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October 26, 2001

Live-Baiting Secrets Of Northeast Skippers

How to fish six top baits for tuna and marlin.

Catching live bait conjures up images of soaring cast nets landing in clear tropical waters - and boats with giant, high-tech live wells. While live-baiting techniques are well known and widely practiced below the Mason Dixon Line, many top captains in the Northeast keep their own marlin and tuna fishing live-bait practices a secret. Here, we'll discuss six types of the North Atlantic game fishes' natural prey and show you how experts catch, keep and rig them live to gain a competitive edge.

Inshore anglers have long used live eels to bait trophy-size striped bass, but few people apply the same techniques when targeting tuna. Commonly found in back bays, eels are easy to catch in baited cages. However, eels also venture into the open ocean where tuna and marlin feed on them. According to Jay McGowan, biologist for Maine's Department of Marine Resources, American eels swim to the Sargasso Sea, far out in the Atlantic, to spawn. Their offspring, called elvers or glass eels, make the long return trip to fresh water.
Eels are very hardy and easy to keep, even without a live well. Some anglers store them in a minnow-keeper or 5-gallon bucket and change the water every hour or so. Others keep them in a bucket or cooler on a saltwater-soaked towel over ice. That helps anglers deal with live eels, which are very slimy and difficult to handle when baiting the hook. Chilling them lowers their metabolism so they require less oxygen to survive. This also slows them down, making them much easier to grab and hold.
It's important to keep the eels out of the water once the ice melts or they'll use up the small amount of oxygen in the water and die. Either allow eels to swim in a lot of water and change it often, or keep them out of water, chilled and moist.
The best way to grasp and rig a slippery eel is to lock it under your middle finger and over the two fingers on either side. The size of the eel dictates the size hook to use. Insert a 4/0 to 6/0 Mustad #94150 live-bait hook through the eel's mouth, entering at the bottom and exiting out the top. When targeting marlin and tuna, use 80- to 130-pound extra-thin leader material like Jinkai. Live eels can be slow-trolled if a long drop-back is allowed, but they are more commonly used as pitch baits for marlin raised in the spread.
Perhaps the best-guarded live-bait secret in the Northeast is substituting live eels for dead butterfish when chunking for tuna. Capt. Bill May of the Seaducer out of Avalon, New Jersey, frequently earns the honor of "high hook" in tuna chunking fleets off New Jersey. Quite often, it's live eels that give him the edge.
Best of all, live eels are substantially easier to fish than dead butterfish. With dead bait of any kind, the line must be constantly paid out and retrieved to make the bait descend naturally along with the chunks. Since live baits are as natural as you can get, simply space them out at various depths and relax. The chunk line lures the tuna close while the eels do the "Here I am" wiggle.
Chunking weights (also known as bomb slides), manufactured by Andres Lures of Millville, New Jersey, are ideal for getting eels down to desired depths and protecting the leader from chafing after hookup. They consist of an egg sinker attached to a 10-inch section of pliable plastic tubing. A loop in the leader, held together with a rubber band, suspends the chunking weight high above the hook until a fish takes the bait. Then the tension of the bite straightens out the leader, allowing the chunking weight to drop the tube into the fish's mouth. Because the tube protects the leader from chafing on the fish's jaw during the fight, you can use a lighter, less-visible monofilament leader to fool the fish.

Squid are by far the most important food of North Atlantic game fish, but are more difficult for anglers to catch and keep alive than eels. Their metabolism slows rapidly when held in captivity, and they're not active enough to be slow-trolled or used as a drop-back bait. However, as chunking baits for catching tuna at night, squid absolutely are second to none and can be caught throughout the night as needed.
One word of advice: Watch the direction the squid are pointed when bringing them aboard or someone could get a face full of ink. Those you're planning on holding should be placed into a bucket full of water to release ink, then immediately moved to a live well. When preparing to hook a squid, lay it on a covering board or on deck.
A classic chunking rig with a 7/0 or 8/0 Mustad #9174 hook and 6 feet of 80- to 150-pound leader works just fine. Hook the squid just below the pointed end and set the lines out at various depths as described above for eels. Most captains attach a large Cyalume stick to at least one live squid rig to attract swordfish, but there's no telling what will hit these delectable treats. In addition to tuna and swordfish, we've caught dolphin, sharks and even marlin in the black of night. Schoenberg summed up their effectiveness: "They work so well, you usually don't have to remove them from the hook" at the end of the night because the fish do it for you!"

Chub Mackerel
Commonly called tinker mackerel, chub mackerel (Scomber colias) also rise to the lights of boats chunking the canyons at night and can be caught on standard mackerel jigs worked 15 to 30 feet from the surface. Use the bait immediately or gingerly release it into a good circulating live well. To rig the mackerel, insert a live-bait hook just forward of the dorsal fin and return the bait to the water - quickly, since mackerel's high metabolic rate makes them fragile. Like squid, mackerel make an excellent alternative to dead butterfish baits when set out at various depths using the same chunking rigs.
When the sun comes up, live chub mackerel can be rigged with a bridle or plastic-coated wire tie through the top of the eye sockets and slow-trolled with one engine in gear. They also make excellent kite and drop-back baits.

In early September each year, finger mullet come into Northeast back bays and can be seen flipping on the surface near boat docks. Unlike the big "corn cob" mullet used for tarpon fishing in Florida, these fish are easy to catch with a small, light-weight cast net and will survive a long time in a simple live well. Hummell has taken live mullet to the canyon on overnight trips, caught dolphin with some and released the balance upon returning, still alive and frisky,.
While these baits are too small for slow trolling, they're excellent for special situations such as exciting a school of finicky dolphin. Rig a casting rod with a live-bait hook and hook the mullet by sliding the hook point into the bait's mouth, then up and out through the top of the nose.

For sharks and giant tuna, live bluefish make excellent bait. Capt. Bob Pisano, a top giant-tuna fisherman with over 1,000 to his credit, has used bluefish up to 15 pounds to bait 1,000-pounders in Cape Cod Bay. "We have seen bluefish and false albacore up to 18 pounds in the stomachs of fish no more than 700 pounds," Pisano says.
While 15- to 18-pound baits are a bit large even by Pisano's standards, juvenile bluefish up to 5 pounds are ideally sized for baiting average bluefin and sharks. Small bluefish usually respond to small Bomber or Rapala lures trolled in and around bays, and are hardy enough to survive the trip offshore in a decent live well. Capt. Walt Rosenberg, who used live bluefish to win the South Jersey Shark Tournament two years in a row, uses tin snips to shorten the bluefish's tail, which hampers its ability to evade sharks.

Red Hake ("Ling")
Pisano's favorite live bait for giant tuna fishing is the red hake - known regionally as "ling." To catch this small member of the cod family, Pisano usually anchors over a drop-off and works the bottom using a light outfit baited with squid tentacles. When a ling reaches the surface, Pisano pops the ballooned, inverted stomach protruding from the mouth and squeezes the air out. At this point, the ling may be rigged immediately to an 8/0 hook using a bridle through the eye socket, or moved to a live well for later use.