In the world of pelagic game fish, tuna are perhaps the most popular. In offshore waters around the world, different species in the tuna family face pressure from both recreational and commercial anglers as their global food value is immense. Here in Florida and in The Bahamas, we have plenty of tuna of our own, though successfully finding and fooling these predators on a consistent basis can be challenging. In our neck of the woods, live bait is tough to beat, but there are a few tactics you must keep in mind to be successful in this pursuit.
For most Floridians, the most common trophy tuna species roaming local waters is the blackfin tuna (Thunnus atlanticus). False albacore (Euthynnus alletteratus), referred to by many under the misnomer “bonito,” is the most common tuna species in the Atlantic, but its poor table fare makes it an afterthought in any conversation about targeting tuna. While blackfin are mainstays in offshore waters around the entire state and throughout The Bahamas, yellowfin tuna are also trophy targets among Sunshine State anglers, though this fishery is entirely different and much more difficult to access.
With so many different areas around the state and throughout the islands to target tuna, there several different methods anglers use to put fish in the boat. Trolling is a time-tested tactic that continues to yield results wherever tuna are present, while jigging and chunking are common practices as well. However, wherever these fish are found, live bait is often the best choice and, when possible, anglers chasing tuna should always fill their livewells with as many frisky offerings they can fit.
Despite the effectiveness of live bait in widespread tuna fisheries, getting bites isn’t as simple as just soaking a few livies and waiting for the action to get hot. Bait is just one piece of the puzzle, and anglers still have to fish the proper areas, conditions and tackle to achieve success targeting tuna.
This time of year, the tuna fishing is excellent in many areas around the state. In southeast Florida, the edge of the Gulf Stream comes alive and, while blackfin tuna are present year-round in this region, the late spring and early summer provide prime opportunities to catch butterballs eclipsing the 30-pound mark. Additionally, this is when the occasional yellowfin crashes the party in an area that’s otherwise largely devoid of these fish. However, generally speaking, these plus-size blackfin and intermittent yellowfin are almost exclusively caught on live bait. Sure, you’ll hook the occasionally trophy on the troll or on a slow pitch jig, but live bait is your best bet.
Furthermore, you’ll need to be fishing live bait the right way. With regard to tuna, this means a few things. First of all, you need to pay close attention to your terminal tackle. When targeting trophy blackfin, you must be aware of how finicky and line-shy these fish can be. With incredible eyesight, many large blackfin will refuse an offering if they detect anything unnatural. While 40 lb. fluorocarbon is the go-to for many anglers in the area kite fishing for sailfish, dropping down to 30 or even 20 lb. test is in the cards if the fish are particularly picky. Additionally, hook size is an important consideration. Circle hooks are the standard when targeting tuna and you want your hook size to correspond to the size of your bait. This logic applies wherever you’re fishing. If your deploying pilchard, you’ll need a small hook to avoid impeding the bait’s natural swimming motion. Conversely, on a larger bait like a goggle-eye, a larger hook is more suitable.
Another tactic that is very conducive to a hot tuna bite when live baiting is live chumming. It seems like a no-brainer that tossing live, often injured baitfish behind the boat will bring in all sorts of predators, but it’s not as simple as it seems. Pilchard are the top bait choice when implementing this tactic, as these tiny offerings generally school up and use the boat for protection, bringing the bite straight to your spread. But instead of dumping massive scoops of baits overboard at a time, try tossing a few periodically along your drift. This will not only help you preserve your bait supply for longer periods of time, but also allow you to cover more water. There’s nothing quite like watching trophy blackfin blow up on freebies behind the boat, tossing a hooked bait in the mix and hearing your reel scream.
Along with the incredible blackfin action stateside, yellowfin are abundant in The Bahamas this time of year and while chunking is a popular tactic in getting the attention of these fish, live bait takes things a step further. As captains and crews scan the Northwest Providence Channel for flocks of birds keyed in on tuna schools, having plenty of live baits on hand can really help in capitalizing on these opportunities. With these larger fish, however, anglers need to bump up their tackle. 60 lb. fluorocarbon is a great starting point and while pilchard are still popular in this fishery, anglers can use thicker gauge hooks that are small enough for these baits, but still provide plenty of strength for these formidable fish.