The Main Event: Monster Yellowfin Tuna
[Hot Spot: Panama] [Local Expert: Capt. Carter Andrews; email@example.com]
The 100-plus-pound tuna on fly takes an angler into an entirely different class. The weight, bodily profile, power and stamina of these fish make the battle not only physical, but a tremendous mental challenge as well. In Panama, where I spend the bulk of my year, we are fortunate to witness a special phenomenon that aids in our success: yellowfin tuna and porpoise working in tandem to hunt in large packs as they cruise the ocean. Though it is always best to locate a baitball and free-cast a fly into a feeding pod of tuna, it is not always an option. When baitballs don’t materialize, a bait-and-switch is an excellent option. After locating a school of porpoise, I position my boat in front of them. Typically, the tuna are traveling in front of and below the porpoise. I’ll have my mate cast a hookless popper ahead of the porpoise and work it fast and aggressively, which normally results in multiple tuna peeling off of the school. Once this happens, it’s then up to the fly-angler to cast a five- to seven-inch unweighted baitfish pattern in line with the retrieved popper. At this point, the angler will need to strip long and fast in order to mimic the action of the popper. When the plan comes together, one or more tuna will generally peel off the popper and devour the fly. Because of the speed at which the tuna are chasing the popper, it is not always easy to feel the take, and many times the fly seems to disappear. When this happens, a big strip and a sweep of the rod are usually enough for the hook to find its way home. The sweep of the rod can be important, in large part because of the way the tuna feeds. Once the fish has taken the artificial, he continues to travel along the line he is swimming, maintaining course and speed. Many times, the acceleration caused by the rod sweep moves the line just enough to initiate tension, thereby burying the hook point. Come tight, clear the line, and in no time, you will find yourself harnessed to a freight train.
Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.
I cannot stress the importance of your tackle when hunting larger tunas. Reels with proper drags, rods capable of extreme lifting power, fly lines with heavy inner cores and leaders of more than enough test strength to withstand epic battles are all a must. Big tuna are known to ruin tackle — if you want a big one in the boat, then overdo it. Gear up for battle. It is always better to celebrate over sashimi than over a pile of graphite shrapnel and a story about the one that got away.
Training Pays Off
It is not often that I get to have my wife, Heidi, on the boat for a day’s fishing, and even more rare is when I can talk her into chasing big yellowfins on fly tackle. One day this past season, I twisted her arm into agreeing. Heidi, photographer Brian Grossenbacher and I set out on another perfect day off Islas Secas, Panama, where I spend most of the year. The tuna schools had been thick all season, and Grossenbacher and I were fully prepared for an epic day. Heidi, on the other hand, seemed uncertain. Though we’d been working steadily through a tuna curriculum for several years, she’d heard countless stories of my fly-angling clients waging torturous battles with these back breakers. In the name of domestic welfare, I promised her that we’d look for some fish on the smaller end of the spectrum — which we did. The east side of Montuosa was thick with tuna and porpoise schools. The birds were working and the tuna were blowing up on scattered clusters of flying fish, creating idyllic conditions for the old bait-and-switch with the hookless popper. I positioned the boat, and my mate fired off a 300-footer and began ripping the popper across the surface. Fish were piling onto the teaser — six, eight, 10 fish at a time. Heidi stood in the bow with line stripped on the deck at her feet. Her first couple of shots came up short but we shouted encouragement; after all, it’s no small feat to throw a 15-weight when you know that the goal is to have it ripped out of your hands! Heidi, never having been the type to back down, made a perfect cast on her next attempt, and from the tower I could see a dozen 50- to 60-pound yellowfin hot on the popper. It was absolutely textbook. The popper passed the fly, Heidi stripped hard, and half of the pod peeled away from the popper. Somewhere in the ensuing melee, Heidi’s rod tip jerked hard to the water. The reel screamed, and she did too, once she found herself attached to her best-ever tuna on fly. This was the moment of truth, and thanks to having trained for it, she was ready for it. The battle lasted no more than 20 minutes, and once the fish was on ice, she looked up at me, victoriously raised her fist in the air and shouted “How about we go do that again!” Needless to say, I was more than willing to oblige.