Using SST in the Gulf

Capt. Woody Woods

We rarely head offshore in Southern California during the offseason. We'll call the "off season" the colder months from December to April, but anyone who has kept tabs on the water temperatures and structures (think edges and bubbles of warmer water) has noticed that the water offshore looks perfect for bluefin tuna. Maybe even see a return of albacore this year. Thank you El Niño.

A few weeks back, private boaters bombed it offshore, heading to a high spot some 60 miles west/southwest of San Diego. Appropriately named the 60 Mile Bank on the charts, the high spots that come up to 53 and 56 fathoms kicked out wide-open bluefin fishing for the crews who opted to go the stealth route.

Most of the boaters remained anonymous, but a leaked text message quickly made the rounds. The following weekend the first sport-boat showed up, the Top Gun 80 out of H&M Landing in San Diego and one private boat made it to the bank. Both scored limits (two per angler) of bluefin. From that moment on, tuna fever has taken over So Cal.


Whether the bluefin are migratory visitors or fish that overwintered on the high spots thanks to optimal 62.5 to 64-degree F water is up for debate. But since Southern California has been treated to fishing summed up as "the best ever" the last two seasons, many are taking the early-season tuna as an indicator of another epic year mainly because of El Niño conditions.

"We saw a good volume of fish out there. It wasn't difficult to get our 10 fish for limits, but the fish certainly were biting the lighter line better," said Curtis Owens, who was on the bluefin on Saturday, March 26, fishing on the private boat Christina Lynn. "Twenty- and 25-pound fluorocarbon was what worked for us. It was typical bluefin fishing. They were biting, but it wasn't wide open."

Bluefin tuna are often the first tuna to show up in Southern California. Typically they appear in May or June. But El Niño has pushed the water temperatures anywhere from three to five degrees warmer than usual. The result is that previous definitions do not apply. Yellowtail, another migratory visitor that usually shows late in the spring have been living in the Southern California Bight the past two seasons year-round. The warm water has brought with it a whole new playbook for fishing inshore and offshore of So Cal.


Windy conditions have kept boats tied to the dock this week. A much-improved forecast for the weekend ( has less than 10 knots in the morning and under 15 knots in the afternoon) has San Diego's four landings offering trips to the bluefin grounds. The long run isn't for small skiffs unless the wind and swell are down, but with water mirroring that of the 60 Mile Bank in closer to the coast, skiff anglers are making plans to make April a bluefin month.

Bluefin are notorious for being the ficklest of the West Coast tuna. Anglers counter this by fishing lighter line, and using a stealthy approach when approaching schools crashing on bait or "breezing" on the surface. Getting up wind, up swell of the spots on the surface and casting surface irons and small jigs into the spots was last spring's best plan. Slow-trolling live sardines way back behind the boat in a "fishy" area with birds, bait or scattered breaking fish will almost always produce produce for the small-boat set.

The first move in a successful early-season bluefin strike is to find good water. Warm is 63 degrees right now. Warm water butted up against even a .2-degree temperature break can be enough to bust up generic water and stack up the bait and bluefin.

Bluefin are know for "breezing" with the tops of their tails out of the water, or creating "shiners" where a school is a few feet below the surface, with tuna swimming on their sides creating underwater shines.

Early season bluefin are not an easy target, from the long runs to the offshore high spots, to having to hunt for them in the ocean with no fleet to help but opportunities like these do not come every season. Get out there when the wind and swell allow.

Study the latest satellite fishing charts before you leave the dock to dial in on productive areas offshore. Target game fish like these trophy Gulf of Mexico tuna by identifying temperature breaks and rip lines. Photo courtesy Venice Marina.
Use FishTrack's SST charts to find temperature breaks offshore. A 1- to 2-degree temperature break is all it takes to congregate massive schools of bait, and in turn, predators. You can also overlay the locations of oil platforms and key underwater structure, as seen above, to help narrow down your search.
Pelagic predators will sit on the upcurrent side of any structure in the Gulf, and you'll want to avoid areas with zero current. View the latest conditions with FishTrack's current overlay, seen here on a chlorophyll chart.
Areas of upwelling and downwelling, indicated by FishTrack's altimetry overlay, can highlight potential fish zones. Look for the edge of an upwelling (indicated by negative values on the chart) that also intersects a temperature or color break.

Save time and fuel with the FishTrack app.