Air Show


Saltwater Sportsman - - Table Of Contents / Features - By Ric Burn­ley


I pop my rod twice, and white froth ex­plodes be­hind my plug. The rod bends heav­ily, but the 40-pound yellowfin charges the boat, trail­ing spray. Reel­ing fran­ti­cally, I run back­ward the length of the bow. When the fish turns to run, the line comes tight, and the tuna drags me back to the bow.

I hang on with my toes on the rail and lean back against the drag. The fish pulls and I strug­gle to stay on the boat. When the blitz sub­sides, I’m the only one still con­nected to a tuna. Howell takes my rod and walks it back to the an­glers in the stern. I throw my fin­gers in the air and do a happy dance.

When sum­mer tuna turn to chas­ing fly­ing fish, the yel­low birds turn their noses up at a tra­di­tional spread of bal­ly­hoo and spreader bars. For the ul­ti­mate in fish trick­ery, mid-at­lantic tuna pros switch to top­wa­ter plugs and kite baits to trig­ger the bite. The re­sults have been ex­plo­sive.


Yel­lowfins can show any­time off the mid-at­lantic coast, but late spring through sum­mer, the tuna turn to chas­ing fly­ing fish, and an­glers opt for pop­pers and kite baits to match the hatch. The tuna rou­tinely catch fly­ing fish midair, so a trolled bal­ly­hoo swim­ming be­low the sur­face doesn’t get their at­ten­tion. In­stead, they want their meal de­liv­ered by air.

The tuna con­gre­gate on hills, cliffs, val­leys and plateaus at the edge of the con­ti­nen­tal shelf. As long as the water tem­per­a­ture stays in the up­per 70s, the skip­per looks for bait and tuna marks on the fish finder. Usu­ally, the fish give them­selves away by leap­ing into the air af­ter fly­ing fish.

When Howell or I spot­ted the tuna from the bow, Snead slowed the boat to a crawl to sneak up on the fish. Many times we saw tuna scat­ter­ing just un­der the sur­face. Float­ing patches of sar­gas­sum on the sur­face also hold feed­ing tuna, and be­neath the weed, 40-pounders pick bait out of the veg­e­ta­tion.

The tuna don’t hang out long. Usu­ally, we only get a cou­ple of casts be­fore the

fish dis­ap­pear only to pop up again 100 yards away. As soon as we drifted into range, Howell and I let loose our long­est casts.

Cast­ing big plugs on hefty rods be­comes heavy work. The key to max­i­mum dis­tance: Keep the line tight to load the rod on the back­cast. I wrap my pointer fin­ger in med­i­cal tape, but real long-cast­ers grip the line against the rod fore­grip for max­i­mum trac­tion.

We were us­ing 8-foot spinning rods and high­power reels loaded with 65-pound braided line. A 250-pound Spro swivel con­nects 4 feet of 80-pound mono to the plug. There are a lot of fancy top­wa­ter plugs on the mar­ket, but Snead and Howell stick with the ba­sics, like the Rebel Pop-r. Howell re­moves the stan­dard tre­ble hooks and re­places the rear hook with a 9/0 dou­ble fang hook. He tapes the shank of the rear hook to keep the con­nec­tion stiff and pre­vent the hook from tan­gling on the line.

When the lure lands, keep the rod tip low. Slash the lure, then pause, then slash and pause. Main­tain­ing a calm and cal­cu­lated re­trieve with yellowfin tuna dash­ing around the lure tests your re­solve. But a slow re­trieve keeps the lure in the strike zone longer. That's ex­tra im­por­tant when those fish are on the sur­face for less than a minute.

Get­ting a bite is easy; keep­ing a yellowfin en­gaged is the hard part. Of­ten bites re­sult in a pulled hook. Re­peat­edly set the hook hard, then main­tain the pres­sure on the line at all costs.

When the fish strikes, I use ev­ery ounce of my 140 pounds to keep it on the line. Many times, the tuna charges the boat, forc­ing me to run away

from it while turn­ing the reel at top speed. When the tuna turns and heads for the hori­zon, I run for­ward and crank to gain line. Top­wa­ter tuna fish­ing is a whole-body work­out. If you’re not nurs­ing sore mus­cles at the end of the day, you’re do­ing it wrong.


Later in the day, when the wind started to blow, Snead and Howell de­ployed the kite baits. High winds and choppy seas make it tough to throw top­wa­ter lures, but they’re per­fect for dangling a fly­ing fish from a kite.

With the boat mo­tor­ing into the wind at 8 knots, Snead re­leased the kite from the bridge and Howell worked two 50s from the fight­ing chair. “Fish­ing got re­ally com­pet­i­tive last sum­mer,” Snead says. “We re­ally fine-tuned our rig.” Win­ning the race came down to us­ing the light­est tackle. “Braided line and light leader al­lowed us to fly the kite in light wind and con­trol the baits bet­ter in high wind.”

The reels are spooled with 80-pound braided line that runs through a re­lease clip on the kite line. Eight feet of 130-pound fluoro­car­bon leader runs from the braid to the hook in the lure. Hook choice be­comes crit­i­cal to catch­ing a speed­ing tuna as it snatches a fly­ing fish from the air. The crew uses a 9/0 dou­ble fang hook, sharp­ened un­til it makes your eyes bleed just from look­ing at it. They use rub­ber bands to lash the fly­ing-fish body to the hook. Snead stresses, “When the fish hits, it’s im­por­tant that the lure slides up the line.” This keeps the tuna from dam­ag­ing the lure and im­proves the hook-set. “Be care­ful that the rub­ber flyer doesn’t im­pede the hooks,” Snead adds.

If the wind is howl­ing, they like to slide a 2- or 3-ounce egg sinker over the leader, ahead of the fly­ing fish. “The sinkers keep the bait down, and they re­ally splash on the water,” Snead ex­plains.

Once the kite is in the air, Howell con­trols the lines to keep the rub­ber fly­ing fish danc­ing on the sur­face. Yellowfin tuna like their meals in the air; 50-pounders rou­tinely jump 5 feet out of the water to grab one of the fly­ers. With all the vi­o­lence and de­struc­tion, solid hookups de­pend on cor­rect pres­sure at the re­lease clip.

The crew uses kites of dif­fer­ent sizes and weights to match the wind con­di­tions. Snead tries to keep the baits skip­ping off one side of the boat in clean water. When he marks a school of fish or spots tuna air­ing out, he turns the boat so the fly­ing fish passes through the ac­tion. Snead says 8 knots is the magic speed, but he’s caught fish mov­ing slower or faster. “We hooked three fish trolling at 14 knots,” he re­calls. “Those were some of the most vi­o­lent strikes I’ve ever seen.”

In two days of fish­ing, we got bites on top­wa­ter lures when the wind was calm, and bites on kite baits as af­ter­noon sea breezes kicked up. As op­posed to a tra­di­tional tuna spread of 10 heavy trolling rods and a whole kit of lures and baits, kite-fish­ing and pop­pers re­quire only a cou­ple of spinning out­fits and a cou­ple of con­ven­tional 50s. Snead and Howell tran­si­tioned seam­lessly from one strat­egy to the other. If the crew hadn’t been ready for any­thing, we wouldn’t have caught any fish. In­stead, we re­turned with a box full of yel­lowfins and mem­o­ries full of the most spec­tac­u­lar bites in the sport.

Top­wa­ter yellowfin tuna New Jersey to North Carolina Sum­mer An­glers with enough boat for off­shore safety. These cap­tains are trained at aerial tuna combat. Capt. Ja­son Snead 252-255-8037 dream­girl sport­fish­ing .com Capt. Dick Har­ris 252-202-6301 fin­tast

SWS Plan­ner: Mid-at­lantic Yellowfin Tuna WHAT: WHERE: WHEN: WHO: NORTH CAROLINA VIR­GINIA

Air Mail: When tuna feed on top, long casts with pop­pers right into the melee yield re­sults. Fly a Kite: Kite-fish­ing lets you present baits on the sur­face while keep­ing a safe dis­tance. Keep Tight: Move about the boat to stay tight on a hooked fish and a

Fast Facts for Suc­cess:

FIRE AWAY: Sur­face tuna de­mand long casts made quickly.

EFFICIENCY: Mod­ify chug­gers for best hookup rate.


Re­place tre­bles on plugs with one dou­ble fang hook at the tail, stiff­ened with tape.

ABANDON: Tuna on the sur­face can’t re­sist chug­gers.

Opt for dou­ble fang hooks on both plugs and kite baits for se­cure hook-sets on ex­plo­sive strikes.

ALL ABOARD: A yellowfin tuna comes over the gun­wale af­ter a spir­ited fight.

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