Aptly named for the type of live bait they house, tuna tubes are common aftermarket accessories found in cockpits around the globe where live baiting big fish is common practice. The ingenious device was actually invented long ago in the Pacific where big game crews in search of monster marlin would catch juvenile tuna and transport the large baits to other areas free of bait stealing porpoises.
Around Florida’s East Coast not too many boats are outfitted with tuna tubes because we don’t see great numbers of marlin. Instead, most anglers prefer to target more prevalent species like dolphin, wahoo, tuna and kingfish. However, modern day fishermen have come to realize that much more than marlin feed on juvenile tuna. As a result, modified tuna tubes designed to maintain one- to three-pound bonito and blackfin are growing in popularity. When chasing smoker king mackerel and trophy wahoo, bigger is better and juvenile bonito and blackfin have proven to be the ticket to enticing tournament winning fish.
The bottom line is that when it comes to prime baitfish, tuna species in particular require clean, cool, oxygenated water to survive…
All members of the tuna family breathe with ram ventilation, meaning they need a constant flow of water over their gills to remain adequately oxygenated. Unlike smaller baitfish and bottom dwelling demersal species that can sit still and extract oxygen from the water, tuna are a very fast moving fish and quickly perish in even the largest livewell, regardless of circulation. Keeping them alive for extended periods requires a vertical tube with a steady flow of fresh seawater where the fish can be inserted head first to force water up through the mouth and over its gills. The tubes should also be deep enough to adequately house the offerings, although it’s perfectly okay if the bonito’s tail extends beyond the top of the tube.
While you can purchase fabricated tuna tubes that only need to be mounted and plumbed, they are also relatively easy to design, build and install on your own. After committing to this do-it-yourself project you must first decide how many tubes you want and where you plan on mounting the cluster. Each tube will adequately house a single bait. Some crews install two or three tuna tubes in a baitwell to make use of existing plumbing, but for those who aren’t willing to sacrifice precious baitwell space this isn’t the best option.
Aboard Pro Payroll, a 39-foot Contender hailing out of Lantana, FL, Captain Jamie Ralph designed a trio of mid-size tuna tubes mounted to the outside splash well on his team’s tournament rigged center console. Using larger baits, he has seen his catch ratio on big kings soar. It’s important to note that across South Florida, highly competitive fishing teams go to great lengths to catch and care for live baits. With multiple wells often holding hundreds of baitfish, the boats in these waters feature some of the most sophisticated and intricate baitwell systems in the industry. To adequately feed multiple baitwells almost all of the latest center consoles feature an innovative sea chest or some sort of pressurized pump box, which greatly minimizes the effort needed to pump water to the tubes. If you don’t have a sea chest you can still install tuna tubes and plumb them via a saltwater washdown system.
Captain Jamie and his crew routinely catch hundreds of baitfish in a single outing, so their boat is plumbed to feed water to a secondary 100-gallon portable livewell through an existing deck valve fed directly from the pump box. This is a convenient system that allows Jamie to simply plug and play, utilizing the same valve to feed his tuna tubes. Remember that every boat is different and you’ll have to determine what resources you have at your disposable and what will work best for your particular application before cutting, gluing or drilling anything. One universal fact is that juvenile tuna require a tremendous amount of water to remain healthy. However it is you choose to plumb your tuna tubes, sufficient water flow is an absolute must.
To replicate Pro Payroll’s proven system, which can easily be modified for your particular application, you’ll need a few feet of 1-inch PVC pipe and a few feet of 3-inch PVC pipe. You also need a number of 1-inch 90° elbows and Ts, and the appropriate number of 3- to 1-inch reducing couplings. Of course, a PVC pipe cutter or hacksaw is a must. Additionally, Jamie utilizes inline ball valves to regulate the flow of water to each of the three tubes. Depending on how and where you mount your tuna tubes you’ll want to keep the 90° angles in the run to a minimum, although if fed by a sea chest housing an 1100 gph Rule bilge pump you’ll have significant water flow no matter the design. If you don’t already have such a capable system, you can get by with flexible marine-grade hose to prevent the water flow from having to be routed through a number of sharp turns. And if you are still lacking water pressure, try installing a bottleneck in the base of each tube to further increase the velocity of water.
In your particular case, the completed tuna tubes with the PVC runs shaped and formed to your particular specifications can be permanently along the transom. However, they can also be designed for portability with the use of heavy-duty, marine-grade suction cups like those available from SeaSucker.
The bottom line is that when it comes to prime baitfish, tuna species in particular require clean, cool, oxygenated water to survive, and there’s no better way to keep them happy and healthy than with the help of tuna tubes. Do your part to get the system set up correctly and the baits will do their part by enticing a higher grade of trophy fish.
A sea chest is an airtight acrylic box mounted below the waterline that’s fed by a single thru-hull fitting. The box houses multiple pumps and remains pressurized no matter the sea conditions or cruising speed.