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Tuna Fishing 101

Trolling for Tuna:

       There are many ways to fish for tuna, but for our purposes here we will be primarily speaking about “trolling for tuna”.  All of the species found in the North East can be caught with these basic principles:  Yellowfin tuna, Bluefin tuna, Longfin/Albacore tuna, and Bigeye tuna.  Each species does have its slight nuances for targeting, but these principles are just a brief general summary of the basics. I also do not intend to talk about the equipment used(rods, reels, electronics, boats etc.) except for a mention about the lures themselves.  After all, that is our specialty.

The Overall Philosophy:

      When trolling for tuna you want to create an attractive scenario for the fish below that will bring them up behind your boat to eat.  In this scenario the dark massive shadow of the bottom of your boat should appear to be a bait ball that is under attack and getting pushed along by predator fish.  Behind it are your lures which appear to be bait fish or squid that have been separated from the safety of the bait ball but are trying to get back to it so they will not be eaten.  The tuna below sees this attractive opportunity and raise up to feed, exploding on your lures and peeling line off your reels so that you can now battle those fish to the boat and over the rail.   And THAT my friend is what captivates so many tuna fisherman and sends them on a lifelong pursuit of big game fishing.  We spend a lot of money,  countless hours in preparation, and travel very long distances offshore, all to hear those reel drags SIIIINNNG when the strongest pelagic fish in the ocean are fooled by your presentation of a trolling spread. 

Where to fish for tuna?

     The best answer to that question is: Right on top of feeding tuna.  But that is way easier said than done, finding tuna is the most challenging part of the process.  The truth is fish move and conditions change continually which makes successful fishing a tricky business.  The good news is there are some general principles than can be applied to both offshore canyon fishing and inshore fishing to increase your chances. 

Intel:  This is likely the most important ingredient in putting together a successful fishing trip.  Work on developing a network of fishing friends that you can trust will give you good information.  Off course you will be expected to share the finer details of you trips as well. There is nothing better than having a friend tell you where he left them biting yesterday.   That body of fish may have moved on but many times they are still feeding in that general area.    If you want to cover all the bases and be as thorough as you can, I also suggest you gain access to a good paid Satellite Service where the water temps and chlorophyll concentrations are analyzed for you, giving you exact locations where the conditions are right for good tuna fishing.  Another source of helpful intel can be the internet fishing forums in your area, where captains report there catches.  As always internet information often cannot be trusted for specifics, but you can get a general idea if tuna are being caught.   Internet forums are also a good place to meet like-minded tuna fisherman to expand your network.

Look for life:  Birds, Bait fish, whales, dolphin, turtles, etc.  These signs of life are often very important indicators of feeding tuna below.  The more signs of life present the better your chances.  This is why it is important for all to be watching carefully as you fish.  If you miss spotting some birds working or fish breaking the surface a mile off your port side,  you may have just missed your only shot at fish for the day.  This also gives the boats with tuna towers an advantage, as those higher look out points make it easier to spot the ocean life you are looking for.  So KEEP LOOKING FOR LIFE including bait fish marks on your sounder.  

Structure:  The Ocean floor is not flat.  There are many lumps, banks, ridges, shoals, holes and  canyons.  Many of these structures have names so we can communicate to others about them and even locate ourselves in relation to the most commonly known structures. (Ie. 3 miles south of the tip of the Hudson Canyon)  These structures create natural areas for bait fish and tuna to congregate.   Some of these structures seem to hold fish year after year, but often this is not the case as the bait fish and therefore tuna move on.  You can locate these structures and their names using a good nautical chart for your fishing area.  The better ones have detailed topographical lines showing the changes in bottom depth.  The closer the topo lines are to each other signifies a steeper bank or drop off.   It is best to use a GPS with a chip that shows these detailed topo lines, that way you can mark your own points and personalize your fishing areas.  Some of the best locations you may find are unmarked on common charts.

Temperature Breaks: As the Gulf Stream pushes into the North East every spring it brings with it very warm tropical water that is full of life. When this warmer water pushes up against the cooler North East inshore waters temperature breaks are formed.  As the Gulf Stream ungulates and moves often warm water eddies and filaments will break off the stream and push into our local waters as well.   It is along these temperature breaks that bait is often found, and when you find bait the tuna are usually not far behind.  Late May and June mark the beginning of our tuna season and we often see hard breaks of 4-6 degrees.  These hard breaks are easy to see and find and often provide good fishing with aggressive bites and Yellowfin cover ups.  However as the season progresses the temperature breaks become less obvious and harder find.  Here is a link to Rutgers free satellite surface temps. This Rutgers site provides a good way for you to get acquainted with sea surface temperatures offshore.  However, the paid satellite services come complete with updated analysis of all the conditions and mark the areas most likely to have good tuna fishing.  Some very accomplished fisherman I know prefer Roffs- Link:

Water Clarity:  In general when fishing offshore water clarity and color can be an indicator of better conditions for tuna fishing.    When fishing our canyons it is the beautiful deep blue clear water you are looking for.  This does not apply to inshore 30 fathom line fishing where it is common to catch Bluefin tuna in green water.    Paid satellite services also use Chlorophyll concentrations to determine where this clear blue water is.  They also incorporate that into their analysis in predicting the best locations for tuna fishing.

What lures to use?

18 6 Bulb Zuc.jpg

      Well, Sterling Tackle lures of course.  Just kidding, but with a good mix of Sterling Bars, Sterling chains and Joe Shutes with ballyhoo you will truly be fishing with some very proven tackle that has landed a WHOLE LOT of tuna. Click here for the proof: Awesome Pictures and Videos

Trolling Patterns:  Most tuna fisherman use a standard “V” pattern behind the boat.  Then a way way way back lure which is usually fished off a center rigger or straight from the rod tip in a high rod holder.  More information on trolling patterns below.

Speed:  Most tuna fishermen troll between 4.5 knots and 7.5 knots.  The slower speeds are usually used when you are trying to let heavy lures run deeper in the water column or when targeting tuna in cold water.  The faster speeds are used to cover more ground in an effort to locate tuna then slowing down a little once fish are located.  Sea conditions will also dictate your speed.  You will want to watch your spread to make sure the lures are behaving the way you want them to and then adjust your speed accordingly.  The rougher the seas the slower you will likely have to troll to keep your lures running true.

Colors: The most common questions we get is: "What is the best color bar/chain?" There is no simple answer as it seems to change based on a combination of several factors, including water color, bait present, the background sky above your spread: sunny, cloudy, dusk, dawn. etc.  BUT, there are some general conclusions we have arrived at regarding color.  I have broken them down the best I could below.  

      Tier One: Zucchini, Green, Purple/Black

      Tier Two: Rainbow, White Pearl, Glow, Pink Tiger


Species of Tuna:

Bluefin Tuna: During the spring and summer the smaller version(20#-50#’s) is often found in 20-30 fathoms and therefor targeted by many smaller boats.  However sometimes larger Bluefin pushing over 100#’s can also be found hanging deeper in these same areas.  The smaller ones are usually targeted with Sterling Bars, Chains, Joe Shutes/ballyhoo and the old trusty 6” natural cedar plug on the flat line.   The larger ones are usually caught trolling deeper lures like a 5 ¾ oz Joe Shutes with a ballyhoo way way way way back(200-300yrds) behind the boat.  Some even run a Sterling Deep Runner Chain that weighs 48oz to really get it down deep.  You can also slow your speed to 4.5-5.5 knots to let the way way back lures sink deeper.   Now the fall run of Bluefin(Ghosts) with some being true Giants is a topic for another day…

Yellowfin Tuna: Found mainly from 50 to 200 fathoms in our North East canyons, but will also occasionally venture into the 30 fathom line.  A mix of Sterling Bars, chains and Joe Shutes with ballyhoo make up a killer spread.  Early season(Late May and June) most using 6” and 9” lures, then later season switching to 9” and 12” lures. 

Longfin Tuna/Albacore Tuna: Found in the same waters as Yellowfin tuna. These guys usually show up late July through September and are similar in size to our North East Yellowfin.  (30-50lbs)-Same lures and spread will catch them as well.  They do seem to favor bars and surface splash lures. The meat however is different than other tuna, being pure white when cooked and is excellent in a tuna salad sandwich.

Bigeye Tuna: These prized monsters are often found working the steeper walls and notches of North East Canyons, 100-300 fathoms.  Some prefer to target these areas with larger lures and more spreader bars so the Bigeye tuna which hold at greater depths can easily see them and be drawn up to feed.  They are known to attack a spread in good numbers with huge explosion behind the boat. This is sometimes called a “wolf pack”.

General Trolling Tips:

“Hours of boredom followed by moments of chaos”- This is a popular expression among tuna fisherman who understand it well. You have to put in your time…

Multiple hook ups is the name of the game: It is likely that you will only get 1-3 chances at tuna in a long 7 hour trolling day. Make each opportunity count. When you hook up KEEP GOING(20-30seconds), do not immediately slow down and fight one fish. During that time grab the line of lures that have not been bit and jig them forward and back, there is likely more tuna below that you are trying to bring up to eat. As you slow down and clear the lines those tuna are still probably hanging around which can be a good time to drop a jig while waiting for another angler to bring the fish to the boat.

Wakes: If your boat is creating visible wakes than it is best to troll your lures on the top or the forward slope of the wakes and not in the trough. Flat line lures would be 2nd or 3rd Wake, short riggers: 4th or 5th wake and long riggers would be 6th, 7th or 8th wake.

Matching bars: When trolling Sterling Bars from your outriggers, many have found it best to troll matching pairs, color and size. For example, what you have on your port long rigger also put on your starboard long rigger. This has a "Framing" effect to draw the fish up and forward in your spread.

Match the Hatch: Try to match your lures to the size bait that the tuna are feeding. Small bait means smaller lures, large bait means larger lures. You can sometimes discover this by checking the stomach contents of you first fish.

Drag settings: Most tuna fisherman set there reels to a strike drag of 13-21#s. There is varying opinions about setting your lever drags on strike while you are trolling or backing off a bit and then pushing up the drag pressure after hook up. You can practice this and see what is best for you.

Lure distance from the boat: If you notice your bites are coming up tight to the boat than you will probably want to pull your longer baits in a little to increase your chances of multiple hook ups. The opposite is true as well, if your bites are coming from your long lines than drop everything back a little. See notes on "Wakes" above.

Basic Trolling Patterns

The patterns below are suggested basic small boat(less than 30' with outriggers less than 22') patterns and will need to be adapted to your boats unique rod holder and outrigger configuration. Larger boats with 25'-44' outriggers are in a unique class and can employ the same basic logic to develop a larger spread. As you deploy your spread study your pattern to make sure it makes sense when lines come tight with fish that there is not an easy chance for line crossing. Fortunately fish swim down when hooked up and will normally allow un-bitten lures to pass over top.


  • Caution - All of these rod positions need to be worked out to best fit your boat's rod holder and outrigger configuration

  • Bow rod holders are an excellent option for Wide Trackers

  • 18" Wide Trackers, by nature, are more stable than large 36" Wide Trackers. On rougher days you may only be able to pull 18" Wide Trackers

  • Early season tuna are more aggressive and spend more time near the top of the water column. We find bars and chains will often produce the most bites.

  • As the season progresses, tuna seem to prefer subsurface lures, but bars and chains are still necessary to raise fish.

  • Aggressive, early season tuna are prone to bite closer to the boat. Early season, keep the spread tighter to the boat and lengthen the spread later in the season.

Sterling 36" Spreader Bars - can be pulled straight from rod tip or from most outriggers. We have found them to work best in the short or long rigger position. We recommend Black's Out Rigger clips as they can be tightened enough but are hard to over tighten by hand. 

Sterling Wide Trackers - see the images below

Sterling 18" Spreader Bars - super light weight and very stable for rougher days. We have found them to be the most effective in short or long rigger position and even way back.

Sterling Daisy Chains - can be fished in pretty much any position depending on the chain. For recommended positions for each chain, just check out the listings on our website. We have a suggested spread location for each chain.

​Joe Shutes - see the images below

Where to Fish
What Lures
Trolling Patterns
Trolling Tips
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