The hunt for big tuna takes luck, skill as trollers cruise coast at O.C. tourney


July 18, 1993|By PETER BAKER

OCEAN CITY -- By 6:30 a.m. Friday, the Liquidator Too was running south along the Atlantic coast, swinging its stern back and forth across a following sea as fluidly as a stroller passing through the evening on Baltimore Street.

The wind was up a bit and north-northeast, rolling the swell toward the beach and now and again breaking the tops of the rollers into surges of white water.

On the first day of the three-day Ocean City Tuna Tournament, 39 of the 56 boats in the field had chosen to stay at the docks, expecting that their two allowable days of fishing might be better yesterday or today.

"This boat is sometimes a little uncomfortable in a following sea," Capt. John Runkle said, as he settled the Liquidator Too at 2,200 rpm and about 24 knots for a two-hour run. "But by the time we get down to 21-Mile Hill, I expect things will have calmed down a bit and the ride shouldn't be too bad."

Runkle's plan, based on catch reports from the previous couple of days, was to run south-southeast to 21-Mile Hill and then begin to work east, past a series of large underwater humps and then to Washington Canyon.

The trolling pattern would carry us from 20 to 30 and then to 50 fathoms of water, from the inshore limit of tuna catch reports out to the tip of Washington Canyon, where the colder offshore waters would well up across the edge of the Continental Shelf.

The catch reports were, of course, only a starting point, and water surface temperature, schooling baitfish, weedlines, current edges and working birds would change any strategy instantly.

Working east from 21-Mile Hill, however, the sea seemed dead. No birds working, no baitfish marked on the sonar, only a scattering of weeds,and the surface temperature was 80 to 81 degrees, the upper range for yellowfin and bluefin tuna.

"This year we have gone from cold water to hot water, just like that," said Dave McKay, the mate aboard Liquidator Too. "We don't need it any hotter. We'd like it a few degrees colder."

In midweek, after a string of very hot days and gentle southerly winds, a cold front came through, pushing the wind northwest, then north and northeast. Had there been weedlines, the change in wind could have broken them up. Had there been a fairly constant edge of warm inshore waters and colder offshore waters that would gather baitfish and draw in tuna and marlin, the change in wind could have shifted it.

By 10:45 a.m., Runkle had decided that the business of trolling in the vicinity of 21-Mile Hill was a failing enterprise, and Liquidator Too was throttled up and run some 18 miles east to a series of big lumps just west of the tip of Washington Canyon.

The radio traffic among tournament boats backed him up. Almost three hours into tournament fishing time and no tuna had been taken.

"A lot of things can put these fish off their feed," Runkle said. "You never really know. But my feeling is that the commercial boys, the longliners, have a lot to do with what's going on around here right now.

"Two weeks ago, there were three or four bigeye tuna reported taken from the big lumps we just came across. Almost the next day the place was covered with longliners out of Norfolk -- and it doesn't take them long to clean out a spot."

At the tip of Washington Canyon, with the wind and seas well down, a handful of birds began to work the surface, and Runkle began to troll in earnest. A few minutes later, a shrimper, squid set out on its decks, buoyed his interest more.

"If they're taking squid, then the fish will be here," Runkle said, "and they will be feeding. We also have had a surface temperature drop of a couple of degrees to just below 79."

Shortly after noon, a white marlin came up among the baits, swiped at a ballyhoo and was gone. Minutes later, it was back for another peek and then was gone again.

"I don't care if we even catch them," said one fisherman. "Just to see that tail in the water among those baits is enough. If I live to be 1,000 years old, I don't think I ever will see anything that excites me like that."

And for the next three hours that was all the excitement to be had -- until at 3:10 p.m. an 18-pound dolphin took a knobby and ballyhoo bait.

Seven hours and 75 miles after the Liquidator Too had left the docks of the Ocean City Fishing Center, we had one fish aboard and the tournament fishing day ended at 3:30 p.m.

There would be no grand spurt in the final minutes, no double hookups of marlin and tuna. In fact, by 7 p.m., the tournament weigh-in station had checked in only two tuna for the day.

"You know how the saying goes," said Runkle, "if it was easy, they'd call it catching instead of fishing."

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