April 26, 2019
Searching high and low, near and far, for yellowfin tuna.
Each spring, as tuna season approached, my dentist would try me on fixing my cracked linetooth. That or gently push the latest whitening procedure. I'd laugh. I knew the score. He had a 33 Dusky at his house and was planning another one of these crazy loops through the Bahamas in search of yellowfins. He'd run Northwest Channel out to the open Atlantic, up around Elbow Cay, back around north of the Abacos, stopping at strategic points to unwind. Or maybe it was the reverse. He'd catch fish, yes, but sometimes, as I learned, he'd do the whole lap and return with an empty box.
Running my tongue over my jagged tooth, I think about my dentist. Retired, he's out there, I'm sure, still searching for his tuna fix.
Does this obsession make any sense? Yellowfin tuna is available at practically every grocer from Miami to Maine, Manhattan to Mexico. We raise our kids on tuna casserole, battle our expanding waistlines with scoops of tuna salad, soak up soy and wasabi with beet-red slices at sushi restaurants everywhere.
But for a certain kind of angler, chasing yellowfin tuna is powerfully addicting. A 100-pounder eating a ballyhoo puts an unbelievably big hole in the water behind your transom. You can hear and practically feel the shock. Hook one on a jig or plug, and you feel like you've snagged a bus.
Captain Ed Dwyer knows the score. Running the charterboat Predator out of Port Canaveral in 1987, Dwyer made it to the 120-mile NOAA weather buoy to discover it was mobbed by yellowfins. Within a few years, Dwyer figured out how to find seabirds using radar, which at once expanded the playing field while at the same time shortening the runs.
“By then I was running the Ticket, and once we found the birds, we'd stop at 60 or 80 miles. Back in the day, our Furuno radar looked like a big TV screen up in the bridge. We'd figured out how to dial in the echo, turn off rain and sea clutter.”
Dwyer learned to differentiate, at ranges up to 6 miles, the radar returns of small packs of birds—magnificent frigatebirds, sooty terns—hovering over schools of big yellowfins. The tunas with their huge eyes find the bait, herd it to the surface, and a foamy squeeze play ensues.
“In those early days I was taking a lot of center console guys fishing. And now, next thing you know, every center console looks like a helicopter, with the radar up top!”
Today, Dwyer is a private captain, spending much of the year in the Bahamas at the helm of a 66 Spencer and its “little” cousin, a 42 Yellowfin. “We chase birds and run and gun all day. My boss likes it, I like it, but man do we burn some fuel!”
Each spring, Dwyer again turns his eye to Florida's Canaveral coast, where he holds his annual Other Side tournament. It's been running for 21 years. The big prize goes to the boat with the heaviest aggregate of three yellowfin tuna. Last year's winner: 238.7 pounds, which included a 110-pounder.
“We cap the field at 25 boats max,” said Dwyer, “and we put on a big show for the public at the weigh-in. We get boats from Jacksonville to the Keys, 32-footers up to big 70-foot sportfishers. We try to get the mid-to-last week of April every year—which is historically when the big ones show.”
Regulations are pretty fluid—about the only obligation is attending the captains meeting on Friday night, and then weighing fish for the crowds Sunday at Sunrise Marina. “They can leave from any inlet. Other than that, it's lines-in at 6 a.m. Saturday, and lines-up at 9 p.m. As the guys come in, some of them at midnight, they call my cell phone and I schedule their time for the weigh-in.”
For anglers new to the east coast yellowfin fishery, Dwyer shared some pointers.
“Guys that fish a lot know the deal,” he said. “You can get out real early in the morning, but you have to remember the birds gotta find the fish first, and then you find them on the radar. A lotta guys run out real early past that 60, 70, 80 mile mark, and then they're out at 90 or 100 miles. But here comes a late-comer who sees the birds at 70 miles.
“Another thing is, the afternoon can be slow, and a lotta guys run in at 5 p.m. But every year, the guys who win, they fish till it's dark. They get on those last few packs of birds, and often they'll get on a big pack of fish chewing up on the surface.”
TUNA TIME Examples of gear and rigs for yellowfin fisheries around Florida.
KEEP A FEW EYES OUT
Dwyer said the Canaveral tuna boats today are split among trollers and livebaiters.
“We use a long, fluorocarbon topshot— usually 60-pound-test—and troll way back with naked ballyhoo,” Dwyer said. “But kite-fishing with live baits, same as with sailfish, is really good too. If you get on a good school of fish and put up a bait under the kite, those tuna can't refuse it.
“Another thing is, some guys get in the skipjack schools and think that's all that's there, but the big yellowfins are often under them.”
Radar continues to play a very important role. Dwyer's big boat has a 25kW Simrad radar; his Yellowfin, a 10 kW. Many of today's systems have intuitive, user-selectable settings that optimize imaging of targets such as birds, weather systems. Dwyer said he's a stickler for upkeep.
“One thing people don't realize on radars, is it's almost like tuning up your car when it's idling rough,” he said. “People will get complacent and say, ‘Okay, I've got a 10kW radar that picks up birds.' But next year, it might still pick them up but might have 1,000 hours on the antenna. There's different stuff you can do—magnetrons may need replacement. And check the voltage. If you're down below 12 volts,you're losing sensitivity. Having that stuff dialed in makes a big difference. Some days in the Bahamas, we're running all over the ocean, and then I find that one frigate bird that makes my day!”
For as much as the Atlantic yellowfin fishery continues to inspire anglers, in many ways, the gold rush has shifted west.
The tuna fishery around the deepwater oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico is hardly a new discovery. Overnight sportfishers out of Pensacola and Destin have been fishing it for decades—though primarily as a side-show to the blue marlin fishery. But in recent years, innovations in boat design, power and information-sharing have enabled straight-line day trips out of Florida ports, kingfish-style.
Captain Chaz Heller typifies the modern Gulf tuna fisherman. He runs a 34 Venture out of Pensacola Beach and has all the tools for yellowfin success.
“I spent two years over in Venice, Louisiana, and the rigs we fished there are actually the same distance as they are from here,” Heller said. “The thing here is, there's a difference in mentality among the Destin/ billfish club people—A lot of those guys saw the tuna fishery as only a nighttime fishery. In the big sportfish boats, they'd leave midafternoon, get to the rigs at night, and only fish for tunas at night, then they'd troll the next day for marlin.
“Well, now that I have a boat that goes fast enough, I can leave just before sunrise, fish all day and be back an hour after dark.”
Heller, of course, also runs the usual assortment of Gulf trips: reef fishing, dolphin, cobia. But those 25 to 35 tuna trips each year are special, he says.
“I've never been skunked— probably the worst day I've had is two fish at around 60 pounds.”
Where the Atlantic fishery relies heavily on radar, the Gulf fishery is more of a sonar game, watching the water column in the bait-rich waters surrounding the big rigs. In waters where the depth may exceed 5,000 feet, Heller tunes his sonar to the first 450 feet of the water column, from the surface down. “Then I turn up the sensitivity to where I can see the thermocline—that's where we usually find the fish, right below the thermocline. Biologists say these fish feed every three to six hours, taking 6 to 8 ounces at a time, until they get hot and then move down to deeper water to cool down.”
Heller doesn't mess around with trolling Ilander-ballyhoo combos or big plugs. Instead, he fishes what's essentially magnum-grade kingfish rigs.
“I use a lot of hardtails and cigar minnows—in the winter I'll run across a shallow rig and catch them on No. 6 or 8 sabiki rigs. In summer, I might wait to make bait 30 miles offshore around weedlines or floating debris.”
At the tuna grounds, which start about 80miles from Pensacola, Heller said, “In open water, we'll get upcurrent of the fish, put the live baits in the riggers, slow-troll until we mark fish, and then let the baits drift. On the rigs, we'll mark fish on the upcurrent side, up to a quarter mile from the rig, and we'll hold over the fish, bumping the engine in gear—not really trolling, but the baits will be swimming one or two knots.
“If the fish won't come up, we'll put a rubber band in a 16-ounce weight and wrap it around the leader about 20 feet from the weight, drop it down 250 feet or so.
“In summer, we do a lot of chunking—we'll use whatever bonito or blackfin we kept from the day before, but we also want a few flats of pogies, and if we're really lucky, some barracuda. If I can have what we call red meat, white meat and green meat, that's a trifecta.”
Little tip: When hooking cut bait… well, don't: “I slit the bait against the grain of the meat, making a little triangle where I can push the hook in deep enough so that the tension of the meat keeps the hook in it,” said Heller. “If you're reeling the bait back, you want to rip the hook out—if the bait stays on, and you reel up 300 feet of topshot, it's gonna spin up and grab rodtips.”
While the trolling and baiting tactics may sound familiar to kingfish anglers, what happens when Heller's angler pushes the leverdrag from click to strike, is most assuredly not. When you're 90 miles from port, trying to time the feeding rhythm of tunas that may weigh close to 200 pounds, you want to make that bite count.
“We're not playing around out there,” said Heller. “I'm fishing 50-wide reels with 80- or 100-pound braid, and we want to get that fish within 30 or 45 minutes. I'm fishing 22 to 26 pounds of drag—I want my clients to really lay it to 'em.”
Back at the dock in Pensacola, Heller's clients split up the fish. Gulf yellowfins are said to have a relatively high water content in their tissue, and so they don't freeze well (leaving the skin on helps protect the fillets from freezer burn). The captain encourages folks to eat as much as they can fresh; smoke some of the remainder, or preserve chunks by canning in a pressure cooker. The latter method, in fact, is a specialty of Heller's—as he'll reveal in an upcoming article in this magazine.
Invariably, once customers have packed their YETIs, swallowed their Ibuprofen and hit the road, Heller and his buddies will be left staring at the head of a yellowfin tuna.
“We'll throw it on the grill, cover it in soy sauce and teriyaki, cook that throat, cheeks, all the meat behind the head—it's the best part of the tuna, and the best three hours of fun you can have around a grill! We bring out the beers and everybody gets a plastic fork and goes to digging. Leave me a 100-pound tuna head—I'm happy as hell!”
In the end, there's more to this yellowfin obsession than meets the eye. Steaks drying behind the glass at the seafood counter don't tell anything of the story. The thrill of the discovery, the excitement of the strike, the wrestling match on pitching seas, making the most out of an already delicious catch—it's enough to make a sensible dentist drop his coat, cash that retirement fund and head for the blue horizon.
Call me, Doc… I want a report! FS
First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine April 2018