A rare influx of giant tuna — weighing in at up to 600 pounds — has sparked a bluefin gold rush among Big Apple anglers.
Many pleasantly shocked line-sinkers told The Post they’ve fished the waters off New York City their entire lives without witnessing a phenomenon like this.
Meanwhile, it’s 6:30 a.m. and fisherman Kyle Colesanti is 5 to 10 miles off of the Rockaways in Queens. The Rockfish Charters boat captain is rigging up a rod so massive it could’ve been in “Jaws.” He packs his hook with a live baitfish called a bunker, sets the line out to the desired distance — and waits for a behemoth to bite.
Colesanti, 29, is one of many NYC anglers targeting the unprecedented glut of trophy Atlantic bluefin tuna, the largest of the 15 species, which can grow 13 feet long and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. (That’s bigger than an Alaskan brown bear.) Normally associated with deep waters off New England and elsewhere, supersized specimens surfaced over the summer and fall within view of the Gotham skyline — and hundreds of tuna junkies are scrambling to land an NYC sea monster.
“Boats would catch the occasional ‘ghost,’ which is what we always referred to tuna as because we would see them — jumping and busting on the surface — but never catch them,” Colesanti, who appears on the upcoming Season 11 of National Geographic’s acclaimed fishing show “Wicked Tuna,” told The Post. “This year, they came into our waters, settled in — and we targeted them for over three months.”
A near 20-year veteran of the New York charter community, Richard Colombo pursued these inshore giants for the first time this summer.
“We’ve never ever caught them like this,” said Colombo, 43, founder of the Brooklyn-based Rockfish Charters. “You see 200 boats out there and each is hooking a tuna — that’s a legit fishery.”
The Brooklyn native learned of the trend from a buddy who went out in July, “threw three baitfish in the water, and caught, like, a 500-pounder.” After several failed excursions of his own, the former commodities trader finally hooked his virgin bluefin on the Rockaway Reef in August. Along with other successful hunters, he uploaded photos of his big catch to social media.
From there, tuna fever spread like wildfire. “By the second week of August, everyone caught onto it, and that’s when you saw, like, 150 boats out” off the Rockaways, Jones Beach and elsewhere, per the fishing guide. Come September, that number had doubled.
Sizes have also spiked: In early summer, anglers were landing 100-pound fish — a squeaker by bluefin standards — but by August and September they were regularly nabbing 200 to 600-pound bruisers.
“We had a fish over 100 inches — that’s a 9-foot fish!” exclaimed Colombo.
What’s the allure of chasing titanic tuna? The charter boss Colombo explains: “It’s the thrill. It’s pound for pound the strongest fighting fish that you can hook. If you hook a 200-pound tuna versus a 200-pound shark, the tuna fights 10 times as hard.” He also recalled hooking prize fish, only to have them tow his nearly 29,000-pound boat along at 3 miles per hour like a modern-day Nantucket sleigh ride.
In previous years, people would venture anywhere from 40 to 100 miles out for bluefin; this past summer, anglers were bagging these pelagic critters a mile off the beach —closer than where they would normally target striped bass and other smaller game.
“In the middle of August, I was legitimately [catching them] in 45 feet of water,” said Tim Yagnisis, captain of the FV Margarita, who’s credited with being the first to discover the bite.
The inshore accessibility has attracted all manner of anglers to this traditionally upper-crust pastime.
“You go tuna fishing [in] a canyon, you need a boat that’s going to go 100 miles,” Colombo explained. “This is available to a lower income bracket. There was a guy out here with a jet ski. I even believe kayakers are trying to target them — I don’t know how that would work out.”
Conservation initiatives could be to thank for NYC’s bluefin boom
“We’ve seen the menhaden [a favorite prey colloquially called ‘bunker’] return to New York in record numbers,” Carl Lobue, New York Ocean Programs director for the Nature Conservancy, told The Post. “Since those fish have been coming back, we’ve seen a resurgence in things that eat them.”
Indeed, the bunker population has exploded since 2012, when, in response to both angler and environmentalist concerns about commercial overfishing for fish oil, Northeastern fishery regulators imposed a broad catch limit with the goal of reducing the menhaden harvest by 20%.
“We have been fighting for decades to bring this vital fish back into abundance,” said Paul Eidman, a New Jersey fishing guide and founder of bunker conservation group Menhaden Defenders.
However, in 2019, New York state banned fishing for menhaden with a purse seine — a large wall of netting used to envelop dense schools of baitfish.
“Their [bluefin] population may be increasing a bit because of all the food,” Carl Safina, a marine ecologist at Stony Brook University and author of “Song for the Blue Ocean,” told The Post. “It seems they are more abundant now than they were 10 to 20 years ago.”
In turn, diehard fin-atics who traditionally fish Cape Cod, Massachusetts; North Carolina; and other established tuna meccas are flocking to NY to get “on the meat.”
In August, Captain Colombo was hired by BlacktipH fishing host Josh Jorgensen, the preeminent YouTube fisherman with 3.68 million followers. Brooklyn Fishing Club founder Victor Lucia had told the extreme angler how they were “killing it” in NYC — so he flew up the next day from Florida.
They ended up hooking five fish, with the biggest one weighing in at around 300 pounds and 80 inches long. Since they have to be under 73 to keep recreationally, the team jumped into shark-infested waters for a picture before releasing it (pictured above).
Anglers who do manage to catch a keeper get to try one of the world’s prized delicacies: the marvelously marbled bluefin belly meat known as “otoro,” which can sell for $24 a piece at Tokyo sushi bars.
“One of the first ones we got back to the dock, my buddy brought out some wasabi and soy sauce and we started going to town right then and there,” said Yagnisis.
Of course, landing one of these leviathans involves more than simply reeling it in. As they can swim at 40 miles an hour, the boat captain has to maneuver the vessel such that the fish angler is always on the fish. Once a keeper bluefin is in range, it is harpooned a la “Moby Dick,” gaffed with a giant hook, and then finally secured with a tail rope.
Even with impeccable technique, these powerful predators can often break the line off, spool someone — when the fish takes all the line off the reel — or worse.
“I lost a fish after three hours,” recalled Yagnisis. “My reel detached from the rod in my charter’s hand. He turns around and goes, ‘Cap, is this supposed to happen?’ I was like, ‘No.’ “
This tuna frenzy has proved to be a boon for NYC fishing stores such as Stella Maris Bait & Tackle in Sheepshead Bay, which traditionally specializes in bass and flounder rigs. Now, they’re hawking humongous 80-130 class Shimano and Penn International reels, which can cost north of $1,000.
“We have a guy here who builds custom rods and he’s been trying to build them as fast as he can,” a Stella Maris worker known as “Flounder” told The Post. “[The bluefin boom] is bringing people who don’t know what a bluefin is and they’re buying rods and reels.”
Yagnisis and other striped-bass guys are now also offering tuna charters because they’re a lot more lucrative at around $1,400 for a full day, versus $700 for bass.
If the tuna ever do leave local waters, NYC anglers are going to be left with major “blue” bawls. “I might have to go into rehab, because I’m not going to be able to fish for regular fish the same,” lamented Yagnisis.
Colesanti added, “It was an incredible fishery that we hope will continue in the future, and it if doesn’t, we will be talking about the Rockaway tuna bite of 2021 for years to come.”