Bait, Bluefins, and Light Leaders

By Captain Ralph Wilkins

Bait, bait, and more bait is the report for the early summer here in the Northeast. And with bait you typically see predatory game fish. So far this season that statement has been right on key with the local striped bass population. Reports from the backside of Cape Cod and other areas indicate that there are huge schools of large, keeper- size stripers feeding on miles and miles of sand eels. For those reading outside the Northeast, a sand eel is a small baitfish, silver in color, and very flashy to the eyes. These fish gather in huge schools and can cover the surface or gather along the bottom of the seabed, making them the ideal food source for many species—tuna, cod, haddock, stripers, and bluefish. With the Massachusetts commercial bass season coming up in just a few weeks, the stage is set. Although the rules and schedule for the commercial bass season have changed a bit from the previous years, the biomass of bass is here and seems adequate for a profitable harvest. Good luck to those commercial bass guys.

Bluefin tuna season is also underway, and at the time of writing this column, there are reports that the whale boats have seen some nice-size jumpers mixed in with the whales at a popular location on the southern edges of Stellwagen Bank, as well as some tuna boated offshore in the Great South Channel. Even the inshore lobster guys have seen a few Bluefin in the shallow water of Cape Cod Bay. Let’s not forget last year on Father’s Day when John Marcy of the Marcy Fuel Oil Company and his dad caught an 800 lb. Bluefin tuna while trolling umbrella rigs for stripers in 48-foot water off Wood End. Be ready!

While I prefer to catch and sell a Bluefin that has been feeding on Atlantic herring, I do welcome the sand eels and the Bluefin tuna that will feed on them— even if the quality of the bluefin may suffer a bit. Bluefin tuna that feed on sand eels typically don’t pay the price per pound that a fish feeding on herring will, but it’s a dead Bluefin tuna nonetheless. The sand eel baitfish just don’t offer oil and nutrition comparable to herring; therefore, the Bluefin’s tail cut will look light red and won’t have the same density of oils at the herring feeders.

While on the topic of bluefins, it’s a good time to re-spool the gold reels with new mono and check and scale the drags. As the fish get smarter, stealthier approaches with light leaders are becoming more popular. If you do decide to go to lighter leaders, though, you increase the possibility of getting chaffed off or just busting the leader off entirely. In an honest effort to reduce leader loss, I recommend setting drags to no more than 30% of the breaking strength of the lightest tackle you’re putting out!

Warning: fishing light gear may increase hook-ups, but may also increase heartache if you’re not meticulous in technique and if you fail to set drags properly. An old timer once warned me about light gear and suggested that I use what I know kills fish, be patient, and catch a dumb one! We will all be making those important decisions before long, so good luck to all our readers as the big fish arrive in the next few weeks.


Captain Ralph Photo 2Nice catch, Pitch! Captain Ralph with former Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Mark Kiefer, now a scout for the Chicago Cubs.


Captain Ralph Photo 1Captain Ralph with Brian Boyle, Deirdre Cloonan, and Billy Donovan of Long Island, NY.


Captain Ralph Photo 3 Lyle Rucker- winner of the F/V Odysea charter drawing.

Captain Ralph Wilkins HeadshotRalph Wilkins is a contributing editor for Coastal Angler Magazine. Wilkins is captain of the Odysea and popular cast member of National Geographic Channel’s hit television show Wicked Tuna. Email Captain Ralph at ralphjwilkins@, visit his website at odyseatuna. com, and be sure to like “Captain Ralph Wilkins” on Facebook.