IN THE NORTHEAST CANYONS
BY CHRIS GALLETA aka JIGGY
Before we get started with this special article, a heartfelt THANK YOU to Chris who spent a great deal of his time in piecing all this information together to share with those on FISHING UNITED .com
Over the last few years, Chris has discussed some of the secrets which make that much of a difference in not only hooking, but in successfully landing the various tuna species on a party boat. The information that Chris is sharing here is unique in that it is compiled into one article with Chris adding in numerous pictures in order that the reader can clearly understand what he has stated within the text.
Since this is one of the finest in-depth articles written for FISHING UNITED .com, it will be posted and easily found under ANNOUNCEMENTS in the OFFSHORE FISHING FORUM.
A. Jiggy’s background
By way of introduction, I was employed and worked as a mate on the Viking Fleet in Montauk and New Bedford during the spring and summer (plus occasional weekend) from 2007 through 2011. This chapter of my life began after I spent a few years working on the Island Current Fleet in the Bronx, NY which I began in my youth at the age of 13. Looking back at my time in Montauk, this window was a period when tuna fishing was still consistently productive when we went offshore, especially east of the Hudson Canyon. After 2011, I would be a swing deckhand, filling in on the occasional overnight or local trips as needed. I had no prior offshore experience before fishing with the Forsberg family, who have decades of both for-hire and commercial tuna fishing experience to teach me how to literally “do it” to their standards. Special mention for passing along their hard on the water learned experience, and of note goes to Steven Jr., Carl, and Steve Martinez who all took me under their wing, and most importantly, had the patience to get me to the level where I can explain what works and will put you in the best possible position to get the bites and hopefully land the fish!.
Please note that this particular article is based solely around my experiences from party boat fishing in the Northeast canyons. What I am typing here is by no means a comprehensive list, or the “right way” to tuna fish. I just wanted to share what I learned so others may hopefully have some of the same success that I have enjoyed, and possibly to even share some feedback and tips to not only the audience, but also to me. Both charter and private boats will have their own particular and sometimes unique, techniques and approaches which I don’t have enough experience doing to discuss. This write up is focusing solely on chunking for tuna, and I will eventually expand on it to discuss other topics such as flat lining, trolling, sword fishing, etc.
While this article may capture a few points to increase your success, especially on a tuna trip when there may only be a few fish are landed, nothing makes up for having hands-on experience and I highly emphasize that within this particular fishery. I would certainly recommend a trip or two onboard the VIKING FIVESTAR (contact info can be found on the VIKING FLEET website). if you’re looking to have some of the finest personal hands-on experience, as well as closer interaction with a crew on the “what and what not to do depending on that particular trip conditions,” I highly suggest to start here.
Before I begin, I want to say that tuna fishing is by far my favorite fish to target. It is a completely different experience than per se, bottom fishing, where a majority of the skill is driven by knowing when and how to swing at the correct bites. In stark contrast, tuna fishing requires a number of hours of preparation and analysis to ensure you’re rigging up properly, and maximizing your opportunity at receiving bites by trying different methods and approaches
Perhaps the most important point to know when tuna fishing is that you must be in good physical condition to not only stay at the rail for long periods of time, but to be mentally ready when you hook up with a tuna fish on a party boat. Landing a powerful and unrelenting tuna fish, takes a fair amount of stamina to be able to handle the fight and avoid tangling up the entire boat. I am emphasizing this thought before I go further into this discussion as we go over your tackle choices to your preparation for, and during the trip which gives you the highest probability of putting tuna fish on the deck.
Even if you are in peak physical condition, don’t let your ego get in the way of landing a fish. If you are not able to appropriately fight the fish, don’t hesitate to hand the rod over to the crew so you can take a quick breather. You need to have the ability to react at a moment’s notice if the fish changes direction and takes a dive under the boat, or crosses another person’s line. If you can’t react fast enough, that fish is long gone. More importantly, many times that will also take the school with it. It is well known that loosing too many fish will result in the entire school leaving.
As you will read herein, my strategy centers around using a rocket launcher (some refer to it as an outrigger) for fishing. I cannot stress enough that each boat has their own style of fishing, and rules associated with it – so you should understand that boat’s style when fishing with them and adapt accordingly. I know that many boats reluctantly allow passengers to use rocket launchers – and I 100% understand and support them. There is a tendency for passengers to get lazy when it comes to watching their rod when it’s sitting in the rocket launcher and they’re not holding it. I have seen countless instances of a people working hard all trip to get a bite, and when they finally hook up the fish is lost due to a tangle with someone not paying attention to their rod in a rocket launcher.
Going even further then not paying attention, are the instances of people leaving their rods in the rocket launcher and leaving them unattended. I have heard stories of people leaving their rods in a rocket launcher, going to the bathroom, and coming back to find their rods thrown on the deck and then they start complaining. In my opinion, they should be lucky their rod didn’t end up in the water. I know it may sound harsh, but I have seen too many people work their tail off fishing hard all day to finally get a bite just to lose it because someone was too lazy to reel up and stow their rod. It really isn’t fair to them because no matter how hard they try, that fish isn’t coming back.
Additionally, how would you feel if that was your fish lost? Not too happy I assume. I know I’m beating a dead horse here, I really want to make sure drive the point home that tuna fishing on a party boat is a team game, so make sure you’re ready to be a team player. In closing, make sure you (a) never leave your rod unattended sitting in a rocket launcher; and (b) you’re able to disconnect your rocket launcher from the rail at a moment’s notice to let someone walk past without having to lift their rod over the launcher (I have seen many fish lost this way as well).
Finally, keep your ears and eyes open while closely following the crew’s directions when hookups occur. I also need to emphasize that the experience of party boat tuna fishermen vary to the point where sometimes you have a group onboard that are making their first tuna trip and a few have barely any experience in even regularly fishing for bluefish! Have the right attitude, and understand everyone on the boat is on a team together. You’re all trying to put fish in the boat, so work together and keep the school feeding and coming through under the boat. As soon as that boat leaves the dock, you all become members of the same team so be a team player and work together.
The approaches laid out herein focuses on the traditional approach you’ll take when chunking tuna fish in the Northeast. There are additional approaches you can take if you want to specifically target big eyes, or swordfish (my personal favorite) which I’m saving that for a later discussion.
This is a fishery where the purchase of proper fishing tackle is extremely important because tuna fishing is known to push anglers and their gear to the limits. The tackle is much more expensive than what is used for other species, so it’s important you’re purchasing the right gear and not wasting your money. I buy all my tackle almost exclusively from Trophy Tackle (http://www.tunafishtackle.com/), and strongly suggest you give them a visit as you prepare to rig up. If John Jr. is around, tell him Chris Galletta sent you.
There are other great tackle shops around, but I’m recommending Trophy Tackle, and I am not discounting the services provided by others, but simply because I have the most experience and trust in dealing with them. They have an incredible amount of experience and again I state, ‘trust’ with the fishermen in this area, and will guide you along on the various outfits, setups and tackle you should have in your tuna arsenal. One can easily read comments posted upon socialized media on fishermen who did not take this advice, and made thousands of dollars in tackle purchases just to then subsequently sell it at a monetary loss in order to then buy the appropriate tuna setups.
I know there has been a historical preference to use a short, or as some of the old timers on the west coast will call a “stroker type,” rod made famous by the rod manufacturer SABRE. These rods allow a fishermen to apply and deliver more leverage when fighting one of the pelagic species they were designed for; however, as the offshore tuna fishery constantly changes over the years there has been a slow transition back to using longer rods (especially for party boats) as we have seen done on the West Coast for some time now.
I do see a few key advantages to using the longer rod, with the most important factor is that it keeps the line further away from the hull of the boat. When a fish dives deep and goes under the boat, you must immediately react and keep the line away, otherwise you have a high likelihood of getting your line cut off. If you have a long rod (7+ feet), you can almost sit back and let the rod do its work to lead and pull the fish out from underneath. Additionally, you have the ability to get a rod which has a softer tip without sacrificing the backbone and power in the middle of the rod. Longer rods, such as those particularly made by Seeker are specifically designed to do just that. The soft tip allows you to fish with a slightly heavier drag because that can relieve some of the pressure when the fish makes a big run and lessen the chances of ripping and thus pulling the hook out of the tuna’s mouth.
The rod I fish with is the United Composite Raptor rod rated for 60-100 lbs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v95k3lN8W44 skip to 1:20) , which is 7.5 ft long. It also has a ~15 in. fore grip which is designed to be held against the rail and which many call a ‘railrod’ (see the below section about using the rail to help fight fish for more information on this). Even if you’re not on a party boat, I know the longer rods are popular amongst those fishing for larger tuna especially those who like to have a combination bait/jigging outfit. Look at the well noted and written about Osuna brothers of Marla’s Sport Fishing in Puerto Vallarta, for example where they swear by 7.5 ft Super Seeker rods.
When looking at the various reels that we can purchase for party boat tuna fishing, it is super important to ensure you have enough line capacity. I’m not going to dive into what particulars you should look for in a tuna reel, because my experience lies more in the execution and application of terminal tackle (and not picking out the perfect tuna reel). I use an Okuma Makaira 20IISEa, two speed reel. Once again, speak with John at Trophy Tackle, and he’ll make the best suggestions for you to choose from.
I know there is unending website and tackle shop discussions about using two speed reels, and I will emphasize the point that for all intents and purposes you should view your reel as a single speed reel unless the crew explicitly tells you to put it into low gear. I have seen one too many people loose fish because they are focused and apparently distracted with the fumbling they will do while fighting a fish in shifting the speed of their reel instead of keeping pressure on the fish. There are only a small handful of fish you’ll hook into while in the northeast which will require you to down shift into low speed. The main point here is in keeping your reel in high speed gear which will allow you the flexibility to quickly gain line when the fish circles back to the boat, or if it charges and you need to take the slack out in a hurry. Additionally, when fighting a fish using the rail, you can take the stress off yourself now by using both the rod and reel to gain a few inches of line. Two speed reels are more important when you’re going for super giants, or fishing out of a rod holder with bent butts and you don’t have as much mobility.
I bring along a few outfits, but my main reel is spooled up with 500 yards of 100 lb hollow core spectra with a 100 yard top shot of 100lb Momoi line. At the very least you need 80 lb test on your primary outfit, but I prefer to go with 100lb test (and you should too if you have the capacity on your reel). I cannot think of a single advantage to using a lighter line (when fishing with a sinker), and it will provide you with better abrasion resistance. Keep in mind that we are focusing on ‘party boat’ tuna fishing and thus the heavier line recommendation.
This should go without saying, but you should ensure that your top shot isn’t heavier than your backing to avoid losing all your line if your line breaks. In other words, if your backing is 80 lbs, and your top shot is 100 lbs, the backing will break first, thus taking all your top shot with it.
As everyone should know, you should be using flourocarbon when chunking tuna fish any time of the day or night. If I’m trying to catch yellowfin I’ll be using 80 lb test at least 95% of the time. The other 5% of the time I’ll use 60lb test if we’re day time chunking ‘and’ there is painfully slow bite on smaller fish. If there are big eyes around, I’ll jump up to at least 100lb or 130lb.
I know many will swear that you need to use light flourocarbon to catch tuna, but I strongly disagree. If you rig your bait properly there should only be a small handful of instances you need to drop down to 60 lb test, and almost never any reason to go below or use line lighter than this. John from Trophy tackle, for example, almost never fishes with less than 100 lb.
I share the opinion with a number of well noted party boat captains that fishing with anything less than 60 lb test is simply a waste of time when fishing on a party board. When using such light line, you need so many things to literally go ‘perfect’ for that particular fish to eventually be landed. Your only real shot to land the fish is for the fishermen to essentially almost guide the fish to the boat, instead of actually fighting the fish. As an example, suppose a fish is stuck at 40 feet, or say below a thermocline break and won’t budge. There isn’t anything you can do to bring that fish to the boat without potentially breaking it off. Someone may say “well if your drag is set properly you won’t break it off,” while that is true to some extent, you’ll instead be holding on until the fish decides to come up while trying to maneuver multiple obstacles (the hull of the boat, other lines, etc.).
There is an old time saying that “the more time in the water = the more time to lose the fish.” This is especially true with tuna fish because they put so much strain on the line, even the slightest pressure of another line may slice through it like the old saying of “a hot knife through butter.” No better illustration of this when watching a fishermen at the rail fighting a fish, and of a sudden their rod and body comes back quickly, as there is no longer any pressure on their line as it suddenly broke from being cut by another line.
I understand that there is a slightly increased chance of getting more bites with a lighter leader; however now think about how many fish will you actually land with the lighter line? From firsthand experience I’d prefer to fish heavier line (instead of 40) and at least have a shot at landing the fish. I keep repeating this point because one of the common problems around landing tuna on party boats are due to using inappropriately lighter line then they should!
Tuna are a fish who’s well noted behavior is that they travel in schools. Both east and west coast fishermen always speak about those fishermen who then fish with light line and end up busting off fish which will lead to loosing that particular school of tuna from the boat. Yes it is as simple as that. If everyone is fishing heavier line, the whole boat has a shot of developing a steady bite instead of hoping to pick one or two from the school in between breaking off them off. Tuna have a “herding” mentality, so when a couple start feeding it can turn on the feedbag for the entire school. I can’t tell you how many times there were trips where we would be marking fish, and somehow they wouldn’t bite. All of a sudden, we’d get one or two bites and its game on. By staying patient (and not immediately jumping down to the lightest leader option you have), you open yourself to the possibility of developing a bite and getting a steady bite on tackle that actually allows you to land the fish.
This idea of a “herding mentality” reminds me of a story I heard from Steven Jr about the Fivestar. He had the Trophy Tackle crew out for a 5-day trip where they were going to fish one of the eastern most spots for tuna. On their way out they came across massive schools of smaller big eye tunas circling 60 feet down in gin clear water. Interestingly enough, when they would throw a jig at the tunas, they wouldn’t get interest from the fish until one tuna paid attention to the jig. Then, as soon as the other tuna saw that one fish going towards the jig, it would start a chain reaction where they would begin trying to beat it and get the jig before the other one. It is important to understand the competitive nature of tuna. They initially weren’t interested in the jig, but as soon as they saw another one going for it, they wanted to “jump ahead in line” and get there first. This will explain why you’ll have a “wolfpack” of big eyes attack the spread in one shot, and have up to 7 hook ups at a time.
Extrapolating to other types of tuna fishing, I postulate that this will help explain tuna behavior when you are readying a couple in the chum slick all night, but can’t get them to bite. Anyone who has seen underwater video of tuna know they have amazing eyesight, as you can watch them swim up to a bait at full speed and turn away at the last second if something doesn’t look right (I have seen this happen with 30 lbs yellow fins in person, and 800 lb blue fins in videos). They’ll even turn away from pieces of baits that don’t have hooks in them because they aren’t sinking the way they would expect it to. So if a tuna is picky enough to not bite a fresh piece of bait which doesn’t look 100% perfect, why would they ever bite a piece of bait that has a hook in it and it attached to 100 lb line?
Some may say it’s because they’re hungry, but if that’s the case they could likely just as easily fill up on chum or grab some squid swimming around the boat. Yes, I’m sure there are some times they bite because they’re simply hungry, but if you ask me, the primary reason a tuna bites a hook is because of competition. If other tuna fish are in the area, it knows it can’t be as picky as it would like and has to just bite the hook before another fish can. My uncle is a marine biologist who used to teach at the University of Georgia and confirmed that almost all bites people get while fishing are driven out of a fish’s reaction (yes, even when you’re bottom fishing with bait). Remember, fish don’t have hands so the only way to check something out is to bite it. Anyway, the point I’m making is that it’s important to “build up a bite”. Land every tuna you hookup, so that you keep the school under the boat and “competing” for every piece of bait in the water.
Speaking of a “herding” mentality, I also see this happen on party boats: one person drops down to a lighter leader, and then everyone else feels the need to follow suite. I don’t fully I don’t fully buy into the fact that if someone is using a light leader - it will ruin the bite for others using a heavier one. I have caught tuna on 225 lb test fluorocarbon (and even mono) next to people using 50 lb test who weren’t getting bites the entire night! There have been one too many occasions where I was using leaders at least twice as heavy and others and still out fishing them by ratios as high as 5:1.
My last point on this topic will be to acknowledge that there are some fisherman who swear by using lighter leaders, and we have seen them out produce others on a consistent basis. Before making the blanket assumption that lighter leaders are best, we must consider the concept of results falling into the realm and being a causal vs. correlational relationship. Just because a few sharpies are getting bites, and landing fish on light leaders, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to use light leaders to catch fish. It could just be a function of their being good fisherman who have years of experience, and most likely would still have success if they were using a heavier line.
Finally, we must address the appropriate leader length, which is generally accepted as 6 feet. Any longer and then you will need to have a mate “leader the fish” which presents a few disadvantages. First, that means that there is one less mate with a gaff in their hands because they need the other mate to hand line your fish up. The second point is just as obvious, as you have less control over your fish alongside the boat as you try to bring it to gaff. I can’t think of any material advantage brought about from tying a longer leader, so just keep it at 6 feet (usually the length of your outstretch arms). Don’t go any longer. You’ll regret it (or you may not, but changes are you will with no additional benefit to show for it).
I know some people really feel strongly about using circle hooks, but I prefer to stick with J-style hooks. I will admit that I don’t have as much experience fishing with circle hooks, and some of the best fisherman around use them. I’m not saying J-sytle hooks are better, that is simply the way I was taught how to tuna fish. Despite just using J-style hooks, I have only experienced a minimal amount of pulled hooks over the years. Swordfish, on the other hand, are a different story but I still use J-sytle hooks with them because they have horrible aim and half the time they don’t even get hooked in the mouth (which is needed for a circle hook to be effective). Tuna, on the other hand, have perfect aim and never miss, so that benefit isn’t relevant here.
The main reason I like J-style hooks is because I want to make that tuna work for every single inch of line it takes off my spool. Circle hooks give the fish a full head of steam while dumping line off your spool (and potentially tangle other lines) as you wait for the hook to get set in its mouth.
I primarily use a Gamakatsu - live bait hook in size 6/0 or 8/0, depending on what bait I’m fishing with (I use the largest hook that will fit into my bait and make it look natural). I have not done much online research for me to conclude if there are any better brand of hooks I can use, but I do prefer to use hooks which have a welded ring when I can find them. They are extremely beneficial for tuna fishing because they keep the pressure centered through one location of the fishes jaw when the tuna swims back and forth. This greatly helps prevent a large hole being worn into the fish’s mouth so the hook can slip out. If I’m hoping for a big eye, I absolutely want a welded ring.
When tuna fishing, I will use a smaller swivel; however, at the same time I don’t want to go too small and pick something which doesn’t have the rated strength to handle the weight of the fish we’re targeting. I typically use 225 lb spro swivel, and haven’t had any personal complaints or reason to switch to another brand.
I know that egg sinkers have a long enough history and traditionally have been used for tuna fishing, but I am very strongly against using them, with the exception of using a small one for flat-lining. I would rather use a bank sinker on a rubber band.
If you use a light enough rubber band (or heavy enough sinker), the sinker will break off once you get a bite. Now, you won’t have 10 ounces swinging back and forth on your line to give the fish any amount of leverage as it tries to shake the hook. Additionally, when you get into a tangle and the sinker gets caught, you will not have a hard piece of lead pressing into the line which has a high like hood of slicing right through it (as you would with a barrel sinker).
It is imperative to note that the rubber band can’t be too strong as it will not break. Then you have to deal with the mate who now has to try to cut it off which prevents you from keeping the necessary constant pressure on the fish, and can lead to slack in your line as you try to point the rod tip towards the mate so they can reach the rubber bound.
I always use at least a 16 ounce sinker which does draw surprised looks from most on a party boat. There is absolutely zero advantage to going with a lighter sinker (aside from saving a dollar or two) unless you’re flat- lining (which we’ll discuss in a later entry). Considering the cost to go tuna fishing, this is one of the most minor expenses with your terminal tuna tackle, and I’d rather spend a couple dollars to maximize my changes at landing fish. Also and this is very important to remember, having a heavier sinker ensures your bait lays properly and is at the depth you believe it is at (which won’t happen if there is too much scope in your line). When captains and crew are talking about getting your bait or chunk into a specific depth zone, this is where having the proper heavy weight to not only get, but keep you there.
One special secret is that if conditions are sloppy (in the late summer and fall), you may try using and extra-long and stretchy rubber band. Doing so will absorb some of the shock of the boat bouncing up and down, which will have your bait bouncing all over the place. Keep in mind that an extra stretchy rubber band will not break off when you have a bite (unlike a regular rubber band which would break from the shock of the fish hitting it so hard). Most of the time, it will have to be cut off (unless you’re able to tie it perfectly where it will slip down the line). That’s an additional hurdle needed to jump through in order to land the fish, so be aware of that when using this approach.
Another question is how far away you should tie on the sinker away from the swivel. This all depends. First, think about how the bait is sitting in the water. Your sinker should go straight down, and then your bait will float in the current away from it. If the fish are concentrated in a very tight zone, you want the sinker right next to the swivel because if you let 100 feet of line out, you’re likely having your sinker sit at about 90 feet (assuming you’re using a heavy enough sinker to minimize the scope). Your bait can be anywhere from 84 to 96 feet (90 feet +/- 6 feet) as the bait goes up and down the water column. The slower the bite, the further away I’ll put the sinker from the swivel so I can cover as much of the water column as possible. Normally, I’ll put it about 1-3 feet away from the swivel when we’re anchored, or 3-5 feet if we’re drifting and it’s a slow bite (again, it all depends on conditions). When we’re drifting, I’m comfortable with the bait moving a little more because everyone’s lines are going in the same direction and there is less of a chance for a tangle compared to being anchored. Again, fish a heavy sinker so you can keep our bait sitting perfectly and out of everyone’s way.
I understand that the typical human reaction might be to keep a long distance between your sinker and the swivel to maximize the distance covered. I cannot stress enough that more is not always better here. The greater the distance, the greater the chance of getting tangles. The difficult part of tangles when tuna fishing is that you often times will not be aware of a tangle until you or the person you’re tangled with reels up their line (or even worse, once you’re hooked up!). There have been instances where people were sitting there, thinking they were fishing for hours, but the whole time their lines were tangled! Nothing is worse than staying up all night, working hard to catch bait and prepare your line properly only to realize you had no chance of catching anything for the past hour because you were tangled
The most important point is having a knot that you can reliably trust which can be tied perfectly when fishing. I used to swear by the clinch knot, but had a few instances where the hook cut through the one piece of line used to hold it in place. Instead, I have had a lot of success using the well-known Triline knot (for those who are not familiar, there are numerous online videos on how to tie it). It is almost similar to the clinch knot except you go through the eye twice.
I know some fisherman use glue to secure their knots. I personally don’t see the need because I’ve only had one knot fail on me in my life (which happened to be my first tuna trip!). If you aren’t confident in your knot tying ability, I guess it can’t hurt (although I don’t know if it’s visible under water and will stand out). Instead, just ask the mates to test you knots (or tie for you). Just make sure you tip them well, of course.
While we’re on the topic of knots, it would be remiss of me to not discuss crimping which is a needed skill for experienced tuna fisherman. I also believe that it should be used for any line above 80 lb test. I do know a number of fishermen who crimp everything from 60 lb test and above because it is as close as one can get to a near or perfect connection each time. Unlike knots, where you could tie a bad knot (especially when rushing during a tuna bite), crimping should have the same strength each time if you are able to correctly crimp. This means using the proper crimping pliers, and not going cheap on them (in buying some of the cheap knockoffs seen online or at fishing shows), the correct materials as the crimp protectors, and the appropriate sized crimps for the pound test line you are crimping.
As is the consistent theme when purchasing tuna gear (or any fishing gear in general), make sure you consult with a pro, or someone who really knows what they’re doing.
1. Preparing your leaders
The next two tips are arguably the most important to best presenting your bait. If you only learn two things from reading this article, this should be it.
Due to the inherent chemical properties in extruding fluorocarbon, it is much stiffer when compared to monofilament line. For real life bait presentation, especially when you have a number of lines in the water, you want the bait to look as natural as possible moving with the current. To do so, you need to stretch or you may hear, “shock it” in order to get all the kinks out. There are a number of ways to stretch out your leader, but I just do it right before I’m ready to fish, as shown below. I believe the stiffness of fluorocarbon explains why you may not caught tuna by rod and reel, but long liners will be catching them in the same areas on 300 lb monofilament which is naturally floating in the current.
It is hard to believe this point, but many fishermen, even those who regularly fish with fluorocarbon don’t realize that even fresh out of the box it is absolutely filthy with dust as a result of the packaging process. To clean it off, all I do is use the alcohol prep pads which you can purchase from Walgreens or CVS, and wipe it down before it goes in the water. This will take off much of the dirt, and you’ll usually see a brown streak on the white pad of all the dirt and dust you took off. Does it truly make a different? I honestly, don’t know but Steve Jr. does it which is good enough for me (another plug to check out the Viking Fivestar, so you can get a hands-on experience to learn tricks like this).
When it comes to the best bait to use, I honestly don’t have any secrets or special tricks. I use all the standard tuna baits, as discussed below. The most important point is to just keep an eye open and see what’s working around the deck. If the boat is collaring the fish, ask the crew what’s in the fish’s belly. I also like to shove the wash down hose all the way down the fish’s through (into its stomach) so see what comes out. If it was feeding on chum, you’ll see chunks get washed out of its mouth. This is important to know because then you’ll want to either fish a little shallower to get in the chum slick, or try flat lining a bait so that it sinks with the chum slick.
Butterfish is obviously the most common tuna bait, and that’s because it works. When the bite is tough it is absolutely imperative that it’s rigged perfectly, so don’t hesitate to ask the mates to rig you up. Even if you think you’re confident in your abilities, it doesn’t hurt to ask them for a refresher. A couple tips:
i. Make sure that you cut off the tail, because that will help avoid it from spinning (although if you make too large of an angle, it will in fact make your bait spin even more!). I’ll try to take a few pictures next time I’m in the canyon to show you how I cut mine.
ii. Make sure to take the extra few seconds to sew the mouth and gills closed. Many good fisherman which I know do not do this, so it’s not absolute necessity, but might as well take an extra few minutes to rig it up. I really don’t understand why you wouldn’t, unless you have a good bite going.
iii. Before sending your bait down, make sure to let it rest under the water for a minute. Take time to watch it and see how it looks. Does it look natural like a piece of meat floating around, or is it spinning? If it doesn’t look good, just replace your bait and re-rig. I can count on one hand the number of party boat fisherman I see actually taking the time to do this vs. just letting their lines go to the depths.
iv. Don’t be afraid to use a small piece of bait. There have been many trips where myself and a couple others would collectively out fish the entire boat and every piece of bait that I put on my hook came from the chum pot. It wasn’t until the second day of the 3-day trip that people began following us and started catching. There is the fallacy that “big bait catches big fish” and that simply isn’t always true.
I always love a nice live squid, and you really can’t beat that with it hooked once right through the top of the mantle. I do have one secret for which how it rig up a dead squid, which was shown to me by Captain (Offshore) Harry. I was intending to hold off on this for a later article, but it’s too effective to not share now.
The following pictures show how I like to prepare a dead squid bait. I unfortunately don’t have any pictures of the finished product, but I’ll be sure to take a few when in the canyon this year. The idea is that the squid will sit on the line with a natural look, and the hook coming out around its tentacles. I like this approach for two reasons: (1) I am able to use a bigger hook (and crimp it) without it sticking out; and (2) I get a better hookset because the hook goes down much deeper into the tuna’s jaw.
• A hook crimped to a leader, with the other end left as it (I’ll crimp that to a swivel once I finish threading my line through the squid).
o As I mentioned earlier, you don’t have to crimp, but I like to whenever it’s suitable because it gives you the best possible connection.
• A needle to thread the hook through the squid
o I use a wire coat hanger (see below pics)
• Duct tape
• A couple rubber bands
• Crimping supplies (sleeves, crimp protectors, GOOD crimping pliers)
• Barrel swivel
Then, I thread this through the squid. My goal will be to tie some rubber bands above the hook which will hold the squid up on the line so that the hook will sit right around the eye of the squid.
As you can see in the below pic, it will take a couple rubber bands to do this (these pics show the aftermath after catching a tuna on this rig. You can see the tube is still on the line, and the hook coming out of the head of what’s remaining of the squid).
Sardines are an excellent bait, but I personally don’t fish them as much as regular party boat tuna fishermen do because I like to hide the hook, and they fall apart half the time when trying to do so. With that being said, you can also fish them without hiding the hook and just hooking them through the eyes. I have seen a ton of fish caught on sardines, so it’s all about personal preference and what’s working on a given trip. I would also suggest bringing your own sardines on a party boat to get the highest quality. You can check out your local super market, or bait masters ( http://www.baitmasters.com/store/default.asp ). Additionally, sardines have more oil in them, so they tend to get eaten up by squids quicker.
A pro tip for when you’re having trouble catching squid on squid jigs is to toss out a sardine past the lights and then reel it in slowly. Sometimes squid will jump on and stay on all the way to the boat. If you have a dip net onboard, you can scoop them up. This has helped me on many trips where there were dolphins around the boat, so the squid were too busy swimming for this lives to bite a jig. However, when I put a fresh piece of sardine in the water, they couldn’t resist jumping on and we would scoop them up.
Really, any bait that looks natural will work fine and at times strangely will make a big difference. When I was in Montauk, I would have my buddy who worked on a dragger bring me a box of extra discards, like ling, whiting, etc. It all works. Also, on an interesting note I know that some boats on the west coast will cut up smaller yellowfins and use them as chunk bait for the larger cow yellowfin. In other words, depending on the conditions, time of the year or other variables with this type of fishing, tuna will at times will eat whatever they can fit in their mouths.
This is one area I continue to get more scientific in as one should never just hand pull your reels drag and then say it is properly set. There is more physics here than one can imagine since you are dealing with two opposing forces, with the first being applied by the fish accelerating and moving at changing speeds, and the second of course with the fishermen countering in pulling back. Wherever you land on your drag setting, make sure to ask the mate to take a look and confirm they agree before fishing. Don’t gloss by this part as with the importance of rigging your bait, the proper drag setting now plays a critical role from the time you put pressure on your line to right up to the time the fish is hopefully stuck with the gaff!
I still set the drag just using my hand because I know how heavy it should be purely from doing it countless times throughout the years. I am going to be bringing a scale with me on my tuna trips this year so I can ensure we’re setting the drag at the same level each trip (I’ll post what my results are at a later date). It is important to note that when setting your drag you should be measuring how much pressure is needed to strip line off the set up (rod and reel), and not just the reel. It is extremely crucial that you pull line off the reel with the rod fully loaded (and not straight off the reel which too many fishermen will do while rigging up) because a substantial amount of pressure is added from the bend in the rod.
I personally prefer to fish with a very heavy drag, because I want that fish to work for every single inch it takes off the reel. When it comes to adjusting your drag from when you get the bite, to when you start fighting the fish, I was taught to never do it. In other words, keep the same drag from hookup to landing - which I realize will surprise many reading this. Once again, due to all the tuna trips I’ve been on (working, and as a passenger), I have changed my ways whereby I keep the drag slightly below strike for my initial bite and then move it into full strike the second I hear, then see, the run off. Once I find a drag pressure that I know won’t break my line, I want to keep the pressure there the whole fight to ensure the fish is continuously working. I personally don’t worry about pulling a hook because there is no way to know how the fish is hooked, so you just have to assume the hook is in the proper spot. If it’s in the proper spot of the mouth, that hook is not coming out (no matter how heavy your tackle is). To those who say having the drag that tight for the initial bite won’t work, I’ll ask them how does it work when you catch tuna on the jig, or being dragged behind the boat on the troll (although I will acknowledge that you have a larger hook when trolling).
I always see some fisherman who like to keep a loose drag so the tuna has time to “run” and swallow the bait. If you take a step back, that doesn’t make intrinsic sense. If a tuna wanted to spit the hook, it would spit the hook. It doesn’t need time to swallow it. Think about all the times where you get bites on a jig but no hookup. If tuna has fast enough reflexes to spit a jig out without getting hooked (with a treble hook swinging from it and your rod tip jerking up and down), I can absolutely promise you that have fast enough reflexes to spit a bait hook. Additionally, you’re ensured to have a nice, solid hook set because that tuna is hitting the bait at speeds up to 30 mph, so it will ensure that hook gets lodged in the dense cartilage of the jaw if it swallows the whole bait.
In general, once you begin fighting the fish you really should not or make it a go-to habit to be touching the drag at all during the fight unless you have a significant amount of experience. Here is where the science comes into play as it’s almost impossible to accurately determine how much pressure you’re then applying on the fish during the fight. Just think if you change your drag setting, up or down just four times during a fight? Would you know what your drag pressure is then? This goes right back to the start of my discussion on this particular thoughts about the science, so it’s critical that you spend the time upfront to ensure it’s set properly. There are so many variables occurring during tuna fishing, so eliminate one of them by setting your drag properly, and then forgetting about it.
Once my line is baited, I’ll put my rod into a properly made rocket launcher and clip my reel into a safety line.
Make sure it’s a properly made rocket launcher, because I have seen some custom made cut pipe launchers which may not have the rod tube at the proper angle. Unless the party boat provides them, ask around to purchase the correct type which will fit into the rod holder of the party boat you will be fishing upon. Absolutely make sure you are using a safety line with a quality stainless clip which is strong and tested, because I was burned previously by using a safety line which was made using an inferior clip (quick story on this below).
Back in 2013 and I was midship on the Viking Star fighting a tuna which I had hooked up on the jig. It was the first night of 3-day trip and I already had my limit flat lining yellowfin (this was during the run at Block Canyon where everyone was catching fish, but if you knew how to flat line properly, it was as good as it can get). Anyway, we had a deep rod out with a monster 3lb ling for bait hoping to catch a big sword or eyeball. When I came back with my jig caught fish on the desk, my father was standing in front of an empty rocket launcher with a look of disbelief on his face, with my Tiagra reel and Star rod nowhere to be found.
He explained that he was sitting in front of the rod and saw a bounce on the rod tip (usually a sign that a sword is looking at the bait). As he got up to get closer to the rod, it went shooting out of the rod holder and snapped the safety line clip cleanly. The line must have been wrapped around the tip because we didn’t hear any drag go out. This was a costly lesson to learn at my expense!
Aside from making sure you have a good safety line, the other key takeaway is to make sure your line is sitting properly and not wrapped around anything. That was one of the mistakes that resulted in my loosing that fish (and set up). Additionally, make sure you have a proper rocket launcher so the rod is sitting at the correct angle and can’t come flying out. One other point to note is to make sure you actually turn your clicker on. There have been quite a few times when I have walked around deck only to see a rod sitting in a rocket launcher with an empty spool! You’d be surprised what tired fisherman forget to do. Also, while we’re on the topic of clickers, one personal pet peeve of mine is when people forget to take the clicker off when reeling in to check their baits. Please, for my sanity and the crew’s, turn the clicker off when reeling in to check a bait.
In terms of the depth to set your line, I would rely on the captain to tell me that as this is from what they will see on their “fish finding” color machines. They will usually tell you what depth to set it at, but if they don’t give me any guidance, I’ll typically will set it around 60-80 feet down, which traditionally was always the safe depth zone for your line when tuna fishing. To get it down to that depth, I will typically put my rod in the launcher and then slowly strip out line so that the bait doesn’t tangle on the way down. I measure my fore grip to know how far 18 inches from my feet is so that I can get it to the exact depth I want to be fishing at. Use your fore grip as your depth counter since you know the exact length of the grip. Also note that tuna spend their whole life looking up, so you would rather have the bait above them, than below them (more on this when I do a follow up about jigging fish on the troll, where I usually jig shallow enough so I can barely see the flash of my jig on the upswing).
Regardless of what approach you take to determine how much line is set out, you absolutely must consider the slope of your line. This is another reason I like to use heavy sinkers because however much line I let out, is approximately how deep I’m fishing.
Even if you’re fishing at one depth, it’s important to keep working your bait throughout the water column to try and get a bite unless the captain is getting heavy marks or you’re seeing people get consistent bites at certain depths. Every 10-15 minutes try a different depth. Either drop back a few pulls to fish a few further feet down, or reel up a few cranks. Until you get a consistent bite going, it’s an experimental game to find the right depth the fish are feeding at.
Although my technique relies on using rocket launcher, I need to mention that a lot of party boats greatly frown upon the user of rocket launchers, and rightly so. Many fisherman will abuse the “privilege” of using these tools by setting their lines out, and walking away, or not pay attention to their bait. Having a rod in a rocket launcher is not an excuse to “set it, and forget it” by not pay attention to your bait. You absolutely need to be watching your line like a hawk looking/checking/thinking about the following:
i. How is my bait sitting? Did the current pick up, and do I need more weight? As demonstrated above, we want to make sure we’re actually fishing at the depth we think we’re fishing at.
ii. Keep an eye on the rod tip!!! Sometimes you’ll see little vibrations on the line. That will sometimes be squid eating up your bait. Keep an eye out for this, otherwise you’re fishing with half eaten bait which will likely not attract any tunas. Also, look for bumps in the rod tip which are not from the boat going up and down. This will sometimes happen when swordfish slash their bill to kill the bait. Often times, you’ll see a few bumps on the rod tip and then a few seconds later line may start screaming off. You want to be in a state of readiness because you may only have a few seconds to react before your line is already crossed across 15 others (or going slack).
iii. As the boat bounces up and down, it my rod tip bouncing as I would expect it to? If not, that could be a sign I’m tangled with someone.
iv. Is my line tight? Your line should always be tight at all times. If not, you must reel in and see what’s going on. Right away, no exceptions. Either one of two things are happening if there is slack in your line: (1) you are in a tangle and someone else is reeling your line in; or (2) you have a fish on the end of your line and it’s charging towards the boat. Swordfish are notorious for doing this, and I have seen glow sticks (which were set 250 feet down) moving through the water 10 feet below the boat as a swordfish swims around the boat with a bait in its mouth meanwhile no one knew they even had a fish on the line!
It is also very important to bring a watch with you so you know when you set out your baits and when it’s time to check them. Do not gloss over the importance of timing when you set your bait out. I use a cheap waterproof digital one from amazon, and it works great. This is overlooked much more often than people think. If you want to get super scientific, bring post it notes and a sharpie to write down the time you set your bait down.
Now we’re not to the most exciting part - fishing the fish! The overarching theme that always applies is to keep pressure on the fish constantly. From the second that clicker goes off, you do not stop reeling and putting pressure on the line until there is a dead fish at your feet, or a clean hook dangling at the end of your line (unless otherwise instructed by the crew, of course). With that being said, communication is imperative to ensure everyone is working in sync to help you get the fish in the boat. An adage heard from the old time captains was:
“Regardless of the strength of the tackle you are using, the line should be either coming off the reel as the fish runs or back on to the reel as you retrieve.”
Let’s begin with as soon as you hear the drag going off. The first thing you should do is get in front of your rod, have your hand on the reel handle and check where the line is going to see if you’re crossed over anyone. Don’t worry about getting out of the rocket launcher, and don’t worry about taking the safety line off. Your only job is to make sure you’re keeping pressure on the fish and aware of the situation before acting. You must have your hand on the reel handle to be ready to crank in any slack if the tuna changes course.
Often times, tuna will take an initial run and then change directions (either down perpendicular to you, or sometimes directly at the boat) immediately after feeling the pressure of the hook. You want to be ready to reel in that slack before the fish spits the hook or creates a mess as the line (which now has a belly in it) gets wrapped around other lines. A mate will likely be at your side momentarily and they can help you get the rod out of the launcher and unclipped from your safety line. Make sure you read this paragraph twice and get it ingrained in your head. Pressure must be on the fish at all times, and that comes first and foremost. I have seen many fish lost from people trying to take the rod out of the launcher right away before observing their surroundings or seeing what the fish is doing. This resulted in slack in the line, and a lost fish. Once that’s done, keep your eyes and ears open as you wait for instruction form the crew.
When it comes to actually fighting the fish, the only way I know how to (and the best way by far) is to fight the fish using the rails. You’re essentially using your rod as a leaver to gain line and then reel up when you bring the rod down. I strongly suggest you begin reeling before you make your downswing. One of the most common mistakes I see if people doing is begin reeling too late as they bring their rod tip down. They literally will have to do twice the work to bring the fish in because those couple of inches add up to feet. Aside from having to do double the work, you’re giving the fish slack for the hook to wiggle around more if the rod tip is going down and you’re not reeling.
This is approach is different than the standard lift up one would do when using a harness. In my opinion (and those of many (if not all) captains), there is absolutely no place for a harness on a part boat. If reduces mobility, which greatly deters your chances of landing a fish. If you aren’t able to fight using the rail (or reeling in a fish from the troll), I would suggest using one of these rod butts because there is no loss of mobility and they’re easy to pop on. I can’t tell you how many fish I have seen lost because people were playing around trying to get their rod into their harness.
One often overlooked item when tuna fishing is the importance of keeping a bend in the rod.
“When it comes to fighting a fish, your rod is really what’s doing all the work and putting pressure on it -- not the drag on your reel.”
Try putting line of the reel with your hand, then try pulling line off the reel when you’re pulling it from a bend rod. You’ll see the immense amount of pressure being put on it. It’s important to keep that pressure on it at all times. One tip from John at Trophy Tackle is that he will at times put the butt of his rod on the deck to keep the rod bent when the fish is swimming directly away from the boat on the surface.
I remember being shocked when he told me that, but if you take a step back and think about it, it’s fairly intuitive. When you test your drag, you bend your rod and have it fully loaded. Whatever level of drag you end up on, you land there because it’s the most amount of pressure you can apply without breaking your line or pulling the hook. Why wouldn’t you want to keep the maximum level of pressure on the whole fight? If the fish is at the surface and there is no bend in your rod, it’s stripping line of the reel as a much reduced level of pressure. Therefore, I’m always working to keep a bend in the rod, and the fish working. I am not suggesting people do this, since it is a veteran move and you will most likely lose your fish if you try it. Just trying to make a point about how important that bend is, and to make sure that fish is working for every single inch of line.
I must also put another reminder in here to never touch your drag during the fight. Don’t do it. I can’t tell you how many people I see get excited when the fish comes close to the surface and they begin thumbing the spool, or try to push up the drag to get it in the boat. Don’t fall for this! Many times the fish will make a run if it touches the gaff, boat, another line, etc. If you increase your drag, it will break the line when the fish takes that final run. Additionally, don’t get too excited and worry about the mate gaffing your fish. Just keep working on gaining line, and they’ll gaff it when it’s within range. Many people will stop when the fish is a couple feet below the surface and being yelling at the mate to gaff it. They know what they’re doing. Let them do their job, and you do yours to bring it within gaffing range.
This section would not be complete if I didn’t discuss what needs to be done when there is a bite and it’s not on your line. You need to be super cooperative and do everything you can to help get that fish in the boat. I will see people try to get their bait lines in the water quickly so they can get a bite. That is the wrong approach. First, you’re just another line to get in the way if the fish comes your way, and can result in the fish being lost. Second, if you do happen to hook up, your chances of landing that fish are severely lowered due to the complications of trying to fight another fish a short distance away from you.
Make sure you’re paying attention to your line and if you feel and pressure, slack off immediately. That is not you with a fish, you’re simply tangled up with the other person. The rule of tuna fishing is “if you think you have a fish, you don’t”. You’ll know if you’re hooked up and it’s your fish. I personally think the best thing you can do when someone hooks up is to reel up your bait rod, stow it out of the way, grab your jig stick then get as far away as possible from whoever is fighting the fish and begin jigging. I know this may sound contradictory to what I said before about not fishing, but jig fishing has a different profile than chunking.
i. If you’re using a treble hook, which will “sew” the fish’s mouth shut and allow you to land them faster.
ii. The fish has less of a “head start” to gain momentum and peeling off line, as opposed to chunk fishing.
iii. You can fish with a heavier leader when jig fishing, so can put more pressure on the fish (I have 100lb braid, and 100lb flouro)
iv. Having braid on your reel allows you to put more pressure on the fish because mono has the ability to stretch
v. It’s easier to get out of the way than if you were fishing with a bait rig.
You’ll typically be fishing one side of the boat when chunking, so I’ll run to the other side and cast my jig away from the boat. The second I see the person fighting the fish come within my line of sight, I reel up my jig and get the heck away from them. If we both hook up, my braided line will slice through the other guy’s mono like a hot knife through butter so I need to make sure to keep my fish away if I do hook up. I know it’s tempting to keep fishing if someone gets close, but remember the herding mentality of tuna. It’s in your best interest to ensure every fish hits the deck, and you keep those fish feeding and competing to get every bait. You want to keep that school under the boat and work up a bite.
For me personally, I haven’t taken much of a different approach when day fishing vs. night fishing. I would maybe say that it becomes more important to rig your baits properly in the day because it’s easier for the fish to see your line, but it’s all just about the same for me. I know that there is often times the urge to jump to a lighter leader when the sun comes out; however, I have consistent seen 80lb test get just as many bites as 40lb test during the daylight hours.
We’ll close with a few final tips:
i. Don’t hesitate to cut your line. If you’re in a tangle, just cut your line and re-rig. Changes are your leader is shot, and you want to get back in the water to have a chance at a bite
ii. Make sure you have rigs pre tied. Bites come and go, so when it’s on you want to be ready.
iii. Tip the mates, and tip them well. Tuna fishing takes a ton of skill and cooperation. You want them looking out for you
That’s it for now - we hope you enjoyed reading! We’ll look to update and add more information over time so we can have a one-stop shop. We would love to hear your comments, as well as tips from your experiences. Also, if you disagree with something, let us know! Always interesting to hear different perspectives, and by no means is my way the right way. It’s just the way I learned.
Good luck on the tuna grounds!
Chris Galleta aka JIGGY