As a self-described “tuna nerd,” Ali Hussainy is enjoying what could be described as the good old days of bluefin tuna fishing in his hometown waters off the coast of Southern California. Why so good? Since the El Niño weather pattern cycled through in 2015, Hussainy and other anglers have seen an incredible uptick in the numbers and size of bluefin tuna in the eastern Pacific.
A Mercury Pro Team member and host of the show “Local Knowledge,” Hussainy says the ocean currents have changed since 2015. As a result, the waters are remaining warmer in winter and with the warmer waters has come an influx of anchovies in the region. Because of the flush of baitfish, there’s no need for bluefins to migrate away. They’re staying put, often in massive schools that cover acres of water, and can be caught just a short run from the marina.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Hussainy said. “Words do not even begin to describe it.
“Our normal average tuna here used to be 15 to 30 pounds, depending on the season. Our average tuna now is 85 to 90 pounds, with fish getting to be over 300.”
But here’s the rub. With all that bait in the water, the tuna can be finicky in the early part of the season (roughly from June through August). Getting them to bite has forced Hussainy and others to adjust their tactics to capitalize on the quality fishing.
Foamers, Breezers and Shiners
The main way to track down giant schools of tuna early in the season is to visually scan for “foamers.” On a slack tide, the fish ball up into massive schools and herd anchovies to the surface. They’ll then slash and feed on the baitfish across massive swaths of ocean – swaths that can be as big as multiple football fields. This visual “foaming” activity can be seen from miles away.
Similarly, smaller groups of fish will also show themselves on the surface.
“Sometimes you’ll see little spots of them feeding on the surface, but it’s not the giant acres and acres of them foaming,” Hussainy added. “Sometimes we fish what we call ‘breezers,’ where we can see them just under the surface and their fins will actually tip the surface, or they’ll do what we call ‘shine.’ They’ll roll on their side where they’re just eating krill and stuff. And you catch a flash of chrome and then you throw a lure or a bait in.”
Once he spots a group of fish, Hussainy stays back and studies the school before making his move.
“If you lay back without getting too excited in your boat, you can see the foamer ‘walking’ one direction or the other,” he said. “The next thing I want to do is to position my boat upwind from that foamer and the direction it’s headed to get into those fish. We want to keep the boat as far away from the fish as possible so we don’t spook them, and then allow your anglers to make a cast.”
Casting downwind adds 5 to 10 yards of casting distance. That extra distance helps for effectively reaching the school with small lures that match the profile of anchovies and Pacific saury, another choice prey for tuna.
Tuna Tackle for Foaming Fish
Hussainy leans on a trio of artificial lures that accurately mimic anchovies and saury. While these three lures are ideal for targeting small to mid-size bluefin tuna, it’s not uncommon to hook a giant, too. So, it’s important to be geared up with appropriate tackle. Hussainy recommends a 5500-size spinning reel with a 7-foot, 6-inch casting rod, 50-pound-test braided line and a short top shot of 60-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.
1. Metal jig – Hussainy starts with a small metal jig with a shiny finish. Though compact, this lead jig can be cast a long way. “Throw it in the melee, put your rod tip up and wind like crazy,” Hussainy said. “They will get moody. Sometimes they want you to throw it in and let it sink out, but usually the technique is to throw it in and kind of work it across the surface or shallow so it looks like a bait fleeing the bait ball that they’re pounding.”
2. Flat-fall lure – A flat-fall lure is similar to a metal jig, but with a broader, flatter body shape that’s closer to that of a traditional casting spoon. “It’s a metal lure that’s designed to fall in a side-to-side winging motion, and it mimics a dying bait kind of flopping around on its side going to the bottom,” Hussainy said. The falling, fluttering action is key. Fish it with a mix of jerks and pauses or jerk it a couple times then let it sink through the school.
3. Compact, heavy stick bait – Hussainy fishes the smallest stick baits he can find that are still heavy enough to launch out to foamers. These “long-cast” stick baits come in several sizes and variations, including floating, suspending or sinking weights, and models with or without dive lips. Fish them right on the surface or just under it with an erratic twitch-jerk retrieve.
Finesse Fishing with Bait
When the tuna aren’t in “foam mode” and can’t be fished as aggressively with artificial lures (common later in the season), Hussainy will spot fish or use his fish-finding electronics to locate schools then switch to live bait.
“If we meter them down deep but they’re not coming up, we’ll throw a bunch of bait over top of them and then put hooked baits in with them,” he said.
By chumming with live bait, he can get the fish excited and “whipped up.” Then he drops in a larger hooked bait such as a sardine. For the most natural presentation, Hussainy uses lightweight terminal tackle that allows the sardine to swim freely and dart around: a 2/0 circle hook with a 1x light-wire shank and a 3- to 5-foot-long top shot of 25-pound-test fluorocarbon tied to 65- or 80-pound-test braided line. Hussainy recommends a narrow-spool bait reel on a traditional bait-fishing rod.
Capitalize While You Can
Hussainy says the big schools of tuna will eventually migrate away from his region, as they have in the past when similar circumstances have occurred. And while it’s not clear how long the fishing will stay like it is, Southern California is the current “Tuna Town U.S.A.” And now is the time to capitalize on this incredible opportunity using the tactics Hussainy has proven on his local waters.