With the ‘23 bluefin season roaring to life, now is a great time to freshen up on a few topics that will surely be coming into play on your next trip. The first is fishing deep drop lures at night. San Diego party boats are getting better and better each year at hunting down schools in the dark, and anglers are stepping up their game to improve the odds of hooking and landing a fish of a lifetime when the moment comes. Let’s cover some of the must-knows for nighttime fishing for bluefin tuna.
Nighttime bluefin fishing is all about heavy gear. When the boat stops, you really do not know if the fish under you are going to be 30 pounders or straight 200-300 pound cows. But keep this in mind: your setup has to be something you can hold onto for hours on end, crank fast and lean into while using the rail. For me, this outfit is a PENN International 16VISX paired with the new PENN Carnage III 80-130lb rail rod. Last season was the first time I was able to try the new Carnage Series rods and I liked it so much that I bought one once I got off the trip. Some rail rods have the tendency to have so much backbone and pulling power that it can feel like you’re fighting the rod more than the fish. Not in this case. The sensitive tip and fast action of the PENN allows for the rod to keep a consistent bend throughout the entire fight, without losing any pulling power once you start using the rail. The price is unbeatable too.
My reel is filled with 100lb braid and a 15 yard, 130lb mono leader that gives just a little stretch in my system and helps with abrasion resistance when this fish is at deep color. Using metered braid has become a must. Beyond Braid and Izorline make line that changes color every 100 feet which is easy to follow, but you can also go to your local tackle shop to get your white braid marked up. Keep in mind that the schools of bluefin will be stacked up at a certain depth feeding on bait balls and they may not be interested in anything above or below that section of the water column. The captain will be calling out depths where he sees the bulk of the fish, and it’s critical to know the bite zone relative to your jig and adjust from there.
A few years ago when the sportboats started to figure out nighttime bluefin fishing, the belief was that if you did not have a particular brand of lure in a very specific glow-in-the-dark pattern, you were wasting your time. So after all of the tackle stores ran out of that one popular model, fishermen and manufacturers started experimenting, and what a surprise, they found the fish would actually bite other things! The market has since exploded with different kinds of lures that vary in color, pattern and sinking actions. Many of them work, but there seem to be a few top producers. Mustad Riprollers and Diawa SK Jigs are some of the more popular models, but some other companies like Submission Fishing Co. and Jyg Pro Fishing are coming out with some original designs that have been deadly. The most popular sizes have been between 200 and 350 grams, but it all depends on the current and depth the fish are feeding in. The main thing is to reduce the scope in your line, so use a heavy enough lure to keep you up-and-down in the wind and current.
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A very important thing about using a heavy lure for bluefin is the proper leader. I use a short, 16-20in piece of either 150 or 200lb mono with one end crimped to my lure and the other crimped with a high quality barrel swivel. This prevents big fish from biting you off when they inhale your jig like they normally do. I pre-rig all my lures that I plan on using that night.
When the sun goes down, there are some changes I make to my personal gear to ensure that I’m comfortable and ready to fish. The first thing I’ll do is layer up my clothing. Waterproof pants and a breathable nylon jacket go on, but I’ll avoid using a bigger coat or heavy jacket, as you’ll overheat and start sweating if the fishing gets good and you hook up. I also bring a headlamp so that I can clearly see the marks in my line. Any sportboat will have huge LED lights on the deck, but most of the time your shadow will conveniently block the reel unless you hold it at a strange angle. The headlamp also is a huge help in hectic wide open bites where everyone is bit and you need to watch your line to stay out of tangles. The last thing is to try and think about how you’re going to keep yourself up all night. I’ve been the one who’s gone to sleep too early and missed all the action… It’s not fun. Sip on coffee or bring energy drinks and be prepared to wait all night for one good stop, because sometimes that’s all you get!
Good technique in nighttime bluefin fishing starts with situational awareness. The captain will be calling out depth numbers over the loudspeaker where he’s seeing the schools and you have to stay on top of your line and try to find that zone through the marks on your line. The technique itself is very much like yoyo fishing for yellowtail. If the bulk of the fish are being metered at around 250 feet, you drop that jig down to 300 and wind it up fast to 200. Flip it back into freespool and repeat until something happens. On the wind, a bite is just like jigging up a yellowtail where out of nowhere you get slammed. The big difference between this and yellow fishing is that I keep a fast, steady retrieve rate with my bluefin jig and won’t waste energy burning it up as fast as possible. Detecting a bite on the fall is a little more tricky. Your lure typically feels like a sinker as it goes down, but a bite will feel like you got caught in a tangle and someone started lifting your jig up. The jig starts to float, and you feel this strange tapping sensation on your line, almost like the jig is rattling around in the fish’s mouth. Put the reel in gear as soon as this happens and wind to come tight.
Once you’re hooked up, try to slow down, breathe, follow the fish and maintain steady pressure while keeping your rod in your armpit and looking at what’s going on around you. I’ve seen guys get bit and immediately throw the rod to their hip to fight it stand-up style, but this position really limits your mobility around the boat and other anglers. Try to keep the rod tip low, and don’t stop winding until the fish settles into the death circles. The general size of the fish should become apparent not long after hooking up, as the smaller grade rarely pull any line on this kind of gear. Even big ones fight differently in the dark, as the runs don’t seem to be as long but the fish can dart around like in a panic. The final stage of getting them from deep color to gaff can be a stressful and sometimes heartbreaking moment if there is a sudden dash under the boat or a knot gives – all part of the game. This is really the only point in the fight where I keep my reel mainly in low gear. All the way from hookup to color, I keep my reel in high gear for as much as I can, as I’ve seen these nighttime fish suddenly spark up and charge towards the boat putting a massive loop of slack in your system if you’re not able to keep up with it. If you keep your hand on the handle and turn, listen to the crew’s advice, the fish will come to the boat.
The next tuna article will cover the nuances of light-line live bait fishing and some ways to get a bite when bluefin decide to be bluefin…