Tuna fishing in Ocean City, Maryland typically starts in late May and is in full swing by the second week in June. Gulf stream eddies pull away from the stream and spin up onto the continental shelf and into our Canyons. In the early season, we see sharp temperature breaks that hold the bait, which in turn holds the tunas. As the summer goes on our temperature breaks start to blend and structure becomes the focus as much of the water is the same warm temperatures.
Early in the season, trolling is the go-to tactic. Trolling allows us to cover a lot of ground and capitalize on multiple hookups. Trolling is a great tactic for beginners and can be accomplished successfully with as little as 4-5 rods. Much like other areas of the Mid-Atlantic, we troll a combination of artificial lures and natural bait. Artificial lures are normally spreader bars, single green machine-type lures, cedar plugs, and daisy chains. The natural bait of choice is ballyhoo. These baits are typically rigged with some sort of skirt over its head such as a sea witch, Joe Shoute, or Ilander lure. There are many variations of these in size, color, and weight, and they all work.
The spread will vary based on sea conditions and boat size. Smaller boats usually pull a 5-8 rod spread while the larger sportfishers are pulling 10-16.
If was limited to 5 rods this is how I would set up my spread.
Tuna Trolling Spread
- Left long: Skirted Ballyhoo.
- Right Long: Skirted Ballyhoo.
- Left short: Spreader bar
- Right short: Spreader Bar
- Left Flat: Cedar Plug
- Right flat: Daisy chain with a ballyhoo or artificial stinger.
Key tips to trolling
When you get the first bite keep the boat in gear. Tunas travel in schools and single bites are a rare thing. 30 seconds is a good starting point. Some captains will stay in gear until they get 8 or 9 on, it doesn’t always happen but when it does it can make your entire day, you can also pull some fish off, it’s a double-edged sword.
Make sure ballyhoos are rigged correctly! This starts at home. Practice makes perfect. There are many ways to rig ballyhoos and tons of YouTube videos on how to do so. Master one method before you go! Swim your bait beside the boat before deploying it, if it spins rerig it!
Speed is going to vary on each boat. Speed was less important than how your baits look. Be sure to keep an eye on your baits. Make sure they look good and are spending most of their time under the water.
On my boat, we find ourselves pulling anywhere from 12-16 rods when tuna trolling. We are able to accomplish this with a 54-foot boat that is 18-foot wide and equipped with 40-foot riggers. In a smaller boat trying to jam a bunch of rods out can actually hurt your success. (Speaking from my many years fishing a smaller boat). When I had a 28-foot boat we ran 8-9 rods comfortably and when it got rough we would scale back to 6-7. Sometimes more is not merrier.
As June comes and goes and our water blends and our tactics start to change over to chunking.
Chunking involves a drifting or anchored boat tossing “chunks” over the side to create chunk flow through the water column. The goal is to get the fish to come to you, not the other way around like trolling. In the chuck slick we have made hook baits are staggered in depth and distance from the boat. As the fish feed up the chunk line they will hopefully encounter you hook bait. Chunk fish can be much more finicky than trolling. We find ourselves using very light leader a lot of the time, and attention to detail becomes very important while preparing baits.
Typically chunking involves a 30 class outfit with 30#-50# main line, 40#-80# leader, and a smaller circle hook, like the Gamakatsu Nautilus Circle hook in 3/0-6/0 depending on the size of the bait. Some days the fish will allow the hook to stick out (preferred) but other days the hook will have to be hidden deep inside the bait. The design of this hook allows for better hookup ratios when you have to bury that hook deep in the bait.
Typical hook baits are whole butter fish, sardines, live bunker, and squid. We also use a chunk as a hook bait that we allow to free float with the other chunks we have thrown out. This gives the chunk a natural flutter with the other chunks that are flowing down current.
Chunking can take place in our canyons but recently it has been taking place on our inshore lumps. The tactics are pretty much the same no matter where you will be chunking, as is the gear. Chunking in the canyons you will be more likely to encounter sharks eating your tunas, most the time you just get back a head. Sharks are a very big problem in the Atlantic Ocean and their numbers need to be looked at and better regulated by our federal fishery leaders. We are being failed by current shark restrictions, due to their gross over abundance.
A chunk rig will look a lot like this.
Mainline tied to a barrel swivel, like the Gamakatsu Superline Swivel in 120#, then on the other side of the swivel a fluorocarbon leader ranging from 40#-80#, snelled or tied to the Nautilus circle hook. It is important to cut back your leader and retie your hook on after each fish. When using the light leaders the tuna’s teeth can cause small nicks in it which will make your leader fail. The safe bet is to trim it back and retie after each fish.
On some of the hook baits, you will want to attach a bank sinker. Ranging from 4-18 oz depending on the current. I attach these to my mainline approximately 10-20-feet above my swivel via a rubber band. This gets cut on the way up and the rubber band can go right through the guides if it doesn’t fall off.
Some key tips to chunking
- Keep chunks flowing at all times. When you hook up it can be easy to forget to keep tossing chunks. This is the most important time to keep the chunks flowing. Try to keep the school under your boat!
- Check hook baits to make sure they do not spin in the current. A spinning bait will not look natural and will foul up your leader and possibly your other lines.
- Stick stay and make them pay: Chunking can be very, very boring. It is important to put your time in. You can make your entire trip in a single hour if the bite turns on.
- Bait, bait, and more bait. Think you need 1 flat? Take 2.Think you need 3 flats? Take 6. Running out of bait sucks! (Been there) You can always put it back in the freezer.
- Stretch your leaders to remove coiled memory out of them. It doesn’t take much on lighter leaders but it can go a long way in your presentation.
In closing, tuna fishing in our region can be very good all through the summer. While the fish remain constant, tactics may need to be switched up to keep the fish coming over the rail. Planning and the ability to change your game plan can go a long way. We have been involved in a few troll bites that shut down completely. Luckily on these days we were also prepared to chunk and were able to salvage our day but getting the chunking spread out.
This article pertains to tuna fishing but don’t overlook the other species that the Northeast canyons have to offer. When tuna fishing gets slow sometimes we have to adapt to completely different targets. Just the other day we were having a slow tuna bite so we decided to try for a swordfish. We were able to save the day by being able to change it up. If you want something with a higher success rate than swordfish, try dropping to the bottom for tilefish. In our waters, golden and blueline tiles can be found in 300-1000-feet of water all up and down the edge. Look for areas of muddy bottoms and drop down 2 hook rigs with circle hooks on them baited with squid or tuna belly. For weight, we typically use 1-2-pounds of lead. It’s very important to be sure your rig stays on the bottom at all times as the tilefish do not venture far off the bottom at all.
If you are interested in trying your hand at any the above Ocean City, Maryland has lots of great charter boats ready to take you offshore. If you prefer to try this yourself, be sure you have all the required and recommended safety gear on your boat to do so.