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NY, NJ, CT, RI Edition
May 26, 2011
Volume 22 � Number 4


Sweet Spinning Sticks for Offshore
by Mike Wright
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There are a lot of people who think that 2011 could be the "Year of the Bluefin" in the Northeast, and especially in the waters off Long Island.

Fishing for bluefin tuna on the East Coast of the U.S. has improved by leaps and bounds in the last few years. More giants have been caught off Block Island in the last two years than in the entire decade prior and in the last four years or so a fairly reliable fishery for medium and large medium bluefin—fish between about 90 and 200 pounds—has shaped up between the New York Bight and Nantucket Shoals, to say nothing of the incredible fishing seen for the same fish off Massachusetts and North Carolina. The better fishing has a variety of factors driving it that give hope for the coming season and the years ahead.

First and foremost is that bluefin numbers are steadily increasing.

Two decades of stringent regulation is starting to pay incremental dividends. After purse seiners were allowed to vacuum up massive numbers of juvenile bluefins for fertilizer and pet food in the 1970s and 1980s the farm system for bluefin recruitment was decimated. But once the wonton destruction was stopped, more of the little tunas survived, which we're now seeing the effects of, in the form of very high numbers of medium and large medium bluefins all along East Coast.

The fish that are feeding this new fishery are primarily those of some strong year classes born during the early part of this century and they are getting heavier each season, which bodes well for the future of the valuable giant bluefin fishery. A fishery analysis by the National Marine Fisheries Service this spring found that the vast majority of tunas being hooked by anglers this spring off North Carolina are large mediums in the 120- to 200-pound range. Right now the primary stock of bluefins are the perfect size for tussling with on relatively light tackle like spinning gear.

Serendipitously for anglers and tackle manufacturers, the semi-resurgence of bluefin on the East Coast has almost perfectly coincided with a number of advancements in tackle—primarily in the reel department—that has allowed light tackle anglers to start fishing effectively for bigger and bigger fish.

Reels that can put serious pressure on drag washers, and stand up to the torque stress of cranking down on no-stretch braided line have meant that anglers can put the brakes on big tunas with smaller and smaller set ups. As the reel technology has upped the pressure being put on fish, rod manufacturers have stepped their game up as well. Spinning gear in particular has earned a more prominent seat at the big game table, especially when bluefin tuna are on the menu.

And the arrival of spinning gear on the tuna fishing grounds is going to pay particular dividends for anglers in the New York Bight and eastern Long Island waters in the late spring and early summer, a time when large schools of smaller bluefins are seen pushing north. For years these schools frustrated even veteran tuna fishermen, proving very difficult to catch with conventional trolling gear on most days and impossible on some. They are boat shy, finicky about their meals and considerably more interested in continuing their journey to the rich northern feeding grounds than in stopping for a snack. In the past the boats that caught those fish did so primarily by dragging small trolling lures right across the nose of a school of pushing fish, usually by sweeping in from the flank.

But spinning gear could drastically change that formula. Being able to effectively deliver small lures in a variety of styles to moving fish from a stopped boat, and work them in a natural and enticing way, gives spinning gear a distinct advantage over trolling when attacking finicky, pushing fish that want their meal handed to them on a platter.

In the last two years everyone has witnessed the amazing catches of bluefin tuna up to 250 pounds landed by anglers with spinning rods in Cape Cod Bay and off Oregon Inlet. There is opportunity for those same kind of catches here in the waters off New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island as well.

A handful of light tackle anglers started employing this run-and-gun style of fishing for the bluefins that popped up in the New York Bight last fall, with a modicum of success. But those fish were few and scattered, popping up on bait balls for mere seconds before vanishing in an unknown direction, much like pods of their tiny cousins the false albacore do in the fall. The springtime schools of medium class bluefin moving northeast along the 30 fathom curve in June and July are larger, easier to locate and more predictable in their movements. A well worked popper, stickbait or Hogy is almost impossible for those fish to resist.

Now, you can't just grab your favorite spinning outfit or surf stick out of the basement and go off hunting bluefins. These are tuna after all, possibly big ones. For 20-30 pounders you might be able to get away with a stout 9-foot surf rod you built for catching stripers, but for the bigger fish that are the bulk of the population now you're going to need a big, sturdy reel and a stout spinning rod built specifically to stand up to the pressure of heavy drag and strong fish butting heads.

A number of big manufacturers have started making spinning rods designed for fighting big fish and at least one East End rod-builder is custom making top-of-the-line rods specifically for whipping tunas.

Mass produced rods like those from Shimano, Ocean Tackle International and Spinal are fairly well built with good componentry. They're typically 6'6" to 7'6" rods and run in the neighborhood of $350. Yes, you can beat a tuna on them but they are not really designed for casting long distances or throwing lighter artificials with any accuracy.

There's a number of foreign manufacturers, mostly Japanese and Korean, that have been building rods designed more for casting: tossing jigs and poppers to giant trevally along the rock cliffs of the southern Pacific ocean. Their rods are set up with high end components and are very expensive, $800 to $950 per rod, a good amount of which is associated just with the expense of international shipping and therefore unnecessary. They are also designed primarily for throwing heavy metal and big poppers, stuff in the 4-ounce range, not the lighter rubber artificials like Slug-Os and Hogys that have gained popularity with the Cape Cod Bay run-and-gun guys in the last couple years.

And there's simply no substitute for a custom stick, designed specifically for your personal casting and fighting style. In a market that is thus far dominated by foreign manufacturers, rodbuilder Steve Petras at White Water Outfitters in Hampton Bays has started custom building a domestic alternative set up with the top-of-the-line components and designed exactly for catching big tunas in the type of situations Northeast tuna anglers are most likely to encounter.

The rods Petras is building also have their roots in giant trevally fishing, from his days as a big game mate in Hawaii. They are long, 8' 6" or 9 feet depending on preference, and have balls like church bells, Reverend. But thanks to new blank designs coming out of the West Coast long range market, they are also soft in the tip so they can cast lighter things. Graphite-fiberglass composite blanks give the dual benefit of a flexible and durable fiberglass tip section for tossing lures as light as an ounce-and-a-half blended into powerhouse lifting stiffness of graphite in the mid-section and butt.

Petras sets up his rods with Quick Grip or a new product that is basically woven aluminum fabric on the butt sections of his rods and cushioned EVA grips ahead of the reel and at the start of the rod's midsection as a fighting grip for pulling on hefty fish under heavy drag weights. Some anglers he has built rods for have opted for a single, longer sharktooth grip (the one that looks like the foregrip on an M-16) for adjustability during a long battle and a larger grip to spread out the strain on hands. The beauty of custom rods is that you can set it up just how you want it, not how some supposedly more knowledgeable angler thinks you should have it.

The long rod with a butt section set up similar to a surf rod gives the angler some spread in their arms for putting a bit of ‘oomph' in the cast. And the length of the rod helps put even more pressure on the fish than the drag, without going overboard.

A rod much longer than 9 feet, however, becomes cumbersome on a boat, particularly when a big tuna is getting close to the gaff.

Petras outfits his rods with aluminum reel seats from Alps which ensure the reel will remain rock steady even under the stress of 30-plus pounds of drag.

A custom tuna casting stick with high end components starts at around $500. Costs will rise depending on some upgrades, primarily the choice of guides. The bottom end for a guide expected to hold up to heavy weight fishing are aluminum framed Fuji guides with alconite inserts—which are probably more than adequate. But since fishermen always tend to err on the side of spending more money, for about $150 more you can upgrade to silicon carbide inserts and for another $250 to titanium frames with silicon carbide inserts. With all the upgrades you could push the cost of a custom rod up to about $800, still a bargain compared to the imports.

Selecting or designing the rod you use will be the most important component of preparing to battle a big tuna. Your choice of reels when tackling big tunas will have far fewer options. You need big, strong gears, silky smooth drags and lots of line.

Most of the jigging and popping guys have been using the Van Staal VS275 or 300, Daiwa Saltiga or Shimano Stella reels, usually in the 8000 and 9000 sizes, not the much bigger ones like the 20000 you might expect. The drags on the Shimanos and Daiwas can't be beat but the Van Staals have a bit more heavy weight cranking power the high speed reels don't. Mostly it's a matter of personal preference. A cheaper option would be the Shimano Saragosa series of reels, which have the big gears and big spools without the big price tag of the Stellas—though that price certainly comes at some cost to the power and durability the reel will carry.

Line choices are an even narrower field. You will be using braid. At the very least 60 to 80-pound Power Pro, and lots of it. For those who want to overgun at every turn, you'll be looking for the new PE braids—also a product of the GT fishery off southeast Asia and are even stronger and more abrasion resistant than the standard braids and spectra we've all be using for years. PE5, PE6 and PE7 are about the equivalent of 70-pound, 80-pound and 90-pound test braids. The tough as nails abrasion resistance isn't really as important in scenarios where there aren't rocks for fish to rub line on but the added toughness of these lines might buy you a couple extra seconds to get unwrapped if you happen to cross a lobster pot line or something.

Once you've got your aresenal of weapons put together, start looking for the tunas. The first large schools of bluefin can show up as early as the first week of June and should be consistently pushing through the area until mid July or so. Bluefins are the one rare shot for Northeast anglers to actually still catch tuna within a reasonably short distance from shore, sometimes as close as 20 miles or so. With anglers armed with appropriate spinning gear, this year could be one for the record books.

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