Marlin fishermen like to think that blue, or black marlin, depending on which ocean you fish in, is the baddest, hardest-fighting fish in the sea. Well, it’s time to wake up, buttercup — they’re not. A marlin loses its fighting advantage by its instinct to come up and jump when trying to rid itself of whatever is causing its distress. Tuna, on the other hand, go down. That’s why everyone gets so pissy in the cockpit when a bit marlin starts heading for the bottom. You know it might be a long time before you see that fish again.
With a tuna, you know from the get-go what it’s going to do — it’s going to punish you. The deeper the water you hook a tuna in, the more line you’re going to need, because tuna fish head for the bottom and never give an inch on the way back up. Frankly, if you’re fighting any tuna over 100 pounds while standing up, then I hope it was an accidental hookup — either that or you must be some sort of masochist, but to each his own.
I know several tuna guys who live to get up at 1 a.m. to leave for a tuna trip that will take at least 24 hours, and hundreds of miles of travel time, just for the chance at some fresh sashimi — and to feel one of the most powerful fish that swims on the other end of their line. And they don’t use chairs very often, either.
Of course, bluefin tuna represent the true heavyweights and routinely break the 1,000-pound mark, but bigeye and yellowfin routinely top 300 pounds, presenting a challenge on any tackle. Here, then, are five great places to tangle with tuna that reach truly gigantic size — I know that there are plenty of fellows out there itching for the ultimate pull.
San Diego, California
If the catch of the all-tackle world-record yellowfin tuna, a 405-pounder, can’t make you jump on a long-range party boat out of San Diego, California, what about this little tidbit of information fresh from Capt. Frank LoPreste, skipper of the world-famous Royal Polaris since 1977: “We usually catch between five and 15 fish over 300 pounds each trip.” And that’s every boat in the fleet!
To be sure, you’ll be in for a bit of a different experience — bunking with up to 32 other passengers for a 10-day-plus trip into Mexican waters on a 100-foot-plus vessel. “We normally run trips that last anywhere from five to 22 days — but most of our big tunas are caught on 10-day trips, or longer,” LoPreste says.
The cost varies and depends on the length of the trip and the number of people on board. For example, a 10-day trip can cost between $2,800 (32 passengers) and $6,000 (18). To offset some of that cost, many of the trips are hosted or sponsored by tackle shops and manufacturers that bring tons of giveaways; some even offer cash prizes for fish eclipsing a certain weight — usually those topping 300 pounds.
“We had the 388-pound all-tackle yellowfin world record on Royal Polaris for 33 years before that 405-pounder [caught on Vagabond] broke it in December of 2010. We also caught a 398 that didn’t count as an IGFA record,” LoPreste says. “We mainly target the big yellowfin, but it’s best between Nov. 1 until the end of May. We catch hundreds of fish over 200 pounds every year.”
While the boats leave from San Diego, they target a series of far-off banks and islands lying off the coast of Mexico to the south. “We fish off the Luisitania Bank off Magdalena Bay, which is about 600 miles from San Diego; or in another area with even bigger success, Hurricane Bank, which is 980 miles south of San Diego. We also hit Clarion Island, which is about 850 miles away, ” LoPreste says.
It takes anywhere from 2½ to 3½ days to get to the fishing grounds, but LoPreste says the boys keep themselves busy prepping tackle and watching DVDs. As a bonus, they also catch 150 to 400 wahoo on a trip. Each passenger is allowed 15 tuna and 15 wahoo — which is more than plenty for anybody.
Predominantly a live-bait fishery — 95 percent of the fishing uses live sardines fished from the ships’ huge livewells — they also catch a decent amount of fish on the kite. “We use a rig called the double trouble, which consists of two sardines on two hooks. Live flying fish, live mackerel and live skipjack also work good on the kite for the big yellowfin,” LoPreste says.
If you don’t have the kind of specialized stand gear best suited to tackle 300-pound tuna from a dead boat, Royal Polaris will supply the gear. “We don’t charge extra for the gear or tackle, but we will charge for the line they use,” LoPreste says.
Royal Polaris — www.royalpolaris.com , 619-226-8030
Royal Star — www.royalstarsportfishing.com , 619-224-4764
Nova Scotia, Canada
Few fish live up to their name as aptly as a full-grown giant bluefin tuna. One of the elite species that routinely breaks the 1,000-pound mark, hooking a giant bluefin tuna in deep water is almost a certain break-off — just ask those unlucky boys who run across 800-plus-pounders a couple of times each year in the mile-deep water of the Gulf of Mexico. They now know that “Zing Pow” is not a city in China.
If you want to see a lot more fish, and in water that isn’t more than 200 feet deep, then you need to head for the land of the giants: Nova Scotia, Canada. The big tuna have come back in good enough numbers recently to convince the government to set aside a small recreational catch quota — and a catch-and-release quota as well. Right now, that catch-and-release quota means just one fish per day, but the success of the program last year has anglers hoping that the Canadian government will open it up a bit more.
Capt. James “Chuy” Roberts tries to fish Nova Scotia’s bluefin tuna bite every summer — he’s been going since 1997 — and he says that the chances of the fishery opening up a bit more look pretty good. “Last year, the government was thinking that the catch-and-release fishery was causing an 11 percent mortality rate. Then they went out and put tags in a few fish to make sure. Out of the 59 tuna that they tagged, only three died. This was good news for us, since this information allowed the government to change the recreational mortality rate to just 3.4 percent. This could mean that we could let more go, but we’ll have to wait and see,” Roberts says. “As it stands now, the government set aside a recreational quota of 10 tons — and a one-fish-per-day release limit. We probably won’t know until about 10 days before the season if we’re allowed to catch more than one per day. But either way it goes, the fishing up there is spectacular.”
Roberts usually fishes out of Ballantyne’s Cove in Cape St. George and says the fish start showing up sometime in June, but that the season didn’t traditionally start until mid-July. However, today, the fishermen don’t even begin to take tuna until September. “This is a highly regulated, limited-entry, competitive fishery,” Roberts says. “When I first started going up there, they would start fishing in mid-July and fish until the weather got bad because they couldn’t fill their quota.”
You won’t find any sleek sport-fishers up in Nova Scotia; if you make the trip, you’ll be fishing on a working commercial boat. But some things will be familiar. They use all the traditional methods we use to target tuna: live baits, drifting kites and chumming. “They don’t do too much trolling,” Roberts says. “The fish are too thick. We mainly fish on a piece of known structure or a spot that’s holding a lot of bait.”
“Where we fish we usually run about 15 miles, but there are plenty of places where they run less than two miles — I’ve seen giant tuna busting just offshore while sitting on my friend’s front porch.”
You also have to abide by different fishing regulations when recreational fishing. You have to fight the fish from a fighting chair, you can’t use more than 130-pound line, and you have to use a nonoffset, barbless circle hook. But these rules are in place to protect the tuna, which are true jumbos.
“The average size of the fish up there is around 800 pounds,” Roberts says, “and they’re tough. I even think we were under-calling them. During our harvest day last year, 17 out 24 were over 1,000 pounds.” And most boats guarantee that you’ll catch a giant bluefin.
Zappa Charters — Dale Tremholm
www.zappacharters.com , 902-386-2669
Tony’s Tuna Fishing — Tony McDonald
www.tonystunafishing.com , 902-357-2207
Giant Bluefin Tuna Charters — John Gavin
www.giantbluefintunacharters.webs.com , 902-863-1128
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Most people know Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, as one of the crew’s favorite stops on The Love Boat, and while passion may have run rampant on the fictional cruise ship, there’s nothing fake about the tremendous run of giant yellowfin tuna that swarm past this idyllic resort town during the late summer and fall. Cow yellowfin reaching weights close to 400 pounds frequent the offshore rocks and pinnacles that draw the bait and hold the fish.
Capt. Josh Temple first came to Puerto Vallarta 11 years ago, looking for a good surfing spot. On a 5,000-mile white-knuckle trip, Temple towed his 22-foot Grady-White all the way down from British Columbia. “It didn’t take too long to figure out I’d stumbled onto something special in Puerto Vallarta,” Temple says. “The first few days I ventured out fishing, I came across massive schools of feeding tuna and marlin at Corbetania Rock, roughly 15 miles from Punta de Mita. During those first few years, we encountered quite a few really big fish that we didn’t have the experience, or the gear, to keep up with,” he says.
“Although I’ve caught fish over 350 pounds in just about every month of the year, the most consistent season for the giants runs from August through December. At that time of year, there’s a very strong south current that pushes in warm, blue water that’s laden with bait. Once that current pushes in, and the banks and offshore islands fill up with skipjack and bait, you know that the giant tuna are going to be showing up soon after,” Temple says.
The best bait for these big cow tuna is another tuna. “My favorite technique for catching the largest yellowfin is trolling live skipjack. There’s no denying the effectiveness of a live skipjack trolled around the bank or Corbetania Rock. I’ve caught dozens of fish over 300, and trolling the live skipjack has produced probably 80 percent of them,” Temple says.
The kite is also very effective, as is chunking, but Temple prefers trolling large live baits around so he can get a shot at the huge black and blue marlin that also call Puerto Vallarta home. Kill two giants with one stone, so to speak.
“The largest tuna we’ve landed in Puerto Vallarta was 369.8 pounds and was caught by David Connell of San Diego, California,” Temple says. “I’ve hooked and lost at least two that were noticeably bigger. One fish in particular I’m absolutely positive would have went over 400. I’m confident that P.V. will produce the next all-tackle world record one of these years.”
Prime Time Adventures — Capt. Josh Temple
While I’m no tuna aficionado by any means, I’ve been lucky enough to see a few nice ones caught during my marlin travels. One of those, a 200-pound bluefin caught on a headboat off Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, surprised the hell out of me. I’d known about the good blue marlin fishing in the Canaries — that’s why I was there — but I didn’t have a clue about the large numbers of big bluefin and giant bigeye tunas that also frequent this European vacation paradise. The Canaries, a group of volcanic islands just off Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean, still hold the all-tackle bigeye record — a 392-pounder caught in Gran Canaria in July of 1996.
Capt. Jason Pipe started tuna fishing in the Canary Islands when he was 16 years old, and now, almost 30 years later, he’s pretty dialed in to the tuna around his home waters. “April and May probably represent our best months for tuna fishing. That’s right at the start of the season as the tuna pass through en masse, along with whales and baitballs. However, our tuna season can start as early as March. If the Cory’s Shearwaters start to turn up about mid-February, the tuna aren’t normally too far behind.”
Pipe says that bluefin and albacore are normally the first to show. “Bluefin from 300 up to 900 pounds have been caught in good numbers the last two years,” Pipe says. “Bigeye start turning up at roughly the same time, although sometimes a little later. The bigeye keep on turning up around the islands most of the summer, while the bluefin move off fairly fast, staying maybe only a few weeks. Yellowfin can start showing up from July onward, but in this ever-changing world, the arrival times seem to be changing as well!” he says. “The bluefin, bigeye and albacore have passed through the eastern islands of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote around April the last two years, while La Gomera seems to hold big bigeyes and yellowfin most of the summer.”
Pipe says that yellowfin are the hardest to catch here, with chunking taking the most fish. Bigeye, on the other hand, are easy, and you don’t have to be shy when trying to get a bite. “You just need to get on them as soon as you see them — just plow right over them and you’ll get one on. If they’re working a baitball, however, a more careful approach is needed so as not to destroy the baitball. Instead, we just troll and pick them off the edges with a quieter approach. If you can work out which way the fish are pushing, running across the front of the pack will result in catching the bigger fish.”
The fish here run pretty big, and Pipe has caught bigeye over 300, bluefin over 650 and yellowfin approaching 200 pounds. And since the fish might be at any island at any time during the season, Pipe says, “Anyone can contact me if they are interested in tuna fishing in any of the islands. If I can’t take you, then I will certainly put you in touch with the right boats in the right spots.”
Bocinegro Fishing Charters — Capt. Jason Pipe
Outer Banks, North Carolina
Everyone knows that the Outer Banks of North Carolina make a great place to fish for school- to medium-size yellowfin tuna. Forty- to 80-pound yellowfin make up the bread and butter of the charter fleets during the long, hot summers, but it’s the influx of giant bluefin each winter that gets the blood boiling even in the cold.
“The bluefin fishery started here on the Outer Banks out of Hatteras around the mid-’90s,” says Carolina native and legendary wire man Capt. Charles Perry. “There were lots of them when we first started. During the winter of 1995, Capt. Peter B. Wright and I caught 347 bluefin in 16 days fishing out of Hatteras. On one of those days, Stewart Campbell spent 11½ hours in the fighting chair and caught 73 bluefin averaging between 350 and 400 pounds.”
One of the most appealing aspects of the North Carolina bite when it first started was that the fish were feeding in relatively shallow water — usually less than 120 feet deep, which kept them from sounding into the abyss. That allowed anglers to catch them in a hurry. “The tuna were mostly feeding on bluefish at those wrecks,” Perry says. “That bite only lasted a couple of years, but boy was it ever fun while it lasted. In the late ’90s, the best bite on the bluefin seemed to be off Morehead City, North Carolina, but during the last two or three winters, we’ve gotten the best bite off Oregon Inlet.”
And despite what you may have heard, Perry says that the fish seem to be getting bigger every year. “We have watched this stock of bluefins get a little larger each year for the past four years. The average fish this past winter would have been around 250 to 300 pounds. If we can keep this particular stock from getting devastated for a few more years until they reach spawning age, it would sure help the bluefin stocks as a whole,” he says.
The best months to target these fish are December through April. During the last couple of years, there seems to be a better bite in December and January in the Morehead area, and then it usually gets good in February, March and April off Oregon Inlet.
“The most common way to target these big bluefin is to troll with large ballyhoo. But the new trend is marking the schools of bluefin on the depth sounder, stopping the boat and casting surface plugs for them. Once you see one explode on a surface plug, you won’t want to fish any other way. It really steals the show!” Perry says. For another show, check out this movie (marlinmag.com/bluefinsurgery) depicting some of the great work that Dr. Barbara Block is doing in the Tag-A-Giant program off North Carolina.