With the strong resurrection of southern bluefin tuna stocks over the last five years, one of the most effective methods of getting amongst the action is trolling lures. Trolling lures is the most common form of game fishing. It’s relatively simple, highly effective and is as easy as dragging lures behind your boat until something decides to eat it. The more time you spend trolling lures the more ground you’re going to cover and the more fish you’re going to catch. Hopefully this article will help you catch more fish, more often, and save some of the endless kilometres of trolling seemingly fishless water.
Finding the fish
Finding out as much as possible about where the fish are will save wasted time and petrol. With social media pages and fishing forums you have access to daily reports and can easily learn who did what, where and when; most fisherman can’t help themselves and a smart phone and facebook will usually have the word spread throughout the country fast. The run of giant bluefin that turned up at Apollo Bay in Victoria last year would have just slipped past if it wasn’t for the generous locals sharing their info. Local tackle stores will do their best to put you on the fish, they will even give you gps locations of the last known schools if you ask nicely, buying something first often helps! Knowing what depth the fish are schooling at can be a great help but failing this you need to be able to read the other signs.
One of the best indications are birds, with their advantage of height and eyesight they will be onto any feeding bluefin in no time. Flocks of birds seen circling and diving are a sure indication that something is happening and this should never be ignored. Sometimes bird activity won’t be as obvious. I like to watch them closely to see how much area they are covering, if they are continuously going back over the same area without diving and just zig zagging they may have found bait that is too deep or they are following tuna that aren’t harassing bait yet. I always drag a lure or two through any birds that are doing this before moving on. Birds that are concentrating on each other, sitting on the water or covering too big an area have never produced a strike for me and I won’t even bother pursuing this kind of behaviour.
Sea surface temperatures play a part but isn’t something I concentrate on when targeting bluefin. Bait on the surface is an obvious and important thing to look for, if you can find schools of baitfish shallow on your sounder then you’re on the money, if tuna aren’t harassing it they soon will be. Something that I have found common with bluefin and not so much with other tuna is jumping whilst feeding, I have seen this from jellybean size fish to barrels, and whilst this doesn’t always lead to a strike immediately, it won’t be far away. The radio when game fishing can be your best friend, it’s the best way for your mates to let you know what is happening. Just knowing that others are catching fish is a great boost for the crew who may be starting to get disheartened; there is nothing worse for a crew than doubting that the fish are even there.
Rods, reels, line and leader
When purchasing fishing gear that is intended to subdue southern bluefin tuna, the old saying still rings true; ‘you get what you pay for’. Rods, reels, line, harnesses, gimbles and lures will generally be of higher quality with a higher price tag attached. Of course less expensive or ‘cheap’ gear will catch fish, and if you’re targeting school size fish it should suffice, however, should that fish of a lifetime come along the last thing you’re going to want to be using is inferior equipment. Quality game rods with roller guides and conventional reels with a large spool capacity and a smooth and reliable drag are essential in fighting large southern bluefin tuna. With the comeback of the big bluefin the chance of hooking up to a 100kg plus behemoth is a real possibility, and for this reason you should try and purchase the best gear your money can buy. In regards to line class I don’t run any outfits less than 15kg and at times when I know the barrels are around, I won’t run anything less than 24kg. I always have a couple of 37kg outfits ready just in case the stories of those massive 180kg fish that got away are true, but this is not a necessary purchase or outfit to have with you, a quality 24kg set up will tame monster fish if used correctly. In the past I have gone down to 10, 8, and 6 kg line class and crew on my boat have successfully landed bluefin on small spin outfits, however, this style of fishing doesn’t do it for me, I like to appreciate the power of the fish and not just hear it via a screaming ratchet and this can only be achieved with heavier drag settings.
I have always used wind on leaders when targeting bluefin, you can make these your self or purchase them already made. Leaders are something I experimented with a bit last year and at one point I removed all my wind on leaders and just ran short 200lb 6ft leaders to the lure; I didn’t notice a significant increase in strikes so this year I will be going back to a plaited double, connected to a wind-on leader via a cat’s paw to a crimped on swivel; this is a fairly standard lure trolling set up and allows the connection of both hard bodied lures and pre rigged trolling skirts.
Lures and Teasers
When it comes to choosing lures for bluefin tuna the options are endless; colours, head shapes, materials and style all differ greatly yet are all effective in enticing a bluefin. The trick is learning when and where to place these lures into your spread to increase your strike rate; only experience will provide you with this knowledge. Appropriate lure choice will help to unravel some of the mystery of why you are catching nothing but the boat next to you is.
Many lures on the market are coloured to represent the baitfish that bluefin tuna feed on; these colours are a good starting point and when choosing a lure it’s a good idea to keep in mind what the fish are feeding on. Some lures are coloured in fluoro pinks, lumo green and bright purples; these lures in no way represent any of the natural baitfish bluefin prey upon yet they can prove to be irresistible. Size is very important when targeting bluefin and more often than not smaller skirted lures are more productive. I have had success with bluefin hitting 3 inch skirts and to date the biggest fish landed on my boat was 114kg and it had no hesitation in hitting a 7inch lure!
Aside from the variety of head shapes, materials and colour patterns found with skirted lures, you can also implement deep diving bibbed minnows, vibes and bibles minnows into your spread, however, getting them all to swim at the same time can be a difficult task.
The spread and speed
Setting an effective spread is where a lot of fisherman will go wrong, knowing where and how far back to position your lures is something that can only be learnt from hours on the water. If you’re just starting out it’s a good tip to purchase lures where the manufacturer has a suggested position and troll speed on the packet; this will take some of the guess work out of it and save you time on the water trying to get a lure to swim effectively. When determining your lure position its good to place lures where it is as easy as possible for the fish to see it, so when targeting bluefin, I like to run deep divers from the short corners closest to the transom, this puts them below the prop wash and provides a clear silhouette against the white bubbles. From the short and long rigger I like to run resin headed skirted lures in sizes ranging from 3 to 8 inches in length, as these are run off the outriggers they will spend quite a lot of time in clean water outside of your wake; especially when you are turning. From the shot gun or rocket launcher I prefer a metal bullet head skirted lure, as it will travel just below the surface and doesn’t necessarily have a lot of action. Boat speed when trolling is crucial to how your chosen lures will swim. Placing your lures in the front face of the pressure waves created by your boat is advantageous.
There is no specific speed that I will troll, I troll at the speed that best allows the lures to swim. Speed obviously varies by what lures you’re running and what the conditions are like. Many deep diving bibbed minnows don’t like to be trolled at speed and will start to ‘blow out’ [break the surface], sometimes you can overcome this by adjusting the distance between the transom and the lure (either shorter or further from the boat) however, there is a maximum speed where they will no longer swim effectively. Generally a skirted lure will have a swim cycle where the lure comes to the surface, splashes, takes a breath of air, dives, leaves a smoke trail and then re-surfaces to start the cycle over again, this swim cycle is when they are working best. When these lures surface, skip along and tumble head over heels you are going too fast. Putting lures together that can swim effectively is part of the challenge, just remember that your direction plays a part as well; the speed that was perfect heading into the swell against the wind won’t be the best speed when you turn down sea. Sometimes with bluefin a change in speed is exactly what you need to trigger a strike, just a couple of hundred revs more to get the lures working a bit franticly is all that is needed. With bluefin in particular, I have found faster is generally better.
The only way to judge a lures ability is by how often it gets hit and the best way to test a lure is when the fish are firing. Take care to note which lures are getting the most strikes. The majority of the time you will find its one or two lures in the spread, this is your chance to do some experimenting, the lures that are not getting any attention can be substituted; this is a great chance to find out what the bluefin want to eat. I have some favourite lures that have caught hundreds of yellowfin but bluefin just don’t like them and I have some lures that have never caught anything but are dynamite on bluefin. Over time this experimenting will give you all the information you need on lure selection for bluefin and you will develop a great arsenal of bluefin catching lures
If I think the bluefin are swimming deep I run a Witch Doctor style teaser or if its calm I run an Exciter Bird with a daisy chain of lures for surface splash, sometimes I run both of these teasers; the more action, flash and vibration you can provide, the more interest you will receive from the fish. Running a deep diver just behind the Witch Doctor and a skirted lure in the short rigger position just behind the daisy chain will often result in a strike from these two positions simultaneously.
Everything has come together and you’ve got a strike, you need to keep motoring until the rod that has been hit is fully loaded up and paying out line. With the first fish firmly hooked, continue trolling forward allowing the other lures a chance to hook up, you will be surprised just how often you can turn one strike into multiple hook ups if you do this. I generally give the other lures about 10 seconds before I stop. So with 2 or 3 anglers hooked up the remaining crew are free to bring the teasers and rods in, if you can control the situation without tangling often the sinking lures will get hit as well.
Stay with the fish
So we have found the fish and we are getting strikes, this is the time to hit the man over board button on your gps to mark the position, you will be surprised just how far you will move from where you hooked up to where you land the fish. Once all the lures are back out in the water the idea is to make your way back to where you got hit, it’s a good idea to approach the mark in the same direction as the first time. Chances are you are going to get hit again somewhere close, if not, you can zoom right in on your plotter and do ever increasing circles or figure eights of the area. This method will generally result in crossing paths with the school again and the procedure can be repeated over and over. If you are unlucky and can’t find the school again don’t waste too much time over a dead area, move off in search of a different school.
Fighting the fish
Although small fish can be easily subdued on 15kg tackle, should you get a chance to rumble with one of the heavy weights, some fancy foot work will be required and your best aid is the boat. Big powerful bluefin need to be bullied and good boat driving can aid in this. Line angle is important, allowing the angler to fight direct up and down from a stationary boat is a bad idea; this just gives the tuna a chance to lay on his side, kick slowly and rest, unless the angler is good on the rod with some heavy fish fighting experience they will soon tire out in this position. Keeping a high line angle will put less pressure on the angler and will lead the fish forcing him to either swim with you or away from you burning energy in the process. At some point in the fight the bluefin is going to make a screaming dash for the bottom, if you’re in the shallows e.g. 150 meters or less you will be ok, if you’re well off the edge e.g. 1000 meters then good luck! When the fish settles a good trick is to drive off the fish down current, this allows the angler to plane the fish back to the surface and although the fish may still try to get back to the bottom at least you’ve got him working for it and the fish won’t be able to maintain this action for long. Fights that drag on for hours are not good for the terminal tackle the angler or the rest of the fishing day, I prefer to go hard on the fish straight away, if we are going to lose the fish by terminal failure at least it will be quick and allow us to find another fish. A good tip I give the angler is I should be able to hear the reel working all the time, so either the fish is taking line off or the angler is getting it back on the spool, when neither is happening in the stale mate position I will drive around and change the pull angle on the fish causing it to run again. Once you have turned the head and can lead them you can quickly get the big tuna to the boat for a gaff shot. But be warned mess up the gaff shot; spook the fish and its going to find a whole new reserve of fighting power, for this reason I like to go easy on the leader and gently lift it within gaffing range.
In my boat I like everyone to be watching, all eyes should be on the water, the captain can’t be expected to see everything, watch the sounder, monitor the radio and drive the boat. I find an energetic crew with more enthusiasm will catch more fish, guys that are hung over and don’t want to uncross the tangled rods because they don’t want to give up their chair won’t be getting a second invite!