Preparing to Catch Southern Bluefin Tuna

As the water temperatures drop and the billfish head for warmer waters, Kiwi angler's thoughts often turn to southern bluefin tuna, a recently 'discovered' winter fishery. Grant Dixon talks to two people who have been in the thick of this fishery for many years, and they both offer some sound advice for preparing to catch southern bluefin tuna.

The fishing

Respected angler Luke Davis’ first piece of advice when I started talking SBT with him was, “It is not like marlin fishing.”

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“The only similarity is that it is a troll fishery; after that the game is very different.”

Luke went on to explain the two major differences are the trolling speed and the size of the most productive lures.

He and his crews have found 5.5-6.5 knots is the best trolling speed, which is good from the fuel cost perspective, and is also kinder on the crew as it is generally rough.

Luke, who manages the popular East Auckland tackle store Yeehaa Tackle, says the use of squid daisy chains, spreader bars and bird teasers have worked well for him. He suggests they help hide the leader and when it is windy, add that little extra resistance that takes the bow out of the line, preventing tangles.

He likes to run the birds and daisy chains on the rigger lines and the spreader bars in closer. The rule of thumb is to run your spread at least one wave, if not two, further back in the wake.

In the lure department, Luke will run a selection of different head shapes – bullet, straight running pushers and aggressive slant-faced lures in the 6-10” size range.

His preferred colours are anything natural as a first choice, followed by lumo and then orange. His favourite is the Bonze Undertaker in Lumo, and he often runs three Undertakers in the spread in different colours. These are rigged with 8/0 and 9/0 double-hook rigs on relatively short 200lb fluorocarbon leaders.

Three of Luke Davis' favourite SBT lures and skirt colours.

Three of Luke Davis' favourite SBT lures and skirt colours.

“We have found the fish quite often are hooked deep and there is the possibility of chafing, hence the tougher fluorocarbon leaders. I like to keep the leader short, so you can keep a consistent pressure on the fish and wind the swivel right to the rod tip, presenting the fish in gaffing range.”

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“You quite often hear of people losing the fish at the boat. I believe changing the pressure as you take wraps on the leader can be the cause of this. The fish feels the change and is spooked, bolting away and sometimes pulling the hooks.”

SBT are often found in small schools, so on hooking up, Luke recommends keeping the lures in the water and the boat moving forward for a little way before clearing the gear. This is likely to result in multiple hook-ups. He and his crew landed a quadruple last season after doing just this.

“Multiples are not uncommon, just make sure you have enough gimbals for everyone on board.”

Luke says to not expect too much of a scrap from a SBT, which are relatively passive compared to other tunas such as bigeye and yellowfin.

“You hear of some prolonged fights and it would be my bet the angler has tangled with a bigeye as opposed to a SBT, which just don’t pull that hard. Fighting a SBT can be a bit of an anti-climax – it is just as well they are such great eating!”

On that subject, Luke says you need to take lots of ice and have a decent insulated bag or suitable sized bin.

A decent insulated body bag and lots of ice - the best way to keep the tuna in prime condition prior to breaking down.

A decent insulated body bag and lots of ice - the best way to keep the tuna in prime condition prior to breaking down.

His crew take around 300 litres of ice, saying it is better to have too much than too little. He sees people heading down to Waihau Bay with just two to three five-kilo bags with them, which will be woefully short for one fish, let alone two or three. At the height of the season, the local shop runs out of ice quickly.

If you are not worried about records or weighing your fish, Luke says to deal to it on the spot by first bleeding it by making cuts behind the gills, the pectoral fin and the tail, followed by flushing it out with the deck wash and then getting it into a slurry if possible.

“The aim is to bring the internal temperature down as quickly as possible to ensure the best eating quality is attained. Gut and gill it, then pack the gut cavity with ice along with the rest of the fish.”

Another point of difference between targeting billfish and SBT is the willingness of crews to share information, which Luke puts down to several things.

“People recognise the effort it takes to get to Waihau and there seems to be a camaraderie among the anglers who know ‘we are in in this together’. You are only allowed one fish each per day, so once you have one or two on board and are on your way home, there is nothing to be gained by being a secret squirrel.”

For first timers especially, Luke recommends going out in daylight as there are some nasty bricks just off the ramp. Special care is needed after heavy rain as there can be lots of logs floating around, so it pays to wait until daylight before heading off at cruising speed.

“No one is a pro – we are learning every time we head out. Go down there well prepared, keep your eyes and ears open and respect the locals and what is a great fishery.”

The options

Ever since a couple of generous commercial fishers shared their knowledge of southern bluefin tuna and their proximity to our coastline, particularly East Cape/Cape Runaway, the small eastern Bay of plenty town of Waihau Bay has struggled to cope over the June/July period due to the influx of anglers.

Auckland angler Luke Davis with a prime southern bluefin tuna caught off Cape Runaway.

Auckland angler Luke Davis with a prime southern bluefin tuna caught off Cape Runaway.

But East Cape is not the only base to fish from. From mid-winter on, the tuna head up the North Island’s eastern seaboard and can just as easily be targeted out of Gisborne, Whakatane, Tauranga, Mercury Bay, Tutukaka and the Bay of Islands. Sometimes boats might have to travel a little further out to the approximately 1000-1500 metre depths these fish like to populate, but they are there. And there is also the added bonus that bigeye tuna will often run in the same waters as SBT.

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One person who has been in the thick of it since the start of the ‘tuna rush’ several seasons ago is club weighmaster and keen angler Scott Adamson.

“That first season was a disaster. Crews came down ill-equipped for the area. There was never enough fuel for the fleet or ice to keep the catch in perfect condition. Boats went crazy, landing several big tuna and then having no way, other than perhaps an insulated body bag and a couple small bags of ice, to look after them,” Scott says.

The general store, on which the residents rely on for their groceries – the nearest supermarket is Opotiki – was left with bare shelves. Similarly, the fuel storage facilities were limited and couldn’t cope, while the locals still needed to run the likes of the school bus and their own vehicles.

Scott says the club’s volunteers were run off their feet at the weigh station, to the point they had to close it down in the hours of darkness.

“Everyone wanted their fish weighed, regardless of its size. An 80kg fish is only ‘average’, and the anglers are better making the effort to keep it in good shape than leaving it un-gilled and un-gutted just to weight it, especially if it is not a record, risking spoiling its fantastic eating qualities.

The first year there were up to 180 boats trying to launch at Waihau with its limited ramp and parking.

“The Haven, where the boats wait to be retrieved or for the driver to park the trailer, is also limited in space. Without a little consideration on everyone’s part, this whole area can be chaos.”

Scott says the behaviour of some of the crews, many well-fuelled by alcohol, left a little bit to be desired.

“Our Coastguard is manned by volunteers and they don’t want to have to put up with some of the rubbish that is broadcast over the VHF – not everyone will share your taste in music or jokes.”

Scott reminds anglers that there may be volunteer researchers at the ramp, gathering information for Blue Water Marine Research.

“They aren’t Ministry of Fisheries compliance officers but are seeking information on the recreational bluefin tuna catch that will help manage the species in the future. They are working for the anglers, so when approached tell them the truth and treat them with respect.”

The area has limited facilities for the removal of rubbish. Scott says anglers should bring their own containers/bags to take away their rubbish.

“And please don’t drain the blood and guts from your bilges in the ramp and surrounding weigh station and boat parking areas – it gets very smelly. Some people genuinely don’t think and are apologetic when it is pointed out to them, but if you have a hundred boats all doing the same each day, it can create quite a problem.

Anglers are asked not to drain their bilges on the ramp or the weigh station at Waihau Bay.

Anglers are asked not to drain their bilges on the ramp or the weigh station at Waihau Bay.

“Southern bluefin tuna are fun to catch and fantastic to eat, but wherever you are fishing from, and especially at Waihau Bay, please be mindful of the effect such a huge influx of people can have on the environment. Treat the locals with respect – sharing the odd extra fish you may have on board will be appreciated and go a long way to righting past wrongs.”

SBT Trip Tips 

If you are travelling to fish from a base that has limited resources, be mindful to…

• Bring as much ice and fuel as you can possibly carry

• Limit the number of fish you might want to weigh

• Take away your rubbish

• Respect the local services – they will be doing their best with limited resources

• Leave yourself plenty of travel time. The route in and out of the likes of Waihau Bay is a slow one

• If towing, be prepared to pull over and let faster traffic past

• When on the ramp after dark, leave just your running lights on so you don’t blind everyone with your headlights

• Observed VHF radio protocols 

• You are a visitor to someone else's home patch; treat it with respect 

June 2021 - Grant Dixon
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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