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October 26, 2001

High-Speed Kite Fishing

No Form of Tuna Fishing Provides More Visual Excitement.

Man, it looked fishy. The birds swooped low over the boiling water, picking up bits of food as tuna churned the surface to a froth in their frenzy to gorge themselves on schools of bait. Our captain, Billy Wood from the Class Action in Islamorada in the Florida Keys, who had joined us aboard a new Grady White 265, set the dead flying fish below the kite flying off our stern.
"OK, turn left and come up on plane," Wood said. The kite shifted out over the side of the boat as we turned, and the bait leapt off the water's surface only to splash down again some 30 feet away. As the bait crossed the boiling water in giant trajectories, tuna burst out of the water trying to crash it in mid-air.
The bait looked for all the world like a fleeing flying fish. Obviously it did to the tuna - the bait had touched the water only three times before a 35-pound blackfin launched itself after our kite bait and caught it about 4 feet above the water. As line peeled off the reel, Wood grinned from ear to ear at me, who stood open-mouthed at what I'd just witnessed. He handed me the rod and asked, "Well, what do you think of that?"
How many times have you approached a school of feeding tuna and tried to position your boat correctly to get baits to them, only to have the birds, the bait and the school drop out of sight or move in the wrong direction? Chasing birds working a frenzy of tuna has occupied many hours of my time. I've often wished for a way to get a bird to drop a baited hook into the middle of the melee. Or better still, to have one of those fleeing baits sport one of my hooks in it.
"Tuna seem to sense when a boat is coming," says Wood. "Some people think it's bow pressure, others say it's engine or hull noise. Whatever, it causes us loads of frustration sometimes."
In recent years, some charter skippers in the Florida Keys have devised a tuna-fishing method that answers my prayers.
"Skip Nielson on the How 'Bout It and Alex Adler on the Kalex, both out of Bud and Mary's Marina in Islamorada, invented and perfected the process," says Wood. "They run a kite off the side of their boat, running up on plane at 20 to 25 mph, with a baited hook skipping right through the middle of the tuna's feeding frenzy. I've never seen a more effective tuna-fishing method short of a net."
While certainly effective for sailfish, kite fishing has always been a complicated process with little more excitement than plain trolling. Specially designed for tuna, high-speed kite fishing places a single kite off the side of the boat rather than the stern. Amazingly, there's virtually no more air pressure on the kite than if you were drifting since the kite actually slices sideways through the air. And instead of barely moving, you're up and running at 20 mph or more.
If that isn't exciting enough for you, wait until you see the effect this type of fishing has on feeding tuna. They fight each other for the right to crash your bait as they leap out of the water trying to catch it. Most times you'll actually see the fish take the bait and hook up in mid-air.
Our fishing hot spot was the West Hump - a seamount that rises to a depth of 400 to 500 feet above the 1,000-foot-deep ocean floor. This structure attracts pelagic fish of all types, but especially blackfin tuna.
As the wind picked up, it couldn't have looked more "fishy" with perfect rip after rip, birds working the surface all around us and tuna free-jumping. It was a call to action.

The Rig
The rig will probably be familiar to most sailfish anglers: an appropriate kite for the wind conditions, a kite rod and reel (I prefer electric reels for this purpose), a release clip affixed to the kite line, and a rod, reel and line suited to the size tuna you're targeting.
The release clip should be at least 50 feet down the line from the kite to prevent the kite from getting too close to the water when replacing fishing lines. Smaller boats (those that don't run kites from the flybridge) should run the kite rod from a T-top rocket launcher or on the windward side of the boat. This leaves room for the angler to jig the bait on the leeward (downwind) side.
Tuna are notorious for being wary of leaders or anything about bait or tackle that looks the slightest bit unnatural. One advantage to this type of fishing: It makes no difference what size leader you use. You needn't use special fluorocarbon leader. In fact, make the leader any length or size you want since it's rarely if ever in the water. We used 6/0 hooks and 80-pound leader for blackfin, but 10/0 hooks and 250-pound leader work perfectly for big yellowfin.
Again, as in sailfishing, fix a colorful, weighted cork bobber to the fishing line 15 or 20 feet above the bait. This not only lets you see the line against the sky better, but also counteracts the weight and drag of the fishing line between clip and boat. Without some added weight, you may not be able to get the bait to drop down from the kite to the water's surface.

The Bait
Whether you arise before sunrise to go out and gather your own live baits or spend big bucks for someone else to do it for you, live-bait fishing is an expensive proposition. The best thing about kite fishing for tuna is that you don't need any live bait at all. Keys captains consider flying fish the preferred bait, though horse ballyhoo work well too.
"The most important part of rigging is to have the hook in the right place on the back. The bait must be balanced and hang correctly or else it doesn't skip right," says Wood.
Rig the bait with a stinger rig - one hook in the head and the other in the tail. Do not hook the bait in the nose as it doesn't "fly" right that way. With a flying fish, use a piece of stainless or Monel wire long enough to wire the flying fish's wings open and encircle the bait's body once or twice to give the hook greater support in case the bait is soft. The front-end hook should enter the back and go under the spine for additional support.
One final note: Be sure all your baits are properly rigged and ready to clip or tie on before leaving the dock. Proper rigging of these baits takes more time than simply bending a ballyhoo onto a hook. High-speed kite fishing happens fast and furious, and you won't have time to be rigging while fishing.
Once you get into the fish, kite-fishing baits take quite a beating and don't last very long. Wood insists that the most important thing you can do to guarantee success is to change out the bait frequently as they get trashed quickly.

The Process
This technique differs from sailfishing because the idea behind kiting is to get the bait skipping across the water in giant leaps, several hundred feet to the side of the boat. In this fashion, tuna never see the boat, the wake, the prop wash or the tackle. All they see is another baitfish trying to escape, and that drives them wild.
Another benefit to high-speed kite fishing is that you don't need ideal conditions. Given enough breeze to get the kite up, you virtually create the perfect conditions yourself. Position your boat the length of your kite line upwind of the area where you'll be fishing. Idle straight into the wind to raise the kite. Let the kite out until the release clip is at the gunwale. Snap the fishing line into the clip on the rod side of (above) the weighted bobber. Then, while holding the bait, let out both kite and fishing lines simultaneously. Be careful to keep control over the kite. If it starts to sink, stop letting out line until it rises again. When the kite (and clip) are positioned where you want them, toss the bait overboard and reel in the fishing line until the bait just settles atop the water directly beneath the clip.
Slowly turn the boat so the wind is abeam, advance the throttles and bring the boat up onto plane, keeping the bait just above the water's surface. Do not let it drag in the water. "Adjust your speed to fast enough to skip the bait properly," offers Wood. "When it's rough you don't need to go so fast because the bait will splash nicely on the waves."
Tack across the area where tuna are feeding so the bait crosses the boil, and then jig the rod but in a way unlike you've done before. Reach the rod tip up into the air toward the stern with arms extended as far as you can. Then bring the tip down and forward near the water surface. The tip will travel at least 10 feet per jig. Under way, this translates into the bait jumping 20 to 30 feet. Don't let the bait stay in the water as the drag will tear it apart at these speeds. Rather, let it splash soundly on the surface, and then lift it out of the water again. Tuna will leap out of the water trying to catch it. In fact, skipping the bait in this fashion clearly makes it look and act alive.
High-speed kite fishing isn't for everyone. It takes more work than drifting live baits or even than flying kites in normal fashion. That's why many charter boats won't ever fish this method. You need enough wind to hold the kite up while it slices sideways through the air. You won't find many things more frustrating than trying to keep a kite airborne in little or no wind. But given the right conditions, no form of fishing I've ever experienced provided more mind-blowing excitement.