Let the size of the bait and your target species choose your jigs for you!
When jigging tuna really turns on in southern New England, it may seem like the end of the world is near as everyone rushes to the nearest tackle shop, cleaning out entire selections of jigs, leaders, rods and reels. It happened last year, and it started happening again last month thanks to the blistering bluefin bite south of Block and Martha’s Vineyard.
For the intense angler who lives to fish on the jig, tuna preparation starts well before the season even hits; gearing up, getting supplies, and making sure that they’re properly set up for when the stars align and it’s time for that first trip of the season. These are the people much like me who look at every piece of information possible to truly understand these fish. More often than not we end up losing sleep over the details for a successful trip successful.
Tuna fishing is mental warfare, with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows; but at the end of the day we always find ourselves back on another trip chasing those same fish that made us love fishing from the start.
Choosing Your Jigs
Understanding your target species and their feeding habits and migration patterns, is the easiest way to set yourself up for success. You may know where the fish are, but depending on the time of year your presentation will vary in size, shape and color. In the early months of the tuna season, you will see a push of large bluefin as they are migrating through. This class of large tuna will feed on a variety of different sized bait fish ranging from mackerel to sand eels. Earlier this spring some anglers found krill in the stomach of their giant bluefin while the trophy window was open. These fish may feed on a variety of different species but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that tuna, especially the larger ones, are always looking for the easiest meal they can find and will not pass it up if presented.
With a variety of bait present at one location, understanding what they are feeding on is not always an easy task. Getting to know how a particular area may hold different bait ends up being a key component to understanding the feed. As the season progresses for example, you may start to see smaller bluefin and yellowfin as water temps rise. This class of fish tend to feed on bait smaller in nature, but may not pass up an easy meal, even if larger in size. Sand eels seem to be the primary forage for this class of fish. Sand eels themselves may start the summer off smaller in size, growing to much larger lengths as the season goes on. Knowing this information can help you adjust as you move on through your tuna season.
When it comes to tuna jigging the options are endless. It may seem straightforward but there are a lot of questions that make anglers doubt themselves while jigging. But knowing the feeding habits and primary bait source of your target species will help you figure out the presentation angle. Consider that big game jigs come in all different shapes, lengths and weights along with varied color options. Trust me, it really doesn’t have to be as complicated as it seems; knowing the conditions you fish and depth which you are fishing can help determine what weight jig you need. Ultimately, the size of the bait which your target species is feeding on will help you select which length jig you will need.
Of course, the style of jigging you plan on doing will dictate the shape. For speed jigging slender jigs perform best. Speed jigging has become one of the most popular ways of targeting tuna on the East Coast. There are so many different brands of jigs on the market so that may be your most difficult choice to make. Over time I have learned that, regardless of which style of jigging I’m doing, Nomad Design has me covered. They offer a variety of jigs from slow pitch to speed jigs. When speed jigging for tuna in the early season I will use a Nomad Streaker jig in 80 grams to match the length of sand eels, which this time of year are smaller roughly about 4 inches. As the season progresses, I will use the Streaker jig in 120 grams, as sand eels are much longer in length by then.
Something to remember is with large bait present don’t be afraid to drop a large profile jig like the 200-gram Streaker jig. As for color selection probably the most popular and effective colors are Sand Eel, Sardine, and Pink Sardine. On overcast and dark weather days I will change up to a glow jig such as Chartreuse White Glow or Full Pink Glow.
A Need For Speed
To ensure you have the correct presentation when working a jig, you need to also have the right jigging rod. I work at a shop called the Reel Seat and many of our customers come to us for specialized jigging tackle, so I always start by asking them a question – and it’s a question you should ask yourself – “what size class of fish do you plan on going after?” Answering this will help you find the proper category of speed jigging rod to best suit your needs.
Every jigging rod is made differently; componentry, blank, along with length and gram rating. Each rod will have a different feel, so I suggest going into your shop to get the rod into your hands first. For the average angler who plans on chasing tuna ranging from 40 to 100 pounds, or the length equivalent roughly 40 to 55 inches, you will want a rod which can work your most commonly used jig weight which happens to be 120 grams. Depending on the manufacturer, its weight rating should be roughly 180 to 300 grams which allows you to properly work the jig and have enough backbone for these fish. My preferred speed jigging setup is a Centaur Chiron 5-foot, 2-inch SL with a gram weight rating of 120-260 paired with a Shimano Stella 10,000PGC. This reel I will fill with 300 yards of 65-pound metered braid and an 80-pound Basil Wind-On leader. I will then tie a swivel to my leader and attach my jig to that swivel by opening the split ring.
For the avid jig fisherman who is on a quest to catch a fish of a lifetime in the 65-inch and over range, look for a rod with plenty of backbone but a soft enough tip to work jigs in the 120- to 200-gram range. This sometimes can become a struggle to find. Ideally you are looking for a rod with a rating of 300 to 500 grams which is ideal for this fishery. My preferred set up is a Centaur Chiron 5-foot SH with a gram rating of 300 to 500 grams paired with a Shimano Stella 20,000PGC. I will fill this reel with 350 yards of 80-pound metered braid and a 100-pound wind on leader. Once again, I connect a larger swivel to my leader and connect my jig to it from the split ring.
Armed with the knowledge of bait, jigs and gear, one of the final pieces of the tuna jigging puzzle is understanding of proper presentation. Keep in mind that each day is different, which means you’re going to need to adjust to yield greater results.
A Jig & A Crank
When speed jigging I tell people that it is ‘one jig’ to ‘one crank of the reel’ in a rapid motion, incorporating pauses every so often. This allows you to work your jig and retrieve line as you prepare to jig again. If done correctly you will constantly propel your jig through the water column as you retrieve your line.
After you’ve spent a day or two on the water jigging you will have the rhythm down and hopefully it will begin to feel like second nature. Up to that point of course, it can seem like a lot of work. But the shorter rods in the 5-foot, 2-inch range help make this rhythm much easier to get the hang of as the rod feels much like an extension of your arm.
Depending on target species I will jig faster or at a slower pace. When fishing for bluefin I like to jig at a slow steady pace. I find that I get more bites this way as they react well to this method. For yellowfin I like to jig much faster almost ripping my jig through the water column. These two ideologies are the same as if you were trolling for either species, slower for bluefin and faster for yellowfin.
You should be aware of where you are marking your fish in the water column as this will indicate how far down to drop your jig. I always drop below the fish and work my jig through them. The metered braid that I use helps me know exactly how deep my jig is as each color is 30 feet. When I mark at fish 90 feet I will drop three colors knowing that I have let out 90 feet of line plus my 25-foot leader which indicates to me that I am now below the fish I am marking.
As I work my jig through the water column closer to the desired depth where fish were marked, the anticipation of a potential bite grows. Once you get bit, you are going to want to set your hook hard; I suggest three times. This will bury the hook and is a critical part of what is just the start of the fight; this is often something anglers don’t do which may result in pulled hooks later in the battle.
But trust me when I say, once you’ve landed your first tuna on the jig you will realize there’s no other rush like it.