When we think of yellowfin tuna along the New Jersey coast, what usually comes to mind are long canyon runs, overnight chunking and daytime trolling. The canyons are a special place – a place where anything can happen at any time. The water is cobalt blue and filled with an array of tunas, marlin, mahi-mahi and swordfish. But let’s face it, the canyons are a far run, and trips there often require a few days at a time to find and settle into the bite. If you don’t have the boat (or the time) to head to “the edge” where the magic all happens, what’s a tuna hound to do? What if I told you that a mid- to near-shore yellowfin tuna bite has been happening in our New Jersey waters for years – many times, the bite happens in areas less than half the distance to the grand “arena” of the Northeast Canyons.
When I was a kid, I heard about the bountiful inshore tuna fishing of the 1960s and 70s that took place just a short ride from our inlets. Ollies Lump, Little Italy, and a spot rightfully named “The Yellowfin Lump” were some of the midshore hotspots. Local charter boats went out to these areas every day and threw chunks, keeping the fish on the inshore lumps with temptations of an easy meal—even when the clear blue water from the canyons had spun out. Today, these stories from our past are still a reality. And, for this inshore tuna junkie, it’s the fishery where I spend the majority of my time.
Around July 2nd, when most of the inshore bluefin have moved north, we start to see a shift in the warm-core eddies that drive clean canyon water into the 20- and 30-fathom curves. It’s at that time when many of us here in in the shore area start to see the signs of an inshore yellowfin bite.
Generally, I look for water temperatures in the mid- to high 70s, with clean blue or green water that has pushed up against the cooler, more nutrient-rich (dirty) water. Additionally, there is an influx of cow-nosed rays that find sand eels high in the water columns. If you find the rays, there is a very good chance yellowfin are in the area. Like the whale-tuna relationship, our inshore yellowfin like to swim near and sometimes under the schools of rays.
As the yellowfin first settle into an area, trolling tactics like the ones used at the canyons are a good bet. Spreader bars, cedar plugs, rigged ballyhoo and daisy chains all work well. However, with the short distance from the beach, many times this is a small boat game, and small boats bring different challenges and require different tactics.
While a sporty can drag a 13-rod spread that spans 70 to 80 feet wide, smaller boats with shorter outriggers (or no outriggers) may struggle to deploy a sufficient spread. Enter the new Sterling Tackle Wide Tracker, a new spreader/splash bar concept that can widen a small boat’s spread by 50 to 60 feet, with or without outriggers. Wide trackers use a keel underneath the center splash bird that tracks the bar out and back into the cleaner water. If you have ever trolled fresh water on the Great Lakes, think “planer board,” except this planer is incorporated into the splash bar. I run a 36-foot Yellowfin, whichis not a big boat compared to those sportfishers in the canyons and a Wide Tracker has changed the way I troll for tuna both mid-shore and in the canyons.
As the fish are settling in and the troll bite heats up, a reliable topwater popper and stickbait bite also develops. Casting plugs to tuna in our area has exploded in the past five to seven years. What used to be a select few hardcore, underground anglers heading out with a handful of plugs and a few spinning rods has turned into one of the fastest-growing segments in saltwater fishing.
Normally synonymous with bluefin tuna, topwater fishing is alive and well on our mid-shore grounds for yellowfin. The mid-shore yellowfin tuna range from 30 to 80 pounds, making them fantastic targets for lighter to mid-weight spinning gear. Rods like the Race Point 100 or the El Maestro 7-foot, 10-inch paired with a Shimano Twin Power 14000 or Van Staal VSB200 are a perfect match for these fish. You want to use something that you can effectively work using smaller stick baits and poppers, but still have enough power to land hard-fighting fish.
Once the fish settle into the 20- and 30-fathom lines, the daytime chunk bite comes alive. Just like those captains back in the 70s and 80s, today’s crews do everything they can to keep the water chock-full of chunks each day, giving the yellowfin no reason to leave an area. Butterfish and sardines are the baits that most boats throw. However, if you can get your hands on live peanut bunker, your chances of out-fishing the boats next to you dramatically increases. Tossed out three to five at a time, these bite-sized bunker broadcast a feeding call to all tuna in the area. Mixed with butterfish chunks and hooked sardines, they make a deadly combo.
Unlike the midsummer and early fall night bite in the canyons, this daytime chunk bite can turn on right in the middle of a bright, sunny day. But, beware! Because this bite takes place during the day in very clear water, these fish can be extremely leader shy. At times, it requires anglers to go down to 25- or 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leaders. Be sure to adjust drags accordingly when using lighter leaders. I use the rule of thirds—if I’m using 30pound-test leader, I set my drag at 10 pounds of pressure at strike.
Perhaps the most effective way to catch inshore yellowfin, jigging matches the hatch by imitating the 3- to 5-inch sand eels that these tuna gorge on. Often, I will mark large schools of yellowfin 25 to 50 feet beneath the cownose rays. At times, dropping a small, shiny jig is the only way to get a hook-up. When it comes to tough and durable light tackle, jigging takes the prize. The new Shimano Game Type J rod matched with a Shimano Twin Power 8000 or a Van Staal 150 make for great fun on light gear. For conventional jiggers, the St Croix Mojo Jig or the Saltywater Tackle BFT 300 matched with an AVET MXJ Raptor conventional reel also fall into the right category for these fish. When jigging in this clear water, I use longer (25-foot) fluorocarbon leaders of 40- to 60-pound test.
Finally, when things start to get competitive and the fleet builds, don’t be afraid to look for smaller lumps within a three- to five-mile radius to find your own fish. Many times, too many boats in one location turns off the bite, sending schools of fish to other nearby lumps. Having a Plan B for where to go to avoid the fleet is always important.