Author: Patrick Martin, *works cited available at end of article
The Yellowfin Tuna Bite of 2020
It's well known this past summer on the Jersey Shore that there was an absolutely epic yellowfin tuna bite. A bite so savage, that the whole neighborhood was steady eating fresh poke bowls and there was a shortage of ziplock bags and paper towels from yeti's full of tuna. I spent my summers behind the counter at my local tackle shop, and I've never heard of a biomass of fish that opened for business off our coast quite like this. It wasn't until I saw in a Facebook post of a tuna sporting a satellite tracking tag, like the kind you see on shark week being attached to a great white, that I started to research Atlantic yellowfin tuna. In this article I cover my time on the northeast tuna grounds this past season and discuss some pieces of data and ongoing research to as why these fish blessed us in 2020.
*All information and statistics are referenced from published research and sources cited at the end of this article*
Pandemic Fishing; where else to social distance than offshore?
With the lockdowns in play, I made a last minute move from Hawai’i to my family home in south jersey to quarantine in one of our rental units and let’s be honest, fish. I didn’t really have sound connections to fish in the islands at that point and knew the bass and tunas would be chewing back home, so I booked one of the last flights out in March.
We ran the ledge for the first time last season on a solid report of yellowfin from the night before in the Wilmington in mid June. Mowing the grass for the better part of the day, we were able to scrape up a bite going 1/1, but boats not far from us had 5, 6, and one buddy had 7 fish in the box. In past seasons, you typically only see a handful of weeks with that much activity so we were definitely bummed to hit that zone later in the day where we picked up our one fish and the fleet crushed them that morning. Nonetheless, a tuna is a tuna and our crew was stoked and eager for more. We jumped on the next window just a couple days later and what happened next was nothing short of national geographic.
A long day on the tuna grounds making our one bite count late in the day.
Chasing some reports of fish inside the canyons the day prior, we ran to a spot that’s been good to us in the past just over 50 miles from the inlet. The water wasn’t that deep blue you like, but was clean enough to chance em' and deploy the spread. It wasn’t before long we saw a few whale spouts in the distance and we picked up to chase them down. Within a few miles it bust wide open for us with whales, dolphins, and birds working hard.
The best part? Not a boat in site (it was a Tuesday though so that could be it too). Not even fifteen minutes went by for us to take a bite on our wide tracker and it was game on. The fish, a solid yellowfin, bust just 20 yards behind the boat to the hoops and hollering of some stoked anglers. Unknowingly, we didn’t know it had just been taxed by a small mako, but we still got the fish to the gaff and it was one down. That set the tone for the day as we bobbed and weaved through packs of whales and picked off fish on what we found was a massive sand eel feed. The bite of the day was on a sterling wide tracker that got hit as I was setting it out. Anticipating the exact scenario all day, I pushed the drag up pretty much planing him up to the surface and splashing all about before taking line down deep. That was one of several fish we pulled off of a whale tail just slapping the surface over and over for the better part of half an hour, a behavior I had never witnessed before in my life. It was like a tuna feeding bell or something.
One of those days where there are no hours of waiting and radio chatter, just an epic bite with an even better crew. Going 5/7 taking almost all of our bites on sterling wide trackers.
As the south wind kicked up and our weather window began to close, we headed to the barn just after noon going 5/7 on quality yellowfin. Little did we know that this was about to become a regular resource for the rest of the summer and well into the fall.
The reports after that week and into July just kept pouring in along with deck and dock shots of boats practically pulling limits at 3 fish per angler. With the wildfire nature of social media and facebook groups, the "secret spot" heading instagram posts location quickly was pinpointed to a zone on the charts known as the triple wrecks just inside the Hudson canyon. From what I could gather, the bulk of the fish were in that triple wrecks region with smaller schools of fish sliding south down the line to popular areas off south jersey which is what I believe we stumbled on that first day we found them inside from the ledge.
Up and coming angler Christian Bellomo (@cjb_fishing_longisland) sporting a two-for-one combo of bluefin and yellowfin tuna that was common on the mid-shore to offshore grounds this past season. Follow Christian on Instagram to keep up with his catches from tog to tuna.
The fleet became thick, but there was easily enough fish around to accommodate the masses. If you weren’t a tuna angler, you definitely became one. Thanks to the simplicity of running wide tracker bars, it practically put everyone in the game who understood the basics of trolling. The yellowfin took up residence and settled into a pattern allowing anglers to catch fish on aggressive chunk bites, dropping jigs, throwing poppers, trolling, and even spearfish guys jumping in to live out their blue water dreams.
Anglers Patrick McCarron (@patmc_) and Frank (@frank_bruce) were quick to leave the trolling gear at the dock and bust out the spinning gear to throw poppers and drop jigs to these Jersey yellowfin. Frank (top left) finding the Nomad chug norris a productive lure on the grounds this past season and Pat (top right and bottom) stayed busy jiggin em' and stickin' em.
Party boats quickly arranged trips to get anglers in on the action and reports had them catching yellowfin into November. I never made it onto one of the head boats as I had to leave for school in early August, but the scene looked just epic like the San Diego yellowtail and long range tuna boats in the Pacific. Judging by the amount of pictures on social media, people are ready for more tuna this season in the Northeast, but just where did these fish come from and what had them set up business in our waters.
Hyati Dirim (@fishinghd74) stayed on top of the tunas into the fall on the Big Jamaica out of Brielle, NJ. Dialing both the yellowfin bite on the chunk and bluefin on a Nomad streaker jig.
The topic of East coast tuna usually pops some popular destinations into the conversation such as the outer banks in the Carolinas, the Bahamas, the oil rigs in the gulf of Mexico, and our northeast canyons from Maryland to New England. The most sought after tuna, and most popular thanks to wicked tuna, is the bluefin tuna which is considered a prize gamefish capable of reaching that 1,000 pound, grander achievement which is simply a dream for novice and professional anglers alike.
Due to their high market value and commercial fishing the species is heavily conserved with well-funded research efforts. Tracking data from satellite tags as well as other tagging methods has been collected for decades. Utilizing the powerful ocean currents, these fish spawn in the gulf of Mexico and pass through the Florida straight that separates the Florida Keys from Cuba. From here, they swim by the Bahamas up the east coast to feed in the rich waters off the northeast Gulfstream current before crossing the Atlantic to Norwegian waters. Recent research efforts have determined that the slope sea, the pocket of water formed inside the gulf stream and outside the continental shelf of the northeast, is a "secret" breeding ground for bluefin. The optimal spawning temperatures are maintained in the summer months with pockets of warm water capable of sustaining bluefin larvae until they mature to swim.
The Slope Sea is shown as the highlighted area in blue
The research by David Richardson and colleagues in their paper "Discovery of a spawning ground reveals diverse migration strategies in Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus)" outlines their research in the discovery of the slope sea spawning grounds. Their migration data and larvae samples are shown in the figures above.
A significant population of Atlantic bluefin also spawn in Europe in the Mediterranean sea and bay of Biscay. with these fish documented taking transatlantic trips to feed off the coast of the Carolinas in the winter and up the coast to the new England area to feed in the warmer summer months. Initially, stock assessment and quotas were based on two populations of fish in the U.S and Europe which didn’t take the transatlantic migration patterns of the species into consideration. Fortunately, the story of the bluefin can keep the fishery in check.
Unlike bluefin tuna, the yellowfin of the Atlantic ocean are a bit more of a mystery with recent research efforts directed towards filling this knowledge gap. Currently, Atlantic yellowfin are managed as one population of fish from the East coast and Caribbean across the ocean to Europe and down to Africa. While there is tagging data supporting transatlantic movement of these fish, it is also suggested there is a western and eastern Atlantic population of yellowfin. Tagging data from the latest 2019 tuna report shows tagging data from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and Atlantic Ocean Tropical Tuna Tagging Program (AOTTP).
The standing committee of research and statistics at ICCAT included these figures as updated tagging information in their 2019 report. The blue tagging and recovery information (left) is from the ICCAT tagging databases. The red (right) tagging and recovery information is from AOTTP databases.
With both sets of data from the two organizations showing quite different trends in tagging and recovery, it's not difficult to see why these organizations are increasing their efforts to better understand the Atlantic population of yellowfin tuna. Focus shifts to their spawning grounds where mainly two geographic locations are commonly referenced. The first area is the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of West Africa supported by the AOTTP data in red where peak spawning takes place during the months of December to April. The second referenced spawning area according to the SCRS stretches from the Gulf of Mexico, to the southeastern Caribbean sea with peak spawning taking place across variable months by each region. Overall, the significance of these spawning grounds is unknown.
Up until this point in the article the data and statistics on bluefin and yellowfin tuna, to my knowledge, is publicly available research available at the works cited linked below. Drawing on these pieces of data and the Spain satellite tag on Facebook that sparked me to write this, I think it's possible the same spawning environment favored by bluefin tuna in the slope sea could also be beneficial to the Atlantic yellowfin tuna. Surely to have such a large population of fish take residence in that zone they must have been either spawning or gorging themselves for transatlantic travel. Now this is mere speculation, but either way for the sake of everyone who invested in new tuna setups and gear, please let these fish make another strong appearance this summer.
All up to the Tuna Gods Now
Nick Sioutis with a stud Jersey yellowfin tuna and letting the crew know the front fish box is tapped out!
2020 was a tough year for a lot of people, but at least for fisherman it was one of the best seasons in a long time on the tuna grounds. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to hop on the bite with good friends and family. Only time will tell as more research and data becomes available if these Atlantic yellowfin are utilizing our waters for spawning and if the "secret spot" will become as hot as it left off last season.
Thanks for reading and if you're not subscribed to our email list yet, what are you doing?? Don't miss out on future articles and enter your name and email and the bottom of our homepage here. If you are reading this as a scientist in the field and have some updated information or research on these fish, I'd be stoked to hear about it and update the article as well so please comment or reach out. Tight lines this season everyone!
Pretty Work on the Gaff
Just a reminder to get stoked for the upcoming offshore season
Atlantic Yellowfin tagging information and figures: https://www.iccat.int/Documents/SCRS/ExecSum/YFT_ENG.pdf
Bluefin Tuna spawning and Slope sea discovery: https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/03/04/1525636113.full?sid=a03f6d77-51ee-4209-a5e3-7f43e2f32228
Yellowfin tuna data: http://firms.fao.org/firms/resource/20/en