Want to get serious about tuna fishing? Here is what's needed to become a successful tuna angler. By Scott Haugen
"Okay, let 'em out!" barked the captain over the waning roar of the engines. As seven of us let our lines out, the deckhand started tossing handfuls of baitfish overboard.
"Once they take it, let 'em go for a few seconds, then start reeling; do not set the hook!" reminded the deckhand.
This was my first time fishing live bait for tuna, and when line started peeling off the reel, it was all I could do to hold back. "Now! Get 'em," said Kiley Brehm, my fishing buddy who organized this trip.
As soon as I locked down the lever, the line came tight and my rod doubled over. Ten minutes later I could see the silver flash of a tuna, but another 10 minutes would pass before the hard-fighting torpedo would be flopping on the deck.
"Good job! How'd that feel?" smiled Kiley. "Uh, oooh, man ..." was all I could spit out, trying to catch my breath and ease my tense back muscles. "Bait up, the fish are right here!" he encouraged.
Lifting the hefty, 32-pound ball of muscle for a photo was a welcome end to an intense battle, and once it was on ice, I re-baited and got back to fishing. Little did I know that the action would continue for another two and half hours.
WHERE TO START
This was my first time fishing for albacore off the Pacific Coast. Fortunately, I had a lot of experienced tuna gurus on board to offer guidance.
The number 1 thing I came away with from this adventure was that, if you want to be a good tuna angler, you have to buy into it.
Invest in the necessary gear to diversify your approach, and dedicate years of effort in order to master it.
If you're a once-a-year tuna angler, this may not be the approach for you. But if you're looking to learn what's necessary to consistently catch tuna up and down the Pacific Coast, there are serious rewards to be gained for your commitment to the endeavor.
While Brehm, a representative for a range of sportfishing companies, taught me a lot about the gear we used, Dave Phillips educated me on the tuna we pursued and the waters we fished.
Phillips isn't a guide, but he has his commercial license and has been avidly pursuing tuna for 12 years. He delivers dozens of seminars a year on the topic, and is a great teacher.
"What people really need to understand is that tuna fishing involves many working parts," Phillips offered. "If you've got a good boat and invest a few hundred dollars in gas each trip out, you don't just want to troll around and hope to catch a tuna. You should employ every potential method, be it trolling, jigging, working live bait or casting, in order to maximize your catch. You also need to know how to use your sonar and electronic charts."
Phillips pointed out that anyone can learn to troll. But if that's all you learn, you're missing out, he advised. "I'm an advocate of looking at the water conditions, then figuring out where the fish are, then figuring out how to catch them," he said. "I like finding fish, then fishing for them, not trolling around hoping to find them."
Water color, not temperature, is what Phillips initially looks for.
"If you have a color break between gray and cobalt blue water, start there," he advised. "This is where baitfish are and where the tuna will be."
If you see Arctic terns, albatross, shearwaters or any other birds flocking around, feeding on fish, get there, fast. You'll often see the tuna foaming on the surface. Once you find 'em, note the water color and other conditions. Temperature matters, but it's not as important as color since albacore are comfortable in water 58 degrees and warmer."
Phillips warned not to troll through a school of tuna feeding on the surface.
"This is right where you want them, so don't spook them by trolling over them — instead, fish them other ways," he noted.
A quality piece of sonar is where Phillips suggested starting.
"I use Raymarine and tune it in to find fish," he said. "You have to find the fish and use the techniques that will catch them, and this can change from day to day." RipCharts is a program Phillips subscribes to that offers a compilation of satellite data that can be used to determine the color of water, where the color breaks are, temperature and more. There are other programs available as well.
What else is needed to become a successful tuna angler? Rods, reels, terminal gear and knowing how to fish it all.
"When I find a school of tuna, the last thing I want to do is troll through them," points out Phillips. "If they're on the surface, start throwing bait. If they're deep, start jigging to pull them up in the water column, then start working bait. Jigging, casting and working bait are all very effective, especially if you're proficient at all three approaches."
There are two basic styles of tuna jigs, Brehm explained. "Flat-fall jigs are easy to use, and they catch tuna up and down the coast. Simply drop it down to the target depth, free-spooling the whole way, then reel it back up. As the jig falls, it flutters, which is what tuna like. Keep repeating it, making sure not to jerk the rod up and down, as you don't want any tension on the line while the jig is falling."
The other type of jig is a flat-side, Brehm continued. "Flat-side jigs are designed to be jigged at a fast pace through the water column. There's a technique to this, but it works great in a range of depths, depending on currents and winds."
The casting rods we used were 6 1/2-foot and 7-foot models, designed specifically for jigging.
"In a medium or medium-heavy, these parabolic rods stay bent during the entire jigging motion, which is critical in order to achieve the action the jig is designed for," Phillips shared.
Spooling thin diameter 50- or 60- pound test on to a Shimano Torium 16 reel was a great combination. The thin, strong line allowed for a fast fall of the jigs. Phillips likes running a 10- to 15-foot topshot of 40- or 50-pound fluorocarbon leader when jigging.
"Whenever you can fish bait for tuna, be it live or dead, you have a big advantage," explained Phillips. "Anchovies and sardines will draw tuna to the surface, where the bite really turns on."
Fishing bait is a lightweight presentation. "Simply twist on a rubber core weight or slip on an egg sinker in the 1/4- to 5/8-ounce range, just enough to get the bait a few feet below the surface, flip that bail and let it go," advised Phillips. "Don't let the bait stay on the surface where birds will get it. Try getting it down about 10 feet and you'll be good."
A 7- or 8-foot rod rated 12-25, medium to medium-light with a fast tip and solid handle that bends only at the tip is Phillips' rod of choice. An 8-foot rod is sometimes makes it easier to maneuver around the boat, clearing fellow anglers and motors.
Casting swimbaits, Megabait Lures and even flat-sided jigs can be very effective. "Covering water and fishing at the surface, subsurface and even deep water is the beauty of casting," Phillips pointed out. He suggested getting spinning reels with a sealed, saltwater bearing system. Spooled with 50-pound braid and a 15- to 25-foot topshot of 30-pound fluorocarbon, you're ready to fish.
TROLL INTO ACTION
Trolling is how a lot of people not only search for tuna, but fish for them once a school is located. It can be a very effective method when executed properly. Careful setup is key to success with this method.
"Tuna trolling gear is pretty specialized, with a halibut rod setup being the closest match," offered Phillips. "A 5 1/2- to 6 1/2-foot heavy action rod can hold up to the abuse of towing big gear four to eight knots. Because you may troll spreader bars, diving plugs and swimbaits, which can be big and heavy, this is the most durable gear on your boat."
To be a good tuna angler requires time and money. But in the end, the payoff will be big. It's hard to put a price tag on the fish you'll catch over the years and the fun times you and your friends will have on the water.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Looking for new ways to cook your tuna? For signed copies of Tiffany Haugen's popular book "Cooking Seafood," send a check for $20 (free S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489, or visit www.tiffanyhaugen.com.