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Do you need to troll at speed to catch Tuna?
11:00PM 12th Apr 14

Speed, more speed!

For so long this has been the kayakers catch cry – “faster, paddle faster, if you want to catch tuna you’re going to have to paddle your arms off!” And when arm power just doesn’t seem to be enough some of us have been flying along under sail or resorting to pedal power, anything to gain that speed edge. For others it’s been a matter of spending any opportunity to train and gain the endurance to keep those arms flailing along during long hot summer and autumn session off the coast.

Certainly this is the habit I’ve fallen into, especially when looking to target skippies. And while many of us have recognized albacore aren’t quite so speed orientated, most have been doing their best to keep average speeds as high as possible, even when targeting these tasty morsels.

Of course excitement and adrenalin are wonderful things. There’s nothing like spotting the tell-tale surface flicks of tuna flashing across the water, or the sight of bait busting through the surface while fleeing the speeding bullets attacking from below. And of course the burst of energy has us quickly pumping our arms again. Inevitably this is when tuna strikes occur, seemingly reinforcing how important speed is when targeting tuna – or so I thought!

trolling for tuna

When trolling for skipjack and albacore the normal rule of thumb has been to paddle as fast as you can, but often slower speeds can be just as effective. Don’t let stories of long distances and high speed put you off giving it a go.

Since changing away from traditional feathers and flies and using bibbed lures almost exclusively for all my trolling I’ve been slowly changing some of my ingrained ideas. As my arsenal of lure styles has slowly become more diverse I’ve repeatedly had “accidental” captures that are now becoming too frequent to be simple flukes. One key observation is that paddling as fast as possible may no longer be so critical to success when targeting tuna from kayaks.

A classic example of what’s been happening was during my most recent trip to the Bay of Islands. With other commitments in Northland and reports of excellent skipjack catches outside the islands, I snuck an extra morning into my schedule to chase fish. The idea was to land a few pan sized snapper for the table then hopefully add two skippies to the bait supplies for the Taranaki Kayak Fishing Classic happening March 22nd and 23rd this year.

Launching at daylight from Rawhiti soon had Ross and I through the Albert Passage and into fishy waters. Hunting around with the sounder didn’t take long and we soon had perfect eating size snapper coming aboard. It took a while for the bite to fire up, but suddenly out of more than 40m I had the school just a few meters below the kayak rampaging over anything I put in the water.

kayak fishing loaded rod

A quick snapper session to start the morning delivered some amazing action directly underneath the kayak – it was a case of jamming your thumb on the spool to let the reel slip into gear while trying not to break your rod!

In fact it became essential to strip the braid to leader knot through the guides before dropping the bait or risk smashing something! Then it was a case of trying to get the baitcaster into gear with the pinion screaming like a ratchet as it failed to mesh. This was a heart in the mouth exercise of trying not to burn a gloved thumb while trying to slow the spool! Surface caught snapper can be savage screamers compared to dragging them from the depths, with the added bonus of releasing fish that haven’t been subject to barotrauma.

I kept a hand full of those showing a little more stress than their mates, and released around a dozen of the more feisty companions. After this the bite slowed as the school dispersed back towards the bottom. Now it was time to target skipjack and add to the bait supplies for upcoming events.

Given the reports from boat anglers earlier in the week I deployed my usual surface lures that have been so successful during previous sessions, and headed for the current lines created by the tide flowing out between the islands. An hour later – nothing!  All I had for my effort was a sweat soaked PFD and a pair of rapidly tiring arms. No matter how fast I paddled I couldn’t induce a strike, and I was sure the tuna were there.

To take a rest from all the high speed paddling I changed one of the lures to a deep-diver and ramped back my paddle stroke to a comfortable GPS speed of around 4.5kph. This is perfect for cooling down and taking a breather, with my intention to head back over the snapper and see if I could sucker one of them into eating the Dr Evil shimmering deep below the kayak.

Snapper distractions, these fish weren’t monsters but hooked just underneath the kayak in 40 meters of water meant they were tough customers to deal with.

Before I had covered even half the distance back to where the previous action had occurred the rod tip gave a nod, then bucked hard as the ratchet screamed at the lost line – skippie on! The slow moving deep-diver had been hit hard while the surface lure was still untouched. Letting the Profish Reload slew round and track the fish meant it didn’t take long on the heavier hooks of the bigger lure to land the catch (sometimes it’s nice not having to gently finesse fish on small fine gauge hooks).

With this 4kg fish landed I reset the lures and was off with invigorated arms, paddling at my usual skipjack trolling speed of 7 – 7.5kph. I had confirmed they were there, time to catch the second one I needed (I had a self-imposed limit of two for this trip, all I need for the Taranaki event). After slogging away for half an hour while watching the GPS to keep my speed in the target zone, I still hadn’t had the expected strike.

This is when the light came on – I reduced my paddle stroke and let the kayak slow, just as I had earlier when deciding to take a rest. As the indicated speed dropped below 5kph the rod dipped and screamed, and again it was the deep-diver doing the damage leaving the higher speed surface lure untouched. A quick torrid battle soon had the bigger 4.5kg fish to the gaff, and since I had the fish I needed it was back to the ramp with half the day still to go.

Different camera angle

This situation of slowing down and suddenly catching more tuna is something I’ve experienced regularly over the last two or three years. It’s happened just as often with some shallow running lures as it has with deep divers, so I don’t believe the depth being targeted is the critical factor. I’ve even had multiple occasions when bibbed lures designed for fresh water use (eg. the little Strike Pro Flash Minnow 7cm) have caught albacore as my kayak drifted while I ate lunch or had a drink.

As mentioned above, this slow speed performance has happened too often over more than one season to be a fluke.  I’ve now put most of these successful lures in the water at the side of the kayak while drifting and then paddling up through a range of speeds to check their actions. In all cases they have had a distinct “swimming” motion at very slow speeds.

It’s also interesting to note that the most successful low speed swimmers aren’t always those with the biggest bibs. Some of the very small fresh water lures with low slung bibs and the tow point off their nose (rather than the bib itself) seem to swim well in the surface film at nothing more than a fast drift. These are the little guys that have proven deadly when stopping to eat or drink.

When dealing with multiple trebles and lively fish a pair of hook-out pliers is essential. Never try and remove these hooks with bare hands or you could be in for a painful paddle home. Note the dive glove making it much easier to control your catch.

So, what’s the message here:

  1. Speed isn’t everything. Choosing a lure designed to match your comfortable paddling speeds will make a huge difference to your success when trolling for tuna.
  2. It’s important to have a range of lures with different shapes and actions; I have yet to find a single lure that comes close to doing everything. Once you have them, run them in the water just to the side of the kayak to get an idea of the speed they start to swim at.
  3. Be prepared to experiment – the generally accepted rule when chasing skipjack and albacore from kayaks is that you will need to paddle as fast as you can, but this isn’t always the case. If you’re not catching fish, as crazy as it sounds, try slowing down.

Finally, many kayak anglers I speak with are put off trying to target fish like skipjack and albacore: “they’re too far offshore…”, “there’s too much paddling involved…”, “I simply can’t paddle that fast!” The reality is that as we learn more about trolling lures from kayaks we’re discovering it isn’t necessarily as hard as many of us have previously thought. Lure choice has a critical role to play, but even more important is discarding conventional wisdoms transferred from larger craft.

By experimenting and finding out what actually works at the speeds and distances we can comfortably paddle we can more easily target fish that might have been considered outside our ability. We can also find fish where many wouldn’t have thought to look. As I write this all my tuna landed this year have been hooked less than 2km from shore and I’ve just spoke with one Taranaki angler who’s been catching albacore less than 800m from shore. The key is to get out there and give it a go!

Written By Stephen Tapp for the NZ Fishing News magazine, read more of Stephens Fishing News articles HERE

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