a tale of longtails cover with matt mcculloch

Many of you will be familiar with the larger, more well-known species of the genus Thunnus or ‘true tunas’, such as the mighty yellowfin and bluefin. However, one of their smaller relatives has yet to garner the same sort of international attention: the humble longtail tuna (Thunnus tonggol). While most species of tuna feed almost exclusively offshore in deep oceanic waters, longtails are right at home gorging themselves on baitfish along shallow coastal shorelines, often well within casting distance of a rocky outcrop or headland. This makes them an ideal target for land-based anglers wanting to tangle with large hard-running pelagic species along the east coast of Australia.

While not growing to the same epic proportions as some of their larger family members, these tuna can still reach 1.5m in length and potentially push the scales to well over 30kg. Couple that to a crazy turn of speed and seemingly endless stamina and you’ve got yourself a worthy adversary. They love to eat topwater lures worked at high speeds (which often results in some proper adrenaline pumping hits), can often be sight-cast to from high rock ledges and rate incredibly highly as table fare, either cooked into a fancy meal or served raw as world class sashimi.

a good sized longtail tuna approaches the rocks at the end of a fight
A fight with a longtail nears its end

Longtail tuna can be found year-round in much of the Indo-West Pacific. However, it is along the east coast (and to a lesser extent the west coast) of Australia that they have become a prized and highly sought-after target among a relatively small group of dedicated land-based fishos. Often confusingly referred to by locals as northern bluefin tuna (in order to differentiate them from our larger southern bluefin tuna), as the name suggests, they can be found along the entire northern coast of Australia, extending roughly as far south as Perth on the west coast and Sydney on the east coast. 

Despite not travelling vast oceans like their larger relatives, longtail tuna are still a highly migratory species, preferring to navigate up and down nearly the entire east coast of Australia. This makes knowing roughly when they are going to show up and where incredibly important – it can be the difference between a trip you’ll never forget and a trip you won’t want to remember. Predicting exactly when and where these tuna are going to pop up is far from an exact science, although their migratory patterns are relatively consistent each year which gives a pretty good rough guide to work from.

a pair of anglers with long tail tuna
Being a shoal fish, once you find one longtail you're likely to find more

Between the months of March and July, these speedsters will be harassing garfish and any other unlucky baitfish off the coast of New South Wales, bringing them within range of the seemingly countless headlands and rocky outcrops dotted along its pristine coastline. They will be spread along nearly the entire NSW coast, with limited numbers of fish making their way as far south as Sydney. 

Spring is the time to be on the central Queensland coastline, with September through December producing the highest numbers of large longtail tuna. Your choice of headland is much more limited on the QLD coast, however, so expect to find some crowds during peak season, especially on the more popular ledges such as the famous ‘Catwalk’ in the otherwise quiet seaside town of 1770. Don’t leave behind any rubbish on the rocks, always be respectful of others (especially the locals) and many will be quite friendly and usually more than willing to offer some helpful tips and advice.

Even with the innumerable points, headlands and rocky outcrops along the entire east coast of Australia, not all are created equal and not all are going to produce fish or even be accessible. Fishing known productive spots can be a good way to start out and get a feel for this style of fishing, however, the more well-known a spot is, the bigger the crowds will usually be. It’s not uncommon to see 20-30 keen anglers all lined up shoulder to shoulder competing for the chance of a big longtail tuna during the peak of longtail season. While following the crowds and fishing well-known spots can still be very effective, it can certainly pay off immensely putting time and effort into discovering new and rarely fished locations. And when you get things right, it can be indescribably rewarding having put the hard yards in yourself.

One of the easiest ways to discover new potentially productive areas is to take full advantage of the satellite imagery freely available online through Google Earth and other similar services. This gives access to a bird’s eye view of the entire coastline, making it possible to virtually explore numerous headlands in a very short amount of time and allowing you to narrow down a small selection of headlands to then explore in person. 

a stunning image of a longtail tuna nearing the end of a fight caught on a samson pelagic lure
A longtail tuna on a Samson lure

The main factors to look for when scoping out new locations using satellite imagery are accessibility, fishability and water depth. Whether you can even access the ledge or not is easily the most important for obvious reasons, followed by how safe and fishable the spot appears and its proximity to clean deep water. While incredibly helpful, the bird’s eye view only shows so much and can sometimes be deceptive. What seems like an easily accessible ledge may turn out to be impossible to get to, so it’s a good idea to have a few extra options to fall back on.

Once actually down on a ledge, you will get a feel for the terrain and a scale of the area that would otherwise be impossible to pick up from a satellite image. Once there, you can begin to look for the more subtle clues and features in a given location – the most important being a safe place to land big fish. This might seem obvious to some but it’s surprising how often people hook up first and only then start wondering how and where they are going to land their catch. Other important details to pay close attention to are water depth and water quality, whether you have clean sand bottom or perhaps large scattered rocks, and whether there baitfish present or any seabirds feeding in the area. 

matt mcculloch with a longtail tuna on a samson pelagic lure
Matt favours the Samson lures for their durability and long casting ability

It is surprising just how shallow these tuna are willing to swim in order to find a feed. As long as there is deep water nearby, the swell hasn’t kicked up a cloud of sand and the water is otherwise clean, they will quite happily cruise past in less than a meter of water. There have been multiple occasions where I’ve hooked up in less than a meter of water and on one occasion, even sight-casted to a school of tuna in less than 40cm of water. As long as the conditions are good, don’t immediately write off a location as ‘too shallow’. 

While fish don’t always read the rulebook and extraordinary captures can and do happen at any point in time, choosing the right time and conditions will stack the odds in your favor and you’ll stand a much better chance at connecting with one of these incredible fish. The time of day, the size and stage of the tide, the weather, wind and wave direction, swell height, moon phase, water temperature… there’s just so many potential variables to consider and be aware of.

While this may seem daunting at first, with the exception of wind and swell, most of these factors are just something to be mindful of as opposed to hard and fast rules that will make or break a trip. Strong winds and big swells can easily make conditions dangerous and unfishable for weeks at a time, so looking at historic weather conditions for a given location will give you a good idea on what to expect at different times of the year.

Because of the way the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon affect the tides, you will always have your biggest fluctuation in tide height on what are called ‘spring tides’, during the new and full moon phases. During these periods, baitfish tend to congregate close in around the rocky headlands. The tuna know this and take full advantage of the smorgasbord of easy pickings on offer, making it an ideal time to have a lure in the water. The best state of tide for longtail tuna always seems to be a few hours either side of the low. While the water level is high, baitfish can hug the rocks and structure and more easily avoid predation but at low tide they are forced away from the protection of structure and become a lot more vulnerable. Heavily overcast days can make for some incredible fishing, as the tuna tend to be bolder and feed with a lot less caution. However, clear blue skies are super important if you want to try your hand at sight-casting to these living torpedoes.

matt mcculloch plays a longtail tuna on light gear
These fish are sure to put a bend in any outfit

For anyone that’s attempted to sight-cast any species of fish, you will know it is much easier said than done. While it might be easy to spot your adversary, rarely is it ever easy to actually get them to eat – tuna are no different. Spotting them is often as simple as finding a high vantage point on the rocks close to the water’s edge on a sunny day and continually scanning the surface of the water with a good pair of polarized sunglasses until a school of big fish swims past. Their hydrodynamic muscular shape and dark black dorsal colouration make them incredibly easy to spot once you know what to look for, especially when contrasting against a clean white sandy bottom. 

Once a school is spotted, the hard part begins. Because of the speed and unpredictability of the tuna’s movement, they can be quite tricky to even get a lure in front of, let alone get the presentation and timing perfect. It takes a bit of practice to get a feel for how much you need to lead them by as it depends on a few variables like speed, direction and behavior of the individual school. As a general rule, the further away the better in order to avoid spooking the school when the lure lands. Too far away, however, and they might change direction before you even get the chance to work your lure past them so finding that balance is necessary. 

Matt Mcculloch with a long tail tuna on a samson candle pelagic lure
The Samson Candle's are a very effective lure

Although not requiring the same extreme tackle as some of their relatives, longtail tuna are still large powerful fish that require some serious stopping, meaning quality tackle truly up to the task is paramount. A spin reel capable of holding a minimum of 300m of 40-50lb braided mainline is a must, and a smooth carbon fiber drag is important in order to handle those blistering runs. Emphasis is needed on a smooth carbon drag system as a sticky drag is going to result in a lot of pulled hooks and a felt drag will quite literally turn to dust under the heat and pressure generated in the battle. Matching that with a 9-10ft long rod rated 8-15kg and capable of casting lures between 50-120g will see you set to handle even the biggest tuna that might swim past. Tie on a 2m length of 60-80lb fluorocarbon or monofilament leader with a quality leader knot such as the FG knot and all that’s left to do is figure out which lure to tie on.

There are four main categories when it comes to lure choice when talking about big land-based tuna: metals, shallow diving hardbodies, floating/sinking stickbaits and plugs. All of these varieties come with their own unique benefits and drawbacks. Metal lures are just that, a solid bit of metal with a tow point at one end and a hook at the other end meaning they cast reasonably well and sink very quickly. They can be sunk down to the bottom and quickly retrieved at breakneck speeds or simply skipped across the surface of the water like a fleeing baitfish. Surecatch Knights and Spanyid Raiders in the 60-85g size seem to be the most popular of the metal lures and despite being so simple, still account for some quality fish every season.

a perfect outlook spot to look for passing tuna to sight cast to
A good elevation aids greatly in sight casting for this species

Shallow running divers such as the Rapala X-Rap and Jackson G-Control are another good option, especially when fish don’t seem to be eating anything else. They don’t cast very well though and you do need to be careful with them when fishing off rocks as all bibbed lures tend to be quite brittle and break easily. Stickbaits are another good option as they tend to cast slightly further than shallow divers, although it can be impossible to work them and get a good action unless low down to the water and, again, usually aren’t that durable so care needs to be taken around the rocks. 

‘Plug’ style lures are simply a solid piece of tough plastic carved into a profile and then filled with lead, ideally designed and shaped for maximum durability and casting distance. These lures first gained popularity in the land-based scene over in South Africa, although it didn’t take long for them to prove their worth over here in Australian conditions, quickly becoming many anglers’ go-to lure off the rocks. They can be sunk down deep and worked back up to the surface, effectively fishing the entire water column. However, they are best when simply skipped across the surface, perfectly imitating a fleeing baitfish. 

Although there are plenty of cheap and brittle injection molded imitations now flooding the market, quality plugs like those by Samson Lures are individually handmade from solid HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) – the same material used in plastic cutting boards. This makes them incredibly strong and hard wearing, protecting the lure from constant knocks and hits against rocks, not to mention their tremendous long-casting properties as they fly straight and don’t tumble or catch the air. 

Of the current range from Samson Lures, the 50-85g Slim Minnow and the 50-90g Pelagic Candle are a clear stand out when it comes to tuna and are, in my opinion, a must-have lure for this style of fishing. The Slim Minnow is a great all-rounder but is most effective when it’s slightly rougher as it skips across the surface of the water, bouncing erratically off the wind chop. The Pelagic Candle has a much more subtle action that comes into its own in really calm conditions when fish are spooky and shut down. It leaves a long neat little bubble trail that these tuna just can’t get enough of. 

a school of tuna passing close inshore
A school of tuna passes by

When fighting a tuna land-based, the fight can be split into two main phases. Once the hooks are set, there will generally be a few big headshakes while the fish figures out what’s going on before it powers off on a long line burning run. Once the tuna is tired, it then settles down into predictable arcs where the real hard work begins. In the initial stage of the fight it is all about just keeping the line tight and the hooks in there solid while it screams line and randomly changes direction a few times. Once the fish calms down and settles into a predictable pattern, however, some technique has to be applied to have control over the fish, especially when it comes to avoiding things like rocky outcrops and other bits of structure.

When swimming in arcs during the fight, the tuna will be continually beating its tail, trying to turn its head and swim away, but because you are applying constant pressure from a stationary position this will cause the fish to swim forwards in an arc perpendicular to the line angle. While tuna are typically clean fighters, if nothing is done to turn the fish, it will continue to swim in its arc and (depending on the location) potentially snap you off on structure in close or even head around a point and break your line on the rocks. The knowledge of what causes those arcs can be an advantage when it comes to turning your fish. Simply drop the rod tip and back the drag right off to near free-spool, this will unbalance the tuna and turn its head allowing you to simply tighten back up with your fish now arcing in the opposite direction and away from any hazards.

a shark circles below what is left of a retrieved fish
Sharks can be a bit of a menace at times

Sharks are a big concern as they enjoy eating your fish and stealing your lures in the process. They are a land-based anglers’ worst nightmare and a tackle store owners’ best friend.  While sometimes nothing can be done to prevent your tuna from becoming shark food, if you pay attention and react quick enough there’s a neat little trick that’s often quite successful when it comes to getting your fish past the sharks. Tuna aren’t naturally a common prey item for any sharks, it is only when your fish is slowed down by heavy drag that it’s added to the menu. Simply back off the drag and, unless it’s already exhausted, your tuna will have no problem outrunning any sharks.

If they are hooked cleanly, care is taken when handling and they’re quickly returned to the water after a few photos, most longtails will release well and take off healthily. However, as with most tuna, these rate incredibly highly when it comes to eating quality, with longtail tuna sashimi demanding some of the highest prices in top restaurants across the world. If you decide to keep a tuna, it is important to brain spike and bleed your catch as soon as possible in order to preserve the quality and flavor of the meat. If filleting such a large fish seems daunting, there are plenty of informative tutorials on how to fillet large tuna online that will guide you through every step of the process. 

  

Longtail tuna are the heart and soul of the east coast land-based scene and for good reason: they are incredibly beautiful fish both in and out of the water, produce some adrenaline pumping hits, take off on blistering long runs, have indescribable strength and stamina and taste phenomenal. For many anglers, including myself, they are the first introduction to land-based game fishing and I couldn’t think of a much better species for such an insane baptism of fire. 

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