Ghosts of Chatham Fog

It’s how you prepare, adapt, and responsibly execute that can close the distance between a high-probability hunt for bluefin tuna and a soggy, white-knuckled boat ride.

tuna boat in fog

It’s 3:52am, I’ve got my sweatpants on backwards, and I’m watching my buddy brush his teeth in the kitchen sink with what looks to be SPF 30. Things are going well. Medical professionals call it “sleep inertia,” a phase of inferior motor function after waking, but most tuna fisherman can attest to early-season “lizard brain.” Call me crazy, but I look fondly on those moments when simple pre-caffeine questions like, “Did you grab my extra leader material?” makes a friend look like they’re trying to divide fractions. To the uninitiated, forgoing hours of weekend sleep appears cruel and unusual; however, for those who know what opportunity lies just several miles offshore, it’s one of many trade-offs gladly sacrificed in a pursuit that blurs the lines between addiction, exhilaration, and torment.

As with any endeavor that dances on the knife’s edge of “Type 2” fun, the kind that requires discomfort, chasing early-season ghosts comes with a disclaimer. There may be limited intel to fall back on, tuna signs may be scarce, and on days that ends in “Y,” there’s a good chance you’ll encounter the Chatham fog—the disorienting, warmth-sapping condensation, the infamous “pea soup.” Therefore, it’s how you prepare, adapt, and responsibly execute in the midst of mist that can close the distance between a high-probability hunt and a soggy, white-knuckled boat ride.
 
Keep bluefin in the water during the unhooking and release process

To help ensure safe practices and share the mindset required to strike blue-gold, I’ve enlisted the help of two of the most accomplished light-tackle captains, whose experience and passion can help you embrace uncertainty. Captain Cohen Babcock (Southcoast Sportfishing) and Matt Perachio (Tighten Up Charters) are in a class of their own when it comes to demystifying bluefin. Not only have they been piecing together pelagic patterns at the charter level for nearly a decade, they are walking encyclopedias when it comes to the ABCs of heading “Out East.”

Down and tight
Down and tight in Chatham fog.

I pleasantly recall a balmy June morning aboard Babcock’s 28-foot Bluewater, plodding out of Saquatucket Harbor in the slowly receding darkness of civil twilight. The crew of four puttered around the helm, restless but still giddy enough to trash-talk the latest arrival. After being treated to a war story about late-night tacos and double IPAs, Babcock reset the tone: “We’ll hit the fog bank just after Monomoy, so we will need a set of eyes up front, another pair on my radar, and everything loose on the deck should be in the box up front.” Like a colonel directing troops, the curt demand created order out of chaos, each party taking their station. I assumed mine next to the wheelman.

Babcock set his electronics display to night mode, cutting down the glare to allow ambient lights on the horizon to remain visible, and then turned his attention to his GPS track and radar. “I’m overly cautious in the fog, especially when coming around trafficked areas like Monomoy,” he said as he set two radar detection ranges, one at a quarter mile, and another at 1 nautical mile overlaid on his GPS. “Radar is a lagged picture to real time, so I want a split screen with two different distance readings.” In terms of speed, Babcock advised staying below 25 knots in the thick stuff, even if no one’s around.

Catching up this offseason with Babcock and Perachio to discuss low-vis tuna tactics, the theme of safety was paramount. And like the clear communication I witnessed on the Bluewater, Perachio likes to take all the guesswork out of the equation when fog is involved. “I always stress in my seminars that people need to trust themselves and their equipment. Safety comes first before planning, gathering intel, or employing any tactics. Safety is the one rule.” In some cases, he goes so far as to suggest holding back on a trip if you don’t have the intel, an experienced crew, or trust in your electronics. Alternatives could include going on someone else’s vessel or fishing only in fog-free locales. A called-off trip is certainly better than one involving a distress call.

Simrad
Reduced visibility results in increased reliance on electronics.

However, when the intel is promising and the charter show must go on, Perachio and Babcock both stress the importance of buddy-boating even in the inshore arena. More eyes, more information, and more communication means safer decisions and higher-probability hookups. “A good team brings different expertise to bear. We don’t hide anything, we don’t mince words, and we don’t play games, so there’s never any doubt,” Perachio preaches. “Having an extra set of eyes and ears usually works out to our advantage.” As a safety assurance too, when gathering bait, drifting, or jigging, being part of a two- or three-boat fleet creates a larger radar signature that “from someone else’s perspective looks like a place to steer clear of and is a reminder to maintain safe speed.”

Flashing back to Babcock’s Bluewater churning beyond Crab Ledge’s southeast corner at 20knots, we were closing in on a prospective patch of ocean blue shrouded in gray. Our radio briefly illuminated, and all we could make out was the sound of a man maniacally laughing. The signal cut out for a few moments as our bow dipped, then came back again as we heard the crackling drag of an 80-wide under duress. Under normal circumstances, this would be a surefire omen of things to come, but most limited-visibility chess matches aren’t won on opening moves. Babcock’s response was to slowly come off plane and employ a sonar-radar combo, examining the water-column for any trace of bait and gamefish, while also visually scanning what limited water we could see for “tuna chicks” (storm petrels) and shearwaters bunching on the surface. A congregation of the former, dipping onto the surface in quick succession to scavenge fish oil and carrion, is one of Capt. Cohen’s favorite signs of a melee going on below.

While the “jig and pop” game is typically a tug of war between analytics and intuition, the sight and sound-dampening impact of fog dictates leaning heavily on intel and electronics. “Unless you’re constantly referencing your equipment, the fog can destroy your perception,” Perachio notes. “You could stumble on to birds or maybe smell a whale feeding nearby if you’re lucky,” but fog banks can easily distort sound so you might not be able to pinpoint its direction. Therefore, your sonar is the best chance at piecing together the puzzle of what depth fish are feeding at and how they are relating to forage. Similarly, reports and waypoints from days past can help you set a baseline of expectations to work off, as giant tuna hounding squid or half-beaks demand far different tactics than recreational-size fish chasing tinker mackerel and sand eels.

In the case of the latter, Babcock says he doesn’t shy away from “search trolling” an area of interest even if he hasn’t found exactly what he’s looking for. This could be as simple as pulling two light bars on 50Ws or two to three weighted soft plastics on spinning gear as you comb a historically productive area.

angler with hooked bluefin
A hooked bluefin stretches out the line to the edge of the visibility.

What traits can amplify an angler’s success in fog? In Babcock and Perachio’s opinions, it is being “adaptable and reactionary,” which means having a deep bag of tricks when marking fish or discovering a quality bait concentration. It also means the mental gears are always in motion. Something as simple as a lone fish arcing off bottom in 160 feet of water could mean a wholesale change from search-trolling to jigging 5- to 8-ounce soft-plastics down the 160-foot contour for the next ¼ mile. “Tuna don’t get lost,” Perachio says, “so one usually means some.”

More complex signals, like a stagnant pile of shearwaters and suspended bait in the water column at 40 feet, might dictate blind-casting fast-sinking stickbaits or slow-sweeping swimbaits into the strike zone. As is the case in any bluefin scenario, these pros are conditioned to deal with an incomplete set of information, though not reacting to the latest signal in the fog could mean missing out. “Paralysis of analysis is the enemy,” Babcock stresses. “You have to recognize change as it’s happening and adjust accordingly.”

The silver-lining in the soup, however, is that low-vis fishing conditions can get downright saucy. Babcock, something of a mad scientist in the literal kitchen, relishes the added challenge of finding the needle in the haystack. Perachio admits that some of his more memorable trips were akin to prehistoric “largemouth bass fishing in the rain.”

whales in fog
On clear days, whales provide a beacon, signaling the presence of baitfish and possibly tuna from a distance. But when fog socks in the Cape Cod tuna grounds, whales are sometimes smelled before they are seen.

During my June excursion with Babcock, I felt firsthand the lower-back pain a few well-placed RonZ can induce when meeting mid-water-column with a wolfpack of bluefin. Low pressure in two forms likely plays a role in inciting this unique feeding window, the captains surmise, both “human and meteorological” factors. Limited boat traffic, slower speeds, and less fishing pressure should in theory make for less ecological interference. Perachio also contends that the light and sound absorption of Chatham fog may give tuna a sense of tactical camouflage, resulting in more aggressive schooling behavior. Indeed, there is no more jarring contrast in imagery than watching a sonar screen explode with crimson boomerangs, only to gaze out over a calm swath of fog-bound ocean … knowing a battle is about to break out.

And when the fog finally burns off, what can result is something of a “second sunrise” feeding window, when biological harmony reaches fever pitch as whales, tuna, and dolphin cycle to the surface. They’re in hot pursuit of a hot meal: sunlight-seeking plankton, butterfish, and sand lance. This is also when these light-tackle aficionados really enter their element, compelling their center consoles and clientele into a TB12-esque tuna tempo offense. “I don’t like to wait for fish to come to me,” Perachio says, when the tide and conditions are right. “I just know they are somewhere out there and are raging on the surface right now.” “Run and gun” is the cliche, but that honestly conveys far less discipline than these tacticians employ.

boat with tuna
Low-visibility, high spirits.

“Throttle control” is the secret sauce, Babcock admits. “These fish can be finicky” and when a propeller’s pitch changes abruptly in close proximity to feeding fish, “they just know something isn’t right.” Perachio agrees whole-heartedly, having gained critical experience aboard a “stick-boat” years ago.

“The most important element of harpooning is that the captain doesn’t touch the throttle when coming up on fish because the tuna sense a boat’s harmonics coming from a long distance and they’re conditioned to it.” For this reason, often a stealthy drift ahead of crashing fish is the best recipe. That’s when you typically see the best feeds, since they don’t even know you’re there when the boat’s not moving.

However, when a more aggressive approach to fast-moving bluefin is required, blitzkrieg-like tactics can pay off when the wheelman has a steady hand. Babcock is certainly no stranger to high-speed maneuvers, having buckled my knees more than a few times advancing on butterfish-munching tuna. “It’s that split second when the fray is really charged up—that’s the window to plop a bait in there,” he says, encouraging accomplished anglers to launch bombs from his front deck while the Bluewater is still in motion. A smooth RPM decline toward neutral should put the casting deck in full view of where the fish are headed, but even a solid presentation might not ensure success. Perachio calls it the “garbage can,” a 5-foot ring of destiny that schooling tuna trap their prey in. “You have to put it in the can” or its back to the drawing board.

Siren Lures Deep Seductress
Siren Lures Deep Seductress

The tools of the topwater trade are plentiful, but both these Siren Lures pro staffers have been almost solely relying on Jason Ward’s creations to ghost-hunt. “That shine really has drawing power,” Perachio notes. “I’ve been a major fan of the 185 [deep seductress] in black sambuca color.”

On the other hand, Babcock has become more attached to the smaller-profile 155 stickbait of late, citing a better representation of a shifting forage base toward tinker mackerel and butterfish. As you may have guessed, the nuances of bluefin forage aren’t lost on these pros—they’ve studied the tape.

“The body of a butterfish stays completely still when swimming, and it’s only the tail that flutters.” While that’s hard to imitate, they suggest slow pulls and intermittent twitches with stickbaits are the best retrieve, while swimbaits with responsive tails are about as close to the real thing as it gets.

Now that I think about it, chasing ghosts in the Chatham fog is a bit like a hangover in reverse. All the torment and anxiety front-loaded in a dimly-lit morning venture traded for the promise of story-worthy experiences in the future. As Perachio summarizes, “it’s about the camaraderie. Those are my favorite days, when we can work together to make it happen despite the odds.”

And, when “it” happens, the result is often a lifetime addiction to this closely-held tradition in delayed gratification. “It” is exactly what keeps us heading back out for more.

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