Yellowfin Tuna Tactics

Pro tips and tricks to put more yellowfin tuna in the box.
Ric Burnley

Yellowfin tuna are quite possibly the perfect big-game fish: they fight hard, taste great and attack in packs.

In early summer and again in early fall, schools of yellowfin follow the sweep of warm water eddies pushing onto the edge of the Continental Shelf from the Gulf Stream, offering opportunity for Mid-Atlantic anglers. Find a temperature break from the upper 60s to lower 70s that crosses the 100 fathom drop and you're likely to find tuna.

The fish can hold on the cold side of the break or the warm side, the clean water or dirty. Wherever the bait is found is where you'll also find the tuna. Monitor the depth sounder for schools of tuna in the depths and keep an eye out for slicks, working birds or flat spots of schools just under the surface of the water. If you have a tower, get someone up there to scout for "yellowbirds," because the tuna will often jump clear out of the water.


When targeting yellowfin, start with 50-pound tackle. Spool the reel with 50-pound monofilament and add a 25-foot wind-on leader of 150-pound mono. Use a wind-on swivel to connect a 10-foot leader of 130-pound test.  If the tuna turn super sensitive, switch to fluorocarbon and downsize the leader.

A mixture of artificial and natural baits will lure tuna to the spread. The classic ballyhoo-and-skirt combo is a big favorite for canyon fishermen in the Mid-Atlantic region. Top skirt colors include blue-and-white, pink-and-white and chartreuse-and-white. Black-and-red or red-and-pink can also be effective, especially on cloudy days. And, nothing beats a simple naked ballyhoo rig.

Yellowfin can also be fooled with a range of artificials. Adding a bird or spreader bar followed by a squid or Green Machine to the spread is sometimes what it takes to get bit. Be sure to match the size of the bait to the size of the available forage. Best bet is to try different sizes and color configurations until you hit on what works.

Yellowfin tuna hunt in packs and when they attack the spread, it's not uncommon for every rod to go down. So the more rods out, the more fish you'll hook. On a typical day we'll start with skirted ballyhoo on the long riggers, short riggers and flat lines.

Troll the spread at 6 knots. When the fish hit, don't stop trolling. Keep the boat moving until all rods are loaded up. To draw more bites, have each crew member grab a line and jig the lure. Then keep the boat moving ahead slowly as the anglers work their catch to the gaff.

In the blink of an eye, yellowfin can turn finicky. That's when it's time to pull out more tricks. If the tuna are deep but not hitting surface baits, add a planer followed by a 3½ Drone spoon or skirted ballyhoo. Use a reel spooled with 130-pound braid to get the planer deep.


Many times, yellowfin will jump out of the water chasing flying fish but refuse any offering. In this situation try flying a rigged squid or rubber flying fish from a kite. Start with a kite matched to the wind conditions. For the best results, pray for a 15- to 20-knot wind. Rig two breakaway clips to the line coming from a short kite rod. Spool two 50-pound class rods with 130-pound test braided line and add a 25-foot leader of 130-pound monofilament. Use a rubber flying fish or squid with a double fang stinger hook. Some skippers even add a dangling circle hook to improve hook-ups.

Fly the kite so the lures dance off the surface. One crew member has to control the reels to keep the baits splashing from wave to wave. The fish will often take the bait in the air, so crank in slack line as soon as the tuna strikes.

The last trick you can employ is casting a top-water lure or dropping a jig. When the fish are feeding deep on sand eels or squid, match the hatch with a vertical jig. Choose a heavy-action jigging rod and high-speed reel. Spool the reel with 80-pound braided line that is color-coded to mark depth. Add a 12-foot length of 80-pound fluorocarbon and tie on a 500-pound test ball-bearing swivel. Connect the split ring on the jig to the swivel. Find the school of tuna with the fish finder and drop the jig to the same depth.

When you spot schools of tuna busting the surface, respond with a top-water popper. Pick an 8-foot spinning rod spooled with 80-pound braid. Add an 8-foot section of 80-pound fluorocarbon leader. Yellowfin like a cup-faced popper. Hooking a speeding yellowfin on a topwater popper is one of the toughest and most exciting fishing experiences out there. Timing, however, is key. You can't haul back when the fish strikes. You have to let the tuna take the plug for a split second before coming tight. Some anglers have replaced trebles with circle hooks on plugs, allowing the tuna to hook itself in the corner of the mouth as it takes off.

When the bite is on, tuna will attack in packs, tearing up everything anglers offer. When the fish are off, pull out these tricks to get a bite.

Yellowfin tuna hunt in packs. After you hook one, keep trolling until all rods go down. The trick, however, is finding them and using satellite imagery is a big help when locating temp breaks and edges.
Nothing beats the real thing. Naked ballyhoo is a yellowfin favorite. Rig the bait split bill to swim just below the surface.
You can also skirt the ballyhoo using a Sea Witch to add more profile to the bait and increase the action.
A squid bar followed by a Green Machine or additional squid adds noise and motion to the spread, drawing yellowfin to the back of the boat.
The new Squidnation Flippy Floppy rig has quickly become a popular rig for attracting tuna to the spread. Follow a chain of Flippy Floppys with a bird and a squid to generate even more commotion.
They key to effective yellowfin fishing is speed and efficiency. Be ready when a whammy strikes.
Trolling a mixed spread will help you key in on what the tuna prefer. Some days it's Green Machines, other days it's squids. Photo Ken Neill
When the bite turns on, be prepared for multiple hook ups. Throw the tuna on ice and get the hooks back in the water as fast as you can. Photo: Ken Neill
Topwater lures can make finicky yellowfin bite, especially when the tuna are chasing flying fish and feeding on the surface. Photo: Ken Neill

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