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October 25, 2001

Behind the Draggers

Tuna can't resist the world's greatest chum line.

For over a decade, draggers based in southern New England, New York and Connecticut have worked the waters south of Block Island, Rhode Island, from just west of Nantucket Shoals in Massachusetts to south of Montauk, New York, in pursuit of late-summer and early-fall butterfish, whiting and squid. The number of draggers working a given area can escalate to several dozen daily, depending on the availability and price of targeted species, creating a tremendous bycatch of juvenile whiting, butterfish, squid and hake.
This rejected portion of their catch creates an artificial banquet, concentrating tunas, sharks, bonito and billfish, not to mention tremendous numbers of birds. Depending upon their success, draggers work east and west along a given line, typically making one-hour tows. Sea-surface temperatures will dictate which species of game fish forage on their bycatch.
Usually, discards from the first tow of the day provide the fastest tuna action, and it's best to be one of the early boats on scene. With prolonged periods of settled weather, high numbers of draggers concentrate tremendous numbers of yellowfin and school bluefin in a relatively small area. Occasionally, medium and giant bluefin along with near-200-pound yellowfin dump a few reels, but most tunas are two- to five-year-olds weighing under 100 pounds.
One note of caution: Keep in mind that a working dragger has poor maneuverability, so you risk disaster if you set up in front of one. As for securing "floaters," common courtesy dictates you take your turn, joining the line astern of the last sport boat netting up potential bait. Be aware that a dragger's cables and booms can quickly modify even the most expensive of laid-down outriggers.

Typical Season
Dragger activity typically gets going in late July or early August along the 43600 line (loran C, 9960 rate), typically starting just east of the 14300 line. Sea-surface water temperatures in the high 60s have in recent years seen yellowfin first to show, exploding under the floaters in the wakes of draggers, followed by school bluefin come early to mid-August.
If water temperatures push into the low 70s, you can see white marlin, dolphin and several species of small tunas competing with their larger cousins for daily handouts. Some days it's not uncommon to hear of several white marlin taking baits intended for hungry tuna.
As the season progresses, water temperatures east of the Dump are the first to decline, forcing members of the tuna clan westward, and increasing the number of sharks in and east of the Dumping grounds. Around Labor Day weekend, draggers can usually be found working a well-known spot called "the Aquarium," in the 14600/43600 area in 36 fathoms on the east corner of the outer Butterfish Hole.
Later in September, tuna action typically moves to the west bank of the outer Butterfish Hole, near 14700/43600, where it usually lasts well into October.
As water temperatures decline to 67 degrees, yellowfin depart for warmer waters closer to the shelf's edge. As temps fall to 63 degrees, school bluefin depart and numbers of blue shark increase.
Many days in late season witness flurries of shark or tuna action depending on the water temps under the keel. Distances less than a quarter-mile can mean yellowfin or bluefin for some, and only sharks for others.

Tackle Choices
Aboard the Prowler we offer clients Penn Slammer SLC-2455MS, 5 1/2-foot, medium-action, 30- to 60-pound-class stand-up rods. These carry Penn International 30TW reels loaded with 60-pound test Berkley Big Game mono. Black barrel swivels, such as 2/0 Sampos, connect line to leaders.
Depending on light intensity, water color and clarity, leader color may be clear, green or blue, and range in test from 30- to 80-pound. Leaders are kept short, 6 feet maximum, and attached to well-sharpened Mustad #9174 bait hooks in sizes from 5/0 to 8/0.

Setting Up
We prefer chumming with cut butterfish, with at least two lines baited with whole butters, hooks hidden. Many anglers make the mistake of fishing heavy leaders, readily visible to the fish, and fail to adjust leader diameter and color as conditions change.
If we anticipate fish under 80 pounds, we typically start with 60-pound-test leader material attached to a 7/0 hook, fished 30 to 50 feet down depending on the level at which we're marking fish. In light to moderate wind, an 8-ounce sinker taped with black plastic electrical tape to the line about 12 feet away from the bait seems to do the trick.
Lines fish directly off the rod tips without a float. Drags are moderately set, rods positioned in gunwale holders. A second butterfish bait, typically fished without a weight, is set out about 150 feet, visible to fish coming up our chum line.
Some days we elect to work one of the butterfish baits, pulling slack line as it settles away, ready to push the drag lever up quickly should we have a pickup. Keep in mind that butterfish sink rapidly when hosed off a dragger's deck, so be sure to bring plenty of fresh or frozen butters for hook baits and chum.
A third line fishes a "floater" bait, typically a small whiting. We insure that baits float by inserting a Styrofoam "peanut" into the gullet. Although small hake with distended swim bladders float well, most sharp-visioned tunas prefer whiting and will strike them first. On a calm day, leaders for a "floater" may go as light as 30-pound test, but we typically start with 50-pound. Preferred hook size is 5/0, due to lighter weight, again hidden in the bait to prevent it from sinking.

Floater Lines
Many days, a chum line of "floaters" is key to producing results. Draggers condition these small tunas to floating baits, and they seem to swim rapidly just subsurface, looking for baits above. These fish may ignore deep baits because they have constantly fed on those floating and near the surface. However, fish attracted to the boat with floater lines have a very good chance of striking shallow-set butterfish baits.
Knowledgeable fishermen set up their decoy line (or chum line) of floaters once shallow baits are deployed. Toss out small hake for the floater line and set a whiting to float as a hook bait. Having more than one rigged bait ready to go is paramount to success. Rig several whiting on leaders and keep them ready on ice.
Once a school of yellowfin or bluefin locates a floater line, they explode on the floaters until all are consumed. To deploy a floater bait, pull line from a reel onto the deck, handling the floater bait gently, then toss it into the melee. Sometimes the tossed floater bait is taken immediately upon hitting the water.
One other point: Don't make the mistake of creating too strong a line of floaters. One day last season a private boat came up our "floater" line netting our decoys for his chum line. Damn near got our hook bait too!

When Tuna Don't Bite
Some days, netting up bait behind a dragger finds no tuna exploding in the floaters. If the water is too cool, moving to the south and west just might be the ticket to find draggers working warmer water and the tuna it contains. An accurate sea-surface temperature gauge is invaluable.
There have been days when, instead of tuna, sandbar, blue and mako sharks muscle one another aside in pursuit of floaters. Anglers may take this opportunity for some excellent action, particularly on light tackle.
Light intensity also plays an important role in tuna hookup rates. Calm seas and clear skies require lighter leaders when fishing baits on the surface. With light leaders we always hope to hook fish in the jaw hinge for maximum leverage - and to minimize damage to the fish, making release easier. Action is the bottom line. Sure, we bust a few fish off, but we also go home most days with plenty of tuna steaks for the grill.
If fish shy away from or boil on your hook bait, it means they see your leader. If you successfully started the day under cloudy conditions with 60-pound-test leaders, for example, consider going to 50-, 40- or 30-pound test if conditions change to bright sunlight.