Targeting Early SoCal Tuna

Brandon Hayward

We rarely head offshore in Southern California during the offseason. We'll call the "off season" the colder months from December to April, but anyone who has kept tabs on the water temperatures and structures (think edges and bubbles of warmer water) has noticed that the water offshore looks perfect for bluefin tuna. Maybe even see a return of albacore this year. Thank you El Niño.

A few weeks back, private boaters bombed it offshore, heading to a high spot some 60 miles west/southwest of San Diego. Appropriately named the 60 Mile Bank on the charts, the high spots that come up to 53 and 56 fathoms kicked out wide-open bluefin fishing for the crews who opted to go the stealth route.

Most of the boaters remained anonymous, but a leaked text message quickly made the rounds. The following weekend the first sport-boat showed up, the Top Gun 80 out of H&M Landing in San Diego and one private boat made it to the bank. Both scored limits (two per angler) of bluefin. From that moment on, tuna fever has taken over So Cal.


Whether the bluefin are migratory visitors or fish that overwintered on the high spots thanks to optimal 62.5 to 64-degree F water is up for debate. But since Southern California has been treated to fishing summed up as "the best ever" the last two seasons, many are taking the early-season tuna as an indicator of another epic year mainly because of El Niño conditions.

"We saw a good volume of fish out there. It wasn't difficult to get our 10 fish for limits, but the fish certainly were biting the lighter line better," said Curtis Owens, who was on the bluefin on Saturday, March 26, fishing on the private boat Christina Lynn. "Twenty- and 25-pound fluorocarbon was what worked for us. It was typical bluefin fishing. They were biting, but it wasn't wide open."

Bluefin tuna are often the first tuna to show up in Southern California. Typically they appear in May or June. But El Niño has pushed the water temperatures anywhere from three to five degrees warmer than usual. The result is that previous definitions do not apply. Yellowtail, another migratory visitor that usually shows late in the spring have been living in the Southern California Bight the past two seasons year-round. The warm water has brought with it a whole new playbook for fishing inshore and offshore of So Cal.


Windy conditions have kept boats tied to the dock this week. A much-improved forecast for the weekend ( has less than 10 knots in the morning and under 15 knots in the afternoon) has San Diego's four landings offering trips to the bluefin grounds. The long run isn't for small skiffs unless the wind and swell are down, but with water mirroring that of the 60 Mile Bank in closer to the coast, skiff anglers are making plans to make April a bluefin month.

Bluefin are notorious for being the ficklest of the West Coast tuna. Anglers counter this by fishing lighter line, and using a stealthy approach when approaching schools crashing on bait or "breezing" on the surface. Getting up wind, up swell of the spots on the surface and casting surface irons and small jigs into the spots was last spring's best plan. Slow-trolling live sardines way back behind the boat in a "fishy" area with birds, bait or scattered breaking fish will almost always produce produce for the small-boat set.

The first move in a successful early-season bluefin strike is to find good water. Warm is 63 degrees right now. Warm water butted up against even a .2-degree temperature break can be enough to bust up generic water and stack up the bait and bluefin.

Bluefin are know for "breezing" with the tops of their tails out of the water, or creating "shiners" where a school is a few feet below the surface, with tuna swimming on their sides creating underwater shines.

Early season bluefin are not an easy target, from the long runs to the offshore high spots, to having to hunt for them in the ocean with no fleet to help but opportunities like these do not come every season. Get out there when the wind and swell allow.

Warm water bathed the 60 Mile Bank all winter into early spring. This warm water has ignited early season limit-style fishing on 15- to 25-pound bluefin tuna.
Shallow water bluefin have been a solid option the past few seasons for California anglers. This one was caught by Steve Needleman on a live sardine fished under a kite in 200 feet of water off San Clemente Island while on a charter with the author. Photo by Brandon Hayward;
Big bluefin showed close to the California coast the past few seasons. Last year was the best in recent memory, leading to comparisons of the Zane Grey era in the early 1900s. While not huge by East Coast definitions, this 120-pounder that Marc Levine of Allwater Charters caught is a SoCal fish of a lifetime. He caught it five miles off Dana Point. Photo by Allwater Charters.
A sample of the bluefin caught on the Christina Lynn last Saturday, March 24, 2016. Photo by Curtis Owens.
Kelp paddies often hold bluefin tuna and a gamut of offshore species, from California yellowtail to yellowfin tuna. Private boats focus on finding good water. They then look for kelp paddies and visual signs of fish in warm water.

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