If you’re a tuna beginner looking to catch the craze of pursuing these awesome fish, check out these tips to help get you started.
Battling my third tuna without a break, I finally begged for the fighting belt. We were into a school of voracious feeders and every drop of the iron was met with hard hits and long, tough battles. By the fifth fish, I needed a break.
My only regret was not asking for the fighting belt, sooner. This was my first high-volume tuna fishing experience off the Pacific Coast, and I’d been warned about how unrelenting these predators of the green water can be.
Using a fighting belt was just the start of lessons I learned, as I picked up a lot from the seasoned veterans on the boat that day. After further chatting with tuna guru, Captain Del Stephens, I gained even more insight to what I need to know as a newbie albacore tuna angler. If you’re a beginner looking to catch the craze of pursuing these awesome fish, here are five tips to help get you started.
1. FINDING FISH
“The most important thing a new tuna angler can do is educate themselves on how to find fish,” begins Capt. Stephens, author of the popular book The Dark Side: One Man’s Journey to the 125 Line & Back. “You need to be able to read sea surface temperature charts, or SSTs. It’s worth subscribing to a service like NOAA or Terrafin. This satellite imaging information is a great starting point and will save you so much money in fuel, blindly searching for albacore tuna in the wide-open ocean.” Learn more at www.Terrafin.com.
Stephens adds that reading chlorophyl charts, along with SSTs, is good to know. “You want chlorophyl charts to line up with the temperature breaks, as this is a great place to start looking for tuna. Look for a high concentration of green in chlorophyl, as that’s where more nutrients are for the bait to hang out and feed, versus the colored blue chlorophyl line. Look for 59- to 62-degree water. If you can find where the water temperature jumps at least one-half of a degree in a quarter- to half-mile distance, that’s a great place to start, even if the water is a bit dirty. This is because baitfish, primarily anchovies, feed in the green water, where food is abundant. Tuna require a lot of food, eating 5 percent of their body weight each day. When in a feeding frenzy, albacore tuna can gorge themselves, taking in up to 20 percent of their body weight.”
As the water gets more clear, look for birds. That’s what we did on my latest tuna adventure, and it worked. The various mix of gulls were sitting on the surface in a big flock, over the bait, then suddenly started feeding like crazy as tuna pushed the bait to the surface. Soon the tuna were boiling on the surface and the bite was on.
It’s easy to burn hundreds of dollars in fuel simply looking for tuna. If you know what to look for, and have a specific idea of where you’re headed before even leaving the dock, the odds of finding fish greatly increase. Invest in electronics that allow you to safely navigate and track water conditions, and your experience will be much more efficient.
2. BUDDY UP
A lot of anglers I know head to the open ocean in search of tuna in the same boats they fish salmon and steelhead from.
If ocean conditions are prime and the wind lays down, that’s fine. But if you’ve ever been 50 miles out at sea in a 17-foot open boat and only one motor, it’s an intimidating feeling.
Running in that same boat, into four-foot high waves, for three hours, in order to return to the dock, is not too fun, either.
Stephens suggests that no matter how big your boat is, if you’re new to albacore tuna fishing, go out with a buddy. In fact, it’s always a good idea to go out in two boats, in case something goes wrong.
“Over the years we’ve seen so many rescues of tuna fishermen,” shares Stephens. “A lot of times it’s as simple as people running out of fuel. If you’re running 40 to 50 miles to the fishing ground, then trolling all day, then running back to the dock, it takes a lot of fuel, so make sure your tanks are full and extra fuel is on board. We’ve seen a number of boaters just drifting freely, maybe half-way to the fishing spot, because they ran out of fuel. This is big water, and if the wind is blowing, it can be very dangerous for boats with no power.”
Be sure to strap fuel cans and other large pieces of gear to the back of the boat, not the front. The front of the boat is the roughest riding part, and takes a beating when hitting wave after wave, head-on. To ensure no spills, and heavy gear breaking free, firmly secure everything.
Having a second motor is wise, too. Should your primary motor break down, a second motor keeps you moving — a must, especially if it’s windy. There’s no worse feeling, or dangerous situation, than to be adrift in the open ocean with no options of moving. Have a good VHF radio or SAT phone onboard, as well.
3. GEAR UP
Acquiring the proper gear for tuna fishing is wise when it comes to hooking and landing these hard-fighting fish. It can be a big initial investment, but if you’re going to dedicate yourself to being a good tuna fisherman, it will quickly pay for itself.
“Most people start out by trolling for tuna,” Stephens notes, “and most start off with a stiff rod. You want a stiff rod with a stiff tip, in that 15- to 20-pound class being ideal. Rod length doesn’t matter, and a lot of folks use their short, stiff halibut rods, which are fine for trolling. What you really need, though, is a high-quality reel.”
You’ll likely spend over $200 per reel, but that’s what’s needed if you want to catch tuna and keep catching them without having to keep reinvesting in gear that won’t stand up to the battle. “Today’s reels are getting smaller and more powerful,” points out Stephens. “You need a quality reel with a 300-yard capacity of 50- to 65-pound-test braid. A great entry level reel is a Daiwa Saltist in a size 4/0 with a lever-drag system. If you go cheap you’ll burn up reels fast, which will cost you more in the long run.”
The same goes for swivels. Avoid saving a few cents on bulk swivels, instead getting quality, heavy duty ones that withstand the punishment of the fight and not seize-up in saltwater.
“When attaching a lure to your mainline, via the swivel, go with a 4- to 5-foot leader, in the 150- to 200-pound class,” Stephens suggests. “It doesn’t have to be fluorocarbon, as tuna are not leader shy.”
Both feathered lures and vinyl chrome lures are solid choices when it comes to trolling for albacore tuna. “There are four basic colors you want to be sure and have with you,” Stephens notes. “Black/purple, the Mexican flag, zucchini, and pink/white. If you’re going to catch a tuna on the troll, one of these colors will work. Start by running one of each color on separate rods, and if one is getting hit more than the others, switch all rods to that color.”
4. TROLLING FOR STRIKES
When putting out trolling lines, Stephens suggests putting them in a V-pattern. “Run the outside rods farthest back, with rods in the back corners being the closest. Some boats can only fish four rods, some six or eight rods, depending on the outrigger setup. Just keep the pattern close together, as you want to create the look of schooling baitfish.” If you let out the back corner rods 40 feet, let the side rods out 10 to 15 feet behind those. “Depending on the boat and how rough the ocean is, let the lures back far enough so they’re running without skipping across the surface,” Stephen’s suggests. “You want to be trolling between 6 and 7 miles per hour most of the time.”
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When you get a strike, keep trolling, at least for a short while.
“When a tuna hits and immediately starts stripping line, there’s nothing you can do, so just let it run,” says Stephens. “Keep trolling for another 10 seconds or so, to try and get more hookups. Once you stop the boat, most of the time the hooked tuna will stop running. At this time, reel in the empty lines so as to avoid tangles.”
If someone’s hands are free — that is, not fighting a fish — get them on the motor to keep the lines from tangling. Bumping it in and out of gear is all that’s needed; this will help keep things under control if the wind is blowing. It’s not uncommon to catch 30 to 40 tuna in a couple hours when the bite is hot, so be ready.
5. SUMMER CHANGEUP
About mid-August, Stephens no longer trolls because water conditions change.
“As the water warms and gets above 62 degrees the albacore will move down in the water column into the thermocline of cooler water. You can troll all day long over the top these fish and not catch one. Sometimes trolling swim baits 100 to 150 feet back to entice the tuna to come up, will work, but not like earlier in the season. Instead, start working ‘iron’ this time of year.”
As with many forms of fishing, tuna anglers are realizing the importance of diversifying their approach. Sometimes, that includes dropping heavy jigs and spoons.
“When you run 40 miles and don’t see another boat, then suddenly come upon 200 boats trolling in the same spot, it’s no secret where the tuna are,” smiles Stephens. “But watch and see how many of those boats are actually catching fish; likely very few late in the season. This is because the tuna are deep, and you have to get down to where the fish are. Having some good ‘iron’ rods on board can make a big difference.” Iron can be fished multiple ways, and Stephens thoroughly covers these techniques in his book.
As you look to expand your tuna fishing adventures, take the time to read and interpret charts. Invest in the proper gear, a move that ultimately saves you time and money. From there, be safe and fish smart. The ocean is much different than fishing rivers or lakes. Be sure to travel with a buddy boat and get ready to experience the rewards of albacore tuna fishing along the Pacific Coast.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To order signed copies of Del Stephen’s book, visit TunaDogOffshore.com. Scott Haugen is a freelance writer and TV host. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook.