With Capt. Brian Patterson – www.pattersonguideservice.com
In this article, my goal will be to cover the bare essentials when even considering chasing these majestic fish. With strict regulations on them in recent months, gear of the past is no longer adequate to safely and effectively catch, land, and potentially release this species. I will cover tackle geared toward the light tackle fishermen and even more specifically, those wishing to cast to the breaking beasts.
Rod selection: 7’-8’
Choose a rod with a stiff butt and mid-section but that has a relatively light tip. A lighter tip will make it easier to cast soft baits and small jigs. On my boat, we use both Calstar and Van Staal Rods spinning rods but there are plenty of great manufacturers out there. Seven to eight foot rods are standard.
Advantages of Longer rods
- Allow for better castability,
- Help with applying horizontal pressure
- And aid with runs under the boat.
Disadvantages of Longer rods:
- Difficultly with fighting fish vertically. NOT IDEAL for jigging.
Rods: A few Hogy Recommendations…
St. Croix LSWS76MHF 7’6″MH Fast 130-50 Mono 40-65 Braid
St. Croix LSWS70HF 7’H Fast 150-80 Mono 65-100 Braid
When it comes to reels, a top quality reel designed for this kind of fishing is essential. Learn from my mistakes. I started with lower end tuna reels only to gradually replace them with reels that don’t break while you are fighting the one. We now use only Van Staal 250 and 275 spinning reels for tuna. We have tried in vain to kill these reels and they look like they just came out of he box. They seem to be the most popular on the Cape. The Shimano Stella 10000 and the DAIWA Saltiga are also popular choices.
Spooling your Reel
Take a piece of electrical tape and wrap the spool twice. Then load the reel with at least 350 yards of 80 lb. braid. If you have never loaded a reel yourself, don’t start with this one. Get it done at the tackle shop you purchased it from or by someone with a line winder. The braid must be packed tightly on the spool. I go through a new pair of leather gloves each spring loading my line on the reels! To make sure it is on tight, you can also find a secluded body of water, let out some of the line off the stern and start driving. Once you come close to the end of the spool, stop and start cranking. The water weight will be enough to get that line on tight. This is important to prevent the braid from digging or spinning into the spool when you have a large tuna on the other end.
Line Type and Color
On my charters, I use Cortland Mastery Series braid due to its smooth surface and overall strength. It does not produce wind knots like some other lines out there. For the color, it is purely personal preference, but the olive is a stealthy-looking line and makes me feel like it matters.
Use different color braid for each size line. Example: 80-pound braid is in olive, 65 pound is white etc. It will make your life easier when grabbing a reel at 2 AM.
Choosing a Leader
One way to keep it easy is just to buy wind-on leaders. These attach using a loop-to-loop connection to your braided line. As the tuna are approaching 200 pounds, lean to the side of caution and get 80 to 100lb fluorocarbon or mono. The length should be about 12 feet. This is important because it allows you to cut your line several times while rigging. If the fish doubles back on you, its body will be against your leader and not your braid (which it will cut off if that happens).
If you prefer to tie direct: here are a few knots we like:
At the end of the line we use a system of tying directly to a solid stainless steel “0” ring. By doing this, we don’t have to keep cutting and re-rigging a lure. We simply use split ring pliers and connect it to whatever plastic or lure we want to use. Tip: Stay with the smallest ring for your lure. An Owner #6.5 solid ring is rated at 300 lb. If we hook into a 300-pound tuna on light tackle, the “O” ring is the least of my concerns!
Lure selection is again mostly preference and what has been the most productive for each angler. Among fishing captains, most agree on one thing: The most effective lure is the one you have the most confidence with. Since most people reading this may be just getting into tuna fishing, we will keep it simple. In my opinion,
As far as soft baits go: Mike Hogan with Hogy Lures produces two top tuna killers:
- 10” Doublewide: Bone is the best all around color. Pair this with one of their soft-circle hooks or weighted grip hooks; you have a casting machine with a wide profile.
- 10” Jiggn Hogy: This one is designed for Hogy’s Barbarian Jig Heads and Darters. Rig up and you have a long-range sand eel.
Other top lures we use are Tattoo’s Sea Pups. They produce every color combination imaginable so choose one that mimics the baitfish in the water.
These three lures compose 90% of my tackle box.
Before Heading Out
While on dry land, take a hard look at your set-up. Check your rods for any nick or cracks. Check the guides for wear and tear. Test the drag on your reel. For tuna, the drag should be set where it is hard to pull line off the reel with just your hand. If it is too tight, that fish will break it immediately. If it is too loose you will get spooled immediately. By pulling the line directly from the reel (not through the rod tip) you should not feel any “sticking” and the braid should not cut your hand.
If you see breaking fish, they will not be hard to miss. Volvo-sized splashes, aerial acrobatics, bait being sprayed, and running for their lives! There are very few things in this world that will get you more excited than seeing breaking tuna. There are days, however, that they are not as active. As you move about the vast body of water, look for birds, surface pattern changes, dark bodies of water or flashes of white/blue under the water. All too often boats run right over fish because they just do not know what to look for besides the splashes. Running and gunning is nowhere near as important as slow and steady on days like this.
So now you see some fish, (or what you think may be fish), what next? DO NOT run fast and land up on top of them! The calmer the surface water, the slower the boat should be going. Power up to them and at all times observe the direction the tuna are moving. If they are coming at you, slow down and be patient. If they are moving away, try to avoid following directly behind them. Make a parallel line and get ahead of the school. This will allow your cast to move with the bait versus against them. I never saw prey choose to go at its predator! Once you feel you have obtained a good location and within your casting ability take one more second to calm yourself. Let your lure land 10 feet ahead of the feeding fish. The fish that you saw last is usually in the middle of the school so by placing your lure ahead of the “lead” fish, you can cover more of the working fish.
Casting to Tuna
Let the fun begin! Once you cast, get your slack line in as quickly as possible. With your rod tip to your strong side, give it a quick twitch. It usually does not take more than that before you’re off to the races. In case it does, keep reeling slowly, twitching at variable speeds. Tuna can and will hit it within sight of your hull. If by some strange chance you did not get a taker, cast again but let it sink for about five seconds. The diving action and upswing is a great imitator of running prey. If they don’t want slow, speed it up an try a fast retrieve.
The Fighting Tuna
BAM! Fish on. It is very important right now to ensure that your hook is solidly placed in the jaw of your tuna. As it runs, keep your rod tip at a 45 degree angle and if the fish slows even for a second, power your rod tip back to drive the hook home. Many times the fish won’t do much on the first run, but as soon as you hook set them, hold on! How long a fish will run will be up to her. She may hit the horizon or head to the bottom. There are too many options here to cover them all but for the sake of time, let’s say she runs to deeper water. Before you yell at the skipper to chase it, give it a moment. Your reel is set so that your drag gets tighter as the line quantity lessens. Keep talking to your captain as the line gets lower. Slow powering is usually sufficient to keep up with a running fish. If the fish doubles back, you will need to reel feverishly to keep slack line from forming. Typical tuna fights can range from 15-45 minutes. That just depends on how angry your bull is that day!
When your fish goes left, your rod tip should go right. The pressure should be so that your rod is as described in the test above, near parallel. If the fish goes right, you counteract by moving your rod tip left. This movement by the fish will indicate that you are properly fighting the fish and breaking its spirit. This will in turn shorten the fight time and get a quicker release ensuring survival. When the fish is at its end, it will do what is known as the “death circle”. These are large circles usually done under your boat when the fish is exhausted. It is crucial at this point to keep constant pressure on the fish and not allow it to circle down getting water and oxygen. You may find that every time you go to lift the fish up with your rod, your drag goes off and it is at a stand-still. Here we employ our extra hand to give finger pressure to the spool upon the lifting of the rod. This will give just enough pressure to get the fish up to the boat. If the fish decides to run, your drag knob has not changed and the fish will not break off.
Safe Handling of Your Catch
Once the fish is boat-side you have two choices. The first is obvious, but in case it is a slot or extra fish, you may want to tag and release it. If you are tagging the fish, the tag should already be ready to go (along with a sharp knife). It is a good idea to do this in the down time while waiting for fish so all pieces are ready. Get a solid lip gaff and stick the bottom jaw. If possible, remove your lure. Tip: Single hooks are far easier to remove than trebles. You can replace all or one of your trebles with quality single hooks for this reason. Hogy lures come with single hooks and are ideal in this situation because even if the hook remains, the soft plastic will fall off and the fish will have a better chance of surviving. If you can’t remove the hook from the fish’s mouth, cut the line as close to the lure as possible with your knife. Tag the fish as close to the dorsal fin as possible. Swim the fish if necessary with the lip gaff still in place. As the fish gains energy with water and oxygen, pop out the gaff and celebrate. You just gave a future angler the opportunity to share the same excitement you just had!