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April 29, 2011

Florida Keys Blackfin Frenzy

This Florida Keys pro excels at starting tuna feeding frenzies on Islamorada's famous humps.

tuna bait

An Epic Bite
On our second drift over the hump after pulling out the heavier tackle, Cone dumped baits over by the dozen after the tunas came up, and we soon had large blackfin and skipjack tunas swarming beneath the boat literally by the hundreds. The sharks stuck around too, but by altering our tactics and becoming more aggressive on the fish, applying maximum pressure the instant they bit, we lost very few to the sharks.

Andrews and I spent the better part of the next 21/2 hours hooked to fish. Cone kept the fish beneath the boat the whole time by keeping up a steady stream of live chum, even as the current took us far from the top of the hump. The sharks stayed behind, but the tuna remained with the boat as we moved slowly down-current, so we had a long stretch of uninterrupted action on fish up to 28 pounds.

Going Artificial
After catching several dozen tunas on bait, we switched things up and rigged with artificials. We tied on Sebile Bonga Minnows and tossed them to the waiting fish, with much the same results. The tunas crashed the lures with the same abandon as they had the pilchards. At one point Cone had the tunas so fired up that we hooked them by pulling the lures from the rod tips within a foot of the boat without casting at all.

Next we pulled out fly rods to see if we could land a few with those. We fished 20-pound tippet with 30-pound shock tippets, and the fish piled on the flies as well, although not quite as eagerly as they had the live bait. We fished Enrico Puglisi pilchard flies, which closely resemble the pilchards in both size and color, but we found that the tunas preferred flies with black backs over those with green backs, a counterintuitive reality. We had mostly green-backed flies, but a handy permanent marker remedied that situation in a hurry.

We moved back to the top of the hump before deploying the fly rods, and the sharks returned, so it took maximum heat on our part to keep from feeding the predators an easy meal. Fortunately, Andrews is an expert fly-fisherman and gave the sharks little to attack.

Simple Rigging
Cone uses simple rigs for the tunas. "Circle hooks provide a huge benefit because you can use a lot of drag with them and not pull the hook," he said. He prefers the 3/0 Owner Mutu Light circle hook, and surprisingly, he does not usually use any fluorocarbon leader: "Nylon mono is more limber, so the baits swim more naturally and you get more bites.

"Good healthy baits are extremely important," he continued. "Use weaker-looking baits to chum with, and keep the best baits for your hooks. You can also hook them in different ways to be more effective. If you belly-hook them and keep tension on the line, they will swim down, and we sometimes bridle a bait so the hook doesn't foul as much." Cone will occasionally place a rubber-core sinker on the upper part of the leader to get baits down when the tunas are finicky.

Fortunately, we never encountered a finicky fish. Several hours of nonstop action wears you out, and with the bait supply finally exhausted and the tunas gone back to the depths above the hump, Andrews looked at me and could manage only one word. "Unbelievable!" he said with a broad grin.