Just like animals migrating in the wild know when its time to head off to various destinations, it’s just the same for us as anglers.
This was rammed home to me when in early March I was drawn towards the tackle cupboard and suddenly found myself dragging out lure wraps full of skirts aimed at tuna. Right next to them sat boxes of hardbodied minnows in preparation for the onset of what will hopefully be another thumper of a year on the southern bluefin tuna as they move within catching distance for anglers on the south west of Victoria.
What was once just thought of as a small spasmodic run of southern bluefin tuna (SBT) through our waters has now become an annual and much anticipated part of anglers yearly fishing calendar. This is great for Victorian anglers as we can drive for 2-4 hours down the road and find yourself getting your arm stretched by tuna that can range from jelly beans to beer barrels.
You know your fishery is good when anglers from NSW and Qld are now heading this way to fish in ‘Mexican’ waters each autumn.
Heading to big waters of the south west of the state in locations such as Portland and Port Fairy, or just over the South Australian border to Port MacDonnell can be (and is) a bit of a daunting affair if you haven’t done it before. However these days it is made so much easier due to technology which ranges from the seaworthiness of the boats, marine electronics, right up to the websites that you can now check to get everything from fishing reports to weather and sea conditions.
In saying that however, if you are heading down to these areas for the first time it’s a great idea to get a mate who has fished the area before to jump onboard. Another great option and probably one of the smartest ways to fast track the catching of a SBT is to book with one of the many great charter boats that operate mainly out of Portland.
With these guys you are in safe and experienced hands, automatically making you feel more at ease dealing with the often-big swells and the long distances travelled, especially when the fish are out along the edge of the Continental Shelf.
As mentioned before the best thing about charter boats is that they can help you fast track your learning curve to catching more tuna on your own. You can do a charter one of two ways, Either sit back relax and wind a fish or two in, or get in there ask the questions and get the crew to show you why they run the lures where they do, what there looking for and how to find those key areas the tuna are holding in.
When you do decide to take your own boat out in search of tuna make sure you have all the necessary safety gear, which includes water rations of 2lt per person. And finally make sure you have ample fuel as the long distances combined with big swell or rough seas can see fuel consumption go well up on what you are used to in your boat.
After all this I said and done however don’t be put off by this part of the world as when it is calm the sea can be as flat as anywhere.
Each year it seems the spread of tuna gets better and better with the big fish really making the rules up on where they go and when. Over the past five years the big fish just seem to pop up and eat the hell out of the bait then move on.
The school fish on the other hand are a little more predictable as they tend to really move along the edge of the shelf through the early to mid of the season, with locations such as the Horseshoe to the south west of Portland being probably the most recognised spot along the shelf.
This is for good reason, with the large kink here creating an upwelling and current movement that holds the bait, which in turn attracts the tuna. From here however there are plenty of canyons and kinks along the shelf that hold the tuna and in many cases it’s a case of covering a bit of water till you locate the fish.
This is where it also pays to have other boats out that you know so you can spread out to cover more water till the fish are found.
Tuna can turn up in shallow water at any time. A few years back in February we caught 25kg SBT in 50m of water out the back of Lawrence Rock. In the shallower waters, it is generally later in the season that there is an influx of smaller tuna on the 40-70m deep line. Prime areas to look around in these parts are the hard reef systems that abound throughout the south west.
To give you a good idea, take a look at the stretch of coastline between Lawrence Rock and Cape Nelson Lighthouse to the west of Portland.
Probably one of the most commonly asked questions is where to find the jumbo-sized tuna.
The answer to this is “I wish I knew the answer”, but where ever they turn up you can be assured that there will be a good food source there for them. Last year’s run of big fish were in the shallow waters of Big Reef off Apollo Bay. They were there for the smorgasbord of red bait and cowanyoung that covered the reef in tonnes.
Another good tip is to look for the sea surface temperature breaks with some of the better tuna fishing often happening in the cooler water. Even if is by only half a degree or so, take note of it on your sounder.
There is so much good gear to choose from these days and so little time to use it all – that’s how it seems anyway.
For the majority of time the SBT fishery revolves around trolling both skirted and deep diving lures, with the bulk of the tuna around 15-25kg. They make a great opponents on 15-24kg game fishing tackle. These outfits when spooled up with good quality mono (I personally prefer it to braid as it has more stretch) are capable of catching all the tuna you can want.
To finish off the rig a wind-on leader is very handy with the trick to catching more fish being to keep it light with 100lb-200lb being ample. The other thing we do is cut them back so they are only about 2.4m long. This combined with a 1.2-1.5m leader on your lure is more than enough chafing gear to stop you from getting cut off by a bigger fish. The other bonus is that with less and lighter leader dragging in the water you will get more bites.
Other gear that is really finding its place in the tuna fishery is the use of spin gear, which makes perfect sense when it is so easy to use and well and truly capable of catching up to and over 100kg.
The other advantage to spin tackle –such as the 8,000 and 10,000 Stella, 10,000 Salina II and the 4500 and 5000 Saltiga matched to a slightly longer 6’6” to 7’ heavy spin stick enables anglers to cast plastics, metal lures and poppers at surface feeding schools of fish, which in turn will usually get you a bite when the fish wont look at a trolled lure.
This is the bit I love to hate, as there are so many great lures on the market.
It’s often hard to sort through the grey area of what is good and what is a waste of time. In reality any lure will catch a fish on the right day, or if it’s in the water long enough. The idea however is to get hold of lures that are going to do this far more consistently.
Starting with hardbodied lures, of which you generally would break down into two categories; bibbed and bibless.
When it comes to diving lures you would be very hard pressed to go past the fish catching power of the Rapala Xrap Magnum 20 and 30 models especially now as the already red hot colour range has some Aussie only colours, of which several of these were designed heavily around the Southern Bluefin Tuna fishery.
Colour choices change from day to day and week to week depending on the bait, however my own personal favourites are the SB, Redbait, Bonito, Gold Scad and early trials on the Petro colour proving dynamite.
When running XRaps on my boat I generally run one very short on the corner and one at the back of the prop wash, and for added security all have the hooks upgraded to 6/0 Decoy JS1 hooks, or for when big fish are around a single 8/0 Jobu on the belly of the lure.
The key with the Xraps success is that it pulls nice and deep so helps to draw the tuna up closer to the surface, where they see other lures in the spread, which often results in multiple hook-ups.
In fact I find them also to be a great teaser lure as even if the tuna keep eating the skirts over the Xrap it still helps get them up as mentioned before.
The other hardbodied lures to look are the Halco Laser Pro 190, which now comes in its own redbait pattern. The real bonus to the Laser Pro however is its ability to handle a fair bit of speed.
Other minnows to look at are the Yo Zuri Hydo Mag series.
The River 2 Sea Killer Vibe 160 rules the roost here. These bullet proof lures can handle a pile of speed and tend to work very well when run right up close to the back of the boat. What is more, they have a proven track record at getting bites from big tuna.
When it comes to skirted lures, the list of styles and colours really goes a bit crazy, however a good base range of colours to work on are black/red, black/purple, bright green/lumo, blue/silver. Where ever possible try to match some of the baitfish in the area with brown/orange or Petro being great when the arrow squid are on, or blue/silver and pink combos when the redbait are about.
Either way it pays to have a range of colours as it can and does change from day to day, in fact we have seen many occasions when the sun comes out and the bright lures get eaten, then five minutes later it comes over cloudy and the dark lures are getting chewed.
As for lure size, most of the skirts I use are in the 5-8” size as it matches the size of most of the bait down in these areas.
When it comes to choosing head shapes on skirted lures, a small cupped face lure is the go-anywhere style, with the actual head shape variations giving the lure different swimming actions.
Good options to look at are the Pakula Zipper, Micro Sprocket and Cockroach. While the Meridian Demon No 5 and the Hollowpoint Teeny Magnums are all deadly with another real standout being the Billmark Dougal series.
Other great options are to look at are the slant faced style lures with the Black Bart Pelagic Breakfast being my all time favourite, along with the Costa Rican Plunger and the Marlin Magic Baby Pear.
They all require a little bit of tweaking to get them swimming to their full potential but when they do, boy they catch the hell out of the tuna.
The next and possibly one of the most successful styles of skirts for tuna fishing is the bullet or spear style lure. They have no action and spend most of the time just below the surface. This seems to suit the tuna as they eat this style of lure all the time.
Best of all, most of these patterns are quite heavy so make a great choice to run when its windy and other lighter skirts are being blown out of the water. Again there are heaps of choices but the most productive and popular choices seem to be the Black Bart Tuna XXX, Hollowpoint Small Tuna Terror and the small but heavy jet headed - Richter Tornado.
These lures work well anywhere in the spread but seem to find their best results either in really short or a long way back on the shotgun position.
While this is a brief overview hopefully it will help you get an idea of what to be looking for when choosing a whole spread of lures or just that secret addition to your current range.
Trolling speed can and does vary from day to day. This usually relates to the sea conditions, however a good base to work from is somewhere between 7-9 knots.
This should have the lures working nicely somewhere in this speed range. However be aware that some days trolling even faster (10-12knots) can be the key to getting good hook-ups.
Just because your boat perhaps trolls lures nicely at 7.5 knots doesn’t mean the next boat will, as they all move differently through the water, so play around with your speeds till the lures swim well and you start getting fish
Last year anglers tried this on the big tuna out from Apollo Bay, where it proved very successful; so hopefully more anglers will give it a solid go this year.
For best results keep leaders light with 80-150lb maximum and small strong hooks that can be hidden in the bait.
Just remember that a tuna in a cube trail has all the time in the world to check out if you offering looks natural.
The southern bluefin tuna run has exploded in the past four years, and predictions that it was just a flash in the pan have proven to be wildly pessimistic.
Victoria is fortunate to have a magnificent snapper fishery, awesome whiting stocks, tremendous trout fishing and of course the world class game fishing off the south west coast.
No more do Victorians have to venture to Bermagui or Tasmania for big blue water game fishing – it is here on our south west doorstep.
Lee Rayner’s Top Tips
1. Be aware of tide changes and temperature changes
2. When you get a bite keep trolling for a 100m or so, this will get you more multiple hook ups
3. When you hook a BIG tuna go hard on it – don’t rest, if line isn’t coming off the reel it should be coming on. Just remember when you rest so do they.
4. Be aware what direction you were heading when you hook up, often more bites will come when trolling one specific direction.
5. Look after your catch. If you keep fish bleed, gut, gill and pack in ice as soon as possible. If you leave them on the deck or without ice then they are basically cat food.