Moving On Up: Blackfin Tuna
[Hot Spot: Florida Keys] [Local Expert: Capt. Brian Cone; email@example.com]
When you are ready to put your newly gained skills honed on mid-Atlantic false albacore to the test, consider heading south to the Florida Keys to target 30-plus-pound blackfin tuna. Fishing around offshore structure or following shrimp boats in the Gulf are two effective tactics that top captains use to locate schools. Whatever the method, blackfin action is often fast and furious. Without a doubt, some of my favorite fly-fishing takes place offshore and is done by chumming with live bait.
The use of chummers has been mastered in the Keys and seems to be most effective during the fall. Pinnacles just offshore called “humps” rise to within 100 feet of the surface — underwater structures like these are perfect spots to chum using live pilchards. In my experience, when this tactic is carried out properly, success is a given. Once any tuna responds to live chum, things accelerate quickly. The adrenaline really starts to flow when you see bait fleeing and tuna slashing all within 25 to 30 yards of the boat. When the blackfin get moving in the Keys, you will also find bonita, a slightly smaller species. Both bonita and blackfin are a great size for advancing tuna fly-rodders. The added benefit to fishing in the Keys, particularly Key West, is the presence of commercial shrimpers. The bycatch that the shrimpers shovel overboard creates feeding frenzies that will get any aspiring tuna angler’s blood pumping.
I will never forget a day I spent filming and fishing with Salt Water Sportsman editor John Brownlee. We set out for blackfins on the humps off Marathon, and we had a couple thousand pilchards in the livewells. When we started throwing chum, the water literally erupted with tuna. We had schools of eight- to 15-pounders behind the boat all day long (including a few 20-pound bruisers), and they were more than eager to eat any appropriately sized pilchard pattern we could throw. In the end, we were worn out before the blackfins turned off.
Prepare for a painful but rewarding battle.
Yellowfin tuna aren’t the only species that reach the monster class; there are bluefin tuna swimming in our oceans that exceed 1,000 pounds. The cooler waters from North Carolina to New England offer the best opportunities for these fish. Smaller, schoolie bluefin can be taken with the run-and-gun approach that works so well on albies, and indeed these fish can be found close to shore midsummer through fall.
The IGFA world record bluefin on fly is 196 pounds, and the fish was bested on 20-pound line. That’s an outstanding fish on conventional gear but should be considered a true leviathan on fly gear. Take a minute and consider the last really big fish you caught on a fly. Now, multiply the size, strength, speed and power by 10 — now you’re getting the idea of what it takes to land a jumbo.
Kicking It Up a Notch: Yellowfin Tuna
[Hot Spot: Venice, Louisiana] [Local Expert: Capt. Kevin Beach; firstname.lastname@example.org]
After graduating from blackfin school, the logical next step in the tuna progression is to try your hand at yellowfin. Yellowfin are widely distributed in tropical and subtropical waters, and though they do not reach the size of the bluefin tuna, they are notorious tackle busters. Once again, many of the same fly-rod techniques used for smaller tunas should be applied to yellowfin. If you are up for the challenge, Venice, Louisiana, is one of the very best places in the States to go. The fall shrimping season provides the best opportunity for fly-anglers to tangle with yellowfin — fish that can reach 200 pounds. While seeing fish of this caliber is an unbelievable visual experience, in terms of fly-fishing, fish ranging from 40 to 80 pounds are ideal. Make no mistake, smaller fish like this will unquestionably test any angler and his tackle, but there remains a plausible chance of success. Free-casting a fly into the chum line created by a shrimper’s bycatch becomes not a question of “what if?” but “when?” As soon as the bycatch hits the water, yellowfins race through the buffet and the water comes to life with glimpses of silver, blue and yellow. This is always the most exciting time for me: moments before the cast, when I can watch the tuna feed. Whether they are working the wake of a shrimp boat or harassing a school of bait offshore, feeding yellowfin create a visual unlike any other in fishing. It is truly awesome to see, and the anticipation that grows as the adrenaline flows is all but uncontrollable. Sometimes when I’m putting clients onto feeding schools of yellowfin, the fish are so large that I’m actually afraid for my guests to cast. When they do hook up, the chances are good that they’ve never heard their reel sing in such a high octave. This is when it’s fun and games — when it comes time to wench the fish to the boat is when playtime is over and the real work begins.