Albacore Tuna – How to catch – By Allan Burgess
Thunnus alalunga. Other names: tuna, ‘cokes’, ‘chicken of the sea’
Most albacore tuna measure around 50 to 80 cm in length and weigh around 4 to 5kg. Large specimens can reach 130 cm in length and weigh as much as 55kg. The most notable feature of the albacore tuna is the pectoral fin which extends back beyond the second dorsal fin. The pectoral fin has a long strap-like appearance.
Albacore is taken mostly around northern New Zealand. They are also taken as far south as Fiordland and Banks Peninsula around March and April. There are good fishing grounds for albacore off Kaikoura in late summer; although the albacore tuna schools are usually found well offshore perhaps ten kilometres out. Some years they come in much closer. They are usually caught by trolling but will take just about any lure when near the surface. The water temperature needed for tuna needs to be around 18 deg C in summer.
From about January through to May albacore tuna can be caught off the Kaikoura coast. Some years they show up later than others. In good years they can be caught right in close to shore. In other years you might have to go out ten miles or more offshore to catch albacore. They have at times been caught as close as 500 metres off the Kaikoura Peninsula. In this article, we look at the trolling methods and lures used to catch albacore tuna.
Trailer boat owners wishing to catch albacore off Kaikoura need to develop a network of informers to send out the signal when albacore have been spotted off the coast. You can do this by talking to fishing club members, tackle store people and commercial fishermen. Some years albacore come in closer to shore when they are following baitfish. Other years you will need to fish 10 miles offshore for them. They also move around to some extent dependent upon water temperature though this species of tuna is more forgiving of cooler water than some others.
The one thing albacore do prefer is clear dark blue almost black water of the open ocean. You will generally not find albacore tuna in greenish or discoloured inshore waters. The water far out to sea off Kaikoura is a typical black colour. The upwellings from deep water support abundant sea life of many kinds. There is a very significant groper and ling fishery offshore, and plenty of blue cod and moki to be caught right along the coast.
Over the summer months, there are many fish species that come to call at Kaikoura. These include schools of jack mackerel, kahawai, barracouta, dogfish and yellow-eyed mullet. Many blue sharks are attracted to the rich pickings as are makos and threshers.
It is the albacore tuna that most anglers love to catch on rod and reel. These torpedo-like speedsters are actually attracted to boats by the prop wash. Indeed some fishermen even tow old car tires and the like to cause a surface commotion that mimics a school of frenzied baitfish being worked from above by sea birds. Trailer boat anglers can tilt their outboard motors to create excessive prop wash for a similar effect.
Another ploy used by commercial fisherman seeking albacore is to squirt water onto the surface of the sea with high-pressure hoses to attract the fish. Many times albacore tuna will take your lure right in very close to the boat. When you catch one albacore there are always plenty more close by even if you can’t see them so it pays to keep trolling. Multiple strikes are common with this species. Albacore will often follow the hooked fish to investigate what’s happening!
Trolling Methods and Lures
Most albacore are taken on trolled lures. Commercial Hex Heads are popular with recreational anglers. Hex Heads are made from brass and typically have small red plastic eyes which are said to be particularly attractive to albacore tuna. Many other lures are also good for taking albacore. The main thing is to use strong 4/0 hooks and keep them very sharp.
Other successful lures include Yo-Zuri Squid, Rapala CD Magnums, Mackerel Maulers, and a wide variety of soft plastic lures, and skirted lures made up with lead heads. The one thing most of these lures have in common is that they are designed to be trolled at quite high speed. Typically albacore tuna lures are trolled at around 10 knots so most lures used are straight runners.
The best albacore trolling lures are bright and glittery. You want a lure that really stands out. The idea is to bring the tuna up to the surface. The more commotion you can create the better. Another old trick is to tow an old car tire behind the boat to create a bit of excitement perhaps imitating a school of baitfish being attacked by predators! It has been said, that once albacore are excited, and “buzzing” around your boat, they will take any sort of lure you care to toss over the side.
Commercial boats create “excitement” on the surface by squirting jets of high-pressure water on the surface of the ocean. The albacore tuna take this for a school of baitfish, and they come up for a look. Once near the surface commercial fishermen take them on simple hex-heads and feathered lures fished at the end of a long pole.
Experienced anglers prefer to stay away from bibbed minnows like the Rapala CD Magnum because although they work well for trolling at high speed, and are very good for taking albacore tuna, they have a tendency to cross over other trolled lines particularly when turning. This isn’t so much of a problem with only a couple of lures out the back. I have been told horror stories by several very experienced tuna anglers who have witnessed some awful tangles caused by trolling multiple bibbed minnows; like the CD Rapalas.
Set Multiple Trolling Lures
The best tactic when targeting albacore is to get as many lures out at once as you possibly can to create your own “fish school.” With say 6, 8 or even 10 lures out, in a staggered pattern, straight runners like skirted lead heads are a safer bet for avoiding tangles.
You don’t need super heavy gear for albacore tuna. Typical 15kg gear is fine. Reels such as the Shimano TSM4, Shimano Calcutta 700, Penn 320, and the like spooled with 25 – 30lb mono is all you need. Though nowadays most anglers prefer to use braid. Each fish will take quite some time to subdue on light gear. You can easily take an hour to get each fish into the boat. You could also fish even lighter if you wanted but you’ll be there all day!
Generally, albacore are taken fast trolling at say 10 knots. However sometimes when you find yourself in the middle of “worked up” fish you can cast to them on spinning tackle.
Video: Albacore Tuna Fishing in Oregon
This species is caught off Kaikoura. Such fish would weigh in the region of 5 – 8kg and measure around 60cm in length. A really big one might reach 30 kg and measure almost 1.5m. Albacore tuna has long pectoral fins. They are very long in relation to the size of the body. In fact, the pectorals are the longest in this regard of any of the tunas.
Stuff article about fishing for albacore tuna in Tasman Bay, Nelson, New Zealand: Out at sea in joyful pursuit of tuna
Some really good info on tuna fishing techniques here at Coastside Fishing Club, Napa, California.
Albacore Tuna with Gary Wilson
Colouration is blue/black above with the lower sides and belly silver/grey. Its most distinguishing features are its large black eyes and its long sweeping pectoral fins which are the longest in any tuna in relation to its body size. The Albacore averages about 50 – 7Ocms in length and 5 – 8kgs in weight. Big specimens have been known to reach 1.4 meters and attain a weight in excess of 30kg.
The albacore is one of the most cosmopolitan of all the tuna species with its range extending right throughout the world in both tropical and sub-tropical seas. Here in New Zealand, it is to be found in both Islands where it forms the basis for a large recreational and commercial fishery.
The commercial catch alone extracts over 1000 tonnes of albacore annually from our local populations and although the recreational catch is insignificant in comparison they are still the most likely catch for anglers of all the tuna species present in our waters.
In the South Island, we have two main fishing areas for this species. They are available along the entire west coast from Fiordland North whilst, a smaller population is located in the waters off the Kaikoura coastline. Both these fisheries are what is known as summer fisheries with the Tuna stocks moving out into deeper waters over the winter months. The Kaikoura stocks, for instance, are to be found in deep waters out over the Chatham rise throughout the cooler months of the year.
From a recreational anglers point of view, the albacore is the most regularly encountered of our tunas with both the South Island fisheries producing good numbers of these fish yearly – although as is the case with most of our South Island tunas the majority of the fish taken are unfortunately caught on the heavy tackle which does not allow them to exhibit their true fighting abilities and scaling down to lighter line would certainly enable them to display their wares. As a rule, albacore generally will keep most anglers busy for an hour or more.
Most South Island Albies are caught whilst trolling although at times they will take jigs, dead baits and occasionally flys – although at this point I believe this has yet to be achieved in the -South Island. At the time of writing, all of the New Zealand fly-rod caught albacore records so far have all been taken out from Whakatane and with our good populations of Albies down this way, there is certainly plenty of scope for someone to, with a little planning take one of these fish on the fly, and find their way into the national record books.
As far as rigging up for albacore is concerned I won’t go into any detail here as there have been some excellent articles on this subject already. Check out the article by Allan Burgess Rigging Albacore Trolling Lures – Muppets, Hex Heads, and Hook Selection – It’s all there.
Things to watch out for whilst trolling for “Albies” are areas of current movement, upwellings, current lines, working birds and items like logs or kelp floating on the surface. It is amazing how many times we have encountered albacore schools while trolling past small insignificant pieces of flotsam drifting along in the current. Sometimes a small log or piece of bull kelp will hold an entire school of albacore tuna in residence and many are the day that our only fish taken have come from beneath such unlikely items.
Clear Water is Essential
Another key to finding albacore consistently comes in the form of water clarity. Generally, “Albies” will be found in the cleanest water around. Water temperature is not so important but if you’re targeting Alberts the rule of thumb is to seek out the cleanest, deepest indigo blue water in the vicinity, and the tuna should not be too far away.
Best Trolling Speed
Trolling speeds for albacore are fairly fast with most boats almost up on the plane. Some anglers tilt their outboards right out of the water whilst trolling in an effort to increase the amount of white water at the back of the boat. The theory behind this being that albacore are attracted the noise and aerated water from the passing outboard and will come up from deeper to investigate and hopefully come within visual range of the trolled lure pattern.
Albacore schools are not frequently seen or the surface and often strikes seem to come out of the blue. This is primarily due to the fact that albacore school vertically rather than horizontally, and thus only a few fish – if any will be seen on the surface. This is totally opposite to a school of barracouta, mackerel or kahawai which may have a very large proportion of its total numbers visible at any given moment in time.
Once albacore is hooked it will tend to pull others from the school up into the trolling pattern so it pays to keep the boat motoring ahead after the first rod goes off. In that way, multiple hook-ups can be achieved out of one school thus giving several anglers onboard a chance to land one of these exquisite eating fish.
Kaikoura Albacore Tuna Fishing with John Butler
In early march one year I finally achieved something that I had wanted to do for several years; catch some albacore tuna out of Kaikoura.
For the last three years, the weather had stopped us from venturing out into these waters at the time that albacore migrate past – estimated to be between February and March. But this year both the weather and water temperature were in our favour, so early one Saturday morning my mate and I set out for Kaikoura’s South Bay boat ramp.
The weather was fine with little wind as we left the ramp and headed out east from South Bay. About 4 miles out we passed a huge mako shark swimming on the surface and from then on there were blue sharks everywhere, but we had tuna as our target species so out went the lures, (plastic skirt squid type lures purchased from New Brighton Sports four years before).
We towed those lures for miles, at one stage estimating our distance from South Bay to be about 12 miles. The further out we went the more the water temperature rose. At one point we had 21 degrees on screen, but still no tuna.
Around lunchtime, we decided to move in closer to check out a school of fish we had seen on the sounder on the way out, just before seeing the mako. At this point I changed three of our four rods over to Yozuri diving squid lures running at about 6 – 8 feet down. We were still setting the drags on the rods when the first of these went off followed by the second. The first thing we noticed was the length of the first run. The line simply melted from the reels. After stopping the first run a dogged circling battle brought the first of our albacore to the net followed shortly afterwards by the second.
Only fishos know the adrenalin rush that comes from a ﬁrst species capture! The fish were bled and placed on a wet sack in the back of the boat while we reset the lures. The volume of blood coming from these two fish was amazing. Those who have to bleed kahawai will perhaps imagine the mess created by one 10-15 kg albacore that beats its tail ﬂatout in its death throws. It makes an awesome mess.
At this point, I was amazed to find that the very large and heavy chilly bin that my fishing mate had loaded aboard in Christchurch, was not full of our lunch but crushed ice. Into this Dave tossed saltwater creating a slurry into which the fish were placed. Albacore heats up so much after landing that if not cooled swiftly after bleeding, the ﬂesh burns and spoils. The saltwater added to the ice lowers its temperature even further by a chemical reaction. In total, during the Saturday afternoon, we boated 11 tuna. All were taken on the Yozuri lures.
Sunday dawned clear, but the sea was rough with a southerly swell of between 3 and 4 metres. There was also a 1-metre cross chop. We set four Yozuri lures. I wished I had brought along my silver Rapalas lures, as some of the tuna were full of piper and I think the Rapala would have been good too. We fished until midday, landing 13 tuna. We then stopped to have a go at some of the sharks.
We cleared the 8 and 6-kilo rods away into the cabin and cleared as much deck space as possible, placed the berley drum over the side and tied the trace onto our 15kg standup gear. By the time I had tied on the trace and baited the hook, we had 10 or 12 blue sharks within 20 to 30 feet of the boat and more were approaching! I had never seen anything like it before. Our Para Anchor (drogue) was holding us down to a slow drift, so the boat went at the same speed as the berley trail, to be instantly closed in on by sharks.
After a short battle, both sharks were gaffed and brought aboard destined for the Zoology department labs on Monday morning (Dave works there).
All in all a great weekend’s fishing close to home. I can’t wait to try my fly rod on tuna. Roll on next summer!
Editor’s note: The events in this story took place a couple of decades ago.
Albacore Tuna with Dick Marquand – South Island Game Fish Profile
Common Name: Albacore
Other Name: Long-finned tuna
Scientific Name: Thunnus alalunga
The body of the albacore is streamlined and typical of the tuna family, being nearly round in cross-section. The species is easily identified from other Scombrids by the very long pectoral fins. The first dorsal fin folds down into a shallow groove while the second dorsal fin and the anal fin are rigid. The pelvic fins are sited well forward, lying directly beneath the bases of the pectoral fins. Small finlets are present between the second dorsal fin and the tail, and between the anal fin and the tail. The tail is lunate and a small caudal keel stabiliser is present on the base of caudal peduncle.
The colouration on the upper surface is blue-black or black, while the sides and lower surface are silvery white. The finlets are dark. The fins are dark and a trailing white edge is present on the tail.
12deg. C to 25deg. C.
This species has a worldwide distribution in temperate and tropical waters.
During the late summer and autumn months, schools of albacore appear off both coasts of the South Island, most noticeably off Kaikoura, Westland and Fiordland.
The albacore is known to reach weight in excess of 30kg. Generally, schools of this species are found to be made up of individuals of a similar size.
The International Game Fish Association’s publication “1993 World Record Game Fishes” lists the All-Tackle World Record as 40kg (88lb 2oz), landed by Siegfried Dickemann on 37kg gear at the Canary Islands on 19 November 1977. The New Zealand All-Tackle Record is a tie of 25kg (55lb). Mr P. Truman landed his tuna on 37kg gear at the Bay of Islands on 8 April 1982, while Mr L. Carter used 15kg gear to capture his fish in Whakatane waters on 8 February 1990.
The albacore is a pelagic migratory species being found in schools where the warm oceanic currents are affected by the Continental Shelf. They are voracious feeders, preying on small schooling fish such as pilchards, anchovies and sauries, squid and euphausid crustaceans.
The presence of albacore is often indicated by hovering or diving sea birds such as white-fronted terns and shearwaters.
The albacore is usually caught while trolling offshore with lures such as hex heads, feather jigs, plastic “bones,” Rapalas, etc. Experience dictates that lures rigged on monofilament leaders will attract more strikes from this species than those rigged on steel leaders. Saltwater flies are also readily accepted.
When a trolled lure is taken by albacore, it pays to leave the boat going ahead for a short distance as this will often induce further strikes on the other lures. It is not unusual for all lures to be taken.
The albacore is a fine light tackle game fish offering top quality sport on saltwater fly gear, light spinning gear and the 1kg, 2kg, 4kg and 6kg I.G.F.A.
They are an excellent choice for training inexperienced anglers about the correct use of fishing tackle. Even small albacore (called “cokes” by commercial tuna fishermen) will give a surprising account of themselves with long line sizzling runs.
They form an important commercial fishery, particularly off the West Coast.
The ﬂesh is of excellent quality, is known as “chicken of the sea,” and maybe cooked by various methods or eaten raw as sashimi.
See Slender Tuna – Allothunnus fallai – the most elongate of the South Island tuna species also by Gary Wilson.