Live bait is the ticket to tuna success. There is no other way around it. While you can certainly catch blackfin on the world famous Florida Keys humps by trolling small jets and feathers, and also by speed jigging with slender artificials, if you really want to stack the odds in your favor there is simply no substitute for heading to the hills with blacked out baitwells.
This fact was driven home recently when Captain Steve Dougherty and I ventured south to Tavernier in search of a hot tuna bite. Fishing aboard Mike Burchell’s 36-foot Invincible, we departed at the crack of dawn and were joined by Captain Shannon Attales, a respected and knowledgeable skipper usually seen manning the helm of Warbird (warbirdfishingcharters.com), a 33-foot World Cat sailing from Robbie’s in Islamorada. It was a businessman’s holiday for Shannon and a long overdue opportunity for the four of us to connect.
Of all the attractions, it’s the ravenous schools of blackfin tuna patrolling the famed humps that certainly draw the most attention…
Over the years volumes have been written about the humps—a series of pronounced seamounts rising hundreds of feet from the ocean floor along the nutrient rich continental shelf of the Florida Keys. The three largest and heavily fished are the Islamorada Hump, the 409 Hump and the Marathon Hump, also known as the West Hump. On any given day, one or all three of these popular seamounts may produce big. When conditions permit, it’s not unusual for crews willing to burn fuel to investigate the trio in search of the action.
The humps are 15 to 25 miles offshore of the Upper/Middle Keys depending on your departure point and produce consistent results year-round. Here, powerful Gulf Stream currents slam the submerged seamounts, which block as much as half of the water column. The result is cold, oxygen rich water forced to increase speed and rise toward the surface. These nutrient-rich upwellings create turmoil for baitfish, and where there are disoriented baitfish hungry predators are never far behind.
You may have experienced the Florida Keys humps for yourself, or at the very least read about the epic tuna action. However, they are also famous for producing outstanding catches of dolphin, billfish and more. Prized wahoo are another draw, often annihilating rigged ballyhoo and skirted trolling lures pulled along the outskirts of the confused water.
Deep-water bottom fishing is also a major attraction, as the series of seamounts are spawning grounds for greater amberjack, almaco jack, and a variety of snapper and grouper. Monster warsaw grouper once dominated the submerged mounts, but decades of pressure have since depleted their populations.
You want sharks? The humps are the place! There are so many sharks here that the menacing predators are cursed by local charter crews because they often snatch every hooked fish.
Of all the attractions, it’s the ravenous schools of blackfin tuna patrolling the famed humps that certainly draw the most attention, and over time effective tactics have evolved for taking the frisky tuna. Blackfin tuna roaming the humps average 5 to 15 pounds and do not come close to reaching the impressive size of yellowfin, bigeye or bluefin tuna. However, what they lack in quality they certainly make up for in quantity. When the bite is on, it is common to land dozens of fish before heading back to port with enough sashimi to feed the entire island chain!
Just like their bigger brethren, blackfin tuna are keen predators with fantastic eyesight and often shy away from anything that doesn’t look or move like the real thing. Hence, charter skippers hired to put clients on the meat day in and day out have learned to scale down their approach in an effort to fool wary fish, often minimizing their terminal signature to as light as 15 lb. test.
“Typically, juvenile blackfin only a few pounds in weight are more numerous and aggressive, maybe even more naïve, and can be trolled from dawn to dusk on a variety of artificial lures nearly any day of the year,” pointed out Attales, a Colorado transplant who’s been pounding the humps for a decade. Shannon will also be the first to tell you that the fishing pressure on the humps can be overwhelming with two-dozen boats jockeying for the best position on the relatively small pieces of real estate. It’s easy for visiting boaters unfamiliar with the intricate maneuvers to literally get forced out of the way by the seasoned vets who have been plying these waters for years. The major drawback to the constant boat traffic is that it drives larger tuna—fish weighing in the mid to high teens—to sound deeper in the water column. This is where and when blacked out baitwells pay big dividends by providing exactly what is needed to set the stage for explosive action.
The choreographed approach is relatively simple but must be performed correctly to achieve the desired results. We witnessed it firsthand as our confident helmsman set us up on the crown directly over the 409. Once in position with three knots of current pushing us off the back edge of the hump, he began tossing a trickle of “fun tickets,” as he playfully dubbed the live pilchard. It didn’t take long for hungry tuna to explode on the helpless offerings. At this point, an additional dozen pilchard were released to ignite a feeding frenzy, with responsive blackfin quickly busting through the melee. Hooked baits followed close behind with multiple hookups always the result. A continued sprinkling of chummers kept the fire lit until the conditions pushed us off the backside of the hump and away from the fish.
Interestingly, one would think the happily freed pilchard would scatter in every direction, but that would spell instant death, an inevitable fate every single baitfish would ultimately meet nonetheless. Instead, the fearful sardines seek safety in numbers and swarm close to the boat, searching for any sort of cover from the menacing pack of feeding tuna below.
“While everyone typically associates overcast days with prime tuna fishing conditions, here on the humps it is a different story altogether. It’s the clear, sunny days when the bite really goes off,” commented Attales. “The larger blackfin holding down deep can zero in on the shimmering baitfish from a much greater distance in the bright conditions.”
Shannon’s experience was right on point, as drift after drift brought the same results. It was only until our baitwells were empty and the fish box full that we decided to switch gears, and it was barely noon.
Heading to the humps in search of blackfin tuna certainly requires an investment in time and effort, but when all of the pieces to the puzzle fall into place the tuna tango never gets old!
Loading the wells with hundreds of live pilchard can be a simple task, or an extremely frustrating experience. Those familiar with fishing the Keys know the regular bait spots well, and also know that networking with local captains, bait boats and tackle shops leads the way to success. In addition to secluded harbors where pilchard often stack in big numbers, patch reefs in approximately 20 feet of water attract and hold tons of the scaly treats. Look for swooping frigate birds and terns to lead the way to the heaviest concentrations of bait, which can then be coerced with a chum bag and captured with a large cast net. If you are more comfortable eating pancakes than throwing pancakes, #6 sabiki rigs fished on light tackle outfits work extremely well.
Make Every Day Hump Day
Islamorada Hump: Rises to 290 feet below the surface.
Rises to 409 feet below the surface.
Marathon Hump: Rises to 500 feet below the surface.
Rig It Right
To maximize the fun factor when live baiting blackfin, medium-action spinning outfits loaded with fresh 20 lb. mono offer the greatest level of sport. Rigged on 20 lb. test fluorocarbon leader, thin gauge 3/0 circle-hooks (VMC #7381 SureSet) are all you need to stay connected.
Enjoy more photos of our Florida Keys blackfin tuna hump fishing adventure by visiting fsfmag.com/hump-tuna.