Of the many prized game fish found roaming the world’s seas, tuna are a universal favorite. Personally, I’ve made it a mission in life to capture every member of the tuna family. Skipjack, blackfin, yellowfin, bigeye, albacore and bluefin have all been scratched off the list, but on the other side of the globe remains the elusive dogtooth.
Built for impressive speed and efficient long distance travel, tuna never stop moving from the very moment they are born. They are fast growing, prolific oceanic predators that must continue to fuel their insatiable appetites due to extremely high metabolic rates. From little tunny weighing only a few pounds to giant bluefin surpassing grander status, pound for pound these sleek eating machines consume more prey than nearly any other oceanic predator and are highly respected by anglers on nearly every continent. While there are several species of tuna found worldwide, Florida anglers only have access to a few favorites with any sort of regularity—blackfin, yellowfin and skipjack tuna. The increasingly rare giant bluefin tuna is infrequently encountered in the northern Gulf of Mexico and waters of The Bahamas, but their numbers are so low they are rather insignificant to the general angling community.
The trick here is zeroing in on concentrated bird activity—a clear indication the target species has pushed bait toward the surface in full on attack mode.
Blackfin tuna (Thunnus atlanticus) are one of the smallest members of the tuna family and the most abundant in Florida waters. Blackfin tuna range in size from 3 pound footballs to 30 pound powerhouses that will push the appropriate tackle to its limits. Depending on your port of call, you may find blackfin tuna patrolling the reef line in as little as 90 feet of water or busting helpless bait hovering over an offshore hump in 900 feet. Like all tuna species, blackfin are equipped with a number of highly specialized biological attributes that make these fish extremely efficient hunters. With a muscular physique propelled by an immensely powerful fork tail, blackfin tuna are not only super fast, but these magnificent fish can maneuver through the water like an F-22 Raptor. The truth is that few forage species can escape the wrath of a hungry blackfin.
If you are serious about enjoying fresh sushi for dinner, there are numerous methods you can employ depending on your particular geographical region including but not limited to; trolling streamlined feathers and jets at speeds approaching 10 knots, fishing live bait, vertical jigging, and fly-fishing.
Across the southeast from Jupiter to Miami, blackfin tuna typically come in two sizes, small and large. Juvenile fish—footballs—are often encountered in depths ranging from 100- to 500-feet. This is where covering a lot of water with small lures, cedar plugs or trolling plugs is the name of the game.
If you’re interested in larger fish that easily exceed the double-digit mark, live pilchard and goggle eye are the best way to persuade these keen eyed predators. Setting up a drift on a clean blue edge in 150- to 300-feet of water with a full spread of kite and flat lines is about as species specific as your approach can get. Forty pound fluorocarbon leader will help fool these notoriously wary fish and focusing your efforts during low light conditions will greatly increase your odds of success. Tuna are always on the move, so if a hunting pack blasts your spread and there is nothing left to catch their attention the remaining fish will likely keep moving through.
In the rich waters off the Keys—perhaps the blackfin tuna capital of Florida—experienced anglers fishing the Atlantic are more adept at running to the offshore humps where blackfin are regularly caught on trolling lures, jigs and live baits. On the humps off Islamorada and Marathon, blackfin range from 5 to 20-pounds and here hooked fish often fall prey to the armada of hungry sharks patrolling the same nutrient rich upwellings. Stick with 20 or 30 lb. class gear and you shouldn’t have a problem filling the box.
Head further down the archipelago to Key West and local pros make the run out to the Gulf where they focus their efforts around shrimp boats. It is here where frenzied tuna shadow the weathered vessels while waiting for discarded bycatch. This is the one arena where targeting these fish on fly is a real possibility. The vast number of aggressive bonito mixed in present the only real problem. Still, persistence pays and those who put in the time and effort are often well rewarded.
While blackfin tuna bring smiles to faces, their substantially larger cousins, yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), heighten the appeal to an entirely new level. Mainly found in deep offshore waters, yellowfin tuna may approach shore when suitable conditions exist, which explains why the occasional fish is encountered along Florida’s eastern seaboard. However, big game crews heading out from Destin to explore current breaks and distinct temperature breaks 60 miles or more from shore really stand the greatest chance of encountering these highly sought after predators.
Go-fast center consoles along the state’s southeast coast see their fair share of opportunities as well. Those willing to venture to the other side of the Gulf Stream will be rewarded with a predictable yellowfin tuna bite in the Northwest Providence Channel. During the spring and summer months the action simply can’t be beat, with full on feeding frenzies unfolding daily as hunting packs of hungry fish rise out of the depths. The trick here is zeroing in on concentrated bird activity— a clear indication the target species has pushed bait toward the surface in full on attack mode. While binoculars can reveal distant action, a finely tuned radar will locate bird flocks from miles away.
Although yellowfin tuna can exceed a whopping 400 pounds, the fish we see typically tip the scales to no more than 90 pounds. Nevertheless, patience, persistence and stout tackle are a must for persuading these determined fighters to the surface. This is especially true once hooked fish begin to pinwheel under the boat. The trick to winning these hard fought battles is short pumps while always keeping the spiraling fish’s head angled toward the surface. Once boatside, a gaff shot or two to the head will end the game in your favor.
While it’s no secret yellowfin tuna regularly smash artificial lures and natural baits on the troll, few scenarios in fishing are as thrilling as tossing a live sardine into a full blown feeding frenzy, knowing that at any moment the enticing offering will be engulfed and line will start sizzling off the reel at an alarming rate. This action-packed moment is the epitome of pure sport fishing excitement!
Skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) are common from 5- to 15-pounds and easily distinguished by a series of solid horizontal stripes along their silvery belly. Skipjack are often found in large congregations and are also encountered feeding alongside larger blackfin and yellowfin tuna. Unlike the dark red flesh associated with the little tunny that Florida anglers call bonito, similar size skipjack provide outstanding table fare and actually comprise much of the canned tuna consumed in the United States. The species is also extremely popular across Asia and the Pacific in many different cuisines.
Respectable fighters on the appropriate 20 lb. gear, skippies jump all over small jets and feathers pulled along the outskirts of concentrated bird activity. Weedlines, color changes, and current breaks in are also key indicators. Choppy, overcast conditions coupled with clean, blue water set the stage for truly epic encounters. When these fish are beating the water white expect every lure in your trolling spread to get nailed pass after pass. Peak season for skipjack typically occurs across the southeast during late spring when billions of tiny silversides and glass minnows invade local waters.
With skipjack and yellowfin tuna in your crosshairs, a HMS permit is required and can be obtained online for a minimal $20 fee (hmspermits.noaa.gov). Additionally, there are some consistencies that must be taken into consideration no matter what species you target. Since tuna are equipped with impressive eyesight, fluorocarbon leader will provide a much needed advantage, as will fishing during low light hours. Regardless if you are trolling or fishing with live bait, a natural presentation with minimal terminal tackle is an absolute must for any level of consistent success. Lastly, carefully inspect your connections after every fish, as any weak link will be exploited by these impressive adversaries.
Food for Thought
For optimal table fare, all tuna should be immediately bled while still alive (one swift slice to the gills will get the job done) and fully immersed in a slushy brine as soon as possible. Once on the cutting table, steaks, chunks or fillets are a given, but don’t discount the remaining scraps. Rib and belly meat make delectable sashimi.