By Pat Ford
Winter is coming and so are the blackfin tuna. As the temps drop and the cold fronts start to move through the Keys, the pilchards appear in the shallows around the Keys. The arrival of the bait means that the tuna and other pelagic species are not far behind.
The best fishing for blackfin tuna is probably key west. The light tackle guides have a plan that almost always produces tuna for their clients and there are non better at this than Capt. RT Trosset and Capt Patrick Cline who work together on RT’s 36’ Yellowfin, SPINDRIFT. The first requirement for their brand of live bait chumming is a live well system that will keep 50 lbs of pilchards alive all day. If the bait doesn’t stay alive and frisky, non of the plan works. First on the agenda is catching the bait. It’s difficult to maneuver a 36’ boat into 2’ of water but the Yellowfin does just fine. If the bait is too shallow, Patrick simply gets out and walks over to it. At times, bait is easy. At times it can take most of the morning to catch enough. Some look at that as waisted fishing time, but after doing it with RT for decades, I can assure everyone that no matter how long it takes, it will be worth it. Patience is a virtue.
Once the bait is on board, RT will run to one of the wrecks offshore and anchor up-current. Anchoring is 250’ of water is no easy task and the anchor and line have to work together efficiently. Once in position the chumming starts. Netfuls of live pilchards are simply thrown into the water. It helps to throw them in different areas so that they all just don’t school up and run back to hide under the boat. I’ve had days when nothing came up and days when the water boiled with fish after the first throw. The first to show up are usually bonito…trophy sizes bonito that are tough to land, but they aren’t tuna so they are a nuisance. The tuna range between 15 and 30 lbs and can be taken on any kind of tackle including fly. They hit artificial lures and almost any baitfish fly. You’ll need a 12 weight fly rod with a sinking line and a 20 lb tippet, but tackle isn’t the biggest problem in landing a tuna…it’s the length of the fight! Sharks follow the schools of tuna and over the years have figured out that a lot of “sick” tuna appear under those white things that float over the wrecks. There are days that you simply can’t land a tuna due to the sharks. It’s funny but the sharks don’t eat the bonito, only the tuna. RT uses heavy spinning rods with 30 lb braid and tries to get the tuna in as soon as possible. If it’s a long fight, the sharks will find it and then hang around the boat, waiting for the next one. I’ve landed a lot of tuna on fly over the wrecks, but I’ve lost a lot more. If the sharks are too thick, you have no choice but to move on…you’ll never land a tuna. Heavy tackle is really the only way to go, but it is total chaos when the bite is on. It’s not unusual for everyone to be hooked up at the same time.
Noone spends the entire day chumming for tuna…it’s usually an early morning or late afternoon thing. In addition to the tuna, time is spent chumming the reef for yellowtail, cero mackerel and kingfish or live baiting for sailfish or wahoo. Best thing about Key West in the winter is that you can catch most everything that swims on a good day and there are lots of good days.