While jig styles and methods vary, jigging can be broken down into four basic types: yo-yo, butterfly, speed-jigging, and slow pitch.
Yo-yo jigging is the traditional style that has been around forever and is also referred to as snap jigging. With this style, the angler drops the jig down to the bottom or a depth where he marked fish, then repeatedly lifts or snaps the rod tip upward. The tip is then lowered while keeping a tight line to the jig on the drop since this is when most hits occur.
It’s wise to occasionally let the jig drag and send puffs of sand off the bottom. This tactic resembles a sand eel fleeing back into the sand, and the disturbed sediment gets the attention of nearby tuna. Many of our biggest bluefin came right off the bottom like this.
Butterfly jigging gets its name from the butterfly-like fluttering action imparted to a specialized type of jig. The jig is dropped down to the target depth and the rod is raised and lowered with a tight circular motion of about 10-20 inches while the reel handle is turned one crank on the upswing. The rod is then lowered on the downstoke. Shimano popularized this method with their butterfly jigging system.
Speed-jigging involves dropping the jig to the bottom and then bringing it back to the surface with a high-speed retrieve. This style works best when a slight pause is imparted to the retrieve about every 10 cranks or so.
Slow-pitch jigging was developed by Norihiro Sato in Japan and is beginning to catch on along our coast. When fished with a slow-pitch rod, the jig’s design allows it to swim side to side in a horizontal plane on the drop, keeping it in the strike zone longer. This imitates a crippled bait making random movements as it helplessly falls to the bottom, and it is especially effective if fish are suspended. Most tuna strikes come on the drop, so it makes sense for a jig to have more action on the fall rather than the retrieve. While other jigging methods imitate a fleeing baitfish, slow-pitch jigs resemble an injured, helpless baitfish.
This past season was certainly one of experimentation because different jigging styles or motions worked on some days and not on others. There was one day when we were in a massive feed of finbacks and two-tone dolphins, and I had the tuna right under the boat. I was reading big, red meatballs 50 feet down on my Raymarine fishfinder, and I remember saying to the guys, “C’mon, they’re right under the boat!”
All three clients were snap-jigging but couldn’t get a bite. A boat next to me, about 50 yards away, was hooking up, and it wasn’t until I watched what they were doing that I got the answer.
Their jigging style was quite different from what my clients were doing—I would describe it as a modified butterfly-speed jig technique. It wasn’t the traditional moderate-speed, butterfly-jigging style because their reel speeds and cadences were slightly faster, nor was it a pure speed-jig – their motions fell somewhere in between. Once I showed my clients what to do and they changed their retrieves, we also started to hook up.
Later that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about why our snap jigging didn’t work since I have caught bluefin high in the water column with this method. I do remember noticing that the sand eels were up in the water column and spraying all over in an erratic fashion. I figured what was happening was that the finbacks and dolphins were heading down deep and blowing the sand eels up to the surface, scattering them in every direction. So, it made sense that when we imparted that same type of action with our jigs, the tuna thought they were the real things. This was a feeding frenzy where matching how the bait was moving was important. We had the right size jigs but not just the right motion.
Draggers and Whales
One of my most epic jig trips of 2019 found me drifting behind a dragger. We were on our way to a spot about 50 miles out but ran across a dragger at 35 miles out. My son and mate, Tommy, saw him in the distance and suggested we look behind him to see if any bluefin were down deep on the feed. Tommy’s hunch was right. I pulled tight to the vessel and started to mark red meatballs near the bottom. All four clients dropped down, and three of them immediately came tight. From this point on, we continued to get double hook-ups or singles on each drift as long as we stayed in the dragger’s rear lane. After a few hours, our clients were exhausted. We had our limit and released 23 more “under” and “overs”.
I always look for draggers, whales, and two-tone dolphins on the way to the tuna grounds. Feeding whales and dolphins are especially strong indications to stop the boat and get to work with the jig. Finback whales made up the bulk of the big feeds we saw in 2019. These massive mammals consume about two tons of sand eels a day, so if they are present, you can be sure that a food chain is well established in the area. After spotting them, move in slowly (for safety reasons) and then shut your engines down. Watch your fishfinder, and you should see the tuna under the boat at a certain depth. Drop the jigs and vary your retrieve until you figure out what they want.
Sand Eels and Jig Selection
A good jig bite always takes place when sand eels are the main food source. When these eels take up residence on a lump, you can bet bluefin will be on them each day. They are not going to leave and go somewhere else to look for food.
Sand eel length can vary. On the tuna grounds, I have seen them from 4 inches up to 9 inches. When a feed is going on at the surface, the sand eels get blown out of the water, meaning you will be able to get an eyeball on them. Otherwise, check the first bluefin caught as it should be spitting them up – match the jig to the size of the sand eels. For smaller ones, use 60- to 80-gram jigs; then bump up to 120- to 150-gram when the sand eels are larger.
Many different jigs work, but two that couldn’t stay on tackle shop shelves last year were the Nomad Design Streaker jig and the CB One F1 jig. The colors that worked the best were the pink and blue sardine and all-silver. The new sand eel color that just came out from Nomad this fall is sure to be a killer.
Jigging Tips and Tricks
When you’re on a spot, the more jigs you can get into the water the better, since it’s more likely that a tuna will spot your offerings.
If you are running with a crew of only two or three, a way to get more jigs in the water is to put them off the tips of your outriggers and let them lift up and down as the boat slowly rocks. However, since I don’t like to deal with my outriggers when jigging, I just deadstick a pair of jig rods out of my rod holders. To do this, first attach a 60- to 80-gram jig to a Tactical Anglers Power Clip. Next, cast the jig out as far away from the boat as you can and let it sink to the bottom. Once it hits, let out approximately 50 yards of line, then place the rod in a holder.
For this method to work properly, there needs to be some wind so the boat gets moved along. Days that are gently white-capping are best since your boat will get pushed on the swell and then stop momentarily in the trough, causing the jig to rise and drop. The small 60- to 80-gram jigs work best for this application; any heavier and you will not get the right action.
I figure that if I am in 120 feet of water and getting pushed moderately by the swell, when my line scope is tight my jig is working from 50 to 60 feet down. One of these rods almost always gets bit, and it’s exciting to watch it double over in the gunnel and drag start screaming without doing anything.
Tuna Jigging Tackle
I prefer to have my clients jig with spinning gear but conventional gear can also be used. The quick retrieve cadence that we employ is easier with spinning gear, especially for beginners. Traditional snap-jigging favors using conventional gear.
The trend in jigging is to go with shorter, lighter, parabolic-action rods ranging in size from 5’6” to 6’6”. These shorter rods tremendously reduce the amount of energy expended, allowing anglers to jig for longer periods of time. My favorite rod to use is the St Croix Mojo Jig 6’6” medium power. This is a great rod to subdue bluefin from footballs up to 125 pounds and it also has an angler-friendly price point. For the bluefin we most often see off New Jersey, spooling reels with 65-pound-test braided line with a 60-pound-test fluorocarbon leader will get the job done.
Jigging a bluefin tuna on light tackle is one of the ultimate angling experiences. It requires strength, stamina, skill, and (of course) some luck. Be ready for it this season.