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Skipper’s Tips for Boating More Bluefin
by Capt. Ed Heller

Now that bluefin have entered the summer mix off the Southern California and Baja coasts, it’s time for anglers to take the gloves off and get ready for serious battle. While albacore are fun to catch and are great eating, their shorter-finned cousins are capable of putting up a much more powerful, sustained fight. The problem is, when many anglers encounter a school of these unforgiving saltwater predators, they are either “under-gunned” when it comes to tackle, or they employ the wrong fighting strategy. Renowned bluefin expert Mike Lackey, skipper of the party boat Vagabond out of Point Loma Sportfishing, is quick to point out some common mistakes that keep anglers from catching more bluefin.

“The problem I see happening most often is that the angler lets the bluefin take control of the situation,” said Lackey. “The fisherman allows the tuna every chance in the world to get away, instead of taking charge, fishing with confidence and steadily working the fish to the boat in a timely manner.” Lackey tells his party boat anglers to fish with the attitude that you are going to win the battle quickly. “Many fishermen have adopted the bad habit of lightening up too much on these fish because they are afraid the line will break,” he noted. “This is actually counter-productive, because the longer the battle lasts, the more the line stretches and the hook twists, shifting the odds in favor of the bluefin. I’d venture to say that about 80 percent of the fish fought for more than 25 minutes end up being lost,” Lackey added.

According to Lackey, another common mistake that results in “break-offs,” is allowing a bluefin too much time to swallow and run with the bait before setting the hook. Lackey points out that when most anglers feel the initial pick-up, they let their tuna run for 3 to 5 seconds before the hook set. Unfortunately, this gives a bluefin plenty of time to ingest the hook-bait deeply, putting the line in a position where it can be gnawed through more easily. To avoid this situation, Lacky suggests a different approach. “Because bluefin inhale a bait immediately, start cranking in rapidly the second you detect a hit,” he said. “When the line starts to tighten up, keep cranking, but don’t swing. The hook will set itself in the tough, fleshy corner of the tuna’s mouth, keeping the monofilament away from its sharp teeth. This technique is even more effective when circle hooks are used as opposed to traditional hooks.

Regardless of what type of hook is used, Lackey reminds anglers to match the size of the hook appropriately to the tackle and line. “I always have a few anglers aboard my boat asking me why they are losing bluefin, and then I see that they’re fishing with 2/0-size hooks pinned to 50-pound test!” he said. “Using hooks that are too small with heavier line often results in lost fish, as the hook tends to pull out under pressure. A good general rule of thumb is to match your hook size to the pound-test you are using – for 20 pound test, use a 2/0, for 30 lb. test tie on a 3/0, for 40-pound test a 4/0, and so on.”

As far as rods and reels are concerned, when it comes to bluefin, leave your spinning gear and baitcasters at home. Most party boat skippers suggest using nothing lighter than a Penn 500-size reel spooled with at least 30-pound test, matched with a medium or medium-heavy 6- to 7-foot tuna stick.

At times bluefin can be line-shy, and private boaters may want to lighten up in these situations. However, introducing 25 or more party boat anglers using light tackle to a school of big, hungry bluefin is a recipe for disaster. “When anglers use the lighter tackle they would for albacore, it creates a kind of ‘catch-22’ situation, where we hook more fish but end up busting them off” said Lackey. “When the bluefin are hungry, however, and the school is approached properly, they’ll usually take the heavier stuff without thinking twice about it.”

Once a school of feeding bluefin is located, it’s imperative to select a lively bait and present it to the fish right away. “Choosing a good, healthy bait and getting it out to the school quickly after a jig strike is imperative,” said Lackey. “ Those anglers that get their active, fly-lined anchovies, sardines or small mackerel away from the boat and out to the tuna first will be the ones that get bit.”

Of course, if you hook a bluefin, don’t forget to follow your fish up or down the rail. Lackey always tells his anglers to “get the cement out their boots” and move with their hooked tuna. Failure to react quickly and go over or under the lines of other anglers will almost always result in tangle ups, broken lines and lost fish. In addition to a frisky live bait, jigs can also be deadly for bluefin. Lackey and other experienced bluefin skippers recommend “yo-yoing” the iron. A variety of jigs, such as Tady 9 or Salas 6X models in chrome or blue and white, are likely to attract aggressive strikes – often from bigger bluefin. This technique usually works best when fish are metered 10 to 35 fathoms down, directly beneath the boat. If the bluefin are feeding further out on the perimeter, a fly-lined bait will typically produce better results.


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