The New England giant bluefin tuna fishery is pretty unique. For many crews this is a true commercial fishery. The IGFA rule book does not apply here. The sole objective is putting the fish on ice.
Ninety-nine percent of the bluefin are fought from the stern corner of the boat with the rod in a swivel rod holder. The 130-class reels are used more as a winch, the gear is beefed up, with 200-pound-test mono and backing as standard equipment. The rods can vary from 180 jumbo rigs to something a bit flimsier.
I should note that I'm an IGFA certified captain, who also happens to be a commercial bluefin guy. I'm a harpooner first and foremost, and I apply a little bit of all this experience to my Northeast bluefin tuna rod-and-reel season. Catching a bluefin on a hook in New England waters can of course be done in many ways, and thousands of guys try their luck each summer. Landing a giant can be almost overwhelming with the amount of effort and crews that descend on the inshore banks during the weekends. The bluefin have to literately swim though miles of monofilament, and if these fish were cobia dumb the whole biomass would be caught up in a week. The old saying that 99 percent of the fish are caught by one percent of the fishermen really holds true with bluefin tuna, so I'm going to share a few tips to help you even the odds.
First and foremost, to catch a giant tuna you must first understand the fish. The bluefin is smart, you'll need two hands to hold the brain of a grander. They learn, they adapt and they know we are after them. Our largest advantage over the fish is that these tuna are on top of the food chain. They must consume a lot of calories every day to maintain the sheer size they reach, so bluefin will eat 24/7.
Up in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and the bays of the north, the fish act like a totally different species than the bluefin tuna in New England. In Canada the bluefin know that the boats are no threat, and they come to the boats to get fed. Getting hooked seems to be a game to them. This is not the case in New England. Am I giving a fish too much credit? I don't believe so, I know I am dealing with a warm-blooded, intelligent creature that fears and will try and avoid me.
Live-baiting is by far the best tactic to get yourself tight to a bluefin, and the single mistake I see guys make all the time is being lax. The crews that set up, kick back and wait for a reel to go off usually spend all of their time waiting. If you are anchored up on Jeffreys Ledge with 80 other boats, and each guy is dangling three or four offerings, that is a heap of gear the fish must swim though.
How do you get your bait to stand out?
You don't. You want your offerings to blend in. You must have your live baits presented in a way that these feeding machines see it as nothing more than calories. Shy is the key here. Use long fluorocarbon leaders. Mine are 50 feet long, 130-pound test clear leaders. If I'm fishing inshore my gear is completely different. Look 130-pound test for bluefin is super light stuff. It's strange to think of 130 as light, but if you want to catch a giant tuna, it's ultra light. I also use small hooks. I prefer Owner's 6/0 to 8/0 live bait hooks. I will bury the hook in the back of whatever bait I'm using, hiding the hook in the body of the fish.
I go back and forth on circle hooks. In any other live-bait fishery circle hooks are all I use, but again my main focus with bluefin is putting a legal fish on the deck. Still, the type of hook isn't as important as hiding the hook in the bait. I've gone as far as painting the exposed part of the hook with nail polish to match the skin color of the bait I'm using.
Using shy gear means you will bust fish off, but I guess I look at it as I'd rather bust one off than not get a bite at all. Still even with such shy leaders, and tiny hooks, you must work at it to get a bite. Clean your leaders every hour with diaper wipes. Jellyfish are thick up this way, and nothing will gunk up a leader like a jelly.
I usually fish four rods and when number four gets a leader clean it is time to clean number one. It is an endless chore, but one that pays off. These three tips: fish the shy stuff, and bury that cobia-size hook where miss bluefin won't see it and keep the leaders clean will increase those odds towards the one percent range. But then again, you still have to fight the fish, harpoon it, and haul it on board. It's one hell of a game, and the best sushi wins.