Southern Bluefin Tuna
  |  First Published: March 2010

The biggest dilemma when writing an article on southern bluefin tuna (SBT) is when to actually run it? These fish are popular catches in February, March and April.

Traditionally the month to target them is April, but last season the tuna run lasted six months and was strong from start to finish. I started catching them in February last year and by April I had caught heaps. This season so far also seems to be on track, with numbers of bluefin reports to the west and some scattered reports of solid early season fish being taken in late February and early March.

Matt Hunt of Matthew Hunt Fishing Charters continued his good form from last season. His second fish for the 2010 season was a fat 85kg model taken in March. His last fish for the 2009 season was 95kg and taken in July.

Safety First

For first timers heading out from Portland the wide blue ocean can be quite daunting. The distances travelling offshore can be pretty far and it can often be a lot further when battling big southern swells that push in towards the coastline at a great rate of knots. Therefore, for safety reasons several factors need to be taken into account.

Firstly, due to distance and weather, fuel consumption is automatically increased. Find out the fuel capacity of your boat and exactly the distance it can cover. Ask yourself: Can/does your boat hold enough fuel to get you offshore and back in rough weather? And if not, how much extra will you need to take?

Secondly, I strongly recommend having both 27mhz and VHF radios. It can often be difficult to get range on 27mhz radio if the swells are large, so a back up device can be invaluable.

Thirdly, venture to have duel batteries, water separating fuel filters and ensure all safety gear is up to scratch.

Lastly, if possible, for first time travellers try and take along at least one experienced person who has fished the waters before. Even better, go with one of the several quality charter boats that operate from Portland.

2Bs = SBT

As with all game fishing, keep your eyes peeled for 2BS (baits and birds). Being tuned in to what is going on around you will help you find fish far quicker and on a more consistent basis.

The most important indicator is to watch out for any signs of life. The most obvious is bird activity; these guys are like neon signs pinpointing fish. If they circle an area you can bet something is there, especially if they keep doubling back over that area. Likewise, watch for how high they are flying: the higher the birds, the deeper the fish. It sounds strange, but they get a better look into the deeper water the higher they go.

Secondly, if you find bait, either by birds diving on it or if you see it on your sounder, stay with it as the tuna will generally not be far away.

If the tide changes and your sounder is showing bait down deep and a few birds in the area then this is the perfect spot to target. Near a tide change the bait will often be pushed to the top by the tuna.


There are two main reasons why the SBT end up on our doorstep: The Continental Shelf, which acts like a fish highway as it runs in an east/west direction off Portland and Port MacDonnell; and, the cold-flowing Bonney upwelling that pushes along the ocean floor before coming to the surface on the Shelf line. It is here that the all-important krill and other microorganisms gather. This starts an unbelievable food chain sustaining the smallest creature up to the biggest mammal on the planet.

When working these offshore waters, the edge of the Shelf is a great place to look, as it allows you to cover water depths that fall quickly from 100-1000m. Working these depths is made so much easier with great GPS mapping systems that will show this Shelf line in detail.

The key points to be looking at along the Shelf are steep drops and kinks that create different flows and upwellings in the current. The most famous of these is the Horse Shoe, which lies to the southwest of Portland.

The best way to work an upwelling is to find exactly where the current comes to the surface, as often it is several nautical miles from the actual top of the mount. SBT have no hesitation with working and feeding in the shallower waters inside the Shelf, and the target zone is the 50-70m range. There will be abundant reef and hard bottom, which in turn will hold bait and predators.

Finally, for anglers who think the big tuna only travel well out to sea then take a quick glance at the front window of Portland Bait and Tackle that shows a picture of local Portland legends Bob McPherson and Tim Clarke with a thumping 125kg bluefin the boys got in 40m of water. They have also fish very close to shore in Tasmania, often the biggest fish are taken within spitting distance of the cliffs.

Lucky Lures

The choice of lure when targeting SBT is very varied. Most seasoned tuna anglers will have their favourite patterns that they swear by, which can be very confusing to the first-timer.

Like most fishing tackle, lure choices should be made on several factors including the weather, previous success, and the position in the spread. It is also important to consider the colours that other anglers are having good success on. Thankfully these days getting this information is fairly easy through tackle stores, websites and print media.

To keep it simple, I will go through a few lure styles and spreads that have worked well for me and my crew.

A standard searching spread on my boat would usually involve the use of 5-6 rods depending on the number of anglers on board.

Starting closest to the back of the boat we generally have a River2Sea 160 Killer Vibe in the turbulent water on one corner. Colour can be what ever you like but usually it’s a dark blue and silver.

The other corner and a bit further back is a smallish dark coloured bullet, such as the Hollowpoint Small Tuna Terror. Behind the short lures is a Rapala X RAP 30 in any colour you fancy: last season it was hard to beat the SB and bonito patterns. These are also tweaked up by swapping the trebles for Decoy JS-1 single hooks.

Off the outriggers will generally be strong actioned cup or slant faced pushers, such as a Black Bart Pelagic Breakfast or Canyon Prowler, Hollowpoint Teeny Magnum, Meridian No5 and Pakula Zipper. If I am looking for a slightly larger lure, especially on the rougher days it’s hard to beat the Marlin Magic Baby Hard head or Chopped Bullet. Colours for these lures will see one rigger running a nice bright pattern with a lot of green in it, the classic Lumo pattern is great, while the other rigger will normally have a darker purple or blue pattern. My all time favourite pattern is a dirty poo-brown colour that imitates a yakka or squid, which always seems to gets eaten. Another great option if you want a bit of an each way bet is to run a lure with dark and light colours such as black/pink or black/green.

Finally, the last lure in the spread and often the one that just keeps catching fish is known as the shotgun. This is run way back behind all the lures in the spread and in most cases the outfit is run from the rocket launcher on the highest point of the boat. If you haven’t been running one of these then I strongly suggest you get to it. The shotgun lure is widely regarded as the lure that catches the bigger fish that are too wary of the boat. Best lures for this position tend to be heavier headed lures with my all time fish smasher being the Black Bart Rum Cay Candy or Wicked, designed to look like a skinny baitfish, such as sauries or garfish.

Other top options are the Marlin Magic AHI Pussy and Hollowpoint Medium Tuna Terror. As for colour, well it’s up to you, but we tend to go for natural baitfish patterns.

Remember this spread is just a guide to get started and can be easily changed to suit the day. Naturally, if the X Rap keeps getting nailed get a few more of them in the water, or if the darker skirts keep getting bites put more of them out.

Tackle Up

For the choice of rods and reels it’s really up to personal taste, but the majority of anglers fish 24kg tackle. However, I fish a lot of 15kg and 10kg gear and have a ball with it, sure it takes a little longer on a bigger fish, but it brings more angling skill into the equation.

The other increasingly popular method is the use of spin gear, and why wouldn’t it when it’s so easy to use with the big Saltiga and Stella reels that easily knock over the bluefin.

Lures are all run on fairly light leaders from 80-150lb depending on the expected size, and small but strong hooks. While many anglers cringe at the thought of running lures on 100lb leader, it will get you far more bites on the tough days; just like any fishing, the lighter leader is harder to see and gets the lures swimming better.

Wind-on leaders are very handy but, as with leaders on lures, keep them light with 100-150lb. The other trick is to cut them back to only about 10ft long for less drag in the water.

Finally SBT stocks are not as healthy as they may seem, so it’s also up to us as responsible recreational anglers to look after it. Please consider letting a few fish go, even though the bag limit is two per person. On my boat we have a one fish per person limit, with a boat limit of four. These are bled, gutted and iced down at sea to keep them in perfect eating order, and believe me, one fish each is more than enough.

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