Targeting Inshore Blackfin Tuna on Florida’s Panhandle

Those first few seconds are the best. It’s chaos. It can be violent. It can be beautiful, and it’s uncomfortable. It also comes with an element of shock and surprise. This is one of those feelings I look for every day — to feel alive, to not be in complete control. It is something to separate this day from every other day. I call it the “oh, sh*t moment,” and it’s generally easy to find here.

I start off the morning with this warning to the people on my boat, “I’m sorry for whatever I say once we hook a fish.” Most people look at me like I’m crazy, until the ride home when they’re laughing, probably indulging in one too many, and they admit they actually understand the “oh, sh*t moment.” They’ve said, “There’s no other way to word it.” This is one reason I left a stable career — a huge reason I moved to the panhandle (if I said THE reason I moved here, I’d be sleeping on the couch). I’m talking about the off-season pursuit of the blackfin tuna in the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village, Destin, Florida

Blackfin tuna fishing

Let’s face it — summer here in the panhandle can be hot. As I’m writing this, we are in the “dog days” of summer. Light winds, license plates from every state and temperatures higher than most of my friends can count (no offense, you three). I actually look forward to the hotter parts of the afternoons because I know the sea breeze will pick up for some kind of ambient cooling relief. This is all about to change. People will go back to their normal lives. Schools are reopening. The beaches are empty and the water temperatures will begin to come back down. People often ask me, “What’s the best time of year to visit?” Well, that depends on what you’re after. I know what I’m after.

I think Destin has some of the best fishermen in the world. The species of fish we have here, the way fishing seasons and tactics change every few weeks, the stories and the knowledge passed around is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. We don’t winterize boats in the off season, but we do have seasons. It may not be snowing, but this fishery can completely change in a moment, often in what seems like something of a legend.

Much like the blooming of the dogwood trees in the spring signifies an entrance of the long-awaited cobia, the last moon phase in August means the start of blackfin and, thanks to the never-ending knowledge source of social media, I’ll be damned if the first one wasn’t just caught. I guess it’s starting.

Florida Panhandle fishing

The beauty of this challenge is you don’t need any specialized gear. Any fishing gear you have will probably work. Any size boat you have will probably work. Actually, you don’t even need a boat. The majority of our blackfin are caught in state waters, often very close to the beach. Last fall, I saw numbers of blackfin caught off of paddleboards, kayaks and especially on foot from the Okaloosa Island, Navarre and Panama City piers. This lasted well into May. Catching blackfin tunas off paddleboards in February? Come on.

This fish is built for hunting. It’s almost perfectly hydrodynamic — they’re shaped like a little delicious meat torpedo, with pectoral fins that fold into perfectly shaped cavities, finlets that act like rudders to create seemingly impossible directional changes and a massive eye that makes you wonder how we catch so many.

Mark Hotze fishing for blackfin tuna

So, how do we catch them? I think it helps to understand their biology. Blackfin spawn offshore in the Gulf of Mexico from June through September. The Gulf works so well because of the physiochemical make-up of the water — the nutrient outflow from the Mississippi — that happens to feed the metabolic demand of a speed swimmer like the tuna. They only live for about five years and are one of the only tunas with a limited range. They like clean, warm water, they like structure and they like to eat. Find the structure. Find the bait. Find the fish. We’re lucky here to even be able to sight them in schools on the surface, chasing the ballyhoo along the beaches, around the piers and over the near shore reefs.

I wasn’t around in the past, but from talking with the experts (you know who you are), traditionally these fish were found trolling. People still catch a lot of them trolling birds, cedar plugs and diving plugs. With the advancements in GPS, trolling motors and mapping, I think the bite can get a lot more intimate. You know, that moment I was talking about earlier. When we’re throwing chum into the water as I’m trying to describe the fight and, all of the sudden, that nose-hooked cigar minnow (or herring) on the flatline gets hammered and the reel starts to scream, even with the drag locked down. It’s that look in someone’s eyes when the spool is running out of line and they hear: “It’s all yours. Good luck.”

blackfin tuna fishing in the panhandle

Imagine standing on the pier, looking 50 feet down at the crystal-clear water, and you see them busting on the surface, getting closer and closer, and you have to try and steady your heartbeat to make the right cast. Skyrocketing fish on a topwater plug in a whitewater blitz? Hopefully, you’re a calmer person than me. What about balancing on a paddleboard — I’m not even going to try and describe some of this. You just need to try it. Time stands still. I don’t think anyone will forget that experience, especially when it’s followed by a full-on slugfest. When they’re hooked, it’s a series of long and fast runs. Eventually, they’ll sound and go into their trademark death spiral. If you’re using gear like we do — lighter rods and spinning gear — it’s a fight. It’s a fight that’s hopefully celebrated with a gaff shot, and eventually a light sear and a full belly. It’s something you’ll think about randomly months and years later. I love the calls: “Hey, Captain, remember when…”

I think our blackfin in the panhandle might be a little bigger up here on average compared to south Florida. The blackfin that win their division in the Destin Fishing Rodeo each year are around 30 pounds. Our second place last year was a 26-pound fish on a 4000 Stradic. I don’t like to bring this up during the fight. Especially when the tackle we’re using is scaled down enough to actually get a bite. Have you ever seen the size of an eye on a 30-pound blackfin? It can be pretty unsettling to know you’re fighting a fish larger than the line rating. Sometimes I wonder if fishing line manufacturers know what some people do with their product. Typically, I’ll use a fluorocarbon leader for tuna fishing. It’s worth losing an occasional 7/0 hook to a king every now and then.

how to catch blackfin tuna in Florida's panhandle

As with everything else, not all years are good. History shows a correlation with storms. Prior to Hurricane Elena in 1985, only one or two tuna were caught a year on the pier. After the hurricane, the ballyhoo arrived in force and there are stories of days averaging at least 50 tuna caught on the pier — for almost 10 years! In 1995, Hurricane Opal hit and ballyhoo were nowhere to be found for a while. The same happened with the tunas. Last year was incredible. I don’t know what to expect this year, but isn’t that the beauty of this? If every day was easy and predictable, why would anyone want to do it? Maybe we’ll have to look deeper this year and spend more time slow pitch jigging like we do during the summer. Maybe not. Maybe in 40 more years I’ll have a better theory.

Targeting Inshore Blackfin Tuna on Florida’s Panhandle

I dedicate a lot of time on the water looking for this rush and I will admit every time I leave the dock, I have no idea what’s going to happen. As the legendary Captain Ron said, “If anything’s going to happen, it’s going to happen out there.” Maybe I shouldn’t take advice from a guy like that, but it’s true. I wait all year for this. I love to watch people succeed and to see expensive fishing gear pushed to the limit.

I have never seen a task bring people together like fighting a fish. It’s a team effort. A brother runs over to help and holds the rod for a sister that he “hates.” A quiet, reserved boy sticks a gaff in a fish for his father’s dinner. It’s the only task I’ve ever seen that causes people from almost every background, location, history and in any imaginable mood to cheer out loud, high five and celebrate when a fish is landed. It’s that excited, open-handed-high-five-when-someone’s-trying-to-give-a-fist-bump moment. It’s a time of involuntary “woo’s.” It’s a bluebird powder day. It’s a feeling everyone should know. It’s pure happiness. I’m just lucky to get to watch.