The seas were running tall as darkness begrudgingly gave way to the first hint of morning hidden behind a wall of gray clouds. We’d been plodding along ahead of a freshening west wind since about 11 the night before, the following sea effectively masking the building swells as the 37-foot Scarborough made its way toward the tip of Hudson Canyon.
The boat slowed as night faded into day, and I found myself straining to see over the tops of 10-footers from my position low in the cockpit. The Carolina-built express rode like a cork from trough to wave top and down again, the water a deep blue, with the promise of tuna in the form of shearwaters whirling and diving around us.
It was the late 1980s, and I was fishing aboard the Linda B with owner Pete Barrett, who was my associate at The Fisherman magazine at the time. As was often the case, the offshore forecast proved to be little more than conjecture, and then it took a turn for the worse, with wind and seas building to more than double the forecast and certain to grow uglier as the morning progressed. But we had made the canyon and planned to stick it out as long as we could. Also on board was my friend, noted marine artist Steve Goione, who was looking for his first canyon tuna.
With a spread of dark-colored plastics, straight-runners and jets leaving smoke trails in their wake, it didn’t take long before an apparition charged from the depths and exploded on one of the flat lines close to the transom. The clicker on the International 50W howled as line disappeared at a ridiculous rate before Goione could wrestle the outfit from the rod holder. The line kept streaming aft as I wrapped a fighting belt around his waist; all he could do was hold on. With the other lines cleared, Barrett started backing down, but the fish wasn’t buying it.
“Bigeye,” the skipper yelled, realizing that this was no yellowfin.
We were into a good fish. For the first 45 minutes, Goione did his best to gain line while attempting to keep from falling on his ass on the pitching deck, a balancing act that was taking a toll on him. After an hour, he was seated in the Murray Brothers chair, not a good place for a stand-up rod. As the fight wore on, he strained to pump and gain line, only to see it vanish as the big tuna turned and sounded again. After 90 minutes, the fight was reminiscent of two punch-drunk boxers trading body blows long after their legs are gone. The veins in Goione’s neck stood out as his arms and back strained to pick up a few tough yards, which the fish took right back. I can still see the pained look on his sweaty face.
Anyone who has fought a bigeye of 200-plus pounds knows that you’ll gain and lose that last 100 feet of line a dozen times before the gaff finally puts an end to the misery of fish and angler. Bigeyes don’t have an ounce of surrender in them. They are bigger, stronger and have more stamina than yellowfin, and they will put a hurting on any angler who isn’t experienced with big-game tackle. Think of them as yellowfin with attitude, jacked up on steroids.
Goione suffered stoically through the endgame, refusing to give in as the fish slowly circled beneath the boat. But with each circuit, the short rod allowed the line to chafe imperceptibly against the corner of the hull. Just when we thought the outcome was inevitable — gaffs ready, the fish beaten — the tuna made a powerful lunge, and the 80-pound mono parted. We all slumped.
Not a yellowfin
Bigeye tuna look a lot like yellowfin, so much so that in smaller specimens it often takes examining the liver to make a positive bigeye identification. But rest assured, they are very different critters. Yellowfin are short-lived — the oldest might make seven years — but bigeye can live more than 16. Yellowfin are considered surface feeders, rarely venturing into the ocean’s “sound-scattering layer” below the thermocline we see on sonar. Bigeyes have no such limitation. Electronic archival tagging studies have tracked them to depths of more than 4,000 feet, where the ocean is colder, oxygen levels are lower, the pressure is extreme, and there is perpetual twilight.
These tuna can tolerate this environment for hours because of unique physiological adaptations. Their hemoglobin has a high oxygen affinity, and their circulatory system includes a vascular counter-current heat exchanger that captures the heat generated in muscle tissue to warm their blood. This amazing organ can maintain body temperature significantly above ambient water temperature for extended periods, but it disengages when the fish is near the surface to allow muscles to warm rapidly.
Their eyes are larger, hence the moniker “bigeye,” and have spherical lenses that function better in low-light conditions. And their internally heated blood promotes improved brain and nervous system function in cold water, particularly within the visual cortex, which is a huge advantage for a predator.
Bigeye are designed to live a vertical lifestyle, one that sees them migrate to the deep with daylight and return to the surface region as the sun sets. This closely matches the movements of squid and crustaceans — their preferred forage — which make their daytime home in the horizontal sound-scattering layer. And although this vertical migration is the norm, they can readjust their behavior around sea mounts or canyon walls and remain closer to the surface during daylight if adequate food is available. This reinforces the perceptions of experienced mid-Atlantic canyon fishermen that bigeye have a territorial preference for areas where structures and massive schools of squid predominate. They remain in these areas long after gyres and other temperature phenomena force other pelagics to leave.
You’ve probably read the purple prose about reels melting on large fish? That’s what happened in the early years of bigeye fishing. The aluminum or steel didn’t melt, of course, but the side plates on the old Senators, for instance, got so hot on the first runs that the solder sometimes would melt, the drags would fail, and the reel frames would twist. In those nascent years, skippers sometimes cut large bigeyes loose in order to get their clients into a yellowfin, which they had an easier time handling with the tackle of the day. If they didn’t, they risked being spooled or tying up hours on a single fish.
New Jersey charter captains Phil Dulanie and Mark DeBlasio — two of the most knowledgeable bigeye anglers in the world — are close friends who worked together over the last decade as co-captains of a series of Canyon Runner sportfishing boats out of Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey.
Dulanie, 67, of West Belmar, New Jersey, has been running the canyons since electronic navigation was in its infancy and weather forecasts were something of a shot in the dark. A lifelong angler, he started fishing as a kid on northern Jersey charter boats with his family in the 1950s. He was 9 when he and his dad fished inshore for tuna aboard a boat run by the legendary Otto Root. Dulanie came up the hawsepipe, working first as a mate and then earning his captain’s license. The canyons became his playground when he started running Joe Calone’s 40-foot Jersey, Producer, in the mid-1970s. He often made more than 40 canyon trips a year.
DeBlasio joined Dulanie as co-captain of Canyon Runner in 2004 and a few years later took the helm of a 60-foot Richie Howell, a new addition to their fleet. DeBlasio has a reputation as a knowledgeable, successful canyon fisherman and an innovator. The 48-year-old from the South Shore of Long Island, New York, helped transform bigeye tuna from an incidental catch to a sought-after game fish. And he turned fishing for bigeye into an art form rather than an exercise in busting gear.
The recollections of these two men give both perspective and color to the bigeye fishery.
Where’s the canyon?
When Dulanie started running offshore four decades ago, he didn’t have Loran, and it would be years before the advent of satellite temperature charts. “We navigated out using paper charts, a compass, and figuring time and distance at 11 knots on a pad,” says Dulanie, one of the most experienced offshore charter skippers in the Northeast. “We came home on RDF [radio direction finder] locked onto a radio station broadcast from Asbury Park. I broke the bank when I spent $1,300 on a Si-Tex paper chart recorder, the only affordable bottom machine that could work at those depths. Before that, we didn’t really know if we were in the canyon or not.”
In the late 1960s, Dulanie was one of a handful of adventurous Jersey skippers who took charters out for bluefin tuna until foreign and domestic purse-seine fleets decimated the East Coast stocks. “When we lost the bluefin fishery, we started looking further offshore for yellowfin to fill the void,” he says. Early exploratory trips to the edge of the continental shelf were made in slow, wooden single-screw boats. When they finally made it to the canyons, it was as if they’d discovered Valhalla.
“Fishing was so good I thought all the tuna in the world were out there,” says Dulanie, whose father ran a charter boat part time in the 1960s. “We had no accommodations for ice on the old boats, and room for all the fish we caught was hard to come by. We ran out slow, trolled until dark, then drifted around until daybreak.” Nobody chunked back then.
“At first light all hell broke loose,” Dulanie continues. “That’s when wolf packs of bigeyes attacked. If you had four lines in the water, all four of them hooked up. Only trouble was, the tackle couldn’t handle them. The drags failed, the frames bent or, mostly, you lost all your line. We started cutting the bigeyes off so we could get a yellowfin on the line because when you hooked a bigeye, you were out of commission for hours fighting it.”
Dulanie remembers the trip that finally got them off the bigeye schneid. “In 1978 one of my best clients, Jerry Shaw, finally beat a bigeye,” he recalls. “He used a new 30 International. He fought it for three and a half hours, and it was so big we just cut it off rather than gaff it because we had no place to put the damn thing.”
Between the late 1970s and early ’80s, Dulanie says, only three of his clients wanted to target bigeyes. In those days, Dulanie trolled for bigeye with rigged squid on wire leaders until Sevenstrand introduced the Green Machine. “Those plastic lures worked so well I never rigged another squid and didn’t miss it a bit,” he says. “But even then our reels were stripped eight out of 10 hookups. The side plates on the 9/0 Senators got so hot on the first run the solder that held the ratchet pin in place melted, dripped out and burned my arm. Those reels couldn’t exert enough drag pressure to keep us from losing the really big ones. My other clients just wanted to catch lots of tuna, so if we hooked a bigeye I cut the line and kept hunting for yellowfin. In one week I cut off nine bigeyes so we could get back to catching yellowfin.”
But change was coming. The boats got bigger and faster, lever-drag reels became more affordable and reliable, and interest grew in catching these powerful pelagics. “The bigeye fishing was amazing in the early ’80s,” says Dulanie, who doesn’t fish as hard today but still enjoys chasing tuna out on the edge. “One morning in 1982, there were 25 boats working the tip of the Hudson, and all 25 were hooking up bigeyes in the first hour after daybreak. Every lure in the water was seeing action. It was pandemonium. That day we beat 11 on my boat and released all but four because they were so big, we had no place to put them. They bit like that for an hour or two each morning, like clockwork. That was the best damn bigeye fishing I’ve ever experienced.”
Student of the fish
DeBlasio started fishing with his dad in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until he was 15 and fishing aboard Mike Jacobs’ 31-foot JC that he encountered a bigeye. It was 1981, and the experience made a lasting impression.
“We were trolling past a lobster pot in the Hudson Canyon when something ate a spreader bar and ran off a 50W spooled with 80-pound line,” DeBlasio recalls. “The drag was set as tight as we could get it. The outfit would have stopped a yellowfin in its tracks, but this fish took an amazing amount of line on the first run and fought harder than anything I had ever seen for over an hour. When it was over, we had boated a 250-pound bigeye.”
That was an epiphany of sorts. From that point, DeBlasio began dreaming of bigeye tuna. He searched for any information he could find on what to him was something of a mystery fish. He studied their physiology and listened as other fishermen told their stories about hooking and fighting them.
“During the 2007 and 2008 canyon seasons, I started using what I had learned and realized I could go out and target bigeye,” says DeBlasio. “I’d been logging my days offshore for several years, correlating my findings with satellite charts showing surface temperatures and chlorophyll concentrations. I devoured everything I could from scientific journals and published tagging studies, and began predicting where and when I could find bigeye. I read about the depths they inhabited at different times of day, studied everything I could about the deep scattering layer, light levels and how bigeyes relate to certain types of structure, almost like bottom fish.”
It was nothing short of eye-opening. “The more I learned, the more successful I became at predicting where these elusive fish would show up,” DeBlasio says. “I started hooking up consistently and even caught bigeye when I ventured into 59-degree green water, where I found them feeding with bluefin tuna. It was all starting to come together.”
Finding them was one thing — catching them consistently was another. DeBlasio credits advances in tackle for increasing his ratio of hooked-to-landed fish. About 12 years ago he started loading the latest generation of smaller lever-drag reels with hollow-core braid and matching them to the most advanced belt and harness systems. “Before then we had to troll with massive 80- and 130-class big-game reels and heavy rods just so we wouldn’t have to spend all day fighting each fish,” he says. “The big reels were needed to hold enough heavy monofilament line, and they tired anglers quickly. The new generation of small, powerful reels, combined with thinner, stronger braid, meant an angler could clip into a harness and fight these fish with all the drag pressure needed to beat them in a reasonable amount of time without dying of exhaustion.”
DeBlasio learned how important bait presentation is for bigeye success and switched to fishing rigged ballyhoo on fluorocarbon leader systems. He got much better results fishing natural baits rather than plastics. “We rigged them to run below the surface, which makes a big difference in their effectiveness,” the skipper says. “Just five or 10 feet is enough to get more bites. We incorporated heavily weighted dredges rigged with plastic squids into our trolling pattern to bring the fish up into our spread of rigged ballyhoo. The combination has been deadly.”
DeBlasio also extended his trolling well into the night, capitalizing on the bigeye’s affinity for feeding shallow both early and late in the day. “For years canyon fishermen thought early morning was the best time to target bigeyes, but it became obvious that the evening bite is much stronger and more consistent,” he explains. “In the morning, bigeyes come to the surface to recharge their batteries after feeding on squid all night. Some get caught, but as the squid drop back into the deep, the tuna follow. In the evening, the bait is rising toward the surface with the fading light, and bigeyes are getting ready to feast.”
When they come up after dark, the fish tend to be more aggressive, and they’ll hit trolled baits. “At times we troll well into the night and catch bigeyes like crazy,” says DeBlasio, who took 23 bigeye on one trip last year running Joe Miele’s Blue Runner out of Manasquan Inlet. “We don’t use any glow lures, just ballyhoo — some with dark-colored skirts, others naked — and it works.”
In addition to their vertical movements, DeBlasio discovered that the fish also seem to favor certain structure in the Hudson and Wilmington canyons, which keeps them feeding shallower for longer periods of time. These also happened to be areas where pilot whales (also prolific squid feeders) were found for long periods. “Pilot whales are always a great indicator that you will find bigeye,” DeBlasio says. “Seeing pods of them milling around an area during the day is a tip-off that it’s the place to be when the sun starts to dip and the squid come shallow.”
In the last few years, anglers have found bigeye tuna along the continental shelf in numbers reminiscent of the 1980s, leading many to believe the stocks are improved. There have also been more bigeyes found in the southern canyons than many can remember.
I have chased bigeyes on and off for more than 20 years and have caught maybe 30, the largest topping 280 pounds. They’re a great game fish. The more I learn about them, the more in awe I am of what they are capable of doing. Bigeye are in a class by themselves. They can feed at depths associated with swordfish, which is pretty amazing. They are elusive and remarkably powerful. Pound for pound, I think they pull harder than a bluefin. I’ve spent upward of two hours on several of them. I recently caught a 1,000-pound bluefin on stand-up tackle in Canada, but I don’t know whether I’d want to hook a bigeye if they got to even half that size. The world record is 392 pounds and change. Some fish.