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Stand-up fishermen targeting big yellowfin tuna aboard San Diego's long-range boats expect to spend more time fishing than sleeping at night. The night game for them started in the early 1970s when most of the biggest monster tuna tackled off Mexico's Revillagigedo islands came at night.
More recent innovations in tackle, kites, balloons, chunking techniques and a dependable supply of live sardines have improved the odds of hooking big fish by day. But fishing at night remains the best time to hook and land the biggest tuna. Why? In large part, the darkness permits anglers to use optimal (heavy enough) gear to get the job done without spooking wary tuna. Knowing the right gear and techniques can up your catch rate, not only off Baja, but anywhere anglers fish yellowfin by night.
The Night Advantage
Fishing under the cover of darkness provides a distinct advantage over daytime tuna techniques because gear size and strength — leaders, hooks, outfits and line — can be greatly increased. "When there's a sign of big yellowfin in the neighborhood, you'll want to fish the heaviest gear possible," says Steve Loomis, skipper of the long-range boat Royal Polaris.
Capt. Rollo Heyn, also a Royal Polaris skipper, recalls a night about 10 years ago when, "We got into an exceptional bite for tuna. It was full speed ahead with the heavy gear, and the boat ran completely out of bait by 10 p.m. When the dust finally settled, there were 10 yellowfin on the deck, each over 300 pounds! That's a perfect example of why anglers have to be ready to fish for tuna in the dark."
That action came early in the evening, and, most often, "Prime time means having lines in the water a few hours on either side of sunset and dawn," says Capt. Tim Ekstrom of the Royal Star. He adds that the dawn bite often begins around 3:30 or 4 a.m. That's not to say that long-range boats always find tuna at night. They may not show, Ekstrom says, "so we look for (favorable) bait and water conditions prior to waking passengers from their cozy bunks."
Break Out the Chunks
Yellowfin in any ocean seem to respond to chunks or live-bait chum. Once a long-range boat is anchored over a favorable area, it's time to start a constant chunk line — either cut mackerel or fresh tuna chunks tossed overboard every half-minute to minute. Although passengers fish (and score) using both chunk and live baits, Ekstrom says, "It seems like when the big yellowfin want to bite full-speed at night, they like the 'salamis' — the large, greenback mackerel."
And most likely to get bit at night, according to Ekstrom, are those who refrain from tossing baits far away from the boat. "I can't stress how important it is to keep your bait as close to the boat as possible," he says, "preferably straight up and down within 50 to 75 feet of the boat. This is where the majority of larger yellowfin are hooked."
As good as live mackerel or small jacks (Mexican caballitos) may be at night, there are times when chunk baits score big. In fact, many veterans consider fishing chunk bait the key to really big fish. For Tommy Rothery, who skippers the Polaris Supreme, "The majority of big cows - yellowfin over 200 pounds - fall for chunks. I think that's because of the amount of food these fish must consume just to survive. They enter into the chunk line and get into a feeding pattern where all they want is chunks."