Speed-Trolling Lipless Plugs for Bluefin Tuna

Speed-trolling with diving lipless plugs has emerged as the next big thing for finicky Pacific bluefin tuna.
Bluefin caught on lipless diving plug
Lipless trolling plugs such as the Nomad Madmacs 200 became the hottest-selling lures in Southern California last season after anglers discovered that Pacific bluefin tuna of all sizes could not resist them when trolled at high speeds. Product shortages and price gouging grew rampant as anglers scrambled to get their hands on a Madmacs or two. Jessica Haydahl Richardson

Pacific bluefins off the coast of Southern California often prove elusive, even when big schools are boiling and jumping around the boat, driving anglers to distraction as they frantically try everything they know to get a bite. The pursuit has often led to scaling back on tackle, line, lures and baits to finesse a bluefin into eating, ­many times to no avail.

But last summer, some angler—no one’s absolutely sure who or where it happened (see below)—discovered something completely different: speed-trolling a lipless diving plug.

It worked. Previously disinterested bluefins ranging from 40 to 250 pounds found the fast-moving, vibrating lures irresistible. And as word got out, it triggered a buying frenzy of big lipless trolling plugs, most notably the Nomad Design Madmacs. Anglers feverishly combed through tackle stores and online retail websites. This—combined with hoarding behavior—quickly depleted the available stock. 

Price gouging grew rampant, and desperate anglers paid double, triple or even quadruple the suggested retail price to get their hands on the coveted fast trollers, and with good reason: They were racking up impressive catches. Today there are plenty of Madmacs and other effective lipless trolling plugs in stock, and prices have mercifully returned to normal—around $50 to $55 each.

Speed Demons

If you plan to speed-troll for Pacific bluefins this summer, ­having the right lures is essential. The best plugs were originally designed for trolling for wahoo at speeds as fast as 15 to 20 knots. 

The lipless designs allow greater speeds than lipped plugs, such as the 7-inch Rapala X-Rap Magnum that’s rated for speeds to 13 knots. Lipless designs are also less likely to track off-center, pop to the surface, or become barbed projectiles while reeling them back to the boat. 

Collection of plugs
Nomad Design’s Madmacs 200 and 240 sizes represent the hottest lures to date when speed-trolling for Pacific bluefin tuna. They get bit, but the stock single hooks have tiny, almost nonexistent barbs. As a result, anglers suffer an exasperatingly high percentage of pulled hooks. As a workaround, anglers change out the back hook of the Madmacs with an Owner 4X-strong treble hook—4/0 size for the 200 and 5/0 size for the 240. Some anglers also replace the belly hook, and the plug seems to troll fine either way. To change the hooks, use heavy-duty split-ring pliers and work cautiously to avoid impaling your fingers and hands with the super-sharp hooks. Jim Hendricks

The Madmacs 200 and 240 high-speed plugs serve as the benchmarks for bluefin speed-trolling, but other lipless plugs produced bluefins last summer, including the Halco Max 190 or 220, MagBay Desperado MagDog, Savage Gear Mackstick Speed Runner and Yo-Zuri Bonito 210. 

While some anglers have favorite colors, such as purple, pink or mackerel, it’s not likely that color makes a big difference when the lure races along underwater. The best guess is that blistering speeds trigger reaction bites. Bluefins have only seconds to grab and go, and that leaves little time to evaluate the color of a potential meal. 

Throttle Jockey

So, how fast do you need to troll for bluefins? Typically, speeds range from 9 to 12 knots, but sometimes even faster—as high as 14 knots—if the slower speeds are not triggering strikes when fish are in the area. 

The faster the trolling speed, the deeper these sinking lures run, though not as deep as lipped plugs such as the X-Rap Magnum, which can dive down to 40 feet. The Madmacs 200, on the other hand, maxes out at 12 feet, while the 240 dives to 15 feet. Those depths seem more than sufficient for success.

One downside to speed-trolling is fuel consumption. At speeds of around 12 to 14 knots, many saltwater boats run at an awkward, bow-high stage between displacement and planing speeds. Let’s call it plowing, and it results in the worst possible efficiency. For this reason, many trollers keep the speed at a more efficient 10 knots until they spot fish in the area or schools show up on sonar, then they ramp up the speed.  

Large bluefin tuna
Pacifc bluefin tuna grow wary of boats but often will inhale a lipless diving plug trolled at speed with 100 to 150 yards of line out. Barry Brightenburg

Long Game

If there is a factor common across all the techniques for Pacific bluefins, it involves stealth and putting some distance between the fish and the boat. These tuna grow extremely wary of boat noise and prop wash. To compensate for the bluefin’s inherent wariness, speed-trollers put the lures at least 100 yards behind the boat, and sometimes as far as 150 yards.

To gauge the amount of line they let out, most use color-coded braided line such as PowerPro Depth Hunter Offshore, which has a different color (blue, orange, green, red and yellow) every 100 feet. This makes it easy to establish the distance and track the line while trolling. 

Another downside to this technique comes into play with so much line out. There’s the distinct possibility of another boat crossing your wake, running over your lines, and cutting off your expensive lures. For this reason, speed-trolling for Pacific bluefins works best when there’s minimal boat traffic. 

Landing large tuna
Landing big bluefins calls for stout tackle and strong backs. Matt Rissell

Rig for Success

Anglers often use fairly large lever-drag two-speed reels, such as Okuma’s Makaira 50W II or Shimano’s Talica 50 II, loaded with 80- to 100-pound-test braid to ensure that there is sufficient line capacity to handle a cow—the name assigned to any Pacific bluefin over 200 pounds. Reels are matched to heavy-action trolling rods, sometimes with bent butts to keep the line angle as low as possible while trolling.

Speed-trollers use 50- to 100-foot wind-on 100-pound-test fluorocarbon or monofilament leader, crimping the lipless plug to the bitter end using chafe tubing to prevent line wear. The heavy wind-on helps prevent the tuna from chewing through the ­leader material, in case the fish inhales the lure. The ­theory is that by avoiding the use of a swivel or other terminal gear, there’s no bubble stream or other tipoff that can deter tuna from attacking the lure.  

Read Next: Pro Tactics for High-Speed Trolling

Angler fishing along rail
Some anglers use a boat rail as a fulcrum to gain leverage while fighting a tuna. Barry Brightenburg

The Right Time

While speed-trolling can be deadly effective, it’s not a good technique to search for bluefins. First, as mentioned earlier, it burns way too much fuel. Second, you’re not likely to find success ­until you know there are fish in the area.

Reserve speed-trolling until you see fish, such as bluefins feeding at the surface in what Southern California anglers call foamers. These fast-moving schools, which usually attack schools of tiny bait such as anchovies, can be difficult to entice. If you can’t get them to bite surface baits or small metal jigs, break out the speed-trollers and work the area; this is when the technique can be most effective.

Sometimes fish might not be feeding at the surface, but you can see them on sonar—the telltale jagged marks of schools crossing under the boat on the display. If you cannot get them to bite live bait or heavy metal jigs, try speed-trolling around the area where you are marking fish. Last summer, this often ­resulted in multiple hookups. 

Hawaiian Roll

There’s a related technique that paid off for some bluefin speed-trollers last season, but it was not widely shared. West Coast marlin anglers call it the Hawaiian roll. If you see schools of bluefins in the area—be it foamers or sonar fish—and you’re not getting bit, point the boat downwind and pull back on the throttle to idle, allowing the plugs to sink deep. Then throttle up to trolling speed. As the plugs rocket up from the depths, they can trigger deep-dwelling bluefins to chase—like a cat pouncing on a fast-moving piece of yarn—and inhale the lure.

Whether you roll or troll, you need the speed to find success.

How Did It Start?

Fast-trolling goes contrary to everything West Coast anglers previously knew about Pacific bluefin tuna. Then someone discovered it and, as the saying goes, it was a game-changer. But who was the first?

No one knows for sure who or when, but one theory points to the panga fishing fleet based in Ensenada, Mexico, about 60 miles below the border. The hypothesis is that some pangero came upon the technique by accident. 

The story going around the Southern California sport-fishing community is that one panga fisherman was trolling a plug or two when he spotted a foamer (a school of bluefins feeding at the surface), according to veteran West Coast offshore angler Barry Brightenburg.

“It’s plausible that he just left the lures in the water while he accelerated for the foamer as fast as he could,” Brightenburg says. “Pangas don’t go that quick, but fast enough for speed-trolling, and he inadvertently hooked a bluefin tuna on the plug when he was just trying to get to the foamer.”

The pleasantly surprised pangero likely bragged about his experience to others, and word eventually spread northward, leading to one of the most effective techniques ever for bluefins—at least, that’s the theory.