Northeast Atlantic Canyon Fishing

An inside look at fishing offshore canyons in the northeast.

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Atlantic Canyon Runners

Subsea canyons formed off the northeastern United States when sea levels were hundreds of feet lower than today, and great rivers carved vertical walls deep into what’s now continental shelf. Hudson Canyon, the largest northeastern canyon, is more than 60 miles long and 7 miles wide with vertical walls extending 3,600 feet from its rim to the bottom — a bit more than half the depth and roughly a quarter the size of the Grand Canyon. The sort of fishing and adventure that awaits out here just can't be equaled near the coast, yet the canyons are surprisingly accessible. About a fifth of the U.S. population lives within a few-hour drive of a port offering canyon charter trips. Boats cruising 25 knots cover the 50- to 150-mile ride out with time for a day of trolling, a night of chunking, and another half-day trolling before heading home. Tuna such as this bigeye arrive at the canyons in June; head out later in the year for chances at mahi, marlin and yellowfin. (Note: This gallery is adapted from a full-length feature article in the March 2015 issue of Sport Fishing.)Mark B. Hatter
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Plenty of Action

For an inside look at this unique offshore fishery, I interviewed six pro captains operating from Maryland north through New Jersey and east to Long Island and Cape Cod. “You have no idea what you’re going to get into,” says Ricky Wheeler, a freelance captain out of Pleasantville, New Jersey. “You might hook a 1,000‑pound blue marlin, get double-digit shots at white marlin, or get covered up with dolphin and wahoo while fishing near floating debris. You’ll catch bigeye and yellowfin tuna trolling during the day. At night, you’ll get shots at ­swordfish and mako, along with more tuna.” Mako sharks often show when daytime trolling or nighttime chunking. They typically don't bite plastic lures, so keep a bait ready.Capt. Jack Sprengel
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Seasonal Variation

"June and July are best for yellowfin and bigeye tuna," says John Oughton, based in Ocean City, Maryland, and the southernmost skipper of those contributing to this feature. White marlin average one shot per day early in the summer aboard his 50‑foot Evans charter boat, That's Right. Expect a tuna pattern of first bluefin followed by albacore and yellowfin tuna, and finally bigeye tuna, along 500 fishable miles of canyons from Virginia northeast to Canadian waters. Marlin and mahimahi arrive with the yellowfin and peak in September. Click on the map to get a closer look at some of the numerous canyons that shadow the northeastern coastline.Illustration by Brenda Weaver
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White Marlin in Big Numbers

Seasonal variations affect not just what's biting, but also how skippers fish. "Trolling for yellowfin is best from June 15 to July 10," says Joe Trainor, whose 55‑foot Gwaltney, Low Profile, is based in Avalon, New Jersey. As the water warms, yellowfin respond better to chunking at night and run-and-gun daytime chunking. "White marlin come in big numbers — sometimes 20 fish a day — for three weeks beginning in late August," says Trainor. There are geographic variations too. "In May we're trolling during the day for bluefin and watching for mako," says Paul Visentin, who runs charters on his 38‑foot Northern Bay Provider out of Shinnecock, Long Island. "At night we put down a swordfish bait and shark-fish." June brings more albacore and yellowfin; bigeye tuna show in July. "Around the middle of August, the tuna switch from a better trolling bite to a better chunking bite," Visentin says. Pictured, ditch the skirts in the late summer for white marlin in favor of trolling naked, ­chin-weighted ­ballyhoo.Jason Arnold / jasonarnoldphoto.com
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Scouting for Yellowfins

"[Where the fish are] all depends on the water," says Dr. Mitchell Roffer, whose Roffer's Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service has predicted worldwide current variations for fishermen for 26 years. Mahimahi, tuna and billfish migrate north with the blue water of the Gulf Stream — which is typically well offshore of the canyons — looking for congregations of bait. As the Gulf Stream meanders, a large bend sometimes pinches closed and spins away from the main current as an eddy — a clockwise-rotating circle of warm blue water closer to the coast. “The way the water flows, yellowfin and bigeyes can get penned up in the northeast corner of a canyon,” Oughton says. “You’ll get 40 boats fishing a half-mile area.” June and July see fewer boats, as do weekdays. Offshore hurricanes from August though October can dramatically alter fishing, and while tuna are on the entire range of canyons into December, autumn weather cancels trips often. Charter boats are limited to three yellowfin (pictured) per person and from one to three bluefin per boat, depending on size and ever-changing quotas.Ric Burnley
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Tackle

Anglers have to adapt as well, knowing, for example, when to drop back a ballyhoo to a white marlin, let a blue eat hard plastic, or pitch a ballyhoo or Moldcraft lure to a fish on the teaser. Capt. John Galvin's favorite canyon marlin lures — top to bottom ­— include Mold Craft Wide Range, Legend Lures Andromeda 60, Marlin Magic Baby Ruckus, Beamish Custom Tackle Lydonia Lady and Joe Yee Apollo Evil.Capt. Vincent Daniello
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The Blues

Blue marlin might show in the spread anytime. “We catch about a half-dozen every season, but they’re big fish,” Oughton says, and they average 400 to 600 pounds. When a big blue shows, it pays to have big ­teasers and big lures in the spread. Have at least one 80W ready to go.Capt. Josh Temple
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Spreads

Fishing techniques vary greatly within just 24 hours of canyon fishing. The morning might start with a traditional northeast trolling spread with Green Machine spreader bars (pictured), squid daisy chains, and ballyhoo behind skirts or Ilander lures, totaling anywhere from eight to 14 trolling rods. "We do whatever works best," says Brett Wilson, who runs his 42‑foot Duffy, Hindsight, from Orleans, Massachusetts. For him that's often a greenstick — a 50‑foot fiberglass mast that acts as a vertical outrigger that produces spectacular bites from yellowfin and bigeye tuna. "At night we put a strobe light on the bird, and glow sticks on the main line," Wilson says, sometimes achieving extraordinary results.Capt. Vincent Daniello
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Chunking and Drifting

Most boats drift overnight with four to six rods — one far out and on top for mako, another rod or two deep off the transom for swordfish, and the rest weighted and held at varying depths with balloons for tuna. A handful of butterfish chunks are thrown leeward every few minutes (pictured), and live squid — caught in the lights off the transom — are the preferred bait. “There is always something to do — catch bait, check tackle, drop a jig,” Visentin says. With any kind of sea, he puts a jig out 100 feet and hooks the line to an outrigger clip with half a dozen rubber bands chained together. “We’ve caught fish all night long like that, with the outrigger jigging the line.” Trainor's Low Profile is — unlike most canyon boats — set up to anchor in very deep water. Anchoring can be more comfortable than drifting. "When I'm anchored, I can get away with a lot less weight, 32 or 38 ounces," he says, versus sometimes 60 ounces from a drifting boat. “I also have a chum bag out. If a mako misses the long bait, it will swim right up to that bag,” Trainor says, so a pitch bait is always ready. For daytime chunking, Trainor looks for pods of whales close together and very active, indicating they’re balling bait. “I might find 30 whales, put the lines in and get three yellowfin right away, and then go somewhere else to find more whales and catch three more.”Capt. Vincent Daniello
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Lofty Expectations

On nearly every trip, Mother Nature provides something spectacular. On one trip, Trainor trolled past a large chunk of debris and had 12 rods go down at once. “We fished it for six hours,” he says, catching two white marlin, six wahoo, three big mahimahi (pictured), yellowfin, ­albacore and scores of school mahi. Oughton watched a quarter-ton swordfish and quarter-ton mako duke it out on the surface for 20 minutes. “I think the mako won, but it paid dearly,” he says. “The swordfish got in a few good slashes and got its bill into the mako at least once.” And the show doesn’t stop after dark, when Oughton and his anglers see tiny mahi, squid, sea turtles, porpoises, and rays. “It’s like Sea World in the lights behind the boat,” Wheeler says. Want to see it for yourself? Block off the ­necessary days and head offshore — way, way offshore — to the productive canyons of the Northeast coast.Capt. Jack Sprengel