Popping tuna became the late-season craze in New Jersey and about six years ago when a large concentration of bluefin tuna settled into the waters 3 to 15 miles offshore. They showed up somewhat unexpectedly at the end of November, when many offshore fishermen were wrapping it up for the season, leaving captains scrambling to get out to cast lures at them.
Fishermen armed themselves with specialized rods, high-end spinning reels, and realistic stickbaits, bringing West Coast and Cape Cod tactics to our local waters. Still, it was a frustrating fishery, to say the least. Many anglers reported spotting the fish briefly, only to have them totally disappear when their boats approached casting range—before long, disappointed captains began calling the pursuit, “chasing ghosts.”
Tuna Spinning Reels
Before you cast a spinning reel at a bluefin, make sure it has enough capacity for 400-plus yards of 80- to 100-pound-test braided line, and a drag capable of producing 25-plus pounds of pressure.
The tuna passing through New Jersey in late November and December are migrating south from New England to their spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. Bluefin tuna can tolerate cold water by transferring heat from their arterial to venous blood vessels, which prevents the heat from escaping into its surroundings. If bait is present close to shore at the end of November into December and ocean temperatures are holding between 50-54 degrees, the stage is set for inshore topwater tuna action.
Bluefin were going by the New Jersey coast long before fishermen began targeting them – commercial draggers and offshore party boat captains fishing the winter wrecks can attest to that. Some seasons, the bluefin migrate within 15 miles of the beach, and other seasons they stay much farther offshore, out of range of the recreational boater not interested in venturing far offshore in freezing cold temperatures.
Whether the bluefin show close to the coast depends entirely on the bait. There are four species of baitfish that have tuna-holding power—sand eels, Atlantic sea herring, Atlantic saury, and squid.
Sinking stickbait-style lures used to be the most popular for late-season bluefin, but in recent seasons, fishermen have been finding success with soft plastics and topwaters as well.
Most years, by late November, sand eels move in from offshore and take up residence on the 3- to 6-mile inshore lumps and ridges. Sea herring and squid can draw in tuna, but in my opinion, the Atlantic saury is the bait that lights this fishery on fire. If sauries appear inshore in numbers, the tuna will stick around to feed on them.
Line And Leader
So that you have enough to handle the first big run of a large tuna, 80- or 100-pound-test braided line is a must to achieve maximum line capacity on your reel spool. Another advantage of braided line is that its thinner diameter allows for long casts—an absolute necessity in this game.
For a leader, use a length of 100- or 130-pound-test fluorocarbon casting leader attached to the doubled braided line with a splice, an FG Knot, or loop-to-loop connection. BHP Tackle sells pre-made 12-foot leaders that are perfect for this application. For easier casting, cut them down to 8 feet so the loop-to-loop connection is just above the reel and below the first guide when you are casting.
Rods must be limber enough to cast lures a long distance and stout enough to break the spirit of a big bluefin. Most captains prefer lengths of 71Ž2 to 8 feet. Here’s a few suggested rods for chasing ghosts:
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