Every year as I prepare for the sport show season I like to add a little fresh content to my seminars and one of things I like to do is ask people what they would like to learn more about in those seminars. After over 20 years chasing albacore off the Oregon coast I’ve learn each season is a little different than the year before and this past season was another year of surprises. Oregon and Washington’s albacore fishery is still pretty much a new fishery for most offshore guys and if you don’t subscribe to being a student of the fishery you could suffer some long days with little to show for the effort. This year the one question that’s came up the most was could you please give a seminar on how to catch fish on those tough days..? That left me thinking about what I do on those days.
There’s a couple things I firmly believe – First and foremost you need to learn how to find the fish. I don’t mean casually learn to find fish but get really good at it. The other key factor is you need to learn a couple methods of catching tuna. The trolling game can work fine most of the time in the early season but what happens when they decide to throw you a curve and you troll all day returning to port with only a couple fish in the box or worse yet you get blanked after running fifty miles offshore. Don’t get me wrong I have been in that boat a time or two although it’s been awhile since the last time that has happened.
The successful guys bringing good numbers of fish back time after time have all learned that one arrow in the quiver really limits your opportunities. Whereas those that take the time to learn new techniques generally fair better than those who live and die by the troll show or those that only know how to fish live bait.
Some of the best tuna fisherman I know fish out of ports with no live bait available and at times don’t care even if it is available. They have learned how to adjust based on conditions they are handed.
I truly believe if you learn three basic techniques you will catch fish on most days. Obviously learning sound troll techniques and a few variations to the troll are one of those methods. Learning to fish swim baits either on the troll or running & gunning casting swim baits to jumpers is also a fun effective method. The third technique that requires a little more investment is learning to work the iron. The rods, reels and gear are very specific to making this work properly and if you buy into doing it right you’ll have enough arrows in your quiver to make a slow day turn into a good day. I doubt you’ll find a faster way to plug the boat than with a couple guys who know how to work iron effectively. The technique is not that hard to learn but it requires a little investment in the proper gear. Parabolic rods designed to load properly paired up with high speed 6 to 1 reels along with a collection of jigs and its game on.
Although you first need to back up and think about one of the most basic steps – how to find fish. If you’re not in an area that has fish you are definitely at a handicap. I use a web based sea surface website such as Terrafin to look for defined temperature breaks with temperatures at or above 58 degrees. I then look to see if the Chlorophyll charts overlay and match up those temperature breaks. The third thing to consider is are these temperature breaks and high chlorophyll count areas known to produce fish. The ocean is no different than a great steelhead stream in that there are areas where fish are known to congregate such as steelhead holding in a tail out on a stream. The ocean is the offshore version of the same thing and has contours from underwater canyons and sea mounds that produce upwellings where bait gets pushed to the surface by currents that also tend to keep and contain them in certain areas, areas where tuna will also congregate. It pays to spend a little time to research these areas online before burning a couple hundred dollars in fuel running all over the ocean without any starting point other than a hunch. If the sea surface website doesn’t have a recent satellite picture due to heavy cloud cover then I like to start by going back to places I’ve caught fish or places historically known to produce fish. The one thing I would also caution you on is don’t chase radio fish as that rarely seems to produce very many fish. On one offshore trip I went to where a bite had been reported the prior day and trolled among a fleet of boats that only produced good radio chatter. Two hours of changing gear and techniques a couple times with nothing in the box was enough for me. I told the crew to pull the gear and we left for greener pastures. We left the flotilla and ran 20 miles to a location where I’d caught fish three days earlier and only had the gear back in the water less than a minute when we started catching fish. We fished the rest of the day by ourselves with no boat in sight for hours and came home with a nice load of fish unlike most of those who chose to stay where we started the day.
The summer of 2013 was a season where the tuna were not on the surface most of the time and left the guys trolling frustrated and many times empty handed. It didn’t matter if they left port with a live well full of anchovies because many use the troll to find fish rather than other methods of finding fish. On another trip in September I took a friend and two 12 year old boys to introduce them to the addiction that consumes us blue water guys. We passed an incredible armada of boats on the run offshore only to find a floating parking lot of a 100 boats fifty miles offshore. When I pulled throttles back and settled into the water I noticed the tuna were under the boat but down 30-50 feet. I had been listening to the radio on the run out and learned the troll guys were struggling to catch a fish. I could see why as they were too far down to come up for most troll gear. We didn’t even get the troll gear out but instead chose to throw a couple good handfuls of chum while one of my fishing buddies dropped the iron down to them and my wife deployed a couple swim bait rods to drift along. We then put a couple live baits over board and waited.
It only took a couple attempts with the iron before we to started hooking up and pretty soon we had the bite wide open. Once that happened everything in the water was catching fish. We drifted for a couple hours eventually hooking over 50 fish and soon had a worn out crew.
We had drifted most of the morning watching one boat after another troll by and at times coming within 50 yards of us causing our bite to die off and sound the fish. That had to be frustrating for them to watch as we landed fish after fish while they trolled in vain.
This is where learning to use more than one method to find fish and then another method to catch them paid off. We recognized they were under the boat but were down a fair distance and didn’t even hesitate having the confidence to know that we could get them with iron and a little chumming to bring them up. I have to admit having a Garmin CHIRP sonar and set to only 100 feet or less definitely helps to find fish and can be a game changer some days. CHIRP sonar gives you more than 10 times the normal resolution and definition of what’s under the boat and definitely for finding tuna.
The one buddy who was fishing with me swears he hasn’t seen me troll for fish very much the last few times he’s been on my boat. Last summer was a season where the guys that knew how to find fish and knew how to work iron had a great season and in many instances out fished even those with live bait.
I keep telling people it’s not that hard to catch tuna although last summer it was definitely a little tougher than in years past especially if you only had one arrow in your quiver.
Learn the basics then hone your skills and add a few new techniques to your game plan and you’ll improve your odds on those tough days when Charlie decides to be a little finicky.
Here’s a few other tips:
- Go back to where you’ve historically caught fish – keep a log
- Check the sea surface temps/ chlorophyll shots
- Do not run to radio fish – develop your own style & think it thru
- Remember the basics – birds, jumpers, breaks, etc.. but be willing to think outside the box – Confidence is your friend
- This is where the little things matter (10% rule) boat attitude, fishing style, working as a team, learning and using a combination of techniques
- Use a combination of techniques –trolling, swimbaits, small baits..etc.
- Drop down to small lures under 4” with troll gear
- Keep your spread together but possibly farther back than normal – play with the distance. Try it short such as 10-15 feet as well as way back 75 feet +
- Diving lures & divers with lures
- Troll swimbaits with Flurocarbon leaders
- Forget trying to get multiple hookups by continuing to troll after hooked up.
- Use chum after a hookup and possible dead baits/chum on a sinker -Salt dead baits to get them to sink better.
- Don’t be impatient to leave after a hook up – work it a little
- Keep your head up & stay positive, you are going to catch fish – don’t just give in and troll all over the ocean