After Hours Tuna on 12-18 Day Trips – Puffer Fishing
By: The B Team
Fishing for large yellowfin tuna on the other side of midnight can be one of the most rewarding and also one of the most challenging experiences on a long range fishing trip. In my relatively short tenure as a cow size tuna fisherman, I have seen trips that yield anywhere from zero success during night bite hours to trips where the vast majority of the catch was made during those hours. Some of the more common baits at night are live skipjack or small yellowfin tuna, yo yo iron, salamis, and multiple sardines (chandeliers). In recent years, however, one of the most productive baits has been the lowly puffer fish.
If you’re one of those cagey old long range veterans that have been doing this for years, please feel free to skip to the last paragraph. If you are like most of us and are relatively new to the puffer game, read on, as something here may help you on your next trip.
Not having an ichthyology background, simple picture identification leads me to believe that our bait of choice is the Oceanic Puffer Lagocephalus lagocephalus. The dedicated crew of the Royal Polaris scoop these little guys at night either on the anchor or idling slowly around the shallows of Hurricane Bank. Securing enough bait for the evening may take little or no time at all or more commonly, hours. Like flying fish, they are attracted to the lights of the boat. The puffers that we have seen on the Hurricane Bank are approximately eight to twelve inches in length. Little is known about the puffer as they reportedly have no economic importance, but there are several features of great importance to long range fishermen. The first being that when puffers are on the Bank in large numbers, tuna are pretty focused on them. I’m guessing that whoever said that puffers have no economic value has never been in a good puffer bite at the Hurricane Bank and run out of puffers. I have seen anglers pick up freshly eaten puffers off the deck that have been spit up by yellowfin tuna and successfully use them to catch another fish. Secondly, puffers are quite hardy and have incredibly tough skin. When you put a puffer on your hook there is absolutely no need to try and run the hook through the musculature of the bait. Just run the hook point through about a half inch of loose skin on the dorsal surface of the bait somewhere behind the gill plates. He’s yours forever or until a tuna eats him. The best way to remove them from your hook is to take a sharp knife and cut off the patch of skin that the hook is embedded in. A testament to the toughness of these little guys is the number of them swimming around in the tank with multiple skin patches missing from their backs.
One very important thing to keep in mind when using puffers for bait is that they bite back. Puffers have a set of dentures that would make a wahoo proud. Every trip that I have been on when puffers were plentiful has been marked by the same phrase during the heat of action, “Ouch, the little bastard bit me!” Keep your hands away from the business end of a puffer. As witnessed firsthand on my last trip, puffers are unbelievably effective at cutting spectra. Jerry Brown Spectra Scissors have nothing on these little guys. Puffer bites might also be implicated in some of the mysterious spectra failures that occur on these trips. On my last trip I was in a minor tangle with another angler. As I was lifting my bait through a loop in a fellow angler’s spectra, the puffer opened his mouth, bit the spectra and several hundred feet of my fellow angler’s spectra, topshot, sinker and bait were gone. Sorry Ron. It really wasn’t on purpose. Feel free to wind a couple hundred yards of spectra off of any of Mike Hieshima’s reels on the next trip. He’ll never notice.
The Gear – The term “finesse” is not a part of night fishing for big tuna. A 50 or 50W size reel is appropriate. You all have your favorites. Mine are Accurate and Penn. As most of this fishing occurs on the deeper contours of the Hurricane Bank in over 70 fathoms of water, it is important to make sure that your reel is filled with 130lb. Spectra. Any color Spectra is fine as long as it is WHITE. Colored spectra is impossible to see at night. You will be doing yourself and the crew a big favor by remembering that. Keeping in mind that you’re fishing in the dark, a heavy topshot of 150 or 200lb. fluorocarbon or mono is in order. My line of choice is Blackwater. There are those that would question the use of fluorocarbon at night, but I believe that the abrasion resistance of flouro over mono is worth the extra expense, particularly when fishing at a time when tangles are commonplace and the fish are extremely unpredictable. My rods of choice are Calstar GF 775XXH and 775XXXH. Some favor the use of heavier rods, however I try and use what I think that I can handle. In the words of the famous philosopher, Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” As a precaution, I set up several rods for this type of fishing. Gear losses at night can be catastrophic. You don’t want to be in the position where you are having to add Spectra back on to your reel, changing topshots, etc. If you think it’s time consuming during the day, just try it at night -in the middle of a good bite. Take a moment after dinner to make sure that your night gear is ready. Better yet, take advantage of slow periods during the day to prepare. You are likely to have plenty of downtime during daylight hours if fishing at night is good.
Terminal Tackle – In the event that you missed the part about finesse not being a part of night fishing for big tuna, finesse is not a part of night fishing for big tuna. When you have a tank of puffers for bait, use big, strong hooks. You don’t have to worry about a big hook killing your puffer, he is more likely to meet his demise in the mouth of a yellowfin tuna. You also don’t have to worry about your puffer laboring over dragging a huge hook, heavy topshot and a mile of line around as he is likely going to be attached to a sinker weighing anywhere from 6 to 32 ounces (or more). I use anywhere from 8/0 to 10/0 hooks, 9/0 most commonly. My hook of choice is an Owner Ringed Super Mutu. Sinker size will vary, depending on conditions and the location of tuna in the water column. If you are not familiar with the best ways to attach a heavy torpedo sinker to your line using a rubber band, have the crewmen show you. There are ways to attach the sinker so that is fixed securely to your line as opposed to dangling. You will lessen your chances of picking up loose lines by doing this. Some tape their sinkers on, however I would rather the sinker fall off after hooking a fish which is more likely with a rubber band. On my trip in April, I started using a five or six foot fluorocarbon leader attatched to the end of the topshot with a small stainless McMahon style swivel. Spro and AFW make compact swivels that are rated for anywhere from 300 to 500lbs. I attached the sinker to the end of the swivel closest to the hook. The swivel prevented line twist from winding in a neck hooked bait as well as any that might be caused by the sinker.
Tactics – Although many puffer bites start on or near the bottom, keep in mind that the fish are not always on the bottom. Try not to let your bait sit on the bottom forever. If you don’t get bit in a few minutes, wind up a few turns. I try to wind up in increments of ten, just so it’s relatively easy to keep track of where I got bit. Although it may not help me on the next drop, sharing that info could help my fellow fishermen. Try and keep an eye on anglers around you and what they are doing. If they get bit shortly after they dropped in, there is a good likelihood they were nowhere near the bottom. If you’re dropping in behind them, thumb your spool on the way down to slow your descent and keep your bait in the zone longer.
Not surprisingly, it seems like the better night bites are associated with current. The velocity and direction of the current and wind at night can make puffer fishing on the Bank either a breeze or one of the worst fishing experiences imaginable. If the current is running perpendicular to the direction that the boat is laying, it’s an easy situation to handle. If the current and wind are in the same direction, everyone ends up in the stern, but at least you can drop in the bow and fish your way down. Wind against the current and everyone in a slow death march to the bow and anchor line is a nightmare. The only hope you have in that situation is to use the heaviest weight possible, drop your bait in the stern corner, pray that you hook a fish quickly, and hope that there’s not multiple fish spinning around the anchor line gathering everyone up.
The Bite and the Fight – Unlike tuna bites on other types of baits, bites on puffers can be quite subtle. It could range anywhere from a tap tap tap like a trout on Powerbait to a tap and a slow run. One very important thing to remember is that if your line goes slack, a number of things can be happening – all of which are bad. The best case scenario is that you’re bit and the fish is swimming straight up into the lights of the boat. You could be tangled with another angler and he or she is winding your bait up, or you could have lost your terminal tackle. Whichever it is, you need to wind. Wind fast. If you’re lucky and it is a fish swimming towards the boat, you can land a big fish in a very short time. It might not sound very sportsmanlike, but landing a kamikaze tuna a real thrill.
Fighting big tuna at night can range anywhere from mundane to wildly unpredictable. Sometimes a single fish will cover the entire spectrum. Ghostwriter (Mike Hieshima) always does an excellent job of chronicling the Nakaki 18 day in April. Take a moment and read his account of some of the puffer fishing exploits and battles on our last trip. It’s entertaining and a good description of some of the many things that happen fishing tuna in the dark.
The two most important things to be aware of is that slack line is a bad thing (turn the handle!) and that even the slightest angle in your line when you’re fighting a fish in that depth of water may translate into a very significant horizontal distance. In other words, if you are fighting a fish midships and there’s a slight angle in your line, your fish could be spinning circles around the anchor rope. Or if you’re fighting a fish in the bow with a slight angle in your line, your fish could be midships and everyone dropping their puffer rigs aft of you is dropping right on top of your fish.
The next time that you’re at the Hurricane Bank in the spring and the puffers are present, wake up at o dark thirty, pin one on and drop it down. The tuna are expecting it.
Catch a big one.