BY CHRIS PATRIZIO
What a relief when you finally see the flash of your tuna as it breaks out of the darkness. You have been on the fish for 30-plus minutes and you managed to hook what looks to be a triple-digit bluefin. Now the easy work is done and it is time for the real battle to commence. The excitement only lasts for a couple of minutes because the fish is slipping back and forth from the dark to a flash at deep color.
The heavy rod is not as heavy as you thought it was. Fishing 60-pound is way too much for your heavy yellowtail outfit. The rod is bottoming out and will not allow you to lift the fish. The reel has no torque. So, unless you have someone hand lining for you it’s going nowhere fast. Another 30 minutes pass and you have the fish doing huge death circles and basically still at the same depth. Maybe you got a foot on it. Your back, arms, hands and even your knees are burning.
This is because of all the contorted positions you are putting your body in to while you are trying to use the rail. The deckhand is telling you to lift and keep the rod straight out from the rail. All the rod wants to do is move in against the rail as the fish comes back in from the 12 o’clock position rounding 3 o’clock. By the way, you are supposed to be winding right now.
The deckhand starts to help you by pushing the rod back to the straight out position from the rail and hand lining your line to help you gain line back. This is the only way you can get line because your rod is fully bottomed out again. This would be a good time to handoff to someone, although I know it’s not in your DNA. Twenty more minutes go by and you have gained some ground. Arms are shaking. Knees are starting to sting because you have been pushing them into the rail or kneeling on the deck and rubbing them raw. Now another deckhand has grabbed a gaff and is on your other flank.
He says, “One more circle and we got him.” He is turning back — wind, wind, wind, as the fish turns and makes one short run while rolling. The angle of the line changes and the hook pops. I will let you finish this. Getting your personal best on the deck takes hard work from both you and the crew. It takes a team to do this. You may think it is all you, but it’s not. There is a lot that goes in to landing that 60- to 130-pound daytime bluefin. Generally, this is a tough size range to be highly successful with. Most of the time you don’t have the luxury of fishing really heavy line, as line sizes are usually 30- or 40-pound. If you are lucky, the fish may bite up to 60-pound. But you may have to go as low as 25-pound and take your chances — only do this if most of the fish are 40 to 60 pounds. You need to give yourself a better chance to deck that fish. Your equipment has to be right for the job.
Using your favorite heavy inshore rig with a low profile reel that you throw big swimbaits on may be the cool way to fish school-size bluefin, but using this setup for the larger models will most likely lead to disappointment. Last season I was fishing what I considered my heavy setup. The rod was rated 30 to 80 pounds: Calstar 700H with a Penn Fathom 40N, spooled with 100-pound braid topped with about 30 feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon. A nice setup. I hooked a triple-digit bluefin about 150 feet down on a sinker rig. This fish kept the rod bottomed out after getting it to vertical.
After about an hour and half, the hook pulled at deep color. The fish was close to gaff twice, always just out of range. Even a friend with strong arms and back with good technique could not get the job done. I was back at the tackle shop the first chance I had. I explained my situation at the rail with a triple-digit fish. Working with the rod builder we came up with what we think will solve my problems.
I just want to add that I really don’t like fish over 50 pounds. When the only thing to catch are the larger fish, I make do. Hook and hand. Any of the good quality factory rods will help. You can find something at your local tackle shop. Make sure you talk to the people at the shop or a crew member and even a friend before you buy one. If your budget will allow, I recommend having a custom rod built. The reason for this is so you can have a rod that fits you. If the rod fits you it will work optimally for you. You will increase your chances of landing bigger fish more quickly.
When you go to order your custom rod, you should be ready to answer some questions. What colors you want is not the first one. And pull on some rods. Take your time. Since we are talking about larger model bluefin but not cows. The rod should be rated in the 30- to 80-pound class, and even to 100 pounds. It is okay to fish lighter line on a heavier rod. This will allow you to maximize your pulling power on the lighter line class. This is generally needed for bluefin. If you truly want this to be the best rod for you, do not get hung up on a specific brand. They all make really good products. There is going to be one better suited to fit your style and ability.
Start by talking to your tackle guy and rod wrapper. Tell them your pros and cons of what you are currently using and see what they suggest. Pull on different blanks, even change the length. See if you notice the differences.
During this time the rod wrapper will be evaluating your ability to pull. He will be looking at hand placement, how far up will you be pulling from. How long of a rod can you effectively pull on? Just little changes in the tip or the butt can make a big difference in the way you control the fish and not the other way around. Pull on everything you can. Put some time and effort into this. When you lean into your first fish you will be rewarded for the extra effort. Now that you have your blank figured out, what two-speed reel are you going to clamp on it?
What type of line setup will you be using? Long or short topshot? This will help determine the type and size of the guides. Do you want a reel seat with hypalon, shrink tube, cork tape? There are a lot of different handle configuration out there today. Keep it in mind that the handle is very important on this class of rod. On this class of rod and heavier, it is very crucial that the handle provides a non-slip grip. The foregrip needs to be long enough to allow for two-hand pulling and protection from the rail. Now you can choose your colors.
Now that the rod is on the way it’s time to talk reels. I feel for this line class there are a lot of good two-speed reels out there at the mid-range to high end price points. With this class you should avoid low-end reels. I use a Penn Fathom 40N. It holds a boat load of braid with room for a generous topshot. I only use a 20- to 30-foot long topshot — just my preference.
The reasons for the longer leaders make sense to me, just hard for me to change. Early in the season last year I watched a crewmember use this reel on the right rod to fight four bluefin, and he landed two of the four because he was just trying to pull as hard as he could. After seeing the punishment he put the reel through, I knew this would be the best reel for me. I cannot apply anywhere near the pressure this guy could. He has the strength and the technique to make short order of landing 100-plus-pound fish.
All of the name brand tackle manufactures make good products for this class; Penn, Shimano, Daiwa, Okuma, Accurate and Avet. There are more out there, but these are the usual suspects. Reels are very personal when you talk brands.
Choose what you are most comfortable with. Again, talk to people. It is also time to start stocking up on your terminal tackle: hooks, sinkers, line and even jigs. It’s not like there is going to be some big changes in what hook sizes you’re going to need. Why wait until the week before you go to get your basic supplies? Don’t be left having to buy some funky hooks because the shop is sold out of your favorite brand and sizes. Hook sizes don’t change. Just because it’s tuna you are fishing for, you don’t need huge hooks with the wire size of a coat hanger.
It is amazing to see how many anglers keep their 3/0 and 4/0 hooks tied on after the crew gives its fishing seminar on the boat. The crewmember says to use #2’s, #1’s or at the biggest, 1/0. Why would you listen to the deckhand, you know how to fish tuna?
Remember the hot jigs from last year you could not find? Go get them now. If it worked last year, it will work this year. Just add water. One reason it is important to have the right equipment: Your chances to land a personal best will increase. As you go past the half hour mark on the clock, your chances of landing the fish start to drop drastically. The hook can start to move around, causing the hole to get bigger. This will allow the hook to fall out if tension is lost on the line or the fish rolls. Your body will start to let you down and you will start making mistakes.
At this point, there is no shame in handing off to get a break. Take a couple of minutes to relax and come back and finish the fish off. If you take the break with the rod in your hands the fish will take back a lot of the line you gained. Also, by this time you may start to question why you agreed to do this. This is supposed to be fun. For me the fun completely fades away just a little over 30 minutes. Generally, we are not that fortunate to have biting bluefin around the boat on every stop. So, when there are biting fish it is best to maximize the situation.
Use the heaviest gear that will get bit. My feeling on this is use the heaviest gear you have the confidence in to be successful with. When hooked up, pull hard. When moving up and down the rail, wind as you walk. Stay calm. This is not a sprint, it’s an endurance race. When you get bit, do not move the lever to engage the drag all the way to the strike position. Stay back from it and slowly increase the drag pressure as the fight goes on. Avoid low gear until you are at least vertical.
Pull hard and listen to the crew and soon, your PB will be ready for its closeup. It’s amazing how fast it becomes fun again and you are all smiles once the first gaff sinks in.