The following is a brief overview of some of the considerations to take into account when fishing for Bluefin Tuna. There is a lot more to it than this but hopefully this will give you a basic understanding of some of the things that are happening on the boat and why, should you be lucky enough to fish for them in the future and haven’t done it before.
Remember that the only legal way to fish for Bluefin Tuna, as well as the safest way for both you and the fish, is from an approved CHART charter vessel.
Disclaimer: Hookpoint does not endorse or suggest the targeted fishing for Bluefin Tuna outside of the CHART programme in UK waters. It remains illegal. We note that there is a lot of poor information out there and many people are at risk of harm through picking up bad advice. You may wish to scale your gear appropriately if shark fishing in areas where Bluefin are present, and equally you may want to familiarise yourself with what to do in such situations to improve the safety of both you and the fish should a true accidental hook-up occur.
We’ll keep this part short and relevant to targeting Tuna, so we won’t be going into spawning areas, growth rates etc. Bluefin Tuna are large pelagic fish and as such the techniques as deployed by vessels on the CHART programme has to be appropriate… no place for baits pinned hard on the bottom here! They have huge energy requirements and as such can eat around 10% of their body weight per day. This in turn means they have to be efficient in the way they hunt, they can’t just plough through a shoal of bait fish and pick up a few, their tactics mean that they try to eat every small fish in a shoal between them, so they work their way in from the outside. We’ll come on to how this is exploited in a bit.
The picking at the edges technique causes the bait to ball up, trying to get away from the Tuna who then pin them against a margin, which can be a tide rip, or more commonly observed by us looking for them, the surface of the water. Tuna and Dolphins herd the bait up in a ball and drive it to the surface where it can’t get away, typically, large numbers of fish eating birds like Gannets track this movement and dive in, picking up fish held up in the water column. This is a dead giveaway for the CHART boats looking for Tuna on a relatively calm weather day, some modern radars have a bird setting that can pick them up at incredible distances that can really give a head start in finding the fish. Tuna are highly migratory and well known as a strong and fast fish, they are capable of swimming in excess of 40mph and can feed at over 10 knots, just because they were in a place on one tide doesn’t mean they are necessarily anywhere near there by the same phase the next time.
These are the largest of the Tuna family and one of the hardest fighting fish you will come across, so tackle has to be in first rate order if you are going to get them to the boat. They can and will find any weakness in your setup! You can find articles and videos of Tuna setups all over the internet but remember that what we have currently in our waters is at the upper end of the size they grow to, so ignore the American pieces talking about small sub 100lb fish. Ours are real monsters and you need appropriate gear. This is why you will note that the CHART boats are all equipped with tackle that you may not consider the most sporting at first, but is absolutely critical to land these fish with as limited a fight time as possible.
To allow for manufacturer variance in ratings and consistently get them to the boat in good time, an 80lb class for the type of tuna we’re seeing at the moment is appropriate. Something along the lines of Penn International reels and Penn International trolling or short bent butt rods such as the Ally 80-100b. The reel is loaded with 100lb braid.
Overseas, I use Momoi hollowcore, as it enables you to splice in a topshot or line repair at sea. I fish a 130-150lb mono topshot, again Momoi, and like the CHART boats, you’ll find around 100m is used to put some stretch in the system and enable the lure/bait to be presented without the braid on the rollers. At the end of the mono will be tied a snap swivel. Many people use the Bimini twist to achieve this, it’s a great knot but I like the plait knot that I’ve mentioned before – it adds more stretch to the system that helps absorb those head shakes and lunges that a big fish will give you. Needless to say, the CHART skippers are doing this day in, day out, and will be very particular with their knots. At the end of the double a very strong snap swivel, that you can then attach your terminal tackle to, is used. I set my strike drag at 30lbs which gives me around 45lbs at full, it’s about as much as you want to hold on to but it tires the fish out quickly which is what this type of fishing is all about.
Fishing for Tuna can be broken down essentially into two techniques, which are then split again, bait (live or dead) and artificial lures (cast or trolled). However, the CHART programme does not permit the use of live baits, so don’t expect to see that when booking a trip in the UK. There is a bit of crossover between dead baiting and lure trolling, as dead baits can also be trolled and whilst both have their place, for me trolling lures has the edge as you cover so much more ground and are more likely to see signs of feeding birds which then leads you into feeding fish! There is also the fact that you have the engine running (I suspect many species of pelagic fish are conditioned to associate the sound of an engine with fish falling into the water) and also the movement of the boat which can act as a lure and draw fish up from deeper water. Trolling speeds can vary from around 4 knots for fishing bars to around 7 knots for fishing individual lures, the increased speed translates to more water covered by the end of the day which I think increases your chances of finding the fish. Most CHART boats will be trolling bars, which is proving very successful.
Dead baiting generally uses either small dead fish or chunks of fish to build a “ladder” of pieces for the Tuna to follow to the boat and find the hookbait on the way up. Baits can be staggered down the ladder much the same as we have mentioned for chumming sharks in past features, or for the really shy fish they can be suspended on a release clip beneath a fishing kite… This is a specialist technique that you don’t really see commonly used in Britain and I doubt one that the CHART boats will look to utilise, but it involves a short rod that holds a kite, the kite has a clip below it that holds the baited line, you fly the kite out to where you want, then slack off the baited reel until the bait sits just in the water. This is an excellent presentation as there is no line in the water at all and no hook for the fish to see. Once the fish takes, the clip releases the loop of line and you are tight to the fish. If you are fishing baits staggered from the boat then consider that Tuna have excellent eyesight, fluorocarbon is a must and it’s worth bringing it in and cleaning it often to stop algae building up on it and alerting the Tuna to something untoward. It should go without saying that hooks should be razor sharp. Brands like Owner and Gamakatsu are my favourites for shark fishing and will work equally as well on Tuna, I’ve mentioned before that I like the eye to be welded and I remove the barb for all manner of large fish.
Trolling is different, you need the boat to be moving to impart motion and keep the lures/deadbaits working, not static like on the drift. Trolling in the UK seems largely to be with spreader bars which is a Christmas tree type arrangement of large rubber Squid arranged on a Stainless or Titanium bar. The Squid are all arranged, generally in five lines coming from the edge of the bar with the longest line sitting in the middle. There are commonly attractors along the bar that cause splashing in the water known as birds. None of the Squid on the lines have a hook in them, but sitting on the middle line a few feet behind the rest is another Squid with a hook in, often a different colour – this is known as the stinger.
Spreader bars work because, as we have already mentioned, the Tuna’s energy requirements are such that they try to eat all the fish and work their way into the shoal – this means that they generally hit the lure hanging back behind the rest and the only one that has a hook in!
Spreader bars are used abroad, but in my experience it’s more common to set out a spread of single lures, which are all individual sizes, shapes and skirts and the heads of each lure dictates how it moves in the water. There are a couple of rules of thumb using single lures that will stand you in good stead if you would prefer this technique and the CHART boat will facilitate it. One is that the main lure is the boat, fish come to see that first and then see the lures behind. The boat is the biggest draw to the fish, so your first lure behind the boat should be aggressive – a smoker or plunger that will rile a fish into taking. Then, as you stagger the lures back in the spread the lures should become progressively less aggressive until the last lure is tracking straight and will hopefully appeal to a nervous fish that has come up and hung well back behind the boat in two minds.
The second important part of the technique is to spread the lures in such a way that any fish coming up to the boat can always see another lure should it not like the one it is next to, in this way they can progressively work their way through the spread until they find a lure that suits their frame of mind at the time.
Given most of what we have discussed so far will be taken care of by the CHART boat anyway, this is really the most critical point for anglers in the UK to consider. If you are fishing on the drift, then setting hooks and clearing the lines is much the same as you do for sharks. Watch the line that goes, tighten up, strike hard several times and then clear what you can in a logical sequence. If you are trolling, then when you get a take I find accelerating the boat to set the hook and get the hooked fish out of the spread works and helps avoid tangles, something the CHART skippers will be familiar with, but it helps if you understand why they are accelerating away from the fish! You can then leave the rod in the holder whilst you clear the other lines in sequence, though always be aware that the fish can stop running and turn back to the boat, so be ready to drop what you’re doing and get on the rod with the fish on to reel and keep your line tight.
You can fight Tuna in a few main ways, my personal preference is for stand up as it’s familiar to me and the way I fight any big fish on my own boat but that’s not an option available to everyone so we’ll look at the other ways in which you can do it and hopefully it will help people make an informed choice on how they would like to fight their fish. It’s worth discussing these options with your CHART skipper before making the trip, to ensure they can meet your needs.
Chair rods are often very heavy and this is the way 130lb class gear is commonly fished. It involves sitting in a chair that is fixed to the boat and being harnessed in, the angler uses their legs to fight the fish whilst the skipper manoeuvres the boat. I have yet to fight a fish from a truly comfortable chair and for me the 130lb class gear commonly used is top heavy and not a pleasure to use, but if the boat you are in has one and stand up is not your thing then take the chance to experience it and decide for yourself.
Long bent butt rods are commonly used for fighting fish from the gunnel, this is the kind of thing you’ll see if you watch “Wicked Tuna” and can be a good way to fight a fish, the idea behind the bend in the butt is that it will swivel and point in the direction the fish is. You can stand in the boat and fight the fish from the deck or if you have appropriate safety gear on, you can sit over the gunnel and fight the fish from there. As an angler the plus points are that it reduces fatigue as the boat is essentially attached to the fish and you can just take line onto the reel as and when you feel you can, you can also use the gunnel to help you balance and there is no strain on your arms from hauling against the fish.
Stand up – This method suits straight or short bent butts and it involves wearing a fitted harness and clipping yourself into the reel attached to the rod. The short bent butt offers a leverage advantage over the fish and so long as the harness is fitted properly you can use your body weight against the fish. For me, you really feel in contact with the fish and can change your movements to suit any moment in time. This is my favoured way of fighting big fish and on the day we fished on Crudsader I took my own harness.
Poorly set up harnesses are uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst so it was great to see Kev, the skipper, give a good briefing on how to use heavy tackle as we got onto the boat and also to fit Grant and Dave with separate harnesses that they adjusted and kept for the rest of the day.
Whatever system you use, you should ensure that if you are attached to any part of the gear that you carry the means to cut yourself away. I personally carry a belt with a knife and pliers on, and another knife in my pocket, I also always wear a lifejacket in my own boat, should you get a tip wrap or the clutch in the reel seizes, you could find yourself being pulled over the side and you certainly want to have a means of freeing yourself and helping your buoyancy should it happen. Ideally you will simply unclip yourself from the harness, being the only thing attaching you to the fishing tackle. The rod/reel can then have a safety line clipping it to the boat. Clipping yourself to the boat is just going to make yourself part of a chain you will struggle to get out of under tension from a running fish. This should help you make sense of why the rod, and not you, has a safety fastening to the boat on a CHART trip.
Tuna typically have a pattern to their fight. They put in an initial searing run which is incredible to see. You can physically see the spool getting smaller as they pull off line against a serious drag setting! Once they have done this they will put in a series of shorter runs at varying depths. A good piece of advice here is don’t let them rest between runs- when they are running they start to burn out, but as they pause and hang in the water they recover quickly, so don’t give them that opportunity, no matter how much you might fancy a rest at the same time!
Use the pauses to pile on the pressure and start to gain line on the fish to tire it quicker. If you do it this way you can get them to the boat quickly rather than be in it for a long and drawn out fight, that could last hours and do the fish no favours at all. This wont be allowed to happen on a CHART trip though, as a decision will be made at 45 minutes whether to more the rod to someone else.
You have to be on the ball in the fight as everything happens at speed. Make sure you keep tight to the fish at all times, particularly when they are coming straight towards you! Make sure you keep spreading the line on the spool to stop it fouling on the frame. Once Tuna tire they pinwheel, swimming in circles under or just off the boat, when this happens you want to get their head pointing up and keep the pressure on. This way the circles bring them steadily up towards the surface where you can wire them up to the boat. Most modern reels now are two speed, don’t forget to use this at the pinwheel stage if you need to get the fish moving up, you can also back the drag off slightly and drive the boat slowly away from the fish to kite it up in the water if you are struggling… All methods you will bear witness too on a CHART trip, where they are well trained in shortening fight time in the interests of the fish.
Tuna need careful handling at the boat and it is important for two reasons, first and foremost is your own personal safety – these fish are immensely strong and will hurt you badly if you make a mistake. All the things we’ve discussed before in other articles still apply here, such as not taking a wrap, not stepping in looped line, being careful around the hooks etc. Once you do have them subdued at the boatside, it’s important to treat them correctly, namely using a lip grip or gaff that is tied to the boat and towing them alongside, then unhooking and towing for a while longer until they are swimming under their own steam. Grant’s article speaks more about this but it important to realise what an important part of fishing this is, poorly released fish do not survive but with due care and attention the survival rate is incredibly high. You’ll note that the CHART programmes heaviest focus, is on the recovery phase. Whilst the ultimate aim is tagging the fish, they will only do so once they have ensured an adequate recovery, as even tagging can add undue stress at a time when you want to be bringing stress levels down.
Only once the fish has shown suitable signs of recovery will the tagging and then eventually the release occur.
It’s worth noting that whilst the CHART vessels will use a lip gaff / boga more often than not, this is following training of correct and adequate use of them. An incorrectly used gaff can very easily penetrate the Tuna’s tongue or gills, often proving fatal. If you experience an accidental catch of a Tuna, following a good recovery process is good practice, but having fought a tuna for that long on the hook, there’s no reason to believe it suddenly wont hold it any longer. As such, the safest option if you are at all unsure with a gaff is to keep the fish on the hook for the recovery.
Hopefully you can now fully understand all that is going on around you on a CHART trip and why, where nearly everything is designed for the safety of you and the fish.