Tackling Big Fish On Fly

If you normally fish with conventional gear and mention to a dedicated fly-fisherman that you’re considering test driving some fly-fishing tackle, chances are he will flash a smug smile and say something such as, “Coming over from the dark side, eh?”

I have fished with every type of tackle imaginable, from hand lines on a pier when I was very young to 80-pound braid on a spinning reel for tuna. I discovered early on that every tackle has its own subtleties and mastering them adds another dimension to my personal skillset. And, I’ve had a great time fishing with all of them.

Mexico’s Baja Peninsula in the fall is an awesome spot to try out or fine-tune your fly-fishing skills. After all of the late summer and early fall rains, the amount of weed and other junk washed out to sea creates a natural FAD (fish aggregation device) for the fish. The floastam attracts plankton and small baitfish, which in turn brings in schoolies and bigger dorado along with other species to feed on the accumulated bait.


Dorado, however, are the headliners of this type of fishing. Strong, aggressive, acrobatic and colorful — all anglers will agree that they are the star of this saltwater show.

Dorado, or dolphin fish, grow at an astonishing rate when given plenty of food and warm water. It only takes 40 hours for a fertilized dolphin egg to become a free-swimming larva, after which the fry begins to feed and grow in earnest. By the thirtieth day, the fry has doubled in size and shows dark, vertical bands along its body which make the one-inch fish look very much like a tiny feather. A 22-inch dorado is only 60 to 90 days old. Two dorado held in captivity at Sea World grew from about one pound to more than 30 in less than eight months.

This tremendous growth rate is definitely a plus for the saltwater fly angler because dorado spend most of their time eating. With this extraordinary feeding behavior, fly selection can cover a broad spectrum — streamers, Deceivers, Clousers, and poppers all work.

When you find a school of dorado, they appear to leave gold-and-blue subsurface vapor trails as they dart to and fro, and maintaining your focus can be difficult. To bring them in, throw out some live bait as chum and watch the bait scurry as it tries to escape. You want to move the fly at the same speed as the bait to be successful!

Once the boat has stopped, make the fly streak through the water. If you are using a streamer pattern, shorten up your cast so most of the action will be well inside an imaginary, 50-foot circle around the boat. Cast the fly half that distance and when it hits the water — before it sinks — pick it up and cast again to approximately the same spot. Then, make long, hard, abrupt strips. If you don’t get a take instantly, sweep your rod tip to one side or the other as fast as you can, then pick up your line for the next cast. The more commotion, the better!

If you are using a popper, don’t try any of the freshwater bass “chug, chug — pop, pop” stuff. Use even shorter casts and sweep the rod tip to make the popper gurgle as the head creates a whitewater wake. This technique will drive dorado wild and they’ll inhale that popper faster than you can yell “fish on!”

Since most of the time these fish feed close to the surface, their vibrant blue and gold as they streak toward your fly is both a visual and physical sensation that keeps you shaking your head in amazement.


Yellowfin most often travel with large schools of porpoises searching for food. Since the smaller tuna don’t have the stamina to keep up with the porpoises, they are usually found around pinnacles and other structure-related spots. A voracious eater, the yellowfin will feed virtually nonstop on almost any baitfish, including squid, flying fish or even crustaceans found in the area.

Regardless of where you find yellowfin, they can put on quite a show. I have seen tuna exceeding 200 pounds — looking more like small Volkswagens — hurtle themselves completely out of the water chasing flying fish. Sometimes they’ll pursue the hapless flying fish for the length of a football field before catching up and devouring them.

In the fall, the tuna will form into schools around the pinnacles extending upwards from the seafloor. These fish will usually be smaller, ranging from 5 to 30 pounds. On the structure/high spots they feed on the smaller sardina and will stay around the boat until the chum runs out.

Fishing Tuna DoradoUnless you come upon a school of porpoise and tuna feeding on a ball of bait, the proven technique is to troll tuna feathers, cedar plugs or even larger marlin-style lures in front of the traveling porpoise. Look for birds hovering over the leading edge of the porpoise and you’ll usually find the tuna feeding beneath them. Have your flyline stripped off the reel and in a bucket (with an inch or two of water to keep the line from blowing.)

Once a fish snatches a lure, the mate will throw out a few sardina, small mackerel or other live bait to hold the fish close to the boat while you cast the fly. Larger Deceivers in white, blue, and olive colors will work well. If the tuna hang deep and act finicky, try a large Clouser or weighted Wasabi and let it sink 10 to 20 seconds before retrieving it in long sweeping pulls.

Strip strike ( don’t use your rod tip!).

Point the rod toward the fleeing tuna and hold the line firmly until the hook is set, then let the fish run. Don’t even try to slow the fish’s initial dash. Use only enough drag to keep from getting a backlash. After the fish has made its first charge and you begin to recover line, tighten the drag a little. You are now in the midst of what can only be described as a bare knuckles street fight.

With the fly tackle you are using, you can’t afford many mistakes or you will lose. Regardless of size, all tunas have a tendency to fight down deep and on their side, causing you to lift the creature a few inches at a time, moving the entire body through the water sideways.

This is when an alert angler should begin to see little behavior characteristics of the tuna that can be used against them. Tuna tend to swim in an elliptical circle when down deep and the trick is to use this to your advantage. A tuna swimming in a circle will create a throbbing that can be seen clearly.

As the tuna comes toward the top of the circle, the rod tip will rise slightly, and this is the easiest time to regain line. Exert maximum pressure on the tuna to recover line. When you are putting pressure on the fish, watch your rod tip. When the rod tip dips back toward the water, just hang on and don’t impart additional pressure.

Fishing Tuna Dorado

When the fish is headed to the bottom of the circle it’s the most difficult time to regain line. But you will soon find the fish’s rhythm and begin to gain more line than you lose. Occasionally, the fish will exert unexpected pressure and take some line. Don’t be discouraged. Just keep repeating the process.

As the fish nears the surface and you actually see it, don’t rush things! More fish are lost after you see the color — and, for that matter, more flyrods are broken — in these last few moments of the battle! Raising the rod tip or high-sticking with your flyrod at this point might result in your rod making an unplanned trip to the factory for repairs. Go easy!

Rod choices vary greatly depending on the size of the fish. Schoolies up to 15 or so pounds, can be handled with anything from an 8- to an 11-weight fly rod. The reel should be designed for saltwater and it should have a drag system that can be adjusted to at least 10 pounds of drag with a minimum capacity of 250 yards of backing. That’s for your 8-weight! For your larger outfits, be sure that you have increased line capacity.

Seamless shooting heads are the line of choice — even with poppers, these lines will perform well. For the 8- to 11-weight, a 300-grain will do the trick.

Only when you start seeing larger dorado or tuna should you reach for your 12-weight rod matched with a saltwater reel armed with at least a 400- to 600-grain seamless shooting head system. For the 12-weight, you want a minimum of 350 yards. Always use a 20-pound fluorocarbon tippet to tie the leaders, about six feet long with loop-to-loop connections utilizing a Bimini twist loop.

I once heard someone describe a fly-fishing set-up as the world’s most expensive handline.

There’s a lot of truth to that. When the fish bites, there is really no rod involved at that instant. Even in the heat of battle, the rod tip should never be higher than the bill of your baseball cap.

Don’t take all this talk about fishing with fly tackle as an encouragement to forsake all other kinds of sport fishing. This is not an either/or proposition as many purist fly guys might try to make you think.

Fly tackle offers a variety of different challenges and mastering them will improve your overall angling skills as well as adding another method to enjoy catching fish in certain conditions — but it isn’t the only way.

Get more great tips and fishing stories from Gary Graham, That Baja Guy, on BD.

That Baja Guy-Gary Graham
That Baja Guy-Gary Graham, the BD Outdoors Baja Editor, has more than five decades fishing experience off of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula. From light tackle and fly up to offshore marlin fishing, Gary has experienced all facets of this fishery. He's set several fly-fishing world record...
  • Avatar
    Carl Blackledge
  • Jan 8, 2020
Very nice report Gary.

Carl Blackledge
That picture of the guy with no shirt holding the fly rod and dorado was in the May 2008 PCSportfishing magazine. Can you get fired for plagiarizing your own article? Hahaha
I was looking in some old files of fishing articles that I keep for reference for trips down south and there it was.