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Summer Southern Bluefin Tuna

When you hear about summer tuna they are still just the normal southern bluefin tuna. The only other tuna species regularly encountered in Victoria are albacore and they are found only in deep offshore areas. The quality size of these summer fish is often impressive – not the barrel-sized fish that many anglers target later in the year, but good, solid schoolies in the 15-30kg bracket. On spin gear out of a small boat, that adds up to some serious fun. Another benefit is that the fish are often closer to shore at this time of year, often in around 20-30m of water. We have found them as close as 7m on occasions. It’s a massive head spin to see tuna cruising in water where you can see the bottom.  

As each season passes they also seem to be popping up further and further along the coast.  Fish can be spread from Portland in the west of the state right through east to offshore Western Port Bay. It has been a treat for central coast Victorian anglers in the past couple of seasons to be able to duck out from their local ports and catch tuna without taking the traditional long road haul to western Victoria.  Yes, they can be hard to tempt at times, but give me one good fish, cast at under blue skies, while I’m wearing bare feet and shorts, over a day out trolling multiple fish in the middle of winter. Here are a couple of hints to help you if you are trying to chase these summer run bluefin. 

Hunting Bluefin

Finding the fish in summer is a bit of a different proposition. Unlike big winter bust-ups with heaps of birds diving and feeding, usually there are only a handful of birds – sometimes even just one or two – on the fish. Other times no birds are observed, but the fish can be seen just cruising in a big school on the surface, with just a slight ripple giving away their presence.  Calm days and a keen set of eyes are important to locating these ‘nervous water’ surface ripples. 

Long casts are essential for many reasons. Not getting too close to spook the fish too much is the obvious one. However, the simple equation of the longer the cast, the more opportunity the fish has to chase down the lure, seems to be an important factor as well. Short casts can result in the fish following but turning away at the boat before hooking up. Rods around 8ft long matched with 4000-size spin reels are perfect for casting distance and light enough to use all day, but with plenty of backbone to stop these hard-fighting fish. 

Topwater

Hunting these fish down and casting stickbait-style lures is a most popular way of targeting summer bluefin. Stickbaits that cast well, have a slight shimmy on the drop and are strongly constructed to withstand the rigours of battle are perfect for the job.  As the fish can often be feeding on small baits, some smaller profile but long-casting stickbaits are what you need.

At times these sometimes hard-to-tempt summer tuna have a liking for belting a big popper even when they refuse other far smaller, natural presentations. I remember a frustrating day a few years ago chasing the timid tuna schools around with only moderate success, only to find out a mate had experienced far more action on a popper, of all things. “What in the world did you throw that at them for?” I quizzed. “Well, we thought they were kings on the surface,” he said, “so I threw jet poppers at them… and they ate them.”  Now it is a well-known fact that a decent popper is an important part of the summer tuna arsenal. On some days they can also be used to bring subsurface schools that have been spotted on the sounder to come up to the surface and have a look.

Subsurface

One little trick that can work well when the fish are fussy is having one unweighted (or very lightly weighted) soft plastic out the back as you cast stickbaits/lures out the front. The rod can be just set and forgotten about as you charge around after schools of tuna. The lure won’t dig in or tangle, if you have rigged it well, and just skip along behind as you move – removing the need to keep winding it in every time you want to take off after a new school. Once you have stopped to cast at a school, the lure just slowly drifts down like a dead/wounded baitfish.  It’s easy to forget it’s there, until the reel starts screaming as an unseen tuna belts it. Daiwa Bait Junkie 5 and 7in Jerk Shads in white pearl or white magic are perfect for this.  The same lures can also be effective when casting at fish, though they don’t cast as far as a stickbait. 

If trolling is your game, using smaller skirts (virtually what you would normally associate with salmon fishing) is usually the best method for these fish, which seem to be always feeding on small bait.  As mentioned earlier, a feature of the summer bluefin fishery is how close they can be found to shore, often just a few kilometres from popular ramps.  This means they can be easily accessible to anglers without the need for complex game trolling equipment and big boats. For basic trolling any good-quality spin reel in the 6000-8000 size spooled with 30-50lb braid will do the job.  You don’t need to spend up on a massive arsenal of game fishing lures as you might when trolling for the autumn/winter fish. If you put a deep diver on one trolling rod and a small natural skirt on the other, you are in the game.

While we are talking about a minimalist approach to tangling with a summer SBT, there is nothing wrong with throwing an old-fashioned metal slug at the fish. You don’t always need a fancy expensive stickbait and many a summer SBT has succumbed to this lure – just make sure you have checked or upgraded the trebles on the slug. 

Lock Jaw

When the fish can be just spotted cruising around, but not feeding, they can be hard to tempt.  Dropping the electric motor in and sneaking up sometimes helps if you manage to get close enough, and in front of the direction the fish are heading. Switching off the sounder is also something we try at times. Targeting the head of the school and not having the lure coming through at the school from behind can be important on the tough days. Another reason to target the head of the school is so you don’t ‘line’ the fish. In super-calm and clear water I have watched fish shy away and change direction as they approached the length of line stretched between the boat and the lure. We always try to use Daiwa J-Braid Grand in Island Blue as our mainline – the blue colour seems a little less intrusive than the multi-coloured or bright lines I have seen fish spook away from. The 50lb braid with a 60lb leader that we usually use for kings is a good start as it gives you some pulling power once the tuna start doing their stubborn circles under the boat. In addition, I like to have a rod with 30lb braid and 40lb leader for when they are real spooky and/or require super-long casts.  

Mixing up retrieve speeds is also something that changes, not just day-by-day but school-by-school. You would think a fast burning-style retrieve, mimicking a quickly escaping baitfish, would be the obvious choice, and often it is. Sometimes, though, they seemed mesmerised by a slow, side-to-side retrieve, eventually deciding to climb all over the lure after eyeballing it for some time. 

King of the School

The first summer SBT we ever encountered were fish that popped out of nowhere when fishing for kingfish. Where once the capture of a summer tuna was a rarity, and the tuna-king double was highly sought-after, it has become a more reliable proposition. Usually you will come across schools of kings or schools of tuna, but some years they can be mixed together. It is such an amazing sight to look under the boat at a school of kings and suddenly notice some bigger tuna cruising with them.  Alternatively, the kings that pop up out of a tuna school are often big ones. If you haven’t identified the fish on the strike, you need to be on the ball to be able to stop that screaming run that for some reason is now heading for the bottom rather than the usual surface tuna run.

Let’s hope this summer is another good one for tuna. The hardships of impatiently waiting for the windows of good weather, or getting refused by fussy fish, are soon forgotten once everything comes together and you hook up to a hard-running summer bluefin. 

Words & Images: Mark Gercovich

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