Problem Solving: Small Pods of Breaking and Cruising Tuna Hard to Catch
I can’t tell you how many calls we get at Hogy central that go along the lines of:
“Hey guys, I need your help. I was out last weekend and I found the fish. They were breaking everywhere in small pods. I have a very fast boat and would charge from school to school, almost getting there but usually a few second too late. The fish were pretty big but we could not see what they were eating. The extremely frustrating thing was that the tuna often popped up just where we came from. We did get a number of shots, but had 0 interest in the lures we were casting to them. Sometimes we would even see them just swimming around on the surface of the water, almost in slow motion! We literally tried EVERYTHING. It was so frustrating, what do you have to fix this?!?”
Notes: This is a common situation for folks here in New England but happens to tuna fishermen all over the world, especially late summer through the fall with the introduction of small baits. Krill, small pods of sand eels, juvenile squid and butterfish are all notorious causes for this often frustrating situation.
Game plan: You need to decide what your strategy is. So far you have concluded that there are a number of tuna, scattered, feeding in slow motion on small baits, and cruising lazily on the surface in between feeds. Knowing all this is true, you’ll want to think about your boat’s impact on the ecosystem,. In this situation, both the bait and the predators are easily spooked. Too much engine noise, RPM changes from accelerating and decelerating and hull noise can kill the morning. That said, you still need to find a way to get in front of the fish.
1.) Pick a method:
- Drift and studyHere you sit and wait and study what you can see above water. You are looking for circling birds, especially shearwaters, nervous water from bait that is not comfortable, wakes from cruising tuna and even rip lines that might pen bait in a certain area making them an easy target that would draw tuna in. Meanwhile, your crew should be beating the water to a froth with blind casts with a couple of dead-sticks in the holder. I would have every rod rigged with 5.5” and 6.5” Hogy Pro Tail Paddles; including the dead sticks. Bone, silver and violet are the top colors for herring and butterfish. Shrimp and amber Pro Tail Eels are ideal for imitating juvenile squid. In either case, one angler should be casting a large slider to create some commotion as the plug lands. Meanwhile, all anglers on deck should also be studying for a pattern for the life you see. You might notice a general direction the fish are following, If so, you can start to follow in that direction, too. I give each “sit” 15 minutes before moving on. I’ll stop for good bait marks on the finder, birds circling, funky water that might be nervous bait or water that might be disturbance from moving fish. Any time I stop, I BLIND CAST AND BELIEVE, to quote captain Eric Kulin. When I move on, I make sure my boat movements are gentle and deliberate. Resist the temptation to charge around. This will be tempting but will work to your disadvantage unless you can truly get on top of the fish. That said, it’s worth counting how long the fish are staying up feeding for. If they are up for 10 seconds consistently, it’s time to motor.
- Troll scan When you are drifting, your main focus – in addition to blind casting — is to study the above water life and watch the fish finder when you are cruising in between “sits”. I view troll scanning as taking this method to the next level in that you are seeing more water below the surface and the same amount of life above surface. Furthermore, you are effectively getting two blind casts with the lures trolling behind the boat. Lastly, if you mark fish down deep, you have the ability to drop those lures to the targets and have anglers cast while the lures sink. I know some people will question the engine noise and the easily spooked fish in this situation. For starters, I run a diesel engine boat and feel my engine noise is not an issue. The pitch is different and my RPM’s are consistent. I like outboards but they are more likely to pick up and bury the throttle and hence the bad rep on spooking fish. I bet if anglers ran their outboards like diesels while cruising around, less spooking would go on. Either way, I am a fan of troll scanning when the fish seem to get really scattered and there is no semblance of a pattern. I will simply put (2) 6.5” Hogy Pro Tail Paddles way back and idle along, vectoring toward anything that looks juicy. I “break for any targets” when troll scanning around scattered pods. If I see anything, I take the boat out of gear and let the jigs drop for 60 seconds before raising them to the top again with the boat back in gear. Incidentally, the lures rising back to the surface is when most strikes happen on the troll scan. I use flat line clips as it makes it easier to belt a cast off, over the trolling lines versus trying to maneuver around line at a 30-degree angle of a 7’ rod tip.
- Run and gunIf it’s time to motor, it’s time to motor. This happens when the feeds are staying up longer and longer. Once you have identified good fish to come up on, be very mindful on how you are doing so. As a good rule of thumb, I love the 10 second mark for kicking this off. You can make it pretty far in 10 seconds. But hopefully, not too far. Charge to close the distance but back off the throttle 100 yards out from the fish. Captain Eric Kulin says, “he expects his anglers to start casting when the fish are 60 yards out.” You certainly want consistent RPMs from here on out as you approach the school. Ideally you are approaching the school up wind and are able to get ahead of the fish. Leave plenty of room if you are trolling on them, the same principles hold true but only in slower motion. Take the time to power around to the outside and lead the school from the front. You will spook the fish if you troll across the front or through the school.
- Etiquette: Etiquette is always important if you believe in the golden rule but even if you are a true narcissist, you are still better off as too many boats will kill the fishing. Wait your turn. Ideally only one boat per feed, maybe two if it works out that a feed popped up in between. Only three boats when it’s a very large feed. Numerous boats flocking to a feed will put the fish down.
2.) Mind Your Gear:
- Small lures: For starters, given the situation from our caller, I would assume these tuna were on small baits. We find that 80 percent of the fix in this situation is getting the right lure and rigging it properly. With the exception of krill, our go-to choice in this situation would be the Hogy Pro Tail Paddle, 5.5” 3oz., which was actually designed specifically for this situation. If you were to hold it in your hand, you would notice that it weighs a lot for its size and it has a very oversized hook relative to what you would normally see in a 5.5” soft bait. Afterall, although these tuna are sipping on small baits, they can be quite big. You need a lure that you can A) cast and B) get the job done when it comes time to land the fish.
- Light leaders: Leaders need to be light. Even though these tuna can be north of 100lbs, they can be extremely leader shy when they are singling out small pods of small baitfish. I will go as low as 60lbs in this situation.
- Presentation: If you are casting to fish that you see cruising the surface, you need to properly lead the fish. Identify which way it is heading, get in front of it, cast in a manner such that the lure and fish seem to meet by accident. If you cast over the fish, it will be spooked. If the lure passes a fish from behind, or head on, it will also be spooked. A baitfish would never approach a tuna from any directions.
In summary, your goal here is to match the hatch with lures small enough to look realistic that are connected to leaders light enough for stealth but strong enough for landing a Bluefin. Meanwhile, you are astutely aware of your surroundings from studying the patterns. Once you identify that it’s time to run after breaking fish, do so deliberately and break before getting too close to the school. Put your sharp shooter on the bow and drop that small lure in the feed and get tight!