Tackle Guide: Vertical Jigging for Bluefin Tuna
by Capt. Bobby Rice | Reel Deal Charters
What does it feel like when a 200-pound bluefin tuna that’s capable of swimming at over 40 miles per hour slams a jig? This season, put yourself at the right place, at the right time, with all the right gear and there’s a good chance you’ll find out for yourself.
Vertical jigging is absolutely a fantastic technique for catching bluefin tuna. It’s an adrenaline-pumping, active, and plain fun way to fish. If you’ve never caught a bluefin tuna before, it’s a great way to catch your first. And if you’ve caught them using other methods, jigging is a great technique to add to your arsenal. It is even versatile enough that you can jig simultaneously while using other techniques, including drifting live bait, to increase your odds of success.
Rods, Reels & Line
Your choice of gear and how to rig it for these vertical jigging outings is critical. If there’s one fish that is going to test your rods, reels, line, and tackle, it is the bluefin tuna. If there’s a weak link, this is the fish that is going to expose it. Therefore you need to pay attention to your gear choices and how you put it all together, starting from the line and ending at the lure.
For spinning set-ups, I prefer Van Staal rods and reels, specifically the VSB250 reel with either the 6-foot, 6-inch or 7-foot 325- gram rod. I also use Shimano Stella spinning reels (models 18000 and 20000) on the same rods. Van Staal makes a GT rod that is 8 feet long for casting lures to topwater fish. These longer rods will cast better, but they tend to beat up on the angler more during the fight, as the leverage is more on the fish’s side. I opt for the 7-foot rod if I want to cast at fish, but the 6-foot, 6-inch is my favorite for vertical jigging with a spinning reel.
The VSB250 will hold 300 yards of 80-pound-test Cortland C16 spliceable braid, to which I add a 90-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. (I also have similar combos holding 100-pound C16 and a 130-pound fluorocarbon leader.) For a leader, I favor the Seaguar Blue Label Big Game fluorocarbon. The Seaguar Premier is also of good quality, but it’s not as stiff. The 90-pound-test Big Game coils are available in 30 meter lengths, so you can get about five 18- to 20-foot leaders off one of these coils. Long leaders are key for vertical jigging as they hide your line, therefore leave about 15 feet of leader after splicing in about 4 to 5 inches, whipping your splice with wax fly-tying line. While this is suitable for vertical jigging, an 8- to 10-foot leader is preferable for casting since leader coils off the spool at a slower rate.
With the longer leader, line color probably doesn’t make much difference, however I do have green and black C16 along with the white. Maybe it is just superstition, but on dark, overcast days, I reach for the darker colored line. For my reels with the white line, I make a mark at the first 100 yards with red permanent ink so I know when I am down to last 100 yards – meaning it is time to start the engines if the fish is still running. Generally, none of my reels are spooled by a machine; I hand-wind all my reels so I am able to measure the line and know exactly what I have. Putting line on reels is best as a two-person procedure. Find a neighbor, buddy or moderately reluctant spouse who has a few spare minutes, lockdown the drag and put up to 20 pounds of pressure on the line while laying it on the reels so there won’t be problems later on with the line burying into itself.
For those of you who like conventional jigging set ups, I recommend the Van Staal 5-foot 8-inch 500-gram (VJC58-500) rod with the Shimano Talica 25II which holds 550 yards of 100-pound-test C16. This reel is great because it comes with a 2-speed option and – if you dare – 45 pounds of drag. If you are more comfortable being setup on stand-up, then this is the way to go as the reel is equipped with full harness clips but the set-up has a light-tackle feel. I believe that with the larger average size of the fish this year, this will be my go-to setup for landing tuna in the 300-pound class.
Also worthy of mention for conventional fishing are the Local Hooker acid-wrap rods. I have limited experience with them, but they are very popular. I tested one on land this past winter and was impressed with the concept. The idea is logical: the guide setup brings the line underneath the rod, keeping it from twisting when fighting a fish. (Anyone who has been in stand-up gear with a Penn 80 will recall how the line can get to one side of the reel and forcing the rod to pop out of the harness.) The spiral wrap of the Local Hooker rods eliminates that tendency to pull to the side; it keeps the rod straight and stable. I look forward to trying one of these rods on a fish this season.
Rods, reels, line – check! Let’s move on to tackle. RonZ baits, in the 3X and 4X sizes, are positively my go-to lure. I use the 3X lead head on days with increased current and the tin head series on days with lighter current. While the 3X is sometimes considered too light for bigger fish, I have landed fish in 200-pound range on it without issue. With your RonZ baits, use chafing gear and mini-crimps. My rule of thumb is no knots; I splice and crimp everything. Once a RonZ is put on one of my rods, that RonZ is on the rod until I lose the head. Another option is the popular Shimano Butterfly or other metal jigs, which I started fishing more often last season with consistent results. An advantage to the Butterfly jigs is that they have an incredible selection of style and color, more so than any other jig type.
I put split rings on the metal jigs as a solid 300-pound ring on the rod makes it very easy to change out lures without cutting line and losing leader length. Invest in a sound pair of split-ring pliers and you will love the convenience of this setup! These rings will also work with topwater plugs and again eliminates knots and reduces the waste of fluorocarbon line, which is expensive. It is certainly quicker to switch out tackle with split rings than to cut the line and retie, plus no knot is as strong as a decent crimp. Remember to check the back of the crimp box to know the scale and match it exactly with the leader. Using the right crimp with the right line diameter is essential. Furthermore, split rings should match the jig size – the bigger the jig or hook, the bigger the split ring. Butterfly jigs will list the hook and split-ring sizes right on the package, while some brands come already setup. When adding on the hook yourself, note that the Owner Monster hooks perform well.
In selecting your lure of choice, consider what bait the tuna are dialed in on. If they’re feeding on sand eels, herring, mackerel or whatever, mimic that bait as best you can. From year to year, the “hot” lure changes as the ecosystem the tuna are in changes. From Butterfly jigs to RonZ baits to other topwater lures and live bait, every year and even during the season there is a shift as to which will be the leader, making it important to keep altering your strategies to stay on top of what the fish want. For example, early last summer I was throwing out silver and pearl RonZ over and over with surprisingly little action, as these had been my number-one colors from the year before. I then tried a black and instantly the fish starting slamming it. The fish were keyed in on herring and mackerel in early June, so perhaps the black worked better because it mimicked the darker backs of the baitfish or the darker stripes of the mackerel. While you continuously learn from experience, the lesson is remembering to switch it up when necessary to improve your success.