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In all of fishing, there’s perhaps no better feeling than running up to a great offshore breakline. We’ve all experienced it. Whether it’s a weed line formed over a dramatic temperature break, a well-defined rip or a sharply contrasting color change, discovering spots where water conditions clash gets the blood flowing like nothing else. You just know fish are going to be around.
But while finding these spots might be the product of luck, more often, it’s the result of intense planning — establishing a sound game plan and sticking to it, while remaining nimble enough on the water to read and react to conditions on the fly.
Fishing the breaks begins well before you ever leave the dock and, like good detectives, the best anglers and captains already have amassed a great deal of knowledge, leads, and clues as to where their quarry might be found.
Having spent some 40 years guiding clients to the famed canyons off New England, Capt. John Raguso has earned his detective stripes. He says a lengthy trip to the edge of the continental shelf (which sometimes requires upwards of an 80-mile run) usually begins a week in advance, as he analyzes a number of key factors that determine where the fish might be.
In addition to carefully watching the ever-important weather, Raguso keeps equally close tabs on the forecast below the water’s surface, monitoring charts from Terrafin and Roffer’s Ocean Forecasting Service, which pull their information daily from satellite shots snapped by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.
More on the specifics of what Raguso’s looking for in just a moment. His first order of business, however, is determining directional water flow.
This is important to establish right off the bat because it often dictates how far he has to run. Lengthy continental-shelf trips aren’t always necessary in Raguso’s waters, as fabulous action sometimes occurs much closer to home, around the 20-fathom line, potentially saving hundreds of dollars in fuel cost. It all depends on two things: water temperatures and chlorophyll levels.
Temps and Chlorophyll
Most anglers are familiar with sea‑surface temperature (SST) charts. They help pinpoint some of the most productive breaklines to be found in oceans across the world.
Here’s how it works: When dramatic water-temperature boundaries collide, they draw plankton, debris and bait into the area, literally sucking everything in, and often amassing great areas of floating debris. This, in turn, draws game fish. The more pronounced a temperature break — and the longer these boundaries have been abutting one another — the greater the chance that roaming pelagics have had time to locate the ensuing feeding opportunity.
So what exactly catches Raguso’s attention on the charts?
“When studying the edge of the continental shelf, I’m watching for spin-off eddies around the canyon edges,” he says. “Inshore, I’m watching for filaments that break off the spin-off eddies and meander inside.”
These “eddies” and “filaments” Raguso refers to are basically warm-water pockets, displayed much as Doppler radar displays weather, in yellows, oranges and reds on SST charts, indicating their intensity (or warmth).
SST charts are generally updated every 10 hours or so, and Raguso watches them like a hawk, trying to determine whether a pattern of movement is developing and whether the temperature breaks are intensifying. When he sees a pattern emerging — whether it’s far offshore or closer to the coast via meandering warm-water filaments — he takes it to the next level.
“That means I start looking at the chlorophyll charts to see where the cleanest water is,” he says. “I intersect and overlay the charts. You might have a nice, 3-degree temperature change, say 76-degree water surrounded by 73-degree water, but is that water blue or green? The chlorophyll overlays add the next level of detail and help you better pinpoint where the fish should be.”
Some guesswork is involved though.
While the temperature charts are updated a couple of times a day, the Terrafin chlorophyll charts are updated only every two days or so, Raguso says.
“So there’s a bit of a disconnect in terms of chronology,” he says. “You have to watch the charts closely to determine movement patterns. You have to try to predict about where they will move.”
And that is where networking can really pay off.
Raguso isn’t on the water every single day, and while he’s monitoring the ocean charts electronically, he’s also networking with fellow fishermen and captains who might have fished that particular day. He culls their information — be it the presence of birds or bait in any given spot, for example — and adds that data into the mix.
“It’s one more piece of the puzzle you use to put things together,” he says.
Finally, when the day comes to actually go fishing, Raguso generally has an excellent idea of where the fish should be. He’s timed his trip accordingly to the weather; he’s identified temperature breaks and where they overlay with good, blue water; and he’s networked with other fishermen. All in all, he’s in pretty good shape.
But still, he warns: “The fish don’t read our articles! These breaks are always a moving target, and sometimes things make sense to us but don’t make sense to the fish. Sometimes, they’re in the warm water; other times, they’re in the cold water. Same goes for the water color.”
And that’s why trolling around the breaks is such a winning formula.
“You cover more ground,” Raguso says. “You get a lot of blind strikes when trolling, and since you’re moving at 7 or 8 knots, you’re also getting to see more water under the boat with the sounder and if there’s bait or structure present. It’s a win-win.”
Raguso cautions, however, that when fishing the breaks, you’ve got to be prepared for anything. “We might start with trolling equipment, but I’ve also got bait for drift-fishing and casting gear. It’s all rigged and ready. It’s crucial to be prepared to employ any tactic at any time. You have to be flexible.”
And to that point, nothing beats good instincts on the water. That means literally relying on your senses as a final measure to pinpoint the fish around the breaks.
Raguso recalls a time he was running offshore into a head wind through an area with favorable temperature and chlorophyll levels. It was extremely foggy out and he couldn’t see a thing, but he immediately pulled the boat off-plane when he “suddenly smelled a distinct odor in the wind,” he says. “It smelled like watermelon. Thirty seconds later, a 100-pound tuna came flying out of the water. We’d stumbled upon a huge school of tuna gorging on halfbeaks at the surface, which we could distinctly smell in the wind. We put lines out and hooked up immediately.”
From electronic charts to your sniffer, when you put all the pieces of the puzzle together, the breaks can often produce the trip of a lifetime.
About the Expert
Capt. John N. Raguso has a 100-ton United States Coast Guard’s master’s license, and runs MarCeeJay Sport Fishing charters out of Elwood, New York. He specializes in offshore and canyon charters, and can be reached at [email protected].net.