Fly fishing for tuna has always been on my radar. With bursts of speed up to 30 miles an hour, tuna are an exhilarating gamefish. After conducting some research I found out that San Diego is the perfect place for catching schoolie size bluefin and yellowfin tuna on fly tackle. By schoolie I mean 50 lbs and under, which by all means is a huge fish on fly. With the help of captain Mark Martin of San Diego Sport Fishing, my buddy Mike and I were ultimately able to get the job done!
Under captain Mark’s guidance, I put together a hardy set up. A fast action twelve weight and a Cheeky Limitless 475. The Limitless has a world class drag, large arbor, and plenty of space for backing… a tuna’s worst nightmare. Speaking of backing, I opted for a whopping 600 yards of 40LB C16 hollow core line, a 16 strand extra strong braid that can withstand epic force. In relation to the fly line, we went with full sink tuna GT lines. The reason we use a full sink line is that it's multifaceted, it can be fished quickly just below the surface when stripped in fast or dredged deep when fished slow. Additionally, these lines are a great option due to their big game properties; they have a 60-80 lbs internal core that prevents the fly line from snapping under the pressure of the fish. Now when it comes to attaching the hollow core to the fly line, I use a special knot called a Bimini twist. This is one of the strongest loop knots ever created and easily handles the pressure of a giant fish. Now for the leader, we used a straight section of 25-40 lb fluorocarbon. The reason for the light leader is due to the fact that tuna have spectacular eyesight. In terms of fly choice, mid sized deceivers that mimic sardines are ideal.
On day one we met Mark at his local marina, we immediately began talking strategy. The plan was to head 30-40 miles offshore with the goal of tuna, and a secondary target of mahi mahi and yellowtail. As for fishing techniques, Mark explained that there are few ways to target tuna. The first is a run and gun style in which you’re looking for topwater blitzes. When you do see a blitz, tuna fly through the air spraying bait out of the water. If the person on the bow can present the fly in front of a moving fish they have the potential to hook up. That said, while the person is fishing the bow, the second angler should be casting and retrieving a fly blindly off the stern of the boat. Typically the angler fishing the stern has the best shot at a fish swimming underneath the boat. The next method is to troll a teaser behind the boat until a school of tuna eventually crushes the teaser. With both anglers in the rear all you need to do is drop back a quick cast and begin working the fly. While it takes accuracy, it's certainly a cool way to hook up. The final strategy is to cast around kelp paddies. The waters off San Diego are famous for their underwater kelp forests; sometimes chunks of these kelp forests break off in the form of isolated kelp paddies. These paddies attract small baitfish which then bring in tuna, mahi, and yellowtail.
This goes without saying but finding a fish that swims 30 miles an hour in the middle of the ocean is no easy task. With three days on the books with Mark, we drove from area to area in search of birds and bait. With Captain Mark on the binoculars, we were able to locate signs of life from long distances however when we got close it turned out to be a false alarm. On day one we had no visible signs of tuna, although we found multiple kelp paddies with gigantic 20 plus lb mahi. As we shut down the motor and drifted by the paddy you could see mahi flying through the air pushing bait out of the water. When the fish came into the casting range we presented our flies beautifully in the chaos, unfortunately the mahi were lockjaw and wouldn’t eat a fly. Although day one was a wash, it was amazing to see mahi destroying bait.
On our second day, we spent roughly 5 hours searching for signs of life when we heard Mark yell from the cabin “tuna!” I quickly sprung up and headed toward the bow. As I surveyed the distance I noticed a frenzy of gigantic splashes. I watched as tuna eclipsing 80 pounds flew out of the water. As Mark pulled up along the thrashing school they immediately disappeared. In their destructive wake you could see sardine scales falling from the surface of the water like a shaken snow globe. At that very moment I knew that these fish were no joke. About 20 minutes later and 200 yards away the tuna popped up again to smash bait. Next, Mark throttled down on the gas and caught up with the school. As we got close I began false casting, with a quick double haul I dumped the fly just short of the bait and began stripping as fast as I could. With no looks or takes I made another cast, again no takers. Suddenly the tuna went under and our shots for the day were over.
On our third and final day we were ready to get back on the tuna, as we ventured offshore we passed a chain of islands. In the distance, we watched as a massive school of fish crushed bait on the surface. While it initially looked like tuna, captain Mark yelled “Yellowtail”. As I jumped up on the bow we raced toward the carnage, when we got into casting range I once again dumped my fly right into the mix. I began stripping my fly aggressively through the massive blowups, no takers. Suddenly the fish disappeared and popped up 100 yards away raging on the surface. Upon reaching the school, I threw another perfect cast. As I slid the fly past the school of fish, I watched a giant yellowtail break away from the pack and charge my fly like a bull. Unfortunately the fish had missed my fly and peeled back off into the school. As I looked back at captain Mark to confirm what we both just witnessed, I heard the radio chime and a voice say “ I think there’s tuna mixed in”, sure enough 5 minutes went by when Mike came tight on a blind cast off the back of the boat. As I watched the rod load, the fly line immediately disappeared and a 2 minute drag run ensued. Although Mike held on to the rod, there was nothing he could do. As I watched the fish torch the reel, I knew it was going to be a long battle. Once the fish had finally slowed down Mike began applying side pressure when boom, the line broke. With a broken heart he proceeded to reel in backing for about 5 minutes. As I looked at Mike, I was shaking from what I had witnessed. Mike had hooked a giant tuna.
After re rigging, we searched for more signs of life however the blitzes of fish had died. With that in mind captain Mark took us further offshore to search for tuna. After about 2 hours of driving around, Mark yelled, “I see tuna!” Mike quickly took the bow and I took the stern position. I could see schoolie tuna roughly 30-50lbs flying airborne on sardines. I knew we had to capitalize. Upon reaching the school, Mike dumped the perfect cast into the madness. He stripped it right by the fish's face, again no reaction. I then dumped a cast behind the boat and began stripping, pausing, and dropping my fly back. After a few strips of the fly I felt the line come tight. I firmly set the hook and watched my fly line shoot through the air. As I looked down at my Limitless 475 all I could see was white backing fly off the reel. After a long run the fish finally slowed down, at this time I kept low side pressure and tightened my drag three clicks. With the fish pinned, I began slowly lifting it through the column. Then all of a sudden, the tuna began running directly at me. All of the backing that it had taken out had to be reeled in as fast as physically possible. When I finally connected back on the fish It was just about at the beginning of my fly line. At this time it stayed deep under the boat in a tight circle pattern. With maximum vertical pressure, I slowly but surely worked the fish to the surface. When it was within 10 feet away it took one last dive. Under the immense pressure of the fish my rod cracked clean in half. With half a rod I continued to reel until captain Mark was able to grab the tuna.
As the tuna hit the deck I could see its beautiful yellow fins, dark blue shoulders, and large eyeball. A beautiful 20 lb yellowfin. In that moment the broken rod didn’t matter, the fishless days didn’t matter, my goal of catching a tuna was accomplished. It was an amazing moment to share with Mike and Mark. Ultimately the fish was kept and made for a great dinner for our guide Mark. With the goal of landing a tuna complete, we headed back toward the dock.
If you’re looking for an offshore experience on the fly there’s nothing quite like San Diego. While tuna are typically harvested in the area, the fishery is closely monitored by the hard working officers of the California fish and wildlife program. Through their work they ensure that fishermen are held accountable to quota and size. Additionally, there are non-profits such as the American Albacore Fishing Association that support the sustainable harvest of Tuna. With this in mind, the fishery is backed by groups that are rooted in intrinsic value and sustainability.
Meet the Author: With roots in the northeast Jack Larizadeh is a passionate fly fisherman and writer willing to go to the ends of the earth to catch some of his bucket list species. Through fly fishing he’s met a ton of new characters and friends who share the same pursuit of the next catch. Jack has authored a multitude of educational and informative content with an emphasis on catch and release practices and community. Off the water, he's sharing his passion as one half of the blog Long Haul Fly Fishing.