Stop, Drop & Reel: Locating The Tuna Feeds - The Fisherman

Stop, Drop & Reel: Locating The Tuna Feeds

When masses of sand eels are located under the boat, the Nomad Streaker jig in the sand eel color has a top producer for the author and his charters.

4 telltale stop signs that it may be time to throttle down and fish.

Locating tuna feeds when heading offshore is a primary objective of mine every time I do a tuna charter. Feeds open the door for the topwater game so named, “stickin’ and poppin’”. I always carry three to four specialized spinning rods that are rigged and ready that sit in my rocket launcher that a client can quickly grab if a feed is located and topwater action presents itself.

Best of all, these situations have been presenting themselves with much more regularity in the last several seasons as we are seeing more bluefin and yellowfin around. These topwater feeds or sightings can take place practically the year-round from May to December so we are always prepared.

So what is it that I am looking for when heading offshore to get a chance to take these topwater shots?

Many boaters fall into the trap of running to the so called hot spot where the reports of tuna were yesterday. Now this isn’t a bad thing as I do this myself, but the mindset can’t be that this is the only place that tuna are in the ocean. There are telltale signs that tuna are in a particular area so you will need to change your plan and stop the boat regardless of how far you might be from your predetermined destination. I like to tell my clients it is all eyes on deck and to look for certain “stop signs” that would make me pull up, stop, investigate, and cast.

Finding finback whales that are circling and sounding is a sure sign that a massive feed is taking place

1 – Whale & Dolphin Feeds

Spotting sea life such as humpback or finback whales or short beak dolphin are the obvious and easiest stop signs to see. On a clear day you can see the vapor spout of a whale a half mile away. Whales are the key marine mammal that will make me stop. Find them and there is an excellent chance that the tuna will be down below. Whales are massive creatures and require a lot of food to sustain them. On any given day that can eat several tons of food whether it be sand eels, squid, sardines, or butterfish. If they are diving, surfacing, and circling this is a sure sign they are feeding in a particular area. Many times we will witness what everyone calls amazing “Nat Geo” feeds. When a feed is taking place a stealth approach to get into position to make a cast is going to work best.

Dolphin can also be mixed in the whale feeds or can be seen at a distance parabolically footballing across the surface of the water or feeding in a circular manner. Offshore these are short beak dolphin, aka what we call two tones, as they are identifiable by their two colors, their grey dorsal surface and white ventral surface. When feeding in a circular manner a stealth approach will again be necessary. If they are moving along expect tuna, particularly yellowfin, to be with them. There is a symbiotic relationship between the dolphin and the tuna as the dolphin will be on the surface and the tuna just below them. Here you will need to size up the direction the pod is moving and then get ahead of it and let them come to you. When they are in range make your cast.

2 – Signs Of Bait

Needless to the say the feeds are not going to occur unless bait is present. Tuna need to feed everyday so if you find bait there will be a good chance the tuna will be there too. One thing I can say for sure is that if there is no bait around then keep moving. Signs of bait can be highly visible at times either on the surface or on your fishfinder.  Off the Jersey Coast, sand eels, juvenile herring or hake, tinker mackerel, butterfish, anchovies, and even squid can be skittering across the surface. These are sure signs to stop and investigate when spotted and make a blind cast. When sand eels are deep they will show up on your fishfinder as large masses congregated right on the bottom. When you see them you should also investigate and drop down some jigs.

If the presence of these baits are not obvious then look for more subtle signs such as a single gull, shearwater, or tuna chick that may be hovering just about the surface of the water as it moves along. It can be eyeballing bait or a pod of fish just below the surface. Two or three birds spotted in the distance exhibiting this behavior will make me turn my boat in their direction to take a look and make a cast.

Always have your casting rods rigged and ready to go so you are prepared to get off a quick cast when a topwater feed is spotted

3 – Other Forms Of Life

Other species that peak my interest that I might cast into include skipjack tuna and rays. Skipjack will feed on microbaits as they blitz in massive pods along the surface. Without fail when I find skipjack tuna in the 50- to 70-mile range out of Manasquan Inlet there are yellowfin with them.

Bat rays, as I like to call them, are another form of sea life that holds yellowfin tuna below them. I usually see these rays in the later part of the summer in August out 20 to 70 miles from shore. If you see them as they pass under the boat dropping jigs down will usually catch yellowfin.

When a feed is going on you can expect to catch one yellowfin after another taking just what you need and releasing the others.

4 – Slicks On The Surface

Slicks on the surface of the water indicate that something is going on down below. These are usually produced as bait is being eaten below the surface near the bottom and their oils and scales rise to the surface. Wilson Kestrels, aka tuna chicks, will pinpoint these areas as they hover over the slick feeding on the tiny particles. On a calm day these slicks are easy to spot as the surface of the water takes on the appearance of an oil sheen. It’s not uncommon to find them in the middle of what seems like nowhere.

In order to recreationally fish for and retain Atlantic highly migratory species, vessel owners must purchase the $26 Highly Migratory Species (HMS) angling permit, which can be done online at

Tuna                            Min. Size (Curved Fork)         Bag

Albacore/Longfin         None                                       No Limit

Bigeye                         27 inches                                No Limit

Skipjack                      None                                       No Limit

Yellowfin                     27 Inches                                Three Per Person

Remember that if you hold either an HMS Angling Permit or HMS Charter/Headboat Permit, you must report bluefin tuna landings and dead discards, and swordfish and billfish landings within 24 hours of returning from a trip.  For updated 2024 regulations on bluefin tuna look for the “HMS bag and size limits” link at

It’s very important to stop on these and look with your fishfinder to see if you mark any tuna below. Don’t just look directly below where the slick is as many times the bait and tuna that are down below may be much further away from where the slick is surfacing. This is because bottom currents may push the tiny particles and oils away from the feed source having them surface at a different location. For this reason it is best to look while making a wide radius circle with your boat around the slick. If I read tuna we will drop down the jigs.

Keep in mind that I am running in the direction of where the best reports have been when I am looking for the above stop signs. But what if we see nothing to make us stop, what happens next? In this case I continue to run to the grounds where the best reports have been coming from. When I get there and there is no bite then I reach out for intel. This info will come from my Shore Catch partners or other friends that are in search mode via an expanded private channel on my VHF or through a Garmin Inreach. If they are not finding a bite then a quick look at my saved waypoints from the same time last year can help put me in the right direction.

Keep in mind that when in search mode it requires a commitment to covering a lot of miles and burning a lot of fuel.



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