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How To Catch School Bluefin Tuna

If someone had said to you 15 years ago that you would be able to catch loads of southern bluefin tuna during summer, you’d have thought they were crazy.

These days, however, the run of summer tuna along the Victorian coastline is nothing short of amazing, and every year it just gets better and better. When it started years back, the summer bite was confined to locations such as Portland and Port Fairy. Then as the years passed the tuna showed up in little pockets all along the coastline, to the point where there are now days during summer and autumn when the fish stretch pretty well all along the Victorian coastline. And while each season can see the bulk of fish turn up in slightly different areas, for the most part if you go looking, or listen for reports, you can get yourself into some truly exciting fishing. What’s more, a lot of these summer school bluefin are generally of a much better size than the school fish you get in autumn, with plenty of fish in the 15-20kg mark and more than a few schools pushing up towards the 30kg bracket. In among them there are some much bigger fish in the 40-60kg size.

I watched one eat my popper last season that was a much bigger fish. It ended up wearing through the leader, and while it was by no means a jumbo I called it in the 50kg bracket, and other anglers did land a few around this size.

Casting for southern bluefin tuna is fun!
If you’re wanting to release tuna, swapping out treble hooks for single hooks will make hook removal far easier.

Anyone who has been out in the ocean in this part of the world early in the season (January) on a glassy summer’s day will have a story of seeing thousands of tuna swimming around just under the surface, doing whatever they are doing and being ridiculously difficult to tempt with any sort of lure. Unfortunately, I don’t have the game-changing solution, but for the most part it requires lots of casting with different lures to persuade one to eat, or trolling around till you get a bite. All is not lost though, as when the wind gets up they will generally turn on, with trolling tending to get you into good numbers of fish, and if conditions allow casting lures will see the fish respond. As you roll into February and March, the tuna tend to feed more consistently and it’s here that the fishing fun really kicks in. You can mix it up with trolling or casting topwater lures, or just use one technique and get into the action.

Finding Bluefin Tuna

When you’re searching for where tuna are holding, if you find white birds such as terns and gannets then you’re definitely in a good area, but at this time of the year don’t discard the huge flocks of mutton birds (shearwaters) as they follow the tuna around to feed on the whitebait and tiny pilchards in the area.

Obvious signs are the birds picking stuff up off the water or fluttering around in circles as they follow the schools of fish. Another favourite thing I’m always watching for is when the mutton birds are sitting on the surface sticking their heads in the water. They will often do this then move a few metres and do it again – they are watching and following the tuna below them.

Another sign – and the one we all love – is of course tuna busting up on the surface as they feed. This gets my blood pumping every time and is usually highlighted by a pile of birds going crazy.

Casting For Bluefin Tuna

While trolling is a deadly technique for catching tuna, for me it’s all about the days spent casting at tuna with lures. The bait the fish are feeding on is generally really small, and you would think it makes sense to cast tiny stickbaits at the school. While this does catch plenty of fish it often sees you getting lots of refusals, but on the other hand (and I’m not sure why) a larger lure in the form of a 120-200mm blooping popper tends to get the fish fired up, leaving you with some awesome topwater bites.

When it comes to poppers for the tuna there are loads to choose from, but one key factor is the castability of the lure. I like a lure that casts a long way, which allows you to sit further from the fish so they don’t get spooked, so you can make more casts at them.

Secondly, I like a popper that is relatively easy to work – and this is just me but I find a popper with a smaller cup that makes a smaller splash will get really good results. Some of the most popular and effective poppers are the Maria Pop Queen 160 and the Tackle House Feed Popper 120, which cast well and pop nicely. It’s also worth having a real chugger-style popper in the boat.

The Maria Pop Queen is amzing popper that southern bluefin tuna love
The Maria Pop Queen has fast become one of the most effective poppers for school size southern bluefin tuna.

Shimano recently came out with a new popper in the Flash Boost range – the Bomb Dip. It’s guaranteed to be a killer on the fish this season, as it casts like a rocket, is easy to pop and has the ability to make a small or fairly large pop depending how hard you rip it through the water. We also know the Flash Boost feature has been highly effective on all fish.

When it comes to hooks, if you’re wanting to put a fish in the boat to take home I’d recommend trebles as they produce a better hook-up, but things can get messy as the tuna have a habit of inhaling the popper. If you are out there for fun and want to catch and release fish it’s worth changing over to single hooks – while you might drop a few more fish you will find it easier, cleaner and better for the fish on release. If you stick with trebles, just crush the barbs as it’s a lot easier to get them out of the fish (and yourself if that happens).

The tackle house feed popper is an outstanding popper. One of the best ever designed.
The Tackle House Feed Popper is an amazing popper that tuna just can’t resist.

One trick I have found is to use larger single hooks as in many cases the weight of the trebles helps to keep the lure in the water better while working it – singles are lighter so will often cause a lure to tumble more. Going for a bigger size will help to balance it out.  

Rods & reels For School Southern Bluefin Tuna

It’s summer, it’s warm and it’s tuna so use tackle that is fun and enjoyable to use. You don’t need to go ridiculously heavy; in fact, a lighter outfit will usually cast further and allow you to make a lot more casts throughout the day. I always have a few rods rigged with different lures so I can easily swap from one to the next, which you’ll often need to do. My tuna casting rods are versatile so they can be used for other forms of fishing as I’m generally in my small boat and don’t want to take a heap of rods. My lighter outfit is 7ft 6in rated 6-10kg and matched with a Stradic 6000SW and 30lb braid – this outfit throws and works smaller poppers well.

My medium outfit is a Shimano Terez 7ft 20-40lb and Stradic 8000 SW and 40lb braid – although I’ve now switched to the new Extraction rods in 15-30lb. These are great value, and really comfy to not only cast with but also fight fish. I also have a heavier outfit in the form of the Stradic 8000SW matched to the Extraction 702, 30-50lb.

Leader size is a personal choice, but I like 60lb on light and medium outfits and 80lb on the heavier one. I do steer away from fluorocarbon leader as it sinks and will pull the lure down in the water, making it harder and less effective when popping the lure. On the other hand, fluorocarbon is great for the sinking stickbaits.

The other must-have item is the Cush-It – chuck this on the rod butt when you hook up and you will not only save yourself a lot of pain but it also helps you put more pressure on the fish as you’re not digging a hole into your hip or groin.     

Angle of Approach

One of the biggest tips I can give is to get yourself in the right position on a school of fish. Racing round making noise isn’t generally the answer, so take a few seconds to evaluate the direction the fish are moving, stay wide of them and get yourself in front of the fish – they will usually push into the wind or current then you can drift towards them as they head to you. From there I like to make sure I’m in casting range before I do a wayward cast that lands short. The trick is to cast at the fish, bringing the lure back in the same direction the fish are feeding or travelling, or I like to cast at a 45 degree angle that comes with and across the fish.

If the fish and birds pass through but there are a few mutton birds still holding, keep casting as there are usually a few stragglers mopping up bits of bait and you will often get a bite despite no obvious signs of life 

School southern bluefin tuna are suckers for small skirted lures.

Locations For Southern Bluefin Tuna

The tuna run used to be confined to the west of the state but each year the fish are getting bigger in numbers, size and distribution throughout our waters, to the point you have a chance of finding fish anywhere in Bass Strait and at any time of the year.

Last season tuna could be found down the west coast, but there were huge numbers from Apollo Bay to Inverloch, especially in the 30-60m areas where there is a bit of reef formation to hold the bait.

In past years tuna have been found out from Port Welshpool and Wilsons Promontory, and while most of them were really small, last season we saw the better school fish turn up. I was lucky enough to have a day fishing off the bottom of the Prom with my mate Kev and the fishing there was some of the most memorable I can remember – thousands of tuna feeding around the islands, hook-ups all day and spectacular scenery.

Overall, it’s fair to say we have an amazing fishery that will only keep getting better in coming years.

Words: Lee Rayner Images: A full crew

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