How to Catch a Bluefin Tuna for Your Christmas

It’s a sight-fishing game once you hit the water. Only a few captains know how to do that right.” Birds are always helpful when hunting down these ghosts. Then you’ve got to get them to eat. For better or worse, it’s all adrenaline-laced, run-and-gun casting with spin gear.” It helps to have the right plugs. In fact, most of the time they will only eat stickbaits. “You’ve got to be ready to jump on it when you get the weather.” Of course, every once in a while it all comes together—a good weather window, lots of fish pods feeding aggressively under birds. Yet even then, it can take several dozen shots or more into feeding fish before you get one to eat. Technological advances in spinning gear that allow anglers to put significant pressure on incredibly strong, fast fish well north of the 100-pound mark helps greatly. Although no one has quite figured out why the ghosts of December will aggressively crash baits one day and then seem uncatchable the next, pulling your topwater plug through a pod of big feeding fish and having a bluefin explode on it makes an impression. Pulling the boat for the season can wait just a little bit longer.
christmas bluefin fishing
A crew of “ghostbusters” lands a late-season bluefin off the New Jersey coast.

Way under-gunned, we chased them around for two hours before one exploded on a topwater bait. It took that long again to land it—and that was one of the smaller fish. We were ecstatic.

That was well over a decade ago. What was something of a surprise to us has since evolved into a fairly consistent near-shore December fishery, at least for a handful of hearty adrenaline junkies fishing the New York Bight.

Yet, it’s anything but easy.

Phantom Fish

Locals call these bluefins “ghosts,” because no one knows precisely when or where they will appear, or how long they will stay. These are presumably migratory fish that are making a push south from Maine and Massachusetts, where they spend their summers—and feeding heavily on 6- to 9-inch sand eels, herring, and mackerel along the way.

“They always come past here,” says New Jersey captain Gene Quigley. “Whether or not they stay and we get shots at them depends on what sort of bait concentrations we have here.”

Best guesses are that they will show from late November into January, in 70 to 100 feet of water, anywhere from Fire Island, N.Y., to Point Pleasant, N.J. Where specifically, though, is impossible to pinpoint. The first indication of their arrival is typically a report or two of late-season striped bass fishermen getting inexplicably spooled by a mystery fish. While anglers try to keep information of the late migrators to themselves, the news inevitably leaks out via word of mouth, internet message boards, Facebook posts, and VHF radio. Monitoring these sources and having a flexible schedule to take advantage of weather conditions is critical. It’s a sight-fishing game once you hit the water. Let diving birds, frenzied schools of baitfish, and busting tuna be your guide.

The behavior of these tuna is somewhat ghost-like, too, with fleeting unapproachable, inconsistent sightings, a few popping here and a few popping there. They are often very boat-shy and sound when you get close.

“Getting shots can be difficult,” says Quigley “You’ve got to really refine your approach and come in upwind, up-feed. Only a few captains know how to do that right.”

Birds are always helpful when hunting down these ghosts. Bluefins will push sand eels, half-beaks, or whatever bait they are chasing to the surface, and gannets, seagulls, or terns will…

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