• Published:April 12, 2017
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Tuna fishing off of Southern California continues to exceed expectations.

The summer of 2016 was one for the record books, particularly when it came to big bluefin tuna and the different ways to catch them.
At times, bluefin tuna ranging up to 200-plus pounds were caught on large poppers, Shimano Flatfalls, Shimano Colt Snipers, old-school surface irons and other reaction baits designed to elicit strikes from finicky fish. Other times, private skiffs and party boats whacked bluefin fishing live mackerel or slow-trolling Gummy Flyers underneath kites.

As waters warmed during mid to late summer, yellowfin tuna joined the party -- and not just the football-sized models we usually see, but long-range grade 75- to 100-pound ahi, sickle fins and all. The focus shifted back to the jumbo bluefin on the backside of San Clemente Island when the fall season kicked in. These fish were focused on squid and getting your hands on just a few pieces of live bait to fish with egg sinkers or on dropper loops could put you in the game. Boats fishing this area at night also scored well on glow-in-the-dark Flatfalls and other white/glow jigs, with the added fish-landing advantage of being able to fish heavy line at night.

With action like that last year, the big question on everybody’s mind, of course, is “what’s going to happen this year?” The consensus seems to be more of the same as far as presence of bluefin in So Cal waters, but with some possible differences in how we might catch them.

“NOAA is now considering these bluefin tuna to be resident fish, not migratory,” said Capt. Jason Reese of the charter vessel High Count (hi-countsportfishing.com), a highliner running out of San Diego’s Point Loma Sportfishing. “Everything they want is here, the water temps, the offshore plateaus and the bait. I expect we’ll see the bluefin on the same spots as last year, starting with the banks outside the Coronado Islands.” Reese also expects the yellowfin to move into Southern California waters as the ocean warms up towards the middle and end of summer. Anglers could feasibly catch both species on the same trip.
"Sport boats and skiffs were catching bluefin tuna in early April within 20 miles of San Diego."
-- Ron Balanti
“Last year, I think NOAA estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the Pacific bluefin biomass was here in Southern California,” said Capt. Evan Salvay of Salvay Pacific Sportfishing (salvaypacific.com). “This year, I’ve heard predictions could be as high as 50 to 60 percent.”

Such predictions could be easily chalked up to pure optimism or excited fantasies -- if not for the fact that sport boats and skiffs were catching bluefin tuna in early April within 20 miles of San Diego. Many of these fish are smaller 15- to 30-pounders, but boats are also pulling up on schools of larger-grade fish.

“I definitely expect to see the same type of bluefin action as last summer,” Reese said, a statement sure to get any serious offshore angler’s blood boiling.

Signs look good for an abundance of fish and opportunities, but only time will tell as to where, when and how the bite shapes up. The summer of 2016 saw the explosion of popper and surface iron fishing, born out of necessity as a way to hook fish that were crashing around small and abundant bait.

“I caught almost all of my fish on poppers last year,” said Reese, “including a massive 243-pounder. That fish was actually part of a day where we caught three fish over 200 on the same three-quarter-day trip, all on poppers and 9-foot rods.”

Unlike last year’s early-season fish, this year’s bluefin aren’t busting the surface in huge schools, as there hasn’t been the large biomass of tiny anchovies that created this behavior. Instead, boats are metering bluefin on the sonar and getting them to come up for bait or dropping jigs down to the fish.
“I think the bluefin are currently feeding on red crab, squid and other forage down low in the water,” said Salvay. If this continues, it may bode well for more traditional Southern California tuna techniques, such as pulling up on meter marks, chumming heavily and fly-lining live bait, which often results in more fish on the deck. Last year it was hard for chum-laden party boats to get a bite out of a bluefin school focused on a solid acre of French-fry sized baits.

In reality, nobody truly knows what kind of offshore fishing action we’ll have over the next six months -- other than we shouldn’t be lacking for opportunity. After seeing the different ways bluefin can behave off of the West Coast and the techniques and tackle used to take advantage of it, anglers can and should be prepared for anything Mother Nature throws our way.