Florida’s Tuna Fishing 101

There’s a bunch of tunas in the Florida blue.

Yellowfin tuna are a prized catch off every Florida port.

A participant in the Great Bahamas Tuna Wars of the 1960s insisted that every giant bluefin tuna felt fully confident it could pull a man’s arms out by the roots.

The fact that none had ever actually performed the extraction was, he figured, attributable more to fast boats and smooth reels than to misplaced confidence on the part of the tuna.

As a matter of fact, all tunas seem to brim with the same confidence. It’s just that smaller species, lacking the heft of the giant bluefin, must be content to simply wear down the angler’s arms until they turn to jelly and feel ready to fall off on their own.

Yes, it’s pretty safe to say that tunas are the strongest and most determined brawlers in all of fishdom. Even billfishes, their closest challengers, don’t quite match them in pound-for-pound pulling power, simply because those long-nosed showboats waste too much of their energy jumping and thrashing. By contrast, a tuna—any tuna, large or small—simply flexes his considerable muscle and executes the one tactic in his playbook, which is Full Speed Ahead (or, more frighteningly, Full Speed Down).

So anglers beware! Most species of Atlantic tuna are found in our waters, meaning that you might run afoul of one at any time, even if you do all your fishing in little boats or from piers.

Note contrasting fin colors between yellowfin, bottom, and blackfin, top.

The common tunas of Florida and The Bahamas, in ascending order of size, are the little tunny, skipjack tuna, (Florida veterans call both of those “bonito”), blackfin tuna, and yellowfin tuna. Less common is the Atlantic bonito, and downright rare are the albacore, the bigeye tuna, and—sadly, because it wasn’t always so—the giant bluefin tuna.

In all, the tuna tally comes to eight. Separating the species can be confusing but after a novice has glanced at any one of them he’ll be able to recognize any of the others as a tuna. All are built with bullet-shaped heads, crescent tails reinforced by bony plates, and, in between, an exorbitant mass of red-meated muscle. A glance will tell you theirs is an anatomy designed for speed, power and stamina. And to prove the observation you have only to hook any of the tunas with tackle of appropriate size…

To Florida anglers on both coasts, the one really familiar member of the group is the little tunny, which we usually call bonito and typically pronounce “bonita.” Like a jack crevalle (but in spades), the bonito is looked upon as no more than an exhausting nuisance by most fishermen, who are generally angling for something more prestigious, or at least more edible. But all that’s necessary here is a change of attitude. While it’s true that a bonito on 20-pound or 30-pound trolling line means nothing but a strenuous workout for no applause, that same little bundle of energy takes on a starring role when you challenge it with fly or light spinning tackle.

In size and habit, the skipjack tuna—which we tend to label “oceanic bonito”—is virtually a carbon copy of the little tunny. Both are common in sizes from a pound or so up to about 15 pounds, with rare individuals topping 30 pounds. Similar as they are, however, they are easily distinguished. For one thing, the skipjack generally sticks to blue water, whereas the little tunny doesn’t mind chasing bait in much shallower areas—sometimes all the way to the beach. That’s the reason why little tunny are familiar to many weekend boaters along our West Coast, whereas skipjacks are seldom seen in the Gulf except by those wandering far from shore in search of blue water. Of course, the two species also have slightly different looks. The skipjack wears a series of stripes below the lateral line, while the little tunny shows only spots below that line, and a mottled pattern above it.

The true Atlantic bonito is essentially a temperate species that seldom ventures into Florida’s warmer climes but is no stranger to our northern waters, both Atlantic and Gulf. Usually under five pounds and seldom topping 10, this one also has stripes, but unlike the skipjack, it keeps them above the lateral line.

Skipjacks have distinct horizontal stripes.

Most Floridans consider the little tunny and skipjack to be “inedible” because their flesh is so red. But remember: beefsteak is red, too, and that implied comparison is by no means far-fetched. If you fillet a “bonito,” separate the lighter meat from the darker, and then slice thin steaks off the lighter portion, you’ll have the making of delicious “minute steaks.” After you sear both sides quickly in a hot pan with butter and garlic, you might like them as well as, or maybe better than, thin slices of beef treated in the same manner.

At the other end of the tuna size spectrum is the giant bluefin. Once plentiful in annual migratory runs, these monsters are not extinct quite yet, but their stocks are so depleted that the scattered catches now being made each spring in The Bahamas always cause wild excitement among younger fishermen and bitter nostalgia among the few old hands who still remember when waves of them swept past the western Bahamas each spring—enough to support a half-dozen major tournaments at Cat Cay and Bimini. There were so many giant tuna, in fact, that some of them often split from their main migratory route to visit other islands. Catches were recorded less plentifully but nearly annually at West End north of Bimini, and across the Bahamas Bank off the Abacos, particularly out of Walkers Cay.

Florida sneaked into the act at times. The bluefin migrations began each spring in the northern Gulf, but only a few giant tuna were caught off the Panhandle coast because the effort there was never very consistent. Along the southeast coast during the 1960s, anglers trolling between Dade and Palm Beach counties occasionally encountered a school of wayward migrators, but such incidents were unpredictable; moreover, they were seldom pleasant, considering that unsuspecting fishermen were armed only with standar
d sailfish tackle.

In The Bahamas it was a far different story. From the 1950s into the early 1970s, giant bluefins by the staggering ton were caught and piled on the dock during tournaments. Obviously, such a practice would be considered shameful by today’s sporting standards, but it was not a factor in the subsequent rapid decline of the stocks. That happened only after the giant fish became targets of high-tech longlining around 1970—a market having finally been developed in the Orient for their use as sashimi and fresh steaks.

Dr. Ray Waldner tested light tackle to its limits on this 24-pound Florida bonito.

You might still catch a giant tuna in the western Bahamas if you have the time (at least a week, if not two) and the finances (for charter and living expenses) to hunt one of the few schools that still come through. And in May or early June, you might even hook a giant bluefin by sheer luck on either side of The Bahamas. You won’t have much of a chance to land it, though, unless you happen to be fishing for blue marlin with heavy tackle when it strikes.

Since this is a survey of the whole tuna field, acknowledgement must be given to a couple of rare tunas that are not viable angling goals even though they do rarely show up on the end of a line. These are the albacore and the bigeye tuna. The albacore is seldom encountered because it is a temperate type that doesn’t much like our warm water. The bigeye is seldom encountered because it doesn’t much like any water that’s near the surface, where virtually all bluewater fishing baits are deployed.

And that brings us, at last, to the two species that carry most of Florida’s tuna-fishing effort on their muscular shoulders—the blackfin and the yellowfin. Both are beautiful in appearance and wonderful on the grill, but it’s their fabled fighting ability that makes them the champions of most pound-for-pound-greatest-gamefish arguments. Although the two species sometimes run in similar weights and in each other’s company, the yellowfin is the true king of Florida tunas, usually scaling in the range of 30 to 100 pounds and sometimes exceeding 200. Blackfins, by contrast, generally run around 10 to 15 pounds and, although the record is about 45 pounds, they don’t often top 30.

Top tuna sign–yellowfin clearing the surface.

Numerous blackfin tuna are caught while offshore trolling in Florida, but the potluck catch of a yellowfin is something a bluewater troller scarcely dares hope for. So if trolling is your bag, you need to seek out particular areas where the yellowfins are known to cavort with fair predictability. For Floridians, this always means a long, long boat excursion, such as a charter trip all the way to the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream out of Canaveral or Daytona Beach, or perhaps a similarly lengthy jaunt to the wide reaches of the Gulf out of a port in the Panhandle.

The only other option, even longer but perhaps more comfortable, is to hop a plane for The Bahamas. In spring and summer, schools of yellowfin of various sizes roam nearly the entire length of the eastern side of the islands, and much of their preferred territory is convenient to towns or resorts that offer the boats and crews to go after them.

Fortunately, though, trolling is not the only way to seek your tuna, and in Florida it most decidedly is not the best way. Charter skippers working the Upper and Central Keys long ago discovered that you don’t always have to hunt for blackfin tuna because, if you know the secret, they will eagerly come to you. The secret (poorly kept) is that you must seek them at the right time and in the right places, and offer them a temptation they simply can’t resist. The right time is winter and spring; the right places are a set of offshore seamounts or “humps” between Key Largo and Marathon; and the irresistible temptation, as you can probably guess, is a steady supply of live chum.

The most productive gear for chummed blackfins is spinning tackle with 12- to 20-pound line, baited, of course, with the same silvery pilchards that also do duty as chum. But with their appetites turned on, blackfins also eagerly attack artificial lures, including streamer flies.

The same basic approach gradually spread to the Lower Keys and to some mainland areas. And a big bonus developed down that way, too. In the early 1990s, the tuna-chumming hotspots—located a considerable distance west of Key West—began producing consistent numbers of yellowfin tuna along with the blackfins, bonito, yellowtails and other species that flocked to the steady stream of chum.

Even though blackfins still romp those waters between November and May, the yellowfins faded out after a few wild years. Capt. Ralph Delph of Key West thinks their decline might have been due to heavy hook-and-line commercial fishing by locals. But maybe there are other explanations. After all, yellowfins are prolific breeders and constant wanderers, and so more might well find their way back to the Key West grounds in coming years.

That’s just what seems to have happened off the southern mainland coast. Capt. Bouncer Smith of North Dade says his home waters also enjoyed a long hot streak before yellowfins virtually disappeared during the 1990s. And then, this past winter and spring (2004-2005), they began returning in encouraging numbers, if modest size.

Captain Dennis Forgione, who also works out of Haulover Inlet in North Dade, gives an enthusiastic endorsement to that view, noting that his anglers boated seven yellowfins last April.

Although live-chumming for blackfin and yellowfin tuna has long been established as a bread-and-butter approach for many Florida anglers out of many Florida ports, the system seems to have been originally developed in Bermuda, where commercial fishermen using 100-pound-test handlines started the ball rolling on the Challenger Banks sometime in the 1950s. If any fisherman ever did lose his arms to a tuna it would have to have been one of those guys, because they were occasionally compelled to wage mano a mano warfare with yellowfins that exceeded 200 pounds.

During the 1960s and ’70s, Bermuda publicist Pete Perinchief coaxed many Florida light-tackle anglers to the Challenger Banks to live-chum for tuna. But whether it was the Bermuda influence that led to the development of the Keys fishery, or whether our fishery just made its own way, is now a fuzzy subject.

Anyway, that’s the history lecture for today. As for a fishing lecture, there’s probably no better advice than to heed the war
ning once given in Kenya to would-be lion hunters: Before you go hunting for a lion be very sure you want to find one!

The same could be said of tuna. Of course, if you find a lion you might really lose your arms, whereas if you find a husky tuna you’ll probably get to keep them. But in either case, they’re going to feel like they’ve been thoroughly chewed on.

Which Tuna is Which?

Biologists regard the tunas as members of the mackerel family. To a big tuna this must sound like a demotion, if not a downright insult.

We all know that mackerels are mostly long and skinny while tunas are fat and sometimes huge. Science, nevertheless, insists on referring to the whole bunch as mackerels.

The main feature common to both sub-groups is a row of finlets running between the dorsal fin and the tail, and a similar row on the underside. No other kinds of fish sport those finlets, and so it’s obvious that the mackerels and tunas are close relatives. But wouldn’t “finlet fishes” be a better label for this widely individualistic family than “mackerels?” Just asking.

Anyway, the finlets do help with identification, because the common names of “blackfin” and “yellowfin” derive from the color of those finlets, and not from the color of the more prominent fins. For some reason, though, this naming system did not extend to the bluefin tuna, whose finlets are yellow.

Because not every species of tuna has its own finlet color, other clues to identity must be sought. Following is a list of the Florida/Bahamas tunas with their main identifying features.

ALBACORE—Although rare in local waters, this one is easy to spot by its very long pectoral fins, which extend past both the dorsal and anal fins.

BIGEYE TUNA—Because it stays very deep nearly all the time, this tuna is not often seen. Although the finlet color—yellowish with dark edges—is much the same as that of the yellowfin, the bigeye is distinguishable by its short dorsal and anal fins. Yes, the eye is indeed bigger, but not so much that you’re likely to tell the difference without a side-by-side comparison. The bigeye can be the most difficult of all our tunas to identify. Even biologists sometimes need to examine the liver to make sure.

BLACKFIN TUNA—Its relatively small size and gold or brassy tones make it easy to distinguish. Confusion with a small specimen of yellowfin tuna is possible, but here the finlets ride to the rescue. Those of the blackfin are, well, black, and of the yellowfin, yellow.

BLUEFIN TUNA—Giant bluefins need no identifying marks, but, occasionally, some juvenile schoolies show up off Florida. Their finlets are yellow with dark edges as on the yellowfin, but the overall color of the bluefin is dull blue or dark gray, and the fins are shorter.

BONITO, ATLANTIC—This small fish has longitudinal stripes above the lateral line.

LITLE TUNNY (Florida Bonito)—The only “bonito” with spots, it is also marked with a wavy pattern on the upper rear sides.

SKIPJACK TUNA (Oceanic Bonito)—On this fellow, the longitudinal stripes are found below the lateral line.

YELLOWFIN TUNA—Very long streamers trailing from the dorsal and anal fins identify many larger specimens. With fish small enough to be confused with large blackfin tuna, look for a vague vertical pattern on the sides, with a gold or silvery sheen on the lower sides and underside. If still not sure, fall back to finlet color.

FS

Florida Sportsman Classics