Tactics for Yellowfin Tuna

Even while targeting other species, it's not hard to add a few tuna to the fishbox
A school of tuna under the surface of the ocean.
It’s hard to pass up a shot at some tasty tuna when they show up unexpectedly. Nature Picture Library / Alamy

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Nearly everyone loves to eat tuna. Whether we are targeting them or another species, when the opportunity presents itself, it’s hard to pass up putting a few tasty ones in the box. Oftentimes we are fishing for something else, but occasionally the tuna show up and give us an excuse to get a hook into them. Watching tuna—especially the big ones—sky out of the water during a feeding frenzy is something any fisherman can find impressive and appreciate. And for most of us, the desire to change gears on the fly to grab a few is almost too strong to ignore.

Being prepared for these kinds of ­situations can mean the difference between eating sushi or chicken for dinner. And whether they are 10-pound blackfins, 60-pound ­yellowfins, 150-pound Allisons or giant bluefins, it’s always fun to get hooked up and battle a tuna regardless of your day’s target species.

Making the Quick Switch

Many times when we are trolling for billfish, we’ll see the tuna pop up as they push their prey to the surface. I have seen this happen in every single location I have ever targeted billfish. To be prepared for an opportunity like this one, I always have a few 50-pound-class tuna setups ready to fire out in the spread. If I’m fishing an area that holds very large specimens, I’ll even have a couple of 80-pound outfits ready to go. Proper planning and all.

My typical rig consists of a 2- to 9-ounce Sea Witch-style lure such as a Tuna Flare, Joe Shute or Ilander rigged with a 9/0 hook. That hook is rigged with a 10-inch RonZ tail. Some alternatives are the 12-inch Slug-Gos and the Z-Man HeroZ plastic baits—no dead bait required. These rigs are always ready to go and can also be trolled from 9 to 10-plus knots without any worry of a bait getting washed out.

Sometimes you’ll find that you will have to troll this fast to get back out ahead of the school and get into position for a bite, especially when the tuna are actively feeding.

When the tuna show themselves, just fire out one or two of these rigs on the proper gear, and put them in the long rigger and/or the shotgun position. Catching them on the beefier gear helps you get that tuna to the boat much quicker, so you won’t lose too much time going after your target species, especially if you’re tournament fishing. Trust me: Using heavy tackle is a much better alternative than getting jumped by a school of hefty tuna on the 20- and 30-pound-class gear you are using when targeting white marlin or sailfish.

Another trolling option is the tried-and-­­­true cedar plug. Yup, I (a professional fisherman) said it: a cedar plug. While it works wonders for smaller tuna, I have also caught a few 100-plus-pound Allisons on them. These simple yet very effective lures can be rigged and ready at any time, and they drive tuna crazy; so crazy, in fact, that they have to ­punish them into submission. There are many different colors out there, and some even have skirts now, but I have found that the standard blue/white, red/white or natural wood in the 6-inch version reigns supreme. Even the old Tuna Clones, feathers, and Green Machines get the job done when you are in a pinch and need to get something in the water quickly. And more often than not, these smaller lures get bit better when rigged up as a daisy chain, with a hook in the trailer.

A bluefin tuna on the leader.
Casting topwater poppers into a school of feeding tuna is often successful because the fish are so worked up that anything moving is often worth a taste. Adrian Gray

TopWater Smashers

If you are fishing from a dead or drifting boat when targeting other species, such as when you are kite-fishing for sailfish or deep-dropping for bottomfish or swords, there will be times when the tuna show their faces. In this situation, it’s always good to have a popper or surface stick-bait of some sort rigged and ready to cast.

Having a topwater lure always on standby is also great when you see tuna frothing on top as you are traveling to and from the fishing grounds. I have pulled back the throttles for a shot at them on the surface quite a few times and chucked a popper to them to capitalize on a few extra bites. It’s also one of the most explosive bites you’ll ever get to see. Even better, if you are live-baiting already, be sure to have a heavy spinning or casting outfit ready, just in case.

Sometimes, in a drifting, dead-boat ­situation, a school of tuna will swim right under your boat or will be feeding in the same area where you are already fishing. Having a jig or two ready to drop down to them can also be highly effective, so keep an eye on your sounder. Even if you are trolling and you get hooked into a few, when you slow down and start fighting them, oftentimes you’ll mark the school on the sounder directly below the boat. In this situation, you can also drop down a jig and get hooked into a couple more, if your crew is in-tune and you have the extra hands to make it happen. For a straight-down drop, a heavier jig will get you down to the zone quickly, keeping you tight to the boat instead of scoping out toward the line(s) with hooked fish on it, eliminating the risk of entanglement.

Read Next: Here’s a delicious recipe that’s perfect with fresh tuna.

Bird Mode

Let’s face it, some days, the fishing is just slow. It takes only one bite to make your day, and one of the most overlooked tools could be your radar, so it’s a must that you know how to spot birds on it. If you are able to mark birds, it’s always worth going in that direction to see if there is some rhyme or reason as to why those birds are working that particular area. And even when your target species might not be tuna, a flock of working birds can mean mahi, wahoo or billfish—and, more often than not, those birds are directly over tuna in most places in the world. I’m sure you’d rather catch a few tuna than no fish at all.

Your radar also goes hand in hand with a pair of binoculars, which are worth their weight in gold in any kind of fishing. A good pair can help you find a lot more than other boats and birds: You can distinguish rips, weed lines, floating debris, and many other features on the water that you absolutely would miss if you were just scanning the ­horizon with your naked eye.

So, the next time you’re out on the water, make sure you have a few of these tackle options rigged and ready to go. Doing so could easily make a slow day of fishing a good one, or a good day of fishing a great one.

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