Words & Images: Lee Rayner

We had been working the same football field-sized patch of water all day long, and while it hadn’t gone crazy, terns, gannets, seals and dolphins had been hanging around throughout. It was just a matter of time till the feeding switch was flicked and the place came alive.

Then, right on cue as we approached the top of the tide, half a dozen gannets formed up and started to dive into the water. As we looped around off the birds, allowing the nearby seals and predators to push the bait up to the surface, expectations rose to the point that you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Then the whole patch hit another level as the dolphins joined in, gannets squawked and the water was torn apart.

This is it boys …

“Get ready,” my good mate Simon Rinaldi said as he pointed the boat and trailing lures towards the work-up.

As the lures popped and fizzed their way past the edge of the bait ball, the silence was deafening. Five seconds later the Otto Coloured Baby Hard Head on the long corner was eaten in a classic big tuna bite.

Dean Linardos with a very solid bluefin taken out of Apollo Bay.This fish came on a Pakula skirt run in the long rigger

This and similar scenarios were repeated several hundred times over the following months, and no matter how many times you’ve seen it, your heart still races and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as a 50lb outfit howls in protest.

One thing I really love about fishing is the curve balls that the seasons throw at us. They can be weather-related, season-related or other factors, and just when you think you’ve got it sorted, a massive curve ball gets thrown from left field, leaving us scrambling to make the most of an unexpected and often golden opportunity.

This was the case with the phenomenal run of jumbo southern bluefin tuna that rocked into town on the west coast of Victoria around the June long weekend.

What started as a few solid fish being caught out of Portland, then a couple of reports from Apollo Bay, quickly swelled to a full-on bite that saw lots of big tuna being hooked, lost and landed out of several ports.

Needless to say, anglers were scrambling to get boats packed and game fishing tackle rigged up after being packed away for the winter months, as the fishing calendar had suggested these jumbo bluefin weren’t due until March or April next year.

The theory wheel

It’s been a very interesting few weeks in my tackle shop. Being able to speak with a lot of anglers, you get to hear a lot of theories as to why the big tuna are here now.

Is it the Geelong Star “supertrawler” netting the bait on the east coast? Is the water different from other years? Was it because a lot of the fish didn’t appear to run up the east coast of NSW?

Lee Rayner with a monster barrel taken on a marlin magic blue dog

Or is it because a lot of anglers have been out looking for these big fish at a time of year when there is normally no one fishing for them?

Either way, in many cases it confirms one thing I have always said about southern bluefin: they do what they want, when they want and how they want.

Hunting elephants

It has become very clear over the past few years that the best place to find big tuna is in relatively shallow water. And while the edge of the continental shelf and beyond gets plenty of tuna swimming over it each season, it’s the shallower areas, often close to land, that hold the big tuna and in good numbers.

People often ask what makes big bluefin come to these shallow grounds and congregate; from what we can make of it there are several factors.

Firstly, big tuna are very lazy and for the most part opportunistic feeders that require bulk amounts of food to sustain them each day. It’s here that these shallow grounds really shine, with the 30-60m areas off the west coast of Victoria and into South Australia often having large reef systems that hold tonnes of bait – everything from krill to pilchards, whitebait, redbait, mackerel and cowanyoung (not to mention squid – both arrow and nautilus). Then there are the more opportunistic foods such as the calamari, cuttlefish and small reef fish, all of which regularly end up in the tuna’s bellies.

Another factor that often helps in these areas is the lack of, or minimal, current, which allows the bait to hold up and offers the tuna easy pickings.

The final consideration is that the big mammals make the tuna’s life easy. Seals, dolphins and even whales get in on the feeding frenzy, in many cases doing a lot of the work balling up the bait while the tuna sit underneath getting an easy feed.

In the air, the birds do their bit and are often a vital sign for locating the bait and therefore the tuna.

By closely watching the behaviour of birds and mammals you can learn from their behaviour and movements.

Basic things to look at include the direction in which the birds are heading. If they are all flying east and you’re heading west, turn around and follow them as they will be heading where the food and action is.

Also look for more subtle signs; often just a pair of terns flying slowly will give away a big tuna. Similarly, a pair of terns or gannets diving into the water indicates feeding tuna below. Learn to watch for the subtle signs and often, when you get a bite on a big tuna, you will be almost expecting it to happen.

Saying all this, though, if you find a pile of gannets diving into the water on top of a bunch of seals and dolphins, hold onto your pants because it could get very hectic as you get your lures close to the frenzy.

Other things to be aware of are tide changes or when fish have been caught in previous days, as the big tuna will often feed only in short windows, so you want to make sure you are in the right area at these times, not aimlessly moving from one area to the next while the fish are biting.

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Choice of gear

This could go on for pages and pages and cause plenty of arguments on what is the best gear and lures, but I’ll keep to what most people I speak to are using.

It’s interesting to note how the fish will favour different lures from month to month and season to season, with divers such as Rapala X-Raps and Halco Laser Pro-style minnows generally being high on the menu for these jumbo tuna.

This recent bite, however, has had a few differences, with the first being that skirted lures have been the lure of choice by far. I’m not saying for a minute that fish didn’t eat X-Raps – quite a few got caught on them, with the Blue Mackerel and Real Redbait patterns definitely being the standouts. But overall the majority of big fish were taken on skirts.

The next interesting factor was the amount of big lures that were getting the bites, Whereas in previous years it’s been generally about catching huge tuna on small lures in the 6 to 8-inch size, this recent action has seen a big swing towards bigger pushers in the 8-10 and 12-inch sizes, which seems a bit strange as the majority of the tuna were feeding on small pilchards and whitebait, yet happily clobbered a 12-inch bright green lure.

Maybe this comes down to the fact that it’s nice to eat peanuts when that’s all that is on offer, but when a big fat steak goes past it’s time to get serious.

In the fish world it relates to reward for effort, and one big meal provides more energy than chowing down on loads of tiny whitebait.

When it comes to lure choices there are so many good ones to choose from but some favourites on the recent bite were definitely the Pakula Sprockets in Lumo Green and Illusion, Pakula Cockroach in Evil Angel, and Richter Splash in UV blue.

Some other standouts for us and a lot of other anglers were the Marlin Magic Baby Hard Head, Medium Hard Head and Baby Ruckus and the very popular and successful JB range, with the small and standard Dingo doing some serious damage on the jumbo tuna.

What all these lures have in common is they have a nice strong swimming action, but swim in a nice straight line without wild sweeps or direction changes, which seems to be a favourite with tuna.

As for colours, it’s really up to the individual, but bright green luminescent patterns caught plenty, especially when run off the outriggers or shotgun position. UV blues and green patterns are also dynamite as tuna see UV colour very well.

Over the past weeks, a lot of massive bluefin taken on pilchard imitation colours which are generally made up of blues and silver in skirt colour. This is a killer colour for tuna and marlin.

Pretty simple formula in any gamefishing find the bait and stick with it predators wont be far away

Other hot patterns were lures with a bit of pink in them, especially when it was mixed with a bit of blue or purple and silver, as it fares well as a redbait imitation.

Aside from all these great lure colours, if I had to choose one to run I would be hard pressed to go past Big Dog. It’s a great sauri or nautilus squid imitation and gets eaten time and again, and got my mates Julian Coyne, Richie Abela and Kevin Aigus at least a dozen out of 20 or so jumbo tuna they caught between their boats.

Bullet-style lures are also a great option as they have little or no action and work in any position in the spread, but really seem to shine way out the back in the shotgun position. In fact, my first big fish for the season smashed a pink and purple one on the shotgun.

As for rods and reels, the choice is really up to the individual but for most people 24kg tackle is the perfect choice – it allows you to put some heat on the fish and still enjoy a solid battle.

A lot of anglers also opt for the heavier 37kg gear, which is great when you get a multiple hook-up.

Most of all, it’s important to make sure your reel is full of fresh line. These are once-in-a lifetime fish that will find flaws in your gear. Don’t be satisfied that it looks OK, or you think it should be right; it needs to be perfect, every time.

Another tip is to keep terminal tackle fairly light; tuna have great eyesight so I run all my lures on 130lb Black Magic Tough Trace linked to small, strong snap swivels and 150lb wind-on leaders that are only 8ft long. This helps the smaller lure to swim better and keeps the leader out of the water where the tuna can’t see it.

 

You’ve got the bite

So you’ve got the bite, line is screaming off the reel and now it’s time to get serious.

The best advice I can give you is to keep calm and be confident in every move you make. Don’t just sit there and let the fish dictate the fight – make him work for every inch of line. If the fish isn’t taking line, you should be getting it back on the reel. The more you rest, the more they do.

When it’s near the end, have gaffs ready if you plan to take the tuna. A big fixed or flying gaff in the head is the best method. Once onboard, bleed the fish and look after it – these big fish can make pretty good eating.

 

Let ’em live

I know everyone wants to catch a jumbo tuna to weigh and that’s totally understandable, but it’s a slowly recovering fishery and one I would love to see get better and better. So if you’re lucky enough to lock horns with several of these giants, think about releasing some. I have returned a bunch of fish over 100kg and it’s a great feeling to see them swim away. On the other hand I’m hoping it’s good karma that will see me have a shot at a 200kg fish in Victoria one day.

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