Fishing for Tuna at Night

Fishing for Tuna at Night
Tuna underwater at night
Most tuna hunt and feed in schools.
Adrian Gray

On land, those who lurk in the dark with the intent to steal you blind and beat you down are called muggers or thieves. Offshore, they’re called tuna. Every species of tuna is genetically engineered to spend most of its days and nights swimming in one of two ways: fast to earn a meal or faster to avoid becoming one. Most tuna hunt and feed in schools, ravaging whatever herds of hapless forage crosses their paths. The behemoths of the bunch, the bluefins, welcome company around the table but are equally comfortable dining alone. 

In their individual weight classes, tuna rank among the ocean’s ultimate predators. They’re content to fill their bellies mostly with fish and squid, but won’t pass up lobsters and other unusual meals. At night, getting down to business here, the preferred baits among top captains are live fish—fairly large herring, mackerel and flying fish—and squid. Many baits are caught on-site. 

Tuna fishing around a platform
Offshore platforms in the Gulf are tuna magnets.
Denes Szakacs

The Gulf Night Game

Starting with the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, my home waters, the best ­tuna fishing grounds are well offshore. It’s risky to run 120 to 150 miles offshore, a gamble that costs plenty in time and fuel, but the investment can pay high dividends.

Capt. Cameron Plaag has the distinction of being in the pit when, on different boats, the Texas state-record blue ­marlin (927.7 pounds) and bluefin tuna (876 pounds) were caught. 

On his first bluefin trip, he recalls, a big fish—after 90 minutes of pressure—made a lunging run that snapped the heavy rod as though it were a matchstick. On subsequent trips for all the Gulf’s tuna species, he’s developed particular interest and skill in catching them after dark.

Fishing after sunset around floating platforms farther to sea than Houston is from Austin, Plaag says, “You have to be ready for anything.” 

These so-called “floaters” are monstrous structures, from each of which multiple oil and gas wells are drilled deep into the seafloor. Four of the six largest platforms in the world are in the Gulf of Mexico, positioned in hundreds or thousands of feet of water. Stones, about 200 miles southwest of New Orleans, operates in 9,500 feet of water and is the deepest structure of its kind on the planet.

Operating around the clock, these structures are lit up like the Las Vegas Strip. Small fish come to the light, and big fish come to eat the little fish—same as every day everywhere in salt water. But even these beacons in a sea of starlit salt water aren’t guaranteed to produce.

“Sometimes you have to go from platform to platform,” Plaag says, and there is significant distance between them. Even then, when you ease near the next floater, you might have missed the bite, which all the captains I interviewed agree might last an hour, maybe two.  

Plaag starts a typical night with chunks of small tuna caught earlier in the day and iced for the purpose. He likes 50-pound-class rods and reels, tough enough to maintain control over most of the night’s predators. He buries his 7/0, 3X Mustad Demon hooks deep into that meat so it looks no different than the chum.

That “anything” he mentioned also can include sudden bursts of topwater feeding; for that fire drill, he keeps within reach one or two heavy spinning rods loaded with big topwater plugs. Tuna blasting topwaters is the offshore version of an emboldened goon kicking in your front door. It’s explosive, and you have split seconds to react.

Capt. Michael “Sharky” Marquez of Galveston-based Outcast Fishin’ Charters also likes to chum around the platforms. Specifically, he prefers the dimmer outskirts of the lights, sometimes a mile or more in any direction off the structure. The blackfins he typically catches ­aren’t the biggest tuna, but they’re ­often offset with powerful yellowfins up to 100-plus pounds. 

“When they’re up,” he says, “you can see them boiling a long way out.” Then he moves close and has his clients lob big Halco plugs into the detonations. 

Off Florida’s western coast, Capt. Tim Noe, of Gulf Coast Offshore, fishes the 40 (fathom) break and sometimes deeper underwater springs in 500 to 800 feet of water. His best season is May to October, but tuna are available year-round to some degree throughout the Gulf.

“We catch mostly blackfins from 15 to 25 pounds,” Noe says, but like Sharky, he also gets unexpected, much larger yellowfins. Keen on sport and almost daring those bigger fish to eat, he fishes spinning reels packed with 16- to 30-pound line.

Tuna caught on a lure
Be ready with plugs and chunk baits for those short bite windows.
Adrian Gray

Kings of the Coasts

Along the upper East Coast, about 65 to 90 miles off Cape May, New Jersey, Capt. Tom Daffin likes to fish nights from about September through October, then again from late summer into fall. He’s looking for thermoclines around 120 to 180 feet. 

“These tuna feed on sand eels during the day,” Daffin says, “but their primary forage after dark is squid.” And yes, maintaining the unanimity, he also is a fan of chumming to warm a cold bite. 

Daffin doesn’t leave a steady dose of chum to chance either. Sometimes fishermen fall asleep or get too deep in their cups to keep the tuna interested. Instead, he relies on an electric Salt Hopper. That simple machine, offshore and loaded with chunks of fish, provides a perpetual food source to hungry fish. 

All the Gulf and East Coast captains emphasized the importance of hiding hooks deep in the chum chunks, and that those baits be allowed to fall and drift at the same speed through the water column as the chum. Tuna are hungry, they agreed, but not stupid.

Off the West Coast, Capt. Nick Matina, of San Diego Tuna Fishing, says his fleet runs overnight trips up to nine days from the lower California coast toward Cabo San Lucas, into and beyond what he calls the “Tuna Triangle.” Places with familiar names to local fishermen, such as Cortez Bank and Tanner Bank, with smaller spots curiously named Sniffer, Mushroom and Potato Bank, all are well-known to this hardcore bunch of tuna fishermen.

Matina says his captains cover water ­patiently, watching for marks on their side-scan electronics. When they find fish, anglers drop glow-in-the-dark flat-fall jigs beyond those electronic signatures—colors on the line indicate depth. “Then reel as fast as you can,” through the tuna. “If they see it, they hit it,” he says.

Late summer is the best season off the West Coast, according to more than one source. But the best captains leave the docks confidently almost year-round.

Read Next: Southern California Bluefin Tuna Fishing at Night

Bluefin tuna caught at night
The world over, bluefin tuna bite in the dark. One primary forage at night is squid.
Al McGlashan

Inshore Action

Sam Law, captain of the New Hampshire-based vessel Kracken that participated in several seasons of Wicked Tuna on the National Geographic Network, has the shortest ride to his fishing grounds.

“Some of our biggest fish (bluefins) are caught 3 to 5 miles out,” he says, “but we usually fish at 12 to 15 miles, anchored and using live baits.”

At night, popular spots are crowded and lit in all directions by boat-mounted, 1,000-watt metal halide bulbs that bring herring and mackerel right to the surface and, in turn, squid that feed on the herring. And giant tuna come to feed on all of that.

Law typically fishes three lines by day, but holds at two after dark to avoid potential chaos in the cockpit. And because of where he fishes and what he targets— 80- to 100-inch bluefins—he maintains the upper hand, most times, with Penn International 130s—smart choice.

Each species of tuna is a little different in size and appearance, products of different genetic backgrounds, but all prowl the ocean after dark with similar motivation. They want what you’ve got. They’ll take it too, and you won’t get it back without one hell of a fight. 

The morning after the most recent time I wrestled a big tuna after dark—and it’s been a while since then because I’ve learned my lesson—I joined a gym and signed up for a karate class.

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