DIY Tuna Tubes

Bigger is better when chasing smoker kings and wahoo with live bait.
Steve Dougherty

If you want to fish bigger baits, you're going to need some tubes.

Appropriately named after the type of live bait they house, tuna tubes are common accessories found in cockpits around the globe where live-baiting big billfish is common practice. Along Florida's East Coast not too many boats are outfitted with tuna tubes because we don't encounter marlin with enough consistency to warrant their use. Most Floridians target local species like dolphin fish, wahoo, tuna and kingfish using smaller baitfish such as goggle-eyes, pilchards, threadfin herring and blue runners. However, those in the know have come to realize that juvenile tuna are appealing to much more than marlin.

In south Florida, modified tuna tubes designed to house 1- to 3-pound bonito and blackfin tuna. Thanks to very positive results with these baits, the use of tuna tubes is growing in popularity.

All tuna species breathe with ram ventilation, meaning they require a constant flow of water over their gills to remain adequately oxygenated. Unlike smaller baitfish species that can extract oxygen from the water, tuna quickly perish in even the largest livewells. Keeping tuna alive for extended periods requires a vertical tube with a steady flow of seawater. The fish are inserted head first and water is forced over the gills.  

While you can certainly purchase tuna tubes that only need to be mounted and plumbed, they are also relatively easy to design, build and install on your own. After committing to this do-it-yourself project, you must first decide how many tubes you want and where you plan on mounting the cluster. Some choose to install two or three tuna tubes in a baitwell to make use of existing plumbing, but for those who aren't willing to sacrifice precious baitwell space that's not a great option.


Aboard Pro Payroll, a 39-foot Contender hailing out of Lantana, Florida, Capt. Jamie Ralph built a trio of mid-size tuna tubes mounted to the outside splash well on his team's tournament-rigged center console. The new tubes are paying off. He has seen his catch ratio on big kings soar when using larger baits.

Across Florida's hotly contested tournament trail, teams go to great lengths to catch and care for live baits. With multiple wells often holding hundreds of baitfish, the boats in these waters feature some of the most sophisticated baitwell systems in existence. To adequately feed multiple baitwells almost all of these tournament vessels feature a sea chest or pressurized pump box, which greatly minimizes the effort needed to pump water to your tubes. If you don't have a sea chest you can still install tuna tubes and plumb them via a saltwater wash-down system.

Jamie and his crew routinely catch hundreds of baitfish in a single outing, so their boat is plumbed to feed water to a secondary, 100-gallon portable livewell through an existing deck valve fed directly from the pump box. This is a convenient system that allows plug-and-play installation utilizing the same valve to feed the tuna tubes. Your boat might be rigged in a different manner, so you'll have to determine what system will work best for your particular application before cutting, gluing or drilling. One universal fact is that juvenile tuna require a tremendous amount of water to stay alive so you must have a pump up to the task.

To replicate this proven system, which can easily be modified for your vessel, you'll need a few feet of 1-inch PVC pipe and a few feet of 3-inch PVC pipe. The project also requires a number of 1-inch, 90-degree elbows and T joints and the appropriate number of 3-inch to 1-inch reducer couplings, though it's best to keep the 90-degree angles in the run to a minimum. You will also need a PVC pipe cutter. Additionally, inline ball valves will help regulate the flow of water to each of the three tubes. If your system incorporates a pump box you should have sufficient water flow no matter the design. If you're worried about water flow, use flexible marine-grade hose to eliminate sharp turns in the piping. Once the design is set you can permanently mount it to the transom, or use a few marine-grade suction cups like those available from SeaSucker.  

Tuna require cool, oxygenated water to survive and there's no better way to keep them happy than with the help of tuna tubes. Do your part to get the system set up correctly and the baits will do their part by enticing a higher grade of trophy fish.

More boats in south Florida are fishing live bonito and juvenile tuna for smoker kings. To keep those bonito alive, you're going to need a set of tuna tubes, which can be constructed out of PVC pipe and attached to the transom. Photos by Steve Dougherty
To build a set of tuna tubes you will need 1-inch pipe to run the water supply, a T-joint, several 90-degree elbows and reducer couplings. You can plumb the tubes to the boat's saltwater wash down but to get optimal water flow connect directly to the boat's sea chest or pressurized pump box.
Place the live tuna into the 3-inch PVC pipe face first to keep them alive and kicking.
Use ball valves to regulate water flow.
On the Pro Payroll, the crew also has a portable 100-gallon live well that is fed directly from the pump box through an existing deck valve.

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