Spring has sprung, and that means East Coast anglers are spooling up for explosive yellowfin tuna action across the ’Stream. Departing major ports from Jupiter to Miami, as May turns into June go-fast center consoles and well-equipped sportfishers will be venturing into a pelagic playground known as The Bahamas in hopes of igniting furious tuna blitzes with the use of live chum. Setting up along the perimeter of crazed seabirds and tossing dozens of sacrificial sardines into the melee is a proven tactic for catching the fish’s interest and bringing home the bounty. However, there is another way to connect.
Seasoned offshore vets have been racking up impressive yellowfin numbers on the troll for decades. Pulling a spread of fake baits is a common approach along much of the Eastern Seaboard, including in the rich waters off the Carolina coast and in the New England canyons where crews are accustomed to trolling chaotic 10 and 12 line spreads with as many as half of a dozen spreader bars and daisy chains in the mix. Florida fishermen who lack the ability or resources to black out their baitwells will be happy to know that by simply fine-tuning the approach, trolling can also be an extremely effective technique for taking tuna in the tropical waters surrounding the islands.
…if you know anything about tuna fishing in The Bahamas, success is just as much about what’s flying in the sky as it is about what’s swimming below the surface.
Timing is not only key, with mid-April through August primetime, but also daily, as we all know tuna are extremely sensitive to light. This means the early morning and late afternoon hours when the sun is closest to the horizon lean the odds in our favor, but don’t discount an explosive midday bite, which has just as much to do with the presence of forage as it does with how high the sun is in the sky. Still, experience says target tuna from sunrise to mid-morning and from late afternoon until sundown. During the brightest hours of the day when surface temps peak, tuna typically hunt deep in the trenches. During these off hours your time is best spent deep dropping, fishing the reef or simply enjoying the island lifestyle by lounging next to the pool with ice-cold Kalik in hand.
Another key factor is location. Yellowfin tuna are highly migratory pelagic predators that require deep, nutrient-rich water. Finding these powerful predators is all about zeroing in on submerged pinnacles and canyons often thousands of feet below the surface. Even though these structures are so far below, they actually play a huge role in the entire food chain by creating powerful upwellings that trigger an extensive web of life.
The most common ports of call for adventurous anglers crossing the Gulf Stream are West End and Lucaya on Grand Bahama Island, which provide relatively easy access to popular spots like The Corner and Northwest Providence Channel. Bimini is also a go-to for tuna hunters, yet receives far less press than the aforementioned destinations, with many Bimini-bound anglers ending up running well north to find a solid bite.
The waters surrounding the Out Islands stretching all of the way down to Cat Island and San Sal are even more productive and generally see much less fishing pressure, but require an extended commitment and the patience to deal with an abundance of relentless sharks. Here, anglers are often happy boating one out of five.
In any case, if you know anything about tuna fishing in The Bahamas, success is just as much about what’s flying in the sky as it is about what’s swimming below the surface. Obviously, the presence of weedlines, rips and forage are all key indicators that shouldn’t go ignored. However, flocks of screeching birds picking bits and pieces off the surface are an angler’s best friend in these waters and are undisputedly the very best indication of feeding activity unfolding beneath the surface.
Properly tuned radar is key for finding our feathered friends, with powerful binoculars a close second when it comes to essential tools. The naked eye can only see so far, so utilizing modern technology is crucial for magnifying your field of vision. Once the blips on the display or distant dots in the sky have been identified, it is time to put baits in the water.
Unlike other prolific regions around the world where yellowfin tuna feed primarily upon relatively large prey, in these bait-rich waters much of this fish’s diet consists of diminutive baitfish, so match the hatch with small to medium size bullets, jets and cedar plugs fished way back in the pattern. And of course, no Bahamian trolling spread is complete without the addition of rigged ballyhoo/Ilander combinations pulled off the riggers. These are bonus baits that not only tempt hungry tuna, but also gaffer dolphin and billfish. Which brings up an excellent point and one of the reasons The Bahamas is one of the most exciting sport fishing destinations on earth—variety!
While yellowfin tuna are certainly a prized catch, the fertile waters surrounding the tropical archipelago are loaded with an abundance of predatory game fish including blackfin tuna, skipjack tuna, wahoo, blue and white marlin, sailfish and plenty of gaffer ’phins. Along the immense hunting grounds it is impossible to know for sure what species might pop up in the spread and explode on one of your offerings. It’s for this reason a varied trolling spread with broad appeal consisting of something for everyone is a good idea. Variety is really what Bahamas fishing is all about and the same logic applies from top to bottom across the reef and beyond where any number of demersal or pelagic species may inhale your bait.
With such diversity out in the deep, proper tackle selection can be tricky, as you don’t want to fish 80 lb. class bent-butt outfits that are too heavy for the vast majority of encounters, and conversely you don’t want to find yourself undergunned with anything less than 20 lb. class gear. The truth is, fish tend to be larger across the ’Stream and to stand a fighting chance against anything that comes your way, you should consider 50 lb. class trolling gear as a solid balance. You can always scale down after you box a few fish, but remember that the longer your quarry is in the water—especially tuna—the greater the chances of the fish becoming shark food. Whatever class tackle you choose to fish, bulletproof connections and high capacity conventional reels loaded with fresh monofilament are an absolute must.
With spread deployed and frenzied birds dead ahead, your approach must be well calculated. Your goal should be to determine the feeding bird’s direction of travel and line up your approach so your lures skate the outside of the commotion. Do not plow directly through the center of the flock, or risk putting the fish down.
Regarding proper trolling speed, this will vary depending on prevailing conditions and type of lures being pulled, but eight knots is a good starting point. Once a reel starts screaming, fight the urge to pull back the throttles. Tuna are schooling fish and by continuing forward momentum for a few seconds, one strike often results in multiples. With quality fish now on the line, clear the spread and focus on landing your prize while always keeping one eye glued to the birds. See you on the other side!
Facts of Life
Anglers crossing over from Florida are required to check-in with Bahamian customs and immigration whenever fishing within 13 miles of the Bahamian coast. Penalties for not doing so could be severe, including a confiscated boat, substantial fines and spending time behind bars.
As of press date, Bahamian rules and regulations state boats can be in possession of no more than 18 pelagic fish at any given time, which includes any combination of tuna, dolphin, wahoo and king mackerel.