Tuna fisherman the world over know that night time can be the right time, and those that have experienced night fishing around the Gulf’s deepwater platforms might argue that it’s the best time. It allows all anglers the opportunity to even the score for all their wasted attempts during day trips.
Why do these platforms hold so many fish at night? The bait..the bait..the bait.
The lights of the rigs simply attract bait. And the structure which doubles as a full time FAD (fish attracting device) coupled with the lights; serves as a night time beacon marking a presumed safe haven for bait fish for miles. Only problem is…the apex predators have caught on to this, particularly Gulf tuna!
I happen to feel that Gulf tuna have adapted to feeding under the lights not just to satisfy their constant urge to eat and metabolize but because it is easy pickings. Consider the simple biology; tuna feed 24 hours a day eating 30-40% of their body weight all the while continually metabolizing. Why wouldn’t they hang around in a small area constantly feeding on a continual supply of bait without expending much energy as opposed to searching great expanses for scattered bait in utter darkness?
Another obvious adaptive advantage is their extremely large and sharp eyes, which assist them in feeding in low light conditions. Using the cover of darkness they lie in wait for unsuspecting bait to come into their forage areas; For the yellowfins this forage area lies on the outer reaches of the up current side of the platform near the surface (0-50 feet) where the light from the rig fades into natural darkness (100-400 yds) and the blackfin at depth close to the rig (50-100 yds) where the last reaches of penetrable surface light fades into complete darkness (100-200ft). See diagram 1
Therefore, just about any lighted rig in 300 feet or more will hold tuna, particularly blackfins. Yellowfins will frequent these shallow platforms but are less common in these areas not because of depth, but rather because they prefer conditions that are more often found in deeper water. They are most likely to be found at rigs in blue water with temperatures between 68-84 degrees, since that is where the flying fish will be found. There really isn’t any preferred or secret rig, just identify an area that holds fish during the day and give the nighttime a shot.
One thing is for certain; at night, blackfin favor squid and yellowfin favor flying fish. To be wildly successful, all you need to do is employ baits and methods that mimic the specific bait for each species. Heavy jigs will imitate squid for blackfins and surface baits will fool yellowfin into thinking they are hitting live or injured flying fish.
Bottom machines are a must. Blackfins will show up as minor returns in greens and blues about 75-200 feet down. Yellowfins will usually lie in about 50 feet of water waiting for a flying fish to blow his cover. They show up us boomerang shaped returns with strong colors (reds and yellows) a few hundred yards out and away from the platform. Since blackfins are more interested in chasing the squid at depth, the light becomes less of a factor. I have caught blackfin at least a mile from a rig where there was no penetrable surface light at all – just the evidence of their presence on the bottom machine.
The days leading up to and the week after a Full moon is best for night time yellowfin fishing. The extra light keeps the flying fish on the move particularly when they are swept into the brighter lights surrounding the rig by the Gulf Stream loop currents. Fishing the up-current sides are always better than down current areas. There is always more surface activity and a fresh supply of flying fish and flotsam. Look for scattered grass patches and focus your efforts in the up-current areas. Even if you have to move to a considerable distance from the rig to find “new” scattered grass. Just allow yourself to drift with the grass. As you near the rig, just watch for the flying fish to get flushed out of hiding and cast right in front of them. It is a sure sign that a yellowfin is on the hunt.
It is never a guarantee when pursuing yellowfin. It doesn’t take but an hour or two to figure it whether they are present or not. No signs of surface activity are a dead giveaway. And the absence of flying fish usually means no yellowfins. That leaves two options; you can either move to another rig or focus your efforts on blackfin.
Blackfins are rarely a difficult prospect at night. If you wanted to, you could conceivably sink the boat with them. They will hit anything that is moving fast on the drop or rise. Newcomers are amazed at how simple it is to hook a blackfin and for that matter; they make a great and simple starting point. They can be a lot of fun on light tackle. The 6 oz diamond jig in chrome or glow color is the weapon of choice. We usually use 30-pound line or lighter with a medium rod in an attempt to match the tackle. Sure you could winch them in on heavy equipment, but where’s the fun in that?
You can usually find them 50-200 feet down close to the rig where they are feeding on squid. That is what makes the jig so effective; it mimics the tiny squid, which they spend most of their time pursuing just at the point where the last bit of light will penetrate during daylight hours (200 feet). At night the squid make the journey to the surface. It’s not the color of the jig that maters, but the action and long slender shape. Just keep it moving!
Jig selection isn’t as important as the action. Although the 6 oz diamond jigs work the best, we used to use pieces of tubing when I worked offshore that scored just as well or better. It just has to be moving fast in one direction or the other – up or down. There really isn’t any need in jigging, which just wears the angler out. I have seen guys make he mistake of pumping the jig up and down on the retrieve; and yes, they may pick one or two tuna up this way, but nowhere as many as the guy dropping it as fast as he can to about 200 feet and then retrieving it quickly. Remember it isn’t amberjack or grouper fishing.
Although blackfin can be caught in good numbers all year round at night, the fishing for them is historically better in the fall.
If you are truly after yellowfin, then it never hurts to leave the enough time to make some live bait. Hard tail jacks usually work well but can be difficult to catch at night. By far the ultimate bait is the flying fish itself. Live or dead, they definitely work better than any other bait out there. Big tuna’s just can’t resist them.
As for catching them, it can be tricky, but here are a few tips to help you get them. They are most commonly found at the deepwater floaters in blue water on the outskirts of the major platforms or in large grass patches. I have only been able to catch them at night, using lights to attract them. Most of the time a spreader light is all you need, but a fisherman’s green light will work wonders if you can find a safe way to hang it off the transom without fouling. The flying fish usually swim right up to the transom and hang around for a minute or so .One night when we forgot the castnet, I watched a group of 5 or so hang around for 10 minutes within 5 feet of the boat while we were fighting a hooked fish. Lessons like that will ensure that you have a castnet ready to launch on top of them at all times.
Their first motion is usually lateral, so aim for the center. If you miss, they usually come right back. I have kept them overnight in the live well for eight hours so they are fairly hardy.
Oddly we catch most of them while we are fighting a big tuna. So there is never any pressure to waste time making bait before you start fishing.
If you have trouble catching flying fish then the next best thing is the topwater popper. It really makes a great substitute for a live flying fish. Color and brand don’t matter. It’s the action that counts. And that part is up to the angler. It is a one on one game.
When working a top water popper when fish are not on the surface, it is important to get the lure as far out as possible and work it back to the boat as fast as you can for the first one third of the retrieve, then the angler can make a series of pops and retrieves to the boat. That gives a better chance for that fish that is down deep to zero in on the bait. If you watch a flying fish move across the surface at night they usually make a long run, and not long after they run out of lift a monster yellowfin comes out of nowhere to hammer them. I have seen tuna follow the bait all the way to the boat and hit it at the very last second. If the yellowfins are not actively feeding, try making blind casts at or near patches of scattered grass. Odds are that the tuna are not too far below.
If you are lucky enough to find the fish boiling on top, all you need to do is get the bait anywhere near them and a successful hookup is eminent. Usually at some point in your night trip, you are likely to encounter this feeding behavior. If it happens outside of your casting range, then be sure to move stealthily. Never make a bold run into or near feeding fish.
If they are finicky, it is never a bad idea to try bump trolling live baits (although we usually save ours for the sun-up bite). Live baits work very well at night, particularly the flying fish. Just hook them in the lips from bottom to top as with mullet and send them back 50 or more feet. They never last long and most of the time they get eaten while we are trying to get them set.
Nearly all of the time, the action is on the surface, but some nights it may be necessary to add a breakaway weight to get a hardtail down about 50 feet. Use just enough drag to keep the line from free lining. Always set up in the areas where you have been seeing fish. 90 percent of the time it’s about 100-400 yards on the up-current side of the platform.
If all else has failed and you have exhausted your live bait you can always try slow trolling squid chains, rubber flying fish or dead ballyhoo making wide sweeping turns, but you rarely have to resort to these primitive tactics.
Gear selection is most important. We use Alutecno, Albacore 50/80 reels with 600 yards of 80-pound monofilament for yellowfins because the drags are smooth, precise and dependable. The Alutecnos are superior to the competition not only because of the drag mechanics, but because they are fool proof. It is impossible to put the drag in free spool or full strike without pressing a button on the side of the reel, so there are no bird nests on the take and no spastic two-thumb break-offs due to accidental overdrag during the fight.
We use about 27 pounds of fight drag, leaving the strike drag at about 2-3 pounds on the take. As a big tuna grabs the live bait, we let him run for a second or two and slide the lever up to full as we reel with the rod in the rod-holder. When properly executed it plants the circle hook in the side of the mouth every time.
I like an 8/0 Mustad live bait hook with a 130 pound 20 foot fluorocarbon wind-on leader attached with a bimini and Dacron loop. Hook the live bait in the nose and try and get him out about 50 to 100 feet and bump troll. Just try and get him out!
Always bear in mind that a night trip should be carefully planned and not attempted by the small boater, as safety is the biggest issue. Yes the rewards can be huge, but are there any fish swimming in the Gulf that is worth your life? Always let someone on land know where you intend to go and what time you will return. A float plan is never a bad idea.
Your own safety is your responsibility. I wouldn’t recommend going unless the boat was very seaworthy and capable of handling 10-12 foot seas (should a squall catch you). It must have a minimum of all of the following equipment; 4kW radar, two VHF radios and a GPS. A self-inflating life raft wouldn’t hurt either. Timing and weather are crucial; it is much safer to do all your running during daylight hours and never on a night with the threat of any significant weather. Be sure to get adequate rest before attempting such a grueling trip, and have at least two experienced boaters to share the operating responsibility.
It’s no secret it is easier to fool them at night, so use the approach you have the most confidence in. Most night trips I am not sure it really matters what you do since the fish are so turned on most times that they would probably hit a piece of rope on a hook!