Northeast Offshore Grab-Bag
Just my luck! The sea-temperature satellite chart showed a break in the cloud cover and a sweet, little 76-degree warm-core filament that had meandered into the 20-fathom area southeast of Fire Island, New York. History had proved time and again that 74- to 76-degree water over a major migratory highway in the middle of August always means good things in New York Bight waters; the farther east, the better.
Those conditions create close encounters with eclectic (for this region) species such as hammerhead and tiger sharks, dolphinfish, wahoo and white marlin, which hitch a ride on Gulf Stream eddies. I was stoked. I started making calls to find a midweek charter. I could guarantee a good time for all — less than an hour’s run from the inlet!
Some of my best trips of the offshore season, specifically in August and September, actually occur that close to home. Almost every week, a passing named storm — spawned during the hurricane season — stirs up the Gulf Stream, spinning off filaments of clear-blue, nutrient-rich water. Those clockwise eddies gush toward nearshore shelves from the mouth of the Delaware River to Cape Cod.
Anglers throughout that region gear up to do battle with the transient visitors, which — in a good year — remain nearby for eight to 10 weeks. In some years, like 2010, the weather becomes too unpredictable to leverage this fantastic fishery. Last year, an incessant procession of storms conspired to keep the majority of crews tied up dockside.
The key word for this fishery is flexibility: You must be ready to go at a moment’s notice when the storms take a temporary hiatus and offshore conditions calm. Even though the typical trip means only a 15- to 25-mile run from most northeast inlets, that can seem like a distant canyon excursion if nasty weather gets between you and home.
From my port on the south shore of Long Island, I usually venture no more than 20 miles from Fire Island, Moriches and Shinnecock inlets during these months. I’m always amused by first-time charter clients who question my sanity as I set up a shark drift within sight of land. Then I observe the look of incredulity on their faces when the first 200-pound hammerhead does a drive-by in the chum slick.
When inshore water temperatures warm with definitive offshore temperature breaks (not homogeneous shelf water) clearly seen on satellite sea-surface charts or overlays (such as Terrafin, Hilton’s, SIRIUS, Offshore Satellite Services, ROFFS and others), it’s time to start making plans. Elvis will definitely be in the building! If you can find these hot zones of Gulf Stream water along offshore structure — such as fathom curves and shipwrecks — you increase the possibility of running into your target species by an exponential factor.
One of the most important tools for finding and staying in the promised land of warm-core eddies and hard temperature breaks is a dedicated sea-surface-temperature gauge. I’m not referring to the gauges included as a throw-in for your echo sounder’s options menu, which display tiny type in the upper-left-hand corner of your screen — those work fine as a backup. I’m talking about a dedicated, stand-alone gauge with large numbers that you can clearly see from 10 feet away in any light condition. I also prefer a nonnetworked gauge that continues to function if other systems fail.
Dytek used to make at least three different versions of sea-temperature gauges back in the 1990s, but that company fell victim to a corporate merger. Currently, Si-Tex makes the SST-110 ($289 without transducer/temperature probe), a dedicated, self-contained, waterproof, analog sea-surface temperature instrument with supersize digital numbers.
Airmar recently released the HT200 high-precision, digital sensor ($450). Its data can route to most NMEA 2000 networked displays, including dedicated instrument displays such as Furuno’s RD-33 or Simrad’s IS20.
The Usual Suspects
The nearshore August and September scene hosts shark species that include makos in the 30- to 150-pound range, hammerheads from 100 to 250 pounds, tiger sharks from small pups to some truck-size 600-pounders, the occasional blue shark that has lost its way, 100- to 250-pound threshers, plus brown (sandbar) sharks from 50 to 150 pounds. I wouldn’t be shocked to get a visit from a school-bus-size white shark on occasion, especially if whales or porpoises are swimming nearby.
Members of the tuna clan that frequent these same summer waters out to 25 fathoms include football-size skipjacks, Atlantic bonitos, false albacore and schoolie bluefins, which mix with porpoise pods. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, you could expect to see some yellowfins in this blend. And while that no longer reliably happens, last season, bluefins and yellowfins from 40 to 200 pounds schooled in 198 feet of water southeast of Fire Island Inlet from July 4 through the end of September.
The tuna foraged on massive quantities of large sand eels, which quickly became their staple diet. Anglers dropped jigs to the bottom and executed either a quick lift-and-drop or a slow yo-yo technique for prompt success.
Wolf packs of makos and brown sharks came to hunt the same area, feeding on both the sand eels and the unsuspecting tuna. Other pelagics, such as ravenous schools of dolphinfish, jacks and triggerfish (near structure such as buoys and flotsam), along with white marlin, blue marlin and wahoo, rounded out the list of summer’s piscine tourists.
Remain flexible regarding fishing methods. When I gear up for these trips, I plan for everything from trolling, drifting, casting, jigging and chunking to plugging. The rods and reels I take must all perform double and sometimes triple duty.
When I arrive in a pretargeted spot, I look for two things: temperature breaks with some clean Gulf Stream water in the 73- to 76-degree range, and some conspicuous sign of life such as slicks, birds, whales, porpoises or surface activity from baitfish or game fish. Be prepared to change plans if conditions appear unfavorable.
If I’ve placed shark drifting on the agenda, I troll early to catch football tuna or dolphinfish, either of which make prime forage for marauding sharks. If I spot any flotsam — such as boards, pallets, etc. — which attracts dolphinfish, I pull out the casting tackle. The first cast usually proves most productive. Place a bucktail or small metal jig within a few feet of the floating object. Any dolphin lurking nearby usually strikes right away.
Once the bite starts, throw handfuls of chunk baits such as butterfish or sardines to create a feeding frenzy. Follow up with a few hooked baits, and let the dolphin party begin.
When shark drifting, I run a four-rod spread, which includes a long, deep bait 50 yards out and 50 feet down (near the thermocline); another bait 30 yards out and 30 feet down; a third bait free-lined behind the chum pot and just out of sight; and a fourth bait below a heavy breakaway sinker positioned halfway between the thermocline and the bottom, directly under the boat.
If your game plan calls for covering ground on the troll, small lures such as jet heads, cedar jigs, Jap feathers, ballyhoo, squid daisy chains and spreader bars, Green Machines and others work well. My favorites include zucchini TC-200 Sevenstrand Tuna Clones (when squid are in the area) and Stalker Outfitters mini jets in purple/black, blue/black and green/yellow. Pattern your lures in the wake so they ride in clear water, and employ your flat line clips and outriggers judiciously. Run a mix of colors until you find one that works and then hammer that one home.
If you visit sea buoys that lie 10 to 25 miles off the beach, expect to see bar jacks, dolphinfish and blue runners. Hook the jacks on spinning rods and bait-casting gear for sheer fun.
Match the Hatch
For mixed-bag trips, I carry at least half a dozen different baits — sardines, butterfish, baby and large squid, ballyhoo, bluefish, bunker, mackerel — and always try to catch fresh local forage on station. Having all this ammo on board gives me enough variety to tempt even the most fickle game fish. Depending on your vessel’s quantity and capacity of livewells, bring live peanut bunker, snapper bluefish and killifish, a major plus when dolphinfish and tuna play hard to get.
Whenever my pelagic travels take me near navigation and offshore weather buoys, I always do a few drive-bys. Predators such as dolphinfish, jacks, makos, threshers and school tuna frequent these fast-food stopovers, as do baitfish such as bar jacks and blue runners.
Jigging sabiki rigs or tossing strips of squid or mackerel bellies on spinning tackle should score all the fresh bait you can handle from these locales, especially if the water temperature is above 72 degrees. Live-line a fresh bait and troll in a slow figure eight around or near the buoys, or drift it in a chunk or chum slick. Put a live bait down at the thermocline for a quick hookup from a hungry pelagic.
Tools of the Trade**
Most of the game fish you’re likely to encounter will weigh 250 pounds or less, including makos, threshers and bluefins. Sure, occasional exceptions occur such as the estimated 900-pound blue marlin that my good buddies Billy Martin and “Mako Mike” Townsend hooked, fought and lost over a nine-hour span. The big billfish took a trolled Green Machine within spitting distance of the Nantucket-to-Ambrose (NA) buoy, only about 13 miles southeast of Fire Island Inlet. Other exceptions might include large sharks such as hammerheads and tigers, which ride the Gulf Stream current north and follow the warm-core eddies inshore in their constant hunt for forage.
That being said, for this fishery, I prefer relatively lightweight Penn GLD-20 II and GLD-30 II two-speed graphite lever-drag reels spooled with 400 yards of PowerPro 80-pound Spectra braid connected to a 50- to 75-foot topshot of Quattro Plus 80-pound mono. I use custom rods I made years back from 6-foot, honey-colored Sabre 30- to 80-pound blanks.
While my graphite Penn two-speeds should be considered adequate for this fishery, I can get only 13 to 14 pounds of strike drag while maintaining free-spool. To resolve this issue, I picked up a pair of Penn 16 VSX reels last season, and they have proved to be top-shelf, micro powerhouse outfits, offering up to 24 pounds at strike.
The 16 VSX reels hold 475 yards of 80-pound PowerPro or Momoi Diamond Spectra braid with a 50-yard topshot of 80-pound Quattro Plus mono. I connect the topshot to the running line with my favorite knot — an Albright special with a lock — or with an offshore loop/cat’s paw knot typically used with store-bought topshots and wind-on leaders.
Off-the-shelf rods such as the Penn International V 30- to 80-pound stand-ups in 5½- or 6-foot lengths or Shimano Tallus stand-ups provide ample power. Billfisher and Tsunami also make good 6-foot, multifunction stand-up sticks.
Go down in tackle size if you intercept a school of football tunas or chicken dolphin on the troll, which is always a possibility in late summer. Options include Penn LD-225, 320-LD and 330-LD single-speed, lever-drag reels spooled with 20- or 30-pound Hi-Seas Quattro or Trilene Big Game Green mono.
With this gear, ample bait and flexible tactics, any angler can take advantage of the nearshore summer onslaught and save fuel while increasing fishing time. Just be sure to keep a weather eye out!
About the Author Capt. John N. Raguso is the marine products editor of The Fisherman Magazine and runs MarCeeJay Sport Fishing Charter Services (marceejay.com) out of Long Island, New York.