Fishing for yellowfin tuna at oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico is bucket-list worthy. Now is a great time to hook into a 200-pound deep-sea swimming machine. And it’s a real good idea to be ready for the fight when you’re miles offshore and that line starts screaming off your reel.
Drew Herma, marketing director of Huk Performance Fishing, was a college athlete and looks at fighting a fish like any athletic competition. On a recent trip into the Gulf, Herma might have looked a little out of place as he stretched his hamstrings by pushing against the gunnels and went through the motions like he was headed into a football game. Other guys on the charter looked at him sideways. But Herma made a great point.
“Fighting a 100-plus-pound tuna is like any physical competition. You’ll push your limits,” he said. “What professional NFL player or MLB player does not stretch out before a game? That would be asking for injury.”
Herma focuses on these muscle groups: Hamstrings, quads, hip flexors and calves. These are the big-muscle groups that you’ll be depending on when you are on the other end a 150-pound tuna that’s trying to pull you in.
If you’re stand-up fishing, a harness will allow you to remove all pressure from the top of your body — arms, back and shoulders — and transfer your power to your body mass and the lower half — gluts, legs and calves. If they are lose and ready for anything, you’ll get an up-close look at your quarry.
Herma remembers a time when he wasn’t ready for the fight, and it ended bad for the tournament crew. “I never gave up, but I just didn’t have it in me,” said Herma, who is about as competitive as a man could be.
What could have been a relatively short fight turned into a drag-out, and the longer the fish is in the water, the better chances something — stretched line, hook hole in its mouth, jam knot — could fail. The fish broke off and hours were wasted in a tight, high-stakes tournament. “I learned a tough lesson then,” said Herma.
As Herma finished stretching out on the deck of the “Pale Horse,” a 37-foot Freeman center console, a flatline rod doubled over in the holder. A big yellowfin hit a live bait and line screamed off the reel. Herma was primed and ready for the a 40-minute battle that he won.
It’s possible to fight a yellowfin or other big-game fish without a fighting belt and harness; I don’t recommend it. There’s nothing sissy about using these tools. Get familiar with the belt and pad. Each is different. Often it’s one size fits all, so get into the belt before the fight and see what adjustments you will want to make. It’s the wrong time to be fussing with your belt when you have a 100-pounder on the line.
It goes without saying, but I’ll mention it anyway: use the best rod, reel and gear you can and make sure it’s maintained. You might only get one shot at the torpedo, and a nick in your standing line or a drag caked in salt will ruin your day.
Captains who fish for yellowfin will usually have spinning rods and conventional reels on the deck.
The spinning gear is great for casting plugs or live baits, like blue runners, to surface-busting fish. Just make sure the spinning rod has the backbone to break a 150-pounder. Capt. Kevin Beach of Mexican Gulf Charters uses Shimano Stella 20,000s on Terez rods with 80-pound braid and a 4-foot, 80-pound fluoro leader for stealth.
Conventional reels on boat rods are set to outriggers and flatlines. Slow-trolling lives baits is the most effective way to catch yellowfin any time of year. Beach rigs Shimano 50 IIs with 130-pound braid backing and 100 yards of 80-pound monofilament and 20 feet of 100-pound Seagur fluoro. Hooks vary from 9/0 to 12/0 depending on the size of the blue runner.
As soon as you get a hit, you’ll know if it’s a big one or not. The big ones run and run and run deep. Clip the reel into the belt. Wait for the run to stop. As it runs, chill. You’ll need all your energy when he takes his rest.
Fishing boat mate Parker Rodrigue said anglers need to always keep the rod tip low.
‘This ain’t bass fishing,” he said. “Don’t raise the tip of the rod higher than your eyes.” That keeps all the bend in the rod and the pressure on the fish. If you raise it too high, you lose the advantage of the rod’s parabolic curve, which, in a way, fights the fish for you as if your are holding a lead spring.
Whenever the fish is not pulling out line off the reel, put pressure on by sitting back into the harness — not pulling with your arms or back. Sitting into the harness will pit your weight against the fish’s. By mastering this technique, you can reserve your strength for the moment the fish is feeling beat.
At some point, the deep fish will start “pin-wheeling.” That’s the term anglers use when the deep tuna is losing its strength and is trying to swim away from the boat, but can’t. So it turns. This is the beginning of the end of the fight, and it’s crucial to focus on what he’s doing and what you should be doing: If it’s spiraling in a clockwise direction, as he is nearing noon on a clock face, he is trying to swim away.
Keep pressure on him, although you will not be able to reel at this point. At about 1, he loses steam and turns to his right (tuna have to keep moving to keep flushing water over their gills). Now is the time when you drop the rod tip and reel down quickly to gather to slack. Then keep pressure on as he approaches noon again, and get ready to gather your line. If you do this, consistently and smoothly, you will break the fish’s will — it’s true — and he will come to the gaff.
“Make it slow and steady,” said Beach. “Stay calm and be aggressive. It can be a painful learning curve for someone who doesn’t do this all the time. The lesson is, you need technique. You’re not going to overpower this guy. When you do break that fish, keep your focus and he will come to the house.”
Once he’s very close to the surface, and your buddy goes to gaff it, waddled back with the reel engaged. Once gaffed, throw the bail to give line to the mate as he brings your hard-earned trophy aboard.
CATCH YOUR BREATH
As you bring the beast aboard, undoubtedly you’ll be looking forward to sashimi and grilled tuna steaks. But also take a moment to appreciate the awesome creature that is built to swim, and swim fast, its whole life.
The huge eyes are made to gather light in the deep. The triangle finlets line its back and underside. The sweeping sickle-like second dorsal and anal fins shine golden and help make the mighty yellowfin tuna a worthy game fish.
REDS COMPLEMENT YELLOWS
This is also a great time of year to target bull redfish inshore. Live shrimp is a go-to bait, but they aren’t always around. Livetarget’s new Rigged Shrimp is an impressive lure that comes in 10 colors (Sand worked the best during an trip last season). The soft plastic is realistic and durable. 3- and 4-inch sizes.
For his Gulf fishing, Gary Abernethy of Livetarget carries dye to match local forage conditions. “I used some JJ’s Magic chartreuse dipping dye on the Rigged Shrimp tail because since the water had some light stain,” said Abenethy. “This flash of color may have proven attractive since I was running low on our more vibrant colors of Rigged Shrimp. It seemed to work really well.”