by Capt. Damon Mcknight
Springtime means, Time for top waters in the Northern Gulf.
During the spring and into early summer top-water action for Yellow fin and Black fin tuna, along with Mahi-Mahi is usually excellent. This time of the year in the northern Gulf there are a lot of 30-80lb. tuna that do not hesitate to take a top-water lure. Live bait is still the king of producing fish, but, in the early part of spring, live bait can be very hard to come by due to water temperatures, water clarity, salinity, current, and lack of the right size or kind anywhere near your path on the way to catch tuna. Venice is a unique port because inside it is mostly fresh water due to the Mississippi River, however, once you get out of the pass you are mostly in Salt Water. This time of the year the river is higher than any other part of the year because of run off coming down from the Northern States. The more rain, snow, and ice you have up north, the higher the river will be as it empties into the Gulf. This will narrow down your opportunities to find live bait until you are well offshore most days, and with fresh water in port, you can't keep it alive for the next day of fishing. Some days you can spend hours looking for live-bait during April and into May and find very little. There are days that we have arrived at the tuna grounds with as few as 5 live-baits in the well, they did produce fish, but after that you were done, if they wouldn't eat artificial. But, Barracudas can be tough to deal with as well so your 3 hours of catching live bait during this time of the year could possibly result in the cuda's getting most of it. So, here is where the top waters come into play. Sure, you could risk heading out without worrying about catching live bait and depending solely on top water for the most part, but, they don't always work. However, when they do it is very explosive and exciting.
What you want to look for when targeting Tuna on top-water is surface activity. Usually when the Tuna are busting minnows(various kinds about 1 inch long that hang out in Sargasum Grass), flying fish, or Man-of-War fish your chances are good at getting them to eat your top-water lure. If you pull up and you see zero surface activity then you want to find the fish on the fish finder to make sure there are any in the area. If you don't mark anything chances are it is time to move on. However, some days that can be deceiving because they are constantly moving. The up-current side of the structure is usually where most of the pelagics hang, so if your not marking or seeing fish on the up-current side after say 10-15 minutes it might be time to move on to the next location. Usually scattered grass is an indicator if fish are in the area as well. They will come up faster if there is scattered grass because that is where the majority of the bait is. Chances are if there is scattered grass in the areas around structure, there are probably fish there.
One of the most important parts about fishing for Tuna on top-water is your tackle. Good spinning reels and good solid spinning rods are a must have. The reels that I prefer, though pricey, is the Stella 20000 matched with Bar-Bar tackle spinning rods. It is a custom rod 7ft., 50-80lb. on a Calstar blank. You don't want a rod as stiff as a board when it comes to fishing Tuna on top waters because you need to be able to cast as far as you possibly can and you don't want to pull the hooks. So, some flex is a must, but you don't want a rod that has so much bend that it takes you forever to get your fish in, so you will need a rod with some leverage. (Other reels that have worked very good and area little less expensive are the Shimano Bait Runner, Thunnus, and Spheros) The reels are spooled with Power Pro Slick 80lb. Most days 65lb. will work and you will be able to cast it a bit further, but, if the fish are in the 100lb. range or you happen to catch a rogue Blue Marlin which happens often when using poppers it helps to have a little bit heavier line. When we first started catching Tuna on top waters the Yozuri hydro-tiger was a huge producer and for the most part the only thing on the market. They were small and light-weight and you had to change out the hooks, which I will get into later. Nowadays, there is a huge selection for Top water poppers. There are plenty to choose from, some are made of wood, plastic, fiberglass resin, or light metals. My favorite right now is wood. They can take a beating and are much more forgiving to the gel coat if you have a bad cast. The fiberglass and plastic lures will crack or puncture which will make them short-lived. The wooden top waters will out last the rest. The Heru, Cubera model is on the top of the list, followed by the OTI Wombat. The Heru will need split rings and hooks added to them, the OTI comes ready to go with strong hooks so you won't need to change them out. The build of the Heru and OTI are very similar as far as quality goes. I chose the Heru over the OTI only because I caught more fish on it last year. But both are built to last and produce fish. There are a lot more choices out there as well. Frenzy and Shimano have good poppers though they don't seem to produce fish all the time. The cheaper versions such as the Williamson and Tsunami do work but the hooks will need to be changed if your catching decent sized Tuna, but while de-hooking them, is when most break. Both the Heru and OTI have great surface action. You can give it a hard pop and it looks good, then you can rest a second and go again. At least half of the tuna that hit, will hit when it comes to a stand still, after you pop it. They cause a lot of water to move on each pop, which attract the fish most days. The Frenzy is a good top water action lure, though it doesn't float, so you have to reel and pop at the same time to keep it on top, so you are going to be worn out after a few casts.
Fishing top-water is very exciting, rewarding, but also heart breaking. We have lost more fish on top-waters than any other style of tuna fishing. On the bigger fish using spinning gear is a long battle, that is anything over 100lbs. The bigger fish have a knack for either spitting, breaking the hooks, or breaking you off when catching them on poppers. There were plenty of days when you were wearing out the 50lbers. on top, then you would see the big boy hit, 120+, and you just knew that one wasn't gonna make it in the boat, and they usually don't. However, the tackle is definitely getting better and stronger for this type of fishing, but, the bigger fish seem to have gotten keen over the years when it comes to poppers, so most of the tuna we do catch on top are the 30-80lbers., which is really all most people can handle on spinning gear. I prefer to leave the big fish to the heavier tackle, but, if you are up for it and you can get him to hit. It is awesome.
Capt. Damon Mcknight/Super Strike Charters LLC
Pictured is Mr. Womack with a nice 70lb. Yellowfin Tuna caught on a Heru Cubera (Green). Notice the grass in the water in the pictures. Though there was more grass than what you can see, you will almost always have more success if there is some scattered grass around.