With a 70-pound yellowfin on ice, Jerry Sullivan racked his tuna rod, grabbed his deep-drop rod, and walked to the mostly empty port side of the Gambler. His three-pound sinker touched down after more than a minute, and Jerry let out a bit more line to keep the rig on the bottom as the boat pitched in the building seas of Hudson Canyon. The bite came quickly, a sharp thump from 600 feet below, where something grabbed the whole squid. Jerry lowered the rod tip, set the hook, and the rod buckled.
I’d been heading to the port side to deep drop as well when shouts from the stern caught my attention. With the fishing time nearing its end, one fisherman had dumped the gallon of killies he’d brought along as mahi bait off the stern. The baitfish, native to shallow marshes, suddenly found themselves 100 miles from shore with the bottom hundreds of feet away. They were schooled tightly, trying to stay close to the boat in a dense brown bait ball, when the yellowfin found them. Sixty- and seventy-pound tuna began leaping clear of the water within casting range. A drag began screaming as one of the fish found a butterfish chunk drifted near the school of killies. I dropped my tilefish rod, grabbed a spinner, and launched a jig into the action.
After a few fruitless casts through the breaking yellowfin, I went to tell Jerry about the tuna and found him pinned to the rail as his rod shook and his fish surged for the bottom.
Several minutes later a massive golden tilefish came spiraling out of the depths. Once gaffed and dragged to the stern, the large golden drew more oohs and aahs than the tuna that were tail-beating all over the deck.
About 30 hours earlier, at 7 a.m. on a late October Wednesday, Jerry Sullivan, Guido DiCicco, and I boarded the Gambler as part of a full crew on the 36-hour “Canyon Favorite” trip. It would be my longest trip offshore and while tuna were my primary target, I had a half-dozen rods with me to fish for any of the 10 or so species we might encounter.
“It’s the perfect amount of time,” said Captain Bob Bogan, of the day-and-a-half offshore venture. “There’s time for mahi, plenty of time to set up a tuna bite, and enough time to do some deep-water bottom fishing.”
On a particularly good Canyon Favorite trip in fall 2015, Bob said the fishermen were worn out from the tuna, so he pulled the anchor and moved the Gambler over some wrecks where anglers added pollock, some as large as 25 pounds, to the boxes.
After loading our gear, talking fishing, and tying up rigs, we hit the bunks, hoping to get some sleep for the fishing to come. Despite my through-the-night drive from Falmouth, Massachusetts to Point Pleasant, New Jersey, I was too excited to sleep. Instead, Jerry and I spent most of the 5-hour ride to Hudson Canyon talking about our tackle, whether we’d be jigging or chunking, and what we most hoped to catch. For me, I was hoping for my first good-sized yellowfin.
I was somewhere between asleep and awake when, just after lunchtime, the big Detroit/MTU diesels downshifted as Captain Bob approached the first stop of the day. I climbed out of the bunk, put on my bibs, boots, and sweatshirt, and headed out to the deck. In the distance, I saw the large yellow weather buoy that Captain Bob said had the potential to hold mahi, tuna, or even wahoo.
We made two drifts past the buoy with no fish, so we picked up and headed for a string of high-flyers. As we approached the first, we could see the mahi jumping around the floating structure. Jerry was the first to hook up, and several anglers followed suit. One of the hooked fish went straight down, ripping 50 yards of line off the reel. After a prolonged battle on the light spinning setup, a 40-pound yellowfin tuna hit the deck. It would be one of two tuna hooked as the Gambler moved between high-flyers until late afternoon. Just about everyone on board put a mahi in the boat, with most fishermen catching two or more. Chunks of butterfish worked best, but a few were taken on jigs and plugs.
Captain Bob motored the Gambler a short distance and began a drift for tuna near a few working squid trawlers. Everyone had barely had enough time to set their lines before Guido yelled “Fish on!” as line dumped from his reel for a few seconds before the fish broke off. Jerry hooked up soon after, but only briefly. A third angler also lost a fish, giving us a score of zero for three on the first drift for tuna. The second drift was better, with two 60-pound yellowfin and a big blue shark landed, all on chunks of butterfish.
After Jerry’s hook-up, I switched over to jigs, but the tuna were keyed on the chunks. We took a few more drifts, hooking only blue sharks before Captain Bob headed to the west wall of the Hudson to anchor up for the night.
When the sun went down and the Gambler’s lights went on, marine life immediately surrounded the boat. Blue sharks snaked their way through the narrow beam of light, and packs of longfin and shortfin squid moved along the shadow line. Live squid were surprisingly easy to come by.
Guido baited up his first live squid around 7:30 p.m., and within minutes of sending it out, came tight to a 20-pound yellowfin. As Guido’s fish was bled and iced, my rod went off in the holder where I’d placed it while photographing Guido’s fish, leaving my live squid swimming 75 feet below the surface. The line broke as I pushed the lever on my reel to strike. The culprit was a bad knot, evidenced by the curly-cue at the end of my line—an embarrassing and frustrating way to lose a tuna. I attached a new swivel, tying the Palomar knot with extra care.
One more small yellowfin was taken and another was lost before the brief flurry died off. I added another layer as the temperatures dropped and grabbed my heaviest rod, clipping on one of the expensive pre-rigged squid I’d bought. As I was setting up for swordfish, Jerry caught a big blue shark and retired to his bunk, telling me to wake him if something happened. Guido stuck it out a little longer, but after two more fishless hours, he joined Jerry and the other napping anglers below deck. I’d planned on spending the entire night at the rail, but fatigue was beginning to creep in.
I placed my swordfish rod in the holder and kept myself awake by catching squid, which surrounded the boat for almost the entire night. I put half of the squid in my cooler for calamari and fluke bait, and the other half in the livewell at the back of the boat. The only breaks in the action came when pods of porpoises moved in to feed, putting on a show as they did underwater barrel-rolls in pursuit of the mollusks.
I was returning from the livewell when some motion caught my eye. I saw a slender purple-blue creature glide through the lights. I had no idea what I was looking at until I saw a flashing multi-colored light trailing the fish by a few feet. “Swordfish!” I shouted and frantically began cranking to the surface, hoping it was my bait the fish had taken. It wasn’t, but an angler at the stern, also cranking wildly, came tight. The small sword thrashed around, but was quickly subdued. It was short of the 47-inch minimum size (measured from the lower jaw to the tail), and Captain Todd unhooked the “pup” and returned it to the sea.
A little later, I was dropping my rigged squid back down when something took the bait and swam straight to the surface. I reeled furiously and set the hook. The force at the other end ran straight down, taking with it my 100-yard mono topshot and a good deal of my backing. I had swordfish hopes, but as the fish appeared in the lights, I saw the sinuous form of a big blue shark. The shark cut the leader as it thrashed on the surface, and immediately resumed its patrol around the Gambler.
With my rigged squid gone, I switched back to targeting tuna, jigging with a hammered diamond jig. My hands were so cold at that point, I’d begun warming them on the jig (which felt downright toasty after soaking in the 71-degree canyon water). Eventually, the cold became too much to ignore, and I went into the heated cabin to regain the feeling in my extremities. By then, only three fishermen were left at the rail. I sat down, vowing to stay awake, but my eyelids seemed made of lead and I dozed off.
I couldn’t have been out long when the sound of slapping tails woke me with a jolt. I burst out of the cabin and saw the red glow of a new day just appearing on the eastern horizon. Two 70-pound yellowfin were kicking around the deck, and fishermen were rigging frantically to get in on the action. “Use squid!” shouted one of the mates. I complied, scooping a live squid out of the well and sending it out into the slick.
On my third drop, slowly paying out line and then reeling it back, my rod doubled over. The hit was sluggish, like the shark I’d had earlier, but the headshakes and tailbeats transmitted through the line might as well have been Morse code for “tuna.”
The fish was in its death circle before long, and a mate on each side of me lunged with a long bamboo gaff, securing the 50-pound longfin albacore. All around me, fishermen were fighting longfin. I contemplated going to get Jerry and Guido when I saw Guido emerge from the cabin. He looked at the vibrating, bloody tuna at my feet, slapped me on the back, and grabbed his rod. Jerry joined us a moment later.
We were situated halfway up the starboard side of the boat, and while the occasional fish was being hooked between us and the bow, most of the action was taking place at the stern. I racked my chunking rod, grabbed my jig rod, and made for port side to jig near the stern.
The fish were holding back in the slick, and jigging under the boat produced no action. I was contemplating my next move when Captain Bob leaned over from the top deck to tell me that Jerry was hooked up. I returned to the starboard side to find Jerry bent over the rail with a big yellowfin circling just out of gaff range. He kept the pressure on and Chris, the mate, sank the gaff into the fish.
I switched back to chunking, and was feeding a whole butterfish back into the current when it was intercepted. Line began peeling off my spool. I counted to three, pushed the lever to strike, and leaned back as the rod doubled over. I followed the fish to the back of the boat and then back to the bow with the help of mates Alex and Chris, who helped me work around the other fishermen. At the first sight of deep color, I saw a glint of gold, and Alex said the word I was hoping to hear, “Yellowfin!”
The fish was nearly three times the size of my previous biggest-ever yellowfin. It looked regal as it circled in the clear blue water, its side reflecting gradients of sapphire, gold, and silver. Alex planted the gaff and I pumped my fist as the yellowfin landed on deck of the Gambler.
Over the next hour, tuna continued to be caught all around us. Just about everyone on board had a tuna in the box. Guido landed a longfin and I lost one as I continually switched between jigs and chunks. Captain Bob announced over the loudspeaker that anyone interested in dropping to the bottom should have decent luck as he’d anchored near some of his tilefish numbers. A few anglers did, catching 5- to 10-pound golden tilefish, but most continued tuna fishing.
The sun was getting high and I knew fishing time was nearing its end. I was wondering how I should spend the last hour of my 2016 offshore season when Jerry reeled in his bait and stepped away from the rail. “I think I might try for tilefish,” he said.
“Not a bad idea,” I replied. “There might be a good one down there.”