By Brandon Cotton
Ask any SoCal angler about fishing for bluefin tuna, and you’ll likely get conflicting answers ranging from “They are the hardest fish to catch” to “They chewed the paint off the boat!” and “We couldn’t stop them, they were so big,” among many more—and they’d all be right. Our bluefin can be tough to catch, but they are the best eating of any of our local species. No fish has garnered the attention and excitement over the past half-decade as the larger models that have taken over the offshore scene along the Southern California Bight.
It used to be that a fish in the 60- to 80-pound range would stop the presses, but nowadays, it seems that no one bats an eye. It’s hard to argue, because fish from 200- to 300-plus pounds have been captured with increasing regularity over the past seasons. Last year a 364-pound super cow was caught on the charter boat Thunderbird out of Newport Landing. Private boats, sport boats and charter boats alike are well-equipped to get in on the action and educated to the specialized techniques that continue to be refined.
Bluefin tuna can show up anywhere offshore, depending on bait and water conditions, but some consistent hot spots over the past few seasons include San Clemente Island proper, Desperation Reef, the Mackerel Bank, the 43, the Tanner and Cortez banks and many others south of the border. We often refer to SST charts to help narrow down zones of converging water. The Mackerel Bank is a local favorite in the Gulf of Santa Catalina, as it sits just east of San Clemente Island. Its highest point rises to 1,920 feet and the base sits in over 3,600 feet of water.
Run & Gun
As with most tuna and other offshore game fish, topwater fishing can be fast and furious if you find the right school. Key words—right school. If you’ve fished bluefin long enough, then you’re all too familiar with the term, “All show and no go.” Bluefin can be a fickle bunch, especially when they are keyed in on smaller pinhead ‘chovies or other tiny baitfish. Maneuvering slowly ahead of the school, and just barely within casting distance, offers you the best chance at hooking a fish. This takes some practice and skilled boat handling, as you want to be able to cast well into or beyond the frenzy but not spook the lead fish. Watching the birds is a good way to determine the tuna’s direction of travel.
Tackle is pretty straightforward for this approach. If the fish you see busting are smaller grade, then you can get away with lighter tackle, but for the bigger fish a midsize casting or heavy spinning reel is a must, along with 80- to 130-pound spectra with a 100-pound fluorocarbon top-shot. Popular lures include surface irons, poppers and glide baits.
Regardless of preferred offering, your hooks and split rings better be high quality! Rigging with the heaviest terminal tackle you can get away with is a must, and even then these fish will push it to the limits. Every year there are many reports of jumbo bluefin lost on poppers after the fish inhale offerings in their entirety and end up sawing through the leader.
Along with artificials, when bluefin are feasting higher in the water column, flylining live bait on heavy tackle can be a productive method. Whether the fish are visually up on the surface, or you’re marking them on your sonar, a well-placed live bait might be devoured in a hurry. However, don’t discount the long soak. If you’ve got strong, lively bait that can last a while, getting the bait far away from the boat and giving it a bit of time can pay big dividends.
A few years back, SoCal anglers began to find the effectiveness of kite fishing and out west it is either done while trolling or on the drift. The equipment is virtually the same for either approach—a dedicated kite rod and kite/helium balloon set up and release clip, a heavy outfit stacked with 100- to 200-pound braid, 200- to 300-pound fluoro and either a live mackerel, a rigged flying fish or an artificial bait—mainly a Yummy Flyer or the new offerings from California Flyer Co.
In the early arc of this bluefin craze, many private boaters found the best success trolling an artificial flying fish way back under the kite. Trolling speeds vary, but most adhere to the 7- to 9-knot range. The key is to have the bait far back and outside the wake as much as possible, which can be accomplished by keeping the wind on your beam if conditions allow. A few hundred yards back is not uncommon, and the bigger bluefin have no problem smashing bait at these speeds. It’s important to wind as fast as you can when you get bit because there is a lot of line off the reel and getting all that slack out is key to coming tight and having the hook set properly.
These days, it can be hit or miss on the Yummy and trolling method, but what seems to be the preferred and most productive approach is drifting with a natural flying fish. A quick search online will bring up a handful of easy rigging methods. Two of the most common include running a wooden skewer mid-way through the bait and then stapling or zip-tying the wings open on the stick. The other method is to make a small hole on the front side of one wing, tie on some light mono or twist up copper wire, run it through the eye socket with a rigging needle and then pull tight before connecting it to the other wing to secure them in the open position.
Catching flying fish for bait can be challenging, but these days, most SoCal tackle shops carry frozen flyers regularly. Because the baits are real, trolling tends to destroy them pretty quickly if they are not kept just barely touching the water. That’s why we prefer to drift where we’ve marked bluefin or bait or have seen some other surface activity to warrant deploying the kite and making a pass through the area.
While wind plays a role, the real key to this presentation lies in your awareness in being ready to make constant, tiny adjustments. You essentially want the flyer to just be tickling the surface of the water. Once the kite settles at the range you want, it’s important to constantly tend the bait, either letting line out or reeling line in to keep the flyer right at the surface. It’s natural for the bait to come completely out of the water, but just be sure to keep it from sinking deep or laying too stagnant.
One Kite Versus Several
While some of the larger sport boats have the capacity to deploy more than one kite and some Florida boys I know aren’t afraid to pop out multiple kites, it’s sometimes best to focus on a single flyer when targeting these big bluefin, simply for manageability and to prevent tangles and lost fish. That said, once a fish is hooked up and you have the free hands, re-setting the kite usually results in another hookup while the fish are still actively feeding.
As with all bites out of the kite, winding out all that slack line is imperative. Keep cranking until you come tight to the fish and line starts dumping off the reel—this is about the time the real hootin’ and hollerin’ begins! If you’re wondering if these fish pull as hard as you’d expect given their size, you won’t be disappointed.
While the aforementioned techniques are typically a bit more exciting on the visual front, at times bluefin will hang much deeper. This calls for some adjustment in tactics in order to have a shot at connecting.
There are a few tried-and-true methods for fishing deeper that have worked over the years. A popular approach, especially among the sport boat crowd, is using flat-fall or similar metal flutter style jigs. The largest Shimano 250g flat fall jigs work great, and we like to remove the stock assist hooks in favor of an Owner Jobu attached to the bottom eyelet. On the appropriate tackle, such as a Talica with 100-pound braid and 6 feet of 130-pound leader, most bites come on the sink as the bait is fluttering through the depths. Most anglers describe the bite as the feeling of hitting bottom—only you’re nowhere near the seafloor. At this point it is time to lock it up and turn the handle. While deeper water tuna can bite at any moment, the best times are at dawn and dusk and well into the dark.
Due to the size and power of bigger bluefin, it’s important to have multiple gaffs on board and ready to go. The cockpit should be relatively clear, and care should be taken when bringing fish over the rail. Once a tuna is on deck, quickly spiking the fish and bleeding it is essential for maintaining a quality finished product. To that end, plenty of ice should be brought and packed appropriately in and around the fish. While you won’t be selling your fish for thousands of dollars à la “Wicked Tuna,” having an abundance of prime sushi-grade tuna steaks, bellies and collars certainly makes all the proper fish care worth it.
As of press date, a handful of boats have already scored a few bluefin offshore, albeit a long run from the normal spots. However, it’s definitely a welcomed sign, and if the trend follows the last few seasons, we are in for another great year offshore.
Weather rules everything and fishing is no exception. While conditions aren’t ripe for an El Niño event this year, NOAA is predicting for the current La Niña pattern to transition to ENSO-Neutral during the spring, which means a long and strong bluefin season is on the horizon!
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