It was the sort of sight that turns anglers to jelly and it was happening right in front of Strikezone. A massive patch of birds swirled around like a living tornado, turning the sky black as they swooped and dived. To the uninitiated it could have looked like a sinister scene from a horror movie, but for anglers it was heaven.
Some 55km out to sea in water more than a kilometre deep, the masses of birds meant only one thing - tuna. And judging from the splashes underneath the birds, they were big ones at that.
Before we even reached the action, rods started screaming. It wasn't quite what we had expected and a triple-header of solid albacore was hastily released so we could get into the action again. The first pass produced zeros, as did the second. It was seriously frustrating as we watched huge, jumbo-sized yellowfin roll and boil on the surface right beside the boat, but our Tiagras remained silent.
In a last-ditch effort to hook up, I instructed Tom Eisenhammer to drop one of the Laser Pros right back. It was already 100m out, but he sent it a further 50m so it was right back on its own. Seconds later, the reel screamed.
Loaded up on 80-pound gear, the fish was obviously significant, but it didn't really take off. There was no blistering run or wild headshakes - instead there was just solid weight and, with a bit of persuasion from Tom, it came straight in.
Gaffs at the ready
Naturally, with so little fight we figured it would be a smaller tuna. Irrespective of the size of the fish, the rule on Strikezone is to always be prepared, so the gaffs were at the ready. I was also readying my dive gear to jump in and shoot some underwater footage when Tom announced he had colour. The fight had barely lasted five minutes by this time so expectations weren't too high. Still, I felt something wasn't quite right and, half dressed, I glanced over the side for a better look.
With small sickles, it didn't even look 30kg down deep, but then the tuna rose up to the surface revealing its true size. Everyone got the shock of their lives as our supposed 30kg fish turned out to be a monster!
Immediately, it was action stations. Bushy Baldwin was ready with the primary gaff, while I quickly grabbed the spare. I honestly expected the fish to explode out of the gates at any moment, but Tom kept guiding it in until it was within reach and, before we knew it, we had secured one of the biggest 'fin taken off Sydney in years.
Hauling it through the Evolution's side door proved to be much harder than we anticipated, but as the fish hit the deck we realised just how big it was. Measuring 1.76m, it was an absolute beast that, as you can see from the photos, had an even bigger girth than me!
What was really incredible, though, was the fact that we got it into the boat in just nine minutes, from start to finish - something I have never heard of before with a big yellowfin.
Whatever the reason behind the short fight, there were no complaints from Strikezone and the fact that we filmed the whole thing for Big Fish Small Boats made it all the more satisfying.
When it comes to yellowfin, especially big ones, it is widely agreed that cubing and, to a lesser degree, live baits are the best. Well, I am here to tell you that isn't entirely correct.
Certainly you can look back through the record books and see a vast majority of those big yellow sickled barrels were caught cubing in the old days. However, if you look more closely you will notice that nearly all of these fish were taken at specific spots, like the Peak off Sydney or the infamous Tuna Alley off Montague Island. Today, all those spots are barren and completely devoid of yellowfin.
Can the cans
It's a whole new ball game now and if you want to catch yellowfin you need to travel far and wide. Yellowfin tuna are getting smashed in the Western Pacific by purse seiners that slaughter millions of fish to supply the canned tuna market. Locally, anglers blame the longliners, but in reality the damage is done way before the poor old yellowfin ever reach our shores. So if you want to save the tuna, never, ever buy canned tuna...
Out beyond the continental shelf, there is minimal structure to hold fish reliably. Instead, their lives are ruled by the currents, which dictate their every move. To complicate matters, the oceanic currents never stop changing, so the tuna never stop travelling. As a result, the best way to find them is to keep moving as well and that means trolling.
If you want to catch big yellowfin on the troll, it's all about the birds. In the past I have written a number of comprehensive articles detailing the importance of different seabirds and what they indicate, so rather than go into specifics I will briefly touch on it again.
White birds, be they terns or, in particular, gannets, are a sure thing in NSW waters. If you find some gannets circling up high out wide well past the shelf, then they are almost certainly on yellowfin. White birds are gold in the hunt for big tuna and it is essential you can tell the difference between the various species. The presence of small storm petrels and prions is also a good sign, especially when concentrated.
Brown birds, like shearwaters, feed mainly on smaller prey like krill so they are often accompanying striped tuna. However, if the shearwaters are whirlwinding really tightly like a tornado, then it means they are on the tuna, be it albacore or yellowfin.
Get in close
Having said that, it can still be tough to distinguish which species are working under the birds. The trick is to get in as close as you can so you can get a good look at the fish. The recent yellowfin run off Sydney was nothing short of unbelievable, but a lot of guys missed out because they focused on the first patch of birds they found, which were often just on big albacore.
When we caught that monster tuna, Jamie on Wild Cat had called us in on the fish. Before we even reached him, we found a huge patch of birds, but only managed albies. As you can imagine everyone else listening in on the radio call followed us and pulled up on the first patch of birds - however, without seeing any really big splashes, we kept moving to the next concentration.
The third patch of birds we found had a solitary gannet mixed in with the shearwaters and that's where we got the tuna. It is all about attention to detail.
Skirted lures, like Bullets, Christmas Trees and Jet Heads, which are heavy and have minimal action, are the most productive when trolling fast. Lures in the 15 to 25cm range will get the most bites, because tuna rarely feed on big prey. Some of my favourites are JB Dingos, Meridians and Black Pete Dougals, all in the 8in versions.
Unlike marlin, tuna rarely eat anything large and splashy, preferring to stack up on small stuff. Large, skirted lures that create a lot of commotion are my last choice when chasing tuna.
As popular as skirted lures are, it is the diving lures that are my favourite by a long shot, especially Halcos. Yes, I have been associated with Halco for years, but unlike some others in the industry, I use what I endorse because it's the best and there is certainly no denying the results. If I was ever to choose just one lure for tuna it would be the Laser Pro 190 2m version. This lure has accounted for just about every big tuna I have trolled up, both blue and yellow.
The new Halco Max has also earned itself a position in the Strikezone spread. It's small and has minimal resistance so I have had great success running it from the outriggers. I know this is an unconventional position, which would normally suit skirted lures but, as I said, my recent experiences on yellowfin suggest applying different thinking and techniques.
The problem with the Halcos - in fact, all minnow-type lures - is they come rigged with trebles. While they are okay for smaller fish, they are completely inadequate for jumbo-sized tuna. Last season there were more than a few stories of anglers losing fish on trebles. Don't be lazy; swap them or you may lose the fish of a lifetime.
Initially I used to run two single hooks, but have since changed to running a single large, super heavy-duty hook on the belly of the lure. This set-up has been giving me a much better hook-up rate and no straightened hooks.
Setting the spread
Tuna are shy in nature and prefer lures that are run well back away from the boats, particularly outside the wash. This is completely opposite to marlin, which seem to lack any fear of boats and love lures in close.
The best approach is to drop your lures further back, around 30 to 60m or sometimes even more, to get bites. The best speed on Strikezone is usually somewhere between six and seven knots (12-13km/h), which gives me the cleanest wake. Lure spreads will vary from boat to boat so always be prepared to experiment and continually adjust lures to find the best running positions, although I definitely think the cleaner the prop wash, the better.
The one trick that has been working a treat for me over the last few seasons has been to set the Laser Pro in the shotgun position. I don't run a centre rigger - instead it is really an extended version of the long corner, set as much as 120m back.
If you do get a hook-up when trolling, don't stop after the first rod goes off; just keep moving forward. The actions of the hooked fish will often attract the rest of the tuna, resulting in a multiple hook-up. Throwing over a handful of chopped pilchards doesn't hurt, either.
Read the fish
In the early morning or late afternoon it is often possible to find tuna feeding on the surface. When you locate some surface activity don't troll through the centre of the feeding fish. Instead, get around in front of the school.
Trolling randomly is one thing, but once you find the birds the trick is to get around in front of them instead of trolling up behind. A lot of anglers chase the fish, which means you are always on the back foot, behind the action.
The trick is really to study what is going on and try to read the fish's behaviour and predict where they are going. This does take some practice, but it's crucial to success, because the feeding tuna are all looking forward, not behind. If I am struggling I will push the revs up and get around in front and then slow down again. Time it right and you will hear screaming reels.
'Fin fading fast
There has been a lot of speculation about the demise of the big yellowfin on inshore grounds in recent years. Places like Bermagui, Montague Island, the Peak off Sydney or even land-based spots like Green Cape were once home to monster yellowfin.
Older readers of my vintage will remember the images of the Compleat Angler Bermagui trips, where the sales staff did some serious team bonding hooking into huge 'fin on the Four Mile Reef.
So what happened? By the early '90s the heydays had finished and the tuna pretty much vanished. My view is that we got too good at catching them and hammered the inshore stocks. Before anyone points the finger at the longliners, it's worth remembering they never actually fished these inshore grounds. Rather, it was the rod and reel guys who hit them hard.
Like any animals - or even humans for that matter - that make an annual migration, we tend to follow the same routes and visit the same spots. Even now, in our modern world, I still find I keep going back to the same places at the same times of the year. And so it is with the tuna.
When anglers improved their techniques they started catching them and knocking the stuffing out of the schools that once visited these inshore reefs. This, coupled with destructive purse seining scooping up hundreds of thousands of tonnes of baby yellowfin in the Western Pacific, ultimately caused the collapse of fish stocks. Of course, longlining has played a role, but then I don't see many recreational anglers releasing big tuna either...