WHEN IT COMES TO BRUTE strength and tackle-busting abilities, few fish in the ocean can match a tuna.
Tuna fishing off the Texas coast is a significant endeavor often consisting of long runs and 24- to 48-hour trips far offshore into the Gulf. However, the payback is more than worth the price of admission. These brutes can top 100 pounds and can best almost any competitor both on the end of the line and on top of the grill.
The larger tunas within shooting distance of our coastline are yellowfin, which are commonly caught at “the floaters.” These are five deep-water oil and gas rigs in more than 1,500 feet of water lying 100-plus miles off the coast.
Most boats headed for the floaters depart from Galveston, Port Aransas, or one of the ports in-between. This means long cruises of four to six hours that make hitting these spots almost always an overnight endeavor. This isn’t a bad thing, because the yellowfins often bite best at night when the bright lights of the rigs attract hordes of baitfish into the area.
The drill is the same at all of the floaters, the northernmost Perdido, Hoover-Diana, Gunnison, or the twin Boomvang and Nansen rigs. Troll the usual pelagic offerings such as rigged ballyhoo and feathers during the daylight hours. Keep a hefty spinning rod rigged and ready with a large popper in case you spot fish busting on the surface.
When darkness falls, set up a drift in areas that had action or where bait is on the meter. Toss handfuls of fish chunks over the side while drifting back baits on circle hooks.
As the boat drifts, a crewmember should be armed with a long-handled dip net and tasked with scooping up flying fish. They’re often attracted right up to the boat by your artificial lights. A live flying fish is prime yellowfin bait.
Thirty-pound-class gear is the norm. However, many anglers will spool their reels with braid in the 50- to 65-pound class, then add a top-shot of monofilament. Leaders are commonly fluorocarbon, with size varying depending on how finicky the fish are.
Sometimes yellowfins are perfectly happy to strike a 6/0 to 10/0 circle hook crimped to 120-pound-test, but quite often they shy away from thick leaders. In this case, anglers will need to down-size. At times, it may even be necessary to go down to 30- or 40-pound leaders.
TIP: Don’t forget that yellowfins are schooling fish, and where there’s one, there’s more—often, lots more. To catch multiples instead of singles, assign someone the task of maintaining the flow of chunks at all times—especially when there’s a fish on the line. That way, the moment you gaff the fish you might hook another. Or go bold, and drift a bait back while there’s a fish on the line to shoot for a double.
Another tuna-catching option which lies slightly closer to home is to go for blackfins. Significantly smaller than a yellowfin, a 30-pounder is considered a big fish and blackfins under 10 pounds are quite common. Their determined fighting ability and delicious white meat make blackfins nearly as attractive as their larger cousins.
The key to finding blackfins? They will show up at the floaters, sometimes providing nonstop action for anglers hoping for the larger yellowfins. Sometimes you’ll spot flocks of birds over breaking blackfin. as you cruise.
Inshore of the rigs it’s really all about locating shrimp boats. Blackfins follow them like dogs, waiting for bycatch to be shoveled over the side.
You generally need to find shrimpers 30 or more miles off the coast, working in 150-plus feet of water or deeper. Shrimpers in closer tend to be loaded up with more sharks than anything else.
When a shrimper is spotted, anglers will usually pull in close, then add some of their own chum, to draw the predators over. Those able to cast net a well full of livies will often chum live bait. This tends to throw the tunas in to an utter frenzy.
Try bouncing a handful of baitfish off the outboard cowl, stunning them so they swim in tight, desperate circles. If blackfins are anywhere near by, the water will erupt.
Then the blackfins can be hooked with a variety of live or cut bait, speed jigs, and at times, surface poppers. This is also one of few scenarios where it’s possible to catch a tuna on a fly, by casting six- to eight-inch baitfish patterns into the fray.
With the distances involved in targeting Gulf tuna off the Texas coast, much of the small, private boat fleet isn’t up to the task. Mid-sized boats can certainly reach the blackfins, but getting to the floaters, fishing for a day or two, then getting back home requires the rather massive fuel capacity of larger boats. Fortunately, there are charter fleets and party boats that can take you to the action.
You’ll need to spend between $1,200 and $3,000 for a day-trip and $3,000 to $6,000 for a multi-day trip on most charter boats, which commonly take up to six passengers. A berth on a party boat goes for around $300 to $500 for 36-hour to 48-hour trip to the floaters.
If you don’t have appropriate gear, don’t worry; virtually all of the boats for hire will either supply or rent it to you.
Generally speaking, the winter months are best for yellowfins, but blackfins can be found in good numbers year-round. However, mid-summer through fall is generally the hottest bite around the shrimpers.
So, are you ready to go mano-a-mano with 100-plus pounds of solid muscle? You think you can handle playing tug-of-war with one of nature’s most powerful pelagics? If the answer is yes, it’s time to plan your hunt for Texas tuna.
—story by Lenny Rudow