YELLOWFIN TUNA FOR ANGLERS
Hookup! Tuna are crashing everywhere and rods are bent. Have you ever wondered what the scene looks like from below? Tuna-hunting freedivers see streaking footballs moving so fast that their yellow and blue colors smear to a blur as hungry tuna shoot almost straight up, grab a bait and dive straight down into the depths. Imagine hundreds of such streaks ascending and descending seemingly at random like popcorn popping. Then suddenly, as if some switch had been pulled, the action stops and the tuna return to the school 60- to 100-feet below resuming a leisurely pace or sometimes tearing off to the next bait aggregation.
Everything happens so fast; as tuna crash through the bait ball, sharks and dolphin patrol the periphery. As the bait flees or is exterminated the freediver is suddenly left with empty ocean surrounding him. If it were not for iridescent bait scales shimmering like mirrored confetti as they descend into the abyss, one would have a hard time believing that this spot contained thousands of animals just minutes ago.
With many thousands of hours diving in the blue water, tuna-hunting freedivers have had lots of time to observe yellowfin tuna. Without the luxury of trolling hundreds of miles a day, we pick a location that is likely to bring YFT to us. The majority of freedivers hunt above structure, usually no deeper than 120 feet, where resident bait fishchubs and jacksinvariably orient themselves up current. For us, the most productive area is the interface between resident bait and the more free ranging mackerel and skipjack, which is generally 100-yards to a quarter-mile up current from the structure.
Most often the YFT cruise in sedate schools. Only seldom do they go into frenzy mode while hitting a bait school. As a general rule (which is often broken), we find tuna deeper, say 60- to 100-feet deep, in the morning when they tend to be shyer. Later in the day, YFT rise to the surface where they are often seen riding just below swells. They become less wary as the day advancesmid afternoon is the best time to find them within range of our spears. Because YFT have no swim bladder, they will sink if they stop swimming. This makes you wonder how or even if they sleep. YFT use their naturally negative state to avoid an approach from freedivers. By simply altering the angles of their pectoral finsjust like a submarines dive planesthey glide away without even a tail twitch.
While YFT often segregate by size, just as often schools are mixed, especially for schools over 50-pounds. As a loose school of YFT, extending perhaps several hundred feet or more, slips by our watchful eyes, it is not uncommon to see larger fish taking up position at the end of the pack gliding in somewhat deeper water. YFT schools generally are independent of any other fish schools, however, if the meter shows skippers or other bait, YFT are probably near.
YFT are highly migratory, yet sometimes show resident behavior, which is an important fact. Even if the area is devoid of tuna today, tomorrow it could be crawling with new residents. Conversely, we have seen heavy fishing pressure drive off a semi-resident school. It is not uncommon to see a YFT towing a long mono line from its jaw. Semi-resident tuna often make an early-morning pass over the famed Hannibal bank in Panama before heading into deeper water.
Flotsam of any kind is a pelagic magnet, especially an object that has been floating for a long time. Sometimes a small tree branch or kelp patty will hold acres of fish extending out in concentric rings. At the center are small fish, some of which actually hide in the wood crevices and even spend some time in the air as the branch tumbles in the surf. In the next circle, small schooling fish are surrounded by schools of skipjack or small tuna. Larger predators lurk in the distance often hundreds of yards from the patty, log or net. At first, anglers should not approach the attraction object. It is much better to start fishing several hundred yards away. Move to the center only after you are sure nothing big is left on the outside.
As a general rule, the larger YFT run 10- to 20-feet deeper than the others. While the larger fish are sometimes less skittish and spooky then smaller fish, their increased depth makes them more difficult for the freediver to approach.
While it is widely known that YFT associate with dolphin, not much is known about the interaction between the two species. Forty miles off the West coast of Cost Rica large schools of tuna and dolphin chase rivers of bait.
When running offshore, we see tiny white bird specks give way to foaming water as thousands of spinner dolphin twist and turn midair before adding to the splashes below. What I discovered was that the tuna run the show. Diving birds lead the pack picking off bait driven to the surface by tuna 40- to 60-feet below. The tuna follow the bait in a frenzied dash 3- to 6-knots followed by the playful dolphin. The dolphin simply follow the tuna picking up scraps. The trick for a fisherman with a fast boat is to predict which direction the bait is headed and try to position ahead of the program.
Most of the time the school alters direction before reaching your position, but sometimes they come straight at you. A diver has about enough time for 3 quick dives before the tuna leave and the dolphin appeartime for you to leave. Since there is generally a mutually beneficial relationship between such interactions, I theorize that while the tuna run the show during the day, at night or early morning, the dolphin keep track of the bait by echolocation.
Besides the joy of floating in the worlds largest aquarium, you might wonder what it is like to take a tuna with the equivalent of a cross bow. Not everyone has the breath-hold capacity or the patience to swim for hours against a current for sometimes just a glimpse of a tuna tail disappearing into the blue. Yet, there are days when everything works. You descend slowly, with stealth as a school approaches. Silently, you drift toward an intersecting path with the stream of fish. Sometimes a curious fish will break from the pack and come within your 15-foot range. Other times one will "cut the corner" around you to rejoin the pack. On rare occasions, a large fish will swim directly within range.
After you pull the trigger anything can happen from a clean miss to a kill shot when the fish rolls overI landed my 256-pound record like that. More often the fish takes off into the blue towing your line with your floats looking like water skiers. Ive had 150-pound fish fight straight down so hard that it felt as if they were anchored to the bottomfor hours.
Hunters in the blue can experience many unusual interactions. One expert freediver near the Gordo Banks was stalking two 50-pound YFT. He was amazed when the two formerly wary fish dove straight for him, each seeking shelter in an armpit. Out of the blue swaggered a 760-pound black marlin. One good spear shot and three hours of being towed for miles ended in the landing of one of the biggest game fish ever taken my a freediver.
Freedivers often have to fight off sharks for their game. Usually lazy sharks are instantly galvanized by a shot from a speargun. Whipping madly in circles, they quickly follow the scent of the wounded fish. Many prize YFT have been vaporized 30 feet below as the diver watched helplesslyhis final reward a skeleton or fish head.
One parting thought regarding freedivers and anglers. When you see what appears to be a seal head towing an orange life-guard float with a flag, youre looking at a blue water hunter. Try not to run us over, but do give us a call and well be glad to trade information. Most importantwe do not scare the fish! We take very few fish. Consider us fellow fishermen trying to scratch fish from our special niche.
Copyright © 2005 Terry Maas, BlueWater Freedivers