Anglers jockeyed for position, bumping into each other and stepping on each other’s feet. Lines snapped and reels screamed. Conversations turned to cavemen grunts and yells as the hookups continued. During all this confusion, I took time out to ransack my tackle box, wherein lay 20 artificial lures which I had hoped to field-test amidst frenzied blackfin tuna. With unsteady hands, I snatched up the heaviest plug in the box and tied it to 50-pound monofilament leader and 20-pound fishing line. I knew that these tuna would smack a chunk of cutbait in a New York second, but would they crash an artificial surface lure?
It took only one cast to answer that question.
Hungry, aggressive blackfins and bonito churned the water around us. They were agitated into a violent feeding spree by the handfuls of bonito chunks, sardines, cigar minnows and ballyhoo that we tossed overboard. Dropping a baited hook was an automatic hookup. But the big mystery for me was: Which would reach the lure first, a blackfin or a bonito?
Sailing above the ocean surface like a high-soaring flyingfish, the heavy Windcheater surface plug put plenty of distance between me and the farthest surface activity, but I sensed that some larger blackfins might be lurking along the outskirts of the action. This plug and this method had worked for me on Gulf Stream trips for big yellowfin tuna, but would it work on their smaller cousins, the blackfins? The instant the big lure hit the crest of a wave with a splash, I began reeling as fast as I possibly could, chugging the plug along the surface and trying to create as much commotion as possible. It traveled only a few feet before a big blackfin nailed it with authority.
The fish struck with such force that I really did not have to set the hook. However, my reflexes took over and I reared back on the rod, thrilled by the sound of line singing from the reel. As the strong fish continued its run, I wondered if perhaps I had hooked a wahoo. I passed the rod to Capt. Doug Unruh of Juneau, Alaska, who was standing next to me.
“Here, Doug, take this one; it’s a good one.”
Unruh had taken my son Bob and me fishing in Alaska and had put us on some big halibut and hefty king and coho salmon; I wanted to treat him to some good Florida fishing. Little did I suspect that this bruiser blackfin would not only test my friend, but would also test the light equipment we were using. Early into the battle, the tuna fought with such force that the bail came off the reel. Doug had to pop it back into place, without a screw. He was in for an hour-long struggle.
Meanwhile, my fishing pal from Orlando, Capt. Ward Michaels, who likes to tackle big sailfish on a fly rod, sensed the challenge. A nice tuna had just cut him off after taking his cutbait.
“Can I use one of your lures?” Ward asked.
“Help yourself,” I said, digging into the box for another topwater plug. I knew that Ward was in for a real contest because he was busy tying another Windcheater to 12-pound line and 30-pound mono leader, tackle even lighter than Unruh’s.
A big blackfin crashed Ward’s plug immediately. Now we had two battles going on as tunas in the 20- to 30-pound class fought with tackle-straining tugs. Each time the anglers got their fish up, the blackfins would see the boat and streak like torpedoes out to sea, turning their bodies sideways and pumping with their powerful tails.
Michaels fought his blackfin for 45 minutes before bringing it alongside the boat. Capt. Derwood Roberts, skipper of the charterboat Adventurous, gaffed the fish and flopped it onto the deck and inside the fish box.
Unruh’s battle would take longer because of the broken reel. It took a solid hour to tire his blackfin and bring it around for gaffing. By the time Roberts had the fish bled and into the box, the fisherman, who appeared a bit battle-worn himself, was seeking shade and refreshments before taking on another blackfin anytime soon. Next time, I would give him a better reel with which to do battle.
By now, the water was even more alive as Michaels, Jason Diaz, the 16-year-old nephew of Unruh, and I continued to toss chunks of mullet, ballyhoo, croakers and everything else in the box at the thrashing fish. It was Jason’s first tuna trip, but he was battling tuna and bonito like an old pro. He hung in there and stayed with the action throughout the day.
Soon, Unruh joined us again, and the bite-on-every-cast action resumed. “I don’t think there was a time we went 10 minutes without hookups,” the Alaskan charter captain said later. We kept our mate, Pat Stone of Merritt Island, busy throughout the day boating and releasing blackfins and bonito after he took over the duties from Roberts.
I don’t know how many blackfins and bonitos we caught that day, but it was all the action any angler could hope for on any trip. We kept eight blackfins and released the rest. I also kept a king mackerel that struck my lure on the last cast of the day.
Casting for blackfins is one of my favorite types of fishing. Once we get a school of tuna around the boat, it means solid action, often for long periods of time. The key is to keep chumming with chunks of bait; this is what attracts fish to the boat and puts them in a feeding mood.
A word of advice to would-be tuna anglers, however: I would not recommend using artificial lures unless you have plenty to spare. Michaels and I went through every artificial lure in my tackle box that day, including Windcheaters, Trader Bay Trout Slayers and Blues Busters to even smaller Rat-L-Traps. It takes an arsenal of plugs, regardless of how well one finesses the fish. When the tunas are thick, fellow blackfins, bonito or even sharks will frequently swim by and cut the line. It happened to us time after time.
The faster we worked the plugs, the better chance we had of hooking up with a blackfin. Blackfins seem to be faster than bonito and wil
l often outswim them to slam a lure that is retrieved at breakneck speed. After hooking up, though, the trick is to try to keep the fish away from the main school. Unless you’ve witnessed it firsthand, it’s hard to imagine the pandemonium and excitement that takes place when the water is alive and churning with fish gone amok. Lines are snapping, lines are crossing, adrenaline is pumping and anglers go crazy with excitement. It’s chaotic, but it’s fishing at its best.
I first got the idea of using topwater lures for blackfins on a midwinter trip aboard the Canaveral charterboat Ticket. My friend Don Shaw and I, along with Ticket owner Ed Duda, got into plenty of action that day as we chummed up schools of blackfins from behind a shrimp boat. I watched with excitement as Captain Ed Dwyer coaxed blackfins to his popping lures, and made a mental note to try the technique on later trips.
It’s well known that blackfin tuna often lurk below schools of bonito—hard-fighting fish in their own right that are extremely abundant along the entire east coast of Florida. What I’ve found is that the blackfins seem to rise to the occasion when a noisy plug is reeled fast, skipping and chugging across the waves. From my observations, I seriously believe that blackfins can outswim or outmuscle bonito to get to the plug first, especially if your retrieve is fast and furious.
Numerous charterboats at Port Canaveral target blackfin tuna when the fish are migrating through or hanging outside the port following baitfish schools. Many of the skippers happily accommodate anglers who wish to bring along casting gear and an arsenal of topwater plugs. When the fishing turns on, you don’t have to go all the way out to the Gulf Stream and beyond, like you do for yellowfin tuna. You can find great action in water ranging from 120 to 160 feet deep.
In addition, you may find that the topwater approach works in other blackfin fisheries around the state. Off Miami, for instance, where migratory blackfins occasionally rise to a chumline of live pilchards or shrimp, a plug may be just the ticket to an explosive strike and a bout of line pulling. Ditto for the Upper and Middle Keys, where blackfins hang around the offshore humps much of the year. And what about all those tenacious tunas that gather around the shrimp fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, northwest of Key West?
It’s up to you to give it a try.