A New Jersey legend looks back on his career, and the heyday of the canyon tuna bite
By Charlie Levine
Having run two of the most respected charter boats in New Jersey, the Ol’ Salty and the Canyon Runner, there’s a good chance that Capt. Phil Dulanie has fished the canyons more than any other human being to ever sit in a captain’s chair. “Jesus, I lived out there,” says the 71-year-old Dulanie. “The joke was that they were going to put a mailbox in the canyons for me for the season. I have a friend who fished 15 years in a row and every time he came out to the canyons and called me on the radio, I answered.”
Dulanie was born into a fishing family from North Bergen, New Jersey. His grandfather fished, but it was Phil’s father who really got the saltwater pumping in his veins. “My father always fished,” says Phil. “My mother told him to take me, and so he took me out when I was nine. That was it. That was the end. I was hooked.”
Both his father and grandfather had captain’s licenses. In 1960, his father took delivery of a 31 Kulas, a Jersey-built boat, which they named the D 4 (after their family of four). “My father made sure I knew how to do everything on that boat—clean the carbs, adjust the distributor cap,” Phil says. The boat did 9 knots. When Chrysler came out with a marinized gas engine, they upgraded and were able to hit 13 knots. “That was the best of the best!” Phil says. It even had a built-in oven. They’d warm up sausage, peppers and egg sandwiches on the engine manifolds.
After high school, Phil got into the clothing business. He was a salesman for Lee jeans, starting out in the women’s and teen’s departments. In 1969, the course of Phil’s life took a major course change. He received draft papers to Vietnam. Luckily for Phil, the war was nearly over. He ended up spending two years in Germany and quite literally dodged a bullet. While he was stationed overseas, his family would send him photos of fish. All he wanted to do was head back to Jersey and get out on the water.
“When I got out of the service, I went right into fishing,” he says. “I got out of having to fight in ‘Nam, so I figured you only live once, I’m going fishing.”
Capt. Bob Pisano, the legendary New Jersey giant tuna captain and owner of the Ol’ Salty, was putting together plans to get into the charter game and approached Phil about working together. “I told him I could start tomorrow,” says Phil. It was 1971 and Phil took the weekend shift, working pretty much nonstop from Friday night till Monday morning when he went back to his day job. “I didn’t have to be in till 10 a.m., so it worked out alright.”
They mostly caught bluefish and striped bass till June, then started to look for tuna, running at the most 32 miles. “We had no problem catching tuna back then,” Phil recalls, and the tackle was a far cry from the gear used today. “Basically, all we had were cedar plugs and feathers.”
This was before the government established the 200-mile exclusive economic zone and foreign fishing fleets decimated New Jersey’s inshore tuna fishery. Phil and Bob began running further offshore in search of bigger fish. A lobsterman friend said he’d seen giant tuna while setting pots in the canyons. That was all the intel they needed. They invested in a deep-water machine, took some time and distance measurements and rolled the dice. They ran by compass and worked across the edge in 600 to 1,000 feet. Loran had yet to show up.
“We fished squid then, using wire, and we’d catch all the fish we wanted,” he says. “Yellowfin, bigeye… it was unbelievable.” That’s how it started. Word spread and the next year they had to hire another captain and another mate to handle the charters. Their overflow kept a good three boats busy. The boat chugged out to the canyons at the blazing speed of 11 knots. “It’d take nine hours to get there. We left at nine at night, got back at 6 p.m. and left again at 9 o’clock. Luckily, we didn’t need a lot of time to catch fish,” he says.
They had no weather forecast, no temperature charts, and the fishing was outrageous. In the winter, Phil worked on the boat. They put twin engines in her so she could do 17 knots.
Phil worked on the Ol’ Salty for 15 years and then Bob sold the boat. Phil ran some private boats for a while and got his own charter operation going. In the winter, the master carpenter built houses. In mid-1990s Phil partnered up with Joe LaRosa and started running charters on the Canyon Runner, a 48 Viking. The Canyon Runner 2, a 60-foot Richie Howell, was added later and the company grew into one of the premiere charter operations on the East Coast with a long list of tournament wins, a line of tackle and a seminar series that packs the house.
Ever the Innovator
By spending so much time offshore, Phil was able to come up with new techniques and find the bite when others were simply clueless. Chunking came to be thanks to a chance encounter with a Portuguese squid boat. While trolling, Phil watched a guy on the squid boat catch yellowfin using a piece of bent wire. “He said, ‘Give me some hooks and I’ll give you some squid.’” They pulled up beside the boat and he filled the cockpit with fresh squid. Fishing hooks directly on snap swivels, Phil caught 37 tuna up to 80-pounds and a couple over 100.
“We pulled away from the squid boat, threw some squid in the water and saw 40 tuna come up to eat it. That’s when we started bringing bait out,” Phil says.
Phil also dialed in the bigeye tuna bite, figuring out how this particularly shy species of tuna liked to feed in the low light hours of daybreak. “In the morning, we were putting lures in the outriggers and as soon as we put the boat in gear, three rods went off. That’s how that started,” he says.
Phil also played a major role in developing the spreader bar, which really changed the game for tuna hunters in the canyons. The guys at the Brielle, New Jersey-based Reel Seat tackle shop designed a high-speed spreader bar and gave Phil a set of them to test out.
“There must’ve been 500 boats in Hudson Canyon and no one was catching fish,” he recalls, so he decided to put out the spreader bars. They ran one off of each outrigger and one down the center. They didn’t go 50 feet before they had a double of white marlin on. “We had two of the best white marlin guys up here, one fishing on either side of me,” says Phil. “They call me up and say ‘What’s that you’ve got on?’ I said, ‘It’s a double of white marlin.’ They say, ‘I know they’re white marlin! What’s that rainbow thing?’”
Phil caught 13 yellowfin and six whites that day and not one bite came on a single lure, each fish hit a spreader bar. Over the years, Phil perfected fishing with spreader bars, how to set up the spread, what squids or lures to run on the bars, etc. “I’d drag nine of them around,” he says. “To this day, if there are sand eels around, I’ll put out Mamba Bars. When mackerel are around, I’ll run a Green Machine bar.”
With so much time and water under his hull, Phil can do anything you could possibly imagine to a boat. He and his partner once converted a single-screw charter boat to twin engines over Easter weekend. In just four days, they installed a new stringer system, slid one engine over, dropped in another and blocked in the shaft lines.
He also spent six years building Runaway Boats, known for its 36 express that is beloved by tuna hunters. The boats were known for being super solid, with every piece fiberglassed together. “I could glass a deck to the hull in 45 minutes with no leaks in the sheerline,” he says.
Phil knows boats inside and out, and while he agrees that the boats are much better these days, the guys running them are sometimes a bit green behind the ears. “It’s sad what I see going on,” he says. “I’ll walk down the dock and guys ask me the stupidest questions. One guy came up to me and said he couldn’t get his genset working. I told him to see if the breaker was on, not the one on the panel, the one on the actual generator. Sometimes it gets hit by accident. He comes back to me later to thank me and said he would’ve never figured that out.”
In his nearly 50 years as a professional captain, Phil has logged more catches than most anglers can ever dream of. He caught two giants over 1,000 pounds in a single day. He’s landed two striped bass over 60 pounds. But he’s not really about keeping score. He keeps closer tabs on the weather, waiting for the wind to lay down so he can head back offshore.