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Skinny rods, fat tuna

8/7/2009

CAPE MAY, N.J. — Too much time on the water creates a mentality of been there, done that. "Tell me something I don't know" is an attitude of many old salts.

I am fortunate to fish for a living and, with well over 200 days a year on the water in the northeast for 12 years running, I can say that I get to see and experience an awful lot of things. For someone to shock me or to get me to raise an eyebrow is tough. More so when it comes to big tackle busting tuna on light tackle.

However, anyone who knows me knows that I am always open to new ideas. I'm willing to try new things. I'm even willing to take a knife into a gun fight and see who's left standing.

All this time on the water has driven me to enjoy the entire adventure and share it with others.

Years ago, it was all about the hookup and the battle. Now, the events leading up to being locked up tight to a giant fish are just a exhilarating. In my opinion, good friends, meeting new people, good food, fishing war stories and epic battles should accompany every trip.

For years, famous pelagic chasers have descended upon Cape May and Ocean City, Md., looking for huge bluefin tuna. Leading tackle manufacturers visit this region each year, putting their newest inventions to the test.

The biggest names and money tournaments in the sport come to fish the lumps just 26 miles offshore of Ocean City and 40 miles southeast of Cape May.

This region sounds like a food court if you listen to the marine band radio. Fishing hotspots are referred to as the Hambone, the Hot Dog, the Sausages and the Chicken Bone, just to name a few.

Like clockwork, great migrations of the mini-submarines come rolling through the humps eating sand eels along the way. This tuna fishery is nothing short of spectacular.

Big fish really gets me excited, but after years trolling with broom stick rods and heavy gold reels, it can become same old, same old. Long stalemate battles with tuna the size of pool tables can cause bodily harm. Been there, done that. In my mind, you can have it.

Back in 2005, the folks at Shimano sent me some revolutionary equipment. Prior to the whole Butterfly jigging phenomenon, they outfitted me with jigging rods that were as thick as a Bic pen. Attached were small gold reels named Torsa.

Looking more like a fencing sword, every charter captain and tuna fisherman who saw this outfit mocked it, and I'm sure many were laughing at me behind my back. But I kinda like it that way. It keeps people on their toes and second guessing.

At first, I rigged this outfit to the bumper of my car, checking to see what kind of power this little stick had. I was impressed, but it lopped over like a wet spaghetti noodle. Plus, a car bumper is no tuna.

The manufacturer said to tighten down the drag to 24 pounds, hang on and let the reel and rod design handle the load. Ready to roll, I jumped aboard Stalker Charters in Cape May and we headed off.

Veteran Capt. Scott Pierce looked at his Tiagra 50's, then at the Torsa. He looked back at the 50's, then the Torsa. Pierce looked at his rods then my little Bic pen of a rod and his mind was made up. His exact words: "No way in hell are we gonna land a tuna on that — No way, no how."

Capt. Skip Jastremski was also on board, and being a younger guy with a bit more of an open mind said, "Let's see what she does. I'd like to see if she'll (the rod) make it to the third fish."

After three long hours, that time came when I wasn't paying attention. A soft gentle take, as if the fish rose from the depths to hit the jig prior to dropping back to her 120-foot lair. Caught off-guard, I gave that tuna the old Jimmy Houston hookset, trying to cross the bluefin's eyes.

The strike was subtle, leading me to believe a small fish had struck the lure, but I wasn't taking chances. My sharp hook must have hit a nerve because this steamroller took off. The drag was set and the only choice I had was to hold on as my Bic pen bent over to the reel. Upon hookup, our plan was for the captain to man the throttles, keeping the fish broadside to the boat.

Personally, my initial objective was to take the battle to the tuna rather than the tuna forcing me to hang on and pump the rod like days of old.

The plan was to turn the fish's head toward the surface, slam the lever drag to full and power the fish to the gaff using the reel as a winch. Sounds easier said than done with a mini submarine attached, but it worked like a charm. Actually, it worked like a charm every time.

During that first battle, words can't begin to explain the exhilaration. The braided line transmitted every movement the fish made, adding to the thrill of the fight. Plus, the water was only 120-feet deep, forcing this average sized tuna to go long and run all over the place.

That particular bluefin tuna weighed 150 pounds and hit the deck in less than 10 minutes. On that particular day, this jigging system took four tuna over traditional bait.

Each tuna was over 100 pounds with the biggest at 158 pounds. It didn't take long for word to spread throughout the angling community in Cape May. It spread so quickly that people were waiting for us at the dock. Most in disbelief, but they all wanted to see this little outfit that gained instant respect.

Now, five years later, respectable-sized tuna keep falling for the butterfly jigs all around these lumps. In fact, that day altered the way anglers in the northeast fight big tuna. Iced down tuna at the dock proved it.

Now, jigging for tuna has grown substantially. So much so that rod manufacturers and custom rod builders have dedicated rod lines, offering various actions and fish fighting capabilities.

Each time I stop in to visit George and Cathy Algard, proprietors of Sterling Harbor Bait and Tackle in Wildwood, N.J., people come out of the woodwork. They linger around and listen to the latest jigging war story.

George has said that "shop customers purchase pizzas and beer just to listen, talk and try to gain that extra edge when certain charter captains pop into the shop."

On my latest adventure to the region, the wind cancelled out trip. But, that did not stop the onshore food court from closing. The Algards opened their back deck to a dozen shop customers as they brought beer, scallops, steaks and other fine foods, just to listen to some of the region's top charter captains.

For hours, we all talked shop while overlooking the salt marshes of Wildwood. If you ask me, that is what fishing should be about. That is the true adventure.

Overall, this fishery yields some bruiser tuna and lots of them. Everyone has their own way of fishing. However, in downsizing our gear, we not only tag these fish with our gaff, but we get right back into the fight.

Make no mistake about it; this type of fishing is a street fight. It's hand-to-hand fish combat at its finest.
She hits — we hit — let's see who wins!