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March into a tuna on fly
  |  First Published: March 2014



The beginning of autumn can be the start of some very good tuna fishing for flyfishing enthusiasts. There have been reports of mac tuna and the larger longtail or northern blue tuna in their usual haunts, including Moreton Bay, for most of summer.

Decent weather is the first requirement when chasing these fish on the long rod. An early start, a wind forecast of less than 15 knots – easterlies are great – and there’s an opportunity to tangle with one of these hard-pulling, never-give-up, fighters on fly tackle. And if the quarry is longtail tuna and an ice box is in the boat there’s some tasty fish to eat at the end of the day as well.

Watch the birds

This is always exciting fishing. First comes the sight of a flock of dipping terns, then there’s the spectacle of white water from the bust-up on the surface that’s the signature of tuna at work. The visual effects are sure to get your heart beating faster but then comes the hard bit: approaching close enough to get a fly into the action.

These fish can be so frustrating to approach! They seem to know just when to break off the breakfast and flee as you get ready to cast. Even 4-stroke and direct injection 2-stroke motors, which are so quiet at idle, will spook these flighty fellows if they are a bit cranky. It doesn’t help if they’ve already been stirred up by a boat or two already that morning. The only answer is to keep trying and make a guestimation as to where the fish will pop up next.

The birds will help. There’s always one bird that keeps tabs on the tuna school’s movement and as soon as the flock start to fly rapidly after him the idea is to get moving in that direction as well. When approaching tuna you should slow down to a snail’s pace at all times so as not to cause wave slap or any other noise from the hull. Tuna soon notice these vibrations and react by moving elsewhere.

That doesn’t happen 100% of the time though. On several occasions I’ve chased a pod of tuna for a short while, always very careful to approach as slowly as possible only to have the fish be skunked. At a mere 40m from the boat the only things left were broken baitfish and some big swirls.

With the boat stopped I looked around for another chance, and the next thing you know they’ve popped up right at the back of the boat. The wash has brought them up. A rapid cast sees a fish on the rod, the backing zipping out through the rod guides. That’s tuna: unpredictable at times.

Tactics and tips

To maximise your chances, don’t run up to a feeding pod at speed. If another boat is approaching at speed, save your fuel and let him waste his. While he’s busy scaring the fish, position your boat at least 100m upwind or upcurrent from the fish. When they spook at the other boat’s approach there’s a good possibility the tuna will come your way.

Some other handy hints: if you are finally within casting range of a pod on the job, don’t turn the motor off! Leave it idle out of gear. The act of stopping a motor can put them off as well.

Secondly (this is a bit hard but often worth it) when you have had three or four shots at a school and the fish seem to be getting more elusive, give them a wide berth and go and look for others. I know it’s hard to leave feeding fish to look for other fish, but once tuna have been stirred up they seem to key into a particular boat’s signature engine note and react accordingly. If you move off a couple of kays and search for others it can save the morning.

Upgrade YOUR gear

Tuna command respect from fly tackle. The usual fly is small, on a 1/0 or 2/0 hook, easily cast with an #8wt rod but when fish up to 10kg are about an #8wt rod is going to take a long time to subdue a fish. It can be done, but a prolonged fight often invites sharks to the party so I recommend using a #10wt rod, end of story.

You should match your chosen #10wt rod to a reel able to sustain continued use in saltwater, with as smooth a drag as possible, and with plenty of backing attached to the fly line. The minimum is 200m of 40lb braid, and 300m is better. A clear or clear tip intermediate sink rate fly line is ideal for this predominantly surface style of fishing. Tuna are naturally leader shy but as they don’t bite off flies (they prefer to break them off) you can rely on 10kg leader – or less if you’re really confident.

Playing the fish

A tuna take can be subtle but rapidly lead to some fierce action. There’s no point trying to stop it; just keep your fingers and clothing away from the reel and let the fish go on that first run. Initially it won’t want to come near the boat but pumping and drawing hard will get it close enough to see the boat and go for broke again.

After that run the fish will likely surface, a sure sign that you are winning. Once near the surface it won’t be long before those ever-present circles start to diminish and it’s boatside.

Tuna should be bled well before icing down for excellent sashimi or tasty cutlets.

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