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Trolling Soft Plastics for Stellwagen Bank Tuna

Skipping work to go tuna fishing was pretty commonplace during my early twenties.  This rang especially true during September and October.  Fortunately I had a good fishing buddy, and supportive father who were also willing to drop everything to go tuna hunting whenever the weather allowed.

I can vividly recall one particular October trip, which like many trips that fall, required an early out from work.  My fishing buddy Jason Mazzola and I meandered an early start to the weekend by jetting out of work at around 10:30am on a beautiful, and crisp Friday morning.  By noon time we had the boat in the water for a late afternoon light tackle Stellwagen bluefin tuna trip.

The fishing the previous two weeks had been stellar.  We had been averaging a hook up every other trip, which for us was a great batting average.  The tunas had been averaging 150 pounds with a few smaller and larger specimens thrown into the mix.

That year the only gear we had were a pair of 6 foot Ugly Sticks matched with Penn 950 spinning reels.  The setup could handle a 150 pound tuna, but boy was it a struggle.  Tuna fishing can be an expensive endeavor to say the least, so we made the most of what we had and got on with the fishing.

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The pink Hogy, pictured in the middle between the two slug-go's, has always been our #1 school tuna lure.

The go-to lure that fall was, without a doubt, the 14 inch pink Hogy.  The Hogy's had easily out-fished Slug-go's and other soft plastics that entire fall.  So without further a due we set the Hogy's behind the boat and began trolling along the edge of Stellwagen's famed Southwest Corner.

We used 60 pound braided Power Pro on the Penn 950's attached to an 80 pound fluorocarbon leader via a Slim Beauty knot.  With this setup we had no trouble keeping the 14 inch soft plastics skipping nicely along the surface.  Throughout that fall we experimented with setting the Hogy's at different yardages behind the boat.  If I remember correctly, 50-75 yards behind the stern seemed to produce the most strikes.

Unfortunately this particular afternoon was proving to be rather bleak as far as tuna was concerned.  By 4pm we had not seen any whales, birds, bait or tuna.  It seemed as if the Southwest Corner was devoid of life, so we decided to make a move.

Many times tuna fishing ends up being more like tuna wishing-this trip proved to be the epitome of "wishing."  We decided to either make the run east to Peaked Hill Bar or head to the western edge of Stellwagen.  With no reports to go on, we flipped a coin and decided to head to the western edge of the Bank.

Trolling single Hogy's on the surface from spinning setups is surprisingly effective on school size bluefins.

With the sun now looming on the horizon it was now or never for something to happen.  To our utter astonishment the sonar began registering streaks and arches from 20 feet down to 60 feet.  Had we somehow managed to hit the tuna jackpot?

stellwagen bank cape cod fishing

Trolling single Hogy's on the surface from spinning setups is surprisingly effective on school size bluefins.

An instant later one of the rods began bouncing-as if a flounder or some other bottom dwelling fish was nibbling away at the Hogy.  Of course this was not the case, but the rod tip was bouncing so gingerly that we believed that there was no way this was a tuna.

A couple seconds later the awkward bouncing stopped abruptly, followed by a devastating rod bending hit and the wonderful sound of a screaming drag.  Tuna on!

We could not believe it.  The initial hit was so gentle and strange-nothing like any of the previous tuna bites we had experienced.  Nevertheless after hours of nada we had our first fish on the line.

And just as we were settling down to fight the fish, the hook popped and we were 0-1.

Our hookup batting average that season may have been 50%, however our landing average was probably more in the ballpark of 25%.  Getting even a small bluefin to the boat can be an extraordinary challenge, especially when using light tackle.

To our dismay we reset the lines and trolled the Hogy's directly through the area where we had marked the fish and enticed the initial strike.  Just like clockwork one of the rods began to bounce ever so gently-just like before.  This time we were prepared and waited in anticipation for the rod to double over.  Sure enough after a few seconds of bouncing the rod went down hard and line began to peel from the reel.

stellwagen bank tuna fishing

Battling one of the 4 tuna hooked in under an hour on that memorable October trip.

This fish was considerably smaller than the previous tuna.  After a 25 minute fight we had the football at the side of the boat.  It was a perfect size fish for the grill, and as I readied myself with the gaff the unthinkable occurred.  The line snapped right above the hook.

The sun had now set over the horizon and we were batting a disappointing 0-2.  With no time to spare we reset the lines and followed the exact same path through the productive area.  Another rod went down, followed by another 15 minute battle, followed by another pulled hook.

"What in the world is going on?" I remember thinking to myself.

There was a slight breeze blowing from the northwest now, the air was chilling down and darkness was coming quickly.  Realizing we were the only boat on the bank, and that is was October not July, we made the call to make one more pass and then head for the dock.  I turned the boat around, Mazzola reset the lines, and we made our way along the same exact GPS track as before.

Right on call the starboard rod began bouncing and then doubled over as line screamed from the 950.  4 bites in the same exact spot, all in under 1 hour-we couldn't believe it!

With the wind building and darkness falling we really had no time to mess around with this fish.  That poor Penn 950 got one hell of a workout and at times the Ugly Stick was bent into a complete parabola.  Fortunately the gear held up and after 20 minutes we had a 160 pound bluefin bouncing around on the deck.  Success!

The ride in from Stellwagen can be a long, wet and hairy ride-especially when the breeze picks up during October.  After an hour and a half ride in pitch black we were safely back in Plymouth Harbor-which believe me was a bit of a relief.

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After losing 3 tunas in a row we were finally able to land this corker on that chilly October evening.

Trolling soft plastics for tuna proved to be absolutely deadly that fall.  Over the past couple of seasons we have shifted our focus to live lining baits for giant tuna, however I'd imagine that trolling soft plastics would still produce well on school size fish.

The technique is very simple and economical-two terms not commonly associated with tuna fishing.  Penn 950 reels are a bit on the small side so I'd recommend upgrading to beefier reels such as the Fin-Nor s9500.  As far as rods are concerned be sure to select a pole with plenty of backbone and lifting power.

9 and 14 inch pink Hogy's have always worked best for us.  The majority of our bites have come on the 14 inch version, however the 9 inch has produced as well.  Typical trolling speed was 4-6 miles per hour.  The goal was to get to the Hogy's skipping along nicely across the surface-which typically produces incredibly dramatic and exciting top water bites.

I've heard of guys slow trolling soft plastics with good success as well.  I have tried slow trolling at around 2 miles per hour in the past, however I am yet to register a bite trolling at this slow speed.

The way the tunas bit on that memorable October evening was not at all characteristic of what we had previously experienced.  Generally the initial hit is devastating, dramatic and immediate.  Yet for some reason the tuna that day "nibbled" at the Hogy before engulfing the plastic bait.

Battling even small tuna using spinning tackle can be taxing on the body.  It is an experience unlike any other in the Cape Cod fishing world, yet it is not for everyone.  The vast majority of my friends are not able to reel in a tuna on their own, as has been proven in many past trips.  Maintaining leverage on the fish and enduring its end game death circles has proven to be too much for most folks-at least in my experience.

For those just getting into the bluefin tuna game, trolling soft plastics on spinning gear is hands down one of the easiest, simplest and financially attainable ways to hook up with a tuna.

However consider yourself warned-that first bite from a tuna often leads to $1,000 fishing reels, enormous gas bills, and in some cases, even brand new boats!

Good luck tuna hunting,


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