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Florida and Bahamas Yellowfin Tuna

Try this run-and-dump method to catch your fill of yellowfin tuna.

Up until my wife's comment, I was feeling pretty good about our first day of tuna fishing. Then she broke the news: “Honey, did you see the size of his tuna? Not just one, but a wheelbarrow full.”

We hadn't caught any large yellowfin tuna, but we'd found birds with our radar while trolling up a decent blackfin, a football-size yellowfin and several skipjacks. We were in the game, or so I thought.

I conferred with Kent Hughes, who'd also brought his family to Blue Marlin Cove, West End, Grand Bahamas. Had he found out any information about the fish?

“No, the guy isn't talking much,” said Kent.

As fate would have it, the next morning a brief power outage on the island kept Kenny Harris' boat stranded on the lift. That gave me the opportunity to find out how he could catch six tuna over 50 pounds while our party of three boats all but whiffed.

Sitting on comfortable Adirondack chairs, facing the marina, Kenny was reluctant at first, saying, “I'm not sure why I'm telling you this,” but I guess the investigative reporter in my genes kept him talking. Thankfully so.

Kenny's technique seemed straightforward enough: Find the birds, which lead you to the fish; then get upcurrent and start chunking cut sardines downstream to the tuna. Pretty simple, right? Wrong!

In theory, the approach is akin to what you'd do on a patch reef for yellowtail snapper—drifting a bait into a line of bite-size chunks. In this case, however, the “yellow” character is a fast-swimming oceanic predator which can weigh upwards of 100 pounds.

Successful execution of Kenny's “run and dump” technique involves a lot more than just throwing baits overboard in the middle of a handful of chum. Two weeks after my first trip, I headed back to West End with Harris and his crew to see it for myself.

“All right, throw!” Kenny yelled over the wind noise of a boat still on plane. “Go, go, go!” he urged as the 33-foot center console came to a stop.

Before the boat even slowed down, Greg Isbell and Nick Fusco had both thrown 10 to 15 pieces of cut sardines into the water, as well as their bait. Without missing a beat, the two were taking fistfuls of line and dumping them into the water. With rods still in the holders, clickers on and zero drag, they were able to keep their baits floating back with the chummed pieces.

With two baits out, and the boat's momentum all but stopped, Kenny came from around the wheel, got a double handful of chum and carefully dropped them in the water, while quickly grabbing his baited hook and freelining it back. You could easily see, through the clear water, his full sardine hooked through the eyes, drifting back with the six or seven cut pieces.

“It's imperative to keep your bait with the chummers,” Kenny said as he peeled coils of line from his reel.

“You've got to have patience while you're tuna fishing,” said Greg. “I can't tell you the number of times I see guys run right up to a flock of birds and start trolling through them. Your boat's going to send them down, and if you keep chasing them, you'll keep driving them down. If you just sit and wait, they'll come back to you.”

This is exactly what happened on our first fish. We ran up to a school of diving birds and busting fish, dumped a load of chum and got our baits out. What initially seemed like a missed effort, only pushing the birds in the other direction, turned into a doubleheader when the tuna wheeled around, right back to us.

The key is figuring out what direction the current is going to take your baits and getting your boat close to the fish without driving them down. With an aggressive run and dump, Kenny got within a long cast of the fish before shutting down. Other times he sets up a hundred feet or so away and starts chumming.

“As for how I decide to approach each school, it depends on the current strength and how the fish are acting,” Kenny explained. “If they're busting on the surface, skyrocketing, I feel I can run right up to them. When you find them feeding like this, it's almost a certainty that you're going to hook up. Unfortunately, most of the time we don't find fish busting the water.”

On our first attempt, the fish were going away from us. I could see 3-foot-high water explosions—fish going nuts. I counted four tuna totally airborne. My urge to crank the lines in and run must have been pretty apparent. Nick, who was standing next to me said, “We're okay; our chunks are going right toward them. We just have to wait.”

Nick was right. After four or five long minutes, the zing of clickered, untethered line rang out.

With the rod still in the holder, Greg pushed the 50-wide leverdrag halfway to its strike position, and the rod bent toward the water. Before he could even get the harness and belt on, a second reel began to sing.

The tackle setup is basic, but heavy. Big reels with lots of line are essential. Kenny uses 50's spooled with 80-pound-test line. For terminal tackle he uses four to five feet of 100-pound fluorocarbon leader, an 80-pound swivel and a seemingly small 9/0 shortshank Mustad offshore hook.

Greg prefers to use an 80-wide because of two fish he couldn't stop earlier this year. “I'd just spooled 1,500 feet of 80-pound on a 50 and just as quickly watched it all disappear into 2,300 feet of water,” he said. “With tuna over 60 to 80 pounds, if they want to go down, they'll go down until they can't go any farther. I feel you need to have as much line on your reel as the water is deep.”

I experienced what Greg was talking about on my first fish of the day, and unfortunately I was hooked up on a reel that was slightly less than full of line. After watching a couple of fish pop off, I didn't want to get too aggressive with the drag. But the spool was still going full throttle with less than a third of the line left. Kenny yelled to Dave to get another outfit snapped to the reel. We were close to having to throw the entire rod and reel overboard when the fish finally stopped.

Kenny likes to set the drags at 30 percent (24 pounds) of the 80-pound line's breaking strength. The extra drag is for cases where you're running out of line or trying to winch up the fish in case sharks are in the area.

Once you have a fish, with the rod still in the rod holder, the drill is to set the drag at half of the strike position and begin getting the belt and harness on. Once you're outfitted for battle, you increase the drag another 25 percent and begin to pump and lift.

Chunking for tuna isn't new; anglers in the northeastern U.S. have been doing it for years. But, for the most part, they're anchored near a canyon wall while creating huge chumslicks with butterfish. Kenny's method seems to be the perfect blend of radar running and canyon chumming. It's ideal for Florida and Bahamas waters.

I asked Kenny if he thought this technique would work elsewhere, as well as whether he's ever trolled or used live baits. The answer was “yes” to all three.

“I'm sure the chunking technique would work anywhere you have tuna,” he said. “There's no question that tuna respond to chumming, it's just a matter of getting your bait to the fish. What's interesting is that you don't catch as many small fish, blackfins or skipjacks.”

As for trolling, Kenny said his first effort is usually chunking, but if the fish are spread out and he's not seeing birds real close to the water, he'll troll.

“My favorite lures are Chaos daisy chains,” he said. “I'll keep trolling until I see the birds start to regroup and descend; once they're on the water, I'm chunking.”

Regarding live bait, Kenny had this to say:

“I know livebait chumming works, like they do in the Keys, but I think the chunks work better. On one of my last trips over [to the Bahamas] a friend was using live goggle-eyes and I was catching three fish to his one. But that's not to say I don't keep a bait-catching rod handy. Often we fish around weedlines that hold a variety of jacks and other baitfish. The thing is with live bait, they want to stay close to the surface, and won't drift down with your chum. Where live bait can't miss is when you get lucky enough to chum the fish right to the boat. But at that point, just about anything would work.”

As for where we were fishing, we found our first set of birds only 13 miles southeast of Blue Marlin Cove. Kenny used his 6K open-array radar to find both frigates and gulls working close to the water. He keeps his radar set for six miles, and then once he gets closer he switches to three miles. Greg mentioned that his closed array 4K radar works fine. He just ramps the gain up to 100 percent.

Kenny was planning on going to the Canyons, about a 40-mile run from West End, due south of Lucaya. However, on this day we found tuna less than 20 minutes after leaving the marina.

“I turn the radar on as soon as I leave the cut,” said Kenny. I could see why, as we caught our limit of six tuna and never even lost sight of land.

A typical day of Bahamas tuna fishing for Kenny begins in the morning, running down to the Canyons. From there he'll work his way west toward Isaac's for midday bottom fishing. Later in the day, he'll move either to fish Tuna City, south of West End, or go back east to the Canyon for the afternoon bite.

Just as Kenny has his game plan for the boat, Nick has his system dialed in on the chum and baits. He plans for 25 pounds of sardines per day. He's able to buy 25-pound flats, but 5-pound boxes work fine. One trick Greg employs is chopping frozen sardines with a sharp cleaver, and then packing them in 1-gallon Zip Lock bags, keeping them frozen until the day's fishing trip. Without a doubt it's nice to be able to just pull out a bag of cut chum versus trying to cut bait while Kenny leaps from flock to flock at 40 mph.

We enjoyed two days of tuna fishing, without trolling countless circles around flying birds. I couldn't argue with anything this angling team had to say. They had the run-and-dump system down pat. I was a reformed troller.

Florida and Yellowfin Tuna Regs

In order to land yellowfin tuna in Florida, U.S. federal and even international waters, your vessel must possess a Highly Migratory Species angling permit, available from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Cost is $28 for the annual vessel permit; or call (888) 872-8862.

This permit is also required for landing skipjack tuna, bluefin tuna, big-eye tuna, albacore, swordfish, marlins, sailfish and certain pelagic sharks.

Daily bag limit for yellowfin tuna is 3 per person; minimum size is 27 inches curved fork length. A flexible measuring tape is stretched from the tip of the snout, over the pectoral fin insertion point and tight along the curved flank to the fork of the tail.

There is no phone reporting requirement for landings of yellowfin tuna, as there is for bluefin, swordfish and billfish.

In addition to the HMS permit, U.S. anglers fishing Bahamas waters need to possess a Bahamas vessel cruising and fishing permit, available at Port of Entry. Valid for two entries within a 90-day period, the permit is $150 for vessels up to 35 feet; $350 for those larger (cost goes up if more than 4 persons are aboard).

Yellowfin tuna limit there is 6 per vessel (this figure includes the aggregate count of all pelagic species, including wahoo, dolphin and kingfish).

Do not attempt to land fish prior to obtaining your Bahamas fishing permit. FS

Florida and Bahamas Yellowfin Tuna First Published Florida Sportsman October 2007

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