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February 12, 2007

Golden Opportunities

Sport Fishing's Andy Hahn takes us across the country to find the best bets for homeland yellowfin.

No wonder yellowfin tuna rank high on the offshore angler's list of take-home game fish! This prized catch offers a sumo-and-sashimi combination that merges formidable stamina and fighting ability with delectable flesh.

The species' healthy population and widespread distribution make it an accessible quarry for tremendous numbers of fishermen. Yellowfin territory covers a wide belt around the globe's fat midsection, ranging throughout tropical and subtropical oceans between the latitudes of about 40 degrees N to 35 S. Whether specifically targeted or welcomed as an  incidental catch, these golden-finned tuna frequently turn up on charter boats from Australia to the Azores, from to Puerto Rico to Panama.

The yellowfin's nature as a schooling fish practically guarantees chances for multiple hookups, allowing every angler on board to jump into the fray. Compared to marlin fishing, which sometimes results in a long duel between one angler and a stubborn billfish, tuna fishing frequently becomes a full-on free-for-all as four or more anglers simultaneously grapple with blitzing yellowfin. This "social" aspect adds to the fun when a group of friends gets together for a trip.

A complete list describing the world's top yellowfin spots could fill a book, so let's focus on destinations that offer excellent fishing closer to home. Yellowfin represent a viable option for boats that can reach blue water from nearly any port on our East, Gulf and West coasts, so please forgive me if I don't mention your personal favorite here. Choose your destination according to physical proximity (time and money saved on travel means more to spend on fishing), or pick a place that caters to your preferred angling style, such as chunking, trolling or live-baiting.

Chunking the Canyons
Anglers can charter trips out of marinas in every state from Connecticut to Virginia and head far offshore to fish over deep gouges in the ocean floor like Hudson, Veatch and Baltimore canyons. Rather than trying to chase down the restless wolf packs of yellowfin that cruise these areas, crews often rely on a technique called chunking. Dealing out pieces of baitfish in a slow but steady stream eventually attracts tuna and persuades them to take baited hooks.

Since chunking produces best at night, boats usually leave early in the afternoon to make a typical 100-plus-mile run to the fishing grounds and arrive to set up before sunset. Some skippers like to troll a spread of lures to pick up yellowfin or other bonus fish (bigeye tuna, dolphin, blue marlin) prior to dropping anchor; others prefer to get right down to creating a chunk slick that will ring the dinner bell and bring tuna to the transom.

Don't plan on snoozing away the night while waiting for a screaming reel clicker to wake you up. Charter crews expect anglers to help with chores such as cutting butterfish or menhaden, doling out chunks, jigging for squid and free-lining baits in the slick. In fact, the more you participate, the better your chances for success, because chunking requires a team effort to keep the process going smoothly and effectively.

The Northeast chunking season usually kicks off in August and reaches its peak in September and October. Canyon yellowfin typically range from 40 to 80 pounds with the occasional 100-pounders crashing the party - and on weekends with agreeable weather, the party may consist of scores of boats blanketing a hot spot.

Rates for an overnight canyon trip on a four- to six-passenger charter boat may range from $2,000 to $4,000, varying according to region and vessel size. For their money, a tightknit group of friends can enjoy a sleepless, busy night of hands-on   yellowfin fishing.

The following websites offer information on charter boats in Connecticut (www.ctsportfishing.com); Montauk, New York (www.montauk-online.com/?s=Recreation/Fishing/Charter+Boats); New Jersey (www.fishingnj.com; www.fishbeachhaven.com); and Ocean City, Maryland (www.ocsun
setmarina.com).

The Partyboat Option
"Partyboats leaving ports from Montauk Point to Cape May offer overnight canyon trips for reasonable prices," says Capt. Bob Bogan, who runs the Gambler out of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey.

Canyon trips leave the dock around 6 p.m. and return at 4 p.m. the next day. Besides the camaraderie of sharing the adventure with 20 or so other anglers, fishing aboard a boat like the 90-foot Gambler offers a sizeable advantage. "Weather becomes an important consideration when going offshore during the fall tuna season," Bogan says. "But a big boat like ours lets us fish comfortably in less-than-perfect conditions."

In 2006, a tuna-chunking trip on the Gambler cost about $300 per person; Bogan expects this year's rates will rise along with fuel prices.

For more information, call 732-295-7569 or visit www.gamblerfishing.net.

Tuna at the Beach
Virginia Beach, that is. Boats leaving Rudee Inlet make runs of 40 to 60 miles to target yellowfin in places such as the Fingers, the Cigar and the Edge. "We start catching tuna in June, but the yellowfin fishing usually peaks in July, then again from mid-September through mid-November," says Capt. Mike Standing.

Fall offers two advantages: hot fishing and no crowds in this beachside vacation town. Nocturnal chunking remains an option that often produces heftier yellowfin of 60 pounds and up; daytime trolling, however, yields good catches without disrupting your normal sleeping patterns. "We had several trips this October that produced 20 or more tuna in just a half-day," Standing says. "The average size of tuna caught on the troll ranges from 40 to 60 pounds."

The tuna spread on Standing's Waterman, a 47-foot Custom Carolina, includes a mix of ballyhoo and spreader bars. Like most other skippers, Standing would much rather see his anglers participate in the game than sit around and wait for the mate to hook their fish. "We love it when the customers do our work!" he jokes. "But seriously, we enjoy teaching anglers how to rig baits and gaff fish, and they enjoy getting their hands dirty while learning cockpit skills."

Charter options abound at the Virginia Beach Fishing Center; rates for a full day of offshore trolling start at about $1,600. Contact Capt. Mike Standing at 757-288-9051; call the Virginia Beach Fishing Center at 757-491-8000 or 800-725-0509, or visit www.virginiafishing.com.

Outer Banks
North Carolina's famed Oregon Inlet opens a gateway to some of the East Coast's best offshore fishing. Blue and white marlin, sailfish and dolphin rightfully garner their share of the angling crowd's attention, but yellowfin tuna - with sizes commonly ranging up to 60 pounds - form the fishy foundation that supports the local charter fleet.

"We start catching yellowfin in April, and the season runs all the way through November," says Capt. Billy Maxwell of Tuna Fever, a 56-foot Buddy Cannady. "Crews here don't do much chunking. We prefer to troll ballyhoo, lures and spreader bars."

Charter boats often make the 37-mile run to work an area of bottom structure called the Point, where limiting out on yellowfin represents no real surprise. Trolling along color changes and temperature breaks also produces fish.

The Outer Banks make a great place for a family vacation that will please fishermen and non-anglers alike. Lodging options run the gamut from cottages to condos, and local marinas host a charter fleet consisting of more than 50 boats. Rates for a full day of tuna trolling begin at $1,400. For more information, contact Oregon Inlet Fishing Center (252-441-6301 or 800-272-5199; www.oregon-inlet.com), Pirate's Cove Marina (800-367-4728; www.fishpiratescove.com) or Tuna Fever Charters (www.tunafever.com).

From Oregon Inlet, head south on Highway 12, and you'll eventually end up in Hatteras Village. "It's a longer drive to reach Hatteras, but then you'll have a shorter ride to the fish. A typical run to the grounds may take anywhere from one hour to an hour and 45 minutes, depending on the season," says Capt. Jerry Shepherd, owner of Tuna Duck Sport Fishing. "In the spring, we sometimes find yellowfin as close as 20 miles offshore, so our anglers can enjoy six or seven hours of fishing time on a full-day charter. And if you limit out quickly, you can target marlin."

Shepherd says he's caught tuna in the middle of summer and the dead of winter, but the annual action registers twin peaks in spring (mid-March to mid-May) and late fall (mid-October through December). During these peak seasons, it's customary for charters to catch limits of three yellowfin per person. "Spring fish typically run from 25 to 50 pounds. They're fatter in the fall, averaging from 40 to 60 pounds," he says. "In late April and early May, we often encounter 100-pounders."

A 50-foot Buddy Cannady, the Tuna Duck features an ample cockpit that  carries three fighting chairs and easily handles the standard trolling spread of eight ballyhoo-baited lines. The crew encourages angler participation in setting out lines and gaffing fish. "It's important for everybody to get involved when we have multiple hookups," Shepherd says. "It's not unusual to hook eight yellowfin at once, but boating them all can be a different story!"

Hatteras Village offers plenty of lodging options and restaurants convenient to several marinas. Charter rates begin at about $1,300. For more information, contact Tuna Duck Sport Fishing (772-219-9592; www.tunaduck.com), Hatteras Harbor Marina (800-676-4939; www.hatterasharbor.com), Hatteras Landing (800-551-8478; www.hatteras landing.com), Oden's Dock (888-544-8115; www.odensdock.com) or Teach's Lair Marina (888-868-2460; www.teachslair.com).

North Florida
Unlike their counterparts in the Northeast, anglers who steam 80 or more miles off north Florida don't find deep, underwater canyons. Instead, they pursue yellowfin "on the other side." Pioneered by Capt. Ed Dwyer, this fishery focuses on the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream.

"We make most of our tuna trips in April, May and June," says Capt. Ray "Foz" Gibson, who skippers the private boat Bid Time, a 60-foot Paul Spencer. "The Gulf Stream usually swings in a little closer then."

After leaving Ponce Inlet in New Smyrna Beach and pointing the bow east, Gibson runs anywhere from 65 to 80 miles before beginning a search for yellowfin. "We're prepared to go the 120-mile distance to the weather buoy, but we only go that far if necessary," he says.

Using the stream as a migration route, tuna cruise along and occasionally bust baitfish at the surface. Catching these yellowfin requires a run-and-gun attack. "We don't use traditional trolling tactics that involve putting out a spread and blindly covering an area," Gibson says. Instead, lines stay in the cockpit ready for quick deployment while savvy skippers keep sharp eyes on radar screens that have been fine-tuned to detect flocks of birds working above feeding frenzies.

Upon marking a flock of birds, the boat gets close and sets out lures such as Zukers and Marauders. Anglers can deploy, troll and pick up these artificials while zipping among birds and trying to stay with hopscotching schools of tuna at speeds of 8 to 10 knots.

"Each pack of fish tends to hold individuals of the same size range," Gibson says. "Some schools have 25-pounders; others have fish up to 60 or 80 pounds. If we see the fish are small, we pick up and look for another pack."

Running to the other side of the Gulf Stream leaves crowds far behind, so anglers can often target schools of yellowfin with no pressure or competition from other boats. Limiting out early may allow time to troll for dolphin and marlin on the ride home. Charter rates reflect the fact that these trips consume quite a bit of fuel; expect to pay $3,700 or more for a day.

For more information, contact Capt. Ed Dwyer (321-631-3321; www.ticketfishing.com) or the Fishin' Store in New Smyrna Beach (386-427-4514; www.fishinstore.com).

Gulf Coast Mecca
How and when would you like your yellowfin, sir? Venice, Louisiana - sometimes called Tuna Town, USA - serves up hot fishing on a nearly year-round basis and in a variety of ways that will please all types of anglers.

"Offshore trips out of Venice begin with a 50-minute ride down the Mississippi River to reach the Gulf of Mexico," says Susan Gros of Reel Louisiana Adventures. "From there, boats continue another 60 to 90 minutes to reach productive fishing spots such as Sackett Banks (a.k.a. Midnight Lump), offshore oil rigs or assorted rips and color changes."

The best bet from January through March calls for chunking on the Lump, where catches average about three yellow- fin a day ranging from 100-pounders all the way up to 200-plus-pound bull-  dozers. While some crews set up camp for nocturnal chunking, most others enjoy success during daylight hours. Live hardtails (blue runners) drifted back in the slick can prove so effective that they've earned an interesting local nickname: tuna crack. Blackfin tuna, wahoo and the occasional mako shark add to mixed bags here.

Trolling does the trick when tuna leave the Lump and hang around oil rigs from June through October. Traditional offshore trolling lures such as jets, chuggers and cedar plugs catch fish, as do Mann's Stretches and Rapala Magnums. Venice's summer tuna typically range from 40 to more than 100 pounds; an average day of trolling tallies up to eight yellowfin along with chances for wahoo, dolphin and blue marlin.

Experienced skippers always scan the water when under way because the waters off Venice offer anglers the very real possibility of catching bruiser yellowfin on topwater plugs. Gros recommends having at hand a stout spinning outfit spooled with 80-pound PowerPro and rigged with a Yo-Zuri Surface Bull GT or Frenzy Angry Popper (www.frenzytackle.com) to take advantage of sudden opportunities. "Cast into a school of frenzied yellowfin and hang on!" she says.

About 20 charter boats work out of Venice, with rates for a full day beginning around $1,400.

For more information, contact Reel Louisiana Adventures (504-329-7335; www.reellouisianaadventures.com), Cypress Cove Marina (800-643-4190; 985-534-9289; www.cypresscove.net) or Venice Marina (985-534-9357; www.venicemarina.com).

Going Long
A multi-day trip on a 95- to 120-foot, live-aboard boat represents the ultimate tuna adventure. "These trips provide a unique atmosphere for your fishing experience - and the chance to catch yellowfin weighing more than 300 pounds," says Steve Loomis, who has been involved in the California long-range scene for more than four decades as both boat owner and captain.

From October through April, the San Diego long-range fleet offers 10- to 18-day trips that venture into Mexican waters to focus on big-fish hot spots such as Clipperton and the Revillagigedos Islands. Anglers enjoy comfortable rooms, gourmet meals and the benefits of a no-rush schedule. "Unlike a day trip, you don't have to catch all your fish in just a few hours before the boat returns to port," Loomis says. "Long-range trips give you more time to search for and find quality tuna - and more time for fishing once you find them."

The most common methods for catching south-of-the-border yellowfin include free-lining and kite-fishing live baits from an anchored or drifting boat. Anglers also drift cut baits and cast jigs when a school comes within range. "The crew and other anglers are always ready to help first-timers," Loomis says. "We provide any and all necessary tackle; you pay for fresh line, hooks, sinkers and lures."

Loomis admits to difficulty in specifying a "typical size" for long-range tuna. "On some trips, we come back with limits in which every fish weighs more than 150 pounds, and on other trips, it's hard to find tuna of that size," he says.

Long-range anglers may keep up to 15 yellowfin (as well as 15 wahoo) per trip. In San Diego, dockside services exist to prepare the catch according to personal preferences: filleted and vacuum-packed, smoked or canned.

Figure on paying about $300 per day for a trip on one of the dozen or so long-range boats. For more information, contact Fisherman's Landing (619-221-8500; www.fishermanslanding.com) or Point Loma Sportfishing (619-223-1627; www.pointlomasportfishing.com).