Tough Day Tuna

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The late summer and fall inshore run of school bluefin tuna in the waters south and east of Long Island over the past few years has provided some of the most spectacular fishing action to be found anywhere on the planet. From Montauk and Block Island to points south and southwest out of Jones Inet, the influx of heavily-muscled blue torpedoes ranging in size from footballs to 150 pounds or more has driven the kind of red-hot action that makes anglers sweat, grunt, groan and scream with joy – even before they get a line in the water. Watching these high-test feeding machines slice to the surface at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour as they tear into panicked-charged pods of baitfish can make your heart pump double-time. Set the hook with a heavy spinning setup, medium conventional gear or even a beefy long wand and you are in for one of sport fishing’s greatest thrills.

Whether you chase ‘em with bait or lures, on the drift or on the troll, hooking-up with inshore bluefin is more the rule than the exception these days and the intensity of the action has afforded even novice big water fans the opportunity to experience tuna fishing mayhem in all its glory. It has also allowed anglers to get a handle on the intricacies of big-game fishing without investing expensive and time-consuming runs to the offshore grounds.

But as is the case with just about any kind of piscatorial pursuit, there are no sure bets. Despite the propensity of these hunger-crazed speeding maniacs to literally commit suicide at the height of the run by smashing anything that moves with a little bit o’ wiggle, there are still some days when the bite fizzles out or the tuna simply vanish into the ocean blue. When that happens, you’ll need to fall back on some oft-forgotten basics while also breaking out of your usual routine to score. Following use shearwaters and stormy petrels is one great way to track down the fish, but sometimes even the birds have trouble finding the schools. Here are a few other ideas on how to revive the action after the bluefins vanish without a trace.


Bluefin tuna have a specific smell you can use to your advantage but the key is to learn to recognize that scent on the good days so you’ll know what to sniff for when things get tough. If you can find the smell on an offshore slick, more often than not the tuna are still in the area so at least you’ll have a place to concentrate our efforts.

Think of bluefin scent as being similar to that of mackeral but with a heavier, more “oily feel” that hangs heavy in the air. It is clearly different from the pungently sweet melon-like scent of bluefish. Take the time to breathe deep and internalize this scent when you are on the fish so you’ll be able to distinguish it from the choppers when the tuna schools thin out and you have to go searching. When you find a slick that smells just right, slow down and take a good look. If the tuna are still nearby, a close inspection will often reveal scales in the water. Any slick with a heavy tuna scent and a few scales visible is worth investing your time.


Conventional wisdom holds that you “match the hatch” whenever possible but a properly timed “miss-match” sometimes works when all else fails. When tuna turn shy because they are focused on small bait like sand eels or baby butterfish, try breaking out some larger lures. On the troll, for example, up your spreads with bigger profiles or off colors and take a few passes. If you are casting blind, try the biggest popper in your tackle box. It’s amazing how, when you feel the bite beginning to fade, significantly increasing the size of your offerings can put another fish or two in the box before things shut down completely.

Be aware, too, that subtle patterns emerge through the course of the day – don’t dismiss them. Anything that can be correlated is a pattern worth working. Sometimes the fish only hit lures moving up-sea, other days they want them to be moving down-sea. Some days the pattern is east, some days it’s west. Watch carefully for such emerging patterns during the course of each trip as working them can be much more productive than random casting or trolling. Just as important, when a patter begins to falter, go to the polar extreme. Slow down, speed up, cut across the wind, and troll in circles or S-patterns instead of straight. Cross each new move off the list after trying it for a sufficient amount of time and move on systematically to the next option.


The quickest way to find tuna is to watch the birds – but the key is in understanding which birds to watch. To be more specific, different species of sea birds can tip you off to the way the tuna are behaving.

Take herring gulls and black back gulls, for example. They are big and lazy birds. They aren’t fast enough to stay with tuna on the move so if you see them diving, you know the surface feed is strong and lasting. Petrels, in contrast, are fast, diving birds. They can work a baitfish school into a tight ball on their own – so they might be diving on bait without any tuna below.

It’s the terns that you’ll want to watch most closely. These birds fly in a wedge formation, similar to the way tuna school beneath the surface. The lead bird is generally right on the lead tuna. They are able to see down into the water 30 or 40 feet which gives them a pretty-good idea of how the tuna schools are tracking. When the fishing is tough, watch where the terns are headed. Get a good distance in front of the lead bird and blind cast with a big chrome-plated Yo-Zuri popper or a diamond jig to you’ll intercept the fish ahead of the fleet.


This may sound very basic, but when the fish disappear it’s time to get moving. Many anglers beat yesterday’s hot spot to a froth in the hopes the bite will resume. Oftentimes, it doesn’t. If a spot isn’t producing today looking for greener pastures can be a good idea – especially when the action has been scattered.

But where do you go when yesterday’s numbers don’t pan out? My money is usually on the nearest structure or steep edge on the charts. Edges in particular tend to concentrate bait. It’s a good bet the fish will arrive there first and regroup before spreading across a broader area again.

Keep your eyes open for pods of bait, of course, but don’t spend too long on it if you aren’t marking tuna. Simply note the location and then move on. You can always return if success remains elusive. The combination of thick bait and whales, however, is a different story. Find these two factors together and it might just be worth waiting around for the tuna to show up.