Fishing For Tuna! (Ultimate Guide On How To Fish For Tuna)
Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
While Thoreau strikes a chord with most fishermen’s desire for solitude, companionship, stress relief, and fulfillment — he’s obviously never had the thrill of pulling in a 300-pound tuna.
It’s hard to compare that thrill with anything else in your life, but trust me, once it happens you’ll never forget it. Many fishermen come to crave that adrenaline rush which is why over fishing is starting to become a problem. Blame it on over fishing, El Niño, or global warming, but the fish just aren’t there like they used to be.
With more anglers and fewer fish, you’ve got to learn to innovate. That’s what this article is about. Finding the sweetest and most efficient combination of conditions and gear to rocket your chances of hauling in a trophy tuna.
Along the way you’ll learn:
- The most popular types of tuna fishing
- Where to catch tuna
- How to fish for tuna
- The best tuna bait and lures
- The best tuna rods, reels, and line
To put it plainly, reading this article should tell you everything you need to know to get started catching tuna.
Let’s dive in!
Most Popular Types Of Tuna Fishing
Unlike the majority of fish, which happen to be cold-blooded, tuna have a unique ability to warm their blood to survive in colder waters. That combined with their muscle-bound, football-shaped bodies, makes yellowfin one tough as nails hard-pulling fish.
Yellowfin tuna aren’t just bodybuilder tough — they’re beautiful, too. These missile shaped fish have a dark shaded back that seems to fade into their neon blue just above their lateral line. An eye-catching yellow streak runs from tail to eye giving it its namesake, and the underside of the body has a distinct mercurial silver color with vertical stripes.
The average yellowfin tuna weighs on average 30 to 50 pounds with many hitting the 80 to 100-pound mark. In the Pacific ocean, these beauties can grow to be several hundred pounds, and the record is held by a 427-pound monster caught near Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Yellowfin tuna spend the majority of their time well above the thermocline, yet satellite data of tagged yellowfin shows that they dive deep from time to time as well. Typically, they travel in a pack and will not only join their fellow yellowfin tuna brethren but also ride in packs of whales and dolphins as well.
Giant bluefin tuna is a lot like hunting big game. It takes thorough research of their migration routes, careful selection of fishing tackle, in-depth knowledge of habits and patterns, the proper bait, the right bait presentation, optimal sea conditions, and a decent amount of luck, are all part of the hunt for the hardy bluefin tuna.
The bluefin tuna is easily distinguished from other tuna by its short length of pectoral fins. Their color is deep dark blue up top, murky gray below, gold coruscation covers their body, and bright yellow pectoral fins make them stand out. Besides their distinct look, you can easily set them apart by their size. Fully mature adults weigh around 500 pounds and the International Game Fish Association ruled the largest ever caught was an unbelievable 1,497 pounds of Nova Scotia.
Hooking a giant bluefin is a rush few have experienced. The reel starts screaming, the crew goes crazy, 15 things all happen at once, and you reel your heart out until your arms feel like they are going to fall off.
The best description I’ve heard is that a giant bluefin strike is like hooking a Volkswagen on the highway. Bluefin takes real strength, endurance, and a lot of patience, but there isn’t anything quite like the feeling you get from hauling in one of these stunning beauties.
Few game fish incite as much excitement and hysteria amongst Pacific ocean anglers as do albacore. Fisherman along the entire Pacific coast bustle eagerly to their local marinas and launch ramps the moment schools of albacore tuna show up within striking range.
The majestic albacore has large eyes, exceptionally long pectoral fins, and a deep blue dorsally and shades of silvery white ventrally. They weigh in on average 50 to 60 pounds but can get as small as 5-pounds and as big as the IGFA world record 88 lbs 2 oz caught near the Canary Islands.
Albacore are fierce fighters, eager biters, and delicious table fare. In fact, albacore are the only kind of tuna that are allowed to be marketed in the United States as white meat tuna. Any canned tuna you buy in US grocery stores is usually albacore, making the albacore tuna largely responsible for the creation of the thriving tuna market in the US. Like all other tuna, albacore put up a hard fight for their size.
They can swim at nearly 50 mph making them difficult to catch. Usually, you have to troll for them and haul them in by hand. From there they are washed, cleaned, and fresh-frozen aboard the vessel.
Where To Fish For Tuna
Where To Catch Yellowfin Tuna
Yellowfin are primarily found in deeper offshore waters. Mid-ocean islands like Hawaii and other Pacific island groups are prime spots, as well as the Caribbean, Maldives, Indian oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the volcanic islands of the Atlantic.
Lots of fish have predictable migratory patterns that anglers can track. Yellowfin fisherman are not so lucky. These world traveling tuna trek thousands of miles between the Americas and Europe, move East and West all across the Gulf Stream and ride the currents North and South.
While there’s no set pattern for yellowfin tuna, there are certain conditions you can seek out that increase your odds. It’s best to look in 74-degree clear blue water. Clear and green water doesn’t work most of the time, but you can get lucky if the water was blue a couple of days prior because the yellowfin will stick around awhile.
Once you’ve pinpointed those ideal water conditions, you’ve got to look around for other marine activity. It’s always a good sign to see dolphins, rays, whales, storm petrels, and turtles because that means there’s bait around. Yellowfin will eat just about anything from anchovies and squid, to worms, and flying fish.
Where To Catch Bluefin Tuna
Bluefin tuna fishing can be enjoyed from the Gold Coast in Australia all the way to the Atlantic Coast of the United States. So long as you aren’t inland, you’ve got a reasonable probability of crossing paths with a bluefin tuna right in your own backyard. Since bluefin tuna don’t typically approach the shore you’ll have to go way offshore, but that’s half the fun, and you get the added bonus that they are easier to spot out on the open waters.
Most people know bluefin tuna to be abundant around the Pacific Coast of Southern California. Even though conservation organizations are warning of dwindling stocks, anglers in Southern California are seeing record numbers of bluefin in their backyard. Besides the West coast, Bluefin tuna fishing is booming in the early winter up near New Jersey, Maryland, and New York.
Early and late in the tuna fishing season, when water temps hover around 70 to 75 degrees bluefin tuna rocket to the surface to feed making it a prime spot for fishing. The reason they come to the waters around the Northeast is for one main reason: to eat. And not just plain old eating, but gorging. After swimming a thousand or two miles from their spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, they arrive emaciated and ready to feast.
The standard feeding schedule for bluefin tuna is to feed heavily in the early morning and dash offshore in the early afternoon. Finding the elusive bluefin tuna is a skill only mastered through experience and time. One that is well worth the time and patience.
Where To Catch Albacore Tuna
Albacore are distributed amongst tropical and temperate waters all around the globe in every ocean and the Mediterranean sea. They are highly migratory and travel in schools great distances. Oddly enough, the Pacific and Atlantic populations never seem to mix. The Northern Pacific albacore tend to migrate around the northern part of Baja California, Mexico, Washington, and Oregon. The Atlantic Albacore on the other hand usually head to the Bay of Biscay near France and Spain.
Albacore are incredibly unpredictable which can make fishing them a real challenge. It’s not uncommon for them to sweep so far offshore that they are beyond the reach of most fishing vessels through their typically summer and fall migration route along the Pacific coast route including British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, and Mexico.
A good rule of thumb for dining albacore is locating waters where warm and cool waters mix. One of the top places to catch Albacore is just North of the Morro Bay in California where trolling accounts for most of the catches.
Tuna Fishing Techniques
Trolling For Tuna
If you’re trolling for tuna, you’re going to want to create a scenario that is so attractive to the fish below that they will rise up just behind your boat to feed. When they see this enticing spread behind your boat, they usually explode to the surface and strike onto your lures where you can battle them over the rail and onto your boat.
Trolling is a fantastic technique particularly for fishing tuna since you can support the lines on poles forming a v-shape. The crosstree poles prevent any lines and jigs from tangling while you troll and allows you to have as many as 8 – 14 lines in the water all at once.
Slow-trolling live bait such as Pacific mackerel can pay off big time when fishing for bluefin tuna. It’s best to put the bait far back — about 200 feet back behind the boat. If you gently bump the boat’s engine into gear and out of gear as you pull the bait through the school, you’ll often get tuna to bite.
Albacore are caught an equal amount on both lures and bait. Typically, they are located by trolling and can often be brought to the boat by chumming a small baitfish. If you throw out a netful of live squid, there’s a decent chance you’ll hook some bluefin since they tend to circle back to refeed.
The secret to yellowfin trolling is to get all hands on deck as soon the first yellowfin strikes. Once that first strike happens the boat will start to gently turn in the direction the fish is running. Rather than the whole crew watching one yellowfin get hauled in they should all grab lines and jig them the moment one gets a bite.
Yellowfin love that additional bait action and since they are school fish they will usually follow suit if one fish strikes. If your team can get that tactic down to a science, then your boat will also be coming to scale with those strict yellowfin limits.
Drifting For Tuna
Similar to bottom fishing, drifting for tuna is all about getting enough weight on the bait to get it lower beneath the surface. Unlike bottom fishing, drifting is a motion style of fishing. Trolling typically is a little faster paced whereas drifting will suspend the bait further down and move your bait at a slower smoother pace through the water. Many consider drifting to be the more efficient and practical style of tuna fishing and especially comes in handy when live bait is scarce.
Drifting starts with finding a solid fishing spot (where tuna is supposed to be) and chunk the water with well-prepared fish chum. As the old saying goes, “If you chum, they will come.” Ideally, that chum would consist of anchovies and sardines for maximum effectiveness. The idea here isn’t to overfeed, but provide enough to get the tuna to rise up to your chum stick.
Make sure your hook bait is larger so other fish won’t take it. You’ll then toss your line into the water and release your line to your desired depth which is usually the same depth that the sardines and anchovies are going down. Then you just simply allow your line to drift through the current where you follow the main line with the rod until it’s directly behind the boat. Reel it in. Throw in more chunks and repeat.
Tuna Bait & Lures
Tuna Fishing Lures
Trolling For Albacore Tuna
When it comes to albacore tuna fishing, your best bet is trolling. Some popular trolling lures include tuna feathers, cedar plugs, as well as Yo Zuri and Rapala type plugs if you troll a bit slower. Smaller daisy chains made of rubber skirts can work as well. The biggest thing to keep in mind when trolling is to size the lure to the baitfish in the area. If you’re struggling to get a bite sometimes, it can help to lower the size of your lure.
Squid Rigs For Yellowfin and Bluefin Tuna
When it comes to yellowfin and bluefin tuna, the most productive lures are squid rigs. They can be run as singles, but most people like to rig these in a chain fashion of between 4 to 6 squid. I personally mesh natural colors like cream, off-white, and light brown to give them a more natural look. They range in size from 11” to 17”, but you can’t go wrong with 13” which is an all-around solid producer.
The cedar plugs mentioned above for albacore fishing work well also. Try running them really far back on a longer rigger.
Ronz lures are pretty popular too. You can jig those vertically, troll them, or cast them as a school.
Lastly, it’s worth checking out a spreader bar to combine with squid lures. Some people absolutely swear by these, and it makes sense because they present the lure in a natural school formation. Rainbow and natural squid colors seem to work well here too.
Live Tuna Bait
Bait For Bluefin
Capturing some fresh live bait is all part of the experience when tuna fishing. You just can’t beat live bait for bluefin tuna fishing. The consensus amongst tuna anglers is that fresh bait provides a distinct advantage over the use of an artificial lure. When chasing bluefin, it’s recommended that you use herring, skipjack, mackerel, and of course, squid.
Bait For Catching Yellowfin Tuna
When it comes to yellowfin tuna the most common baits around the gulf are threadfin herring, blue runners, menhaden, and mullet. It’s common practice to find out what tuna are feeding on during that time of the year so you can match your bait. For yellowfin presentation of bait is essential. Collar hooking the bait is solid choice and is a more consistent presentation.
Bait For Catching Albacore Tuna
On the Pacific coast, anchovy is a prime bait and sardines are a close second when it comes to albacore tuna fishing. Large anchovies and smaller sardines are typically the way to go because if they aren’t biting one, the other usually does the trick. When possible, fish with no weight and let your bait fish swim around and do its thing.
Tuna Fishing Gear
Tuna Fishing Rods
When it comes to giants like bluefin and yellowfin you have no choice but to use heavy tackle. The albacore and smaller school bluefin don’t get quite as big, so you can often get away with lighter weight tackle. Albacore, in particular, can be caught on both conventional and spinning tackle. Most anglers save their heavier outfits for trolling and use a 20-30 pound class setup for bait or lure fishing smaller tuna.
For tuna fishing anglers typically need a long rod, with plenty of backbone, and a relatively soft tip. The standard size is about 8 feet because it lets you get a stickbait or popper out there while also giving you loads of lifting power when that tuna fish inevitably runs deep. Most tuna rods have common traits, but each one has unique features that make a difference out on the water. Here are the top 5 tuna fishing rods available on the market today:
- UglyStik Big Water Stand Up Casting Fishing Rod
- Shimano TREVALA F Spinning, Graphite Saltwater Jigging Spinning Rod
- Bent Butt Fishing Rod 140-160 Lb. Blue Marlin Tournament Edition
Tuna Fishing Reels
Long casts are crucial to tuna fishing. Plenty of anglers are now switching over to spinning gear for casting smaller poppers and light jigs to groups of tuna. You’ll want something that can provide at a minimum 30 pounds of drag and in an ideal scenario one that has Dura-Drag which eliminates hesitation and snags under extreme pressure and reduces drag creep caused by hours upon hours of trolling vibrations.
Another must-have feature is a 2-speed gear system which lets you quickly switch back and forth from a low retrieval rate to a high retrieval rate and adapt to your prey’s movement easily and efficiently. In the end, many reels that fit this description available on the market today. Here’s a list of the top 5 best tuna fishing reels:
- Shimano Tiagra Reels
- Shimano Stella SW
penn squallLever Drag 2-Speed Trolling Fishing Reel
- Penn International V Lever Drag Reel 12V (Top Pick)
For a more in-depth look at each of these top 5 tuna fishing reels check out an earlier article: Tuna Fishing Reel Reviews (The 5 BEST Offshore Tuna Reels).
Tuna Fishing Line and Leader
Most tuna are between 50 to 80 pounds so you can get away with 60 or 80-pound line. If you are deep sea fishing or want to cover all your bases, you can’t go wrong with 100-pound braid which seems to be the standard.
My current set up is an 80-pound braid for strength, with an 80-pound top shot for stretch, and 80-pound Seaguar Premier fluorocarbon leader for reduced visibility. With that, you’ll have no problem hauling in 100 pound yellowfin tuna or just about anything else you throw at it.
You’ve been up since 4 AM and have traveled 50+ miles or more into the deep seas in search of that elusive albacore, that record-setting bluefin, or that wiry and tough yellowfin. Yet, all good things must come to an end. More often than not you cut your trip short due to reaching your legal limit or wearing out your arms from reeling bullish yellowfin or massive bluefin all-day.
Fishing for tuna is a thrill that is hard to match. One that ends too soon and leaves you itching to get back out on the water. Hopefully, this article has left you with some in-depth knowledge on how to fish for tuna, where to find them, and what gear and tactics work best to reel them in finally.
What are your top tips for catching tuna? Share them in the comments below: