Overview

Bluefin Tuna - Thunnus thynnus

Also known as: Bluefin, Giant Tuna, Horse Mackerel

The bluefin tuna occurs in subtropical and temperate waters of the North Atlantic Ocean and in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. It is a pelagic, schooling, highly migratory species and like many species of fish, the smallest specimens form the largest schools and vice versa. The migration of the bluefin tuna appears to be the most extensive of all fish species and is tied to water temperature, spawning habits, and the seasonal movements of fishes on which the bluefin feeds. The giants of the species make the longest migrations, sometimes traveling across the entire span of the northern Atlantic Ocean.

The bluefin tuna is the largest tuna and one of the largest true bony fish. It can be distinguished from almost all others by its rather short pectoral fins which extend only as far back as the eleventh of twelfth spine in the first dorsal fin. There are 12-14 spines in the first dorsal fin and 13-15 rays in the second. The anal fin has 11-15 rays. It has the highest gill raker count of any species of Thunnus with 34-43 on the first arch. The ventral surface of the liver is striated and the middle lobe is usually the largest. The anal fin and the finlets are dusky yellow edged with black. The lateral keel is black in adults.

The diet of the bluefin tuna consists of squid, eels and crustaceans as well as pelagic schooling fish such as mackerel, flying fish, herring, whiting, and mullet. During spawning, which occurs in the summer or spring, a giant female may shed 25 million or more eggs. Bluefins grow rapidly and may be 2 feet in length and weigh 9 lbs by the end of their first year. By age 14 they may be over 8 feet long and weigh 700 lbs.

Fishing methods include drift fishing or trolling with live or dead baits such as mackerel, herring, mullet, or squid; and trolling with artificial lures including spoons, plugs, or feathers. Bluefin tuna are supreme in their size, strength and speed, and are a very important game fish. They are also extremely important commercially in many parts of the world and are managed under a strict set of federal guidelines. Any anglers wanting to target bluefin tuna must first make sure they are in compliance with all state and federal rules.

Habitats

Coastal Waters

In coastal areas, closer to shore, the ocean bottom may have sections of exposed rock, coral or debris. These areas of uneven bottom provide a great ambush spot for predatory fish as well as crevices for smaller fish to take shelter. Fish live at all depths in coastal water and many stay close to the bottom. Many feed near cover, such as a rock or a coral reef, where they can ambush prey. Other fish roam at all depths of the water column, searching for an easy meal.

Most saltwater anglers fish in coastal waters because there are dozens of different fish species there, and these areas are often very easy to access. Many marine fish migrate up and down the coastline seasonally. Smart anglers monitor water temperatures, winds, currents, seasons and tides to determine which species they should target.

The Open Ocean

Fishing in the open ocean is an endeavor that only confident and experienced anglers should attempt. To successfully and safely target pelagic fish species that live in the open ocean, specialized tackle and boats are typically required. The easiest way to experience offshore angling for those anglers who don’t have larger boats is to book a fishing charter.

When researching charter boats that you’re thinking of hiring, be sure to ask plenty of questions before booking your trip. Ask about the length of the trip, what species you’ll be targeting, how may people can the boat hold, will the trip be private or open to other customers and anything else you may think of. If you would like to keep any of your catch for dinner, be sure to clarify what the boat’s policy is on fish that are caught. Depending on where you’re booking a charter, some charter crews have a policy of taking fish to local auctions to sell fish that the anglers catch. Always remember that you don’t ever have to keep a fish in order to get it mounted. Exact replicas of fish can be made with only a few pictures.

Open ocean fishing takes place all over the country but certain regions require a farther boat ride offshore in order to find good fishing grounds. Eastern states typically require a longer trip out to the fishing grounds (with the exception of Southern Florida) whereas states along the Pacific Ocean have steeper dropoffs and require a much shorter ride to find deeper waters.

Open ocean pelagic species of fish include tunas, billfish, dolphin, wahoo and some shark species.

Baitfish Patches

Surf and shore fishing takes a good eye. If you can spot a school of baitfish, then you might be able to catch bigger fish that are following them. But hurry, game fish strike fast and leave. When you locate a school of baitfish, look for the openings or lighter colored circles in the schools of bait. Often times, if a predatory fish is in the midst of a school of baitfish, the bait will try to keep a safe distance on all sides of the larger fish to avoid being eaten. This is what creates the holes in the bait schools. If you cannot locate these holes, cast your bait or lure to the outside edges of the baitfish schools.

Night Fishing

Many fish are nocturnal feeders and become more active after the sun sets. When fishing during the night hours, natural baits, such as cut bait and live bait are great choices. Be sure to let the baits soak, and be patient for a bite.

Fishing Methods

Drift Fishing

Drift fishing allows you to fish over a variety of habitats as your boat drifts with the currents or wind movement. You can drift fish on the bottom or change the depth with a bobber or float. Natural baits work very well but jigs, lures and scented artificial baits will produce good results, too. When drift fishing with multiple baits and rods, it is always a good idea to set out each bait at a different depth. This allows the angler to cover more of the water column.

Kite Fishing

One of the oldest, yet most effective, methods for catching fish is kite fishing. Originally used to carry baits out farther distances than could be cast from shore, kite fishing is now used to present baits in a more effective manner. Kites are flown from a modified rod and reel and have release clips attached to the kite line at various intervals. As the kite is let out from the boat, single fishing lines from the rods you’re using to catch the fish are attached to each release clip and carried out with the kite. Each of these attached lines will baited with live baits. Once the kite is set in place at a far enough distance from the boat, the fishing lines are tended to so that the baits are suspended from the kite and are just barely below the surface of the water. By keeping the bait splashing on the surface of the water, predatory fish are attracted to the struggling baitfish that is trying to swim down deeper into the water. When a fish takes the suspended bait, the release clips will drop only the baited line that was eaten so that the angler is now free to fight the fish in a normal manner.

Kite fishing requires constant attention to each line that is connected to the kite. It is important to make sure that the baits remain at the surface of the water while the boat is bobbing over waves in the ocean. You want to make sure that your bait remains in the water and is not floating around in the air or too far below the surface. Beginners should start kite fishing with only one or two lines connected to the kite release clips so that it is more manageable.

Contact your local bait shop to determine what kite will work best for you. There are various types of kites for virtually all wind conditions including storm force winds.

Saltwater Jigging

Jigging lures, or “jigs”, are some of the most versatile lures in that can be used in just about any place you find fish. Jigs comes in all shapes, colors, styles and weights and can be fished in a variety of different manners so that they mimic baitfish. The two most common jigs are probably the bucktail jig and the vertical jig.

A bucktail jig will typically consist of a lead head, that can be a variety of different shapes and sizes, which is molded onto a hook and has hair-like material tied to the bottom of the jig head. This hair-like material is where the name “bucktail” comes from because many bucktail jigs are made using hair from a deer. The bucktail hair and jighead come in a variety of different colors. These bucktail jigs can be fished by themselves or they can be rigged with a rubber worm, live shrimp or other natural baits like strips of fish.

A vertical jig, or speed jig, is made of a long and slender piece of lead or metal that cuts through the water mimicking an injured baitfish. Vertical jigs will have one or more dangling hooks attached to a split ring which can be attached to the top or the bottom of the jig. Vertical jigs range anywhere from 1/8oz up to 14oz and are also referred to as “butterfly jigs.”

When fishing with jigs, it is important that the angler constantly jig the lure up and down by constantly lifting the rod tip up and down. A good method for jigging is to drop the jig all the way down to the bottom and with a very rapid retrieval, twitch the rod tip erratically until the jig comes to the surface and repeat. No matter which type of jig you are using, it is important to match the weight of each jig to the depth at which you are fishing. Deeper water will require heavier jigs to reach the bottom. It is also important to take the tides and current into consideration when choosing your jig weight.

Saltwater Trolling

Trolling in saltwater is a good way to present baits and lures to pelagic fish by imitating a swimming baitfish or triggering the natural instincts of a fish to strike. When saltwater trolling, anglers will typically put out anywhere between two and nine lines with trolling lures staggered at various distances from the boat. Although there is no one universal trolling speed, most boats will typically troll natural baits like rigged ballyhoo, mullet, and mackerel, at speeds of 4-7 knots depending on sea conditions. Artificial trolling lures and plugs can be trolled at faster speeds of around 7-9 knots.

Bait & Lures

Cut Bait

Using fish cut into pieces attracts fish in a different way than whole, live bait or lures. Fish that are attracted to scent are more likely to hit on cut bait. You can use just about any baitfish to make cut bait as well as other fish species. Before using any fish as cut bait, always make sure the fish you plan on using is a legal species and meets the minimum size requirement, if there is a size limit on that species. All size and species regulations can be obtained at tackle shops or your state’s fishing law enforcement website.

Jigs

Jigs have weighted metal heads and a tail made of animal hair, soft plastic, feathers or rubber. Anglers sometimes add a minnow or piece of pork rind to the jig's hook. Jigs can be used to catch nearly every kind of freshwater fish

Saltwater Live Bait

Using live bait such as shrimp or various baitfish is a very effective method to use while targeting pelagic species of predatory fish. “Baitfish” is a term that refers to any saltwater schooling fish that serve as a food source to other larger fish. Species used are typically those that are common and breed rapidly, making them easy to catch and in regular supply. Good examples of marine bait fish are anchovies, ballyhoo (sometimes referred to as halfbeaks), herring, menhaden and scad.

Squid

Just about any fish that lives nearshore or in the open ocean can be caught using cut or whole squid. Use them whole by running the line through the inside of the mantle (the outside body shell) and hooking the squid in the head. The mantles of larger squid can be cut into vertical pieces for strip bait. You can use squid for trolling and for bottom and floating rigs.

Trolling Lures

Trolling lures come in all different shapes, colors, styles and weights and are typically trolled behind a boat at speeds of 7-12 knots. These lures are usually larger than casting lures and will typically include one or two large hooks. Many trolling lures are made with epoxy or resin heads that are attached to rubber skirts which hide the hooks. Other trolling lures have heavier metal heads with holes bored out to allow water to pass through. These lures are referred to as ‘jet heads’ because the water that passes through the lure head will quickly aerate leaving behind a trail of air bubbles that resemble smoke. Trolling lures can also be made out of rubber or plastic and may have different shaped heads. The shape of the lure’s head, weight and material will determine what type of action the lure will take when trolled. These lure head shapes include, concaved (or chuggers), slanted, rounded, pointed and jets. Each lure head shape is designed so that the action of the trolled lure mimics different types of baitfish.