Natural attrition and fishing mortality (including a gauntlet of high-seas central Atlantic netters) will mean fewer fish than last year, of course. But even so, this is a particularly large year class. Last fall, Greg Skomal, a biologist with Massachusetts Marine Fisheries, reported that scientists late last fall "were still seeing massive numbers of these fish. Spotter pilots are reporting schools of literally thousands."
"There are indications that the 2003 year class [of bluefin] is exceptional," the largest since 1994, agrees Clay Porch, a tuna specialist with NOAA Fisheries. Additionally, a relatively large portion of these fish has shown an affinity for living and feeding in Stellwagen, making them readily accessible to many anglers.
The odds are high that these tuna are composed of mixed stocks, both eastern Atlantic and western Atlantic bluefin. That could translate into fewer fish than last year, since after five or six years, eastern-stock fish (which seem to grow at a rate faster than western-stock bluefin) head back to the Mediterranean to spawn, says Graves. However, samplings for age and stock origin have not been adequate to understand stock composition and movements with great certainty, Porch says.
Another factor that may affect numbers of these larger fish available to anglers this year: The 2003/2004 bluefin will likely find themselves under increasing pressure since those that grow to at least 73 inches - a length these tuna have reached by now - are large enough to be kept commercially.
The Riches of Stellwagen
Two circumstances of Stellwagen Bank make it particularly valuable to recreational tuna anglers. One asset is its proximity to the coast, much of the bank within Boston Bay and its westernmost edge only 15 miles from the mainland and about 25 miles from Boston. No need here for tuna fishermen to make long overnight canyon runs.
Secondly, it's an expansive chunk of real estate that rises from deeper water in the Atlantic, with steep sides that provide strong upwellings and great productivity. Stellwagen is a very large bank, "high in nutrients with great plankton production and lots of baitfish," says Skomal. "The variety of species found on the bank represents the entire trophic structure of the ecosystem here." That means not only tuna, but sharks, groundfish, striped bass and whales (Stellwagen is a favorite for whale-watching boats). "It's a fascinating place," adds Skomal.
It's also in part a protected place, incorporating the 842 square-mile Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, so designated in 1992. Though protected from certain uses such as mining, fishing (both recreational and commercial) is permitted. The bank averages 100 to 120 feet deep, rising from the 300- to 600-foot depths around it.
For more information on the Stellwagen sanctuary, visit http://stellwagen.noaa.gov.
Jig 'Em and Pop 'Em for the Ultimate Rush
Sure, it's hard to beat live bunker. But bluefin aren't shy about going after metal jigs and, "There's no way to explain the impact of a 140- to 180pound bluefin tuna hitting a jig on braided line!" says John Bretza with Okuma Fishing. He fished last fall with Capt. Rich Antonino (Black Rose Charters; www.blackrosefishing.com), who specializes in run-'n'-gun action with jigs and poppers. Bretza said his group caught several bluefin, all on jigs, using light Okuma Cedros lever-drag reels and 50-pound braided line. At times, the big tuna will be feeding at the surface over Stellwagen; not much can approach the shock and awe of a massive bluefin crashing a big popper.
Live Bait: Hook Placement Matters
When it comes to live bunker under a balloon, emulate Nancy Reagan and just say nose. That's what Capt. Chuck DiStefano says. "I hook baits that will go on a balloon rig through the nose because the [drifting] boat pulls on them as it goes down-tide, and they swim better being pulled from the front rather than from the back, which tends to pull them sideways through the water." However, DiStefano does hook his menhaden through the back when putting them under a kite.