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Casting Big Soft Baits to Bluefin Tuna – New England Style


By Capt. Mike “Hogy” Hogan

Cape Cod is best known for its fantastic inshore light tackle fishing but there is also significant blue water big game fishery for palegic species such as tuna and billfish, favorites amongst big boat anglers. However, there has been a growing trend in big game inshore light tackle fishing as anglers are increasingly learning how to cast to 100-pound plus bluefin tuna that can come in as close as a couple of miles shore. This fishery is especially exciting as it allows big and small boat anglers alike a chance at big game fishing. And regardless of boat size, the close proximity of bluefin to many ports is a welcome diversion to many fuel conscious anglers. Even better, no trolling! So in a nutshell, this budding fishery has presented an anglers dream: An interactive, light tackle, fuel saving big game fishery.

In Search of Tuna

You can catch school sized bluefin tuna beginning about the third week in June all the way through early October. Schools of bluefin can pop up wherever they find bait – sometimes surprisingly close to shore – but they do tend to favor “known haunts” that will heat up and cool down just as quickly as these speedsters race from spot to spot. In 2008, some of the more popular locations were the “corners” of Stellwagon Bank, deep waters close to Provincetown and ledges east of Chatham, to name only a few. These fish move around so quickly that it is best to consult with local tackle shops that specialize in light tackle big game fishing for the latest word.

Assuming in you’re in an area that’s known to be hot, actually finding the fish is an art in itself. Although bluefin are famous for explosive, crashing action, successful anglers know that locating signs of fish can often be as effective as actually spotting them. The most obvious signs are bait, birds, slicks and whales. In an ideal scenario you’ll find all of the above together, a sure sign that fish are in the area.

Once arriving on scene, I like to “case the joint” a little to assess the situation. Slowing down to about 10 knots or so, I make my way toward nearby structure, which usually is a ledge. In the process I make sure my fish finder’s gain is set to pick up bait and I keep a watchful eye. If I see slicks in the area, the stock I put in marking bait goes up. The next step is looking for birds and whales. Whales are easy as it’s hard to miss several tons of mammal crashing the surface. While whales are a great sign of tuna, they’re not a guarantee but still worth the investigation. You will almost always see birds out there, especially if there’s bait and whales in the area but your goal is to find those that are on fish. I look for birds demonstrating behavior that may be a precursor to feeding even if they’re not diving on bait: 1. Birds hanging high in one area. They might be watching something. A number of birds flying high but covering a lot of ground is a less telling sign but I would assume they’re looking too! 2. Birds flying in a cyclonic fashion, which is my favorite sign. They definitely see something and they’re expecting something to happen shortly. 3. A large number of birds sitting in the water. I take this as a sign that something just happened.

When it comes to the process of finding tuna, you really have a couple of options.

You can keep cruising at high speed until you have definitive signs of fish. The advantage of this technique is that you can cover a lot of ground and possibly have the chance to see more fish. The downside is that you might leave an area prematurely and miss an opportunity. Your other option is to hang in one area that has recently been hot. This will allow you to investigate a location in detail, perhaps allowing you to pick up on certain nuances such as stages of the tide, time of day and wind direction.

Another major advantage is the fact that you can blind cast, a technique that has served me well many times. After all, you’re definitely not going to catch a fish without any lines in the water!

Blind Casting – Just because you can’t see breaking fish, doesn’t mean they’re not around. Blind casting with big soft baits such as the 10″ Doublewide Hogy in an area known to hold tuna often gets a hit.

Some anglers will split the difference by slow trolling soft baits at 6 knots. Thus, lines are in the water but ground is covered. Either way, whether you hang or run, your decision should be based on information at hand and past fishing reports.

Lure Selection

Although soft baits are not yet commonly used for big game fishing, their recent popularity has been earned. Big baits such as the 10- and 14-inch Hogys were on fire pretty much all season. It’s not hard to figure out why a simple 10-inch soft jerk bait is so effective once you see the action in the water. Unlike hard baits, the soft bodies undulate from head to tail. Tuna, as we all know, are finicky and the natural action of big soft baits drives them crazy. Another advantage of soft baits is that you can rig them any way you prefer, so you can choose to fish top water, just under the surface or all the way down to deep jigging.

When your tackling 100-pound plus tuna, heavy is the name of the game. Heavy everything! You’ll need a stout rod, beefy reel, 80-pound test braid and 80-pound fluorocarbon leader. Consequently, you’ll need heavy baits such as our original 10-inch Hogy, 10-inch Double Wide Hogy and our 14-inch Hogy to cast with such outfits as they range from one to three ounces unrigged.

My favorite is the 10-inch Double Wide Hogy. It weighs nearly three ounces and has a wide profile, which offers some advantages:

  1. It is easy to see. It’s a big ocean out there. The added commotion of the larger bait will help call fish in. Even though it’s a wide bait, it still has the same Hogy action.
  2. A Casting Machine: It weighs nearly three ounces, so you can cast it with just about any stand up casting gear.
  3. It is super durable. When rigged properly, the Hogy will stand up to repeated casts with heavy gear.

Rigging for tuna is simple and easy. I prefer a single Hogy Weighted Grip Hook as it is super tough and won’t straighten. The grip barbs add holding power. That said, I will also add a drop of Super Glue to help the bait stand up to repeated casts with heavy gear. There’s a lot of energy hinging on that bait. You don’t want it to slide on a money cast. I keep my colors simple: black, white and bubble gum.

Rigging Up

Line, Leader and Knots

I use either 60- or 80-pound test braid. The heavier braid is better in terms of chaffing on a fish, but the lighter varieties seem to cast much better. The choice is yours. I tend to favor casting over strength, within reason.

Leader length is also up to you. The longer the leader, the more difficult it will be to cast as the heavier line and bigger knot causes serious friction as it goes through the guides. Conversely, the shorter the leader, the more likely you’ll be to breaking off the fish. Tuna have are bodies that can chafe the line, too. I always err on the side of the staying hooked up. A good rule of thumb is to have a leader that is long enough to clear the fish. I start with 6 or 7 feet. There are a number of knots to connect the braid and leader, which vary in terms of difficulty. A double surgeons loop is a good quick and easy knot.

I strongly recommend a perfection loop knot to attach your Hogy to heavy fluorocarbon. The looped line will allow the bait to swing freely on the heavy leader, allowing the soft bait to have unimpeded action, even with such heavy leader.

Outfit

I like at least a 7-foot rod for casting purposes. Seven-foot, six inches is ideal. Since you’ll be doing a lot of casting, you have some choices to consider. The heavier the outfit, the quicker you’ll land the fish, which increases the likelihood that you’ll land it and release it safely if it’s going back. On the other hand, these fish pull hard and a softer outfit will absorb a lot of the energy in the battle. It may take longer to land the fish but you’ll be less beat up. In any event, a stand up rod capable of handling 40-pound test braid or more is required.

Captain Hogy’s Big Game Outfits

Reel: Van Staal VS250
Rod: Van Staal Stand Up
Line: 60LB Power Pro
Leader: 80lb Hi Seas Flourocarbon
Soft Bait: 10″ Hogy Double Wide rigged with 8/0 Hogy Weighted Grip Hook touch with super glue.

You really get what you pay for when it comes to reels for big game fishing. The ideal reel should have: A drag that can handle multiple runs; line capacity to stand up to those runs (at least 300 yards of running line); a gear ratio that will help you keep up with a charging fish. A 100-pound plus bluefin can come at you pretty quickly! Fifteen pounds of drag pressure isn’t too much.

Technique

Ok, you’re coming up on a school a breaking fish. They’re big. Your heart is pumping. You’re rigged, ready and approaching. Now what?

Your approach is as important as your cast placement. You want to “saddle up” on the school – come up along side it. You NEVER, EVER should run right into the frenzy as you will put the fish down. This placement will put you on the fish where you can cast in front of the school and bring the Hogy into the fish’s field of view, never behind the fish as this is an unnatural presentation. The goal is to replicate a baitfish fleeing the scene. This is called leading the fish.

A school of bluefin is cruising into your sights, you’re ready, your cast lands ten feet ahead of the fish, which are swimming toward your Hogy. Keeping in mind that the action of your Hogy is derived more from short rod twitches than from the speed of your retrieve, bring your bait into the path of the fish. If you need to pause to buy a little time, do so. By imparting short rod twitches, your Hogy will quiver so keep twitching that rod tip! When your Hogy gets crashed, do your best to pretend it didn’t happen and keep reeling until you’re certain you’re hooked up. Tuna have huge mouths, so when they get it, they get it completely.

The tuna takes it! Stay cool and set that hook and keep reeling. The fish may be swimming in your direction and be unaware it is hooked Your goal for the first 15 seconds is to ensure a tight line and a solid hook set. Then get ready for a very long run. Tuna on light tackle like to change directions, so be on your “A” game and get ready to reel as fast as you can. This can often happen after a long run.

OK, you’re settled in for a big fight. A 150-pound tuna can be taken in a few as thirty minutes but can take much longer. How long it takes is dependant on you and how much pressure you can put on that fish. Each time you can get an inch of line take it. Short pumps, Marsha Bierman style will whip a tuna the fastest. Remember that anytime you rest, so does the tuna. Tuna are experts at chaffing leaders. Each body shake generates tremendous amounts of force and friction on the leader so the sooner you can get the fish to the boat, the more likely you are to land it.

Conservation and Care

Proper care is required when releasing a tuna. De-hooking the fish without bringing it into the boat is your best bet. Due to their sheer size, tuna are hard to revive, so a quick landing and release are your best bets for a healthy release. If you decide to take a fish, be cognizant of current regulations and that you have your tuna permit.

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