The past couple years there seems to be a resurgence in the popularity of tuna fishing. While many sport fishermen are concentrated on the smaller fish, juveniles, there are a good number rigging up for the giants. Back in the 80’s after the Japanese started paying big bucks for high grade Bluefin there was sort of a gold rush for a few years until prices and stocks dropped off. The interest from the sporting sector dropped off leaving mostly the commercial guys trying to make a few extra bucks every summer and fall. This fishery is an extremely complex one and it can be hard for the average “Joe” to successfully land a fish or two during the months the “horse mackerel” are off our coasts. To cover all aspects of tuna fishing would require me to write a book, but for this article let’s just focus on baits and where, how and when to use them. I’ll leave boats, line, reels, live wells, set-ups, care of fish, Japanese markets, domestic markets, fish auctions, fish quality, and so on for other times and articles. Like I said, it would take a book. Bait is a subject that always seems to be the big question mark in most novice anglers head when planning a trip. You can have the fastest boat, best of gear and everything else, but what to put on the hook can come into question.
Truth of the matter tuna will eat just about anything at times. I have heard of one fisherman that was eating grapes while at anchor and when he got lucky that day and hauled one aboard, that was what he found as part of the stomach contents, grapes that had got chucked over. For many years lobstermen have stopped by their gear and grabbed some of the tasty bugs for a lobster roll or two while passing the time waiting for a bite and have also found whatever cooked bodies and shells that been tossed over while chumming inside tuna. I even have one friend that swears he hooked up on half an Italian sub when he ran low on hook baits one trip.
Something all good fishermen do, even freshwater anglers, is to check stomach content of the fish they catch to see just what was on the menu that particular day. “Matching the hatch” if you will.
Different baits work at different times of the year depending on where you or the fish are at in the gulf of Maine or Cape Cod Bay. Early summer, around June, boats will start towing squid or mackerel around Jefferies ledge and Platts Bank where the fish traditionally show up first in early season. The art of Trolling is a whole other subject, but the fish usually start settling in around the edge of mid-Jefferies making this area a good place to throw out the anchor traditionally around mid to late July. There are many places on Jefferies and Stellewagon to fish tuna. The 550 line, the cove, prong and the northwest corner to mention a few, and the bait that seems to work best out there is herring. This fish is why the tuna are there so it would only make sense that this would be the bait of choice, live ones if you can get them. If you have the right connections the commercial guys may toss you a couple “live ones” if you ask real nice, but I wouldn’t just drive up to some dragger hauling back and beg for bait. If they don’t know you they’ll just tell you to get lost which is a polite way of putting it. We used to use bait gillnets before they were outlawed, so now about the best method is with a rod and reel lightly jigging small feather rigs called “Sabiki rigs” just off the bottom. Herring are a hardy fish and can expel expanding air as they are reeled up from the bottom so they usually come over the rail in pretty good shape. It’s important to get them right into a live well to keep them swimming while they wait their turn to go on the hook. Ice in a well-insulated tank will keep the water temperatures cold like the deep waters the herring just came from. There are different ways to hook a live herring, some easy, some not so. The easiest is to simply run the hook through the skin and flesh ahead of the dorsal fin without hitting the backbone. To make this set-up a little stronger and the bait more likely to stay on the hook after running the point through lay the shank down on the back and stitch the eye of the hook with some dental floss to the fish as well. Some anglers hook livies through the back of the eye sockets, in one eye and out the other being careful not to pierce the brain or arteries. The most tricky way I know of is to hide the hook inside the fish. This technique takes a little practice but hides the hook completely from sight for those bluebird days when the tuna has plenty of time to look at your bait with those big eyes of theirs. You’ll need a small VERY sharp knife, a bait needle, a popsicle stick, and some dental floss. Just forward of the dorsal fin make an incision to either side of the back just cutting through the skin, not the meat. Using the pop stick make a pouch between the skin and meat big enough to fit a size 11 Gamakatsu hook. Insert the hook completely into the pocket and just pierce the tip of the hook through the skin so that it will deploy properly when the tuna bites. Now with the needle and dental floss completely sew up the opening on top and leave enough slack so as to detach the needle and wrap and cinch the floss about a half inch up the leader. This will hold the fish without putting pressure on the hook which would pull it out.
Later in the season, (August, September,) when the silver hake show up inside the bays so will the tuna. This is the time and place to switch from herring to hake, both silver and the brown mud hake. The same hooking techniques apply to these baits when using them live. Catching hake differs a little than herring. You can use the same Sabiki rig, or a single small hook and sinker, but you must bait the hooks with a small sliver of herring or mackerel and rest the sinker partially on the bottom as these fish are true bottom dwellers that love the muddy bottom. (this means don’t go looking for them on hard bottom). Care of live hake requires some attention as they will bloat up with air when reeled up. To remedy this problem simply run your sewing needle in one side of the stomach and out the other. This will release the air. As with herring be sure to keep the live well water very cold with ice.
Dead bait, herring mackerel, or hake, can become live baits if kept properly using the following method. First is storage. Once obtaining the fish whether from a hook, dragger, or even the chum supply, wrap the fish in clear plastic wrap and store submerged in ice. The wrap will prevent the skin from coming in contact with the ice which will discolor it. These baits will last a day or two stored in this manner. You will need several things to make these dead fish come back to life. A small sharp knife, bait needle and dental floss, a wooden skewer, and 2 ½ to 1 ounce egg sinkers. The best knife to use is the red handled twine knife used by commercial fishermen to mend nets. They are sold wherever commercial fishing gear is sold. Wooded skewers are in any grocery store, and bait needles and egg sinkers are obtainable from most any good coastal tackle shop. Taking a medium size hake or large herring insert one of the sinkers and run it down into the stomach with the blunt end of the skewer, then turn to the pointed end and run it through the mouth just about to the tail. Snap off any part still sticking out inside the mouth. Now place the other sinker into the mouth and sew the mouth and gills shut with dental floss. Insert the hook into the fish using the same technique as with a live bait, (sown into a pouch between the skin and flesh just forward of the dorsal fin. Now with the knife make a shallow incision around the front two pectoral fins, just enough to free them up. The skewer will keep the fish straight while the sinkers give it balance. Lower it by the leader into the water to test swim it. If the procedure has been done correctly the bait should set into the tide with the fins moving just like a real live fish. This is a very delicate operation and may take some practice to master, but when you get it right the bait will be hard to tell from the real Mccoy.
Chunk baits will work most places as well so don’t leave them out of the equation. To hide the hook into a chunk run the leader through it first then crimp on the hook and draw it back up into the bait and as always leave the point sticking out through the skin. If you want to make a chum-chain or pu-pu platter as some call it, bait the hook with a chunk and then sew up 4-5 more chunks with 2-6 pound test monofilament leaving enough slack in each one to loosely tie them to the main leader at 16-18inch intervals above the hook bait. Inserting them with a small piece of Styrofoam will allow them to float around above the chunk with the hook in it. This will give the rig the appearance of a scoop full of chum floating down. Be sure to tie them securely so as they don’t slide around on the leader.
The above are commonly used setups in the gulf of Maine and northern Massachusetts Bay. Other baits will work at times and should not be overlooked. Tuna eat most any sea creature from top to bottom, small haddock, striped bass, bluefish, squid and mackerel. Small live bluefish work especially well way down inside Mass. Bay in the shallow water around the Fishing Ledge off Province Town. If the bait you are using isn’t producing well don’t be afraid to experiment. There are times that you will see the small Pollock on the fish machine built up on the bottom eating the chum after it sinks on a slow tide day. Tuna will dive into these schools from time to time,(we call these mudpuppies), so it only makes sense to catch a couple of these baits and lower them down there. Live Pollock, mackerel, and bluefish are fast swimmers and to slow them down a bit lightly poke their eyes with a needle and clip off the tips of their flippers and fins making them easier targets.
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