Fishing for any species of tuna is an experience unlike any other. Add in the factor of using topwater plugs and this experience just got a whole lot more thrilling! But if you’re new to the world of topwater tuna fishing, or tuna fishing in general, it can be challenging to know where to start. That’s why we’ve created this beginner’s guide to topwater tuna fishing, covering everything you need to know to get started in the world of popping for tuna. From the right gear to the best techniques, we’ll guide you through the basics of topwater tuna fishing and hopefully help you increase your chances of hooking up on a topwater tuna! Whether you’re an experienced tuna angler looking to try a new approach or a complete beginner hoping to learn the ropes, our topwater tuna guide has something to offer for everyone.
What is Topwater Tuna Fishing?
So what exactly is topwater tuna fishing? Well it’s just like targeting any other species on topwater, just picture tuna as the pinnacle of fish you can target on topwater. It involves targeting these fish when they’re feeding on baitfish near the surface , rather than down deep on or around the bottom. (You can learn more on Jigging for Tuna Here.) Topwater tuna fishing is especially popular for bluefin and yellowfin tuna here in the Northeast, both of which are known to aggressively attack topwater lures in certain scenarios, creating a spectacular visual display and heart-pumping excitement for anglers. By using surface lures such as poppers, stickbaits, and metals, anglers can imitate the action of a fleeing or distressed baitfish and trigger a reaction strike from the tuna. Make sure you eat your Wheaties because these fish fight hard, especially on lighter spinning tackle! While topwater fishing for tuna requires a bit more skill and patience than other techniques, it’s a highly rewarding approach that can lead to some of the most memorable fishing experiences of your life.
Why Use Topwater Plugs?
There are several reasons why using topwater plugs can be an effective technique for targeting tuna. First and foremost, tuna are pushing bait up to the surface and actively feeding on top, a topwater presentation is the most natural and ethical option to use. It isn’t uncommon to see surface feeding tuna crashing out of the water. Often when there is an abundance of sand eels around, tuna will pen them up towards surface and feed on them aggressively. This presents a perfect opportunity to fire a topwater plug in their direction. Using topwater plugs can also create a more exciting fishing experience, as the visual display of tuna aggressively attacking the lure is truly spectacular to witness. Additionally, topwater plugs can be a more versatile and efficient approach, allowing anglers to cover a larger area of water and attract fish from a greater distance. A noisy plug, like a 7″ Charter Grade Popper, can raise fish in deeper water. Sub-surface stickbaits, like Charter Grade Sliders, are another viable topwater option for targeting tuna. Although not a surface lure, these stickbaits swim a few feet beneath the surface and work great for fishing the upper half of the water column and for surface feeding fish.
Topwater Tuna Approach
There are a few different indications that will determine when you’re going to want to use a topwater presentation. All of which can be determined by you, the angler, while you’re out on the water. First and foremost, surface activity caused by breaking fish and bait is your primary indication to use a topwater plug. Watch for either singular boils from one or two fish or all out surface feeds. These are prime indications that fish are already actively feeding on top and will most likely attack a topwater. Other than surface activity from tuna, blind casting a topwater in a general area where you think fish are holding can be productive. A large topwater presentation causing commotion on the surface can aid in calling in fish from a distance.
When fish are scattered over a wide area and there are signs of life, like whales and groups of birds, I’ll use my “walk and gun” recon pattern to cover ground by cruising at 8-10 knots in an outward spiral pattern. While covering ground, have each of your crew scan a different direction on the horizon and pay close attention to your bottom machine for bait schools or tuna marks.
Having a rod that can handle throwing big plugs and softbaits for tuna is a must here in the Northeast. Often I’ll find myself casting plugs up to 6oz, so having a rod that is capable of this is very important. If I could only bring one casting outfit on a trip, this would be it. Over the years it was difficult to find a rod that checked all of the boxes in terms of a quality casting rod. I want a rod that is durable, high performing and easy to use. So I decided to build my own! Introduce the Hogy Tuna Casting Rod. A few key features that I look for in a casting rod are centered around making the long, strenuous fight easier on an angler. An extended foregrip gives an angler more leverage during the fight, especially when “resting”. Accompanied with a shorter rod butt which aids in maneuverability when changing positions, especially on a center console style boat.
A few things I like about this rod:
- Extended foregrip: I like a longer foregrip because it gives great leverage when “taking a break” with a big bend in the rod.
- Short Rod Butt: I really dislike tuna spinning rods with too long of a butt section. I find long butts hard to maneuver during the short game and put my fishing grip in an awkward position to fight fish off my hip as opposed to a center “belted position. This allows me to keep a 45-degree articulation with my elbows (saving arm strength” and allowing me to dip my knees and engage my core muscle group while fighting the fish.
- Super durable: I put a ton of heat on my tuna. I like to “l land it fast – or break it off” Faster landing = healthier release & better meat.
The debate on which reel is best for tuna fishing can go on forever, but at the end of the day all of the “hardcore” anglers can agree that it’s hard to beat the Shimano Stella. I find the 18000 size is the ideal size for casting to tuna. This reel holds about the same amount of line as the 20,000 and has the same drag capacity. The main difference is the higher gear ratio, which makes it better for fishing faster retrieve plugs, metals and Epoxy Jigs.
Keep in mind this reel is not cheap. If you aren’t ready to spend $1000+ on a reel, look for something with similar specs. You’ll want something with a fast gear ratio (5:7:1) and with a higher line per crank intake (51″ per crank). Don’t forget to opt. for a real with a lot of cranking power, you’ll be putting a lot of heat on a fish throughout the fight.
Line & Leader
I fish the same wind-on set up the same way I do as my jigging set up, but with 100lb. hollow core to 100lb. fluoro leader with the only difference being a shorter wind-on leader. I prefer a 12′ leader on my tuna spinning outfits due to less friction going through the guides. I’m almost always crimping on my lure, but I know plenty of established anglers that opt. for a strong cinch-knot that they’re comfortable tying on heavy leader.
Here are my top 3 lure picks when it comes to topwater tuna fishing.
Charter Grade Sliders are great for imitating tuna that are keyed in on mackerel, sea herring and half beaks. Sliders are also great for blind casting as their large size presents a very visible target. You’ll want to fish sliders on a medium retrieve with your rod pointed so that it is slightly upward – almost horizontal to the water. The lure is designed to have a slow, side-to-side wobble built in.
Big poppers are really your best bet when blind casting to tuna, assuming there’s not too many birds to mess with your lures. The large style Hogy Charter Grade Popper has the body of our slider but the cupped face from our widely poppers in smaller sizes. The result is a typical “NOISY” popper that can transition to a walk the dog action by dropping your rod type, making this lure extremely versatile.
The Charter Grade XL Dog Walker is tuned for easy walk-the-dog action with minimal effort. Our new new XL Dog Walker offers heavy casting weight of 2 5/8oz. They are a dream to cast on heavy inshore and medium-heavy offshore gear. The Charter Grade Walker features multiple rattle chambers for extra sound and vibration, tuna grade through wired construction, and 4X HD rigging.