Mississippi Yellowfin Tuna
A River Runs Through It meets WWE wrestling — that’s how I’ve come to characterize tangling with yellowfin tuna on fly rod.
I’ll never forget standing on the bow of my buddy’s boat watching acres of yellowfin tuna chase flying fish in our direction. When they got close enough, I made a cast and was immediately solid into a 60-pound yellowfin. The first run didn’t last long. Within minutes, my yellowfin was screaming back toward the boat on the surface with a lit-up 500-pound blue marlin on his tail. The blue grabbed my tuna, the leader snapped and it was over.
I have been blessed over the years to chase tuna in many parts of the world, but I’ve found no better place to do it than off the mouth of the Mississippi River (out of Venice, Louisiana). This fishery offers exceptional fly-fishing 365 days a year for tuna and more.
You’ll find tuna here year-round. Yellowfin, the main target, average 40 to 65 pounds. Fish to 100 pounds are common and any month of the year can give you shots at 200-pound fish. Some days, we’ve struggled to find yellowfin small enough to handle on the fly rod.
Some of the largest yellowfin show from November through March, but that’s also when the weather can be the cruelest. However, over the past three seasons, these larger fish have lingered in the area all year long, making for great fishing during the prime summer months. Another bonus during the summer is the abundance of respectable dolphin, 15 to 40 pounds. At this time, fly-rodders feeling adventurous can also target wahoo and blue and white marlin.
My favorite season in Venice is July through September, as all species are abundant and the weather is typically settled, barring any tropical systems.
When targeting yellowfins, I carry 12- or 13-weight outfits. Yellowfin tuna feed in open water, so you need a setup that casts a long distance. The rod also needs some serious backbone for lifting and a reel that will hold a ton of backing.
My main outfit is a 9-foot, 12-weight Winston BIIx with an Islander 4.5LX spooled with at least 600 yards of 60-pound TufLine XP Spectra behind the fly line, which is usually a clear-tip intermediate. This outfit has performed flawlessly for me with castability and lifting power, a strong disc drag and adequate backing. I use simple tapered leaders tied with Seaguar Fluoro Premier. The butt is 40 inches of 60-pound joined to 36 inches of 40-pound, followed by 16 inches of 20-pound-class tippet and ending with 12 to 24 inches of 60- or 80-pound shock tippet. I may use floating or slow-sink clear-tip lines if the fish are up high. When the tuna stay deep, I’ll go down to them by switching to a fast-sinking line such as the Rio Leviathan 750 with a short, 6-foot leader of straight 60-pound Seaguar Fluoro Premier.
Fly selection depends on the target species. I have had great success in tying flies to “match the hatch.” Figure out the main prey species for your quarry and tie flies that mimic them. Experiment and vary colors and sizes just to cover the bases. I’m tying them on the new Mustad Signature C68SZ, C71SSS and S71SZ fly hooks. Bunny flies have worked well for me on all species, so with some of those in your arsenal, plus some baitfish patterns and a good flying-fish imitation, you should be golden.
You can thank the oil companies for this world-class tuna-on-fly fishery. The tuna off Louisiana relate heavily to the offshore oil platforms. The rigs hold bait, and the bait draws in the tuna. We spend most of our time chasing yellowfin in at least 1,300 feet of water and, most often, in 1,500 to 3,500 feet. If conditions are right (temp, clarity, current), the tuna usually hang one-fourth of a mile to a half-mile up-current of the rigs. Look for surface activity; if you don’t see any, do a sonar sweep to determine if the fish are holding deeper. If you mark fish in the upper 300 feet of the water column, you can catch them on flies. Yellowfin will not hesitate to come up from 300 feet down and crush a fly on the surface, and it’s something to see.
Like people, individual tuna have different personalities, so some fight super hard, while others are more manageable. But generally, because these fish haunt deep water, prepare for long battles. They’ll take 450 yards of backing off a reel in seconds – and they’re very reluctant to give it back.
About the Author: Jeff Pierce is the sales manager for O. Mustad & Son and saltwater co-host of The New Fly Fisher TV series. He has been fly-fishing and tying flies for 28 years; as a regular visitor to the blue water off Venice, Louisiana, Pierce has more than 125 fly-caught tuna to his credit. In 2004, the Federation of Fly Fishers honored Pierce with the Silver King Award for his efforts to promote saltwater fly-fishing.