Climate change and rising sea temperatures do have occasional upsides. For New Zealand’s fishery, one benefit is that previously marginal ‘tropical’ predators are becoming increasingly abundant in our waters. One of these fish is yellowfin tuna.
Yes, we’ve had this species of tuna appear in good numbers in the past, but the progressively warmer annual sea temperatures will likely provide an environment that suits them better for longer (rather than only visiting the North Island waters for four or five months each year).
That’s something to look forward to, as I love catching yellowfin on lures, especially jigs, or topwater poppers and stickbaits. Between these two techniques, it’s possible to quickly and accurately target tuna well away from the boat, or deep down under it – that’s a lot of area effectively covered!
Let’s start with jigging…
Yellowfin spend a lot of time away from the surface, shadowing big baitfish schools deep down, feeding on squid, or travelling along sub-surface temperature breaks. Sometimes when visiting FADs (Fish Aggregation Devices) in the tropics, you can see big fish further down on the fish-finder. These are good opportunities to use a jig.
The size of the fish likely to be encountered plays a big part in determining the jig-fishing outfit. If you have some idea of this, that’s a good start. If not, I suggest going a little heavy initially, as you can always drop it down later if required. Most Kiwi yellowfin are between 15 and 60kg, making 15-24kg outfits a sensible choice.
Line: Whatever the line weight that’s chosen, the reel should hold at least 400m of it; braid that’s colour coded into 10m sections makes targeting tuna at specific depths possible – a huge advantage to anglers.
The reel: A good tuna-jigging reel is a very subjective thing. Some reels that other anglers swear by don’t suit me, and vice versa. Personally, I prefer free-spool reels, as they don’t hang below the rod and clash with boat sides and rails as spinning reels do. More specifically, I find a compact, large circumference jigging reel like the Shimano Ocea Jigger to be ideal. It sits nicely balanced atop the rod, almost self-loads the line, and although the retrieve is little more than 4:1, the extra circumference offered by this reel’s spool means you still get plenty of line back with every handle rotation. When a tuna is hooked, the lower ratio enables great cranking power to be exerted.
The rod: The rod’s length depends on the jigging technique and the type of boat used. High speed and mechanical jigging suits shorter rods (around 5’8”), which help to exert plenty of power and control – reducing the fight times. However, the limited length can make getting around outboards and other obstacles problematic. Consequently, many anglers opt for a longer rod (around 6’6”-7’) instead, especially when fishing from larger charter boats as this also enables you to cast out from the boat and try slow-pitch jigging.
Most of my yellowfin success has involved knife and flutter/slow-pitch-type jigs around 150-250g. These rather modest jig weights mean longer sessions are possible, which comes in handy if the action is slow and you’re having to work for the hook-ups. The flashy, chrome-sided 125-200 Raider jigs proved unbeatable early on in my tuna jigging days, but they are hard to find these days. I still have a stash of them, but none sport the original hardware; my hook adaptation is a definite improvement (and Raider should use it too!).
Proven colours include: orange-gold; pink-pearl/glow; green-yellow; blue-silver (‘mackerel’); and black-purple.
Flutter-type jigs: Flutter-type jigs are designed to flash and flutter as they descend and are best used for slow-pitch jigging. Slow-pitch jigging involves lifting and dropping the lure, enabling it to sparkle and weave as it falls, often triggering strikes mid-drop. A big advantage to these jigs is that they can be worked at a more sedate pace than the more streamlined jigs – great for those anglers that are less fit. My own slow-pitch technique involves slightly slowed and exaggerated mechanical-jigging movements. It pays to take note of what’s working for other anglers as jig movement preferences can often change according to the circumstances.
A selection of flutter-type jigs. Keep an eye out for sudden line slackening on their descent as they are often eaten while flashing and fluttering down!
Some of the better candidates available in more recent times include: Jigging Master Fallings Jig; Shimano Flatfall Jig; Jigging Master Diamond Eye Slow Pitch Jig; and Zest Spearhead.
Knife-type jigs: Long and slender, these lures can be brought up through the water column with minimal effort, so they suit high-speed jigging and mechanical jigging techniques.
Afew knife-type jigs. These lures get down quickly and are relatively easy to work through the water.
High-speed jigging can be very effective on yellowfin. This involves winding flat-out, with an upwards rod stab every four handle rotations or so, then cranking rapidly again. However, tuna really do require the lure speed to be fast, so the moment you start feeling fatigued, it’s much better to drop back down and get a short break than carry on at a slower pace. As long as your lure is in the approximate zone, short, sharp bursts will do the job.
This is also the case for mechanical jigging to a certain extent. Mechanical jigging involves lifting and dropping the rod while simultaneously rotating the handle one turn, so the lure is in a state of constant motion yet it remains in the zone for longer.
Both methods work well with knife jigs on tuna so, as I get older and less fit, I find myself alternating so that different muscles are used, enabling me to keep going for longer.
A single hook is definitely better than a treble, as it grabs more flesh when the lure is eaten, making it less likely to rip out as the fight goes on. Single hooks tend to be structurally stronger, too. As for the hook’s placement on the lure, I have caught yellowfin on top and rear-mounted hooks, making a decent case for a hook to be placed at each end of longer jigs. However, I find that a single suitably sized hook mounted on an assist rig from the top does the job nicely for me. The hook size can be important. I mostly go for a size that cannot jam around the lure’s circumference, preventing it from hooking up. So, go for one that’s a bit too small or too big to compensate for this problem.
The ability to cast or lob a jig away from the boat is definitely an advantage at times. It can allow the angler to cast to active yellowfin tuna feeding on a nearby baitfish ‘meatball’ or enable the lure to drop closer to a FAD (or some other floating object) with fish below it. This means that a 7’ rod and reel capable of lobbing a 150-300g jig can be a useful outfit to have at times.
Jigging flatout through empty water is tiring and frustrating, so concentrate on the depths with the most life in them. Drop the jig 10-15 metres below that part of the water column, and by the time it reaches the zone coming back up, the jig will be nicely active. Try to retrieve for another 15-20 metres before dropping down again.
Keep an eye out for sudden line slackening on the lure’s descent, as these are often caused by striking fish. In all cases, quickly wind up tight then set the hook firmly!
I suggest wearing a compact rod bucket, as tuna fights can be multi-hour affairs and body parts can become rather tender. Most jigging reels don’t have harness lugs, but if yours does, by all means, clip in!
Remember to follow the fish and at all times remain parallel to where your line disappears into the water. This sounds easier than it is. For example, when another angler is also fighting a fish, the natural inclination tends to be to hold position and try and steer your fish away from the other line; however, it’s actually better to race over and hold your rod tips close together so the lines now cross out the water, not under it, enabling you to decide whether to go under or over each other. The other danger of not moving in response to your tuna’s movements is that the fast-moving fish will make contact with the ship’s hull or rudder/prop and bust you off.
Mark Kitteridge shares his hard-earned knowledge after three decades of chasing the elusive and majestic yellowfin tuna. This issue he looks at jigging techniques.
Another blast from the past: we don’t recommend hooking yellowfin ‘up the bum’. Alastair Ritchie looks suitably chuffed after landing this foul-hooked beauty following an epic battle.
May 2022 - Mark Kitteridge
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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