Socal Yel­lowfin Tuna Quest


Saltwater Sportsman - - Table Of Contents / Features - By Jim Hen­dricks

As­mall group of sooty shear­wa­ters bobbed about on a glassy ocean. As we idled closer, the birds eyed us sus­pi­ciously, then lit out. No sooner had the shear­wa­ters taken off than a school of yel­lowfin tuna erupted in their place. Ron Bal­lanti and I cast live sar­dines to the foam­ing school and hooked up im­me­di­ately, and within 15 min­utes, a pair of gleam­ing 30-pound yellowfins dec­o­rated the deck.

For many South­ern Cal­i­for­nia an­glers, yel­lowfin tuna rep­re­sent the most prized of off­shore tar­gets. Some fish range up­ward to 80 pounds, but most yellowfins here run 15 to 40 pounds.

Yellowfins typ­i­cally ar­rive within strik­ing range of Socal ports in late July and early Au­gust. Mi­grat­ing from south­ern lat­i­tudes, the first fish are of­ten caught off north­ern Baja Cal­i­for­nia by an­glers ven­tur­ing 50 to 60 miles be­low the bor­der. As sum­mer wears on and ocean tem­per­a­tures climb, yel­lowfin tuna con­tinue north­ward into U.S. wa­ters, as far as the Chan­nel Is­lands, 150 miles north of the bor­der.

Yet these fish aren’t al­ways easy to find, and some­times they don’t want to bite, es­pe­cially when they key on small an­chovies or schools of fry. In ad­di­tion, yellowfins re­main con­sis­tently in­con­sis­tent in their feed­ing habits. What pro­duces one day might not work the next, mak­ing these swift off­shore preda­tors mov­ing tar­gets in more ways than one. The key to suc­cess lies in adap­ta­tion: chang­ing from one tech­nique to an­other un­til you find the one that works. Here are some tricks that have worked in re­cent years.


Fig­ur­ing out where to fish is eas­ier these days, thanks to the in­ter­net. Check on­line fish­ing fo­rums, where an­glers post re­ports, a day or two be­fore your trip to find the hottest ar­eas, which are usu­ally seamounts and high spots. Dur­ing the first two weeks of Septem­ber last year, schools of yellowfins con­cen­trated around a high spot known as the 425, in Mex­i­can wa­ters, 26 miles be­low San Diego. That in­for­ma­tion ap­peared on­line.

Many an­glers buddy-boat to pin­point tuna. Typ­i­cally, two to three boats spread out over a 5- to 10-mile area stay in touch via VHF or satel­lite phone to re­port signs of life or ac­tual catches. If one of the boats finds fish, the oth­ers join the ac­tion.

Trolling cedar plugs, feathers and div­ing lures such as a Halco Max130 or Ra­pala Mag­num X-rap 30 rep­re­sents the time-tested man­ner of search­ing for tuna. Most an­glers troll a spread of lures at around 7 knots in hopes of a “jig stop,” when a school of tuna fol­lows a hooked fish close to the boat. The crew chums with live bait (com­monly Pa­cific sar-

dines) to keep the school around while other an­glers cast live baits to hook more tuna. It’s a tech­nique that re­sults in spec­tac­u­lar ac­tion, some­times fill­ing the boat in an hour­long stop. Once the fish are chummed into a frenzy, ar­ti­fi­cial lures, such as pop­pers, and small spoons, such as Colt­snipers, of­ten prove ef­fec­tive, mak­ing tuna fish­ing even more fun.


Study the birds — they know the where­abouts of tuna be­fore you do.

Some­times our feath­ered friends pro­vide an ob­vi­ous tipoff. Wheel­ing and div­ing terns are hard to ig­nore, a sure sign that fish are driv­ing bait to the sur­face. When you see this, get a live bait or lure un­der the birds as soon as pos­si­ble.

Some­times birds pro­vide more sub­tle clues. A group of shear­wa­ters sit­ting on the wa­ter might not be a clas­sic in­di­ca­tor, but it may well mean that there are yellowfins feed­ing in the depths. The shear­wa­ters wait for the tuna to drive the bait to the sur­face.

Once the shear­wa­ters fly off, the tuna of­ten rise to the sur­face. One the­ory holds that bait stays deep as long as the shear­wa­ters sit on the sur­face in an­tic­i­pa­tion of an easy meal.


Schools of yel­lowfin tuna share a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship with pods of dol­phins. In a be­hav­ior not clearly un­der­stood, the two travel to­gether, the tuna swim­ming be­low large, swiftly mov­ing pods. No one knows if it’s the yellowfins lead­ing the dol­phin or vice versa.

Not all pods of dol­phins are ac­com­pa­nied by yellowfins. Other times, the pri­mary bite shifts to chas­ing what lo­cal an­glers call “por­poise schools.” One sign that gives away the pres­ence

of yellowfins is a flock of noisy terns lead­ing the pod. This gives rise to the no­tion that the tuna are out ahead of the pods and the terns can spy them from above.

While trolling lures in front of or par­al­lel to the pods pro­duces strikes, a more ef­fec­tive method is to an­tic­i­pate the course of the pod, ma­neu­ver out ahead of it, then shut down and cast live sar­dines. It’s a runand-gun fish­ery, and the dol­phins move fast. Once you hook a tuna in this man­ner, the school some­times comes to the boat, and if you have enough live bait to chum, you can hold the school and hook more fish.


Kelp pad­dies at­tract a wide range of fish, in­clud­ing yel­lowfin tuna. Of­ten the schools hang well be­low the kelp or swim in wide cir­cles around it. It’s not nec­es­sary to fish right next to the paddy.

Slow-trolling live sar­dines in a wide cir­cle around the out­side of the paddy while toss­ing out one or two live chum­mers ev­ery 30 sec­onds some­times brings tuna up from the depths. Stay 200 to 300 feet away from the paddy as you troll at a dead idle.

A pop­u­lar prac­tice is to stop close to the paddy, then chum with chunks of sar­dines and an oc­ca­sional live bait and fish as you drift, as far as a mile away from the kelp. The idea is that the fish fol­low the chunk line to your baits.

This holds true when a deep school of tuna ap­pears on the fish finder. Again, the idea is to chum them to the boat while fish­ing baits at a va­ri­ety of depths, what lo­cal an­glers call a “long soak.” De­ploy a chunk or two ev­ery 15 to 30 sec­onds. Wait un­til one dis­ap­pears be­fore toss­ing out an­other.

Dur­ing drifts, place baits at var­i­ous depths in the wa­ter col­umn. Of­ten an­glers will fish one or two live sar­dines with no weight (known as fly-lin­ing), fish an­other mid­depth with a 1-ounce egg sinker held above the hook with a swivel, and place an­other bait deep with a 2- to 3-ounce egg sinker.


Don’t ex­pect im­me­di­ate re­sults on long drifts. Ex­pect to stick with it for 30 to 60 min­utes be­fore tuna re­spond to the chunk line. Once they rise from the depths, the fish have been known to ig­nore live bait in fa­vor of a well-pre­sented chunk bait, per­haps be­cause they have be­come ac­cus­tomed to slurp­ing up fresh chunks and would rather not chase their meals. I’ve seen this on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions.

When tuna don’t re­spond to liveys, cut a 1-inch sec­tion from the mid­dle of a sar­dine, bury a 1/0 cir­cle hook in­side, and fly-line the chunk, feed­ing out line to keep it drift­ing nat­u­rally amid the chum.

If you com­plete a long drift with no re­sults, don’t give up on your chunk line just yet. Slow-troll two or three live baits back to your start­ing point. Some­times the tuna will be scat­tered along the chunk line, re­fus­ing to come to the boat. Slow-trolling a sar­dine back along your drift path some­times does the trick.

GANGED UP:Chum up the school, then pick them off as they gather around the boat, above.LIMIT OUT:An­other fish to­ward this an­gler’s limit hits the ice, op­po­site.

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