Longtails have come out to play
  |  First Published: March 2016

Along the Queensland Coast and right up into the Gulf of Carpentaria, we are blessed with schools of tuna during late summer and into autumn. The main and most sought after species seen fairly close inshore is the northern bluefin or longtail tuna.

The longtail is prized for its pale pink flesh sections so eagerly sought for sashimi. Tuna tackle needs to match the job at hand. Average fish are around 7-9kg (with larger ‘barrels ‘ always possible) yet a spin outfit consisting of a rod rated 6-10lb and a fast retrieve 3000 size reel with a smooth drag set up and at least 200m of 7kg braid or mono on it should do the job. Either a slug or plastic will work so long as the angler keeps calm. Fly tackle differs, but we’ll discuss more on this later.

Longtail tuna give a great account of themselves on the line and are often regarded as milestone captures by anglers seeking them.

Birds find the fish first

To catch tuna you must find them first. Birds are the clue and a flock of terns diving or flying around looking down intently are a certain sign that tuna are around. Mackerel also attract these feathered fish finders, but when it’s tuna under the birds it’s common to see a back, a flash of silver or even a whole fish as it leaps in to harass the bait.

Feeding tuna are very active fish and can often be seen working the surface from a considerable distance. Early morning is always best; the fish are hungry and with the surface usually calmer than later in the day, they can be detected more easily.

Detecting tuna is one thing, getting close enough to cast a slug, a plastic or a fly is another altogether, and that’s what the crux of this style of fishing comes down to – approaching fish that do not, under any circumstances, want you close too them.

Tactics for a close encounter

The best method is to work out which way the fish are going by standing off for a short while and assessing their direction of travel, with the plan to have the boat stationary in their path when they next surface to harass bait. This can only work if the angler is patient enough to give the fish a fair go and allow them to go about their business undisturbed for a couple of feeding sessions. It’s usual to see tuna surface, slash into bait for around 30 seconds, then sound to come up again on more bait about 100-200m further away. The trick is to observe patiently and see which way they are moving, bearing in mind there is no accurate theory nor rule of thumb, but in general they will usually continue with the same pattern unless disturbed by a boat. Other anglers, of course, make this impossible if they move in for a crack at the fish, but if one is lucky enough to find a quiet area where there are no other boats close by, it’s certainly worth giving it a go.

On the topic of other boats, my advice is once a couple of other boats start to work on a feeding school, give the area a flick and head up current and wait. Other boats with over eager crews can make tuna fishing very tough but we are all entitled to a crack at the fish, so there’s no point gnashing the teeth and saying cuss words.

Sometimes fish that are hassled by boats roaring up to them will simply move up-current around 300-400m to get away from all the noise and disturbance and can turn up right where your boat is located. It’s also worth noting that once the feeding pattern is cracked, it’s not that hard to get the boat into position and the rods ready to cast.

Leave the engine running

The second favoured method involves a very stealthy and cunning approach and this is the one most favoured. Unfortunately our coastal tuna seem to be very switched on to the passage of a boat through the water so there’s a need to approach very quietly, very gently, to avoid hull slap or excessive engine or gear box noise in order to get within casting range. It’s wise to cut the engine revs and just crawl in very slowly from around 80m away without splash or obvious hull disturbance.

If the fish sound in the meantime, simply stop and see where they come up next of their own accord. Back to the first method. Curiously, once close enough for a shot the last thing that should be done is to cut the engine. When tuna have been tolerant enough to allow the boat to approach slowly, gently, and at idle they seem to get a fright if the engine stops. Something has changed and this worries them.

Moving in close enough for a cast is easy enough with a 40g slug set up on light braid, a little more difficult with a plastic on a 1/2oz jighead, and very tricky with a fly where a 30m cast from a boat is a very big one indeed.

Fly fishing tips

Fly fishing presents issues. For a start, the fly line is thick enough for the fish to be spooked by it as it delivers the fly into the melee, so a clear, intermediate sink rate, fly line linked to a 2m leader terminating in 7-8kg fluorocarbon tip section should excite the bite without upsetting the fish. Note that most tuna-seeking fly anglers use a 10wt fly outfit and set it up with a reel holding at least 200m of 50lb braid backing. More backing is even better – mine all hold 300m of 50lb. An extra, extra, sneaky approach is required to deliver a fly as the limited casting distance is the issue.

A fly needs to move rapidly to excite a feeding tuna so a small bait fish pattern – Surf Candy, Deciever, Clouser, all size 2/0 – cast into the mass of foam and fleeing bait fish should be retrieved back quick as possible and at the feel of a hook up the fly angler needs to have everything well under control so the fish can run unimpeded during its first gallop.

Tuna cannot and will not be rushed to the boat. The first run is usually a scorcher, then comes lesser ones and some dogged stonewalling where the fish needs to be pumped every metre of the way back to the boat. Finally, the fish will attempt to circle under the boat, which, if it’s allowed to do so, will go on for hours. This is not good. The tuna is relaxing, those big pectoral fins making them very hard to lift upwards. As soon as the fish starts to try to circle under the boat, the idea is to loosen the drag quite a bit and drive the boat off about 60-80m.

This tactic will immediately disorientate the tuna and after another quick run or two, it won’t be long before he can be seen splashing on the surface, which is a sure sign he is losing the battle.

It’s then time for the gaff or net and if the fish is to be taken for the table, the idea is to bleed it properly over the side before placing it into an ice slurry.

In the kitchen
Longtails are great eating so long as the chef selects the palest flesh, which should come off the fish in a long slab. When allowed to become really cool in ice and then cut across the grain into very thin slices, the sashimi you can get is absolutely delicious. More akin to ham than fish, it has a delicate flavour when combined with a little soy sauce and some wasabi and makes the early start, all the tricky approaches and failed attempts well worth the effort.
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