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April 30, 2014

How to Catch Blackfin Tuna in the Florida Keys

This Florida Keys pro excels at starting tuna feeding frenzies on Islamorada’s famous humps.

As we approached the underwater seamount known as the West Hump from the down-current side, we could see an occasional bust on the surface as tuna rose from the depths to pick off passing baitfish. The current ripped over the hump at about 31/2 knots, and the helpless baitfish were under attack from the tunas below and the marauding flocks of terns and gulls above. 

Capt. Brian Cone steered the boat over the center of the hump as he watched the video sounder intently. The water grew increasingly shallow as we neared the top of the hump, and when we reached it, he simply said, “There they are.” A large red blotch on the sounder screen pinpointed what we had come in search of, a large school of blackfin tuna. Cone motored up-current past the fish before tossing out the first net full of live chum. 

As the baitfish hit the water, the swift current carried them back to the waiting tunas. It was only a matter of seconds before the surface of the water erupted as the tuna attacked the terrified baits in much greater number than before, crashing in great boils behind the boat.

Carter Andrews and I pinned live pilchards to the 3/0 circle hooks attached to our spinning rods and flipped the baits back into the melee. We barely had time to close the bails on the reels before we were solidly fastened to a pair of blackfins, our first of the day. We managed to release those first two fish, and then we reset as Cone kept us positioned in front of the school, chumming all the while to keep them at the surface behind the boat.

The Man in the Brown Suit

On our next pass, both of us hooked up as before, but neither of us landed the fish. A large pack of dusky sharks had appeared below us, with the occasional huge hammerhead thrown in, and they eagerly attacked any and all fish we hooked. We landed a couple but lost many more to the sharks before regrouping and deploying heavier tackle in the hope of muscling a tuna or two past the predators below.

We had been fishing 15- and 20-pound-test on light spinning rods but switched to stouter rods and heavier leader to thwart the sharks. By applying maximum drag and landing the fish as quickly as possible, we increased our success rate substantially.

Live Bait Is Key

“The hardest part of being successful in this kind of fishing is getting the right bait, and enough of it,” Cone said as we moved back into position. “Then it’s simply a matter of knowing how to position the boat and how much bait to chum with to keep the tunas feeding actively.”

Early on the morning of our trip, we had gone in search of pilchard schools along the shoreline of the islands that make up Islamorada, in the heart of the Florida Keys. Cone grew up in Islamorada, so he knows every spot where bait might be found up and down the island chain. In short order he located a huge school of pilchards beneath diving pelicans, and after a few throws of the cast net, we were loaded and on our way offshore.

“Once you’ve gotten the bait, it’s important to know how to approach the fish,” Cone had explained on the way out. “Too many people just stop on top of the tuna school, put the boat in neutral and toss over a few baits. You might hook one that way, but the current will take you away from them so fast you’ll lose the school.”

Power Drifting

Cone steered the boat into the current until he marked the fish, then continued up-current for about another 2,000 feet. With the current running at 31/2 knots, he kept the boat in gear and headed into the current at about 21/2 knots, effectively letting the boat drift slowly backward. 

“It’s a little like back-trolling in fresh water,” he said. “You want to stay far ahead of the fish until you get them into the feeding mode.” To do that, Cone tosses a small number of baits overboard at first, maybe five at a time, at regular intervals. When the tunas spot the baits overhead in the current and crash on them, Cone dumps a large scoop of baits over to draw the fish to the boat.

An Epic Bite

On our second drift over the hump after pulling out the heavier tackle, Cone dumped baits over by the dozen after the tunas came up, and we soon had large blackfin and skipjack tunas swarming beneath the boat literally by the hundreds. The sharks stuck around too, but by altering our tactics and becoming more aggressive on the fish, applying maximum pressure the instant they bit, we lost very few to the sharks.

Andrews and I spent the better part of the next 21/2 hours hooked to fish. Cone kept the fish beneath the boat the whole time by keeping up a steady stream of live chum, even as the current took us far from the top of the hump. The sharks stayed behind, but the tuna remained with the boat as we moved slowly down-current, so we had a long stretch of uninterrupted action on fish up to 28 pounds.