Lessons learned fishing for big bluefin



SAN DIEGO – By now it’s apparent there is a perennial crop of quality bluefin tuna off the Southern California and Northern Baja coast. The reason or reasons matter not for this story. This is about how you get to the fish and what to expect. Tuna trips are expensive and competitive, especially among the category of trips known as party boat runs.

The term derives from a time when it was not unusual to put the maximum number of passengers a vessel could hold aboard on a tuna trip. If you were lucky and quick, you could buy a bunk for the duration.  Anglers would be shoulder to shoulder and there was little to no following fish. The gear was heavy and the yellowtail and albacore thick. The main attraction: the ticket for an open party trip was cheap.

Ironically the big bluefin era has brought open party boat fishing for tuna back, what with the big shortfin often within half-day and extended 3/4-day runs from the San Diego landings. The only way it is possible is giant bluefin are hard to hook and hard to land so while the people are many, the hookups are scattered.


As times changed, most boats started limiting their loads and extending time on the water. The most popular party boat run for a long time has been the 1 1/2-day, limited load trip that leaves the night before the main fishing day and returns to the dock at dawn the following. It’s all about the chance to fish the dark, the dawn and the sunset bites with a reasonable number of fellow fishermen to negotiate.

HEAD SHOT – This gaff shot practically required no spiking afterwards and definitely called for a straight bluefin dead lift over the bow rail.

Early last season I paid to go on a 1 1/2-day trip my brothers wanted me to join them on. My main goal was to help them get a big bluefin. Here are the lessons I learned.

  1. Choose your boat carefully. While schedule and opportunity may be prime factors in your boat choice, it is better to choose a boat with a captain and crew you are familiar with. Fish counts only tell part of the story.
  2. Take advantage of the expertise at onsite tackle shops like Fisherman’s Landing Tackle or your local shops. Ketchum, Hogan’s and a Turner’s are all about the same distance from my house and there is no substitute for getting to actually see and handle tackle before you buy. Jigs pre-rigged by Fisherman’s Landing Tackle would be a deciding factor. Besides the hot lures, ask to see the hooks the boats have been recommending and make sure you have at least a matching size.
  3. If your friends don’t have a lot of tackle, be sure they call the landing ahead of time and reserve rental gear. It’s better than trying to stretch your own gear out. Since big fish have been around for a long time now, quality tackle for big fish is available. Also, single speed reels with powerfully built gears and handles are probably the best option for mid-range (30- to 40-pound) tackle for most anglers.
  4. Short leaders of fluorocarbon and thin Spectra mainline are the key to getting bites. Time at the rail counts. Dropping down brings pain. Quality spinning tackle will draw ridicule, but it gets bit and lands fish.
  5. If yellowtail is in your game plan, be ready early with your surface iron and lighter bait rig.
  6. Modern poppers are worth the bucks.
MEGA BUCKS – Although the head of this 125-pound bluefin makes it look smaller, the MegaBait jig the jackpot winner used to catch two bluefin and bust off on another was the largest version. Better yet it had a swimming action, as all three tuna bites came when jigging the lure back to the boat.


While cruising slowly south to the grounds, the lead deckhand gave the traditional seminar. He said the right rig for the bluefin was 40-pound test mainline and 40-pound fluorocarbon with a 1/0 Mustad Ultra-Point Demon R39942 3x strong ringed circle hook. While he was talking, an older angler sidled up to me and said, “I never listen to these things,” and walked away.

I had barely gotten to sleep when the engines backed off all the way. I took a nap but knew I should be on deck. By the time I got up there, a half-dozen anglers were along the rail fishing Flat-Fall style jigs. Only a couple fish were hooked before dawn and both of those by anglers who used high-powered fluorescent lights to juice up the glow-in-the-dark paint. One fish unbuttoned and the other broke off.

The dawn drift was unproductive and the skipper started looking for kelp paddies. The first couple found produced quick action on both bait and the surface iron. The horizon, which at first showed only half-dozen boats, began to fill with yachts, skiffs and more big sportboats. The kelps in the area were quickly used up.

There was no shortage of bluefin, although they were reluctant to come up at times. The sinker rig and the jig kicked out a few fish, with the hottest bait a large sardine pattern MegaBait rigged by Fisherman’s bought by the angler the afternoon before. He caught two big bluefin on the jig before it broke off, including the jackpot-winning 125-pound fish taken on an Accurate Fury reel.

When the fish did come up, a big popper properly placed got bit. Wind and the erratic nature of the boiling fish made it tricky to anticipate. The modern heavy compact poppers in the 6-inch range worked the best, with the barber pole stripe in orange and white or pink and white the two most productive colors, if visibility was a factor over which lure was cast best in the wind from the bow while jockeying with the cook and a handful of other hopefuls.

The bulk of the fish on the deck averaged a solid 80- to 90-pound grade and we drifted through breezers of bluefin all day. There were bites to be had on the recommended tackle, yet most of the fish were caught on the much-easier-to-bait J hooks, a tactic the crew that was fishing used, and tipped off their friends to. At midday the captain announced it was okay to drop down to lighter tackle.

Several anglers fished a short piece of 30-pound fluorocarbon on small reels and lighter rods and soon were hooked up for a couple hours. As they chased their fish around the boat, they would pick up many of the lines in the way. The crew immediately hacked away at the lines as they emerged, since, the captain explained, even brief contact with the thin Spectra of the anglers hooked up could cause damage and a lost fish.

SPIN FISH – This angler was going to fish his brand new spinning rig no matter what, disregarding the deep-seated animosity towards the gear on sportboats, and it paid off in a 90-pound bluefin tuna.

Meanwhile a fisherman with a top-of-the line spinning rig hooked up and landed his bluefin in less than an hour, although even as the fish lay bleeding on the deck the skipper told him he was using the wrong gear.

It was hard to keep a bait out in the water. My brother Steve had just been spooled – the braid okay for yellowtail jigging probably too thick space-wise for fishing bluefin with the 40 narrow – and we both stopped to talk to Tom who was midway up the rail soaking a sardine. He looked a little frustrated and I told him to hang in there, we had plenty of time.

Right then the line left his reel faster, then faster still. He put the Talica 12 in gear, let the line come tight and lifted. The circle hook settled in and Tom was on.

A crew member came quickly to watch over him. It was the biggest tuna Tom ever hooked. As on many boats, the crew member told him not to use low gear on the two-speed. That always seems like such a shame to me – so much wasted time and extra pain – yet I know lots of fish are lost when bluefin rush the boat and someone not used to ‘driving’ a two-speed fails to switch back to high gear in time to keep up.

The crew member did teach him the tuck the rod butt up under the left armpit technique and they avoided the light line anglers and landed a beauty.

Steve didn’t have the same luck when he next hooked up. I had given him the 40-pound setup I was using and after a while the fish took him to the corner where one of the small gear guys was a permanent kneeling fixture. Steve got burned off before he could clear the corner.

That’s party boat fishing, not for the faint of heart.