Somewhere on a lush green practice field a bulldog fullback is punishing a quartet of would-be tacklers. The talented running back barrels through the overmatched defenders and plunges into the end zone – touchdown! The drill is repeated over and over again until they’ve reached perfection. This fall, kickoffs are for real, but right now off the southeast coast of Florida football season is already in full swing – and I’m not talking about pigskin.
Stout blackfin tuna, endearingly referred to as “footballs” for their oval shape are busting through defenseless schools of bait as they ambush prey along the outer edge of the reef. Similar in build and demeanor to a punishing tailback, blackfin tuna can provide a strenuous test on light tackle. For South Florida anglers the annual summer run of busty blackfin is a welcomed event.
Once you have bagged a couple of bruisers and you’re feeling up for an additional challenge, try fishing a couple of 12lb. or 16lb. outfits. The lighter line fools even the wisest fish while simultaneously putting your angling prowess to the ultimate test.
Blackfin tuna roam the open ocean throughout the year, but during the spring and summer months they can be targeted closer to shore. In fact, the majority of mature blackfin that are encountered off Miami and the Palm Beaches are captured in less than 200-feet off water. While May and June represent the peak months for a blackfin bite, these same powerful predators can be targeted with relative consistency through September – that is if you know the game plan. Tuna can be enticed with numerous methods including trolling, drifting, jigging and anchoring over structure. Yet, by far one of the most effective and exciting techniques for tackling the largest blackfin tuna is live baiting with multiple kite and flat lines.
On the playing field you’ve likely heard the phrase that the best defense is a good offense. On my boat this is also the case, and the best defense against coming up empty-handed is a livewell overflowing with frisky offerings. Tuna respond very well to live chum and with this practice they can be enticed to crash baits very close to your boat. I prefer large pilchards to almost all other offerings, but have also had spectacular results utilizing threadfin herring, cigar minnows and even prickly pinfish. Large cast nets are helpful in quickly acquiring bait in mass, however a few anglers working sabiki rigs can be just as effective.
Once the livewells are blacked-out, the game plan is relatively simple. Head offshore and fish as many lines as possible with light tackle outfits and fluorocarbon leaders. My presentation typically consists of two kite outfits with three baits dangled per kite and a couple of flat lines on the up-wind side. I fish nothing heavier than 20lb. test mainline and 40lb. fluorocarbon leaders. Depending on the size of the bait, I select 5/0 to 7/0 light wire circle-hooks. Like all tuna species, blackfin are blessed with excellent eyesight and are extremely leader shy; they can spot large hooks and heavy leaders very easily. Once you have bagged a couple of bruisers and you’re feeling up for an additional challenge, try fishing a couple of 12lb. or 16lb. outfits. The lighter line fools even the wisest fish while simultaneously putting your angling prowess to the ultimate test.
When the wind and seas cooperate a small to mid-size center console can easily fish six or more baits very effectively. I generally fish my flat lines fairly close to the boat and stagger several larger baits at 75-foot intervals using two electric kite reels and six kite rods. Until you become proficient in flying multiple kites it’s best to focus on a single kite outfit. When you are up for the challenge and plan on flying two kites simultaneously, you will want to add a couple 1/8 oz. split-shots to the corner of the kites, depending on which direction you want them to fly.
Tuna can be targeted throughout the day but the bite definitely turns on during low light hours. My favorite time to pursue these powerful game fish is during late afternoons. I always look for a clean current edge before deploying my spread, and cobalt blue water and northbound current between 110 and 180-feet usually indicate an excellent starting point. The location of the western edge of the Gulf Stream can change daily and sometimes the northbound current pushes in very close to the reef line. Don’t be afraid to fish in less than 100-feet if the scenario appears promising.
After surveying the conditions and setting up on promising grounds, it’s time to deploy your hook baits. Be sure to sporadically toss out a few freebies as you drift and remember that it is not uncommon for a school of pilchard to maintain position right near your boat where they are seeking shelter. After an hour or so of pitching live baits it is safe to assume an alluring congregation of baitfish is corralled beneath your hull. If blackfin tuna are in the vicinity they will come charging in to investigate the freebies and hopefully ambush your hook baits, too. Tuna are a highly migratory schooling fish so it’s not unusual to score double and triple-headers when live chumming.
A blackfin bite on the surface begins with a small explosion of water. Screaming drags and strong vertical runs are sure signs of a healthy fish, and the ensuing fight on light tackle will require some serious finesse. Long battles are generally straight up and down with numerous headshakes indicating a hefty “football” is on the line. The last part of the battle can be the most grueling as your quarry begins to spiral painfully slow to the surface. Tuna will fight to the bitter end to stay out of your icebox so be patient – even the largest blackfin will eventually tire.
Every now and then you might be blessed or cursed by a monstrous yellowfin tuna strike. These powerhouses are typically much larger than blackfin and a yellowfin on light tackle may take hours to land. Several spectacular yellowfin tuna catches are made each year off our coast and are beyond doubt trophies on light tackle.
Kite-fishing is a very effective and exciting way to entice these highly prized gamesters. Even after years on the water, I still get goose bumps when I witness blackfin bust bait on the surface. Most of the tuna we catch live baiting off Miami are between 20 and 30-pounds. Anything close to 40-pounds would be considered a huge specimen. Last year we had a great football season on my boat catching numerous blackfin over 25-pounds between May and August. This is truly a world-class fishery as several IGFA records have been set between Key West and Miami using similar tactics. Get out there and tackle a tuna before football season comes to an end.
Blackfin tuna (Thunnus atlanticus) are the smallest tuna species in the Thunnus genus, generally growing to a maximum of 40-inches in length and rarely exceeding 45-pounds. Blackfin have black backs with a slight yellow coloration on their finlets and a distinct yellow hue on the side of their body.
Conservation Today Means Success Tomorrow
Unlike yellowfin and bluefin tuna, which are highly protected and regulated, blackfin are one of few highly prized pelagic species that have no bag or size limits. While harvesting blackfin tuna does not require a HMS (Highly Migratory Species) permit, recreational anglers should exercise a level of conservation. One or two trophy fish yields plenty of fresh tuna steaks, so only keep what you can eat fresh.