Sometimes it seems like yesterday and other times it feels like a lifetime ago, but it’s actually been a little over seven years since the big bluefin first showed up in our backyard from my recollection. While the fishing has been better some years than others, one thing is for sure, looking back on the many lopsided, and often losing, battles fought in the early years, we as anglers have become a lot more effective at targeting our Pacific Bluefin Tuna. There’s been no shortage of tactics and almost every year we discover a new method that has everyone scrambling for the latest and greatest lures and techniques. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and look back at some of the most successful lures and tactics implemented. Don’t hesitate to dig back into this list when Bluefin become finicky.
In my opinion, The first wave of these fish arrived in May of 2015 and the trip that put these fish on the map was the “Jig Chucker’s Ball” charter aboard the San Diego. The trip was intended to be an Inside Sportfishing video about yellowtail fishing, but that ended up documenting the first few bluefin tuna foamers that kicked off the fishery. Brian Burrell’s 100-plus pounder on the surface iron, kicked off the first trend in targeting these fish (shown in the article feature image).
When the bigger bluefin first arrived, everyone tried to fish for them like other tuna but weren’t having much success trolling or drifting with live bait. Eventually, most anglers threw out the old methods and switched to targeting foaming or breezing tuna by casting the surface iron on them. While this method is still productive today, the fact that the jig must be wound quickly to get a bite limited the time it was in the bite zone.
Eventually, some of the guys that had experience fishing yellowfin with topwater lures in other locations and tried using them for bluefin. I remember the first trip I brought out some 20-year-old Yo-Zuri poppers, Matt Kotch tied one on and got bit on the first cast. While popper sizes, styles and color preferences have changed over the years, poppers allowed anglers to slow down their presentation and keep the bait in front of the fish for an extended period.
While the rest of us were focusing on finding the perfect popper, my friends Ed Howerton and Dennis Burlason who were planning a trip to the Amazon, were on a tuna trip and decided to test out a subsurface walk the dog bait they’d purchased for the trip. As it turned out, the bait didn’t swim as expected, but the bluefin were more than willing to choke it down. In fact, the fish bit it so well that they had to start bringing extra lures because they’d have to wait until they cleaned the fish to get the lures out of their throat. The Rapala Subwalk 15, with upgraded 4X Owner trebles and split rings, has become the go-to lure on my boat and has accounted for 90% of the fish I’ve caught over the years. If you want to get deeper into this topic, check out our recent article The Tuna Conundrum.
While casting lures work great when the fish are feeding on the surface, there were enough days that there weren’t any fish up to cast to, that anglers started experimenting with other ways of catching them. As it turned out, these methods not only complicated things but made fishing seem like a whole lot more work. The first of these methods was trolling a rigged Yummy Flyer from a kite. This presentation requires both a kite rod and a fishing rod to be simultaneously deployed, monitored and kept aloft while trying to drive the boat in a direction that will get the lure in front of the fish without running them over in the process and avoiding a dozen other boats doing the same thing in a half mile square zone. No thanks…
Eventually guys got tired of chopping each other up while trying to troll their kites around and decided to adjust their tactics by using real flying fish suspended from a kite or balloon from a drifting boat. Flying fish being difficult to catch, and not to mention illegal to capture with a net in California waters, enterprising commercial fishermen started targeting them legally and selling them live or frozen to the tune of $30 apiece. Rigging and presenting a real flying fish is even more convoluted than a yummy flyer, but they do have the advantage of getting washed out and useless in a surprisingly short amount of time, so you better hope you get bit quickly!
Necessity being the mother of invention, eventually, someone figured out that the tuna would bite a realistic fake flying fish as well as a real one and the “California Flyer” was born. Now instead of spending $200 on enough real flying fish to get through your trip, you can spend $200 on one fake flying fish. The good thing is that the California Flyer is reusable so you’re probably only going to have to replace the wings after catching a few fish, which are incidentally about the same price as a real flying fish.
Out of all the emplored methods, this lure and tactic make the most sense. It directly represents the local forage the Bluefin is predominantly feeding on, anchovies, you’re able to cast it a long distance without spooking the school of fish and you’re able to fish it at a variety of depths from foamers fish down to deep marking tuna on a fish finder. Sure it’s not as romantic as the rest, you don’t get the visuals you get from many of the other tactics. It works so well at times that often on sportboats it tends to out fish bait. The Shimano Colt Sniper became the go-to, so much so that the design of this style of lure regardless of the brand was deemed Colt Sniper. These days you can find a similar lure from over a dozen brands that all work equally well. A must-have in your arsenal.
While drifting with either real or fake flying fish can be very productive, you must find the fish before deploying your offering if you want a shot at catching one. That not always being an easy task, anglers began to look for a more efficient trolling option than the Yummy Flyer. So, taking a page from the east coast playbook, anglers started dragging around spreader bars. This was another effective method for targeting tuna but ended up taking even more of the fun out of the fishing experience, in that they need to be trolled an extraordinarily long way behind the boat to get bit. This ultra-long trolling has made for much hilarity on the water this year as boaters drive around while tangling each other’s lines and chopping off $100 lures.
One of the problems with trolling a spreader bar, other than the fact that it sucks, is that you can’t race around like a maniac while doing so. Enter the Nomad Mad Mac, whose popularity caught the manufacturer off guard enough that profiteers have been hoarding these baits and selling them at $100 over retail. If you’ve been tuna fishing in the last few weeks, it’s easy to pick out the Mad Mac fishermen. They’re the guys racing past foaming tuna at 12 to 17 knots while trolling their lures towards some unknown destination. The good news for us guys who like to cast lures at foamers, the emergence of high-speed trolling has taken a lot of pressure off the fish that we are targeting.
Sport boats, which are handicapped by both speed and passenger load, have been trying new techniques over the years in hopes of getting everyone bit instead of picking off one or two fish per stop. Over the last couple of seasons, the most effective way to do so is by fishing at night. For whatever reason, the otherwise picky tuna will often bite with reckless abandon once the sun goes down and knife jigs are the easiest way to target them when they’re biting in deep water. Just drop the jig down until it stops sinking and start fighting your tuna. Often, jigs will get bit just as well during the day, but they still take way too much turning the reel handle for my taste. There’s a variety of jigs on the market and with that comes a variety of different methods and tactics. Fluttering jigs tend to work best in the night when there is not too much current and speed jigs have their application as well getting down deep fast and adding a lot of action in the retrieve.
As you can see there is no shortage of methods that successfully entice bluefin tuna to bite. The takeaway is to be creative on how you’re targeting these gamefish. Take note of the water column, behavior and the association with the local forage. You may just discover the new HOT bait.