Trolling, chunking and jigging are popular methods for pursuing the most popular offshore fish. All three tactics are successful, but not everyday. The savvy tuna angler keeps options open when running offshore and prepares for whatever bite presents itself. Daily changing conditions require anglers to be ready for old school trolling to new wave jigging. Learn to be a multidimensional tuna fisherman and increase chances of consistent success.
There are many theories on trolling spreads and bait. Mine has always been, the more lines in the water the better. An eleven line starting spread gives a variety of offerings to find the daily preferred bait de jour. Of course, the more lines pulled, the greater the headaches and chance for tangles. It is a trade off. Only with experimentation can anglers decide how many lines can be trolled comfortably.
If just beginning to fish offshore, simplicity works. A basic five line spread, two flat, two rigger and a shotgun (way back) are a good starting point. This is the foundation upon which the building blocks of tuna trolling are added.
Artificial or rigged natural bait are both equal to the task of catching tuna. Spreader bars have been the hot ticket for the past ten years. However, tuna are often hesitant to feed on surface trolled bait. On these days anglers may find a rigged ballyhoo or 3-1/2 drone spoon trolled deep just the ticket for putting fish in the box (look for an upcoming article entitled “Bluefin Strategies” for deep trolling techniques).
There are numerous ways to rig natural and artificial baits. The How To and Rigging section offers some excellent rigging ideas. While there, check out my article on rigging a squid. You will not be disappointed with the results.
How to troll the bait? For a typical eight line spread, set the flat lines at twenty five and thirty five feet. Run a center flat line fifty to sixty feet off the transom. This forms a triangle of bait close to the boat. Set the short rigger lines at 100 and 150 feet respectfully with long riggers 250 and 300 feet.
The shotgun rig is run way back. “Way back” means the bait is out of sight. Half a spool on a 50 is dumped. Or if you prefer a yardage, place the bait 200 300 yards behind the boat, especially when targeting bluefin. This may not always be practical depending on the amount of boats trolling a particular area. But this line cannot be too far behind the boat. A large naked ballyhoo or bird with triple green machines is a good choice for the way back position.
Rigged ballyhoo (naked or skirted) or squid along with the vast array of artificial lures can be pulled in any line position with success. Spreader bars work well off short riggers and in the center “sweet spot” position which is behind the short riggers in the middle of the spread . Two popular charter baits are a blue/white Ilander skirted over ballyhoo and the multi colored spreader bar rigged with a green machine as the trailing bait.
Color preference varies day to day, but, green, pink and blue/white are fairly consistent. On overcast days or early morning try a black/purple skirt. Do not discount the fact that naked rigged bait sometimes out preforms colors. Tighten up or stretch out the spread when looking for the first bite of the day.
Regardless of how many lines are trolled, it is imperative to space lines in a manner to prevent entanglement on turns. Long lines need to swing in unison. This is accomplished by placing them about the same distance from the boat or stagger the longer lines so they are able to swing overtop shorter lines. As a rule of thumb when setting lines, “the longer the line the higher off the boat”.
Changing conditions like wind, current and state of the ocean affect speed. Six to seven knots is a rule of thumb with naturals or when mixed with artificial lures.
Bumping up to eight, nine or even ten knots in not out of the question for an artificial spread or if skipping naturals. If rigged bait are not spinning in their presentation, chances are, the speed of the boat is ok. You are not going to out run tuna that want to eat.
Of course, if fish are not cooperating, changing boat speed can turn on a bite. Try trolling with, against and across current until a bite preference is determined.
Also try placing the boat into neutral for several seconds allowing the bait to sink. Bait is attacked while raising to the surface when the boat is placed in gear.
An angler must be observant and read the signs of the ocean. Weed lines, temperature breaks and paying attention to your surroundings helps to put fish in the boat. A look toward the sky reveals the best fishermen, a bird ‘s survival depends upon it. When birds feed, pay attention. Gulls, terns and pelican work inshore waters, while further offshore, storm petrels, jaegers, shearwaters and gannets direct anglers to action.
Watch for several birds heading in the same direction. They just gave a new compass bearing to troll. Birds can see feeding action with their height advantage miles before anglers can on the horizon. Also, birds acute hearing is not overshadowed by the drone of engines and tune in on squawking from great distances.
A flock of birds racked up is a floating giveaway. The surface feeding action has stopped. However, it may still be continuing underneath. The birds, patiently waiting for another outbreak on the surface, are “drifting” with the current. Troll against the current to find fish. A deep bait often produces results at this time and the following.
A hovering bird or birds are probably over deep baitfish. It is only a matter of time before predators begin pushing them to the surface. Do not give up on an area that birds are watching. Keep a close eye on fish finder to confirm pods of bait.
Several storm petrels fluttering on the surface are likely feeding on baitfish oil droplets recently slashed to pieces. Oil slicks may even be observed or give off an unmistakable odor.
Pull a dredge, they are not just for billfish and can attract tuna right to the transom. Daisy chain type teasers are also popular with tuna. The more activity that creates simulating feeding or fleeing fish all the better. This is one reason spreader bars work so well.
How big a bar to pull? Most anglers are restricted to the size of the spreader bar due to class of tackle. All 30’s? No problem, here is an alternative. Pull unrigged spreader bars off riggers in place of teasers. Place a rigged green machine or ballyhoo three feet behind the spreader bar from the short rigger position. This trolling technique works because of nature’s rule, “survival of the fittest”. Meaning, tuna pick off the weakest or trailing bait leaving the spreader bar alone.
Tuna are school feeders so do not be content when the first rod goes down. Maintain trolling speed, some Captains actually speed up to entice more strikes after the first rod goes down. Circle towards the first tuna hooked while waiting on additional bites.