Tuna Fishing Techniques
Spring time in South Florida means different things to anglers all across the board. Some look forward to chasing big dolphin in the Gulfstream, while others prep for the tarpon migration or grouper’s opening season. The sailfish bite is often going off during this late season run and many take advantage of the wide open bite. For the Double Threat team, spring time allows us to capitalize on a particular species that is often absent throughout the remainder of the year– big blackfin tuna. Stretching From April to June anglers can expect a consistent run of stud blackfin tuna along the edge as they migrate en mass looking for food along the way.
Where to Catch Tuna
Schools of tuna can be found way offshore in the middle of the gulf stream, but those are typically ‘footballs’ or smaller tuna. The Blackfin’s that the spring run is notorious for are found between 80′ and 200′ right along the famed edge. Just like other pelagic species, tuna are big fans of current, so always be on the lookout for rips, eddies, and blue water which indicate the northern flow of the gulf stream is present. Just the same as current, wind plays a crucial role and can spark a phenomenal tuna bite. Hard South winds are the ticket and can mean the difference between 1 trophy fish and a cooler-full of 30lbers, so keep an eye on the weather to give yourself the best window of opportunity.
When to Catch Blackfin Tuna
Low light conditions are the name of the game when hunting big blackfin tuna. Dawn, dusk, and overcast days help coax weary blackfins off their guard and more likely to eat hooked baits. I can’t begin to tell you how many times we’ve had big tuna explode on kite baits even in the dark. If conditions look right, and the sun is already below the horizon, give your spread that extra minute it needs to raise a fish. Sometimes that one minute is all it takes before all hell breaks loose!
Tuna Fishing Techniques
Using two very popular approaches to target tuna in South Florida, captains and anglers alike can up their chances at fooling these weary predator’s into striking hooked baits.
Live Baiting for Blackfin Tuna
Hands down the most effective method of fooling big blackfin tuna is by using live bait. It’s no secret that tuna respond to live chumming tactics but getting hooked up doesn’t always require thousands of livies in your well. Even just a few dozen live baits puts you in a great position to connect with a bruiser blackfin.
To effectively cover the water column on a center console, it would be wise to set up kite rods on one side of the boat with an assortment of flat lines across the upwind side of the boat. Sometimes the tuna are ready and willing to blow holes in the surface while chasing your kite baits, but sometimes big tuna prefer to eat flat lines over all else. Experiment with an assortment of rod configurations until you dial in what is getting the most strikes. From there, adjust your spread and prepare for chaos. Tuna are schooling fish, so multiple hookups are not out of the question.
As mentioned before, live chumming is an incredibly effective technique used to raise predators to the surface and create a feeding frenzy. With live wells full of pilchards (the easiest and most common bait fish to collect in large quantities), set up the same live well spread I mentioned above, but accent the area with a handful of livies every few minutes. Consistency is key when live chumming. Too many freebies can school up and leave the area with all of the predators in hot pursuit — not exactly our intention… Instead, keep a constant and steady supply of freebies in the water every few minutes. If you notice boils, splashes, or other predatory activity, then its okay to get the action going with more live bait, but don’t over do it. By keeping the amount of chum at a minimum predators have a better chance of finding your hooked baits.
Blackfin Tuna Tackle
Big blackfin tuna are tackle tester’s to say the least. Big tuna take hard runs straight for the bottom multiple times throughout the fight, and take a serious amount of effort to get to the surface. Because of this, reels with smooth drags and high line capacity’s have to be matched to rods that can pull a blackfin from the deep, but still have light tips to cast live baits. Aboard the Blue Yonder we employ penn ssv7500 spinning reels matched to 7′ Ande tournament series rods rated for 20-50lb line. Although the rods are rated for heavy line, they act more like a 20lb class spinning rod, which is more than adequate to cast baits to boiling fish, or freeline flat lines.
When kite fishing for tuna, the same tackle one would use for sailfish works just fine. 6′ – 7′ conventional live bait rods rated at 15-30lb line have more than enough backbone to raise big tuna from the deep. We employ Avet HX’s aboard our boat which offer the line capacity and drag capability needed for this type of fishing. There are a number of similar sized reels on the market today that will also work perfectly fine for kite fishing for blackfin tuna.
Putting the heat to big tuna takes its toll on your tackle, especially your line and leader. Knots need to be flawless and your fishing line must be in great condition so you can improve your chances at boating big fish. We always have our spinning reels filled with fresh 25lb smoke blue Bullbuster Tenacity monofilament. This line has a slightly smaller diameter than other comparable monofilaments, giving us added line capacity without compromising strength. The smoke blue color blends in with the surrounding water making our flat lines very stealthy in the water column.
On our kite fishing outfits we employ 20lb Bullbuster Kite-vis line as mentioned before. The bright yellow coloration allows our crew to keep track of baits at all times, and the slightly smaller diameter cuts wind resistance.
The leader material you use for catching tuna is one of the most important aspects of the entire operation. If you are targeting big tuna, flourocarbon is definitely an asset. There is no better way to up your chances than by being stealthy, and fluorocarbon plays a vital role in this presentation. 30lb Fluorocarbon may seem light, but it is in reality very tough and similar to 40lb mono in its durability and breaking strength. On your flat lines, 4′ leaders are the norm, although a few added feet can never hurt. We attach our leaders with a short double line (usually a bimini twist) to have a strong and seamless connection from line to leader.
For kite outfits, straight 12-15′ lengths of fluorocarbon keep your bait stealthily presented even if the whole leader gets submerged. Some people use hybrid leaders made of 4′ of flurocarbon joined to 11′ of mono to conserve the expensive leader material. Both techniques work, just check your line to line knots to ensure their strength (we use uni to uni, albright, and bristol knots to join the two pieces together). Their are certain circumstances where the kingfish bite is unruly during spring so don’t hesitate to put a trace of #4 wire on kite baits. A properly presented kite bait right at the surface usually leaves most of the terminal tackle out of the water; this presentation can fool even the most intelligent predators.
Tuna hooks need to be small but very sharp and strong to stay latched to big tuna. The jury is out on whether circle hooks work better over j-hooks, but as long as your crew is vigilant and the hooks are small and strong, you shouldn’t have any issues. Our favorite circle hooks for tuna fishing hands down are Owner Mutu light circle hooks in sizes 4/0 and 5/0. These offset circle hooks have a tendency to find purchase in the mouth or gullet of a tuna whether the angler cranks tight (necessary for circle hooks) or accidentally jerks with the weight of a tuna strike. As for j-hooks, our crew has had great success with matzuo 5/0 shortshank hooks, as well as owner 4/0 ssw cutting point livebait hooks. All hooks mentioned have no problem hiding in 4″ pilchards or small sardines, making them a deadly addition to your terminal setup.
Trolling for Blackfin Tuna
Blackfin tuna are notoriously boat shy which makes trolling a more challenging approach to fooling big blackfin tuna. While many anglers have their choices for baits, we have narrowed down our preferences to three types of lures that consistently take big tuna.
1) Trolling feathers in black/purple and pink/white
2) Crank bait style lures less than 5″ in length
3) Swimming ballyhoo
With the amount of artificial lures on the market it may be mind boggling at how I could manage to narrow my trolling spread to these three lures. Well, after opening up many big tuna’s I have found two prey species virtually every time — squid and flying fish. Couple this observation with the simplicity of feathers and crank baits, and the effectiveness of swimming ballyhoo, and you have a very deadly spread swimming behind your boat.
When trolling for tuna, it is standard to stagger baits at different distances, but lay the baits and lures further back than you would for dolphin. Tuna will come in hot behind the boat chasing lures right in the prop wash, but the real pigs are more likely to crush baits in clean blue water. Stagger your lines and experiment because the fish’s preferences are constantly changing!
The same rules for live baiting apply for trolling in regards to leaders, hooks, and line. Smoke blue line allows you to make a clean presentation and prevents tuna from shying away at the last minute. Always use fluorocarbon when you can, but 30lb isn’t always necessary for trolling duties. Usually we get away with 5′ of 40lb or 50lb fluoro, attached to your mainline via a small swivel.
The same 6′ 20-30lb class dolphin trolling rods matched to 20lb reels will do just fine on the troll, and your kite rods can work in a pinch too. Just remember the high-vis line doesn’t always provide the stealthiest presentation, so you may need to bump up your leader lengths to 20′ or so.
10 Important Blackfin Tuna Tips
1) Both techniques described above produce A LOT of by catch. Lots of times it is difficult to present baits without bonita’s ravaging your spread. Don’t be deterred by this because blackfins often congregate with bonita. Keep fresh baits in the water as much as possible and you can get through to the blackfins in due time. The sailfish, kingfish, dolphin and wahoo you’re just going to have to deal with…
2) Blackfin tuna are brutish fighters, and the battles are often a game of inches. To reduce prolonged fights, use a technique called short pumping. Keep your rod horizontal to the water, and try to lift the fish only 4-6″ at a time. You may only get one crank at a time, but the fish is less likely to spook and will get to the boat much quicker.
3) If fish begin to boil on your live chum, pick up the chumming pace to keep the action going and get the blackfins up. The boilers are often bonita at first, but it doesnt take long for the blackfins to rise.
4) Although Blackfin tuna are pelagic species, they will hold on particular wrecks and reefs. Sometimes it can’t hurt to set up your live chumming spread over a wreck, or troll on a heading that allows you to intercept multiple wrecks.
5) Blackfin tuna will eat many different types of baitfish, but cigar minnows and pilchards are our two favorites. Collect massive amounts of pilchards and a couple dozen cigars and you have live wells filled with blackfin tuna gold.
6) Arm yourself with the longest pick gaff you can comfortably carry aboard your boat. Ours are 7′ and 8′, but some people use even longer. Long gaffs can drastically reduce fight times and the chance of losing that trophy blackfin boatside.
7) Blackfin tuna swim in wide circles during the course of the fight. Focus your lifting attempts as the fish begins to spiral towards you, and rest as he swings around and away from you. This allows you to save valuable energy.
8) Keep track of particular depths or locations of your hook ups. Sometimes the fish will bite on a particular side of a wreck or stick to one depth. Noticing patterns can turn that one fish into multiple.
9) Bleed your tuna IMMEDIATELY and get it on ice as soon as possible. The quicker you chill the fish, the better quality the meat will be to eat later. If possible, add a bucket full of seawater to your fish box. “Slushing” the whole fish as its called helps chill down fish much quicker and keeps the meat in tip top condition.
10) Remain calm and methodical throughout the whole process. Tuna are experts at throwing hooks and avoiding gaffs. Don’t try to rush the fight with wild pumps or flailing gaff shots to avoid losing your prize. Take your time and make the shot count!
Blackfin Tuna are one of our crews favorite fish to target and eat. They are hard fighters, scarce enough to keep you from getting spoiled, and excellent table fare. With enough dedication and a little luck, it won’t be long before you run into these fish. Follow these tips and get the soy sauce ready!