Capt. Gene Nigro, Phantom Sportfishing
Tony ‘Maja’ grew up near the beach on Staten Island, so for him, fishing was a given. While most know him as Tony Maja, his real last name is Arcabascio. “Maja” being the name of his boat, is an antonym that stands for ‘Marie, Anthony, Janine, Anthony’, his wife, himself, his daughter and his son, respectively.
Tony began fishing the beaches at an early age. He caught blowfish, kingfish, croaker and a wide variety of other species. He remembers when the pollution started. The dumping in the Hudson River worked its way down and killed everything. Tony remembers how terrible it was, water without fish. He was also there when the pollution was stopped and the New York bite came back. Tony feels that the Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook area is a great fishery with countless areas to fish for a large number of species. Tony is known as one of the best striped bass anglers to prowl the waters of Raritan Bay. In fact, this author had heard of Tony Maja 25-plus years ago.
Tony Maja with a 38-pound bass taken on one of his spoons near Barnegat Inlet last May.
A man and his spoon
The early days
I interviewed Maja and asked him about those early days. During the 1960s, it was very basic. He would get up at 3 a.m. and work his way to the pound nets in the Highlands or off Leonardo. He would buy live bunker for 25 cents a piece or a whole bucket for $5. He would then live-line “around the bend” off the Highlands Bridge or the Seabright wall, sometimes fishing close in to the beach. He rarely had to go as far as the Shrewsbury Rocks. Maja said that he used to follow The Blackfinn, Captained by Joe Renzo. Since he was a beginner, he would follow Renzo and watch him. Maja would keep his distance from Renzo, and make the same drifts. “Fall used to be the time for the bigger fish. Now it’s reversed.” In the fall, Maja would troll. That’s how he started using bunker spoons. He would make his own spoons out of aluminum. He and his friends always carried a screwdriver and pliers. Whenever they saw a stop sign down, they’d take it and cut it up. These early spoons were very basic. Maja always kept two pair of pliers and a hammer onboard his boat. He would try the spoons and keep bending them until he got the action that he wanted. The spoons were the ugliest things in the world, but they worked. Maja would always tweak the spoons, whether they were his or store bought models. He always tried to make them move very erratically.
Maja talked about his early trolling days. Back in the mid 60s, they used 300 feet of 40-pound stainless. He marked it with telephone wire, and still does. He says that if you do it right, it will last a season, but the telephone wire does eventually slip. “In the Sandy Hook Raritan Bay area, you had to mark the wire because of the depth changes,” he said. When he fished the bay, he would use a 30-foot leader. His reasoning is that the deepest part of the bay was 30 feet deep. If he hung up a spoon, he could cut the leader and not lose any of the wire. He would use 50 or 60-pound leader and backing. His connections were, and still are, an Albright knot and Haywire twist, and he reties the knots before every trip. Maja fishes out of Barnegat these days. In these waters, marking the wire isn’t usually necessary because he always fishes in deeper, more uniform depths along the oceanfront.
Years later, and not too long ago, Maja found that making the spoons move very erratically wasn’t the right thing to do. He was watching a school of bunker one day. There were fish on them but he couldn’t see them. He noticed one bunker that was injured swimming aside with a very subtle motion. Next, he saw a big cow come and scoop the bunker up, instantly. There was thousands of other bunker present in the school. It made him think, “Why chase one bunker when it was slowly, slowly swimming along, and swimming differently. He said, “If you think about it, when these guys snag and drop a bunker, and there are thousands of bunker there, why does the bass pick up that one bunker? It does because it swims differently.”
Maja took the spoons that he had been using and removed the bend from them. This made them swim more subtly. “They’re more subtle and they still swim. They still swing, but they may have a 2-foot swing instead of a 4-foot swing,” he said. He also noticed that his hook-up ratio improved. Think about how many times we miss a fish or foul hook one in the back while trolling spoons. Maja feels that the problem is an action that’s erratic. To test this, he un-bent some spoons and used them along with the older ones. The new ones out fished the old ones by a ratio of 5 to 1. That’s when Maja realized that he was onto something.
He gave some of the prototype spoons to writer and avid troller, Gary Caputi. Caputi reported that of the 12 bass that he caught, 11 were on Maja’s spoon and one was on brand X. That’s when Maja started to manufacture the spoons. The shape of the spoons is a little different. They don’t look like the average bunker spoon. The shape distinguishes his spoons from the rest, especially with the #4 and #2 models. The #4 resembles a big bunker and the #2 resembles a medium size bunker, which he called a “lollipop bunker” or a butterfish. Bass feed heavily onbutterfish when there is no bunker available.
The science of spoon fishing Maja believes that fishing with spoons is a science. He learned from guys on Staten Island; guys like Joe Reres and Tony Galetta. Maja says that they are the “unsungheroes’ that showed him the way. Size questions are what Maja gets asked most often. He uses the big spoon 75 percent of the time because weighing 1 pound, it’s heavier and goes deeper. If the big spoon doesn’t work, he’ll switch sizes until he finds the one that does work. He also believes in ‘matching the hatch’, especially if one is fishing in the ocean. “If you see a pod of bait, most will assume it’s bunker. It could be herring, it could be butterfish, and it could be peanut bunker. Sometimes you can’t tell by looking at a fish finder, so you change spoons until you find what works.” As for colors, it varies from day to day. Maja has no idea why. He is a firm believer that the action catches the fish more than the color. He likes dark green as opposed to light green, but chartreuse is always thewinner for him. When the paint starts to chip off, he leaves his spoons as is and they still catch fish. That’s where his action over color theory comes into play.
Maja’s choice of hook is a 9/0 Siwash. He is not a fan of treble hooks at all, feeling that they should be illegal. “They’re dangerous. How many times have you heard of a jumping bluefish and someone getting hooked by that treble hook? And they make catch and release fishing difficult,” he said. While Maja will still use them on a plug, he will never put a treble hook on a bunker spoon. Maja’s spoons have a free-swinging, single hook rather then a larger fixed hook. The reason for that is the resistance a fixed hook causes when one hooks a fish. “Rather than the whole spoon moving with that fish, just want that swiveling hook. A fixed hook will make the hole bigger and bigger and it will eventually work its way out,” he said. Maja does admit that the fixed hook with the treble on it does work. However, he releases 99 percent of his fish and the single hook allows him to do that with minimal injury to the fish. Maja admits that he’s not right all of the time or that any other person is wrong or right. His rule of thumb is to start early morning, in shallow water. As the sun gets to a certain level, he moves off into deeper water. He’ll catch without marking a fish. Since he can’t get to the bottom because he’s fishing in 55 to 60 of water, he lets all 300 feet of the wire out with a big spoon, which he says gets him down to around 40 feet.
Maja very rarely uses a trolling weight. If he does use extra weight, he’ll use a three-way swivel. He attaches an 18-inch dropper with an 18-ounce sinker to the bottom of the three-way. Then he attaches a 15 to 20-foot leader with the spoon. The weight doesn’t interfere with the action of the spoon, and the weight tracks straight, while the spoon works off the three way swivel.
Maja wanted a way to get rods out of traditional Outrodder's without leaning over the side of the boat. It was difficult and dangerous, especially in rough water. He designed an Outrodder that was hinged so that one can effortlessly lift the rod from a horizontal to vertical position.
This keeps the rod, reel and angler inside the boat, away from harm’s way. It makes a huge difference in the rough conditions that are common during the spring and late fall. The original prototype was made of stainless steel and has evolved to the present day anodized aluminum model.
Today, Maja still uses a pair of custom 8-foot Harnell rods. He also likes the 8-foot DLX 8/0 WL Star Rod or the 8 or 9-foot Seeker BA1153M. These rods aren’t used for trolling umbrella rigs, as they have the fast tapers that are needed to maximize spoon action. His reel of choice is the Shimano Tekota 800. He prefers the lever drag over the start drag so that he can pre-set the strike zone and set a light drag at the same time. He also likes the Shimano TLD25. Maja uses 50 or 60-pound backing and loads on 300 feet of 40- pound Monel wire. As previously mentioned, he marks it with colored telephone wire when necessary, the first mark being at 100 feet and then every 50 feet after that. He uses a leader of at least 20 feet, or sometimes longer, depending on the water’s depth.
Size questions are what Maja gets asked most often. He uses the big spoon 75 percent of the time because, weighing 1 pound, it’s heavier and goes deeper. If the big spoon doesn’t work, he’ll switch sizes until he finds the one that does. Maja also believes in ‘matching the hatch’, especially if one is fishing in the ocean. “If you see a pod of bait, most will assume it’s bunker. It could be herring, it could be butterfish, and it could be peanut bunker. Sometimes you can’t tell by looking at a fish finder, so you change spoons until you find what works.”
There are days when an angler can’t do anything wrong. There are also days when an angler can’t seem to do anything right. Then there are the days when the guy next to you is catching and you’re not. Tony said this is when an angler has to find the right formula.
The first thing Maja does is adjust his speed. “Even though you may think the spoons are working right, you may have to adjust your speed,” he added. His next focus would be depth. Maja advised to run spoons at different depths until one finds the right level.
Maja’s next consideration would be the size of the spoon. The design of his spoons allows anglers to troll different sizes at the same time without effecting the action. So, it’s okay to mix them up. Maja likes to pull light colors on bright, sunny days and darker colors on overcast days. Likewise, he pulls lighter colors in shallow water and darker colors in deeper water.
The last thing is to try trolling in different directions. “You may only catch going one way. If that is the case, you may want to reel up your lines and use the same pattern that is producing,” he said. Tony’s last tip, “…practice makes perfect.”
Maja misses fishing the Sandy Hook and Raritan Bay waters that he called home for many years. The one thing he misses in particular was the convenience; he didn’t have to go far from home to catch fish. The Raritan Bay has three of the greatest channels; the Ambrose, Reach and Sandy Hook. Because there is a difference in tides, it would allow him to fish one channel, and then move to another to catch the tides. Ambrose Channel was phenomenal in the fall, while the Reach Channel gave him the spring action. In fact, the Reach Channel gave Maja his first 50-pound bass. As for the future of striped bass fishing, Maja feels we have a great opportunity now with the bunker reduction boats being kept out of state waters. He sees a great spring fishery out of Barnegat, something they’ve never had before. “There’s plenty of bait to keep the fish there,” Maja said. “There’ve been more 50-pound bass caught there over the past few years than ever before.” Maja believes that killing the big fish hurt the stocks years ago, and it could again. “There are too many guys who insist on bringing big cows back to the dock on a daily basis,” said Maja. “Eventually, it will take its toll.”
Tony Maja’s spoons come in four sizes; the number 1, ‘peanut bunker’ is 6-inches long and weighs 6 ounces; the number 2, ‘lollipop bunker or butterfish’ is 6 1/2- inches long and weighs 8 1/2 ounces; the number 3, ‘bunker or herring’ is 7 1/2-inches long and weighs 9 ounces, and the number 4, ‘adult bunker’ is 8-inches long and weighs 16 ounces. All models are available in white, green, chartreuse and chartreuse/green. This author and captain has used Maja’s spoons and, believe me, they catch fish. The spoons are made of quality components. The buck tailed hooks are attached to the spoons with heavy duty, stainless steel split rings, and the finish on the spoons have stood up to some heavy fishing. The finish on the keel weights is fantastic; I haven’t had one chip yet. The same heavy duty, stainless steel split ring allows you to attach a snap swivel without worry that it will work its way through the split ring.
Maja’s Outrodder's make life so much easier. There is no need to lean over the gunnels and wrestle a rod out of the OutRodder. The Outrodder's lock into the flush mounted rod holders and are labeled for port and starboard. They go from horizontal to vertical by removing a pin. Just attach safety lines and you’re in business. Tony “MAJA” Arcabascio loves to talk about fishing and the old days, as well as today. He will answer any question anglers may have about his spoons, just give him a call or checkout www.ezoutrodder.com. He’ll be more then happy to talk. He can be reached at (732) 237-0258, that is, of course, if he’s not out fishing! ready to do battle with big stripers.
The New Jersey Angler • November 2009