Three and a half years ago I got a call from my Cape Cod tuna fishing buddy Jason Mazzola that I won’t soon forget. It went something like this.
Mazzola: ”Hey I was just down at the beach and saw tuna busting about 500 yards from shore.”
I think most people would have the same reaction. Cape Cod bluefin tuna are most often caught miles from shore. These insane fish are capable of swimming across the Atlantic Ocean, and back in just a few months. How in the world could they be pushing bait within swimming distance from shore?
To be honest, I thought for a moment that my friend might be losing his marbles. Could he really be seeing tuna?
The fact of the matter is that many close to shore tuna sightings are actually ocean sunfish, or mola-molas if you want to be scientific. Ocean sunfish are enormous, awkward looking fish, capable of launching themselves straight clear of the water. This creates quite the splash, which people interpret as tuna.
Yet Mazzola knows the difference between a tuna and a sunfish. And after a similar call the next day, I hopped in my car and drove back home to the Cape. I was living in Brighton at the time, but tuna this close to shore needed to be seen in the flesh.
The hour long drive passed quickly and before I knew it I was sitting in the Sagamore Beach parking lot, overlooking Cape Cod Bay. The sky was cloudy and the breeze was cranking around 30 knots. I looked down to the East towards the Cape Cod Canal and if on cue, a chunky 150 pound class bluefin tuna propelled itself 6 feet clear of the water. The fish hung in the air for a moment before slicing its way back into the Bay.
The fish was not alone either. Roughly 500 yards from shore, no more than a half mile down the beach, tuna were taking turns launching themselves into the air. Some of the fish jumped so high that I almost lost sight of them in the overcast and misty conditions.
“They must be feeding on half beaks” I remember thinking to myself. We had seen tuna behave like this when feeding on half beaks before.
I was in awe, and Mazzola was spot on.
For three days the tuna fed less than one half of a mile from the beach. Afternoon seemed to be the best time to look for them, with early morning a close second.
I will be the first to admit that a scene like this is not common on Cape Cod. However if you spend enough time at a local bait shop, you will begin hearing stories. Each fall at least a few tuna venture into the Canal, while other fish have in the past cornered menhaden within Plymouth Bay.
Your chances at hooking a tuna this season will probably improve if you venture to slightly more offshore locations, than the East End of the Cape Cod Canal. Yet don’t think you have to travel all the way to George’s to hook a fish. Some of the best tuna fishing grounds are basically in our backyard.
The Cape Cod tuna fishing season gets into swing in June. Each June is completely different, so who knows what’s in store for this season. I’ll cover my bases by saying it could be great, mediocre or not so great. Tuna can be pretty unpredictable, but odds are that there will be at least some fish relatively close to shore roughly 2.5 months from now.
Early in the season, we have primarily focused our efforts on the SE corner of Stellwagen Bankand around Provincetown. There is usually a lot of life in this area, especially during June. Large sand eels, sea herring and mackerel are often present. Often times you’ll find large schools of striped bass feeding in the same spots your are fishing for tuna.
This is especially true around the arm of Cape Cod, in particularly east of Chatham. I always hear stories of folks hooking striped bass on one cast, and a tuna on the next, in this general area. Supposedly it’s not uncommon to find bluefins in 40-70 feet of water off Chatham, however I have never seen it with my own eyes. Maybe this will be the year that changes.
Another animal you will likely run into are whales. Humpback whales and pilot whales in particular are regularly seen around Stellwagen and Provincetown.
I would recommend trying to keep your distance from the whales if possible. For the small boat angler, whales can pose a significant threat. I can only imagine the damage a breaching whale could cause to a 21 foot boat. Hopefully I will never find out first hand. Nevertheless if you spend enough time in this area, a whale will creep up on you. Keep your eyes peeled and you will be OK.
Gannets and other sea birds are abound and can help you find a patch of water with life. If you have radar, you can use it to zone in on the flocks. Another option is binoculars. Whatever you do, make sure to bring polarized sunglasses. On flat calm sunny days a good pair of sunglasses is a real life-saver.
June is a great time to target bluefins from a small boat because the seas are generally calm and there’s a lot of life around. Yet I think September through early November will provide you with the best opportunity of finding close to shore tunas. It seems like the fish become more adventurous as the season comes to a close.
Small and giant tuna roam deep inside Cape Cod Bay starting in mid September. The entire stretch of water from Ellisville in Plymouth, to Billingsgate Shoal off Wellfleet can hold fish. One of the largest tunas I have ever seen breached off our bow while we were fishing in 75 feet of water during late October off Barnstable. There are also many stories of guys in this area hooking (and sometimes landing) small bluefin tuna while trolling bunker spoons for bass.
A few years ago when the half beaks were in thick off Plymouth, the action 5-10 miles outside Plymouth Harbor was impressive. You could see tuna on the horizon propelling themselves into the air chasing the half beaks. We quickly learned that running and gunning after these fish can put a pounding on the crew and the boat. I had a throttle cable snap on me during one trip here, which left us dead in the water – and just out of reach of a school of busting bluefins.
Tuna fishing Cape Cod from a sportfisher is much different than targeting tuna in a 20 something foot walk around or center console. If you are like me, you also don’t have thousands of dollars to dump on equipment. Our best and most economical success came by targeting smaller tunas on spinning gear.
Hands down there is nothing cooler than watching a bluefin explode on a popper. It’s like top water striped bass fishing multiplied by one thousand. The only issue is that tuna routinely travel at 30 miles per hour, with bursts of speed much higher. Getting within casting range of the fish is oftentimes downright maddening.
Another option is to troll Slug-Go’s, Hogys and other soft plastic baits. We have had good success setting soft plastics 50-75 yards behind the boat and trolling between 5 and 6 mph. Try to keep the soft plastics skipping nicely on the surface. If you log in enough hours a tuna will eventually come roaring to the surface, suck down the soft plastic and begin ripping line from your spinning reel.
We’ve used the Fin-Nor Offshore 9500 series spinning reel and Penn 950s on tuna between 50 and 160 pounds. At least 50 pound braided line is a must. Fluorocarbon leaders help as well. Be sure that the rod you choose has a good amount of backbone, or you’ll end up fighting a tuna for 5 hours, which has happened to me.
I think the main key to success in the tuna game is to continue fishing well after you feel like you want to quit. Unless you really luck out, you are going to have to spend a lot of time on the water before you hook (or even see) a tuna fish. This is especially true if you are going to be focusing your efforts on close to shore areas. Nevertheless if you put your time in, you will be rewarded…eventually.
The tuna above was the first tuna my family landed since my Uncle Gip caught an 878 pound monster during the 70′s. I know I will never forget the first bluefin I ever caught. Neither will my Dad, Mazzola or his Dad (all pictured above). I am very glad all four of us were on the boat that day. It’s given us something to talk and reminisce about over the years.
If you are yet to catch a tuna, then I urge you to consider giving it a solid and safe effort. The tuna’s power is unmatched by any other fish present off Cape Cod. It is exactly like hooking up to a small pickup truck.
How was your first experience catching a tuna? I’d love to hear about it in a comment below.
Tight lines and take care,
For more information, articles and reports on fishing Cape Cod venture over to myfishingcapecod.com