon. Most of those fish were taken as the vast majority of bigeyes have ever been caught by recreational fishermen: trolling artificial lures. But on the boat I was aboard, John Picone's 63 Viking, On the Edge, skippered by Tommy Finke, the trolling spreads produced less than half the fish caught. Jigs produced the rest. It's not that we were jigging for the tuna; we simply deployed the jigs when the opportunity presented itself and found that it out-produced the trolling spreads.

We'd put two fish in the box on the troll during the morning bite. Mid-afternoon the fish came up again and we had three rods go down. Two fish came unbuttoned and the reel attached to the third completely imploded. While three crew members struggled to splice the line to a new trolling outfit (successfully) quick thinking crew member Joe Giardino saw big blotches on the sounder beneath the boat, picked up a striped bass outfit that had been resting out of the way in a holder with a Newell 440 and 40-pound mono on it, and clipped on a hammered chrome diamond jig. When he clicked the reel into gear to stop the jig's descent, line just kept right on peeling off the reel—what turned out to be a 175-pound bigeye had eaten the jig on its way down. Joe was in for a long tussle on the over-matched bass outfit and while he sweated and groaned in the starboard corner, the rest of crew set about clipping jigs onto some of the other dormant trolling outfits. Bang! Two on. Bang! Three on. Bang! Four on. Long before Joe was done with his fight there were three more ‘eyes thumping the deck behind his legs.

Opportunities like this are likely far less rare than you might think. Tuna are a swimming GPS and they will hang in an area that peaks their interest for a long time, moving up and down in the water column and hunting for easy meals. Captains: keeping your eye on the recorder after the bite—something easily forgotten in the mayhem of a hook-up—will help keep your crew apprised of the presence and depth of patrolling fish.


As they catch more and more tuna on jigs as an aside to other methods of tuna fishing, some anglers have found in recent years that they prefer jigging so much they would rather spend a day hunting fish to catch on jigs and come up empty handed than patrol around with trolling spreads. Luckily, for such anglers, the opportunities for this kind of fishing seem to be improving with each passing year. It's not completely a coincidence that jigging for tuna off Cape Cod has suddenly caught on in the last couple years. Yes, some smart small-boat fishing guides have only recently figured out that there was a real market in the fairly large number of jigging enthusiasts (jigging has been the thing to do for Asian anglers hunting dogtooth tuna, giant trevally and cubera snapper for many years) in the Northeast who used to just travel to the Pacific to do their fishing.

Many huge tuna have fallen to jigs in recent years with the advent of the butterfly jig. Savvy offshore anglers have an arsenal of jigs on hand for when the chunk bite slows.

But those anglers and guides have been helped considerably by the growing number of large school, medium and large medium bluefin tuna being found off the East Coast of the U.S. in the last decade. For years, fish this size simply did not exist. After the wholesale slaughter of every kind of bluefin tuna in the 1960s and 1970s for use as pet food and livestock feed, decades of year-classes simply vanished from the western Atlantic. But as the stringent catch restrictions we imposed in the late 80s and early 90s have started to take effect, we're now seeing the benefits of not killing hundreds of thousands of tuna before they've had a chance to spawn. Now, about 20 years into effective regulation we're seeing a big step up in the number of school, medium and large medium fish that are perfect for light tackle anglers hunting for tuna.

Bluefin are the perfect jigging tuna for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, they are a cold water species and primarily live in near shore green waters of our coastal maritimes, rather than in the warmer crystal clear waters usually found well offshore. From Long Island and the New York Bight, that can mean a run for tuna hunters of only 20 or 30 miles instead of 70 or more to get to the tuna's territory.

Second, because the environs in which they live are populated by shallow-swimming species like bunker, mackerel and sandeels, the bluefin's prime feeding is done much closer to the surface than the pelagic tunas. They are far more likely to be seen pushing bait at the surface, and therefore locatable by the human eye.


In shallow Cape Cod Bay this has fed a still growing run-and-gun fishery of light tackle anglers chasing surface feeding schools of bluefins on fast center consoles with heavy-duty spinning tackle that allows them to fire jigs and even popping plugs to fish crashing on bait—exactly like fly and light tackle fishermen have been doing to schools of false albacore for years. The bay and other famous bluefin haunts like Stellwagen Bank are tailor made for this kind of fishing since they're close to shore, typically calm and concentrate large numbers of fish in a relatively small area. Off Long Island we don't have such luxuries unfortunately. But we have our spots if you've got the boat and the freedom to take advantage when a bite pops up. Last year the Bacardi and the grounds south of the Mud Hole produced good bites of medium and large medium bluefins in late September and October. December saw a slow bite amid large schools of migrating fish just off the north Jersey coast, barely two miles offshore. The presence of giant clouds of sandeels made the fish even more prone to strike at flashing, dancing jigs and the boats that headed to the bites with jigs at the ready matched or even out fished many of their counterparts using baits during both events.


No, jigging is nothing new to the fishing world. And for decades jigs have been deployed by anglers just fine using the fishing gear they had at hand for a variety of other kinds of fishing. Now there are rods and reels that have been specially designed for ease of use with jigs but it's a far cry from necessary tackle and there's no reason that your jigging tackle can't do double duty. There are just a couple keys to choosing a jigging outfit: you're going to want it to be something you can hold and move around comfortably with one hand. Therefore you want it to be relatively light. Yes, we caught those bigeyes last summer on 50-pound class bent-butts, and they will suffice in a pinch, but that was a mile from ideal, let me tell you. Your spare 20# or 30# trolling outfits, preferably those with a graphite trolling reel, can certainly suffice as a jigging gear. A medium-heavy bass rod, something in the 6'6" to 7-foot range, with a sufficiently tough graphite reel (Joey can certainly attest to the mettle of the Newells) or light aluminum reels, like the Shimano Trinidad or Daiwa Saltiga, will also whip even a fairly big tuna, though maybe not as quickly as a beefier outfit will. Any well built rod can take the beating if the line can, so if you're spooling with 50 or 80-pound line don't be afraid to push the drag up and put the screws to a fish on a rod that is bent into the fore grip.

All of this aside, the stuff that some of the (mainly Japanese) tackle companies have been designing specifically for jig fishing is pretty sweet. Shimano's butterfly jigging systems, short, lightweight fast-action rods—tons of soft tip that taper quickly into a rod that is beefy enough to pull stumps—combined with twin-gear reels are designed to be comfortable to hold for long stretches and to make it easier to work butterflies in just the right pumping motion to make the jig flutter perfectly.

Spinning rods are also very popular with jiggers, mostly because of the castability if fish are on the surface. Spinning outfits present a slight disadvantage over conventionals for vertical jigging only if the fish are tending to strike the jig on the drop. But today's highest quality spinning reels by Van Staal, Shimano and Daiwa are tough enough to handle the beating of even very big tunas and put heavy drag on their shoulders.

Braided lines and the new ultra-tough PE6 lines are helping anglers really put the heat on a big fish and bring them to the boat in short order (as long as our shoulders and back holds up).

As populations of bluefin (hopefully) continue to grow the possibilities for catching tuna on jigs for Long Island, anglers are going to become more and more tenable. This is the year to at least get it on your radar and start looking for some of these opportunities to present themselves.

Good luck and happy jigging.

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