You might have thought that kind of scenery was all in the West, but if you like
Big-game fishing, go north my southern friends, go north!
We sailed at the crack of noon aboard the Moondancer, a 65 ft. Viking sportfisherman owned by friend, Lud Bohler. Our destination, the Hudson Canyon, a huge fissure at the edge of the Continental Shelf off the Jersey coast that rivals the famous canyons of the Colorado River, except the only way to actually see the Hudson Canyon is in a deep-water submersible.
The walls of the Hudson are bent and gnarly looking on a 3D bathymetric chart, but the flat images do not do the underwater crevasses and ridges any justice when you view actual underwater video. When ocean currents or a swirling warm-core eddy make their way into the area, they generate monumental upwellings of deep, nutrient-rich water that kick off a cycle of life starting with plankton blooms that quickly attract bait concentrations, and frenetic feeding by tuna, marlin, and even swordfish. Temperature breaks ranging from a couple of degrees to in-excess of 15 degrees can be encountered, and are frequently alive with porpoises and whales. The weed lines they amass can be filled with dolphin, the green and yellow kind, and even wahoo make an occasional appearance.
Our trip was a combo afternoon troll and night chunk affair that began as soon as the 35-knot sportfisher arrived at its pre-selected location, determined by checking the latest satellite temperature charts. In less than three hours, we were 90 off and on the troll watching carefully for bait concentrations that would put us on fish and dictate where we would stop for the night to chunk tuna. Finding activity didn’t take long as the left rigger popped. That fish was the first of a half-dozen yellowfin tuna in the 70-pound class we trolled before dark. All were fought to the boat, collared, and put on ice. Before our daylight trolling was over, a white marlin had shopped the spread but decided plastic was not its thing that day, and a blue marlin was hooked and lost after a short encounter that saw it throw the hook on a wild jump. As the sun began its descent into the sea to our west, replete with a spectacular show of colors in the fading light, it was time to cut bait.
Early evening provided little action chunking while using whole butterfish as hook baits, but just before midnight, squid started showing around the boat, drawn in by the chum and the spreader lights. We jigged and netted some to use as live bait, and as soon as we put them down they were gobbled up by hungry yellowfin. The bite was on! In short order, the cockpit was vibrating to the tune of the Tuna Tango, yellowfin bouncing on the deck which quickly grew slippery with blood. A hot chunk bite is tuna fishing at its grittiest with double and triple hook-ups, gaffs flying, and big fish coming over the gunwales where they are bled to assure the delicate meat will be sushi quality. It’s got to be experienced to be believed.
Down in the valleys…
The granddaddy of the northeast canyons is the Hudson, but it is only one of numerous features created by geologic forces and time into some of the best offshore fishing holes in the world. A short tour of those located off the New Jersey coast starts with the Hudson as the northernmost, then the Toms, Lindenkohl, and Spencer Canyon. These are small cracks at the edge of the Shelf by comparison, but are capable of providing incredible fishing action, nonetheless. At the southern end of the state are two more large canyons, the Wilmington and Baltimore, both as well known for their billfish action as the tuna they hold. Each canyon has its own personality, and all benefit from a combination of environmental factors that, when they occur, can produce outstanding fishing for quite a mix of pelagic species. Even when there is not direct interaction with the Gulf Stream or an eddy, the canyons still produce solid action; it’s just the fish are more spread out.
The canyon season can start in early May, if we are blessed with an early warm-core eddy to breathe life into the valleys, and it stretches well into the fall when weather becomes the inhibiting factor well before the pelagic wanderers depart for warmer climates. Last year, an eddy of 70 plus degree water broke off the Gulf Stream out east of the tip of Long Island, meandering down the 100-fathom curve moving in a southwesterly direction that is typical of these ocean features. It was packed with bait and tuna, and boats that caught a weather window and made the run to fish it as it moved into the Hudson Canyon area, scored big! The 2005 canyon tuna season seemed like it would never end, with crews watching offshore forecasts looking for a 24-hour window of calm enough seas to charge out there well into November for one last shot at the fish. The latest trip I’ve participated in was on January 1, 2000, when we left Manasquan Inlet, ran to the remnants of an eddy just north of the Wilmington, and returned flying the first tuna flags of the new millennium the following day.
During the season, the menu of spectacular gamefish that will pass through the canyons is pretty impressive. There are four species of large tuna—bluefin, yellowfin, longfin and my favorite, the brutal bigeye. If you’ve never hooked a bigeye in the 150 to 250-pound class, especially on stand-up gear, you have no idea how strong a single fish can really be! They are like a yellowfin tuna on steroids with a very nasty attitude problem. Bigeyes just don’t know when to quit.
If billfish are your thing, there are few places in the world that have a stronger seasonal influx of white marlin, and there can be pretty decent blue marlin fishing, too. To prove the point, the largest billfish tournament in the world, the White Marlin Open based out of Ocean City, Maryland, drew 449 boats and awarded a staggering $2.7 million in prize money in 2005, and two of the primary fishing areas participants head to are Wilmington and Baltimore Canyons. The Mid-Atlantic $500,000, based from Cape May, New Jersey, drew a field of close to 200 boats that competed for $1.7 million. The target species for both tournaments is white marlin, but both have categories and large purses for blue marlin, too.
To spice up a typical summer canyon season, there are also plenty of dolphin- from chickens to bulls- mako sharks, and an increasing number of swordfish caught each year. And, if you want a change of pace, you’ll be fishing the waters where the golden tilefish world record has been broken twice in the last three years with fish topping 55 pounds taken by deep-droppers.
The Canyon Express
You don’t have to own a big boat to fish the canyons. New Jersey has a large and distinguished charter fleet with vessels of all sizes and price ranges offering single day and overnight trips. There are larger charter vessels, some that run ‘open’ trips for mixed groups or that individual anglers can join as walk-aboards, and a number of large, fast, comfortable party boats that fish the canyons from late summer through fall.
The six packs will range far and wide to put their clients on fish, and their crews work very hard to make sure anglers are comfortable and kept in the game rather than on the sidelines waiting for someone to hand them a rod. Good crews recognize knowledgeable anglers and treat them accordingly providing them with more latitude in the cockpit than they would a bunch of novices who really don’t know what they have gotten themselves into, and who sneak away into the saloon after they exhaust themselves on their first fish.
With literally hundreds of for-hire boats of all types to choose from, your problem becomes figuring out where you want to stay on your trip. There are plenty of seaside resorts that fill that bill. You can combine the hot nightlife of Atlantic City, with its many casinos, with a couple days offshore, or you can opt for a more restful stay in historic Cape May, where whalers used to spot their quarry, not from the crow’s nests of sailing ships, but from towers built on shore to alert the oarsmen and harpooners who would row out to meet their quarry from surf launched skiffs. North Jersey ports like Atlantic Highlands, Shark River, and Manasquan Inlets field great boats and top-notch crews who practically live in the canyons during the season. Barnegat Light, Beach Haven, and Ocean City are other areas where charter-fishing boats abound. You can spend hours on the internet going through lists of boats, but one thing is certain; if you want to get out, it is best to make your plans well in advance because the best boats book up early. Even head boats require advanced reservations as the number of passengers they bring on these trips is strictly limited.
South Jersey Charter Resources:
Starting from the southernmost part of the state, check out the Cape May Party and Charter Boat Association (www.fishingnj.com/boats.htm). If you’d like to try something really interesting, like fishing the canyons from a super fast, triple outboard powered center console, call my friend, Capt. Tim Tanghare at Clean Sweep Charters (609-780-2772) for an adventure you won’t forget. You can also check out the charter fleet at South Jersey Marina (609-884-3800), home of the Mid-Atlantic $500,000, where you can even charter a boat to fish the tournament in August. Some other notable canyon boats include Cave Man Charters (888-422-7834), Magnum Charters (856-223-0618) and The Little Debbie (609-685-1499), but there are many more to choose from.
Mid-State Charter Resources:
In the Atlantic City and Long Beach Island areas of the state, six pack charter boats that specialize in canyon fishing have to be sought out, but there are plenty of good ones and a couple of party vessels that specialize in canyon fishing, too. A good resource is the Beach Haven Charter Boat Association (www.beachhavencharterfishing.com) where you can check out Hot Tuna, Pop’s Pride, and June Bug, all experienced and well-maintained offshore charter operations. In Atlantic City, the Predator (609-226-8500), is a tournament winner and impeccably maintained charter vessel.
Out of Banegat Light you can hop aboard the Miss Barnegat Light, a 90 ft. catamaran head boat that makes daily canyon trips in September and October (www.missbarnegatlight.com) or check out the 100 ft. Doris May IV (609-494-1692), also a Barnegat Light based party boat that is frequently canyon bound.
Up-State Charter Resources:
From Point Pleasant through Sandy Hook, the list of charter boats that specialize in canyon fishing is truly impressive and the number of private boats that fish offshore rivals any of the ports in Florida. Spend a day on the jetty rocks at Manasquan Inlet watching the million dollar plus sportfishers heading for the edge of the Shelf, and you’d be hard pressed not to be impressed. A great resource for locating charter and partyboats in this area is the Asbury Park Press website (www.app.com); click on Boating and Fishing and then on Charter Boats or Party Boats. Some of my favorite offshore boats from Manasquan Inlet include Canyon Runner Charters (www.canyonrunner.com) and the Bounty HunterJamaicaAllison Rae (www.allisonrae.com), the Tampa VII (www.tampavii.com), the Sea DevilGambler (www.gamblerfishing.net). (www.bountyhuntercharters.com). Both are first class operations with extremely knowledgeable captains. Brielle is the home of the 125 ft. (www.fishinnj.com), a 25-knot party boat with third generation captains that have been canyon fishing for decades, and if you have a large group charter or want to do a walk-on trip, check out the (www.seadevilfishing.com) or
Out of Shark River Inlet, one of the best six pack captains on the coast is Ralph Lehrer and his Last Lady (www.lastlady.com). The premiere head boat is the Miss Belmar Princess (732-681-0030), and you can book large group charters on the Ol’ Salty II (www.seadwellersnj.com/Fishing.html). There are other boats available and you can check them out at www.belmarbeachcam.com and then click on either the Charter or Party Boat banners.
The northernmost ports in Jersey are found inside the tip of Sandy Hook with Atlantic Highlands the major port. It is only an hour and fifteen-minute ride from Manhattan if you’re going to be in the Big Apple during the summer or fall, so a tuna trip is never out of the question. In fact, Shark River and Manasquan are an easy run from New York and North Jersey early in the morning, even on a weekend. Check out www.fishbox.tv/atlantichighlands for the head and large charter boats that sail from here. The Prowler 5 is a 75-footer that regularly makes the canyon run in September and October, but for summer fishing you have to go the six-pack route with a boat like the 38 ft. Henriques, HyperStriper (www.hyperstripercharters.com).
The choices of for-hire vessels are enormous, so do your homework. Pick a mode that fits your budget. Head boat and large-group charter boats can run as little at $250 per angler, six-pack charters start in the $2000 range for a trolling or chunk trip, and most offer custom trips and tournament availability, too. The New Jersey canyons beckon; will you answer their call this year?
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