Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Fishing Big

Tuna and Striped Bass

Earlier this month, I got to do some serious offshore fishing with my sons Steve (28), Rich (26) and Mike (21) out of Montauk, NY. While we primarily do salt water fishing together on our own boats on the southeast shore of Long Island, once in a while we like to charter a fishing boat to take us places we don’t go, in hopes of a great catch and to teach us new techniques. With that in mind, we chartered a boat out of Montauk, NY, to fish off Block Island and offshore to the south for Striped Bass and Sharks.

We started out our adventure by heading to Montauk the day before our fishing trip to enjoy the town and walk around the marina, and to be ready to make an early start the next day. We had a great family afternoon and a great seafood dinner overlooking the inlet, and got to bed early so that we were able to get to the docks just after 5am with a cooler full of cold drinks and sandwiches. We hoped to fill that cooler with fresh fish by late afternoon!

Fishing as the sun comes up
We met Captain Art and his able deck hand Dylan, who was about the age of my older sons, we confirmed our plans for the day, and then shoved off from the dock on the 39’ Hatteras express “Halfback” before the sun came up. As we left the Montauk inlet on a heading toward Block Island, part way to Martha’s Vineyard, we talked some more about our plans. We’d start with a little Striped Bass fishing and then move onto some shark fishing, possibly stopping back to fish for Striped Bass on the way back to Montauk at the end of the day. The captain was quick to point out that we’d certainly adjust our plans to respond to conditions and what we saw on the fish finder, and we agreed. That was how we typically fish as well – have a plan to start off, and adjust to the situation for the best chance to catch fish.

Steve fights a big bluefish
So off we went, toward block island. Just 20 minutes into the run, the captain saw big bait balls under the boat and signs of predators chasing them. He figured we were seeing big bluefish, so we got some umbrella rigs set up and dropped them in for some fast trolling. In no time we had a few big bluefish hitting the decks, with plans to filet them to create some irresistible shark baits for later in the day. We kept the carcasses too, since they’d also help to bring sharks around. Soon enough we were back on the run out to Block Island.

By 7:30am we were a short distance due west of Block Island and ready to drop some wire-line rigged tube lures that look like eels to try to attract big Striped Bass. Over the next hour, four or five nice striped bass hit the decks, two of which were large enough to be keepers. One was Mike’s first keeper, and perhaps his biggest fish yet. We got these nice fish onto ice, grabbed some cold drinks, and talked about what to do next. We could fish some more for Stripers, but the favorable tide was running out, so we decided to head south, off shore from Block Island, to fish for sharks.  

Mike's first keeper Striped Bass
About an hour later we got to a nice ridge or fall-off to deep water, a place where there’d be an ecosystem that supports sharks. We got the boat into place and figured out our drift, and then we got to work getting a chum slick started, using chum pots full of frozen ground bunker and lots of cut up mackerel chunks tossed into the water a few at a time every few minutes. Slowly, a slick started to develop in our wake as the boat drifted. We tracked the speed and course of our drift and put several lines into the water on heavy rods with big floats and big hooks, each with a juicy fresh bluefish filet from the fish caught early in the trip. With good conditions, good chum, and good baits in place, we waited. Mike and Rich took turns with the captain up on the Tuna Tower looking out for signs of sharks around the boat, while the rest of us stayed in the stern area watching the rods and floats and listening for the click-click-click of the reel that means that a shark has taken one of the baits.

At times like these, the waiting is the hard part. It was a beautiful day, and the seas were calm, and it’s easy to get bored and sleepy (especially given how early we woke up). But we stayed vigilant and hour after hour watched the water around the boat and stood ready to grab a rod when a shark strike happened. We all knew that the boredom could quickly turn into chaos as we responded to a strike by getting other lines out of the way, getting a fighting belt onto an angler, and getting the fight underway.

A few hours into the wait, I saw a fin slicing the surface about 100 yards away and called it out to the others. We all locked in on it and watched it cut the surface for 50 feet, then disappear, then pop up again nearby to do it again – sometimes in the opposite direction. We figured we were seeing 2 or maybe 3 sharks near the boat taking interest in our slick. We shook the chum pot to add to the attraction near the boat, and we put one of the bluefish carcasses into the water. The sharks were around, but not yet taking the bait.

At this point, the mate started noticing some mahi-mahi near the boat. We quickly got some lighter rods out and the mate tried to get one of these colorful and tasty fish onto a hook by casting lures their way. Soon, we saw that quite a few of these colorful fish were around the boat, but like the sharks, none were biting. At that point, something crazy started happening. We saw a shark jump clear out of the water, full body maybe up 4 feet from the surface, and spiraling like a football, it went back into the water. And then we saw it happen again. And again. Over the next half-hour we saw this happen about 20 times. I got a little cell phone video of this happening, but it wasn’t easy. They were a good 50 yards away most times and we never knew where it would happen in the huge expanse of water around us.

We eventually figured that what was happening was that our slick attracted a large amount of mahi-mahi, and that the sharks (which we now believed were Spinner Sharks), were feeding on the fresh live mahi and couldn’t care less about our baits. The day was getting later and the captain and mate and I discussed options. Should we head back to fish for Stripers some more, stay and fish for sharks, or take a chance on trolling for some tuna? That last sounded attractive, but we knew it would be a low probability. I decided to skip the Striper fishing (that’s something we can do on our own), fish a little longer for sharks, and then, at the suggestion of Dylan, our mate, set up a pattern of lures to troll for Tuna on the way home.

In the end, we never did get a shark hookup and I think the captain and mate were feeling badly about that, so they tried extra hard for us by staying out a little late and setting up a serious spread of lures for tuna. It would be Rich’s turn on the rod if we got a hookup and he was up in the tuna tower keeping a lookout. 

Rich lands the prize - a Bluefin Tuna
As our time was running out, I saw a sturdy port-side rod bend over almost double. Hookup! Rich flew down the ladder and the mate and I cleared the extra lines. Steve helped Rich get a fighting belt secured around his waist and the fight began. Rich fought that fish for a good long while. The fish didn’t want to give ground and Rich had to keep the heavy rod angled just right while the boat continued forward and the fish fought. The mate was ready with a gaff (a heavy hook on a long rod used to haul the fish in) and was giving Rich instructions. The rest of us were helping in small ways, adjusting the belt, clearing obstacles, helping to get the line spread evenly on the reel at times. I opened the tuna door at the stern as the fish got close. We saw color and knew it was a tuna! Just as the mate got the leader, the tuna decided he wasn’t yet ready to give up and took another run. The mate dropped the leader and made way, and Rich held on and fought the fish some more. A few minutes later, the fish was alongside at the port side again and the mate landed a clean blow with the gaff and hauled a beautiful bluefin tuna over the side. It was a magic moment. High fives all around as Rich caught his breath. He had landed his first tuna and in that moment the trip went from disappointing to great. Dylan bled the tuna and got it iced down quickly.
With the mate, Dylan

Dylan cleans the fish
We celebrated all the way back to Montauk as the mate cleaned up the boat. Smiles and nods and thoughts of fresh Striped Bass on the grill and fresh Tuna sashimi for all. Back at the dock, Dylan weighed our fish and we got several photos. Dylan got the knives out to turn those fish into filets and steaks, and he helped us with a great tuna tradition – the angler who lands his first tuna eats the heart raw, immediately after it’s cut from the fish. This sounds barbaric, but it’s a tradition, and it’s all about the transfer of energy from a great ocean beast to the angler who caught him. Rich took a great big bite and shared some with the mate and with his brothers.
My sons show off their catches
We drove back to our summer house in East Quogue and I got some of the Striped Bass filets onto the grill for our late dinner while Steve, our resident chef and butcher, processed the tuna loins into steaks and vacuum-packed them for all of us. It was a great trip with a delicious end-product, and a great memory for me to share with my sons.

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