So yellowfin tuna have largely disappeared from our coast. Get over it! There are, as they say, other fish in the sea. Other tuna, too. This spring, set your sights on the feisty blackfin tuna, a blisteringly fast eating machine that will crush your baits and make your arms ache. Some Lowcountry anglers and captains look down their noses at this smaller cousin to the yellowfin. But blackfin are fun to catch, fairly predictable, abundant and — despite what you might have heard — incredibly tasty. And now, after a year or two of impressive springtime reports from the blue-water fleet, you better believe that a cadre of tuna-savvy anglers will be chasing blackfin off our coast this March and April. Scott Cothran and Courtland Babcock are two such blackfin fans. Both anglers logged impressive catches last year, and their online reports and photographs spurred a number of would- be copycats to head out after blackfin (including yours truly). Cothran and Babcock know each other, but they fish in different areas and use markedly different techniques. In fact, the two give each other some good-natured grief about which method is more fun and productive. Both agree that anglers may be missing a great thing. “The (yellowfin) bite's been so unpredictable here, so few and far between, that you can't really target them,” Babcock says. “I think that's part of the allure of blackfin. As long as the water's right on the numbers that I fish, I can pretty much guarantee that I'm going to catch blackfin on any given day. “I won't say they're an easy fish to catch, but they are accessible, they're good table fare, and they're still a tuna, so they fight hard!”
Blackfin tuna grow to about 40 inches in length and about 45 pounds. Blackfin range from Massachusetts to Brazil, often forming large mixed schools with skipjack tuna. They feed on small fish, squid, shrimp, crabs and other sea creatures. In turn, blackfin are preyed upon by dolphin, larger tunas and marlin (small blackfin are superb blue marlin bait). Off South Carolina, anglers commonly catch blackfin in the 20-pound range. The state record of 40 pounds, 6 ounces was set in 1995, and some anglers think a new state record is within reach. Both Babcock and Cothran say blackfin fishing stays hot off South Carolina through the fall and winter. The peak, Babcock says, is probably late March and early April. “Sixty-eight degrees is sort of the magic number for water temperature,” Babcock says. “You're not going to find blackfin in water much colder than that, and once it gets warm, they'll continue to move on up the coast.” Babcock recommends anglers check out sea surface temperatures at rucool.marine.rutgers.edu, the website for Rutgers University's Coastal Observation Lab. “We won't go if the water's not right,” he says. Both anglers concentrate their efforts on offshore areas with dramatic depth changes and pronounced bottom structure, Cothran at Georgetown Hole and Babcock at a particular piece of the ledge off Hilton Head.
“Blackfin love structure,” Babcock says. “Although they're tuna, I don't really consider them as pelagic, since they're not really migrating ocean-wide. They're going to hang on a hump, a lump, a ledge — 99 times out of hundred, they'll be somewhere over that piece of structure. That's why they're fairly easy to target and a fairly reliable fish. As long as you've met certain conditions, they're pretty much going to be there feeding.” Both anglers say dawn and dusk are hot times of the day for tuna, particularly at areas that receive steady fishing pressure. For Cothran, who regularly fishes the well-known Georgetown Hole, a big key to blackfin success is making small adjustments to fishing pressure. “You'll ride 50 miles and not see another boat, then get out there and it looks like a parking lot with all the boats,” Cothran says. “Being the first one there or the last one to leave a lot of times is beneficial, because the pressure's gone and they'll come back to the surface.” Trolling the way-way-back Cothran, an Upstate engineer, makes frequent trips to the Lowcountry coast to fish with his dad Ferrell and brother Michael, who trailer a 31-foot Contender down from Manning. The Cothran crew caught the blue-water bug about 6 years ago and have been fishing hard since. Scott laments that they missed the yellowfin bite off South Carolina, but they've found solace with blackfin. “The best day we had last year was 18 (blackfins),” he says. “We had a couple of days in the teens.” They caught some nice ones, too, with their biggest topping 35 pounds.
The Cothrans use a tried-and-true method for blackfin: trolling ballyhoo at staggered distances behind the boat. For blackfin, they position their baits much further back than they would for dolphin or billfish. They use standard 30- and 50-pound-class setups with relatively light terminal tackle: 80-pound fluorocarbon leader (60-pound-test if the tuna are finicky) ending with 7- to 8-ought Mustad hooks. Cothran prefers the more expensive, welded-eye version (7691s). Cothran says they stick to “very simple stuff” when it comes to rigging baits, often opting for a “naked ballyhoo,” one fished without a skirt or lure. But he's also a fan of Lehi Squitches and other small-profile lures, and he packs a wide variety onboard for blackfin trips. “Some days, colors don't matter; they'll hit just about anything. Other days, there's one color that they want. I can't explain it, I can't back into a rhyme or reason why they're picking one over the other.” Bottom line: Pay attention to what the fish are hitting. “If for whatever reason black-and-blue is the hot bait, then put everything out with black and blue.” The Cothrans troll 10 rods when targeting blackfin: two long riggers, two short riggers, one deep (off a planer), one flat, two daisy chains, one in the prop wash and one in the shotgun. This is no easy feat on a center console. “It becomes quite a work of art, to some degree, because everything has to be exactly right,” Cothran admits. “Tuna are more sensitive than just about any other fish, at least here off South Carolina's coast.” Novice anglers, he says, might do well to scale back. “You're a lot better trolling four right than you are 10 wrong,” he notes.
Indeed, with so many baits running so far behind a boat, tuna fishing can test an angler's skill and patience. Anglers can't see how the baits are running, tangles become even more disastrous, and clearing weeds off baits 400 yards back gets old in a hurry. But there's a reason experienced fishermen love the way-way-back lines: tuna are notoriously boat-shy and it's these lines that often get nailed. As for the angler who picks up one of the way-way-back rods when a 25-pound blackfin hits? They're in for a long, tough fight. “Those are the greenhorn rods, for people who haven't caught many tuna,” Cothran says with a laugh. “You can see the experienced guys, when one of those goes off, somebody takes it, pushes the drag up and makes sure the fish is there, then starts looking around for someone to hand it to. Guys start putting their hands in their pockets because they know where that's going.” Cothran says the biggest key to a killer blackfin day is to go for multiple hookups by keeping lines in the water when a tuna school is feeding on the surface. This means having back-up rods already rigged and ready for action, leaving lines out and untangled even when a fish is hooked up, and keeping the boat moving while anglers fight fish. “When they bite, they're in a feeding frenzy and you need to be fishing for them then. Some days we'll be trolling for 10 hours, and all the action will happen within one hour of that day.” And when a fish comes over the gunwale, the Cothrans don't bask in the glory.
“We'll high-five and drink beers later,” he says. “Let's get all the lines back in the water.” And when the fishing is slow? Don't be afraid to change tactics, Cothran says. “When you find the fish on the depth finder, and you troll over them and troll over them and troll over them and can't get them to bite, then try something else. One of my buddies swears he'll never pull a blue-and-white Ilander (lure). He says, 'Every other boat out there is already pulling one, and if that was what they wanted to hit they'd already be caught by the time I get there.' “So making yourself different sometimes really helps. Don't be scared to try a different technique.” The very best advice for would-be tuna fishermen, Cothran says, is simple: Charter a big sportfishing boat and see how they do it. “Those guys are professionals, and they know what they're doing. Pay attention to their attention to detail. That's the difference between five fish and 15 fish.”
Babcock, who owns a landscape supply company in Hilton Head, fishes a 23-foot Contender. Originally from New Jersey, Babcock cut his teeth fishing for yellowfin in the Canyons. These days, when he's not hammering blackfin 45 miles off Hilton Head, he might be up off the Outer Banks chasing huge bluefin tuna. Babcock used to troll for blackfin off South Carolina, but over the past three years or so he's adopted some of the techniques used in other tuna fisheries. “I fish for fun,” Babcock explains. “Trolling a 50-wide with a ballyhoo a quarter-mile behind the boat really doesn't do a whole heck of a lot for me. So we've switched over to a lot of popping and jigging for them — actually casting to them.
“The funny thing about blackfin is that although they won't hit close to the boat when you're trolling, they'll hit right next to the boat when you're throwing plugs at them. You want to talk about fun? How about when 20 or 30-pound blackfin are blowing up next to the boat?” Here's how he pulls this off: Babcock typically runs out to his proven spots on the ledge, then trolls or looks around until he finds what parts of the ledge are holding blackfin. “Once we find the school of fish, we'll go up current of them and throw toward the school,” Babcock says. They'll drop butterfly jigs to the schools or throw out cut and live bait — whatever they can do to get the tuna schools to rise to the surface. That's when the fun really starts. “Let's say we've got three guys on the boat. We'll have one or two guys fishing with poppers, just like you'd fish for largemouth bass with poppers in a pond, except we fish big poppers, like 8- and 10-inch long poppers that throw half a gallon of water when you pull them. “Then we'll have one guy casting behind those poppers with what we call a stick bait, which is just a long profile bait that you reel in really fast. It just sort of skips across the top of the water. “If you can get them up and around the boat, it's not a big deal to put 10 or 15 blackfin in the boat in a short order of time.” Blackfin, Babcock says, are a bit like dolphin in that as long as you keep at least one fish in the water, the rest of the school will stay up top. But anglers have to act fast. “That school will come up, feed and go back down.”
The key, he says, is having all the gear rigged and ready for the moment of truth. “We'll have 10 spinning rods set up in rod holders around the boat.” And what about this gear? Do anglers need something special, or will any big spinning outfits do the trick? And what about this gear? Do anglers need something special, or will any big spinning outfits do the trick? “I get a little bit carried away,” Babcock admits. “There’s really another whole world out there, when it comes to jigging and popping gear.” A high-quality, large-format spinning reel can top a thousand dollars, he says. And just one of these big top-water plugs can cost $150 or more. But, Babcock says, “nobody needs to go crazy.” There are plenty of affordable, large spinning reels and stout boat rods on the market that can handle 20-pound blackfin. Most tackle shops and online vendors also offer a variety of affordable butterfly-jigging setups (also called knife jigging).
Babcock recommends that anglers use 60-pound braided mainline and 60-pound fluorocarbon leader for jigging and popping setups. Leader weight may vary, depending on fish behavior and particular angling application, from 40-pound to 80-pound-test. Babcock hopes trolling anglers aren’t scared away by equipment requirements and just give it a try. “I guarantee people that I have more fun fishing the way I do than how they do, with their lines all over God’s creation.”