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Bluefin Tuna Tactics

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There are two main complaints I’ve been hearing from fishermen about the big bluefin tuna that are swimming in our local waters. The first complaint is that people are having a tough time getting them to bite and when they do bite, they’re having a tough time getting them in the boat. I’m far from being an authority on bluefin tuna fishing, but I’ve got a few tips that might help you hook and actually land one of these trophy fish on an artificial lure.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to fast forward to the point where you’ve made it to an area with actively feeding fish and you’re familiar enough with offshore fishing to recognize working birds or crashing 50 to 200-pound bluefin when you see them.

The first step in getting bit is to get within casting range of the fish without putting them down or pushing them away. This may sound easy enough but it can be difficult. When I was out on Sunday we found some breezing bluefin and tried to pull up to cast on them. Once we were within 100-yards of the fish, we slowed way down to sneak up on them. The funny thing was that we drove for several minutes and the fish remained that same 100-yards from us the entire time.

WebTo get these fish within range to cast a lure to them you’re going to have consider several factors and those are based on conditions. If the weather is calm, the feeding fish could be moving in any direction. If there is wind, the feeding fish could be moving in any direction, but more often than not will be traveling into the wind.

tuna tacticsSo, if you see fish or fishy looking birds on a calm day, watch them for a few minutes instead of rushing right in and casting. Once you determine which direction they are moving, make a big circle around them, at least several hundred yards from the fish, and idle within 75 to 100-yards of them and shut down your motor. In a perfect world those fish will march right up to your boat. If that doesn’t happen, pay attention to what actually happened and try to adjust your approach on the next school you find.

On windy days this gets a lot easier because your boat will drift down into the fish as they work towards you, making your chances of intercepting the school much higher. Just use the same approach as you did in the calm day scenario. If it looks like you’re going to miss the school, you can alter your drift direction by turning your outboard or rudder even when the motor isn’t running.

One thing I noticed while fishing last week was that when the fish were up crashing on anchovies, they’d often sink out when we drifted close. When that happened the bait would school up and hide under the boat, which usually resulted in the bluefin popping up again within a few minutes, so be patient.

hold ground

Once you’ve gotten a fish to bite your lure, one of two things is going to happen depending on where the fish gets hooked. Our first and last fish of the day on Sunday’s trip ended up getting hooked in such a manner that the lure prevented them from fully closing their mouths. When this happens, the tuna spend more time focusing on clearing the lure than they do on swimming and can be brought to the boat much faster if you aren’t afraid to pull on them.

DSC_0694You’ll immediately know if you hooked a fish this way because it won’t take off on a long run but will instead make short runs and shake its head a lot. When this happens you need to hold your ground and put as much heat on it as you can.I know those big head shakes can feel scary because they feel like the fish is going to come off, but they are actually a signal to pull harder. A fish that’s shaking its head isn’t swimming and if you can get its head pointed towards the surface, once it starts swimming again it’s going to be pointed right at the boat. When you hook one of these fish immediately have someone standing by with the gaff because the fight can be over in less than five minutes.

The other scenario you’ll face is a fish that gets hooked in a manner that allows it to close its mouth and these are the ones that have been kicking everyone’s butts.

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Considering we never get tuna this size in Southern California, most anglers have never had the occasion to learn how to use their boat to fight a fish. The good news is that it’s pretty easy and all you need to do is watch a couple reruns of Wicked Tuna to learn the basics.

The goal when fighting a fish with the boat is to keep the fish from taking a bunch of line that you’re going to have to reel back in. When a fish is hooked, I will have the other anglers wind in their lines while the fish is taking it’s initial run. Once everything is clear, I’ll have the person fighting the fish come and stand next to me at the helm. This allows me to keep an eye on what’s going on while maintaining control of the boat.

If the fish has pulled out a bunch of line, I will follow it with the boat at a speed that allows the angler to gain line but is slow enough to keep a solid bend in the rod. Under no circumstances do you want to give the fish any slack while following it. Once the fish is under the boat, I will get the angler on the upwind side of the boat and let him wear the fish out. If the fish swims away, I will follow it with the boat. If the fish swims under the boat, go hard over and either forward or reverse until you have it straight up and down again.

At some point during the fight, the fish is going to settle in straight up and down and you’re not going to gain anything on it. When you hear about guys fighting fish for four or five hours, almost that entire time is spent with the fish sulking 60 or 70-feet under the boat. If you just sit there and have a tug of war that fish is most likely going to gain its freedom at some point.

If you want to get that fish, you’re going to need to stop worrying about losing it and just focus on getting it in the boat. When the fish is sulking you’ll gain 5 or 10-feet and then lose it back once the fish gets his head back down. In this case you’re going to get your 5 or 10-feet and then not allow the fish to get it’s head back down because you’ll either increase your drag or pinch your line to the rod.

At this point the fish will be circling and if you allow it to circle away from you, it’s going to get its head down again you’ll be right back where you started. To prevent this you’ll want to drive the boat in a circle around the fish that matches the direction of the circle it is performing.

This will allow you to keep the fishes head up through its entire circle.

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If you’re inexperienced with spinning on fish, I recommend having the boat out of gear once the fish gets close. You’ll have to allow it to make full circles at that point but if you keep the pressure on you should be fine. Once you’re comfortable with driving and fighting fish, you can keep the boat moving until the gaff sinks home.

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Erik Landesfeind is BD's Southern California Editor and has over 30 years of experience saltwater fishing for a range of species in both California and Mexican waters. Erik is also an active freelance writer and the author of the weekly column So Cal Scene, which BD publishes every Friday. In So Cal Scene, Erik keeps all of the BD readers up to date on what's biting in Southern California. Erik divides his fishing time on local boats, long-range trips and Mexico excursions. For the past eight years, Erik has been competing in the SWBA (Saltwater Bass Anglers) tournament series and has multiple tournament victories to his credit. His sponsors include Batson Enterprises / Rainshadow Rods, Robalo Boats, Tilly's Marine, Abu/Garcia, Penn Reels, Navionics, Raymarine, MC Swimbaits, Uni-Butter Fishing Scent and Bladerunner Tackle.