How to Fish Surface Action

Know what to do when big fish blow up on the surface.
Ben Knaggs
Baitballs, bust-ups, boil-ups -- call them what you will. Nothing gets an angler's blood pumping like the sight of a big school of fish actively feeding on the surface. Game fish ranging from tarpon or striped bass inshore right on up to monster tuna and billfish offshore will all bust bait on the surface. To the uninitiated, catching these surface-feeding fish seems like a foregone conclusion, but in reality getting bit can be a tougher task than it appears.
The classic scene depicts a pod of big tuna tearing into balled-up baitfish. In these situations you can get right up close and throw just about anything into the mix to hook up. But that's not always the case.
This school of small bluefin are feeding heavily but they are on the move so it will likely be very flighty. In this circumstance it's important to ascertain which direction the fish are heading and try to position the boat in front of them. That way they'll come to you and you can avoid spooking them.
It's pretty difficult to avoid the temptation to pitch a stickbait or popper into the crazy melee that is a surface bust-up. Seeing a bunch of hyped up pelagics fight over the skipping lure at full speed is unforgettable stuff!
This is what is often referred to as a "breezer," in Australia. The fish -- in this case tuna -- aren't really feeding, but the amount of fish moving along just below the surface gives their presence away. These fish are likely to be very picky and spooky, so subtle, slow fished lures and a stealthy approach will be needed to get bit.
The hardest thing about this type of fishing is getting within casting range of the feeding fish without spooking them. Approach from downwind, cut the motor just before the school is within casting range and try to anticipate the direction the school is travelling without causing the fish to sound.
Iron jigs are the number-one choice for casting to surface bust-ups. They cast a mile and pelagic fish just love running them down on a fast retrieve. Be sure to match the size of lure to the size of the bait the fish are feeding on.
Birds are your best friend when looking for surface action. The presence of a gang of gannets sitting on the surface out along the continental shelf probably means a bust-up recently took place. Definitely worth sticking around to see if the fish come back up again.
There's no reason to get right in the middle of feeding fish. The spot to be is just within casting distance. If the fish keep sounding before you can get this close, the next step is to position the boat well up-current or upwind, cut the motor and drift toward the school. Sometimes this super stealthy approach is the only way to get near enough the action to present a bait or lure.
When the busting fish are tough to trick or locked on to very small baitfish, small soft plastic baits are the go-to lure. This little yellowtail was one of a large school feeding on tiny, near translucent baitfish. Small, natural coloured soft plastic stickbaits rigged on darter jigheads were the only lures they'd look at twice. Sometimes you have to go small to match the hatch.

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