One word to describe a longtail tuna would be ‘bullet’. These fish are lean, smooth and streamline. Their pectorals and first dorsal fin have recesses in order to lay perfectly flat against the body. Longtail are coloured dark blue to black on their upper third, with the rest comprising of brilliant silver with a sometimes hue of pink and purple. Add to this beautiful yellow finlets between their second dorsal and cordal fin and you have a truly handsome and impressive fish to look at.
They are agile, fast and strong due to large aerobic muscles connected to a powerful tail. This speed and strength requires a lot of fuel to run, therefore longtail never go long without feeding.
Longtail tuna distribution ranges from Southern NSW around the top end and down into Southern WA. The fish in the North tend to be smaller (4-10kg) than their temperate counterparts, with the largest fish (20-30kg) usually being captured at the extremities of the species range. What these Northern populations lack in size, they more than make up for in numbers. For the Sportfisher they are the perfect target on light spin gear. They can be found in large harbours and bays as well as the mouths of estuary systems where clean(ish) water is present. Their coastal proximity means that even smaller boats or land based anglers can access this exciting species. While in the South of the country these fish feed on Garfish, Slimie Mackerel, Yellowtail and a myriad of larger baitfish, the fish in the North tend to spend most of their time gorging on minuscule Whitebait, sometimes fixating on this bait size which can be challenging, however there are a few tricks which can bring them undone.
In the nations north, summer or ‘the wet’ sees monsoonal downpours continually deteriorating inshore water clarity. However from April onwards, seawater overpowers the last of the floodwater runoff, allowing longtail and other pelagic species to move further inshore. Combine this with comfortable days for the angler, and winter or ‘the Dry’ and it’s the perfect time to get amongst these line burners.
Surface feeding fish are your primary targets, as sub-surface pods move at such a speed that they are hard to find or stay in contact with. When endeavouring to locate longtail, look for shallow reefs, pressure points, current breaks and large back-eddies. These fish will take advantage of baitfish inhibited in their ability to manoeuvre by tidal flow. Look for the presence of wheeling and diving terns, keep a close eye on their flight patterns as they often fly directly over pods of tuna. Particularly pay attention to a bird or group of birds looking down and changing altitude continually. As a general rule the deeper the tuna schools the higher the birds will fly above them, then as the fish rise the birds begin to swoop or drop to a lower altitude. At times (particularly in locations further from shore), birds will not be present, so always keep an eye on the horizon for splashing.
When the tuna finally break the surface to feed there will generally be whitewater flying everywhere. Most surface feeding pelagic fish feed in the same manner, however longtail can be distinguished from other tuna, queen fish, trevally and mackerel by their propensity to leave the water completely, porpoising and cartwheeling after devouring hapless baitfish. Obviously calm days enable both you and birds to better locate pods of feeding tuna.
Once locating feeding tuna its time for the approach, this is a matter of conjecture among tuna fisherman. Some anglers preferring to slowly putt up wind or current of the schools then cut the engine and hope the fish feed towards them, this is very effective when the fish are feeding in an obvious direction, although this is not always the case. Others enjoy charging in at high speed and getting a couple of casts in before the tuna sound. This method should only be employed when fish are feeding very briefly on small patches of bait. I personally like to approach tuna from upwind just off the plane, keeping the motor running at all times, even when stationary. This enables the fish to become accustomed to the sound of the engine, and facilitates ease of movement should the fish change path. Every pod may react differently so trial a series of approaches until you find what is right for you.
Tide plays a pivotal role in chasing longtail. Around full or new moons tides will be at their largest and water clarity at its poorest. At these times concentrate your efforts over the top half of the tide, when the clearer seawater pushes inshore and the sediment laden estuary water is forced upstream. Over the quarter moons and neap tides water clarity should be at its greatest, at these times tuna may feed through the entire tidal period.
The clean fighting nature of these fish can lead the angler into employing the use of ultra-light tackle (1-4kg). However, this presents a new range of issues. These fish have an enormous aerobic capacity due to their anatomical makeup, this leads to drawn out battles on light gear resulting in exhausted anglers, near dead fish and lost fishing time. Some days these fish will only feed during a short bite window where conditions are ideal, thus getting them to the boat in quick time offers the best chance of another.
I have personally found a 7′ Spin rod rated 8-15lb and matced with a 3000 size high-speed reel to be the most effective. 15lb braid or mono and 30lb fluorocarbon leader is will give you a sporting chance and get the fish to the boat in good time. For the fly fishermen an 8 weight with a large arbor reel spooled with an intermediate line and at least 200m of backing is ideal. I like to run around 2m of fluorocarbon leader joined to my braid via an Albright knot. This is then loop knotted to the chosen lure to foster ease of movement.
High speed spin
Traditionally blazing metal lures at high speed through a feeding school has been the norm. It is still a very effective and exciting way of targeting these fish, the principle is fairly straight forward, but there are a few tricks that can tip the odds in your favour. Choosing the correct lure is essential in providing consistent hook ups. Generally choose the smallest slug in which you can cast the required distance to the schools. When spinning, aim to land your casts past the school so they can be retrieved back past the noses of the fish. If the fish are feeding on the move, cast ahead of the leading fish to achieve this. A handy trick is to prepare for the retrieve while your lure is still in flight, this prevents the lures sinking and travelling under the school while you fumble for the bail and handle. If the fish sound on the latter stages of your approach, try sinking the slug for a few seconds well ahead of the direction they were last heading, sometimes this can result in a bite on the drop. Sinking your slugs is also particularly effective on the other species which feed beneath tuna schools at times.
Plastics and flies
At times even the smallest and most enticingly presented metal lure will not induce a strike. While frustrating, this situation lends itself very well to soft plastics or flies. There are two roads you can go down with plastics and flies. Either matching the hatch perfectly or providing a reaction bait. Subtle presentations such as surf candies or slowly retrieving a small transparent or translucent soft plastic can be the key in turning follows into strikes. Other times a large colourful soft plastic or streamer fly slowly rolled through the school may be engulfed. The most important aspect of your technique is to be flexible. Try different offerings and retrieves to see what works on the day.
Once a fish has engulfed your lure or fly the battle is on. The first run of a longtail is something to behold, the sheer power and speed of these fish can leave you weak at the knees. Do not bother trying to stop them, just sit back and enjoy the ride, the more energy exerted in the first run the easier the latter stages of the fight will be. Just keep a good bend in the rod and be prepared for changes of direction. The mid stages of the fight can see the fish behaving rather erratically, changing direction or going on half-hearted runs. Be prepared to take up any slack as a fish may run toward the boat. As the fish begins to tire it will generally fight a little deeper in the water, continually circling, now the hard work begins. Patience is imperative to success at this point, each circle will get smaller and smaller providing the angler keeps constant pressure on. Giving the fish even 1m of slack line will result in it turning and getting its head, maybe even resulting in another run. The longer a fight goes on, the greater the mortality rate of the fish, some fish may come up full of beans, others at death’s door, having given their all. After a fight with a larger specimen some anglers may feel the same way.
At times sharks will hone in on your hooked fish, the best method of combatting I have found is to open your bail arm and let your tuna swim free and lose it’s toothy follower without pressure, then commencing the fight soon after. This is not always successful (as pictured).
When it comes to landing fish, if you intend to kill and eat your adversary then gaffing or netting will suffice. However fish destined for release should be tailed boatside and supported while being lifted aboard, then held upside down (they fall into a state of tonic immobility), unhooked, then speared headfirst back into the briny ASAP.
Cleaning and Eating
While most anglers chase tuna for sport, there is no harm in keeping them for a meal as they are superb to eat either as sashimi or cooked (keep a ziplock of wasabi or soy aboard). To ensure the quality of the fish, bleed and ice the fish immediately upon capture. Bleed by making deep cuts behind the pectoral fin until blood begins to pour out. Proceed to hold them downward overboard by the tail until dry, then place in an ice slurry (at least a couple of hours before you desire your sashimi). Icing not only preserves the meat but also makes processing much simpler.
Here is a video on the best method of breaking down tuna, large or small:
While chasing longtail tuna there is a wide range of fish that can be targeted utilising the same methods. Many of these species you may encounter in with feeding longtail schools. While tuna fishing, you will often encounter; Spanish mackerel, spotted mackerel, grey (broadbar spanish) mackerel, school mackerel
mack tuna, golden trevally, giant trevally, queenfish and a few unwanted species.
If you follow the simple outline of this piece you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting hooked up to a few longtail. The fish are out there and you don’t need to go miles offchore to find them. They are great fun, can be great on the plate as sashimi and can be a very visual form of fishing. Remember, be flexible and keep at them. Success may be on the next cast.