Tuna – Legendary fish. Every angler’s dream is to catch a $20,000 tuna. One of the hardest-fighting fish in the world, and prized for their meat, tuna can be found in the same fishing grounds as other coveted fish species, which means you can literally catch one anywhere. So what makes catching a tuna extra special and legendary?
For starters tuna are one of the few warm-blooded fish species. That means that they can be found in tropical and temperate waters, usually at latitudes ranging between forty-five degrees north and south of the equator. Tuna are endothermic, capable of maintaining their body temperature in cooler waters, as well as a range of ocean environments. For example, they are comfortable in northern Atlantic waters near Iceland, as well as the tropical warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean Sea, where they go each year to spawn. – also read 10 Places to catch huge Tuna
Built for speed, their unique missile-like shape enables tuna to be super-fast hunters. Their physiology and oxygen-rich blood gives their flesh a pinkish to deep red tone, and they are prized around the world for their delicious meat. In fact, because of the world-wide demand for tuna, some species, such as the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, are endangered due to overfishing. So, if you happen to boat a 400lb tuna, you could be looking at a nice payout at the dock.
There are several varieties of tuna – ranging from small Bullet tuna and Little Tunny, which average 4 – 40 lbs, to larger Blackfin and Skipjack tuna which can average around 40-75lbs. The larger varieties are the Albacore, which average around 100lb and the Yellowfin tuna which can reach up to 400lbs. Tuna monsters are Bigeye, Pacific Bluefin, Atlantic Bluefin, and Southern Bluefin.
All of these fish commonly weigh in at over 500lbs and reach lengths from 8 to 10 ft. The latter two species, Atlantic Bluefin and Southern Bluefin are considered endangered, due largely to overfishing. The Japanese demand for these fish reached insane heights and in 2013 the price for bluefin tuna set a record at $3600 per lb or the $3.1 million (333.6 million yen) paid for a giant bluefin tuna at this New Year’s auction at Tokyo’s Toyosu fish market.
Even though tunas can survive in many different marine climates, they are pelagic fish, which means that the best time to catch them is when they are hunting for food. Voracious carnivores, tuna eat smaller fish, eel, squid, even crustaceans.
Bigeye tuna, also known as Mebachi in Japan, is one of the most sought after tuna species. Rare, and explosively powerful, they travel and hunt in packs, found largely near tips of underwater canyons and over structure. When fishing for bigeye multiple hookups are possible because bigeye usually travel in schools.
Although bigeye are very similar to yellowfin tuna, bigeye have a higher fat content, which makes for superior sashimi. These fish usually live 9-12 years and can easily weigh 400 lbs. Unlike their cousins, the yellowfin and bluefin, bigeye tend to stay in deeper water most of the day, and are commonly found 250 or more feet below the surface.
Bigeye hunt physical structures where bait fish congregate, including seamounts, canyon walls, and high flyers. They tend to be consistent, and many sportfishing captains log their bigeye catches— it is common to reliably catch bigeye in the exact same spot season after season.
The best time to catch bigeye tuna is at night, with the most tuna caught just before dark and at first light. When fishing for bigeye trolling is the best method, along canyons and along the edge of the shelf. The spread should be tighter to the boat than typically used for other tuna, and a trolling speed of 6 to 8 knots is ideal.
Bigeye respond exceptionally well to large artificial lures as well as live bait, ranging from 8 to 10 inches long. Dark colored lures stand out, and make sure to use weighted lures that won’t be pushed aside by oncoming rush of water ahead of a huge bigeye.
Bigeye are found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, and in the Western Atlantic from Nova Scotia to Brazil. In the Eastern Atlantic they can be found in the Canary Islands, and Kona, Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.
The prized species of the tuna family, bluefin tuna are the most desired fish. The demand for bluefin tuna is so huge, that in 2018 a massive international black market bluefin tuna ring was uncovered in Europe that trafficked so much fish it surpassed the legal bluefin tuna catch. For this reason, strict restrictions on fishing bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean have been imposed.
Anglers love bluefin tuna because they are exciting and unpredictable (and delicious). In the Atlantic, bluefin spawn in the Gulf of Mexico, then travel thousands of miles into the upper Atlantic to gorge on baitfish such as herring and mackerel. The way bluefin feed depends on the forage available.
For example, when bluefin forage on sea herring, they tend to corral the baitfish into a ball at the surface and then have a feeding frenzy. This attracts seabirds, making it easy to spot. When bluefin are busy gorging themselves on sea herring they don’t pay attention to anything else, so boats can get close without scaring them off. You can cast a popper with a rod and spinning reel, a fly, even a harpoon into the fray and quite possibly get lucky.
When bluefin tuna are feeding on mackerel, they display a different behaviour because mackerel are more agile and fast, making the tuna have to work harder to catch them. Instead of a feeding frenzy, the feeding is characterised by intermittent splashes. In these circumstances trolling through the area can lead to great results.
Bluefin can be unpredictable, so it’s important to carry different types of gear to be ready for anything. Switching up from live bait to lures might be effective, always keeping in mind that bluefin will always go for the larger, fatter bait.
Bluefin tuna that are full often come to the surface to run. Some anglers believe that tuna travel in warm waters to aid their digestion after gorging themselves in deeper water. And, specifically after feasting on sea herring and sand eels bluefin can appear intoxicated. The best time to catch bluefin is during the slack tide— they seem to hate strong tides.
Bluefin feed heavily in the morning, then run offshore in the afternoon. Bluefin can be picky about conditions, so pay attention to the water clarity, contour structure, and water temperature. When the water is between 70 to 75° they tend to feed toward the surface. Higher temperatures send them below.
When bluefin are feeding on the surface, and the conditions are for trolling, the gear you will want to think about using are tuna birds, squid spreader bars, daisy chains, cedar plugs, ballyhoo rigged on blue/white Ilanders, or black & purple Joe Shute skirts.
The ideal speed to attract the tuna is 6.5 to 8.5 knots if the fish are on the surface, and 5.5 to 6.5 if you end up trolling deeper. Zigzag and make frequent turns over contour lines to enable the baits to dip in the water column. If the water clarity diminishes bluefin will stay down. In those situations use spreads above and below the thermocline, keeping bait about 50-60 yards from the boat.
When bluefin are in waters 150 – 180 ft deep, chunking and chumming while drifting brings the fish up. Preferred fish to use are butterfish, sardines, and live squid. If using a popper or a jig, look for signs of life— birds, porpoises and fish-oil slicks. Then, use your strongest heavy duty rod with a drag system of 35 – 60 lbs of stopping power. Cast as far as you can. Tuna fishing in the Ebro Delta, Spain is certainly a trip for your bucket list.
In the Atlantic you can find bluefin tuna in the Canary Islands in early March, off of the Outerbanks of North Carolina from December to April, and up towards Nova Scotia in late summer. In the Pacific, from November to May, San Diego, California is known as the Tuna Capitol of the World. In the Gulf of Mexico bluefin tuna are found from January to June, with peak season in April – May.
According to Angler’s Journal, “Yellowfin tuna have a way of changing one’s definition of sea fishing, especially when you find yourself wondering whether a hot fish might actually drag you over the side.” Don’t say you haven’t been warned! These torpedo shaped fish have a yellow streak from their eye socket to tail, and average from 30 – 50 lbs, though they can reach upwards of 100 lbs. Pacific yellowfin can reach up to 400lbs!
While not as unpredictable as bluefin, or as deep sounding as bigeye, yellowfin put up a fierce fight and often stay down and take advantage of their weight. For this reason, anglers tend to spread baits out at different depths when trolling, casting shallow bait first, then deeper and deeper. For tuna trolling use No. 9 or No. 10 hooks (larger if bluefin trolling). Artificial lures are also very effective on yellowfin: plugs, large spoons, and squid lures are all attractive to these pelagic fish.
These strong fighters tend to stay above the thermocline in schools or packs, but there is no predictable migration for yellowfin, unlike bigeye and bluefin tuna. They also have no definitive favorite food, so anglers must continually innovate. Having said that, squid and ballyhoo with or without skirts are the standbys. Yellowfin, like their cousins the bigeye and bluefin, are frequently caught in the early morning and at dusk. Look for birds, for that’s where the bait fish will be, and a greater chance of finding yellowfin.
Fish around the edges of a school, not in the middle so you don’t disturb the school. Larger tuna tend to hang out toward the edges anyway. If you are using rod and reel, yellowfin anglers need rods that will withstand up to 400lbs and 50lb class reels.
Yellowfin tuna are more widely dispersed than other tuna species. In the Pacific Ocean, a southern current pushes warm water and baitfish towards Bahia Banderas near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, which in turn draws large yellowfin in the months between August and December.
This species are found year-round in Kona, Hawaii but peak from May through September. In the Atlantic, yellowfin can be found in the Canary Islands during the summer months of July and August. Yellowfin are also abundant year-round in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.
Albacore tuna, aka “the chicken of the sea” is a highly sought after species that can be found worldwide in both tropical and temperate zones. Its torpedo shaped body is fast and strong and makes catching them super fun, exciting, and delicious.
“Ala lunga” – which means long fin in Latin – like to hang out where cool and warm waters mix, which is usually above underwater canyons, along ridges, edges of continental shelves, and deep sea mounts— all of which create upwellings of cool water. They are commonly referred to as “longfin” because of their longer dorsal fins that distinguish them from other tuna species.
Feeding primarily on squid, these fish can get as big as 80lbs. Catching albacore on spinning or conventional tackle is common, as long as it’s strong enough for a fight. Albacore respond to all kinds of bait and lures. When trolling and chumming make sure to match the lure size to the bait fish in the area. As a good rule of thumb, when fishing for albacore look for signs of life such as birds as the most reliable way to find them.
In the Pacific, Albacore are found all along the west coast of the US, from Oregon to San Diego, and Mexico, year-round. In the Atlantic, they’re found from Nova Scotia to northern Argentina, and from Ireland to South Africa.
Skipjack, Blackfin Tuna, Little Tunny
Skipjack is found worldwide in temperate and tropical waters. They travel in large schools and feed on the surface. However, skipjack are not desired for their meat, which is bloody and oily. This quality, however makes them a great fish for bait. Skipjack are fun to catch and can put up a fight, but most anglers try to catch them to use as bait to catch larger tuna, marlin, and even shark.
Blackfin tuna are another small species of tuna, but compared to skipjack they are very delicious and fun to catch. They run from 2 – 20 pounds, and live to about 5 years old. According to Florida Sportsman, they are among the best game fish for their size. They can be found in the Western Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to Brazil, as well as in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
According to Florida Sportsman, there are many ways to catch a blackfin tuna. “Light classes of ocean tackle, plus spinning and baitcasting outfits. For trolling, choose small offshore lures, feathers, spoons, small rigged baits such as Ballyhoo and strips.
Deep-diving plugs are also good. Blackfins also can be chummed with live Pilchards or similar small baitfish, and fished for with the same bait, or by casting. Best hard lures are white jigs, tied with bucktail or feathers to provide a larger profile. Flies should be similarly tied—to imitate size and color of the live chum.”
Little tunny is the most abundant tuna species in the Atlantic Ocean. It grows to about 36lbs, and like its cousin the skipjack, is not desired for its meat, which is strong tasting and dark. Little tunny are sought after as a game fish, however, due to its line-screeching speeds of 40mph and fierce fighting capabilities. However, little tunny is mostly used for bait to catch larger fish and shark.
These fish are distinguished from other tuna by two characteristics: they have worm-like markings on either side of their dorsal fin, and dark spots around the pectoral fins. Little tunny are found in the Western Atlantic from Brazil to New England, and the Mediterranean Sea. They can be caught with a hook and line by trolling with lures near reefs.
Tuna Fish Catching Methods
There are several methods that anglers use to catch different species of tuna. They are trolling, chumming (or chunking), popping, and jigging.
The most popular method to fish for tuna is by trolling. Depending on the species you are trying to catch you’ll want to maintain a speed of 5 – 8 knots. The deeper you set your bait, the slower you’ll want to troll. When trolling for tuna anglers spread their tackle out from the back of the boat in a variety of patterns. Some use outrigged poles called greensticks to create the illusion of a loose school of fish. Different lures are deployed to attract the tuna to strike.
The way you choose to troll for tuna will also depend on what species you are expecting to catch, as well as the bait fish spotted in the area. Paying close attention to detail will net you the best outcome. As mentioned earlier, bigeye tuna hang out in canyons, so trolling along underwater contours at 250 ft or lower will draw the fish up, whereas fishing for bluefin can depend on the baitfish available – in certain cases you can troll around a school of bluefin.
Tuna are open to all kinds of lures and bait, which on one hand can be great, but on the other hand may make it hard to choose what to use. Also, it means you have to have a good variety of options onboard, and be ready to switch things up. But, one thing is for sure: it won’t be boring!
Chumming or chunking is a popular method of bringing the tuna up, specifically yellowfin in relatively shallower waters (120 – 180 ft). By slowly drifting and creating a wake of chunks of bait fish such as butterfish, mackerel, and even smaller tuna you can then set out a troll with live baits and lures to score some large yellowfin.
Casting spin reels and poppers— believe it or not, anglers use high-end spinning reels and rods and precision-tuned custom lures to tackle bluefin weighing hundreds of pounds. Light tackle fishing for bluefin can leave you lightheaded and hooked for more.
The anglers lure the fish to the surface with plugs that they “pop” up and down. If they’ve chosen the right spot, the bluefin explode from the surface and take off with the lure. Some anglers end up boating the fish, others just want the thrill of the encounter with the power and size of a bluefin tuna.
Jigging is another way to draw a large bigeye or bluefin tuna to the surface. In these scenarios, the boat will be drifting along an underwater canyon or a sea mount or ridge. Anglers will drop lines with lures at different depths and jig to attract the bite.
Traditional commercial fishing techniques have persisted for centuries: the almadraba. This annual tuna hunt preserves a 3,000-year-old Phoenician tradition pitting man against fish in what could easily be described as an aquatic version of Pamplona’s running of the bulls.
While the food chain continues to industrialize, there are still pockets of the world employing ancient and more sustainable methods, and the almadraba is one of these. Unlike purse seine methods, the almadraba’s intricate maze of nets (a design largely unchanged from the Phoenician days) results in very little bycatch—smaller fish and younger tuna slip through unharmed.