For anglers fishing out of South Florida, yellowfin tuna are a rare treat. For some reason that no ichthyologist can quite explain, yellowfin tuna have for the most part abandoned the western side of the Gulf Stream with only a handful of stray fishing making their way north on this side each year. However, within a relatively short distance for fishermen out of South Florida ports, there exists an excellent yellowfin tuna fishery. While yellowfins may have abandoned the western side of the Gulf Stream, the western portion of the Bahamas offers ample opportunities for anglers targeting yellowfins.
Known as the Northwest Providence Channel or more commonly simply “The Channel” the area between Freeport, Bahamas and the northern edge of the Bahamas’ bank north of Bimini is a roughly 40 mile wide expanse of water that flows on the south side of Grand Bahama and the Abacos. While relatively close to the US as the crow flies, Bahamian customs regulation prevent anglers from directly transiting to it and fishing. Instead, boaters must clear Bahamian customs first at most commonly Bimini to the south or West End at the northwest tip of Grand Bahama before fishing in this region. Once you’re squared away and legally in the Bahamas, it’s time to start fishing.
Habits and Habitat
Yellowfin tuna are the consumate pelagic predator. Their speed and size make an adult yellowfin tuna virtually uncatchable by all but large marlins and mako sharks. On their own end, yellowfins need to eat a meaningful percentage of their body weight daily to sustain their rapid growth and constantly forage on a variety of smaller fish, squid and crustaceans. In our own experience yellowfins found in the The Channel are mainly feeding on smaller fish, some as small as an inch in length, and flying fish. Occasionally our analysis of their stomach content will show squid and crustaceans found in sargasso weed.
Whether it’s simply coincidence or yellowfins prefer the shelter it provides, some of the more active yellowfin feeding frenzies we have witnessed have occurred in areas of scattered weeds. Not on solid, well formed weed lines like you might encounter while fishing for dolphin (mahi-mahi) but in broad areas of broken up weed. Perhaps they’re feeding on the small baitfish that find shelter under small patches of weed or it’s just coincidental, either way I wouldn’t read too much into the presence or absence of sargasso weed when searching for yellowfins.
To keep pace with their insatiable appetite, yellowfins feed multiple times per day, rising to the surface to feed on baitfish aggregated under clumps of weed or other floating debris, and then returning to the cooler water below the thermocline a few hundred feet down. The yellowfin tuna fishery in the Bahamas is unique compared to fisheries elsewhere in the continental US in that yellowfins rising to the surface are contending with a very warm layer of surface water. It’s not uncommon for temperatures in The Channel to reach 85 degrees during the summer months. While temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico or in the Gulf Stream further north can be quite warm as well, yellowfin tuna in the Bahamas are well adapted to these warm temps. Part of that adaptation is a lower, almost non-existent fat content and correspondingly, a very high amount of muscle for their body weight, making them pound for pound one of the toughest fighting fish most anglers will encounter.
The other main adaptation to warm surface water temperatures in the Bahamas is behavioral. Yellowfin tuna spend a significant portion of their day at depth below or near the thermocline where the water is cooler. Additionally, their most active feeding time during summer months is likely to be in the early morning or in the evening. The dusk bite for yellowfin tuna the world over is legendary and The Channel is no exception. For those of us fishing this area, it is important to plan for the two to three hours around sundown to be the most productive time of the day. Fish will rise to the surface for longer periods of time allowing flocks of birds to find and follow them while they feed.
Finding the Fish
On the subject of birds, they can be pretty helpful when it comes to finding a feeding school of yellowfin tuna in the open ocean. As I see it, there are three general steps to positioning your boat amidst a school of yellowfin tuna. First you need to choose an area of The Channel that you want to fish, second you need to locate and observe a flock of birds that is potentially on fish, and finally you need to confirm fish are in the area and position yourself in a location where your baits can reach them without spooking the school of tuna.
The first step is perhaps the easiest. If you’ve caught yellowfins before in The Channel, you can always go there however, it’s probably worth looking at why you caught fish there. The Channel south of Freeport, Grand Bahama is home to a prominent underwater feature, an undersea canyon running from deeper water in the east into shallower water to the west. This canyon and its fingers are clearly evident on any bathymetric chart and I highly recommend anglers fishing the area purchase one in order to have a better understanding of what’s happening underneath them that is causing baitfish and in turn yellowfin tuna to congregate in the area. Generally speaking currents from the deeper waters of the channel to the east are crashing into the walls of the canyon as it narrows and eventually terminates south of Freeport. Current hitting the walls of the canyon is forcing cooler, nutrient rich water upwards which is what smaller marine organisms in the area are feeding on. With the smaller organisms come progressively larger fish until you get to our chosen target, yellowfin tuna, although there’s always a chance that yellowfins themselves are food for a large blue marlin or mako shark. Put simply, the majority of our success fishing for yellowfins in the area has occurred near or within the various “fingers” of the underwater canyon in The Channel. There’s nothing to fence yellowfins into those specific regions and they can certainly be anywhere from Great Isaac’s light to Bells Channel Lucaya but you can’t fish everywhere at once.
The second aspect of successfully getting on fish involves actually locating a school of tuna. As I alluded to earlier, your best asset here is going to be the flocks of sea birds that feed in conjunction with a school of tuna. There’s something amazing about just sitting back and watching a yellowfin tuna feeding frenzy with birds of multiple species feeding alongside the tuna, using them to push the bait to the surface where it is within easy reach. I can just hear you thinking now, I didn’t spend a couple hundred dollars on gas and tackle to watch birds and tuna eat, I want to catch them. Ok, well as I said, we need to find the birds first.
The best tool by far for finding birds is a quality open array radar. It’s amazing how effective radar is under the right conditions at finding birds. Large flocks of a dozen or more birds are often visible on radar at over 4 miles while just a few birds can often be picked up two or more miles out. Good radar is indispensable for this application and is nice to have for running at night when you’re done fishing as well. In lieu of radar, a pair of stabilized binoculars can be a good option as well, as well as a pair of conventional binoculars. My goal with the previous section was to narrow down the body of water you’ll be fishing in to the areas with the highest probability of success. While radar allows you to find flocks of birds within a circle around your boat with an approximate area of 50 square miles, hopefully by narrowing down the area to fish to something smaller you won’t need to depend on radar’s magic. Even if you do have radar, sea state can play a big role in its effectiveness with rough, choppy conditions significantly reducing its effectiveness.
If you haven’t used your radar in “bird mode” before and want to learn how or want to get better at it, I recommend watching this video by Into the Blue’s Scott Walker. Essentially you want to turn off the preset filters that declutter the radar screen and max out the gain. I highly, highly, recommend practicing on birds somewhere closer to home so you have an idea of what to look for on your radar screen before trying it while fishing in The Channel.
Once your radar or your eyes have led you to a likely flock of birds, you’re almost on the tuna. Observe what the birds are doing, if they’re low on the surface of the water and there are fish under them or if they are high and dispersed looking around. If there’s a large group of birds in the area, there is almost certainly a school of fish somewhere to be found, even if you’re not seeing them breaking on the surface in classic tuna boils. One thing we’ve had luck doing to pin point the tuna is setting our depth finder to cover the top 400 feet or so of the water column and while we’re idling around about a 100 feet off the main flock of birds just keep an eye on the depth finder. You’ll usually start to mark fish 150 to 250 feet down. It’s important at this stage of the game to avoid spooking the tuna and sending them down or away. Occasionally you’ll see boats troll at speed directly through the tuna or have a boat run up on you while you’re fishing – don’t do this. Keep your boat speed slow and slowly nudge closer to the school, you don’t need to be right on top of them, once you start putting out bait and chum they’ll come to you. If you’re not seeing fish on the surface and you’re not marking fish on your fish finder, keep slowly circling the school, occasionally we’ll put a tuna feather way, way back while doing this in the hopes of hooking up while finding them.
While it may sound counterintuitive, if you’ve gotten this far and you’re on fish, catching them is the easy part. Yes there are still some challenges to overcome, but these tuna are hungry and they want to eat, so if you’re on a good looking school of tuna with fish either marking on your fish finder or you’re watching them boil around the boat, the odds are good that you’re going to put yellowfin tuna in the boat.
Everyone has their own approach to how they put fish in the boat once they’ve located them, this is ours but there are other good methods which I’ll try to cover briefly too. We like live bait, pilchards to be precise. A tuna trip for us doesn’t start without live wells loaded with at least a couple hundred pilchards, a thousand or so seems to be the magic number. In fact next season we’re going to make our live wells a more habitable place for large amounts of pilchards. There are a lot of tricks to stocking up on pilchards and keeping them alive, most of which would require posts of their own to cover in depth. To keep things brief, make sure your live wells have good flow and clean water coming in, if the water temperature gets too hot or there is a decrease in flow they will start to die off.
Back to a patch of water somewhere in the Northwest Providence Channel around sunset. So you’ve found the birds, you see the fish, what now? As we slowly nudge closer to the school of boiling tuna we’ll get to within 50 to 100 feet or so of the closest boil and shut down the engines. At the same time, toss out a couple netfuls of live pilchards as freebies to get things going. Try to toss them in the general direction of the school of fish, for this purpose we cut the top off a whiffle ball bat and can load it up with either live bait or chunks and can really get some distance on a toss. Getting them farther away from the boat keeps them from immediately going back under the boat and hiding and increases the chances that tuna will see them. If you’ve done this correctly, the results should be almost instantaneous with large explosions appearing where your pilchards used to be. If the tuna don’t immediately react to them, don’t worry, the pilchards will ball up under your boat and create a bait ball that will drive the tuna wild for hours to come.
At the same time someone is tossing out freebie pilchards, someone else should be baiting rods and putting pilchards on them. For this application I recommend bent butt 50Ws topped with 60lb fluorocarbon leader. Keep the rods in the rod holder with just the clicker on or very light drag and peel off line giving the pilchard you tossed out some room to run, hooking them in the lower back half will usually make them swim away from the boat. One person can usually work two or three rods doing this, you might also consider rubber banding on a weight above the fluorocarbon leader to get your bait a little deeper. Give your baits time to get away from the boat and time for the tuna to notice them, they should get hit.
While powerful, yellowfin tuna in the western Bahamas don’t get all that big so 50Ws may seem like overkill. However, the biggest challenge isn’t the fish itself, it’s often getting the fish in before the sharks that follow a pelagic school of tuna get to your hooked fish. During a hot bite I recommend pushing the drag up past strike and reeling the fish in, if something breaks it breaks, re-rig and get back to fishing. If you baby these fish they’re going to dive down into the cooler, oxygen rich waters below the thermocline and stay there. Additionally, the entire time you have the fish on the line you’re ringing the dinner bell for sharks and since you’re forced to use relatively light fluorocarbon leader to elicit a bite, there’s a very real possibility it will chafe through after a prolonged fight. If after you catch one or two you want to scale back your tackle to make things more sporting, by all means but I recommend trying to hook the first fish or two on stout conventional setups and get them to the boat as quickly as possible with as much drag as you think the tackle can handle.
Yellowfin tuna aren’t always as cooperative as I described. Sometimes you come upon them earlier in the day and the warm water temps have them hanging deep only briefly rising to hit bait on the surface. Or as we found late one night, they’re feeding on squid down 200 feet. While still quite happy to hit a bait, I’m not sure yellowfin tuna ever experience “lockjaw” like some other fish species, there’s the small problem of getting a bait to them. For deeper tuna there’s one thing that really seems to work – vertical jigs. A jig dropped to their depth when you’re marking them under the boat is usually a guaranteed hook up. There is however a catch, jigging setups usually aren’t your heaviest setups and these fish are a lot deeper than fish you’ll hook on live bait near the surface. Brace yourself for a fight if you want to try this approach, we’ve hooked yellowfins on vertical jigs only to fight them for two hours before seeing color. Another option is deploying a weighted live bait to their depth, a bait they’ll hopefully see and pickup. The jigging approach is a lot of fun and a nice change of pace from our typical live bait fishing and there’s nothing quite as rewarding as landing a nice yellowfin tuna on a spinning reel.
In the absence of live bait, a lot of anglers will use chunked frozen baits. We usually carry a flat or two of chunked sardines with us as well to augment our live chumming efforts. The best tip I can give here is chunk the sardines while they’re still frozen on land on a solid table – chunking mushy sardines on a rocking boat sucks and is a good way for someone to get cut. Pre-chunk several flats, I’d recommend at least 3 flats for a day of yellowfin fishing although if you’re exclusively using chunk bait you might consider more. Fishing with chunks is a lot like fishing with live bait, get close to the school and see or mark fish and sling out some chunks with your whiffle ball bat. Put a hook in a few chunks and peel off line so it sinks at a natural rate, the tuna should come and pick it up. You will miss the explosive top water scenes of large yellowfins devouring pilchards on the surface but it is an effective way to fish for them.
Some anglers forego bait entirely and will instead put out a complete trolling spread and slowly troll around a flock of tuna with a spread of feathers and cedar plugs far back behind the boat. This method isn’t as effective as chunks or live bait but can produce fish. Alternatively, something I’ve been tempted to do is just use jigs. We’ve actually had hookups on the jigs without even having a bait in the water, as we approached a flock and started marking fish on the depth finder, I’ve dropped a vertical jig down and hooked up instantly. There are a lot of ways to fish for them but live bait and chunks seem to work and if you’re running all the way to the Bahamas to target them then it makes sense to be prepared.
The Little Things
Not every flock of birds has yellowfin tuna. Sometimes you’ll come upon a flock that has a lot of surface activity but is moving very fast, this is likely skip jacks. Unless you’re marking larger fish below them or see yellowfins breaching the water as well you can consider moving on to fish a different flock. There have been days when we’ve fished in excess of a dozen flocks and other days when all it took was a single flock and we could have sunk the boat with tuna if we hadn’t started releasing them. Of course a big consideration in whether to move on or not is going to be how difficult finding a flock is. If you have radar sometimes you’re already marking another flock of birds but if you’re working without radar then it can be more appealing to stay and work one flock hard – some of our best days fishing The Channel came when we took this approach.
If you’re using live bait there’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve observed happen a couple times if there is also scattered weed in the area. As most offshore anglers know, little patches of weed often hold an assortment of pelagic forage fish like small jacks and rainbow runners. These fish will occasionally see your bait ball of pilchards holding under the boat and decide to join them, greatly increasing the size of the bait school you’ve created and likewise increasing its appeal to the tuna circling below. If you notice this happening you can slow down your chumming, and occasionally turn on the motors and drive forward a hundred feet or so to wash out the baits. As the baits that were hiding under the boat lose their shelter, the tuna erupt on them in a spectacular feeding frenzy, it goes without saying to make sure you have at least one or two baits out in that area when you do this.
I think it’s every fisherman’s goal to catch larger fish. The yellowfin tuna in the Bahamas are relatively small compared to their brethren elsewhere in the world with average size in the 40 to 80lb range. Bigger fish certainly do exist, we fought one for almost two hours once, glimpsing color and massive sickle fins once in the fight only to lose it later. It’s my belief that the larger fish tend to hold deeper in the water column and when they do rise to feed its only briefly. A goggle eye or blue runner sent to their depth can be the ticket although a large pilchard should do the trick too. Anglers have also reported the occasional catch of Big Eye tuna mixed in with yellowfin schools. There’s a lot we still don’t know about the habits and behavior of tuna in The Channel so perhaps Big Eye and larger yellowfins are more common, they’re just lost to sharks and tackle failure more often than the average size yellowfins.
At the other end of the size spectrum are the blackfins and skipjacks mixed into a school of yellowfin. While blackfin are always an exciting catch in our own South Florida water, by golly we didn’t run 120 miles just to catch 10lb blackfins. Larger baits sent deeper will usually get past the blackfins, as will baits further away from the boat as blackfins seem to have less fear of the boat and will hit baits right at the boat. If you’re catching blackfins and seeing/marking yellowfins just be patient you’ll hook one of the right ones eventually.
There’s nothing quite like a hot yellowfin tuna bite when it happening. It combines all the chaos of a school of dolphin with fish that are more than capable of pulling some serious drag. Be prepared and remember you’re a long way from home so try not to let the excitement get the best of you, lest you end up with a hook in your own lip. I hope this article is helpful to those of you that get a chance to target them, I simply ask that you please practice restraint and conservation when targeting them and if you’ve caught a few switch up your tackle to jigging or popping gear for more of a challenge. Be sure to join us at BoatEasy the Boater-to-Boater Marketplace for all your boating needs and to share this article with anyone else interested in fishing for yellowfin tuna in the Bahamas.