New Zealand is a great place to catch a wide variety of sportfish: the record books graphically proving that many of them reach their maximum size while feeding in our surrounding waters. Along with huge striped marlin, southern yellowtail (kingfish), southern bluefin tuna and several species of shark (including mako, blue, tope, hammerhead, and thresher), there are also 'lesser' sportfish such as kahawai, silver trevally and squirefish - not as big as the other, more publicised gamefish, but at least as courageous of heart and all tough propositions on light tackle. Anglers come from all over the world to catch these fish, as well as for our broadbill swordfish, bigeye and yellowfin tuna.
Aaahh! The yellowfin tuna - almost a 'forgotten' gamefish due to the relatively short season we enjoy. Although yellowfin are caught throughout much of New Zealand's North Island waters, by far the biggest concentration of tuna activity occurs in the Bay of Plenty region. They tend to arrive around late December and carry on through to April, usually starting out in front of the port of Whakatane and spreading out along the East Coast to Te Kaha and Waihau Bay.
What makes this tuna fishery a particularly interesting and challenging one, is that the methods used to catch them vary greatly from season to season - as well as throughout the season - and even from fish to fish. This encourages anglers to constantly chop and change tactics, as well as participate in healthy amounts of experimentation.
As each season approaches and then progresses, we hope that it will be, or become, a 'meatball' one: a situation that sees day upon day of tightly-packed balls of baitfish (consisting of pilchards, anchovies, or both) being smashed to pieces on the sea's surface, usually by a mixture of yellowfin, skipjack and albacore tuna - as well as the odd whale and some huge, oceanic bronze whaler sharks!
By stopping the boat's engines just short of the action, it's usually possible to entice the beseiged baitfish into seeking refuge around the boat's hull, especially around the propellor and rudder area. The bigger the boat, the more attractive it is, to the point that schools of bait will often swap allegiance, moving out from one boat to a larger one.
Just how long the meatball of baitfish remains with the vessel is generally dependent on the amount of pressure it is under. If good numbers of feeding skipjack tuna are constantly patrolling and raiding, the anchovies find it in their best interests to stay put. (Interestingly, one often finds that the middle of some anchovy schools contain a 'core' of pilchards, the bigger baitfish having muscled the anchovies outwards to form an edible shield around themselves).
Although there are numerous occasions where the baitfish appear to only have skipjack and albacore tuna in attendance, if yellowfin have been sighted elsewhere in the area, stick around! Don't be too quick to write a meatball off. The sound and vibrations of feeding fish and birds will eventually attract larger predators - it's just a case of whether you have the time to wait around.
Speaking from experience, a common scenario is to be sitting on a meatball, see another getting ripped apart close by, make the decision to wind in and charge over to it, arrive just in time to be greeted by the sight of a million floating scales - and the meatball you've just left being decimated by yellowfin. Very frustrating!
So, be a little patient and use everything possible to swing things your way. This might include actions such as squirting hoses onto the sea surface, or splashing the water around with a broom or spade - anything that might simulate feeding fish or excite predatory feeding - and always use chunks whenever possible (we'll talk more about this later).
Occasionally, the baitfish will not be immediately apparent or they disappear from the surface. At such times they may be found holding deeper down, so always keep an eye on the sounder for any sign of them. If good numbers can be seen around 10 to 20 metres down, it is usually worth stopping overhead.
Predatory pressure, or changing water temperatures and currents, often serve to encourage the baitfish to rise up and cling to the boat, and even if they don't, good fishing can be achieved by dropping down weighted livebait rigs and jigs to the bait school.
Be prepared to take a 'scoop' at any time. When predators move in, the baitfish are often pressured up to the surface around the boat's hull and can be 'scooped' up with a long-handled, fine-mesh net. Just how much of the school should be taken on board is determined by accessibility and how big the school is.
While it's nice to have a good supply of these baitfish on hand to help start or prolong a hot bite, reasonable numbers of live fish left around the hull serve to attract and hold tuna in the near vicinity, without any effort on your part - so make sure enough are left to perform this function!
What bait and how to look after them
Although the majority of yellowfin tuna are generally feeding on pilchards and anchovies, most tuna fishermen do not use them for bait - unless the pilchards are quite large. Small baits tend to attract too much unwanted attention from skipjack, albacore and baby yellowfin, rather than the Big Boys (in our case averaging 60- to 120-lb).
As a result, various species of live mackerel are often used instead, the ideal all-round size being around ten to twelve inches long. Of course larger baits can be used (live skipjack and kawakawa tuna for example) but it can be hard to wait for that extra-big, extra-hungry fish to come along and eat such baits - especially if other fisherman are regularly hooking up decent fish on smaller baits close by!
If mackerel can't be caught, anything that wiggles can catch fish, especially if they also have some body-flash. A big exception is live squid - these can be lethal at times.
Whatever the baits happen to be, make an effort to keep them in as good a shape as possible. This means minimising the handling of them, right from the point of capture through to retrieving them from the livebait well and hooking them on. Experienced live bait catchers never unhook a livebait with their bare hands if at all possible. Instead, they position the wriggling bait over the opened bait well and use the back of a butterknife to slide up the shank of the hook until the curve of the hook is reached and the hook becomes upside-down, the eye of the hook now facing downwards. A gentle shake is all that's required for the baitfish to fall off the hook and into the tank.
When scooping them out as baits later on, use soft, small-meshed nets and try to avoid taking deep scoops: this often results in several baits being caught at once and can damage their protective body slime.
Cover the options!
While there are times when visible tuna simply need to have a bait dropped into the water to obtain a hook-up, often it will not be that easy. Whether parked on top of a meatball or simply positioned in an area known to have tuna present, there should be a variety of livebaiting techniques deployed on board, starting from baits under floats, to swimming and unweighted baits, to lightly weighted and even quite heavily weighted rigs.
But first, get the terminal tackle rigged properly.
The breaking strain of traces and size of hooks will change from day to day and must take into account the size of fish present, the breaking strain of the mainline and how big the baits are. In general however, the heavier the mainline, the thicker the trace should be.
This is because the greater the tension on the line, the easier it is for the trace to be cut or abraded by the hooked fish. So, as a rule of thumb, start with a trace that is double the breaking strain of the mainline and go up or down in poundage as is deemed necessary.
An exception involves some of the latest super-thin leader products, such as Jinkai. In these instances it is best to go up in breaking strain as it is the toughness and thickness of the trace that is important, not the poundage.
Although it may appear on occasion that the tuna are so hungry that they will even take baits presented on wire hawser, at other times they may seem to have become vegetarians, such is their frustratingly fussy attitude. When this happens, some anglers will forgo a trace (especially on 24 and 37kg tackle), simply tying a hook on the end of their mainline.
Personally, I'd prefer not to do that, opting to use fluorocarbon trace instead. Although not cheap, this type of line can be particularly hard to see underwater and is tremendously tough. Unfortunately, not all fluorocarbon products are created equal, but Seagar and Deceiver have proven themselves reliable products. If leader knots are failing, try a different brand or higher poundage (or both), or give snooding or crimping a go.
As for the hook, it should always be relative to the size of the bait and, if in doubt, it is better to go a little small than too big. All hooks must be strong enough to withstand the breaking strain of the main line without bending or breaking.
There are numerous ways to hook livebaits, but two factors mainly determine the hook placement in the end: the livebaiting method and rig, and the physiological nature of the bait used. In New Zealand, nose-hooking and back-hooking predominates, but anal- and collar- hooking is starting to get a few fans as well.
Although nose-hooking a bait is easily done and has its share of aficionados, I find that the hook doubles back into the bait's head too often for my liking, needlessly killing precious livebaits as well as diminishing the number of successful hook-ups. However, if the current is strong and the bait needs to be as streamlined as possible, nose-hooking is still a worthwhile option.
I mainly shoulder-hook my baits as they remain lively for long periods of time and the hook-up ratio is high. Both straight and curved patterns of hooks can be used, but make sure that the kirb of the hook enables the point and barb to remain well-clear of the body, rather than angling downwards and back into the body of the baitfish.
To help achieve this, the hook is positioned diagonally across the upper section of mackerel's shoulder, just back from the gills, the point and barb angling up towards the head and in front of the shank. Provided the hook is not set too deeply, the mackerel will remain very active, sending out strong vibrations that are more likely to be picked up by predatory fish.
N.B. Anal hooking: this method is a real surprise to me. I thought bringing baitfish in backwards would kill it in short order - but in this case it doesn't - far from it, in fact. I lightly hook the bait just back from the vent, in the sinewy tail section. This position hardly ever ends up accidentally double-hooking the bait, and hooks up well.
I will never forget the first time I saw fired-up yellowfin jumping clear of the water all around my float as they pursued my livebait, prior to one of them gobbling it down and smoking off. This can be a very exciting way to catch tuna.
Integral to the method and rig is the float: this must be big enough to hold the bait near the surface. Although some baits might be powerful enough to initially pull the float down, when they tire a few minutes later, the float is usually able to bob back up to the surface again. If it doesn't, put on a bigger float. A little too big is better than a little too small - roughly the size of a tennis ball that's been elongated.
If you have a float with a hole down the centre, so much the better. This allows the float to be threaded onto four metres of shock leader above a ball bearing swivel which in turn is tied to a short, 60cm fluorocarbon trace.
This set-up allows the mackerel to swim out from the relative safety of the boat, with the downward pressure of the moving mackerel pulling the long nylon leader through the float's middle until it comes up against the knot joining the shock leader to the mainline.
The livebait is now set deep enough to avoid unwanted attention from most predatory birds, but when eaten by a tuna and later brought boatside, the float slides back down the leader to the swivel, enabling the angler to wind right to the short fluorocarbon trace if necessary, eliminating the need for a trace man and helping the gaff shot.
Brightly coloured floats should be used if possible. This makes them easier to see, so the angler is less likely to unwittingly tangle with the other lines, or wind in and find that the bait has swum around the propellor, rudder or bow. Just as importantly, they enable anglers to position their to take advantage of any likely-looking action. (For example, on our last trip, the anglers who managed to place their baits in the way of passing schools of feeding skipjack, got strikes from the yellowfin that were shadowing them).
There will be times when a balloon works better than a traditional-type float. The greater surface area of the balloon is affected by the wind and current more, so these natural forces can be harnessed by anglers wanting to keep their baitfish in a position that they might otherwise not swim to. Conversely, air can be let out of the balloon so that it is very small, minimising the affects of a wind-against-tide situation. Tie the balloon on with two or three strands of cotton.
If I was only allowed to have one bait out, it would probably be a free-swimming livebait (i.e. a rig with no float or weight). This rig is similar to the float rig - except without a float! If the fish are picky, the long shock leader is best omitted, leaving just the short length of fluorocarbon as protection from the tuna's tiny abrasive teeth.
When fishing free-swimming livebaits, it is best to hold your outfit, letting out or retrieving line as necessary. Try to remain in contact at all times and sometimes partially retrieve the bait before letting it out again. The constantly moving bait seems to attract more strikes.
Livebaits on sinker rigs
This rig is also similar to the float rig, except that it has a sliding sinker instead of a float and the fluorocarbon trace is often extended to one metre in length, enabling the bait more room to wriggle (thereby appearing more attractive) and helping to distance it from the more obvious sinker and swivel. The weight of the sinker depends on the depth and current being fished but 2-4 ounces is generally sufficient to keep the bait in position, usually in the midwater somewhere.
Waiting for the strike
In most cases, anglers who work their baits and hold their outfits tend to be more successful than an outfit left to look after itself. That's in an ideal world though - if there's little fish action happening, or the angler wishes to use more than one outfit, the gear is likely be left in a rod holder, the reel in freespool and the clicker on.
However, this is not always possible. Some clickers are so soft and light that they are unable to prevent spools from over-running when a fish strikes hard. This is particularly true of the larger, gamefishing-type reels, the weight of the heavy spools making them hard to effectively control. In these instances, it is better to set a minimal drag setting and then engage the ratchet.
Consequently, lever-drag type reels are generally preferred for this type of fishing, enabling anglers to change drag pressures within the pre-set drag quadrant but always return to the optimum/maximum drag pressure later on.
Stardrag models can be a little risky for those anglers without much experience as, after getting the tuna strike, the angler has to quickly screw the star drag back up to a higher setting, seat the hook and then be ready to rapidly adjust again if the initial guess appears wrong.
From the moment the ratchet sounds, the hook can be set as tuna have big mouths that suck baits down immediately. Some people purposely wait longer for the bait to be swallowed right down, hoping that the deeper set hook will prevent the tuna from fighting as long and hard. I prefer not to do that myself as this often causes the tuna to be injured internally, making survival less likely should it escape or be released afterwards.
The art of cubing
If you have the means and inclination to set up a cube trail, you will definitely hook more yellowfin. A trail serves to lure tuna into the vicinity of various livebait rigs and also enables anglers to take advantage of those tuna feeding exclusively on the chunk trail by drifting down their own 'loaded' chunks. It can be hard to overcome the misconception that a good livebait has got to be more attractive than a hunk of bait.
Get over this way of thinking right away. When tuna have been working a trail for a while, they tend to become very focused on the what the 'free' food looks like and often reject the best of livebaits as a result. Just because the livebaiters aren't catching anything, it doesn't mean there are no tuna around! Always, always have at least one person utilizing the chunk trail.
If possible, start the trail in an area where tuna have recently been caught or seen, or around areas that contain a lot of baitfish. If it is calm and the productive area large, a good option is to drift and chunk, but if it's all happening in a small localised area you may need to anchor up and cube instead.
To start the chunk trail, chop up a number of fish (big or small but the fresher the better) into cubes that are a little smaller than a golf ball. Whether you set a single or multi-chunk trail will depend on how many chunks you have, but a multi-chunk trail is definitely more effective. By dispensing several chunks at a time, more tuna can be kept interested, as single chunk trails can be hogged by just one hungry indivuidual.
The chunks must be dropped in at regular intervals. The rule of thumb is that as the previous chunk(s) disappear from sight, put more in. Someone must have the responsibility of dispensing them and sticking to the task through thick and thin. If the chunk trail is disrupted, the fish will soon leave and you'll have to waste time attracting more.
Should birds prove to be a nuisance, try releasing the chunks up-current of the boat's hull so that the cubes are forced down and under the boat's keel. When they exit on the other side, they will be a lot deeper, making them harder for the birds to intercept. Squirting birds with a deck hose can serve as a harmless (and somewhat surprising) deterrant. There's no need to wait long before dropping a loaded chunk down the trail, but a high degree of subterfuge is necessary as tuna have very good eyesight and everything must look as natural as possible. This means: minimal length and poundage traces; hooks that are strong and small enough to be buried inside the bait; and even dispensing with swivels if possible (although they sometimes provide just enough weight to neutralise a minor wind-against-tide situation).
The chunk bait should be the same size and type of the other chunks in the trail. Deeply imbed the hook into the flesh only. As mentioned previously, tuna swallow baits immediately and the angler should have the ability to strike the hook clear of the bait for a clean hook-up.
The loaded cube is dropped in with the other cubes and allowed to drift away as naturally as possible. This means ensuring that line is pulled manually from the reel and released into the water before the pull of the current registairs, as this hinders the bait and prevents it from sinking as deeply as the other chunks. A chunk that is too far away from the other chunks is far less likely to be eaten. If no bite is forthcoming after around 100 metres of line has been released, you need to get rid of your bait so that it doesn't spin the line up on the retrieve. Engage the reel, wind fast for a few seconds to straighten the line, and then jerk back hard with the rod. It's another good reason for only flesh-hooking cube baits.
An alternative to the cube is to use a whole pilchard instead. In this case, the hook is threaded in through the mouth, out the gill cover opening and then back into the main body of the pilchard so that the hook is concealed deeply within. Let the pilchard drift back the same as a cube bait, but be aware that because you are winding a pilchard back in headfirst it will appear to be swimming. This can result in bonus hook ups on the retrieve, so if any pressure is suddenly felt, strike firmly - then hang on hard as the tuna tries to destroy both you and your tackle...
This article is reproduced with permission of
New Zealand Fishing News
2000 - by Mark Kitteridge
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited