Project Description

A 140kg Bluefin Tuna caught by Helen O’Neill off Pedra Branca in late February 2018. Photo: Florian Devloo-Delva

Written by Jonah Yick, Tuna Champions Ambassador

Historically, the Tasmanian southern Bluefin Tuna fishing season ranged from April through until July, give or take a month or so on either end. For many game fishers, this has always been accepted, and very little fishing effort would occur outside of these times. However, over the last few years in Tasmania, Bluefin have begun to be caught regularly at times of the year which could be considered “out of season”, much to the delight of game fishers around the state. Although some of these captures have been one off events, many others have resulted in consistent runs of fish, some of which were as reliable as the traditional tuna season!

The timing of the run of tuna also appears to vary depending on areas around the state. E.g. the south coast seems to hold Bluefin much earlier than the east coast (January onwards is usually quite consistent), while Bluefin pop up intermittently year round along the west coast. More recently, barrel Bluefin have also been caught off the north coast, which previously would have never been considered possible! The east coast generally follows the more traditional tuna season, which is mentioned before.

Bluefin populations on the recovery

It is amazing to see how prevalent Bluefin have become over the last few seasons, especially when compared to the old catch records from The Tuna Club of Tasmania (TCT) in the early to mid-2000s. In 2003, 2005, and 2006 not a single Bluefin was caught at any of the regular club rallies held at Eaglehawk Neck, while the winning fish for the annual Eaglehawk Neck Bluefin Tuna competition in 2003, 2004, and 2005 were all albacore, due to the complete absence of Bluefin.

From the club rallies in 2004 and 2007, there was a total of three and four Bluefin caught respectively. A stark contrast to the current day catch rates, where in particular over the 2015/16 season, the TCT reported a record breaking 799 Bluefin Tuna tagged over the financial year by club members. The following season gun charter fishing operator Stu Nichols of Personalised Sea Charters managed just over 1000 Bluefin, with the majority released.

Compiled with assistance from The Tuna Club of Tasmania Secretary Robin Banks.

It is difficult to say whether this apparent increase in occurrence of Bluefin is due to more game fishers prospecting, or whether it is due to an increase in overall Bluefin Tuna stocks.

It could potentially be a function of both, with the CCSBT Scientific Committee confirming that southern Bluefin Tuna are now recovering strongly.

Whatever the reason may be, hopefully this remarkable fishing continues over the coming years, and Bluefin Tuna remain in these quantities for many years to come.

Record numbers of Bluefin have been tagged over the last few years, with the season extending longer, and tuna being caught in more places around the Tasmanian coastline. Photo: Tom Srodzinski

A 138kg Bluefin caught out of Eaglehawk Neck in October 2016. This fish was part of a triple hook up off “The Lanterns”, Eaglehawk Neck.
Photo: Sam Nichols

Year round Bluefin in Tasmania

With all of this information in mind, in December 2015 I embarked on a quest to target Bluefin in every month of the year in my old 5.5m Savage trailer boat “Mustang Sally”. Eaglehawk Neck was the main area of focus, in particular the inshore reef structures which fringed the coastline. While some trips did not result in any tuna, it was surprising how many actually did.

On some days we had acres of fish busting up around us, multiple hook ups, with not another boat in sight! From December 2015 through until October 2016, my crew and I were able to catch Bluefin in every month consecutively, with some tagged and released, and some kept. The size of fish caught throughout this period varied from approximately 10kg all the way up to 138kg.

November was the hardest month to crack, and despite numerous trips and long days, we were unable to find a Bluefin in November 2016. It wasn’t until November 2018 that I was finally able to tick off this month.

A 90kg Bluefin caught out of Eaglehawk Neck in December 2019. This was caught first thing in the morning, 10 minutes after putting the lures in water as we trolled over the continental shelf. Photo: Sam Nichols

The final piece of the puzzle

Located 26 kilometres below the southernmost point of Tasmania, lies an isolated island in the southern ocean known as Pedra Branca. Measuring approximately 270m long, 100m wide, and 60m above sea level, this rocky islet has a formidable reputation amongst serious game fishers and big wave surfers. Due to its remoteness and exposure to the elements, the opportunities to access Pedra Branca, especially from a small trailer boat can be few and far between.

On occasions this area can be unfishable for months at a time, much to the frustration of many anglers. Therefore when the stars finally align and a suitable weather window appears, it’s a case of dropping everything and packing the boat. After hearing of a decent barrel Bluefin bite in early November, the hunt was on for a weather forecast suitable enough for my old 5.5m Savage Ensign “Mustang Sally”. Eventually, the dream weather window finally materialised on the 29th of November 2018.

At first light, we had the boat in the water and began the almost 40km run south, to the desolate spec on the horizon. After an hour or so of slogging through a sloppy south east chop, the rock began to materialise and take shape, and before long we had arrived at our destination. As the spread of lures were set out the back, it was amazing to see the sheer number of birds flying around and roosting on the rock, which mainly consisted of hundreds of albatross and gannets.

The fishing intel gathered over the past few weeks suggested that the wash zone around Pedra Branca was the most consistent area for hook ups, so we trolled the edges of the island tirelessly. Round and round we went, trolling as close to the white wash as we dared, and keeping a close eye on the breaking reef edge and powerful swells. Everything looked good, with the sounder showing plentiful amounts of bait over the rocky reefs, although most appeared to be sitting fairly deep.

On the fourth hour, as one of the six inch pushers ran through the foam for what seemed like the 100th time, it suddenly disappeared in a spectacular explosion of water. I watched in excitement as the 37kg outfit in the shotgun position slowly bent over in the rocket launcher. The Tiagra began to howl as the weight and momentum of the fish begun to take up the slack line. Strangely, after a short and fairly slow 80 metre run, the fish began to swim towards the boat, giving the impression it was potentially a smaller model. Another 10 minutes passed, and the line began to angle up to the surface, followed by the second dorsal fin and the upper tip of the tail breaking through the surface of the water. At that point we confirmed it definitely wasn’t a school-sized tuna.

The big barrel cruised slowly just metres away from the boat, lulling me into a false sense of security that it could be all over soon. How wrong I was.

Jonah Yick and the 122kg Bluefin Tuna caught off Pedra branca in November 2018. The final fish which completed the personal challenge of catching Southern Bluefin Tuna in every month of the year in Tasmanian waters. Photo: Helen O’Neill

For the next hour it continued to slug away on the surface stubbornly, maintaining a short distance from the boat. There were no big runs, instead it appeared to reserve its energy by maintain a slow, steady speed. Every time we tried to sneakily close the distance between us, it would pull away then sink down into the depths.

At the two hour mark, things started to get interesting as the big tuna begun to wake up. As I desperately tried to pump the fish closer to the boat, I watched it make some enormous head shakes before it porpoised out of the water then charged away. It took a blistering run, almost ripping off the whole 300m monofilament top shot in a matter of seconds.

As the run began to slow and the knot between the monofilament and braid began to appear, disaster struck when suddenly the spool seized and the line came tight as it felt the full momentum of the tuna. Somehow the line had bedded down onto itself, and despite frantically backing the drag off, I could not free the line. Panic ensued, as I realised my only option was to push the lever up to sunset drag pressure, and to begin to chase the fish as quickly as possible.

Luckily we were able to make good headway with this strategy, and after a tense few minutes, we had regained almost the full spool. Knowing what was under all those wraps of line, I knew I had to work the fish hard on heavy drag to ensure it didn’t take us back to that weak point.

At around the three and a half hour mark the fish began to show signs of tiring, and I was finally able to turn it’s head and begin to crank it closer and closer. As the wind on leader reached the rod tip and began to run through the rollers, the call was made for the gaffs, then the tail rope. Both the gaffs found their way home, then as the tail rope was pulled tight and hitched off to the cleat, a huge sense of relief came over us. Although this was not my first, or the biggest Bluefin Tuna caught on board my boat, it was definitely the hardest fighting specimen I had ever encountered. We were all in awe at it’s beautiful condition, and it ended up pulling the scales down to 122kg. This capture was even more significant given it was the final instalment in a personal quest to catch a Bluefin in every month of the year.

Locations to try

As I am based at the southern end of the state, I can speak from experience that Eaglehawk Neck, Cape Raoul, Dart Bank, The Friars, Pedra Branca, and the Maatsuyker Island group are all good locations to try your luck at an off season tuna. Any oceanic location with substantial reef structure which is able to hold bait is worth a try. This was also recently proven in bass strait where some keen anglers thinking outside the box came across barrel Bluefin over these offshore reefs, despite many naysayers and sceptics saying it was a waste of time. Any reef structures on the west coast would be worth exploring at any time of the year when the weather allows, with tuna reports coming out of Strahan and Marrawah fairly regularly.

St Helens, Schouten Island, and Maria Island are all areas which would also be worth putting time into dragging lures about. Generally speaking the continental shelf is also worth a troll whenever you are out there, given tuna probably use this area like a highway, and could be coming backwards and forwards down the coast at any time. I have often caught patches of tuna trolling over the shelf at random times of the year (including a 90kg fish in December 2019), and more often than not it is usually a blind strike first thing in the morning, with nothing else for the rest of the day.

The ominous but breathtaking sight of Mewstone Rock on the south coast of Tasmania, at sunrise. This location regularly holds tuna at odd times of the year. Photo: Jonah Yick

Gearing Up

Over the years, I have caught jumbo tuna (in the range of 80 to 142kg) over the months of January, February, March, April, June, July, October, November, and December in Tasmania. Given there have also been confirmed captures of big tuna in May (very consistent!), August, and September, it is evident that jumbo tuna are as much of a year round target species, as their smaller “schoolie” counterparts. Southern Bluefin Tuna breed from September to April in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, south east of Java, Indonesia. Given the broad 8 month breeding period, it is likely that these large fish can be travelling backwards and forwards past Tasmanian waters at almost any time of the year, as they make the most of the food rich coastlines around our state. With significantly less boat pressure on the water during the off-season, theoretically your chances of hooking a monster tuna are higher, if you are lucky enough to find a patch of these fish. Therefore if you do get that hook up, you want it to stick, and you want it to count!

I’m not going to cover how to set a spread of lures, i.e. the basics of tuna fishing (there have been plenty of great “how to tuna fish articles” covered over the last few years in past issues of TFBN, and the reality is that if you haven’t learnt the basics of tuna fishing during the peak season, you will probably struggle to fish effectively in the off-season, or battle with putting the techniques into practise. However I will mention a few points on tackle which I feel are very important when searching and fishing for tuna in the off-season. Use a spread of lures which you are confident in running during the season.

I have found in Tasmanian waters, six inch skirted lures are very effective on both school and jumbo Bluefin Tuna, and imitate the average size of bait which are encountered in offshore waters, e.g. redbait, juvenile mackerel, small arrow squid. I run a spread of four 5-6inch Black Magic tackle skirted lures, as well as a single deep diver, to cover any tentative fish which don’t want to rise right up to the surface. Although other anglers do run bigger lures in the range of 8-10inches (Victorian gamefishers regularly run skirts up to 15inches), if I am fishing in the off-season I am usually happy to hook any sized tuna, and I know the 6inch size will get hit by both small and large tuna, which may not be the case with some of the larger skirts.

Six inch skirted lures are ideal to target both school and jumbo Bluefin in Tasmanian waters. Black Magic Tackle have a great range of lures and colours in this size range. Photo: Jonah Yick

I usually fish heavy tackle 24/37kg overhead gear when tuna fishing, but I can’t emphasize how important this is in the off season. With the stakes even higher during this time, and the slim chance of hook ups, I like to give myself the best possible chance of landing the tuna. Especially given the chance of encountering a big fish is almost higher, with the reduced boat pressure.

I also avoid trolling spin rods to reduce fight time, and the fact that you can put more hurt on fish using heavy overhead tackle. Some may find this unsporting, however given the number of big fish I have encountered during this period, heavy gear puts the odds slightly more in your favour, especially if the angler on the rod is inexperienced, or mistakes are made in the final stages of the fight. Obviously if you are interested in light tackle sportfishing, or record chasing, ignore this last paragraph!

Always have a spin rod setup ready to cast when fishing in the off season. You never know when you may encounter a school of fussy bluefin tuna. Photo: Tom Srodzinski

Going back to the spin rod, although I may not have one in my trolling spread, I never go tuna fishing without a spin rod rigged up, with either a stick bait, soft plastic, popper, or live bait hook ready to go. If you are lucky enough to stumble across a school of busting tuna but they refuse to take a trolled lure, carefully drifting up to them and either casting with a lure or a dead/live bait can be deadly.

As mentioned previously, if you do this make sure your gear is up to scratch and suitable for the fish you are hoping to catch, especially if you think you see barrel tuna busting up!

As with all styles of fishing ensure all your gear is in impeccable condition, and make sure every bit of your gear is rigged to handle that fish of a lifetime.

Your line should be run out and checked for scuffs and nicks (and replace if necessary), leaders should also be inspected/replaced, hooks should all be sharpened, and all reel drags should be scaled. Use a good quality leader which can stand up to the punishment of the tuna’s teeth, without going too heavy to hamper the action of the lure.

I use 200 pound Black Magic Tough Trace which is not only abrasion resistant but isn’t too heavy or stiff. Ensure you have two gaffs (one short, one long), and some kind of tail rope. It is also worth purchasing a Black Magic Tackle Equalizer® Harness and Gimbal pack. It may sit in the side pocket of the boat for months without use, however if you hook that fish of a lifetime, it will make the job much easier and put the odds of landing it in your favour.

Black Magic Equalizer® gimbal and Twin Pin Pro gimbal

Invest in a good quality Black Magic Equalizer® Gimbal and Harness. If you hook that fish of a lifetime while trolling about in the off-season, you want to make the hook up count, and without a decent gimbal and harness this can make landing a big tuna very difficult. Photo: Helen O’Neill

Off-season strategy

I am a big fan of prospecting and trail-blazing, basically heading out on a whim to chase tuna without going off the back of other reports. Sometimes the best tuna bites are when you are first to find the initial patch of fish, as they can become finicky or cautious as more boats begin to drive over/around them. However, don’t write off using reports to your advantage. In this day and age social media can be a powerful tool, and it is sometimes worth heading out if it appears that other rec fishers have managed to find a patch a fish somewhere. With the increase in commercial rod and line tuna fishers around the state, these guys are usually first on the tuna in the off-season, regularly posting up photos of fish caught at random times of the year.

Use this information to your advantage, as where there is one tuna caught, there is usually more (depending on whether they are passing through an area, or sticking to an area due to the bait). Once you are on the water, look for the usual signs of life; birds, seals, dolphins and whales feeding are all positive signs, but don’t always mean that the tuna are also there. Look at your sounder, if you happen to mark a school of tuna, then start to put the time in and work the area systematically. This is especially important if you can identify them as big fish, as they typically will stay close to the bait for the whole day (and sometimes weeks at a time).

You may need to work on them all day, going around and around until one finally comes up to take a lure (and even then they might not!). I like to call this “grinding”, and it can be incredibly mind numbing spending all day in the same spot. But with sheer persistence, the rewards can be great. If the tuna are fickle, the best bite periods are usually first light and last light, so try to fish one of these windows, or both. This applies more to the big barrel tuna, although I have caught big tuna in the late morning and throughout the middle of the day.

Weather always plays a big factor, and the number one priority is to fish within your experience and boating limits. There is no doubt that a big south west front can turn the tuna on, and many anglers will either fish the start of the front, during the front, or the calm days following it. For big tuna I have personally never found the weather makes much difference, with all the fish over 80kg caught in calm (sometimes glassy) conditions. So if the weather is good enough for your boat and you can get the time off, go and have a look.

Most importantly be realistic about your expectations fishing in the off-season, and what you are likely to catch. Make sure you take crew who are also on the same wavelength as you, and are keen for the hunt, but realise the reality of a donut day is probable. In saying that, if the conditions look good and you are keen to commit to a day of tuna grinding, then stick to it. If not, make sure you have a Plan B, e.g. bottom fishing.

When it all comes together; there is nothing more satisfying than having that magnificent fish of a lifetime on the deck!
Photo: Jonah Yick

An image of sheer persistence. Trolling in the same spot for 10 hours can be very mind numbing, but when that 100kg tuna finally decides to come up for a look at your spread, you soon forget about all those hours when the reel starts screaming. A full day working “The Lanterns”. Photo: Jonah Yick

A sounder shot of a school of barrel tuna following a school of bait. If you see this on your screen you know there is a chance of a hook up. Photo: Jonah Yick

Seals, dolphins, whales, and birds feeding on a baitball are all promising signs that there may also be tuna lurking underneath them.
Photo: Jonah Yick