Someone once described the tuna as a fat man who won't dance. While that certainly is a tuna truism, the portly packages called tuna are built to slug it out, as anyone who has caught even modest-size blackfins with stout trolling gear will readily attest.

While a number of members of the tuna family ply the open blue waters of the South, the yellowfin and blackfin tuna are the most common and sought after by anglers. They are short, stout fish with sickle tails, and broad, sleek pectoral fins. They are among the hardest-fighting fish on the planet, capable of incredible bursts of speed, and have dive power a Trident submarine skipper would envy.

Yellowfins commonly weigh 50 to 75 pounds. Fish more than 100 pounds are caught regularly in many areas, and the all-tackle yellowfin record weighed an incredible 388 pounds, 12 ounces (Mexico, 1977). By comparison, blackfins are dinks to the outsize yellowfins, but they're plenty tough, too, on scaled-down tackle, of course, which makes them an ideal fly rod target in many Southern areas. Blackfins weighing 5 to 10 pounds — affectionately called "footballs" — are available in large many areas of the South, and fish weighing 15 to 20 pounds are caught often. The IGFA all-tackle record blackfin scaled 42 pounds (Bermuda, 1989).

Because powerful yellowfins reach such a large size, they are the fish many offshore anglers speak reverently about, with an awe only reserved for truly great gamefish. Pound-for-pound, I don't believe there is stronger fish on Earth than the yellowfin tuna. Strikes often are violent explosions, and the go-for-bottom initial dive of an outsize yellowfin must be seen to be believed. All but the best-made tackle will come unglued when a good yellowfin is on the line.

One of the most impressive displays of piscatorial power I ever witnessed was demonstrated by three south-bound 150-pound class yellowfins, while our north-bound boat trailed three giant marlin lures astern.

I was in the cockpit when the captain began yelling "Tuna, Tuna, Tuna," excitedly to the crew. I climbed to the bridge just as our boat split the threesome of on-coming yellowfins that looked as big as Toyotas. When they passed our boat they regrouped, and were on a collision course with the lures trailing astern. I stood at the bridge watching the tuna disappear in our wake, finally losing them in the morning sun. Then, suddenly, they crossed paths with the lures, and it was like a series of three mortar shells exploding at the ocean's surface.

One of the fish missed the hook on the strike and was lost. A few seconds after the strikes, a second tuna pulled the hook and got free. The third yellowfin had the barb well, and it dove and accelerated for the bottom like no fish I have ever seen before or since. The Penn 80 spooled with 50-pound line attached to the fish literally was smoking. The captain stopped our boat and started backing down on the tuna as fast as possible. Mountains of ocean water crashed over the stern, as one of our anglers sat in the fighting chair holding the rod and reel attached to the tuna, unable to do anything except watch line evaporate from the reel. Finally, the captain realized he had to turn and chase the tuna to gain line. Before he could, all 700 plus yards of 50-pound test monofilament were pulled from the Penn and the yellowfin was gone.

The whole thing, from strike to final broken line took less than one minute — one minute!!

This, to me, epitomizes yellowfin fishing. And this tale of tuna is not unusual among offshore anglers who pursue these great and powerful fish.

Blackfins and yellowfins are regularly caught along the Atlantic Seaboard from the Carolinas through Florida and along the entire Gulf Coast. Best times for tuna in different locales vary considerably according to water temperature and bait migrations. Regional techniques in catching tuna also vary widely, though what works for tuna in Texas likely will work off the Outer Banks, and vice versa.

"To me the most effective way to consistently catch tuna, especially for light-tackle anglers, is 'chunking' or chumming," says well-known charter captain Mike Frenette of Venice, Louisiana, whose home water is offshore the mouth of the Mississippi River. "I've 'chunked' for tuna in a number of different places around the coasts — Atlantic and Gulf — and one of the most important parts of 'chunking' is to use fish for chum that are native to the area.

"We use menhaden or 'pogies' in Louisiana, and they're a pretty good all-around bait for tuna chunking in most parts of the South. Some places along the East Coast they use butterfish, because lots of butterfish are native to the area and that's what tuna are used to eating."

Frenette prefers 3 to 4 inch long menhaden for use as chum in tuna fishing. He then cuts the bait in several pieces about 1 inch square. Frenette says the whole trick to chunking for tuna is not to use a lot of chum at one time. He says all you're trying to do is turn on and excite the tuna, not feed them. Frenette recommends tossing overboard a couple 1 inch "chunks" of cut bait every 30 seconds or so. This kind of chumming attracts fish to the back of the boat, and turns them into a feeding frenzy so they'll hit almost any bait or lure cast to them.

Frenette frequently catches 20-to 30-pound blackfin tuna this way, as well as some yellowfins weighing over 150 pounds.

"The most sure way of getting chummed-up tuna to hit is to use a one inch square piece of 'chunk' for bait," Frenette explains. "I use a 7/0 Mustad hook, and no leader. It's important not to use a leader, because tuna have great vision and are leader shy. I make sure I bury the hook in the chunk of bait, then toss it off the stern, and let it drift away. You'll actually see the tuna come and hit the 'chunk'. That's exciting stuff."

Many anglers believe tuna are strictly blue-water gamefish. While that seems to be true along much of the Atlantic Coast — especially for yellowfins — Mike Frenette says he has excellent tuna fishing in "green" water that many veteran tuna anglers pass by as they run out looking for cobalt-blue water.

"I've learned through trial and error that I catch a lot of tuna in green water, even dirty-green water," says Frenette, an offshore charter skipper for 18 years. "It's not the color of the water that's important to catching tuna, it's locating the area where the fish are holding. This is determined by where baitfish are found.

"Once I find the bait and start chumming, the tuna really get turned on. It's not unusual to have 25, 50 even 200 tuna behind the boat, darting around crashing chunks of bait we toss overboard. All you have to do is drop a bait into them to have a hook-up, and sometimes we'll keep tuna behind the boat in a frenzy for several hours.

"Usually the blackfins will stay near the surface in the chum slick, while the bigger yellowfins hold deeper and make occasional rushes through the chunks. When you see a yellowfin coming up you've got to react quickly to get a bait to the fish before it's gone. Usually the yellowfins stay near the surface for only 30 seconds or so at a time — and the smaller blackfins stay out of their way."

Catching chummed-up tuna this way is easy to do with lures, and is the preferred method used by many fly fishermen. Key West, Florida charter skippers Robert Trosset and Jose Wejebe use this technique to produce large and consistent catches of blackfin tuna for their clients. It can work for yellowfins, but these bigger tuna are as tough as anything in saltwater, and fly anglers have got to be prepared with stout rods and reels that hold many hundreds of yards of 30 pound test backing. Flies designed to imitate chunks of baitfish are good. Small all-white streamers, and weighted flies made from spun bucktail or untrimmed FisHair work when allowed to simply float freely in the chum in a dead drift.

Tuna fishermen should be aware that small blackfins are among the most preferred foods of marlin. So tuna anglers who locate 5-pound class footballs"should keep a sharp eye for marlin, or even troll billfish lures and baits around tuna schools — just in case.

Likewise, when anglers locate other species of offshore fish, they should be aware that tuna may be present.

"When I locate big offshore schools of Spanish mackerel or small kingfish feeding, I'll often find tuna lurking below the mackerel eating scraps of bait the fish chop up," says Big Pine Key, Florida captain Richard Price. "I'll often mark the mackerel on my fathometer, then move to the outside edges of the school and fish for tuna. You can use almost anything, live baits, jigs or big plugs, but you've got to get them deep, under the school of mackerel, where tuna and other fish are feeding on the mauled baitfish that fall to the bottom."

Price is a long-time downrigger angler, and uses these ingenious trolling devices to take lures and baits deep, which tuna often desire. Live baits like menhaden and cigar minnows slow-trolled deep are effective in catching tuna. Many Gulf Coast anglers have learned that deeply-trolled swimming plugs (Rapalas, Rebels, Mirrolures, etc.) are deadly for tuna, and rarely do even the powerful yellowfins tear apart the best-made plugs. Sometimes big plugs trolled without weights or downriggers are productive (particularly in the prop wash near the transom), other times they must be taken deep with downriggers. Some Gulf trollers say the 50 foot depth level is the perfect one for downrigger trolling swimming plugs when tuna are the target.

Smart anglers who employ big swimming plugs for tuna use 125-pound braided cable for leaders, which prevent the occasional cut-off from toothy fish like wahoo. Yet the cable is supple enough to allow the lure to swim enticingly as it was designed to do.

Many trollers specifically after yellowfins have refined their techniques in recent years. Some anglers insist that a bird attractor positioned ahead of an offshore artificial lure is vitally important to tuna-catching success. Other anglers believe artificial big game lures having a weighted, pointed nose are best for tuna — especially yellowfins — because they can be trolled well at fast speeds, which tuna prefer. Weighed, pointed-head lures also run 12 to 18 inches below the surface, which also is very productive for tuna. A lure with a pointed nose also works its way through weeds better than some other artificial designs.

Blue-and-white, pointed-head lures are the favorite of many anglers. North Carolina Captain John Bayliss likes the "Islander" lure, in pink-and-purple, and he often rigs it with an outsize horse ballyhoo and 10/0 hooks for big yellowfins.

The use of multiple lures rigged in tandem is another preferred tactic of some tuna chasers, such as Don Combs with C&H Lures in Jacksonville, Florida.

"My favorite way of fishing for tuna is with a multi-lure rig we make called the 'Tuna Tango,' and I pull it fairly fast, at about 9 or 10 knots," says Combs. "The ideal tuna trolling spot is a blue-water rip that wells up over a drop-off. What this does is stack current on the drop, which pushes up nutrients and bait, and that's where you're gonna find tuna.

"When I find such a place I fish the warmer side of the upwelling current. I also prefer to troll in bluewater, even if the bluewater isn't right on the drop-off or on the upwelling of current. Of course, when tuna fishing, I'm trolling pretty fast, so I can 'snake' inshore and offshore to put my lures through the current, on the warm side, the cool side, and in the bluewater. Sometimes you've got to troll through all the areas until you find fish.

"And with the fast way tuna can migrate — literally many miles in just a few hours — finding fish is much of what catching tuna is all about."

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