7 Tips for Jigging and Popping Blackfin Tuna

Switch from trolling to casting for these offshore speedsters.

Blackfin tuna school off South Carolina’s coast in winter and spring. When weather calms, anglers normally head 50 miles offshore or more to troll ballyhoo for these chunky tunas. But in the last few seasons, a couple of innovative Low Country fishermen have found an even-more productive (and more fun) method: using artificials such as jigs and even topwater poppers to entice strikes. Fishing reports of 20 to 30 blackfins a day commonly cross the docks.

Here are some tips author Matt Winter learned while he fished with South Carolina blackfin expert Courtland Babcock, whose company JigSkinz makes shrink-to-fit sleeves for refurbishing lures.

Low Country fishermen have found an even-more productive (and more fun) method of fishing for blackfin tuna: using artificials such as jigs and even topwater poppers to entice strikes. Pat Ford

Use Top Tackle

Our first lesson started at the dock, when — with much grumbling — we pulled off the boat’s outriggers and left the 30-wides at home. Instead, we loaded up Courtland Babcock’s personal arsenal: about a dozen high-end spinning setups, pre-rigged with superstrong, wind-on leadering systems, followed by offshore tackle bags bursting with expensive poppers and flutter jigs. “We might get three or four bites throughout the day,” Babcock explained as we motored out through the iconic Shem Creek near Charleston, SC, “but there are six of us, and we can each probably land two or three fish every bite. “That’s why everything has to be rigged and ready to go. Even if we get only one shot, with six guys and the equipment set up right, you can kill 15 tuna in 10 minutes. You’ll turn around, and the deck is just littered with fish.” Matt Winter

Solid Connections

Babcock spools his reels with 60- to -100-pound-test braided main line. When using solid braid, he employs a “page-ranking” knot to connect directly to a 6-foot, twisted, double-line shock leader made from 60-pound mono. This complicated knot encapsulates the heavy mono in multiple wraps of main line, using a bobbin (see video at sportfishing​ The page-ranking knot streamlines the connection, making it a wind-on system. When using hollow-core as main line, he braids the line back into itself (spliced-end loop) to create a 100-percent-strength loop in the main line. He creates a loop at the end of the shock leader, and then connects the two loops with a cat’s-paw knot. At the other end of the twisted shock leader, Babcock uses a uni-to-uni-knot to connect 2 feet of 60- to 130-pound-test fluorocarbon bite leader. To finish off these wind-on systems, he attaches a heavy-duty ball-bearing swivel with a grommet on one end and a split ring on the other. The bite leader is looped around the grommet to prevent chafing, and then crimped. Dave Underwood

Avoiding Amberjacks

“If you drop a jig to the bottom in 200 feet, you’re coming up through 80 to 100 feet of amberjack, and you’re likely not going to make it through,” Babcock advises. “The bonito are always at the surface, always in the top 30 feet of the water column. Blackfin usually sit between the two of them.” Babcock’s advice for stemming the reef-donkey tide: Cast a jig out, let it sink for 10 seconds, then reel it back to the boat. If you catch an amberjack, you went too deep. Cast it out next time, and let it sink for seven seconds. Once we determined a target depth, Babcock advised us to cast our jigs away from the boat and then start counting down. The retrieve angle kept our jigs fluttering in the blackfin zone a little longer. Matt Winter

Scoring with Poppers

With Babcock coordinating the action, three of us took turns casting poppers from the bow. The leadoff angler launched a big popper and chugged it hard, throwing as much water as possible. The next guy followed up with a lighter plug and worked it back to the boat along the same path. The last guy would cast out a lighter stickbait plug and reel like crazy, skittering it down the same line. “Until you find the fish, everybody goes the same way,” Babcock says. “The first plug gets their attention, the second one’s drawing them up, and normally they’ll hit the last bait. And so it went. Every time we raised a school, everybody grabbed a popping rig and joined the fray — casting, popping and reeling for all they were worth. “The key to blackfin is ‘fast,’” Babcock says. “They’ll follow a bait. We call it ‘black-backing.’ You’ll think you’re doing everything you can with that reel, but they’re barely paddling behind the lure. You’ve got to reel as fast as you can, then reel a little bit faster.” Chris Woodward

Keep the Pressure On

With hundreds of dollars of tackle on the line and hefty spinning setups capable of applying 30 pounds of drag or more, Babcock heartily enforced an NLO (No Line Out) policy during our trip. “If they dive on ya, you’re probably going to lose them, because not only did the tuna see that popper, but the sharks saw the popper, and everything else saw it too. The tuna’s just the fastest thing to get to it. That shark’s right on its tail.” Jason Arnold

Jigs and Hooks

Babcock an East Coast jigging and popping aficionado, uses primarily diamond or hammered-diamond jigs in the 200-gram range in pink and yellow for South Carolina blackfins. (Shimano Butterfly Flatside jigs also proved productive on our trip.) He generally ties one assist hook on a deep-dropping jig (using 500-pound Kevlar cord). “I will upgrade them as well, with Owner or Gamakatsu heavy-duty hooks with no offset of the hook shank,” he says. “Offsets foul more and damage paint on jigs.” Matt Winter

Plug Recommendations

Babcock recommends that anglers buy high-quality topwater plugs with through-wire construction and heavy-duty split rings and hooks. He usually upgrades the trebles to Owner 2/0 ST-66s or 3/0 ST-76s, and also recommends replacing the rear treble with a single hook in the 7/0 to 10/0 range. His personal popping arsenal includes wooden models hand-made in America by Gibbs Lures, as well as high-tech versions from overseas brands such as Heru, Carpenter and Yo-Zuri. Go-to plugs include the 60- and 90-gram Heru Skipjack or the 80-gram Heru Cubera in blue or pink, the 63-gram Sting-o Fish Popster Stick Bait in silver, the 4.5-ounce Williamson Jet Popper in all colors, and Braid’s Tantrum Popper Stopper in all colors. “Poppers in the 60- to 100-gram range (2.1 to 3.5 ounces) will work on most days, but don’t be afraid to throw larger than that if the conditions are rough or fish are holding deep,” he says. “Some of the bigger poppers I throw, you’d think there’s no way a blackfin would eat that. But I’ve cleaned plenty of blackfin with 3- and 4-pound bonito in their stomachs.” Matt Winter