A Night in the Canyon

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A Night in the Canyon

by Michael DiLullo

It was just before noon on a hot August day, as we departed New Jersey’s Manasquan Inlet. The sleek thirty-two-foot Blackfin, “Notorious,” plied through the waves effortlessly. Her twin Caterpillar 3208’s rumbled through the ship’s black hull as they propelled us toward the numbers Captain Dave Rieman had entered into his GPS unit. Our destination, The Hudson Canyon.

The Author with “school size” Yellowfin and Albacore (Longfin) Tuna caught in the Hudson canyon.
Photo by: Capt. Dave Rieman
The Hudson Canyon is the trench in the Continental Shelf created by the Hudson River as it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  The blending of relatively shallow continental depths (600 plus feet) and the close proximity of deep oceanic waters (2500 plus feet) creates many thermal effects including “up-welling.”  Consequently, large numbers of schooling bait fish are drawn to the area, attracting predatory big game fish.  Yellowfin, big eye and longfin (albacore) tunas are commonly caught in the Canyon.  Both blue and white marlin, swordfish and several species of Shark including; mako, blue, thresher and dusky are taken each season.  They occasionally sight rare great white sharks and tiger sharks are sometimes hooked in the area also.

“In the Canyon, it’s always different, you never know what you’re going to encounter,” Rieman said.  “It’s common to see whales and porpoises jumping out of the water chasing schooling fish,”  he continued.  Other warm water species caught as the water temperatures rise, include: Dolphin (Dorado or mahi-mahi) and Wahoo.  Canyon fishing usually begins in mid June, when the waters start to warm.  Early season fishing consists of trolling only, whereas, later trips (mid-July through October) combine trolling and chunking.  The season coincides with the Hurricane season, so the weather is always a factor.  “Weather can turn quickly offshore,” Rieman said.  “It’s important to check NOAA broadcasts and satellite charts,” he continued.  “During the week there are fewer boats in the Canyon than on the weekend, and less pressure on the fish,” Rieman said.  Depending on where in the Hudson Canyon you are going, it is approximately 75 to 100 miles offshore.

By 4:00 p.m. we were set up and trolling around a half dozen or so high fliers and tuna balls.  The high fliers are radar reflecting devices which mark the location of lobster pots.  The string of pots we were trolling was on the edge of the west wall of the canyon, in an area known as the “Elbow.”  The “Elbow” makes up a northward bend in the Canyon wall, about twenty miles from our final destination, the “Hundred Square.”  The “Hundred Square” refers to the “old” Loran numbers 26100 (top line) and 43100 (bottom line).

Tuna can be caught “on the troll,” as this Albacore took a spreader bar of artificial squids.
Photo by: Capt. Dave Rieman
Our trolling spread consisted of seven rods, two Penn International 80's, four 50's and one 30.  The 50's were on the outriggers, the 80's were flat-lined from the boat’s transom and the 30 was set on the center rigger from the fighting chair.  It was dragging a yellow bird with a daisy chain of five small squids set up for dolphin.  We put out a pattern of spreader bars, tuna clones, green machines, zuckers and a daisy-chain of artificial squids.  With clear water and temperatures in the 72 to 75 degree ranges, all the conditions were right.  Suddenly, the port inside outrigger snap “popped,” and the international began to sing.  In the moments of confusion that followed, one very large big eye tuna had raised from the depths and smashed into our spreader bar attempting to devour all nine artificial squids at once.  The fish had found the one squid containing the razor sharp double 10/0 hooks and was now attempting to take as much sixty-pound mono off the reel as quickly as he could.

I hurried to strap the gimble belt on and attach the harness clamps to the reel.  Even with the drag lever pushed into the “strike” position, the tuna proceeded to remove line from the reel as if the International 50 was in “free-spool.”  Like a torpedo he continued his course into the murky darkness of the ocean’s depths, taking a hundred or more yards of line with him on his way.  It was now a matter of keeping the pressure on and not giving him any slack.  The duel became a contest of taking up line, only to have him steal it back.

Thirty minutes later the back and forth exchange of line continued.  The eighteen pounds of drag on the Penn 50T, and the arch of the stiff trolling rod finally began to take their toll.  He began to sound, heading straight toward the bottom and under the boat.  This was the critical time.  I was beginning to tire, and any mistake now would surely cost me this fish.  I had to keep him away from the boat’s gear, if the line became fouled or abraded by  the wheels, shafts or rudders it would be over.  From experience I knew he would soon begin the slow methodic circling of the boat, his body exhausted he would lay on his side with his dorsal and pectoral fins erect, trying to create more resistance.  Then, once he saw the boat’s hull, his energy would surge causing him to call upon all his reserves and restart the entire sounding process. 

Author’s White Marlin nears Notorious’ gunnel.
Photo by: Capt. Dave Rieman
With every burst of energy in his fatiguing body he would strip-off up to forty yards of line.  Our relationship grew closer, not because I was finally gaining line on him, but because he made me realize things about myself.  My body was beginning to fatigue also; my forearms were starting to cramp, the tendons in my elbows felt as tight as the mono line that connected us.  The small of my back was beginning to stiffen from the forty minute brawl with this brute.  I leaned into the padded gunnel for leverage as he took more line.  It was now a matter of pride.  I was determined not to make any mistakes.

My respect for this incredible fish grew with each run and every shake of his head.  I could feel his movements, his bursts of energy as he tried to put as much distance and strain on the line as he could.  He was going to fight to the end, which was only about seventy yards away now.  Through the sweat and pain I cranked as much line in with each downward stroke of the rod as I could.  I was not going to quit, and the only way this game would end would be a terminal tackle failure or one large big eye tuna on the deck.

It took two large gaffs and quite a bit of elbow grease to haul the still struggling 200-
pound class big eye over the transom and onto the deck.  After the hand shakes and the
congratulatory pats on the back, I sat on the gunnel admiring this great fish.  I was exhausted, my shirt soaked with sweat and my body sore, in those few moments my emotions ran the gamut from joy to sorrow.  I have a great admiration for tuna and was happy in my conquest, but, saddened by the depletion of the big game salt water fisheries over the last three decades.  The fact that this valiant fish had come to an honorable end, however, consoled me.  By fighting an adversary one-on-one, and not by drowning on a long-line or in a net.  After bleeding the tuna to prevent the meat from spoiling, it was placed on ice in a tuna bag.  We reset the trolling spread and continued along.

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