Acres of tuna are busting water all around us at Poormans Canyon, there are five boats trolling for yellowfin in the frenzy, and all of our baits are going unmolested. For half an hour we zig and zag, try different offerings, and peek at the other boats with binoculars trying to see who’s unlocked the code and if so, what’s on the end of their line. But zero bent rods are spotted.This. Is. Pure. Torture.

fishing for tuna with topwater lures
Max had to offer up something special to get this yellowfin tuna on the line.

Then a school of baitfish surfaces alongside the bow and we see that they’re much smaller than one would have guessed, just four or so inches long. “I need a little topwater plug,” Max shouts out. He rifles through the tackle station, finds a 3.5” Badonk-A-Donk, ties it onto a 20-class spinning rod used for bailing mahi, and flings it out. Three twitches later a tunanuclear explosion erupts. The poor little 4500 Baitrunner attached to the rod shrieks for a second or two, then the line goes limp and Max reels in the eye of the plug with a chip of plastic attached. We’re going to need a tougher plug.

We ditch all the trolling gear and try chugging a seven-inch Chug Norris and popping an eight-inch pencil popper, but to no avail. Evidently, size matters — a lot. Then we find a four-inch MirrOLure Top Dog in the box and decide to give it a try. Seconds after it hits the water it disappears in a violent eruption, and the battle is on. It takes well over an hour to coax the fish up to the boat on the relative peashooter of a rod and reel, but eventually Brian sinks the gaff into 65 pounds of yummy and swings the kicking fish over the side of the FishTalker.

Fishing Changes

First, full disclosure: I make no claim to being any sort of expert at catching tuna on topwater. In fact, from 1998 through 2008 I had a boat at the O.C. Fishing Center, fished offshore almost exclusively from June through September, and never had a problem trolling up strikes when tuna were at the surface. There was never a need to try throwing a topwater plug at them and it never even occurred to me to do so. After this experience, however, I spoke with several people who spend far more time on the ocean than I do these days, and they confirmed seeing the same scenario multiple times in recent years.

Strangely, this jibes with changes in the West Coast tunasperience. Those who follow tuna fishing off California will know that a decade or so ago “regular” trolling became less and less effective and skipping kite baits turned into the hot thing. It later shifted to “foaming,” run-and-gun fishing looking for tuna busting on the surface, then casting surface lures into the frenzy. Or, when the fish act boat-shy, by pulling the plugs way back and circling the periphery of the fish until it’s possible to shift into neutral and retrieve the lure through the school.

Any way you look at it and anywhere you go, the hot tactics and tackle can and do evolve and change as the fish’s feeding patterns change over time. Different food sources and different habitats become more or less attractive or available, and the predators change their ways in response. Or, maybe the fish just get smarter. Whatever. Let’s all just cross our fingers and hope that this tuna on topwater thing is a trend that continues, because seeing a yellowfin obliterate a topwater lure will give you a shot of adrenaline akin to bungee jumping or skydiving. Nah, it’s way more potent!

Gearing Up for Tuna on Topwater

Since we were not expecting to throw plugs at tuna, we most definitely did not have the appropriate gear. Hence, Max reeled in the “Ba” absent the remaining “Donk-A-Donk.” To be even remotely prepared for this action you’ll need to carry plugs that are constructed to survive an attacking yellowfin followed by 15- or 20-plus pounds of drag pressure. The MirrOLure pulled through in part because we kept a light drag on a 20-pound-class rig. And it just barely made it; one hook was broken off and the other was bent.

lures for tuna topwater fishing
Nomad, Rapala, and Hogy all make tuna-specific plugs that can stand up to heavy-duty punishment.

Fortunately, in part due to the rise in West Coast topwater tuna action, several lure manufacturers have developed lines of plugs specifically intended to survive the pulling power of a tow truck. Nomad Tackle, Hogy, and Rapala, for example, all make topwaters with expanded high-density ABS plastic, through-wire rigging to the hooks and eyes, and 4X to 5X hooks. They range in size from small versions barely over three inches long to big 10-inch belaying pins. And, as our experience validated, you need a wide range of sizes because there can be times when plugs failing to match the hatch will be completely ignored. Note that you’ll also want a selection of both chuggers and walkers, as the different presentations they provide can produce radically different results in any topwater fishery.

As for rods and reels, mahi gear doesn’t cut the mustard. You can get lucky and land a tuna using 20-pound gear and seven pounds of drag but you’ll be unlucky as often as not. Pushing up to 30-pound gear and 10 pounds of drag should be considered absolutely minimal, and ideally, you’ll want to sling a rig large enough to handle 40-pound braid and 20-plus pounds of drag. (Note: you’ll still want to set drag pressure for about a third of the line’s pound-test, but the drag systems in many reels that are rated for less than 20 pounds of force are of a lower quality and won’t live through the burning runs of large yellowfin).

The sharpies I spoke with said that since your offering is on the move as opposed to sitting more or less still, such as with chunking, you can beef up the leader and they’ll still take the plug without hesitation. On the flip side of the equation the fish rarely get the plug all the way down the gullet so leader chafe usually isn’t a big problem. Bottom line, 50- to 60-pound fluoro works fine.

The toughest part of this game, of course, is finding busting yellowfin in the first place. Heading offshore with this as your game plan would be pure folly. Instead, head offshore prepared to troll or chunk as you always would. Keep an eye on the horizon for surface action and/or birds, and if you spot a frenzy but trolled lines go biteless, crank them in and grab the rigs you have ready for tuna on topwater. Start chugging, popping, and walking. And get ready for a shot of adrenaline that can’t be matched — even by jumping out of an airplane.

-By Lenny Rudow