Tuna Tactics 101

Trolling tips for Bluefin Tuna

By Goose Hummock Pro Staffer Capt. Eric A. Stewart

From left, Captain’s Corey, Matt and Eric Stewart with the winning Bluefin for the 2013 Nantucket Bluefin Blast.

The cold January wind is blowing outside and I wish it was July and I was on the water east of Chatham, trolling the dark blue waters for my favorite fish, the bluefin tuna. I close my eyes and I can envision the spread with the riggers running the splash bars. For me, trolling is the pinnacle of sportfishing. I live to see the fish rise up and hit the bars. I am forever trying to think up new patterns and techniques for getting the fish to bite. I close my eyes and try to see the pattern from the fish’s eyes. I am a tuna addict and this is my story. Remember there is no re-hab for this addiction. You have been warned.

In this article I am going to share with you some of the lessons I have learned and I hope this will help you catch a few more tuna this summer. In the last 9 seasons we have trolled up over 1800 bluefin tuna with the vast majority of them coming on splash bars. Our biggest on a bar was 775lbs that ate a “Chameleon” Splash Bar. This is a magnificent fishery that has exploded onto the scene with many great years of excellent fishing and big numbers of fish on the grounds. This past season we saw more bluefin staying to the south of the islands until they finally showed up at the end of August and then the bite was awesome all through the fall. 

I feel that the planning of your trip is one of the most over looked keys to making the difference between a successful trip and a skunk. Rule number one is to fish where the fish are. Sounds easy enough, but the number one reason for not catching tuna is because you are not fishing where the tuna are. The local tackle shops hold a key to this and can be a resource for you so establish a good relationship ahead of time with them. Come and talk with us and we can help you get on the fish. Also teaming up with other like minded fisherman is another good way to stay in the game. You can not fish everyday, but having a network of other boats can help you stay current on where the fish are or at least where they have been. They do have tails you know.

After you have grabbed some information and you have an area to head to you need to develop a plan of attack and try to stick to it. Fishing with some other boats and establishing some radio communication can really maximize your time and fuel on the water. As far as the radio goes I always recommend coming up with a predetermined channel to switch to for the sharing of information and location. Start blasting out GPS numbers over the regular fishing channels will only unleash the rath of the radio heads upon you. And if you have found a hot bite you will be covered up quickly by other boats.  It’s not right but it is the reality of the tuna grounds.

As you are steaming offshore you need to look for life. Whales, birds and bait are the visual key that tuna are there. When you find 15-20 whales in one area you should stay there and really work hard. One or two whales can have tuna with them but out east of Chatham, you will almost always find a few whales in close and you have to be willing to look for the numbers. Once you find the whales you have to establish the presence of bait and whether or not the tuna are with them. For me this means I use my color fish finder and I can identify what is below me. For most of you this will only come with time on the grounds. Learning what the fish finder is showing you will become second nature after you have put some time in offshore. Having the ability to distinguish between tuna and bait and other game fish is imperative.

On my boats we fish a 7 rod spread and fish primarily splash bars with 11 inch squid and 13 inch hook baits. All of our hook baits are rigged with two skirts which helps to make them more weedless. All of these bars are different colors. I feel that with the assortment of bait out on the grounds that a multi color spread makes the most sense. It is not uncommon to land school tuna with herring, squid, and sand eels in their bellies. Sometimes we have mackerel and half-beaks thrown into the mix as well as bass and bluefish on the grounds. We want to match the hatch and believe that the spreader bars are more of a sand eel, herring, or bunker representation. They represent a moving “bait ball” on the surface. The term “Squid Rig” always seems to imply a squid representation, which is not true. Color for me is less important than it is to other fisherman. I believe more in the spread and patterns, and pay special attention to keeping my lanes open and the bars spread out. I usually do not change my colors unless I am not getting any bites at all. When we start catching tuna I will not change anything. I firmly believe that once you start to catch fish in the offshore world you should not change your spread at all. As far as speed goes I look for the bars to just squirt along the surface and not tumble or walk. The use of splash bars also allows me to fish my gear way, way back in my spread. Our long rigger is 300 ft behind the boat! I troll around 4-5 knots but set my speed by looking at the spread.

This school bluefin tuna fishery has exploded in the last several seasons and with their close proximity to land the small boat owner is having real shots at big game fishing that normally occurs out past the horizon and then some. Gear up, buddy up, gas up and get out there. The excitement of and the power these fish have to offer is almost unparalleled in the sea. But hey, be careful out there, or you might just catch a giant!