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Tuna & Albacore

Ready to catch more Tuna & Albacore?

Tuna are classic offshore ocean quarry and their meat is delicious. Fresh tuna and albacore steaks are to canned tuna what prime rib is to hot dogs. While there are different places and methods to find different species, there are similarities in preparing rigs, live bait, and lures to catch these tasty torpedoes.

Tuna are found around the world in tropical to temperate seas. The varieties of offshore tuna generally fall into two categories from the fisherman's perspective: those that roam the open ocean and those that prefer to be near structure, even though all tuna migrate and travel frequently. The author will focus on those varieties that are found in the Pacific, where he has experience fishing, but if the reader is seeking information on other varieties, the information can be applied to other tuna by determining whether the tuna being sought roam open ocean regardless of structure or in search of structure. This article will also not discuss the smaller members of the tuna family that are frequently found inshore or nearshore from local harbors and jetties to within a few miles of the coast, such as bonito or skipjack.

Some tuna species, like bluefin and albacore, roam freely in the open ocean, following currents bearing their preferred water temperature and bait schools. They tend to migrate throughout the year as the seasons cause ocean currents to shift. They may be more likely to be present in particular regions at certain times of year, but the migrations cannot be predicted with certainty because changes in currents and water temperature, as well as the availability of food, depend upon too many different factors.

Some other species, like yellowfin and bigeye tuna, also are influenced by shifts in currents and migrating bait fish, but they tend to be found relating to some type of offshore structure in the water rather than roaming freely in the open ocean. This structure may be as small as a mat of kelp or debris or as big as an underwater mountain or offshore island.

All tuna will eat smaller fish and squid and many large tuna will even eat smaller tunas, including their own species. As a result, they tend to school in groups of similar size and age. The largest tunas are often in the smallest schools or may even swim alone, as is often the case with very large bluefin. Tunas are fast swimmers with a shape reminiscent of a football or a torpedo. Their forked tails often resemble a crescent moon. Their streamlined shape allows for fast swimming over long distances. They tend to dive when they feel threatened, including when hooked. The fights involve long, fast runs, taking lots of line against a carefully set drag, with repeated deep dives and spirals. They have tremendous endurance and will test both fishermen and equipment to their limits. Anyone using old or damaged line, improperly-set drags, or poorly-tied knots will lose fish. Please refer to other articles in the Equipment Tips section of this site about the use of drag settings and other gear tips.

In each region where tuna migrate, captains and anglers learn to understand the season when they will most likely be present. Some will make scouting trips beginning at the earliest time that the tunas could be expected. Sometimes they also turn up on sonar or in catches during fishing trips for other species. Many are willing to share information about the tuna's arrival with other like-minded people who reciprocate, or through networks of friends, clubs, or online services. On the water, many captains are willing to tell others by radio when they have found tuna schools so long as the other captains will also share information.

A typical tuna trip involves trolling surface jigs and plugs while watching sonar (and searching for kelp paddies for structure-loving fish) until a tuna school is found. Bait fish kept in tanks are thrown into the water a few at a time to keep the tuna feeding. The school may even stay near or follow a hooked fish, apparently out of curiosity. If the other fishermen act fast, there is an opportunity for multiple hook-ups. Extra lures are reeled in quickly. Extra rods prepared with live bait rigs or casting or yo-yoing jigs are quickly put into play.

As multiple fishermen hook into the tuna, it is important that each follow his fish around the boat and verbally call out to other anglers whether they are "coming under" or "coming over" their poles so they can cooperate to keep from getting tangled. If the lines become wrapped, there will be so much friction and heat that one or both lines will snap. Even if lines do not wrap, a fish that is not followed will put an angle in the line and create enough slack to throw the hook by quickly changing direction. These may be the most important tips on this entire page. Tuna are lost on every trip because anglers get "fish fever," don't follow their fish, forget to "call" their fish, or fail to cooperate to prevent tangles. It is frustrating to lose one's own fish due to one's own error. It is even more frustrating to be fighting a fish beautifully and then have someone else's fish wrap around the line and cause one or both fish to be lost because someone else would not communicate or cooperate. These tips can literally prevent fist fights as well as lost fish. Everyone deserves a successful trip and these techniques can and will help.

(Top-Secret tip: If someone ignores these fishing courtesies and allows their fish to wrap around your line, be prepared to back off your drag slightly and allow your fish to run. This causes the heat and friction to be spread over a longer section of your line, but their line gets heated in one spot and breaks sooner. We could call it "burning" the other guy. This is a difficult trick to master, because it is hard to think so quickly in the split-second before the lines break, so some anglers keep their drag set lighter to begin with, especially if there are inexperienced fishermen on board. Also, it is possible in the heat of battle to loosen the drag too much and allow the line to overrun and cause a bird's nest of tangles, which will both lose the fish and cause a big delay in getting back into the action. Be aware that if this works- and it doesn't always work- your line will still be weakened by the friction and you will probably need to finish fighting the fish on a lighter drag, then cut the line above the weak spot and re-tie after the fish is boated. Few anglers know this trick- even fewer can pull it off- and many don't even tell their friends. Aren't you glad we tell it all?)

There are many ways to rig for live bait, depending upon the size and species pursued, the type of live bait, and each angler's personal preferences. Many anglers fishing for large tuna (150 pounds to over 1,000 pounds for some species like bluefin) like to use a doubled leader for strength, so they learn to tie the Bimini Twist knot, which seems very difficult but gets easier with practice. There are stories of large tuna boated with one side of the doubled leader broken during the fight, so those are fish that may have been lost if a single leader had been used. Some other anglers use a "shock leader" of much-higher strength monofilament or fluorocarbon. Even for smaller fish, some anglers like to add a swivel above the leader to prevent the line from being twisted by the live bait or the fighting fish. Others prefer the simplicity of just tying a hook to the end of the line. All knots and especially the terminal knot (the one that attaches the final piece-the hook or lure) must be strong and properly tied. The author prefers the Palomar knot's strength and simplicity, but other knots have boated fish. It is wise to find some strong knots, learn how to tie them well, and always remember to wet the line before tightening to prevent it from being weakened by friction heat. Some anglers use standard J-shaped hooks, while others prefer circle hooks. Either way, it is almost never necessary to swing the rod to set the hook. With the reel in free spool (or bait feeder mode for some spinning reels) and the angler using a thumb to keep the line from flowing out too quickly, the live bait is allowed to swim until a tuna picks it up and begins to swim with it. This causes the line to begin to pull out more and more quickly as the tuna accelerates. After letting the fish run for a few seconds, the angler puts the reel in gear, the line stops flowing out, the tuna's own speed sets the hook, and the battle begins! These fish are so fast and so strong that a first-time tuna fisherman is likely to think that even a mere 25-pound albacore feels like hooking into a submarine.

Anglers normally use a size 1 or 2 hook for small baits like anchovies and hooks from 1/0 to 4/0 for slightly larger baits like sardines or small mackerel. These baits are usually hooked through the nose, around the collar bone (found as a hard curve under the skin behind the gill), or through the tail ahead of the tail fin. Each method can cause the bait to swim differently, so it is good to learn all three techniques and use the one that works best at the time. Anchovies are usually fished on a line with no weight added, which is called "flylining." Some anglers flyline sardines or small mackerel, as well, but many find that these stronger baitfish need some weight to keep them down. Weight rigs vary greatly, but many anglers use rubber-core sinkers, split-shot, or dog-eared sinkers that can be attached to or removed from the line as needed without cutting and re-tying. However, it is wise to check the line for abrasions or stretched spots near the hook after fighting a few fish, then cut off above the damaged line and re-tie to keep the line serviceable. A chain breaks at the weakest link and the strength of these fish will find the line's weakness and break it very suddenly.

Larger live baits like big mackerel, small tuna, or skipjacks, after being caught on handlines or smaller jigs, are usually prepared with a special bridle rig that involves tying a 12/0 to 14/0 hook onto the front of the head with floss, often threaded through the eye sockets or tied to a smaller hook that can be quickly attached to the fish. This is a tricky technique that takes a lot of practice. It is also difficult to keep these baits lively, though special equipment (such as a "tuna tube") has been developed to keep the fish calm and well-oxygenated until they can be used. Most anglers don't attempt to use baits this large or catch tuna large enough to eat these baits on their own from a small boat, preferring the assistance of trained professional guides.

Live bait rods and reels used for tuna come in a tremendous range of sizes and styles. The most popular rigs use conventional reels from 2/0 (20-pound class) to the largest available with properly matched rods, depending upon the species and size of the tuna being pursued. Large spinning reels are also available and are often used for tuna that can be caught on 20 to 50-pound test line. However, these reels tend to have much less line capacity than the conventional reels, so it is very possible for the fish to pull out all the line and break the knot at the spool. This is called getting "spooled." The availability of super-thin, high-strength, braided lines has changed the sport, however. It is possible to have a few hundred yards of braided line on a spinning reel, with a 100 foot or longer "top shot" of monofilament or fluorocarbon line. Even anglers using conventional reels frequently fill most of the reel with braided line, with a mono- or fluoro- top shot, trying to get as much line capacity as possible because these fish are capable of running out 200 yards or more of line at a time. The biggest fish sometimes pull out so much line that the angler must clip line from another reel onto the first reel, let the first drop into the water, and use the capacities of both reels to bring the fish in. This is another good reason to go on a professional's boat and risk their equipment instead.

Trolling rigs are virtually always large conventional reels mounted on stout rods with roller guides or at least a roller tip. Even when trolling for smaller albacore or yellowfin, most professional captains insist upon reels no smaller than 4/0 and line no smaller than 80-pound test. Such a large variety of trolling lures are available that almost any bait can be imitated. Popular trolling lures include skirted or feathered jigs in almost any color combination imaginable, cedar plugs that often work best without any paint or color added (though it seems to defy reason), swimming hard plugs in many shapes and sizes, and even ultra-realistic soft-plastic lures. It is best to ask around or look for articles about the local area where one will be fishing to learn what has been working the best. When planning to fish out of a resort or with a guide, remember to ask when booking the trip, because they want customers to be happy and have good fishing, so they gladly share information about what lures or gear to bring. Usually trolling is done with a variety of lures at different distances behind the boat, to present an enticing buffet. Outriggers can be used to allow even more lines to be spread out wider than the boat. Hookless, splashing teasers are often included in the spread to attract attention. Anglers need to be very familiar with how their equipment works; what speeds and distances give the best action to each lure; and be willing to try something different when the fish don't bite. Also, on small boats be careful not to put out more lures than the anglers present can safely reel in when a fish is hooked. Trolling speeds are fairly fast, usually from 10 to 14 knots, depending on the lures and what gets the fish to bite.

Metal jigs and swimming lures can be cast to fish that are feeding near the surface during a good bite and will sometimes perform as well as or better than live bait. There are also a variety of jigs (usually solid, shiny or colored metal) that can be dropped or deep-dropped to tuna and either yo-yoed in the feeding zone or "smoked" upward through the water column with great success. Try different techniques and stick with what works at the time.

When fighting tuna, it is important that a fisherman understand how to use the rod to gain back line. Simply cranking the reel when the fish stops pulling line out usually won't work, because these fish have too much stamina and they get enough rest during the time that they are being reeled in that they can often go on another run just as long as the last one, taking out all the line that has been gained back, and because they never stop pulling, even when they are not pulling hard enough to take out line at the moment. The best way to fight them is therefore to learn how to "pump" the rod upward and reel while lowering the rod downward, maintaining tension on the line at all times, but gaining a few moments when the tension is reduced just enough on the drop to allow line to be gained more quickly. Even with the pumping technique, line cannot be gained during a hard run, but if done properly, it can be gained back during a slow run and can definitely be gained back more quickly than by reeling alone when the fish is pulling against the rod without taking line.

Most fishermen don't use a fighting belt or other aids for smaller tuna caught on light tackle. They prefer the freedom of movement to chase the fish around the boat and maneuver around other anglers. However, the larger the fish, the greater the need for a fighting belt, a stand-up harness, or even a fighting chair. Belts can help keep the rod butt from digging into the angler's gut and can provide a leverage point. There is still good freedom of movement, but it can take an extra second or two to pull the rod butt out of the belt when necessary. A stand-up harness allows an angler to lean back a little and bend his knees to shift the stress to a more bearable position and provide even greater leverage, but there are straps connecting to lugs on the reel, so it is very difficult to shift the rod or reposition it. For really big fish and long fights, a fighting chair allows the greatest leverage and control, but the angler's movement is severely limited to the radius in which the chair can swivel. That means that an experienced captain and crew are needed to control the boat and assist in pursuing the fish. However, when chasing enormous tuna like the largest bluefin, it might not be possible to boat the fish any other way.

By understanding the tuna species' habits and fighting abilities, obtaining appropriate equipment and quality line, establishing information sources, and learning how to fight the fish and cooperate with other anglers, a fisherman can prepare for a powerful, exciting fight with a delicious tuna. Pick your favorite species, find out where to look for them, prepare your gear, set your drags, and catch a tuna. You'll enjoy the fight and the delicious meat. Watch for some recipes to be posted in the Cooking Tips page!

(C) COPYRIGHT 2008 BY MICHAEL D. FINLEY



Bluefin tuna (thunnus thynnus): These are the largest and fastest fish in the tuna family, reaching lengths of 14 feet (4.3 m) and weights of up to 1,500 pounds (680 kg), and swimming at speeds up to 64 miles per hour (104 km/h). They have a simple, classic tuna shape, with a first dorsal fin that contains spines and can be folded flat or raised by the fish as needed, followed by a pointed, dagger-like rear dorsal fin that remains erect; two pectoral fins that resemble short sabers slightly below mid-level on the sides; ventral fins on the belly below the pectoral fins; an anal fin opposite and just slightly behind the rear dorsal fin with the same dagger-like appearance sweeping slightly backward; a row of small finlets above and below running from the rear dorsal and anal fins to the base of the large, forked tail. They have very simple but beautiful coloring, with a metallic blue back fading into mirror-like silvery-white sides and belly.

Albacore (thunnus alalunga): These small-to-medium tuna have the classic tuna look, except that they have very long pectoral fins, earning them the nickname "longfins." The pectoral fins are so long that they normally extend past the rear dorsal fin and often reach to the second finlet behind the rear dorsal. Their coloration is similar to yellowfin and bigeye tuna, but they often have a white trailing edge on their tail. They weigh up to 95 pounds, though sport fishermen rarely catch them over 50 pounds. They have tremendous strength and stamina for their size and an angler hooking even a 20 pounder for the first time on light tackle may feel that a submarine has been hooked by accident, except that one would not expect a submarine to dive so quickly. Their meat is highly prized.

Yellowfin tuna (thunnus albacares): These tuna are known for their long and usually yellow rear dorsal and anal fins. These long second dorsal and anal fins sometimes cause people to call them by the same nickname as albacore: "longfins," but they are rarely called that in the Pacific United States fishing regions. They have yellow finlets with narrow black borders, a bright yellow or gold stripe down their sides, and usually have whitish spots and streaks extending vertically from their belly. While they are known to reach lengths of 9 feet and weights up to nearly 900 pounds, this information apparently comes from commercial fishermen, as no sport fisherman has yet caught an officially-recognized yellowfin over 400 pounds. Anglers may catch them in schools of fish that may average as little as 10 pounds or as much as the high 200 to 300 pound range. Their flesh is quite delicious and they are one of two species referred to as "ahi" in restaurants, the other being the bigeye tuna.

Bigeye tuna (thunnus obesus): These tuna, known for their slightly oversized eyes, have coloration very similar to yellowfin tuna and it is not unusual to find them schooling together, even with smaller yellowfin. Anglers may be geared up for 20 to 40 pound yellowfin and suddenly hook an 80-pound bigeye under the same kelp paddy. The similar coloration causes many people to call them yellowfin, but they have significantly shorter rear dorsal and anal fins, lack the light spots and streaks on the belly, may have slightly longer pectoral fins (though not as long as albacore), and have deeper, heavier-looking bodies. Many pictures posted on the internet that purport to show yellowfin tuna are actually bigeyes, as can quickly be determined by a look at the rear dorsal and anal fins. They are commonly caught at an average of 80 pounds, but are capable of exceeding 400 pounds. Their delicious meat tastes so much like yellowfin tuna that both are sold in restaurants under the name "ahi."

Blackfin tuna (thunnus atlanticus): These small, Atlantic coastal tuna are quite popular with anglers, but are not found in the Pacific. Their coloration is similar to the yellowfin and bigeye, but their finlets are a dusky bronze, not bright yellow with a narrow black border. They are frequently caught in the 5 to 10 pound range and rarely exceed 40 pounds.