Throw live ballyhoo and make a bait ball feeding frenzy
There are many opinions among fisherman as to the best “eating fish” and which is the fastest fish or smartest fish but when asked which is the strongest fish everyone gives the same answer, tuna.
I look forward to this season every year. The Keys is host to a phenomenal run of blackfin tuna, which invade the offshore waters every winter. The blackfin tuna is the perfect match for just about every charter patron out there. They give a great show while feeding on the surface. They create opportunities for fly fisherman. They scream off lots of line and make you fight them to get it back and once you get them going they will eat things that even a dolphin or mahi mahi would refuse.
When you finally put them in the fish box you can rest assured that dinner is going be good tonight. The most popular method for catching them is using live baits. This requires things that the average weekend warriors are not exactly set up for. Anchoring in deep water (more than 200 feet) requires a hefty anchor and at least 600 feet of line as well as a windlass ball to get it all back in the boat at the end of the day.
And most importantly you need a huge live well. He who has the most bait wins. The most important thing to have is the knowledge of where the tuna will be and when. This one you can’t buy. Tuna season and tarpon season are two times when fisherman can anchor right next to each other and be happy about it. This actually works to your advantage because of the combination of all the boats bait and its ability to attract more fish. There are always plenty of tuna to go around so no one gets slighted.
I had a charter ask once, “Why did you spend all that time before the trip catching bait and now you are throwing it all overboard”? Well that is the idea. The live bait is gradually thrown overboard to create a “bait ball” which will stop a passing school of tuna in their tracks and put them in a feeding frenzy. At that point it is just a matter of putting a hook in one or casting a fly or lure of similar pattern and the fight is on!
Another popular method is trolling for the blackfins. I like to do this when the fish are spread out in small groups. Trolling allows you to cover more area and increase your odds of crossing paths with a hungry fish. I like to troll very small ballyhoo or strip baits and keep them far behind the boat because the tuna species is generally very boat shy or scared by the sound of the boat. Unlike a sailfish or dolphin, it is not necessary to drop back or allow the fish to run with the bait. Tuna are what we call on or gone. They explode on bait and go looking for another one. They don’t want to chew it. That’s why the small bait works better. I keep the speed up too because tuna are used to chasing bait. They don’t sneak up on it. Most bait eaten by a tuna is tired.
Words cannot explain how cool it is to watch tunas explode on a ball of bait. There have been times when the fish box is full and my anglers are tired and I continue to toss bait over the side just to watch the tunas feeding. It’s a fishing thing I guess.
We have been fishing this bite for a week or so now and it should continue all the way through the winter. Certain conditions need to be right for the tuna but now is the time. There have also been many other species eager to take the live baits on the reef and wrecks in the event the tuna take the day off. Do yourself a favor and get out here with me and enjoy this amazing fishery. It could very well be the highlight of your Key West experience. I hope to see you out there.
Vinny Argiro has been chartering in Key West since 1989. His number is 305-849-2367 and website is captvinny.com