Stewart tells you all you need to know to catch these southern Queensland beauties.
The deep blue ocean washes over your feet as you stand inches above 20 metres of water on an inflatable stand up paddleboard (SUP). You’re 2km out to sea, scanning the horizon, face covered with a buff and polarised sunglasses. The cold water on your feet is a relief as the sun bakes your broad-brimmed hat. You only notice the lapping water intermittently though, as you’re focusing on finding tuna breaking the water’s surface, or the sea birds that help give them away. The birds swirling in the air and divebombing bait-balls are an early indicator, as big tuna attacking baitfish are the reason the birds behave this way. Find the birds, find the tuna!
To an onlooker, fellow flyfisher George and I probably made an odd sight as we paddled out the Mooloolah River mouth and into the ocean. We have fly rods, small eskies and drogues aboard the SUPs. A little after launching, the wind has blown us from shore towards the day’s first lot of dive-bombing birds. A prawn trawler is now working between us and the shore but we press on, motivated by the school of twenty or so 10-15kg longtail tuna which have just passed centimetres below the boards as they move on to a new lot of baitfish. The tuna are almost close enough to touch, not fazed by our innocuous SUPs. Their beautiful colours and giant eyes glimmer. There is something special and very humbling about being so close to such an impressive creature in its natural habitat, behaving as if you aren’t there.
Previous trips have taught us that an esky strapped to the SUP is a must. It not only holds our flies and fishing valuables; it also doubles as a seat. The other addition to the SUP toolkit is a homemade drogue to slow the drift. Without a drogue, the SUPs drift quickly – even in light winds – making it a struggle to strip flies back at the required speed. The other reason (as some of you might be thinking) is tuna dictate the terms of the battle once hooked; and this is particularly true on a SUP. Two years ago, George was dragged for 6km along the coast by a 10kg longtail before he finally landed it.
Not all days are SUP days and in fact they are few and far between, with light winds and good bait-balls a must. It is often much more productive and relaxing fishing from a conventional boat (more about this later) but there’s something very rewarding about doing it the hard way. Regardless of what craft you use to chase these tuna on fly, there are several important considerations which can transform frustrating days, to fun days.
The Right Conditions
Ideal conditions are calm and sunny. It’s more pleasant casting a fly in calm conditions but more importantly, it helps with spotting fish busting up. Choppy days mask this as the splashes of feeding tuna can look similar to waves. Even from a relatively short distance, it can take trained eyes to pick the difference.
It’s especially important to have these calm, bright conditions on the many days when the tuna are working baitfish but the birds, for whatever reason, are not in on it. It also seems tuna can herd the bait up into balls more easily when it’s calm. In turn, the tuna are easier to catch when the little fish are packed like this, as they continually charge into the bait-ball and out again. This gives the angler a defined and concentrated target area.
The sunny part of the equation applies not only for making it easier to see the tuna and bait-balls subsurface, but it also helps with spotting the glint of birds circling far away. While the tuna can feed without birds in attendance, the opposite rarely applies: if the birds are working, you will find feeding fish. Birds are the easiest way to locate tuna schools because their eyesight is significantly better than ours, as is their vantage point! However, it’s important to understand that different bird species display different behaviour depending on what they’re doing.
The two main species that guide you to tuna action on the Sunshine Coast are sooty terns and white terns. Sooty terns fly low to the water and feed by skimming along just above the sea. If you find big numbers of these guys, there’s probably a decent school of bait around. However, it’s the white terns that are the real help. They fly high and therefore can be seen from a long way off.
White tern behaviour can tell you a lot. While at altitude, these birds are looking for food; you can even see them looking from side to side at times. If you’re having trouble finding any tuna but then spot a high-flying white tern, it’s a good strategy to follow: it will often lead you to fish.
When terns fly low and fast, they’re staying low to avoid the wind. As soon as one stops and hovers, or changes direction, you can be pretty confident it’s flying over bait. The bait might be deep and the tern is waiting for predators to push the little fish towards the surface. As the bait school gets higher, the terns start to dive but pull out just above the water – the bait is not quite close enough yet. Then comes the magic sight of terns dive-bombing hard into the bait. It’s game on! Once the terns are feeding, they don’t fly as high between dives; instead rising just a few feet off the water before diving again.
By this stage, you are looking for splashes made by tuna as well as the birds. This is the signal that there are now very catchable tuna on the bait-ball.
The final important piece of information that the terns give, comes from their feeding. The slower the birds move along while feeding the better, and birds feeding in the same spot are the best sight of all! This means the baitfish are really ‘balled up’, because once formed, bait-balls hardly move. This means the terns and more importantly, the tuna, don’t have to move much either – other than to speed into the ball of course!
It is common to have tuna feeding on bait schools that are moving – or more realistically, fleeing! In this situation the birds sit over the tuna and dive as they fly along to keep up. You can use the birds to predict where the tuna and bait are headed, and thus plan your angle of attack. Even so, these tuna are much harder to catch than those feeding on a good bait-ball, because it’s simply not as easy get the boat or SUP – and a cast – in the right place at the right moment.
There are many different types of little fish that the tuna feed on, from foot-long flying fish to tiny inch-long fry. Obviously, the different baitfish have different characteristics and the tuna can become incredibly selective, particularly with the smaller baitfish. It’s important to watch closely as the tuna bust up to spot what’s fleeing out of the water. This allows you to ‘match the hatch’. To confirm what the tuna are eating, you can look in the mouth of one you’ve just caught – although having caught one, chances are you’re already on the right track!
For bigger baitfish, a white Clouser is a safe bet and a good starting option in approximately the same size as the naturals. With smaller baitfish, I find a simple ‘eye’ pattern is the best fly, and a very good representation of these tiny fish.
Tuna and other Species
There are two main species of tuna on the Sunshine Coast – mackerel tuna and longtail tuna. The mack tuna or mackies are more common generally, and are around in good numbers for longer. Their season starts in about November and runs until May. The longtail tuna (also known as longies or northern bluefin tuna) turn up in numbers in March and April. With both species, some resident fish are present along Sunshine Coast year-round, but they are fewer and harder to catch outside the months listed. There are a number of other species that can be caught around the bait-balls, including trevally, spotted and Spanish mackerel, and dolphin fish.
But back to the two main tuna species, and macks and longtails are totally different beasts. They feed differently, they fight differently and they eat differently. Pound for pound, mack tuna fight significantly harder and you can expect a mack to take 50 metres plus of backing every time. The average mack on the Coast is 60-80cm long and you certainly want gloves on if using a textured line!
The take is something special. There is no head-shake or confusion from macks: they know they’re hooked straight away and take off at breakneck speed. Your job is to try and get that slack line out through the runners and the fish onto the reel without any tangles. This is significantly harder than it sounds!
Mack tuna look like they turn on the bait as they hit at the surface, creating a tell-tale splash as they feed. It essentially looks like someone is throwing lots of large rocks into the water. Macks aren’t prized for eating and their table reputation is perhaps one reason they’re still so prolific. However, they’re still nice to eat if prepared correctly and eaten soon after capture.
Longtails feed by porpoising through the baitfish instead of turning as they hit. Once you’ve learnt the different feeding pattern, you can pick which species is feeding from quite a distance. Often, they will be feeding together.
Averaging 60-110cm, longtails can be significantly bigger than the macks, but they don’t fight anywhere near as hard; an 80cm mack would pull a 100cm longtail backwards easily and quickly! When hooked, at first longtails tend to keep cruising as if they’re not yet certain something is wrong. However, this quickly changes as they doggedly take line. After the initial hook-up, both longtails and macks are roughly on par in difficulty to land: what the mack has in fight, the longtail makes up for in weight.
One similarity with both, is how much care needs to be taken handling them. After giving their all during the fight, tuna are fragile and often don’t swim away immediately. It’s very important to minimise the time they are out of water and unless taking a photo, we usually unhook them in the net. The best release is actually to drop the fish head first from 2-3ft above the water. They simply slide in, get a good flush of water through the gills, and are away again.
If you keep a longtail, there’s no confusion about their qualities as a table fish – they are excellent eating whichever way you prepare them.
Boating and Fishing Technique
Now for the really important stuff, starting with boating technique if you’re using a regular boat (as opposed to the stealth of an SUP). The most common mistake is to fly up to a bait-ball and cut the motor, hoping to get a cast into the tuna before they disperse. Unfortunately, this is the best way to scare them and push them deeper. Tuna will intermittently bust up on bait before going back down again so the temptation is to rush over and get a cast. However, this not only pushes them down, it breaks up the school into smaller and smaller groups which are progressively more flighty.
Instead, the best thing to do is get upwind of the feeding fish and slowly motor onto them – or even better, cut the motor and drift onto them. This will still result in missed chances as tuna disappear before you get there, but overall, it’s a much more productive method. Approaching from upwind also helps with casting. If done well, it’s common to drift into a school of feeding tuna with the fish still feeding around – and even right at! – the boat. I hooked one last year figure-8 retrieving the fly under my rod tip while waiting for my boat partner to hook up. Overall, good boat handling is so crucial with this style of fishing: it’s often more important than casting.
The second big mistake is tearing off after another bait-ball as soon as the one you are on disperses. You tend to spend the whole day chasing and making very few casts. A better plan is to stay put, and if you’re patient, the tuna will come back up pretty much in the same area. While drifting along eating lunch a few years ago, the water suddenly erupted around the boat with tuna feeding in all directions – not so surprising given that it’s quite common for baitfish to use a boat for protection.
Somewhat frustratingly, there are can be many boats out on the weekend chasing tuna, tearing from one bait-ball to the next. This makes for tough fishing, with the tuna becoming skittish very quickly. One strategy is to head up the coast away from the chaos. However another plan is to stay in the hustle and bustle and be the one boat not tearing around, just waiting for the tuna to come back up around you.
Cast, Retrieve and Strike
It’s valuable to have the right amount of line off the reel, ready to cast. As tuna can pop up unexpectedly and in any direction, the readier you are, the better. While trawling along, it helps to have an amount of line out that you can quickly pick up and deliver. The extra chances from fast presentations, mean extra hook ups.
There is a popular belief that you must strip as quick as possible when targeting these fish. I think this comes from people fishing slug lures for tuna, where you don’t want the fish to have a really good look at the artificial. But with a decent, life-like fly, it’s actually best to retrieve with a long, steady mid-paced draw. The tuna will see the lone baitfish and be on it very quickly.
When the fish takes, remember not to trout strike as the fly won’t penetrate the hard mouth; you must strip-strike. Once the fly is in it rarely falls out – the things that will cost you fish are sharks, gear malfunctions and tangles.
Most people use a 9 weight rod for this style of fishing, however you can easily get away with a 7 weight. The heavier rods are really only helpful for casting in the wind. The important piece of gear is a good quality 7/8 weight reel (at least) with 150m of backing. Twenty pound tippet is enough for these tuna and while the casting is made somewhat easier using a tapered leader, a level leader is fine. If using a clear tip line, leader length is not important and as little as 6ft is plenty. On a coloured line I prefer 9ft but it probably doesn’t matter.
Every year at tuna time, I’m reminded how lucky I am as I continue to fish in shorts and t-shirt, while my southern mates are rugging up. Next time the trout season is wrapping up and the trips are more about keeping warm than stalking fish, it’s worth considering a trip north to chase these amazing fish.