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Tuna on the Fly

You've never seen kite-fishing like this before.


Big skipjacks also fall for the tactic.

It's said that there are no secrets in offshore fishing anymore.


And yet this new trick seemed to be a secret that produced one of the most exciting ocean trips I've been on.


The bam, wham, knockdowns, blowups and hookups were fit for a Batman action cartoon.

Fortunately, I wasn't sworn to complete secrecy and got the green light to share the method with a few thousand of my closest friends.

Young Geoffrey Campbell, mate to and son of Capt. George Campbell, had started telling me about their technique as we left Caloosa Cove Marina in Islamorada.


“We do things a little different,” he said and then looked up at his dad to see if he should continue. Dad nodded yes.


Basically, the Campbells troll a soft-plastic flyingfish, often under a kite.


“Then the secret is to attach a trailing treble hook to the bait,” said Geoffrey.



Use rigging wire to pin the stinger to bait.

He explained that they had gotten worlds of strikes and blowups without the trailing treble, “but once we added the second hook it was a whole new ball game.”


Our destination that day was the Marathon Hump, or to locals, the West Hump (24-25.504'N, 80-45.202'W). It's about 25 miles from Islamorada, a little farther than its more popular brother to the east, but George feels it's worth the time and fuel to get away from some of the boat pressure. Even with that being the case we saw a few boats trolling under terns and gulls as we neared the underground mountain rising 500 feet from the ocean floor over 1,000 feet down.


The father/son, captain/mate team was ready for action. Kite rod on the bridge, medium wind, all-purpose kite ready, plastic bait resting on the transom cover board prepared to fly across the surface.


Yummee Flying Fish by Carolina Lures ( are made to be traditionally trolled or used as teasers. They're even advertised to right themselves if they happen to flip over on their back. Sounds like a pretty good trolling bait, but once you add a fishing kite you add a whole new dimension.George Campbell, a Florida Keys fishing captain, rigs his flyer with 10 to 12 feet of 60-pound mono snelled to a single 9/0 J-hook. He then uses the tag end of the snell to tie on a large 4X strong treble hook. He adds a couple tie wraps around the body of the bait and the single J-hook, creating a stiffening effect that helps keep the bait intact as it slides up the leader. Remember most hookups are on the trailing hook. He finishes the rig with the all-important stinger, using copper rigging wire to pin the hook right up to the tail of the flyer.

With the added height of the bridge and the self-produced wind caused by the trolling boat the kite was airborne in seconds. Just as quickly the plastic flyer was lifted into the air and was soon skimming across wave tops a hundred yards off and behind the port side of the boat.


George shook his head as he watched a boat troll right through the school of fish sending the birds up and away—but worse, pushing the fish down. George says that trolling right over them is the biggest mistake people make when fishing a school of tuna. “I guess they're afraid of missing the fish, but 8 out of 10 times, when you run right through the birds you kill your chances of hooking up.”


George went on, “The relationship of the birds and tuna isn't complex. The fish are pushing bait to the surface where they become easy prey for the birds. If you interrupt this with your boat you've lost your navigational aids as well as your chances of hooking up. What you need to do is get your bait to the fish, not your boat. You've got to do your best to determine which direction the school's moving and how big the school is, then you make a wide half-circle around them getting your bait on an interception course with Charlie.”


On days when the 37-foot Snapshot is looking for action, George prefers using a kite while trolling to keep his boat away from the fish and his bait dead center. Over the last couple of years he's perfected the technique. Without a system, and a little teamwork, I could see where the technique might be more work than it's worth, but they have it down pat.


As George maneuvered around the schooling fish, keeping his boat well away from the birds, it was up to Geoffrey to keep the bait skipping across the wave tops. To do this he kept a close watch and made slight adjustments to how much line was out on the fishing reel. If the kite rose up, bringing the bait out of the water, he simply let more line out. If the kite came down too far, or a boat-turn pulled the bait back, he'd reel in some line. Aside from these adjustments the only other minor change Geoffrey would make while we were fishing was to switch the rod to the downwind side of the boat, keeping the line from going across the cockpit.



Skipping flyfishing lure.

I couldn't imagine a more visual, exciting way to troll offshore. It was like working a topwater bait through a school of seawall-smashing jack crevalle. On the first pass, where our bait skipped right through some busting tuna, I couldn't keep my eyes off the bait. Each wave seemed like an event. The bait was so far off our port side that it didn't seem like it was our bait, no longer an attached rubber fish.


The first hit sent the bait several feet in the air, bringing screams from the cockpit, but like in a featherweight bout, you didn't have to wait long for the next strike. As soon as the bait skipped across the next wave it was hit again and again, causing a tremendous explosion of water. I could only imagine what it must have looked like under the

water as the fish fought each other to get to the fleeing baitfish imitation.


The instant the line popped from the kite clip George was yelling at Geoffrey to reel. No hookset, just reel. This is where George feels the outcome—landing or losing the fish—is determined. You have to have a reel with a fast retrieve to take up any slack in the line. Mark Davis was first to the rod and didn't need any added encouragement to reel; he had the 30-pound conventional reel stuck in his hip and was a blur reeling and pumping.


It didn't take long to get the first tuna to the boat, skipjack tuna to be specific. A nice fish but we were just getting started. There wasn't much time spent high fiving and celebrating. In just the time it took to turn the boat toward the birds, the bait was pulled off the transom and flying back into position.


It was a much bigger tuna than our last one.

This time a big dolphin entered the fray. Everyone on the boat but me saw the enormous head of a giant bull dolphin crash the bait, sending it in the air, and then hitting it a second time. But like most heavyweights, it wasn't able to finish with a three-punch combination and was beat out by a faster striking tuna.


Judging by the way the line was peeling off the reel, it was a much bigger tuna than our last one. It was Geoffrey's girlfriend Jody's turn. It took ten or more minutes to land the 20-plus-pound blackfin, almost more than a match for the hundred-pound Jody.


And that's the way it went, two more passes, two more tuna. I looked around and there were still a few boats trolling around the hump and it really didn't look like they were catching anything. Our action was so constant that it was hard to really tell, but I left sure they weren't having the success we were having.



The Marathon Hump comes into view.

Using kites to troll isn't totally innovative. A few South Florida skippers have been flying, so to speak, below the radar and doing this for years. Many probably got the idea while drifting a kite bait, and having to make a run to a free-jumping sail, and hooking up on the fast-trolled kite bait.


It was only a matter of time before the ingenuity of a few good fishermen figured out how to use easily bought artificials to do the job of livies.


About the time I was going to comment that the birds had departed, George got a call on the radio reporting a big blue marlin right behind a small dolphin another boat had on. With the excitement of two hours of constant fish attacks it seemed only fitting that a big blue was next. Scanning the horizon, I could read the captain's mind: no birds—our first five minutes without a blowup—it was time to go for the marlin.


Captain and crew were quick to shift gears. As Geoffrey reeled in the bait and kite, George deboned one of the skipjacks and inserted a 15/0 J-hook, from the bottom through the tip of the nose. In less than five minutes we were marlin fishing.


As we watched the tethered tuna, just 20 feet off our transom being trolled at six knots, everyone was still on point—something not normally associated with big-game trolling. But, once you experience the excitement of trolling with a kite and rubber flyingfish your days of uneventful hours of trolling will be over.



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