How many times at the rail have you heard, “Why won’t they bite?” One of the toughest parts of bluefin and sometimes yellowfin fishing is the way they seem to turn on and off a bite without any rhyme or reason. We’ve all been on the trip that marks the end of the bite; overhearing deckhands remark how well they bit yesterday and how they don’t know what happened. One bait turns into another as you flyline fruitlessly with fish on the screen and no bites to show for it. At times like these, you may have to drop down and use gear that you otherwise wouldn’t be so comfortable using in the tuna grounds. This article is a guide on light line finesse tuna fishing, going over the tackle, techniques and strategies needed when bluefin are finicky and it seems like only one or two hot sticks on the boat are hooked up.
When fishing gets tough, the first thing I’ll do is lower down in line class and break out the longer bait rod. When my Dad was fishing bluefin back in the 1980s at San Clemente Island or South Island of the Coronados, his go to outfit was a 9 foot Sabre 220, Penn Squidder Jr and 10 lb clear Maxima line. This outfit was cutting edge for light line fishing because the fisherman could lob a light bait out away from the boat and when hooked up, the rod would arch and give when the tuna was running straight out. Our tackle today is much more refined, but the concept is still the same—get a good swimming bait away from the boat and into the bite zone with the chum. If the fish are typical 20-30 pounders but not willing to bite a bait, you’re going to have to drop down to 15, 20 or 25lb line and an 8.5 or 9 foot light composite rod like the Calstar 900L or United Composite RCE900XF. A longer, lighter rod is ideal for this situation as the sensitive tip allows you to cast even small sardines far from the boat while still having a solid backbone to pull against if you hook into a nicer model. I typically use a small star drag reel like the PENN Fathom 8 or 12 but this is all up to your own personal preference and what feels best on the rod that you choose. A small 2 speed like an Avet SX or Fathom 10 would be a great option when the grade of fish is mixed and you run the risk of hooking into a big one on the light gear.
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Braid or Mono
When I fish live bait, I prefer using a longer topshot of mono with braid used as a backing. I like how I don’t have to deal with casting through a knot, and the stretch will save a heartbreak at the end when the fish is at color and decides to go on one more run. However, when the bite is scratchy and you need to downsize to the light rod, having more braid on your reel can help out in a few ways. First is that the smaller diameter of the line will obviously mean you’ll have more to work with, but also your bait is going to have less resistance pulling through the water, as the line is thinner and floats. Braid also has no stretch, so bites will be clear and aggressive but you have to be careful when you set the hook. A sudden overload of your connection knot will lead to a “zing-pow” failure, which you’ve probably seen or heard a number of times if you regularly go on a sportboat.
When using mostly braid, I like to use a short(10-20ft) section of fluorocarbon in the same weight rating as my braid. The type of connection knot you use will make a big difference on how much it gets fouled up at the tip. Especially when using heavier lines, the FG knot takes some time but is absolutely the best way to go. The other, faster knot I use is the albright, which lies flat on the line and passes through the guides easily when using a smaller diameter line.
One of the most important aspects to finessing a tuna bite is going to be the size and type of hook you choose. This is where you differentiate yourself from the other anglers on board and allow your sardine to look different from all the other hooked baits coming out of the same well. There are a ton of different brands and styles when it comes to offshore hooks, and I’ve been able to narrow my live bait selection down to three options: Mustad O’Shaughnessy Live Bait Hook, Trokar Lancet Offset Circle, and Owner Mutu Circle.
Hooks from left to right: Mustad O-Shaughnessy, Trokar Lancet Circle, and Owner Mutu Circle
I like to start with a typical J-hook like the Mustad because it’s easy to hook baits in the nose, butt, or back, and even in the small sizes like 2 or 4 the O’Shag is incredibly strong and sharp. This is the hook to use on the slide, in a 1/0 or 2/0 size for ‘dines. However, you leave alot up to chance when using a J-hook with light line, as you never know how that fish is hooked and how much pressure you can really give it. This is where the trokar Lancet comes in, and last year it saved me more fish than I can count. In the 1/0 size, this is still very much a finesse hook with a lighter wire design, but nearly every fish I hooked was caught perfectly in the corner and I never had an issue with one bending out. The Mutu circle comes into play when the fish are bigger but will only eat a small bait. The size #4 Mutu Circle is a deadly finesse tuna hook that you can use on heavy line if necessary.
Live Bait Strategies
Now that we’ve covered the gear, its time to focus on some of the things as an angler you can do to put yourself in position to catch the one fish landed that day. This starts by being prepared to cast as soon as the boat slows down. It can be easy to lose focus throughout the day especially when they aren’t biting, but its important to try and make the most out of every stop. I like to mentally pick out a bait to use as the skipper circles the school, and as soon as word is given, I’ll pin it on and send it out. Fishing the slide like this can be deadly and is often the way to pull a few tuna out of a school of non-biters. Make sure you nose-hook your bait and follow your line as you slide either left or right across the stern. Let it soak freely for several minutes and watch your line. Tangles on the slide with spectra can be a nightmare, so as they say, “no angle, no tangle.” A bite is a tick and a strong run, usually unmistakable. Throw the lever in gear and raise your rod up and keep it there, watching the direction of the run. (Above) Christian Lopez showing us all that even big ones can be landed on light gear.
No bite? Slowly wind your bait back as sometimes you get bit on the retrieve. The next thing I do is look for patterns to emerge around the bite; Nose-hook or Shoulder? Should I long-soak or cycle through baits? Is the stern getting bit more than the bow? What’s the current doing? Try to look at every bite as a hint to an emerging pattern that you have to unlock piece by piece, and throughout the day continue making micro adjustments until you find something that works.
Fighting fish on light gear also takes some skill and technique that you wouldn’t otherwise use when fishing heavier tackle. The first thing is to test your drag on the trip and know that it is set correctly. Generally, your drag from the outset is pretty light, about 20-30% of full. Once you’re bit, the tendency of daytime bluefin is to haul ass straight out—enjoy the ride while keeping the rod high. The bend in the long rod will apply more pressure to the fish and will help absorb any potential headshakes which can be very helpful with the light line. Once the fish finishes the initial run, tighten your drag a click at a time until 50-70% of full and settle in to a steady wind while following your fish around the boat. Even if you’re not steadily gaining line, keep the handle turning and apply constant pressure to the fish. It’ll begin to settle deeper and once you’re fully up and down, push your drag a few clicks tighter and start the lift and wind method while continuing the steady pressure. Watch your rod tip and take a wind every time you see it lift up. Hopefully, the fish will come up to color in tight circles, but can jet up to the surface and give your heart a rush. Keep calm, keep on the pressure, and soon you’ll have finessed a tuna on board!