Tuna trip to Chatham makes for a whale of a tale

Humpback whales feeding on small sand eels off Chatham. As a group the whales corral the sand eels with a bubble "net" that disorients the baitfish. — Photo by Jim Fraser

Many Island fishermen are infected with tuna fever. One of the symptoms of this affliction is the need to make a long trip east to the waters off Chatham.

Jim Fraser of Oak Bluffs, an enthusiastic fisherman, has tuna fever. Tuna fisherman do not always catch a tuna or even see a tuna. But much about fishing is about the experience and the bait-rich waters off Chatham also attract feeding whales.

On Friday, Jim sent me several photos from a recent fishing trip he made with John Crocker on John’s boat the Jean Marine out of Tashmoo. I asked Jim to tell me a little bit about the experience and how long it takes to get to Chatham from the Vineyard.

“We had one hook-up and the fish ran pretty deep intothe spool, but one of the crimps failed and we came home empty,” Jim told me in an email. “It was maddening and I really try to make sure everything is perfect, but sometimes stuff happens.

“It is common to troll for hours on end without a sniff and then all hell breaks loose with a screaming strike just when you dozed off from the rumble of the engine and the hot sun, or you just sat down to eat your lunch. Other times you hook up within minutes of putting the lures in the water — those are exceptional [and I suspect he meant to say, the exceptions].”

Jim said it can take from two hours in a 10-knot vessel to about an hour in a faster boat. “If you are in a 10-knot vessel, you will be waking up very early to get there by daybreak,” Jim said.

It is a popular destination for the Cape and islands fishermen because of the abundance of bait and the fish it attracts. That is not the case south of the Vineyard, which Jim describes as pretty much a desert.

“Personally, I would like to see artificial reefs be deployed like in southern states, to stabilize the bottom and to create habitat for marine life,” Jim said. “Mass does very little in this area. The bait holds out east because there are strong currents with large depth changes which causes upwelling, bringing up nutrients which starts the entire food chain right up to the whales. The water at times looks like it is raining due to all the bait in the water, for miles on end.”

Not all the fishing is done with rod and reel. On calm days, Jim said, commercial harpoon fishermen in “stick boats” and working in conjunction with a pilot in a spotter plane pursue tuna on the surface.

“If the tuna surface-feed — imagine 200- to 300-plus pound fish feeding in a bluefish-like blitz — some of theharpoon boats will run hard right into the schools of breaking fish with a guy on the pulpit, which I find rather annoying, sort of like fishing for bonito in front of Tashmoo during the Derby!

“Like most recreational tuna fisherman, I tend to enjoy trolling and casting for them and fighting them standing up with rod in hand so I usually stay on the outside of the chaos and just watch the show.”

Tuna fishing off Chatham is not for the novice. Jim said the cold water rising up from the bottom can create a dense fog. “Half the time it is so foggy you can’t see the bow of your boat and the other half of the time the wind is blowing so hard from the west it makes the 50-plus-mile ride home a back-breaker. So you have to pick your day.”

A federal permit is required to fish for tuna, and thereare a number of state and federal regulations to follow. Jim recommends anyone considering the trip first go out with someone who is familiar with the area and the fishing there.

“Also, fishing for tuna isn’t exactly cheap either. The tackle is rather pricey and the fuel costs are substantial. But tuna fisherman get addicted to this and usually remember the experience and not the fuel bill.

“A tuna fisherman once said, ‘I pray to God that when I die my wife does not sell my tackle for what I told her I paid for it.'”