It was a curious feeling, dropping a jig to the bottom and not being entirely certain that I wanted a fish to eat it. Yet there I was, tight as a bowstring and already sweating as my 9-ounce slab of metal plummeted toward the marks that Captain Dom Petrarca had identified as giant bluefin tuna.
In the early days of August 2022, a herd of 70- to 100-inch bluefin settled into the fishing grounds east of Cape Cod known as the “Regal Sword.” The actual Regal Sword was a 525-foot steel freighter that collided with the Exxon Chester oil tanker on a foggy day in 1979. While the Exxon Chester was able to limp back to port with the rescued crew members of both vessels, the Regal Sword sank—quickly, according to reports—and settled to the bottom in 270 feet of water.
While the shipwreck attracts and holds groundfish, it’s the confluence of currents, a mixing of the cold and warm waters from each side of Cape Cod, that attracts vast schools of sand eels to these nutrient-rich waters. The sand eels in turn attract mackerel, whales, dolphins, groundfish, and all sizes of bluefin tuna. Tuna captains looking for that collision of marine life, use the wreck as a reference point for zeroing in on a bite that might be happening “north of the Sword,” “west of the Sword,” etc.
While I’m new to fishing for giant tuna on jigging gear, Petrarca has been bringing light-tackle “knives” to tuna gunfights since the early 2000s. Back in 2010, when many fishermen were still figuring out how to rig for and fight 50- to 60-inch tuna on spinning gear, Petrarca set the bar with a 400-pounder taken on spinning gear and a RonZ.
Besides the harpooners and spotter-plane pilots, you’d be hard pressed to find a charter captain who’s spent more time scanning the Atlantic for bluefin than Petrarca. In the mid-2000s, following a boom in the numbers small bluefin tuna, Dom, who had just begun his charter business, Coastal Charters Sportfishing, began exclusively targeting bluefin tuna with light tackle.
As those fish grew and returned to the Southern New England waters annually, Petrarca learned multitudes about the behaviors of these fish, such as when they feed, where they’re likely to move after a storm, and how to get in position to present one a jig or a plug on light tackle. Petrarca says he can tell when the tuna have reached New England because he can smell them on the late-spring southwest winds, and I believe him.
There’s something about bluefin tuna that inspires such obsession. I think of them as our tuna, the tuna of the cold and rugged Northeast. Sure, many of the tuna we catch are spawned in the Mediterranean Sea, and winter off North Carolina and points south, but with the entire Atlantic Ocean at their disposal, it’s our coast they return to season after season.
While most pelagic species prefer deep, clear, warm waters, bluefin have more grit. They don’t mind if the water is green or cold, or so shallow that their finlets occasionally scrape bottom. As long as the eating is good, they’re happy to be there.
Fishermen with a broad range of tuna experience may claim that pound-for-pound, yellowfin fight harder and bigeye taste better, but I’ve never seen either of those tunas rampaging on the surface with the beach in plain view in the background. They also don’t grow to 1,000 pounds or more.
A bluefin tuna is considered a “giant” at 81 inches. Just a little over a decade ago, any tuna of that size caught on spinning tackle was newsworthy. Today, with giant tuna around in spectacular numbers, and tackle and rigging up to the task, landing them on light tackle has become not only possible but relatively common. Leading the way has been Petrarca, who, after breaking the 400-pound light-tackle benchmark in 2010, blasted past the 500-pound mark in 2014 with a 101-inch, 597-pounder that, in his own words, felt like a “runaway bus” on the end of the line.
Tackle for Jigging Giant Tuna
The Rod: Jigging World Ghost Hunter C450
A short, stout rod like the 5’6” Jigging World Ghost Hunter has enough tip action to bring jigs to life and enough backbone to put the heat on a giant bluefin.
The Line: Tuf Line’s Guide’s Choice
Hollow-core braided line like Tuf Line’s Guide’s Choice provides seamless, 100% connections between braided main line and wind-on leaders, for maximum strength when putting the boots to a big bluefin.
The lifelike wiggle of RonZ gets bites from tuna of all sizes, and the heavy-duty swivel eye and swing hook keep big fish pinned while holding up to heavy pressure.
The Point Jude Deep Force Jigs might look rudimentary, but they sink quickly to get in front of deep-feeding fish fast, and their flutter and flash have been proven to fool super-sized bluefin.
The Shimano Shimmerfall Jig is designed to sink fast, making it ideal in deep water. Its tapered edges make it come to life with proper action using little effort, and it’s profile is a close match to the sand eel, a dietary staple for the bluefin off Cape Cod.
Meanwhile, I was hoping that the marks on the screen were about one-sixth that size as my jig touched bottom and I began a snappy retrieve, pumping the rod in rhythm with each turn of the reel handle. However, in a juxtaposition of most fishing scenarios, the big fish outnumbered the more desirable (at least recreationally) small ones at the Sword last summer. Two-hundred and thirty feet down, something punched my jig, but failed to find the hook. The same happened to Petrarca. Anthony DeiCicchi, who’d been quietly jigging on the other side of the boat, grunted and announced through gritted teeth, “Tight!”
If the 2022 tuna season taught me anything, it’s that while small tuna feeding on the surface can be pull-your-hair-out picky, big fish feeding on the bottom are much more eclectic in their tastes. Smaller bluefin may specialize their diets, focusing on sand eels or halfbeaks (Atlantic sauries) or butterfish to the exclusion of other baitfish, but giant tuna, with much larger engines to fuel, are generalists. Therefore, when Petrarca rigged the rods for our trip with large-profile Point Jude Deep Force jigs, he wasn’t worried about matching the Sword’s sand eel “hatch;” instead, he focused on getting jigs in front of fish quickly.
Dom helped design the Deep Force jig with the late Joe Martins of Point Jude Lures. Along with the RonZ, it’s one of the lures he never leaves the dock without. The Deep Force comes in four sizes, all shaped to missile through the current to reach any marks on the fishfinder before they swim out of range. The jigs are tapered chrome slabs that have a strip of reflective tape on each side. Compared to other tuna metals, which have scale patterns, 3D eyes, and lifelike baitfish-matching colors, the Deep Force looks rudimentary—but not to tuna. Petrarca credits the jig’s flutter and flash as the angler lifts the rod for grabbing the attention of nearby bluefin. Once it’s done that, the 13/0 Assist hook on its 3-inch leash locks into a tuna’s latch.
DeiCicchi’s tuna hung still for a moment, assessing the threat with several furious headshakes that rocked the angler’s entire body. Then it peeled off on an unstoppable first run, and DeiCicchi locked his knees into the gunwale and braced for the battle.
At the same time, Petrarca took his position at the boat’s controls but didn’t give chase. He wanted the rod and drag to work on tiring the tuna first.
Tuna fishing is a team sport. Successfully landing a big fish on light gear requires a coordinated effort between the captain and the angler (or more likely, anglers), to beat the fish. It’s unlikely, even unwise, for an angler to try and land a tuna this size alone. Passing the rod between fishermen gives the anglers time to rest without letting the tuna do the same. I knew DeiCicchi wanted to beat this fish on his own, but his desire to land the fish successfully, and quickly, overrode the pride of doing it by himself; 15 minutes into the fight, he tapped me in.
Throughout the fight, Petrarca instructed us to keep the rod at close to a 45-degree angle. The lower that angle, the less bend in the rod and the less heat on the fish. Forcing the tuna to pull against the rod is an essential part of tiring it out, so whenever Anthony or I struggled to keep the rod up, we passed it off to a fresh set of arms.
By the 45-minute mark, even with regular breaks, our arms had passed their sell-by date. I had sweat pouring into my eyes, my vision was blurring, and I thought of the scene in Rocky where Balboa, his eyes swollen shut said, “Cut me, Mick.” Like Mick, Petrarca was shouting instructions and encouragement from his place at the helm. I looked over at DeiCicchi slumped in the stern, where he was looking more like Apollo Creed toward the end of his match with Drogo in Rocky IV. The tuna is a machine.
Then we got our look. The line planed toward the surface, and the sickle fin, then the tail emerged. It was 100 feet away from the boat, and was clearly tiring. It’s not a machine. It’s a fish.
“Pop it or stop it,” Dom said, a mantra he repeated multiple times, instructing us to keep maximum pressure on the fish to force an outcome one way or the other.
Over a long fight, a bluefin can settle into a groove, a depth, or a speed it finds comfortable as it fights to rid itself of the hook. When a fatigued fisherman rests, so does the tuna, prolonging the fight indefinitely. Petrarca emphasizes responsible practices in targeting big bluefin. If he loses a fish, he wants the hook to pull or the line to break right at the jig. He doesn’t want to leave a tuna with hundreds of yards of line trailing behind it, and he doesn’t want to fight a fish for hours on end, reducing its chances of survival after release.
In order to fight giant bluefin with a pop-it-or-stop-it mentality, however, you must have supreme confidence in your rigging. Otherwise, the “pops” will severely outnumber the “stops.”
There was no manual for taking giant tuna on light gear when Petrarca was first figuring this all out. He went through all the parted lines, broken rods, burnt-out reels, and straightened hooks to get his system to a place that has allowed him to successfully land so many giants.
His current giant jigging tackle consists of a Shimano Ocea Jigger 4000HG, spooled on a machine under heavy pressure, with 80-pound-test Tuf Line’s Guide’s Choice. The “heavy pressure” is important to pack every possible yard of line onto the reel. The Guide’s Choice is a hollow-core braided line, which can be threaded into itself, creating an end loop that maintains the full breaking strength of the line. Dom loops this onto a wind-on fluorocarbon leader of 100- or 130-pound test that flows smoothly through the guides and onto the reel.
The rod is a 5’6” Jigging World Ghost Hunter, rated for 450-gram jigs. It’s a stout powerhouse of a rod that still has enough tip action to bring the jigs to life.
The length of the tuna, while immense, was overshadowed by its extreme girth, making it look shorter than the 90 inches Petrarca estimated. The gap between bluefin and boat closed to 15 feet before the fish stormed back to the depths.
Had the commercial bluefin quota been open, the fight would have ended there. Petrarca would have thrown the harpoon, and the fish would have been ours.
In 2022, a recreational tuna fisherman could retain two tuna between 27 and 47 inches and one more tuna between 47 and 73 inches per vessel, per day. Fish larger than 73 inches could be kept only by captains with an Atlantic Tunas General Category Permit, allowing them to sell the fish. While Petrarca carries that permit and sells his light-tackle-caught giant tuna, the quota had closed just a few days before our trip, granting a stay of execution to any 73-inch or larger tuna we hooked.
With the harpoon out of the equation, the difficulty of landing the fish increased tenfold. Instead, we needed to bring it close enough to grab the leader, and then the fish.
After a final baton-pass of the rod, I was on the stick for the home stretch, gaining with half-turns of the reel handle until Petrarca snatched the leader. With the line in hand, any leeway provided by the bend in the rod or the reel’s drag was removed from the system. The battle was now between Petrarca and the tuna, and DeiCicchi and I bore witness to another final round in a lifelong bout between two of the Western Atlantic’s top predators.
While the bluefin always get the worse end of the deal when Petrarca’s SeaVee darkens their doorsteps, the pursuit has taken its toll on the captain as well. “I leave a little bit of my soul out there every day,” Petrarca said later during the On The Water Podcast. Not just his soul, though. Several years back, Petrarca had back surgery to arrest some of the wear and tear brought on by thousands of days of high-speed chases after blitzing bluefin.
Petrarca tried to steer the fish close enough to grab its jaw, but with a thunderous shake of its head that reverberated through the hull, the big bluefin parted the 100-pound-test leader and kicked off out of sight. We called it a draw.
Cramping fists bumped and aching backs slapped in celebration, I assumed the captain would point the SeaVee west when he returned to the helm.
“There they are,” Petrarca said, eyes locked on the fishfinder. In one fluid motion, he was away from the console, rod in hand, with a jig hurtling back to the bottom, hungry, as always, for the next battle with Thunnus thynnus.
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