• Published:July 15, 2021
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Southern California is experiencing the best bluefin tuna bite ever, but not everyone is hooking up.

Anglers seem to be divided into two camps -- those who have caught one or more of the giant bluefin tuna that began invading local waters in the spring, and those who haven't. Posts on social media continue to swell with both party and private boat anglers posing with one "personal best" after another, many of the bluefin tuna cracking the 100-, 150-, 200- and even 250-pound mark.

Whether you’ve succeeded, failed or haven’t tried, there’s no denying that we’re in the midst of what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to target large bluefin tuna close to home.

Success depends on three basic things:  1) Locating the fish. 2) Getting them to bite your lure or bait.  3) Making it through a fight that could last hours without your tackle or body failing.  All three have proved very challenging, which makes success even sweeter when you’re able to put it all together.

LOCATING FISH

As I’ve experienced myself, one day you’ll find “foamers” of bluefin tuna popping up in every direction, wreaking havoc on small anchovies or other baitfish as terns and gulls crash down from above. The same spot could look like a desert the next day. Sometimes the tuna and birds pop up for just a few seconds and disappear before you can get into position to make a cast. 

This is largely a visual game, so having as many sets of eyes trained on the water is key. Tools like a good pair of gyro-stabilized binoculars and a radar with bird mode are excellent ways to extend your search area and get on pods of fish before the crowds descend.

Much of the action has been focused around well-known high spots like the 181, 182, 289, 277 and 209 Fathom spots. These pinnacles and plateaus rise out of the depths and create cool upwellings, temperature breaks and current eddies that result in concentrations of anchovy, sardine, pelagic red crab and other forage. A chartplotter with High Resolution Bathymetry fishing charts is important for private boaters to explore these areas and record where baitfish and tuna are spotted and/or caught.




PRESENTATION

This has been one of the most frustrating parts of chasing bluefin this summer, as they have often been all show and no go. Their feeding habits require a stealthy approach, cool head and the perfect cast to get a bluefin to bite.

Far too many private boaters charge into the schools, scaring them back to the depths. Ideally, you want to get into position ahead of the fish, pull out of gear and slide in quietly. Watching the birds is a good way to determine the tuna’s direction of travel. When things go right, the fish will work their way within casting distance where you’ve set up.

The majority of these bluefin have been caught on large surface poppers and light iron surface jigs. Fish that showed no interest in live baits of any kind will bite these reaction baits, and anglers stormed tackle stores to snap up large Halco plugs, Shimano Orca Pops and other topwater baits. Anglers are also finding success with popular, locally produced light iron jigs like the Tady 45, Starman Candy Bar and Salas 7x. Heavy Shimano Flat Falls and Colt Snipers fired into boiling fish will also score, with bluefin snatching the jig right when it hits the water.

LANDING THE FISH

To maximize casting distance, anglers will use an 8- to 10-foot heavy-action jig stick much like they would use for yellowtail and smaller school tuna. To stand a chance at landing these bluefin tuna, however, these rods are being paired with two-speed lever drag reels capable of holding plenty of 65- to 80-pound braid with a 50- to 100-yard top shot of 50-pound monofilament.    

My go-to popper outfit has been an 80H Cousins Tackle “deck-hand” style jig stick rated for 30-to 50-pound line paired with an Avet LX 2-Speed reel packed with 400 yards of 80-pound braid and about 75 yards of 50-pound top shot. Many anglers are rigging their poppers and jigs with a short, 18-inch 130-pound monofilament leader that’s crimped at both ends. Since it’s a reaction bite, the heavy leader doesn’t seem to cut down on the hookup ratio and it will prevent break-offs during extended battles.
"When it comes to catching a fish like this on the long rod, style points don't matter. Do whatever you have to."
Longer nine and even 10-foot jig rods paired with reels such as the Shimano Talica 12 and Okuma Makaira 12 help get more casting distance. I personally feel that the few extra yards you might gain aren’t worth the extra ration of ass-whoopin’ you’re going to take after hooking a fish at the wrong end of that long lever. Long rods are unusual gear for fish normally associated with heavy stand-up gear, fighting belts and harnesses. When it comes to catching a fish like this on the long rod, style points don’t matter. Do whatever you have to. Use the rail or put one foot on the gunwale and use your raised knee as a rod rest.

NEW TECHNIQUES

Early on, SoCal tuna seemed to show a total disdain for any type of live bait, or at least any with a hook in it.  Lately, anglers have been hooking up by slow-trolling live mackerel in front of schools of breaking fish. Others have been rigging live mackerel and even artificial flying fish beneath kites, using subtle boat movements to position the baits and lures in the path of breaking fish. 
 
The latest technique employs a downrigger to slow-troll live mackerel 50 to 100 feet beneath the surface — a great tactic for times when fish are showing up on the sounder but not pushing bait to the surface. Unlike the run-and-gun style of popper and jig casting, where you spend most of your time driving around and looking, these techniques are best used when fish have been seen and/or caught in an area. One big advantage of bait and kite fishing is the ability to fight the bluefin on stout stand-up gear designed for landing fish of this size and power.

No one knows how long this incredible fishing opportunity is going to last. It started back in April, and big bluefin are still being caught as August approaches. One thing is certain — sooner or later, these migratory fish are going to move on so get out there.

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