Selecting the Right Tuna Bait

The bait stop is man’s best friend when it comes to targeting large schools of albacore tuna off of the West Coast. The anchovy has been converting tuna fishermen into happy anglers everywhere since the bait started gracing the inside of our bait tanks.

Thunnus Alalunga (albacore tuna) consider these fragile baits a top-shelf, tasty treat, so it pays to take extra care of your bait and choose only the best baits when targeting albacore.

Consider the setting — fish are boiling 20 feet off the stern. The dorsal fins of the tuna pierce the surface of the water like tablesaws slicing two-by-fours. Your buddies at the rail start to holler “Hook up!” and your heart is damn near pounding out of your chest. You want to pick a bait and get it in the water as quickly as you possibly can.

You have done all of your preparation work and have your bait rig in hand, ready to do some work. Your next action will decide if you become a hero and join in the hollering or the alternative — a zero.

Hopefully, you pick a great swimmer and he makes the trek into the jaws of a hungry tuna. If you don’t, don’t worry. There is still hope and if you follow these five tips it will help you stay in the hero column, instead of the zero.

1. SLOW is PRO

The number one problem with bait fisherman is picking the wrong bait to begin with. As enticing as it is to grab the first flailing anchovy at the top of the bait tank, take your time and find the Michael Phelps of the tank. You want to pick the swimmer that is trying to win a gold at the next Olympic games. The little guy is going to swim the same way off the stern as he is in the tank. Look carefully before sticking the bait net in the tank to net him.


When I was in high school, we were required to read “Of Mice and Men,” by John Steinbeck. The two main characters, George Milton and Lennie Small, are migrant ranch workers who move from place to place in search of work. In the controversial novel, the mentally disabled Lennie inadvertently kills a puppy while handling it. He doesn’t comprehend his own strength and goes on to murder (again, accidentally) the farmer’s flirtatious wife after she entices Lennie to stroke her hair. This book is still used in schools across America today to teach students a wide variety of universal lessons.

I bring the book up to teach you a lesson about handling bait. Mishandle an anchovy on my boat, and it will earn you the name Lennie! Anchovies are super fragile and they need to be handled as such.

When handling anchovies, make sure your hands are wet. You want to handle the bait as little as possible. This is a case where practice makes perfect. Get used to grabbing an anchovy carefully out of the bait net and hooking him.


In your excitement, you might grab an anchovy and blindly throw the bait net back into the bait tank. The anchovies that were swimming in a nice circular motion are now swimming head on into the net that you just dropped. Their gills are flaring drastically as they struggle against the net.

I know it’s hard to focus, but calmly place the bait net in its holder after you grab a bait and keep all other foreign objects out of the tank — this includes pliers, knives, sharpeners, hooks, you name it. Besides, what good do these items do you if they’re at the bottom of your bait tank?

The goal is to minimize interaction with your anchovy until he hits the back of an albacore’s throat. When you net your anchovy from the tank, you don’t need to net his 50 buddies along with him. Try to net between five and 10 baits, then pick the strongest one.


The second biggest mistake that I see is guys fishing a bait that is struggling. I have literally watched guys stare at their bait for minutes as it swims in tight circles 3 feet from the boat. If you have a bait that doesn’t want to swim for you, take him off and start over. The sooner you recognize a bad bait and put a new one on, the sooner you will get bit. Again, it’s hard to do when everyone around you is hooked up, but it must be done.


If you look at a bait, and it looks like it just went a few rounds with Mike Tyson, it’s not a good bait!

A bait with a bloody noise is a good indicator that your anchovy might not fair so well. The clear and obvious indicator is that the bait needs to be switched out is when the bait starts swimming on its side or upside down. This poor soul is a good candidate for the chum line.

You also want to find a bait that has good color. The really strong baits have a nice green back.

Follow these tips and you’ll improve your catch rates on your next tuna fishing trip and stay tuned for more articles about bait handling in the very near future.

Selecting the Right Tuna Bait

Capt. Tommy Donlin, the BD Outdoors Pro Staff representative for the Pacific Northwest, has more than 20 years of experience fishing the waters from Sitka, Alaska, to Clarion Island off the coast of Mexico. He chases everything that swims off the Washington coast, including tuna, salmon, lingcod, ha...