Fishing Bluefin Tuna Techniques
In last week’s column, I broke down the tackle you’ll need to successfully target the bluefin tuna that are biting in range of 1.5-day trips out of San Diego. Although the bite has been improving, it’s far from wide-open fishing. For the most part it’s been a typical bluefin bite with boats stopping on sonar marks and making long drifts while scratching away at the fish.
Lots of guys use the “long soak” technique when fishing this way. The captain meters fish and stops the boat, the deckhand throws some bait and anglers cast their baits out. A lucky few will get bit right away, but those that don’t start to fish the long soak. Shuffling around the boat to keep their lines in front of them (or so they think), anglers stand there feeding line off their reels to a bait that they believe is swimming until they either get bit, get tangled or the captain tells them to reel in so he can move the boat (at which point they get tangled anyway).
While it’s the most popular way to target bluefin tuna, the long soak is far from the most effective. At some point your bait stops swimming and the drift starts pulling line from your reel. Without the bait to pull it along and keep it straight, the line then starts to move with the current and bows around other lines. So while an angler thinks they are keeping their line in front of them by following it, the reality is that they are only following the first few feet of line.
For all they know, the other 100 yards may be drifting 50 feet down the rail from where they’re standing. This massive amount of loose line results in some of the horrific tangles and lost fish that often plague boats that make long drifts for bluefin tuna.
But fear not. By following this easy four-step plan, you can catch just as many tuna and probably more than the rest of the anglers without having to deal with tangles.
Before I get into the specifics of each particular technique, there are two common rules that need to be followed for them to succeed. First, never fish in the middle of a crowd. It’s okay to have someone on either side of you, but you never want to be the tenth person in a line of 20.
The more people that are around you, the lower your chances of getting bit and the higher your chances of a tangle.
The second rule is to never fish a bait for more than 90 seconds. The longer your bait is in the water, the farther away from the boat it’s going to be and the more slack lines it will encounter. I don’t care if the fish are blowing up out in long-soak land, you’ve got a better chance of landing a fish that you hook close to the boat.
In a picky bite, each angler may only get five or six bites per day. So, it should be your goal to put yourself in a position to try and convert every bite into a fish on the deck. Only a quarter of the “long soak” bites result in a fish making it into the boat.
Anglers may get more bites out there, it doesn’t mean it’s the best way to fish.
Whenever the boat is moving, be it trolling or looking for sonar marks, I stand at the bait tank with one hand holding my fishing rod and the other ready to grab a bait from the well. The minute the boat stops I grab a bait, nose-hook it and cast it at a 90-degree angle off the downwind, stern corner. The trick is to let the bait run freely until the boat stops moving, but don’t let it get behind the fish that the boat stops on.
If I don’t get bit in the first 30 seconds of my cast, I wind it in. This approach, which is known as fishing “the slide” doesn’t always work, but I’ve caught my three biggest bluefin, including a 128-pounder, using this technique. So, I have a lot of confidence in it. Always use the heaviest setup the bait will allow when fishing the slide as the fish are not line shy when they are attacking a sardine in the boat’s prop wash.
Once the boat has settled into the drift, I usually grab a lighter setup to fly-line a bait. The standard operating procedure is to cast out and follow your bait around the stern and up the side. But since most of the guys on the boat will be fishing the long soak, before too long, the stern will be a pretty deserted as most guys follow their baits up the side.
I’ll usually wait until the mayhem dies down before casting my first bait. The deckhand will always be chumming off the downwind corner of the boat, known as “the spot.”
Anyone that’s ever been on a tuna trip has probably heard the deckhand yell, “Boil on the spot!”
That means the fish are boiling on the chum as soon as it hits the water. To target these fish, I’ll butt-hook a sardine and cast it to the corner where the deckhand is chumming. If the bait swims back to the boat, I’ll wind it in and change it immediately. If it swims away from the boat, I’ll fish it until I get a bite or the 90 seconds are up and I wind it in and change it.
Getting bit from the spot is a numbers game. It takes a lot of casts to find the one bait that is going to swim right at the exact second a fish is cruising by to see it. But it’s a whole lot more enjoyable than sitting in the long-soak tangle.
If the fish are blowing out upwind of the boat or if the long soakers are getting bit, I’ll move to the bow and fish the same exact way. If you thought that fishing the spot was a lot of work, fishing the bow is worse. You have to run back to the stern to get a new bait every 90 seconds. But on long bluefin tuna drifts, this is absolutely the most effective way to get bit.
The final technique is my favorite, but it will only work if the captain is marking fish under the boat while drifting. I’ll take my heavy set up, tie on a yo-yo jig and position myself along the downwind side forward of the bait tank. This allows me to avoid the activity at the stern and give me some casting room. Making a long cast perpendicular to the boat, I’ll let the jig to sink until my line is straight up and down. Never let the line drift under the boat as it is going to result in lost fish. Then, I’ll wind in the jig with a very fast retrieve and the occasional pause.
If there isn’t a lot of drift, it’s possible to drop the jig back down several times on one cast, but if the boat’s drifting fast you’ll need to recast every time you retrieve the jig. Like anytime you’re fishing the jig, pay attention to what you’re doing so you can repeat it if you do get bit.
Not all of these techniques will work on every trip, but if you can separate your bait out from the rest of the crowd by avoiding the long soak, you are going to catch more fish with much less frustration.