Tactics For “Tiny” Tuna
The best thing about small bluefin tuna? There are lots of ways to catch them.
When it comes to the fish I want to catch, like most anglers, I have a “the bigger, the better” mentality … with one exception.
Giant tuna are marvels of evolution, capable of trans-Atlantic crossings, top speeds that would grab a moving violation in most coastal towns, and enough stamina to make fights last longer than a major-league baseball game. Every fisherman should, at some point, go toe-to-tailfin with one of these fish. It’s the experience of a lifetime and a rite of passage for offshore anglers, but when it comes to fishing just for fun, smaller tuna take up a bigger place in my heart.
As a tuna’s length grows, the list of viable techniques to catch them shrinks. At 40 inches, you can catch a bluefin tuna on a fly rod. At 65 inches, a tuna is approaching what’s reasonable and prudent to target with spinning gear. By 80 inches, all but a subset of kooks—I’m looking at you, captains Radlof and Petrarca—would rather catch them on live bait and 130-pound-class tackle.
For a few years, most bluefin fishing, especially in New England, was trending toward bigger tuna and heavier tackle. We watched a massive year-class of bluefin grow before our eyes from sand-eel-sipping 30-inchers in 2005 to bluefish-bashing 500-pounders by 2019. In 2021, however, the tiny tuna came back. They breezed through New Jersey and Long Island in early summer, settled off Rhode Island and Cape Cod for the summer, and in the fall, they went on a weeks-long feeding rampage that took them from Chatham, Massachusetts, to the Jersey Shore.
Fishermen caught them on the troll, on topwater, on jigs, and on the fly.
On The Troll
When it comes to padding your tuna stats, it’s tough to beat trolling. Last September, during a tuna-fishing tournament off Cape Cod, multiple boats reported catching more than two-dozen tuna in a trip while trolling a spread of squid bars.
Besides scaling down the tackle, slightly adjusting the spread, and backing off the throttle a bit, targeting small bluefin isn’t much different than setting a spread in the canyons. Of course, one of the best things about smaller bluefin tuna is that you sometimes don’t need a canyon-capable boat to catch them.
Smaller boats reaching the tiny tuna grounds have success with 4- to 6-rod spreads that are heavy on spreader bars and daisy chains, with a classic like a trolling feather or cedar plug thrown in for good measure. In the absence of outriggers, side-tracking spreader bars help widen the spread of small boaters.
While 6-inch bulb squids are a popular choice on spreader bars east of Chatham, Massachusetts, where colder waters dictate a slower trolling speed, from south of the Vineyard to New Jersey, 7-inch “mini machine” spreader bars, those rigged with baits modeled after the classic Green Machine lure, are effective as well. Olive/white, silver, green, and pink match the sand eels, halfbeaks, and squid that these smaller tuna usually feed on. A black or black/purple bar is another good choice, as it casts an impossible-to-miss silhouette for before-dawn or cloudy-day trolling.
Trolling speeds usually fall between 3 and 7 knots, adjusting the speed to the conditions and water temperature, adding more speed in warm water and glass-calm conditions, and slowing down in cooler or rougher water.
While tuna of all sizes do most of their feeding below the surface, they occasionally drive baitfish to the top in a spectacular display of power and speed. When this happens, captains employ the “running and gunning” approach, racing their boats into casting range of the tuna, and instructing their anglers to get the lures into the feed. It sounds simple enough, but it’s a bit more nuanced.
On the running side, experienced captains avoid charging full speed right into, or even too close to, the feeding tuna. They watch the school, anticipate the direction it’s moving, and set up their boats to intercept the fish, taking current and wind direction into account.
For gunning, the anglers also have to anticipate the direction the tuna are feeding, and “lead” the fish by casting ahead of them. Casting in front of the fish by even 20 feet is not too much, as long as you adjust your retrieve so that the lure is in the tuna’s path.
When seeing the speed of a feeding tuna, most anglers want to retrieve the lure quickly, just as you would for false albacore. However, this is often the opposite of what you should do. The best topwater tuna advice I ever received was from Captain Dom Petrarca, who said, “Tuna are fast, but their food isn’t.” Whether using stickbaits or soft plastics when pursuing topwater-feeding tuna, take a deep breath and use a slow, methodical retrieve that keeps your lure in front of the fish, making sure it gets seen.
On some days last year, tuna could be caught on top when there were no visual signs of surface activity, thanks to the power of the popper.
Last September, while trolling off Cape Cod, Kevin Gould had one of those tuna days you dream about. The whole fleet was covered up with bluefin, and Gould said captains were joking on the radio that they couldn’t troll more than 500 yards without getting a knockdown.
In the middle of all this, a solo angler drifting amid the fleet was casting a popper. Gould recalled that there had been no surface feeds, no birds, and no whales; in other words, nothing to indicate where a fishermen hoping to cast for these tuna should begin. As Gould trolled past the angler, he admired the spirit but was doubtful the poppers would raise a fish between all the boats trolling spreader bars. Then he saw the explosion.
With that, Gould pulled in the spread and began “blind casting;” that, is casting a lure at no particular target, and the tuna responded.
Gould repeated the success over multiple trips, favoring casting with poppers over trolling because he felt that catching 40-pound tuna on 50-pound-class gear was fun only for so long. As he used the poppers, he began to dial in when they worked best.
Gould believes the poppers work best when the tuna are cruising at 30 to 50 feet, similar to when trolling is the best option. The popper creates enough of a commotion to grab a tuna’s attention and get it to charge. When tuna are actively feeding on the surface, Gould believes a more realistic presentation—like a stickbait or soft plastic—is a better bet.
Another reason poppers aren’t the best choice around active feeds is that when tuna are feeding under shearwaters, the birds too often attack floating (or even slow-sinking) lures.
And, floating poppers seem to be more effective. Gould likes a cadence that follows a rhythmic, “Pop, one, two, pop …,” which leaves a roughly two-second pause. Some captains like even longer pauses, but what remains the same is the big sweep of the rod used to generate a big, splashy pop. Remember, you’re trying to get the attention of a fish cruising 50 or more feet below the surface.
Hot poppers in recent seasons have been the Madd Mantis Popper and Tsunami Surface Blaster, though other floating, big-mouthed poppers with suitable hardware like the Rapala Magnum Popper and the locally made favorite, M. Fischer Plugs popper.
I love the chaos of chasing down surface-feeding bluefin, but given the choice, I prefer the slower pace (though sometimes faster action) of vertical jigging.
When small tuna first hit the bumps and lumps off New Jersey and, later, the grounds between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard, they primarily feed on deep-holding baits like sand eels and squid. While they could be brought to the surface with a trolling spread of squid bars, many captains drifted through areas with heavy concentrations of bait and deployed jigs for light-tackle battles with the bluefin.
The most popular metal jigs were sand eel-imitations like the Nomad Tackle Streaker Jig. By the time the tuna bite was in full swing in New York and New Jersey, Streaker jigs were in short supply at tackle shops in the Northeast. This season, the Streaker Jig has been subject to that most sincere form of flattery from a number of tackle manufacturers, and fishermen will have their pick of a number of sand-eel jigs with similar darting action.
Unlike a traditional diamond jig, which has a symmetrical design, these jigs have a flat side and a keeled side that provide an enticing, fluttering fall and an erratic darting action on the retrieve.
To bring these jigs to life, fishermen coordinate one turn of the reel handle with one pump of the rod. Dialing in the presentation on the first trip of the year feels like rubbing my belly while patting my head, but after a couple of awkward retrieves, I get into a rhythm. This motion causes the jig to “walk the dog” toward the surface while pausing for half a heartbeat between pumps of the rod.
The positioning of the hook at the front of the lure prevents it from fouling the line during the retrieve and ruining the presentation—an especially frustrating scenario when dropping to tuna you’ve marked on the fishfinder 100 feet below the boat.
The final advantage to the assist hook is that it provides a direct connection to the tuna. With the leader attached to the assist hook’s solid ring, a hooked tuna is unable to use the jig itself as leverage to pull the hook.
Once I have the motion down, it’s just a matter of finding the right cadence. Last August, while tuna fishing with OTW Publisher Chris Megan south of Martha’s Vineyard, we found ourselves covered up with false albacore. To the anglers closer to shore, who were eagerly awaiting the start of the albie run, our complaints about there being too many albies would have fallen on deaf ears. At first, I thought that speeding up my retrieve would help hook the bluefin among the false albacore, but that only led to more and fiercer strikes from the albies. It wasn’t until we tried slowing down our retrieve that we began catching our target species.
Finding the right cadence requires experimentation. If you’re marking fish but aren’t getting bit, adjust your retrieve speed before switching the size or color of your jigs.
When tuna are spread throughout the water column, it’s wise to fully retrieve the jig to the boat after hitting the bottom, but many days last year, the tuna were hugging the bottom, scarfing down sand eels. The best approach then was to keep the jig in the strike zone as long as possible, retrieving 40 or 50 feet off the bottom before throwing the reel into free spool and allowing the jig to sink back down. The keeled metal jigs described above kick and flutter erratically as they descend, and tuna will often strike the jigs as they fall. However, the jigs are most effective at a vertical, or near vertical, presentation, so when the line scopes out away from the boat, reel it in and drop the jig again.
On The Fly
Going after tuna with the fly rod is, without a doubt, the ultimate fly-fishing challenge in the Northeast—and maybe the world. A lot needs to go right for an angler to find tuna in fly-casting range, but last summer, several captains successfully fed flies to bluefin.
Among them was Captain Christian Awe of AweStruck Fishing Charters during a wide-open tuna bite off Block Island. The fish were holding close enough to their home port that Awe and a group of fishing buddies were able to get experimental with the ways they tried to catch them. After one friend tamed a small tuna with freshwater bass gear, the crew decided to try it on the fly.
At first, they tried blind-casting, drifting through areas of high tuna activity, but it didn’t work. Determined to get it done, they borrowed a tactic from marlin and sailfish fly-fishers, and employed the “bait and switch.”
Awe and crew took two spreader bars, removed the stinger hooks, and set them behind the boat within fly-casting range. Their tuna fly setup was, as Awe said, “Nothing fancy.” It was an 11-weight rod with matching reel, and a sinking line finished with a two-foot leader of 80-pound test. The flies Awe used were large striper flies tied on heavy-gauge hooks.
They trolled the bars as they normally would have, but with all eyes focused on the hookless squids. When a tuna slashed at the bar, one angler began cranking it in, while another laid out the fly. The tuna would take instantly, but the hooksets could be tricky. Awe said that a striking tuna might continue toward the boat, forcing the angler to frantically pick up slack to knock the hook in. When the tuna realized it was hooked, however, Awe described the feeling as being struck by lightning.
The 10- and 11-weight rods were plenty for the 30- to 40-inch bluefin off Block—which Awe said had similar power to 30- to 40-pound striped bass—but for tuna that are any larger, 12- and 14-weight rods are more appropriate, especially in the final stages of the battle, when it’s time to lift the circling fish.
The key to the bait-and-switch tactic is to keep eyes on the spread and be ready to cast the fly as quickly as possible, hence the shorter leaders.
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