As we left South Florida in our 40-knot wake I couldn’t help but smile, as I knew today had the potential to be one of those days. Like so many times before, we were crossing the Gulf Stream to the tropical paradise of The Bahamas. It was the first trip of the summer and we had our sights set on squawking birds and busting yellowfin.
Ask any angler what the strongest fish in the sea is and you’ll likely hear the same answer over and over. While bonefish junkies claim pound-for-pound and marlin maniacs think billfish always prevail, without a doubt tuna pull harder and have more stamina than any other game fish. With a predictable seasonal migration of yellowfin throughout the islands of The Bahamas, Floridians are fortunate to be able to score big with a quick sabbatical across the ‘Stream. Depending on your vessel’s performance and port of call, you could clear customs, catch your limit of tuna, and still make it home for an early dinner.
There are those who claim trolling feathers and jets with spools dumped half way is the ultimate approach, but that’s only true if you enjoy blackfin, skipjack and schoolie yellowfin tuna.
Highly migratory species capable of long distance migrations, a recent tag was recaptured that provides insight to this highly desirable game fish. Initially tagged in 2001 off Cat Island in the southern Bahamas, the 15-pound schoolie yellowfin was recaptured in 2010 off the west coast of Africa. Having grown to a 189-pound brute and traveling nearly 4,000 miles along the way, this long distant movement clearly shows the importance of worldwide conservation efforts to ensure the future of our ocean’s prime inhabitants.
Fortunately, yellowfin tuna are consistent catches in The Bahamas and can be encountered on nearly any given day of the year. However, the problem with tuna fishing in the fall and winter months is that the huge flocks of birds that signal the presence of tuna schools disappear. The tuna are likely around, but without skimmers, brown boobies and sooty terns they are difficult to find.
While out islands like Rum Cay and Eleuthera offer incredible opportunities with schooling tuna, the closest landfall for boaters in the Palm Beaches is Grand Bahama, and here the opportunities are endless. For many, West End offers a great starting point and you may even cross paths with schooling tuna before you make landfall. However, as intriguing as the diving birds and jumping tuna may be, once you are within 12 nautical miles of land you’ll have to forgo fishing until you clear customs.
Once you have your Bahamian fishing license and vessel documentation it’s time to run & chum. When you clear the cut at West End you are pretty much in fishy water so keep your eyes peeled and radar tuned for working birds and surface busting tuna. A typical approach is to run towards Tuna City, south of West End, or head east to the canyons south of Port Lucaya. If you choose to stay overnight in Lucaya you are in luck, as there’s ample restaurants and entertainment, plus you’re in prime position to hit the Northwest Providence Channel. If you’re really adventurous and willing to burn some additional fuel you could run the Lucayan Waterway, cross the Little Bahama Bank, and pop out near Walkers Cay or continue to the famed Corner.
While a spotter with 20/20 vision will help reveal diving birds and busting tuna, radar is the easiest way to find the action. Open array radars are ideal and can pick out a single bird from upwards of six miles away, although radomes can also get you in the game. No matter what unit your vessel is outfitted with, turn up the gain until a haze covers the screen. Depending on your radar’s tuning options you’ll want to turn down the Sea Clutter, Sea State and Rain filters. Birds will show up as small blips or scratches and be sure to keep a close watch as the radar rotates and returns images. If the returns aren’t consistent it’s probably your radar marking breaking waves. If the returns remain constant with a few sweeps you’ve located your prize. Now hammer the throttles and claim your school before other boats hone in on the pack of feeding fish!
There are those who claim trolling feathers and jets with spools dumped half way is the ultimate approach, but that’s only true if you enjoy blackfin, skipjack and schoolie yellowfin tuna. There’s a better way to entice bigger fish and it is accomplished with a blacked out livewell and ample supply of chunk baits. Instead of trolling dizzying circles around the schools sit back and observe their movement in relation to the current and wind. With keen observation you will now have a plan of attack to deploy chunks and hook baits. You’ll want to approach the perimeter of the school at a decent rate of speed—if you work through the middle of a school you can guarantee the fish will sound. While coming off plane kill your motors and deploy several generous handfuls of chunks. For the most natural presentation make sure that every hook bait has a handful of chunks accompanying it.
While it may take you a few attempts to get in the thick of it, with practice you’ll soon have tuna busting all around your boat. To be successful in this endeavor you’ve got to stick to the ABCs—Always Be Chunking. The birds always shadow the tuna and if it looks like the school is headed off in the opposite direction and you think it’s time to reset, think again. With a steady supply of chunks the fish may eventually hone in on the freebies. When free lining baits it’s important to let line fall off the spool without any resistance so the hook baits sink and drift at the same rate as the free chunks. One beneficial tip in regards to chunking is preparation. Running & gunning at full throttle is not the time to be slicing and dicing baitfish. It really makes for efficient fishing if you pre-package chunk baits in gallon zip lock bags before your departure.
When the bite is on it’s not uncommon to hook into five fish at one time. And with fish busting feet from the boat it’s a mad dash to get your catch on the deck so you can deploy another bait ASAP. Before you know it a troller will find the action and send the school down, or the fish will simply lose interest and move along. Tuna never stop moving and if you don’t give them what they want they’ll keep moving until they find it. Once the pandemonium settles you’ll have an opportunity to tend to your catch and inspect your terminal tackle before racing off in search of another school.
Anglers with experience hunting tuna know what to expect when line starts to peel off the spool. This will be a punishing battle and you have to put the heat on early in the fight. These fish don’t give an inch and short pumps with tight drags are the only way to emerge victorious. Remember that the longer the fight the greater the chance your fish has of escaping or being eaten by a shark. While run & chum tuna fishing isn’t for everyone, those who’ve experienced the action will agree there’s nothing better. I’ll be the first to admit that I fully enjoy my semi-unhealthy addiction to Bahamian tuna fishing. Good luck and stay safe.
Rules & Regulations
When arriving by private vessel, U.S. visitors must clear Customs & Immigration at the nearest designated Port of Entry. Vessels up to 35-feet must pay a clearance fee of $150, which entitles you two entries during a 90-day period. Vessels over 35-feet must pay a fee of $300. These fees cover a cruising permit, fishing permit, Customs & Immigration fees, and departure tax for up to four persons. Anglers are limited to 18 pelagic fish and 60 pounds of demersal species on board at any one time.
While many choose to fish with heavy tackle in an attempt to beat the sharks and quickly defeat brute tuna, with the advent of today’s ultra-powerful reels and thin diameter braid anglers can get away with smaller, lighter outfits. Easy to handle, compact micro reels will enable you to more effectively fight the fish, not your tackle. Spooling with braid and adding a fluorocarbon top shot will give your catch plenty of room to run. Finish it off with a 5/0 offset high carbon steel circle-hook and you are ready to fish.