FLY FISHING FOR YELLOWFIN TUNA

Written by Gilbert Rowley

SAN DIEGO, CA

Capt. Mark with a So Cal yellowfin on the fly

I never imagined my first saltwater fish on a fly would be a yellowfin tuna. Never would I have thought of myself hooking up with a fish that has been genetically blessed to the point that, pound for pound, it has more power than possibly any other species in the ocean. I always pictured myself in a bonefish kiddie pool somewhere casting to tailing fish that also have great power, but on a much smaller scale. If you can’t tell already, I’m a trout guy from the west that is slowly gaining experience in the salt. My perceptions are proving to be far from reality on many levels. I’m not even sure if there exists a place equivalent to a bone fish kiddie pool! Regardless, this article is not just about me, but rather the experience of creating a story through film that would portray the beauty, strength, and pure awesomeness of not only these fish but the efforts needed to pursue such creatures.

The Adventure

Capt. Mark and Alex Beck of Anglers Eye Media

We begin in southern California off the coast of San Diego. I’ve teamed up with Captain Mark Martin of San Diego Saltwater Fly Fishing, and his good friend Alex Beck, both of whom are seasoned blue water anglers who really know their stuff when it comes to chasing pelagics. My primary mission is to capture footage and document their experience. After leaving the wake free zone, Mark throttles down his 200 horse outboard in the direction of where his instincts are telling him we might find fish. Keeping in mind that yellowfin are not typically found within 20-30 miles of shore he tells me to relax and enjoy the choppy boat ride. “Choppy” turns out to be an understatement. For a guy who spends little time on the ocean, I soon begin to turn green. However, with much determination I keep my composure and don’t see the contents of my stomach for nearly three hours.

We see our first set of diving birds not far beyond the 20 mile range. Mark explains to me that the birds are our eye in the sky. Driven by hunger they seek out schools of bait fish being pushed to the surface by larger pelagic feeders such as tuna. Find the birds and you find the fish, it’s that simple. Alex already has a 12-weight in hand rigged and ready to rock. My camera gear is set up ready to roll and I’m fortunate enough to capture Alex’s first cast which results in a quick eat, a screaming reel, and an exhausting battle between fish and man. The effort turns up a tuna in the 10 pound range at which they both smile and explain that this is merely a baby compared to what we are hoping for. My mind turns upside down wondering how a fish considered to be “small” could make a reel spin that fast for that long. I keep the camera rolling, curious as to what will take place when a larger fish is hooked.

Alex getting bendo on a Yellowfin tuna.

For the next two hours I am blown away by the pure strength and determination of the yellowfin tuna.

Mark and Alex repeatedly cast into the underwater chaos of cruising fish, hooking up time and time again. None of the first dozen fish are over 15 pounds. Tuna typically congregate in schools of similar sized fish, so Mark is thinking of searching out a different group of tuna that may produce larger fish. All I’m thinking about at this point is how to keep my breakfast down. The swell is rocking us all over the place, and I’m wondering how the two of them are capable of fishing under these conditions. Without me knowing, Mark has noticed my discomfort and offers me a turn at casting to the cruising tuna. Confident in the footage I have gathered thus far I decide taking a break from the camera is probably a good idea. A few casts into it and I go tight to my first saltwater fish. Like a rookie I fail to clear the line adequately and end up with minor line burns on my fingers and a busted off fly. And all this time I thought the steelhead, muskie and salmon battles I’ve experienced would have prepared me for tuna. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Mark’s seasoned guide skills kick in as he coaches me on what to do better next time. He helps me maintain my confidence and I begin casting once more. Only minutes later, I strip set, clear the line to the reel, and endure through the longest initial run I have ever experienced from a fish. Minutes later my rod arm is burning, but I’m all smiles as the thought of landing this tuna crosses my mind. As the fish approaches the boat, I’m expecting a 60 pounder. Turns out my fish is just a little guy as well. I’m totally surprised.

The smaller grade tuna from day 1

The Fishery

For the last two seasons local anglers and guides have been astonished at the number of tuna showing up

in their waters. San Diego consistently experiences good numbers of yellowfin, but the warmer waters accompanying El Nino may be playing a major role in allowing more fish to move into their northern regions off the coast of Southern California. This has provided Mark and his clients a fishery of a lifetime. When we first began to discuss putting together a project filming off the coast of San Diego we hadn’t decided that our target would be tuna. Once the season began, Mark quickly realized the opportunity to document the most epic tuna bite in some 20 years. As if a few amazing tuna couldn’t assist in the production of a sweet film, we had lots of hungry aggressive yellowfin willing to play a part and even a cameo appearance by an amazing bluefin tuna, but you’ll need to watch the full film for that story.

The Fish

Alex Beck and a Yellowfin caught on the fly.

Every fish in the ocean has characteristics that aid its survival. Tuna are unique in that they are partially warm-blooded fish. Sounds crazy right? Most fish are cold-blooded which leaves them unable to regulate their body temps above that of the surrounding water. However, tuna have additional arteries and veins that are very small known as “rete mirable” which assist in elevating their body temperatures. Warmer muscles produce faster chemical reactions

that add power and strength to their swimming abilities. This sets them apart from most other fish species. For example, yellowfin tuna are among the fastest fish in the ocean, reaching speeds over 40 mph when bursting toward a fleeing meal, escaping predators, or peeling line from a large arbor reel. Another notable feature that was impressive to see in person were the grooves directly behind each fin in the front half of the fish’s back. These grooves allow the fins to completely retract within the tuna’s body to reduce drag when additional speeds are needed and maneuvering is not. Just one more added feature that makes these exceptional fish pound for pound as strong and fast as any other fish in ocean.

Up close look at the Yellowfin motor section.

Back to the Action

After leaving the first school of tuna we cruise for a short time before Mark spots another group of diving birds. He and Alex both cast and both hook up. The fight is on once again as if we had never left the first school of fish. The day continues this way as I experience my first wide open tuna bite. For the next three days, the seas calm as well as my stomach (thanks to a Dramamine patch) and we successfully chase, catch and film these amazing creatures. Mark and Alex both find the larger fish they are looking for and I am successful in capturing the footage needed to compile a compelling story. But the adventure doesn’t end there…

The nicer grade Yellowfin tuna.

The Distraction

Going back to our second day on the water we made a brave move traveling over 40 miles to water that was virtually untouched by other fishermen. We were searching for a giant “jewel” tuna to place atop our film’s crown. When no such fish was found we began our journey back toward land. Fortunately, luck was in our favor and we quickly stumbled across a series of kelp patties that had drifted far from the inland underwater forests where they originated.

Floating offshore kelp paddy with bait underneath.

The 12-weight rods were dismissed and Alex picked up a loaded 10-weight ready for action while Mark positioned the boat in a manner that would allow us to drift 40 feet off the patty. Mark explained that loads of baitfish congregate around these floating structures for protection. Any time there are baitfish, larger predators show up to feed. On Alex’s first retrieve I couldn’t believe what I was seeing when a school of giant brightly colored fish followed his fly back to the boat. His fly had caught the attention of at least 20 aggressive dorado that were hanging around the patty looking for an easy meal. Mark quickly joined in casting and an incredible hookup ensued. Each angler was locked on to a double digit dorado that performed incredible acrobatic moves over and over. “Are these fish ever going to tire and stop jumping five feet out of the water!” was the only thought I had as I positioned the camera on both angler and fish.

Double hook up on Dorado.

The fight was so different than that of a tuna but what these fish lacked in direct horsepower, they made up for in style. I quickly developed dorado envy and wanted more than anything to experience catching one of these fish. Mark and Alex agreed that I would get the first shot at the next stop. Quickly we found another large patty and the odds of hooking a dorado seemed to be in my favor. First cast, and the only followers were a pod of small patty fish curious of my fly. Most were the size of my baitfish imitation or smaller… “Okay, no problem… try again,” were my thoughts. Another cast, more patty fish, no dorado Third cast, well crap, good thing I didn’t place any bets on this patty… 

Underwater shot of some Dorado and a couple yellowtail down below them.

We left the remote waters that day with Mark and Alex each having landed a handful of outstanding dorado. I on the other hand am still hoping to one day connect with a beautiful, athletic bull dorado that will blow my mind to pieces. In the meantime, I will simply have to settle with the memories of tuna running me 200 yards into my backing in mere seconds. The strength and power of a torpedo trying to reach its target far beyond the water’s surface, not to mention the images burned into my mind of the splendid beauty exhibited by the yellowfin… I think I’m going to be okay waiting for my dorado.

-Gilbert Rowley (Capture Films Media)

CLICK HERE TO SEE THE FULL LENGTH FILM “WIDE OPEN” on YouTube.

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Group Size
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