Dogtooth Tuna on a Fly

Whew. Your shoulders and back are aching! You’ve got out your heaviest rod, largest fly, and are working the surface—striking over and over.

You’re trying hard to tempt that dogtooth tuna from the deeper depths up to the surface.

And—hopefully—into your boat.

But you know, even if you get him hooked, it will be a fight! That doggie will zoom away and then straight down with the fierceness not capable of most fish.

If it doesn’t break the line, then it will do its best to rub and snap it off on the coral and structures below.

But that is what makes catching dogtooth tuna on a fly more and more enticing to fly fishing anglers.

All About the Dogtooth Tuna

Dogtooth tuna are offshore predator fish. As adults, they reach 75-98 inches and can weigh in at over 250 pounds. Though, to keep things honest, the average size is more like 16 to 47 inches.

The dogtooth tuna, otherwise known as Gymnosarda unicolor—or simply “doggies” to most anglers—are not tuna at all. They actually belong to the bonito family. But unlike all other bonitos, they have a swim bladder.

The bladder allows them to hold their place in the current and ambush their prey. This means they have a different feeding pattern than true tunas like Bluefin or Yellowfin.

They aren’t known for their beauty but are not notably ugly fish by any means. They have a distinct “tuna” appearance with an elongated, streamlined body shape and distinct dorsal and anal soft rays.

Dogtooth tuna also have a distinct, undulating lateral line—somewhat resembling a seismograph reading going berserk. A deep, black coloring on their back and sides contrasts with the brilliant dark blue-green lower sides. Their bellies are a flashy silver.

As their name hints, they have a large mouth full of conical, canine-like teeth—20 on the top and 20 on the bottom. And, like a barracuda, they always swim with their mouths open, and their intimidating mouthful of teeth are on permanent display. In fact, baby doggies have all their teeth before they are even one inch long!

Where to Find Dogtooth Tuna

Dogfish tuna like the warm, tropical and sub-tropical waters. They are happiest between 68 and 82 degrees. They inhabit wide areas of the Indo-Pacific region but are not found in Hawaii or the tropical Atlantic waters.

They can be found from as far north as Japan to as far south as Australia and all the places in between, from Africa, the Red Sea, the Society Islands, and French Polynesia.

They are becoming popular as a sport fishing and fly fishing catch. Many fishing guides, fishing charters, and fishing resorts throughout the Indonesian Islands are focusing more on catching these powerful fighting fish.

Doggies are aggressive predators, so while they are offshore fish, they are most often found in reef environments where they feed. They like warm and relatively shallow waters (less than 300 feet shallow, not wading-through-the-flats kind of shallow). Most often you will be working these fish from the deck of a boat.

Coral reefs, wrecks, seamounts, and rocky channels attract the dogtooth tuna, where they can find their dinner. They aren’t picky eaters and have a wide appetite that includes tropical schooling fish like rainbow runners, squid, and smaller mackerel.

The younger dogtooth tuna can be found in small schools (maybe 5 or 6 other fish) that are of similar age and size. As they get older, they become more solitary and inhabit deeper waters.

Full-size, adult dogtooth tuna can be found keeping company with other apex predators of the reef, such as reef and bull sharks. Though when caught on a line, they quickly become the prey and are often bitten before being brought to the surface.

Not much is known about their migratory patterns. Divers report them as being territorial and remaining local their entire lives. Still, the genetic research shows similar traits between all the fish in the Indo-Pacific region, alluding to a well-mixed population. One explanation is that the spawn is carried by currents, keeping the species well mixed.

Packing the Tacklebox

Dogtooth tuna has been steadily gaining popularity among sportfishing and fly fishing anglers. Mostly because of how impressively they put up a fight. As soon as they are hooked, they run. Long and deep. They follow that up with circling and actively trying to remove the hook on coral or rocks.

When they are able to get into a structured bottom, they are highly successful at avoiding being brought to the surface—which increases the challenge and thrill for anglers.

While dogtooth tuna are sought after by traditional rod and reel anglers and are a favorite for spearfishermen, they are also a highly desirable catch among fly fishing enthusiasts.

Selecting the right reel is the most important consideration when going after dogtooth tuna on a fly. The reel will need to have a strong, smooth drag and be capable of holding 800 yards of backing.

Select a rod that you would feel confident in when going after sailfish or wahoo. In fact, these fish often share the same waters and respond to the same bait, being able to be teased up from deeper waters.

For the rod, 11-14wt, 9-10ft, is the most common choice paired with a 40-pound (or more) shock tippet.

For the flies, go bold, big, and heavy as you will want to make an irresistible ruckus on the surface of the water. Large bait fish, saltwater streamers, heavily weighted flies, and Clouser Deep Minnows are all reliable options.

Tips for Catching Dogtooth Tuna on a Fly

Unlike the nearly toothless true tuna, the dogtooth tuna has a full mouthful of teeth, much more like a mackerel. This means they have a reputation for biting off lures—especially expensive ones.

This is why those heavy leaders are essential.

To add to the challenge, their frantic and determined fight once hooked turns them into prey themselves, attracting sharks. Pulling in only half (or less) of a dogtooth tuna happens more frequently than desired!

Finding feeding-frenzied waters increase the chances of a catch and should be matched with fast long strips that imitate the frantic atmosphere of the waters.

Alternatively, teasers can be used to attract the doggies and entice them to come close enough that they are within reach of a fly line. The process requires some coordination to get the fish positioned correctly–and the teasers replaced with the fly lure adjusted at the right time–but it can be done; if you don’t mind a “team building” exercise during your fishing trip.

The dogtooth tuna begins its battle with one of the most breathtaking, blistering horizontal runs in sport fishing. It’s like being attached to a Saturn V rocket heading sideways.

—Capt. Ted Lund

Newsworthy Notes About the Dogtooth Tuna

While dogtooth tuna don’t have the same highly sought after high market priced yellowfin tuna, they are still caught for their commercial food value. In some places, they are extremely important to localized populations.

As they have become more targeted by commercial fishing fleets, their numbers have seen dramatic drops. Especially where large nets are being used. They are not currently listed as being threatened or endangered, but at the moment, they are noted as having a “very high” vulnerability to overfishing. In addition, they are becoming popular in the sportfishing world because they provide a reliably impressive fight when hooked.

It is important to note that these impressively strong fish often struggle and fail to recuperate from a catch and release situation. This is because of the bladder—that other tuna don’t have—increases their risks of barotrauma, which increases exponentially with prolonged fights.

If you keep your catch for eating, it is important to note that dogtooth tuna are at risk of Ciguatera poisoning. Like many predatory reef fish that can grow to an impressive size, they begin to build up the toxin in their tissues by eating smaller fish that ingest the dinoflagellates that cause the neurotoxic effects.

The infected fish themselves are not harmed and are healthy. Further, the poisoning is not reduced or removed through cooking. The best way to avoid exposure is by relying on local knowledge of affected areas and eating only smaller sized fish.

Fishing with Scout Boats

While targeting a record-breaking beefy dogtooth tuna on a fly will probably require booking an airline ticket to an exotic locale, many Scout boat owners create their own fly fishing adventures right from the deck of their own boats.

Our range of boats provides the perfect platform for trolling up the saltwater marshes to heading offshore to fish the wrecks and reefs. They’re designed for serious anglers that want the ultimate comfort for their families, too.

Scout is known for their exceptional build quality and luxury boats. From bay boats to offshore-ready tenders, they make high-performance boats with alluring lines that fit every angler and family’s needs in style.

Curious about what model would work best for you? Build your Scout boat virtually today, or sit back and take a video walkthrough of one of our models.