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Topwater Southern Bluefin Tuna – The Ebb Tide Guide

A little bit like our all-encompassing topwater kingfish blog, we have put together a bluefin tuna guide for you to wet your appetite and get your tuna casting fix on! We have done a few instructional vids in the past as well as some trip vids where you will probably learn a bit by just watching, for easy reference here they are planted below where appropriate, or, just go to Ebb Tide TV on YouTube and select the Tuna playlist, easy!

Watch – Some great action here, this is summer topwater bluefin tuna in Victoria!

Topwater Tuna

So topwater tuna in Victoria appears to be coming of age finally, this is great news! We have been saying for a very long time it will happen, but it’s been slow, and we still think it’s a fair way off but the tide is certainly turning now! It has happened in many places globally; the USA’s famous Cape Cod fishery is a good example of the scope of the change. It was a place where only the brave would stop and cast or else face the wrath of the trollers, over time the mindset has changed to the extent that the casters and jiggers dominate the scene now.

So, what is topwater tuna? It might seem obvious, but we see some confusion locally. Topwater Tuna fishing is casting to prospective water and/or signs the environment throws to you, then retrieving a lure across the top or near the surface of the water. Most often by the use of poppers & stickbaits. Topwater Tuna fishing is not trolling the above-mentioned stick baits and poppers, that’s still trolling, but if that floats your boat, sure go for it! 

The local Victorian and South Australian scene has developed into a mostly summer activity, and whilst the New South Wales fishery is more centred on that short migration period that usually coincides with the end of June, it is a very different affair and is certainly not inshore. here in Victoria, we believe that tuna can be targeted with some reliability any month of the year, however some periods may require some searching a lot more than others. The situation over the last 5 or 6 years has seen an increased awareness of their summer inshore presence, however. I stop short of saying this is new, it cannot be, but what we might potentially be seeing is a result of stock recovery and some normal patterns resuming, it’s also a product of social media and people becoming more aware of what might be there if you look. The Aussie SBT catch peaked in the early 80’s at over 21000 tonnes on the back of a global hammering dating back through the 60’s. It was thought that the original tuna biomass declined by more than 90%. Thankfully some pretty strong global measures have been enforced to the point we are now at today. I believe we do not know enough about them on the whole and the commonly held beliefs on SBT movements could be challenged as stocks recover, but hey, it doesn’t matter right now, it’s all pretty good news. 
Watch – Flighty bluefin and how to tackle them – tips aplenty!

What the hell are these tuna doing?

This piece is primarily about the summer inshore run, as a rough guide it seems to kick in for Victoria almost simultaneously with South Australia or be perhaps a couple of weeks after, usually in December. The fish can often be in vast schools, ranging in depth from behind the breakers to however deep, out wide were deepwater bottom bouncers venture. We usually don’t push much beyond 50m but may look as wide as 70m if we are having trouble getting a fix, or need to escape the boat traffic or green water on a run out tide. Usually, the water temp seems to be at least 18 degree’s C and as high as 20 or so. Yes, it’s warm for SBT and that seems to be the attraction!
We see a lot of fish milling around in large schools and for the most part appear to sun themselves. It’s a commonly accepted notion that fish digest better when they are warmer, and when they are milling on the surface they often certainly aren’t feeding, but at some point they have to, hence timing of the tide and most certainly mood phase are just as critical with inshore fish as those much wider towards the shelf. 
These tuna really want to hang near the surface, to the point that they can be put down by a boat trolling over the top of them, only to resurface immediately.
If you can find these inshore fish without them being disturbed, approach with caution and where possible cast long and downwind. I’d start with a sinking stickbait resembling the bait size and profile that you know to be in the area and try a variety of retrieves, from flat out to a slow twitch and sweep and don’t be afraid to try every variable in between! If they want to eat, this will usually get the job done. If this doesn’t work my go to is either a popper or a floating stickbait that has an aggressive and splashing action. This approach seems to get reactions when fish otherwise have lockjaw or are feeding deeper and you need to get their attention.
Watch – how to find them, no need for bust up’s!

Finding tuna, easy one day tough the next

A big part of the inshore run is visually locating fish. No feeding tuna usually equals low bird activity so it’s a bit of a different game. The visual game is massively aided by bright days and low wind. Literally you can see them… look for dark patches, water that looks different from the rest and ripples or slightly chopped up water. It is beneficial usually to have the sun behind you, and despite less windy days being prime for spotting, a little bit on it still makes it possible and is very much likely to increase your chances of getting a bite. 
What can be a target rich environment one day, can appear a dessert the next but fear not they won’t have gone too far, and will usually often appear as a tide change looms.
It pays massively to have a sounder that can read at speed. Whilst you cover water looking for tuna, one eye on the screen can give away the fish or the bait they may be on. What might not look like much on the return at 25 knots may be the mother load when you slow up. I use a Simrad NSS EVO3S and a thru hull Airmar SS175HW specifically aimed at targeting pelagics and bait in less than 100m. If you find tuna 30m down get casting, yep they will come up, very fast. In the absence of anything, follow the general direction of the birds, they always know.
Watch – raising fish from down deep

Found ’em! Now what? 

Let’s start with the approach, if you have tuna on your own away from the crowds I’d consider dropping the electric motor and carefully planning where I want the boat to be, this is only to reduce the risk of disturbing them with boat wake and outboard noise. If that’s not possible because the armada is closing in, approach calmly to try and assess which way the school is heading and position yourself up wind and adjacent to the lead fish and cast long to the front edge. 
It seems to me that tuna often take the decision to eat or not from the fish on the front fringes, whereas casting to the middle of the school is very likely to get shunned (unless they are ’on’ then it doesn’t matter!). Even when there is boat pressure you can do this, but once the fleet arrives it is going to get harder and harder, especially if someone doesn’t get it and drives right through the school. 

The intersection of summer tuna and bait 

Once these summer tuna get onto bait (this usually doesn’t take long) they will feed! Not all day (sometimes at night), not at all times, but if you are there when they want to, it should be happy days. If they are on pilchards, mackerel, yakkas and/or redbait, matching the hatch with a profile and colorway that suits should not be too hard, it’s also made a lot easier when the fish are able to stack the bait up, as they don’t move off it quite so fast as when the bait is spread out. When they line up on other bait such as anchovy or whitebait, getting a bite on fast moving fish can be hard (this bait can be tiny!). There are two factors at play here, one is that the fish plough through the clouds and often don’t even double back, simply moving forward to the next cloud of bait which makes getting ahead of them a challenge and secondly the right stickbait profile becomes crucial. The way I see you have two choices here; match the hatch precisely, or ignore it completely and go for the splash and noise made by a floating stick or a popper.
Watch – more action including the biggest Victorian tuna on topwater!

Summer Tuna Gear 

Tuna stickbaits usually sink and swim very tight and true. Probably more fish are caught on this style than any other, and when they don’t work, as per above – splashy sticks or poppers are a genuine alternative.
I’d look at the bottom of this page to our kingfish blog link for a solid guide on what works for kings and tuna lures can be quite similar, but bear in mind my preference for sinking stickbaits as a first option, it really is helpful when there are a lot of mutton birds and gannets on the bait, unhooking them gets old and costs you fish.
Tuna rods are another ball game. I do not mean to be disrespectful, but your gummy shark rod makes a very average tuna casting rod. If it’s all you have and are happy with it, carry on, but if I can convince you of a much better alternative, look at a specific tuna casting rod. You may be asking WHY? Tuna rods are designed to cast light lures, they bring lures to life, they bend where they are meant to so they don’t hurt you on vertical fights and they have the power to lift stubborn tuna from deep under the boat, SIMPLE!
Howk Tuna Rod in action
Check out our Kingfish guide below!
Click here for the Topwater Kingfish guide!

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