The waters off cape cod are a historic destination to target Giant Bluefin tuna. The area is home to a large commercial fishing fleet, with the storied harpoon fishery, and hollywood’s Wicked Tuna. Since the late 1940s, Massachusetts has been one of the top states for commercial landings. Local captains are innovating new techniques using leading technology to challenging the capabilities of light tackle spinning gear. Cape Cod continue to be a premiere destination for giant bluefin attracting anglers from around the globe.
As the apex predator in the Atlantic, Bluefin Tuna have been known to reach ten feet in length and can grow to 1,400 pounds. Tuna are the ultimate big game sportfishing challenge. Built like streamlined submarines, they can swim up to 40 miles per hour. Though a process called thermoregulation bluefin regulate their body temperature higher than the surrounding water temperature. This allows bluefin to forage farther into the north atlantic's bait rich waters contributing to both their size and annual migration.
Bluefin Tuna arrive in Cape Cod waters early in June after a long migration from their winter breeding grounds. The tuna are attracted to this are for one reason to feed! The giants will arrive feeding on sandeels, mackeral, and herring before continuing their migration north to Nova Scotia and Canada. Juvenile fish will enter the near shore waters through eddies that break off from the Gulf stream. Each eddy will bring warm blue water from gulf stream inshore within reach of Marthas Vineyard and Nantucket. The fish will make a return visit in the fall on their migration to the gulf of Mexico. Typically September will explode as multi size fish classes are feeding to fatten up for their journey to spawn. Fishing remains good through November and not uncommon into December.
Bait is the main attraction drawing in the pelagics with structure holding the bait in the area. The nutrient rich waters off the cape along with structures such as Stellwagen Bank create upwellings. These nutrient rich waters in turn attract large schools of forage species which attracts an abundance of life. The fish use the area as a migration pit stop before continuing on their migration to the breeding grounds.
Just six miles north of the Provincetown lies an underwater plateau called Stellwagen Bank. Primarily a sandy feature similar to its cousin the outer cape to the south, the bank stretches northwest for 19 miles. Stellwagen Bank owes its existence to the last major ice age. 25,000 years ago, the Laurentide ice sheet advanced over the eastern United States, pushing in front of it large amounts of earth and rocks. The southern margin of the glaciers formed local geographical features including Cape Cod and Stellwagen Bank
Average depth on top of the bank is 100 feet. Steeping dropping off to 200 ft on the western edge and gradually to over 300 ft out in the deep water to the east. The steep sides of the plateau cause deep-water currents to rise up when they hit the bank; this upwelling brings with it nutrients and minerals from the bottom, feeding the local ecosystem. Concentrations of plankton from upwellings attracts baitfish species such as herring, mackerel, and sandeels, and in turn attract bluefin tuna, sharks, and whales.
The famed Southwest Corner is one of the heaviest targeted areas. The corner contains a steep edge that drops off 100 ft into cape cod bay. The Southwest Corner is easily accessible from all bay side harbors and launch spots making it a popular spot for both commercial and recreational anglers. When the bite is on the area can look like a floating parking lot.
Tuna fishermen use multiple strategies to target fish on Stellwagen. Jigging and popping, trolling spreader bars, and especially popular for live bait, often under kites. Whether you are trolling squid bars or anchored up with live baits, use your chartplotter to narrow down productive areas that concentrate bait and tuna.
East of Chatham / Great South Channel
South of Stellwagen bank to the east of the outer arm of cape cod is another congregation area for bait and popular location to target bluefin. Crab Ledge is an large area off Chatham, and the Regal Sword is a wreck and congregation aread 30 miles east-southeast of Chatham.. This area is a migration point off the gulf stream to the south through the great south channel as fish funnel into the Gulf of Maine to forage on baitfish. This area typically contains cooler water tempaturature which the baitfish favor and will hold fish for long periods of time.
South of the Vineyard/ Shipping Lanes/The Dump
Juvenile bluefin will ride warm water eddies breaking off the gulf stream and onto the continental shelf south of New England to the inshore spots such as the dump, the fingers, the claw, gordon’s gulley. This area contains water temperature significantly warmer then Chatham and Stellwagen and will have a mix of more exotic species like white marlin, Mako’s, Mahi Mahi and the occasional Wahoo. As giants prefer cooler temperatures the bluefin mix is predominatly small to medium sized juveniles thus attracting a recreational crowd.
Styles and Tackle
Shell squid spreader bars are a go-to lure for anglers trolling, with a spread of four to six bars common. Bars should be pulled from high in the rigger at a speed of 3 to 5 knots. The last bait on the middle line of the bar, the "stinger," should be a different color than the rest of the rig. Top producing colors include black, pink, green, and rainbow. For smaller boats lacking outriggers, splash bars (bars with inline bird) are highly productive and keep the bars on the surface allowing boats without outriggers to drop the line further away from the boat. Highliners will troll boston mackeral, and ballyhoo later in the season when halfbeaks are present.
Live-baiting for bluefin varies slightly depending on the area you are targeting. The boats fishing north of Cape Cod on Stellwagen tend to anchor. These boats will fish baits from balloons, kites, or a combination of the two. Mackerel and menhaden are popular options for early-season fish, whiting later int the season. Live bait fishing east of Cape Cod tend to drift while using balloons or kites.
Recent innovations in rod blank technology and improvement in drag technology from the spinning real manufacturers has catapulted jigging and popping as viable style for targeting medium to large size fish off the cape. Boats armed with beefed-up spinning and conventional outfits chase surface feeding tuna with poppers and stick baits, or target fishing feeding on sand eels holding deeper in the water column by using jigs such as Point Jude Deep Force, or RonZ's. Custom tackle makers making beefed up stickbaits such as Siren Lures and Strategic Angler are making tackle that can hold up to this fishery with ruged through wires contstruction and the baits are highly effective at fooling these elusive fish. This style of hunting bluefin rather than blindly fishing for them is a great way to avoid the boredom that often accompanies other methods.
What makes this fishery so popular is its accessibility to both commercial and recreational anglers alike. Most of the fishing is done within site of land, with the most popular targeted spots within site of land. A large number of boat launch locations make the average run less then 25 nautical from New England ports. This allows for a large recreational, healthy charter fleet, mixed in with the commercial boats filming for wicked tuna.
Cape Cod Bay launch locations to target Stellwagen Bank, Peaked Hill, Golf Ball
Cape Cod launch locations to target east of Chatham, Crab Ledge, Regal Sword
Over the past few years the biomass of mackeral and herring have remained in the eastern portions of Stellwagen and outer cape keeping the tuna in the area steady between June through November. Wether you are a commerical boat trying to earn income, recreational captain looking to tackle one of the apex predators, or just a big game fisherman looking to take down one of the badest fish in the sea, Cape Cod continues to be a premiere destination and warrants serious attention as a world class fishery.