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Tuna on Top

POSTED 08-Oct-2020
There is nothing more exciting than witnessing a fish rush to the surface and explode on a surface plug! It is every angler’s dream scenario. Now, if that fish happens to be a tuna, you can up the excitement level by a factor of ten. It doesn’t matter who you are or how much experience you’ve had, it will get your heart racing and everyone on board screaming every single time.

Our team has been chasing tuna for years and used pretty much every technique in the book, but catching a tuna using spinning tackle and poppers—well, nothing else comes close. On a trip to Venice, La. to fish with tuna pro Bill Butler, we were promised a few days of topwater tuna action. He did not disappoint. Bill owns Venice Sportsman’s Marina located near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Aptly nicknamed “Tuna Town,” Yellowfin can be found in the surrounding waters almost year-round, and blackfin tuna add to the fun during the warmer months.

We loaded Bill’s tournament center console, a triple Yamaha-powered 42-foot Invincible®, with tuna size spinning outfits and an assortment of super-duty surface plugs before heading offshore. Some tuna were caught around a small fleet of deep-water shrimp trawlers the day before, and that was where we headed first. Tuna can be found following the commercial boats in hopes of a free meal when they bring in their nets, and a popper cast into wake astern of the boat can occasionally coax a strike.

A 20-pound blackfin attacked a popper almost immediately, smashing it with a vengeance. The splash and hook up got everyone excited for things to come, but after another half hour of fruitless casting, Bill decided it was time to go hunting. He found the yellowfins around several production platforms and a large oil drill ship further out in the Gulf where we experienced red-hot surface action over the next few days. We had a ball catching yellowfin tuna up to 70 pounds and blackfin up to 25 pounds, smiling all the while as we strained against the incredible strength and stamina of these powerful fish.


Popping Around
Of the tuna species found in U.S. waters, yellowfin, blackfin and bluefin are the most receptive to surface plugs. Yellowfin are found from the Mid Atlantic canyons to Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico. This past summer yellowfin provided some of the most consistent topwater tuna action experienced in the Mid Atlantic in many years. On a trip to Green Canyon in the western Gulf a few years back, we encountered yellowfin exploding on flying fish on the surface at night under the lights of an enormous floating oil rig. Poppers worked very slowly were crushed, and the fish were so large, 100 pounds and up, they left everyone exhausted.

Blackfin tuna are suckers for surface lures. Florida guides have been putting clients on these diminutive tunas for decades. They range from a few pounds to upwards of 30, but most are in the 10-to-15-pound range, so the tackle employed is considerably lighter.

Bluefin tuna are found in cooler waters from the Outer Banks to New England and range in size from 10 to more than 1,000 pounds. The waters off the Mid Atlantic provide great inshore action for bluefin, where they are found crushing baitfish on the surface. Capt. Gene Quigley fishes his Yamaha-powered 32-foot Yellowfin® Reel Freedom out of Manasquan Inlet in N.J., and is a recognized expert on topwater techniques for tuna. He has his clients use surface plugs from late spring into summer until the water temperatures drive the fish deep. They get another shot in the fall when bluefin migrate down the beach occasionally crushing bait on top. It can be a lot of casting for a few bites, but when you hook up the reward is the fight of a lifetime.


Gearing Up
Fighting a tuna on spinning tackle is a challenge. The last thing you want to do is go into battle undergunned. An outfit ideal for blackfin tuna would not be a good choice for much larger yellowfin or bluefin. For those, you’ll need a rod capable of casting plugs a good distance, but that also provides the backbone and lifting power to handle a knock-down, drag-out fight with a big fish that will end with it circling under the boat. Several production rod manufacturers offer spinning rods designed specifically for the task that come in a variety of lengths and line ratings.

Spinning reels must be designed to handle braided line, have lots of line capacity, a first-rate drag system and a fast retrieve rate to pick up line quickly. Most major reel brands build them, but one will set you back a pretty penny. Braided line is a must for its inherent strength and thin diameter. A short fluorocarbon leader is added to the terminal end of the braid and a 175-pound rated Tactical Angler Power Clip is tied on for quick lure changes. 

Plugs for tuna must be capable of standing up to a real beating. Broken plastic bodies and mangled hooks are expensive mistakes, so plugs must be thru-wired and have the strongest hooks and swivels. The Sashimi Bull and Slider® by Yo-Zuri®, BombPoppers and SeaPencils by Tactical Angler®, Popper Pro and Jet Popper by Williamson, Wombat, Domino and Goanna by OTC, Bluewater Popper and Stick by Tsunami®, Shimano® Orca Slider, Sebile Splasher, and Daiwa® Saltiga® Slider are all good choices for topwater tuna.


Action Required

Fishing topwater lures for tuna is more than just cast and retrieve. Poppers require the angler to bring them to life by imparting the speed, aggressiveness of the splash and cadence to make the popper attract fish. Poppers with a flat or scooped face throw a lot of water when jerked with the rod and can draw tuna to the surface or call them in from relatively far way. Other surface lures like pencil poppers and sliders make less commotion, but often get more attention. The key to any of these lures is to vary the presentation until you hit on just the right combination of speed and movement to attract a strike, and that can vary from day to day or even spot to spot.

Poppers can be worked with a rapid cadence and quick retrieve speed, or you can slow it down to a more sedate pace adding a pause of several seconds between pops or series of pops for a different presentation. There are times when tuna don’t touch a popper when it is moving fast, but crush it when it comes to rest for several seconds. If the poppers aren’t getting any attention, try using a pencil or slider. Pencils are narrow at the front and heavier at the back and are worked by holding the rod tip high and bouncing it to make the lure walk across the surface with a side-to-side action. If the tuna are aggressive, try picking up the pace and skipping the lure across the surface with a faster retrieve.

Sliders run on top or slightly under the surface when retrieved with a subtle side-to-side swimming action. They are worked with long sideward pulls of the rod that make them change direction. Varying the retrieve from a slow, steady cadence to adding short bursts of speed, then a full stop to let them sink a little can generate bone-jarring strikes. The commonality between all of these lures is that the action is imparted by the angler and not built into any of the lures.


Battle Ready
Fighting a substantial tuna on spinning tackle will test your ability and stamina, so some tips on fighting technique are in order. When you hook up, the initial run is going to take a lot of line off the reel. Lean back, relax, and let the drag do its work. Most spinning tackle used for yellowfin and bluefin running 50-to-150 pounds or better holds 400-to-500 yards of 50- or even 80-pound test braided line, so chances are slim a tuna will strip the reel on a long run. If it is a really big fish and the line starts getting near the bottom of the spool, remember that you’re on a boat and you can chase them to gain back line. The drag should be set at no more than one-third of the breaking strength of the line when the battle starts so the fish can make long runs and tire itself out on purpose.

Upon hook up, when the fish takes off either running away from the boat or going deep, hold the rod low to the water with your arms as straight as possible and lean back to allow your body weight to offset the pull of the fish against the drag. That balance puts the strain on the fish and very little on you. Do not try and hold the rod tip up, it will not increase the resistance on the fish, but it will put more strain on you. You can prove it to yourself with a drag scale and someone to help you for a minute. With the reel drag properly set, have your assistant attach the drag scale to the swivel at the end of the line, turn and run off 10 or 20 yards of line while you have the rod pointed directly at them. Check the scale’s telltale for the amount of resistance created, which will be exactly what you set the drag for initially. Now repeat the process, but with the tip of the rod held high and a deep bend in the blank as the line is run off the reel. The scale will read exactly the same, but in the meantime you will notice that it was almost effortless to hold the rod pointed at the scale the first time, and it was a major effort to hold the rod with it loaded the second time.

When the fish stops running, start working it back to you by lifting the rod tip a foot or two, no more, and reeling back down to pick up the line gained. Stop pumping any time the fish starts pulling line against the drag and start again immediately when it stops. You can reduce the effort needed to lift by keeping your arms relatively straight and leaning back to rise the rod tip, again using your body weight rather than your back, shoulder and arm muscles, as much as possible. When you bring the fish closer to the boat, you will use all those muscles to maintain control as it makes short bursts and eventually begins circling under the boat signaling the fight is almost over. You will need as much strength kept in reserve as possible for this stage of the fight.

Fighting time for a 100-pound bluefin on a 50-pound spinning outfit can drag on for a half hour or more. A less experienced angler might spend far more time on the same fish and probably hand off the rod at some point during the fight from exhaustion, at least until they learn how to pressure the fish and not tire themselves out doing it.

Of all the ways you can fish for tuna, fishing topwater requires a degree of angler involvement that you don’t get trolling or fishing with bait. Casting plugs, bringing them to life, coaxing a strike and setting the hook generates a level of accomplishment and excitement that takes tuna fishing to a whole new level. Add to that the incredible fight of a tuna on spinning tackle, and you’ll be forced to agree that there is nothing quite like it.

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