New Zealand Sea Fishes

Fiordland Albacore Tuna Action – Milford, Nancy and Thompson Sounds

Fiordland Albacore Tuna Action – More from the old Fiordland Game Fishing Club

By Dick Marquand

Hundreds of sooty shearwaters, white-fronted terns and mollymawks searched the surface of the sea for the schooling anchovies that were being herded to the surface by the predatory tuna. The small silvery fish leapt clear of the water as the bow of “Yellowfin” bore down upon them. Near the mouth of Thompson Sound, a school of southern bluefin tuna exploded from the surface only a few hundred metres from us. I nodded to Daryl and he cut the throttles back giving us a speed of around five knots. Our quarry was Fiordland albacore tuna.

The black and silver Rapala CD 18 plug went over the side and I let the vibrating lure run back until it was about 25 metres from our stern. I applied enough drag on the Penn Senator 4/0 to prevent the line from overrunning, switched the reel ratchet on and placed the Kilwell game rod into the rod holder. Daryl put his lure over the side and we waited anxiously for a strike, or even better, a double strike. We were both using 10kg IGFA regulation tackle.

The action died away, but it was a beautiful Fiordland morning and the hours passed pleasantly. All seemed quiet when suddenly the tranquillity was shattered by my screaming reel. As I took the straining rod from the rod holder, Daryl put both outboard motors out of gear. In the first run, about 100 metres of line melted from the reel spool, but after a powerful fight lasting 15 minutes, I pumped the fish alongside where Daryl was able to secure it with a gaff. It was albacore, and as he lifted it into the cockpit, the gills haemorrhaged, spraying us with blood. When later weighed, the fish went 11.11kg (24.5 lb) and for a couple of years remained as a Fiordland Game Fishing Club Record.

The albacore is easily identified from other tuna by its long pectoral fins.

The albacore is easily identified from other members of the tuna family (Scombridae) by the long pectoral fins and large eyes. The back of the fish is a metallic blue and the underside is silvery white. As with other species of tuna, the first dorsal and pectoral fins fold back into grooves and lie flush against the body.

A caudal keel stabiliser is present on the caudal peduncle of the tail. These adaptations and the streamlined shape of the albacore results in a very powerful and fast swimming quarry.

Like other members of the tuna family, albacore is warm-blooded and burn up a lot of energy. Consequently, they require a high food input. This species relentlessly pursues and predates upon small schooling fish such as anchovies and garfish, and also squid. During one Fiordland fishing safari, I found two seahorses amongst the stomach contents of albacore.

The All-Tackle World Record for albacore is 40kg (88lb 2 oz), taken on a 37kg line by Mr S. Dickemann at Canary Island on 19 November 1977. The New Zealand All-Tackle Record is a tie with two albacore weighing 25kg (55lb 2 oz), one taken by P. Truman in Bay of Islands waters on 37kg gear on 8 April 1982, the other by L. Carter on 15kg gear at Whakatane on 8 February 1990.

Albacore is present throughout New Zealand waters, but are particularly common off the Westland and Fiordland coasts during the summer and autumn months. A commercial fishery exists for this species along the west coast of the South Island. They are first-class eating, either canned, bottle, baked, cooked in steaks and even eaten raw.

Albacore is a hard-fighting species, offering excellent sport to anglers fishing with light tackle. They are usually taken when trolling at between five and ten knots and will accept a wide variety of lures, the most popular being the Rapala CD 18 plugs, hexheads, small knuckleheads, Kona heads, feather jigs and plastic “bone” jigs. The best leader material is monofilament nylon with a breaking strength of around 30kg, from experience I have found that more strikes will occur on lures rigged on mono leaders than on those rigged with steel leaders. First-class angling sport can be obtained fishing for albacore on saltwater fly gear and I am desperately looking forward to a connection.

The albacore is a true bluewater pelagic fish, and off the wild Fiordland coast, we have had the most luck while trolling over the continental shelf or 100-fathom line. Their temperature range is between 14 and 22 degrees Celsius, with a preference of around 18 degrees. As they are found in schools, double strikes and even treble strikes are common.

When an angler has a strike from albacore or any species of tuna, it pays to leave the boat going ahead for at least fifteen seconds, as this will induce strikes on the other lures that are being trolled.

One morning we headed out of Deep Water Basin in Milford Sound past logs and debris, evidence of the recent heavy rain. At the mouth of the sound, we were subject to poor visibility due to low cloud and light
drizzle. A course was plotted and, by using the compass, we started on the long journey offshore, out towards the deep blue warm water lying off the continental shelf. The sea was calm with a light sou’wester swell, and conditions were ideal for spotting fins and pelagic activity.

The sea was far from dead, Fiordland crested penguins and southern fur seals ventured at least 16 kilometres offshore. Further out, the seabirds ranged from the mighty wandering albatross, that seemed almost bored by the calm sea, to the small and delicate storm petrels, that fluttered and hopped on the surface of the sea searching for the minute marine organisms that make up their diet.

A school of albacore burst to the surface not far from us and yet, no strikes were recorded despite trolling lures through the area. Half an hour later we had our first action for the day, a straining rod and screaming reel indicated that a lure had been taken. I kept. the boat going forward and, after a few seconds, the other two lures were taken. After a brief struggle, three albacore each weighing around 6kg were gaffed and hauled on board, spraying blood over the cockpit area. That afternoon, the albacore were cooperative and we took twelve in all, two treble strikes, two double strikes and two single strikes, all on green and yellow skirted hexheads.

Albacore will herd small schooling fish to the surface of the sea where they become easy prey for the waiting white-fronted terns, sooty shearwaters and mollymawks. These birds are the fisherman’s eyes and, if anglers see this sort of action, a troll around the edge of the commotion will almost certainly produce a strike.

One late summer’s day found Geoff McDonald, Dr. Pat Farry and me heading “Samara” out from the mouth of Thompson Sound, trolling an assortment of lures. The sea had a slight sou’west swell running and the surface water temperature was up to 16 degrees Celsius. A large school of anchovies burst from the surface beside us, either spooked by our boat or chased by some unseen predator.

We headed north until we were about two kilometres offshore from the mouth of Nancy Sound. Going by the number of seabirds that were gliding over the surface of the oily sea, it was obvious that something very fishy was brewing up. At first, a few sooty shearwaters and white-fronted terns started diving into the sea not far from us, but in a matter of only a few seconds, other birds zeroed in on this activity. As we headed into this area of intense activity, Pat had a strike and after a brief fight, a 7kg albacore was lifted into the cockpit. As we put our lures back over the side, we were amongst hundreds of excited seabirds who were in a screaming frenzy, diving and feeding on the small schooling fish that were being herded up from the depths.

The green skirted hex-head had only been in the water a matter of seconds when the ratchet on the Penn International indicated a strike. This was followed almost instantly by strikes on the other two lures. I pulled “Samara” out of gear and she settled in the water with all three of us in the cockpit dealing to our albacore in the midst of a boiling feeding frenzy. My fish was beside the boat first, so I leaned out with the gaff and secured it. A few minutes later, the two other albacore were gaffed and joined mine to beat their last in the cockpit. We landed a further five that morning, the best being around 9kg.

Schools of albacore are often shadowed by their deadly enemy and predator, the mako shark. We felt sure that a mako would be close with this much action from the seabirds, anchovies, and albacore. We spent the rest of the afternoon drifting about five kilometres from the mouth of Nancy Sound. Despite over five hours of chumming and fishing with drift baits, we saw only one blue shark, which Geoff did the honours in landing. The reason for the feeble fight was obvious as the top section of its tail fin was missing and there was also a fresh bite mark around both sides of its body. I guess that even being a shark has its problems.

Dr Pat Farry struggles to hold on to this vibrating albacore.

When fishing for albacore, it pays to troll along any drift lines that lie offshore, especially if they contain logs, seaweeds and other flotsam. Oily smooth areas of the sea are also worth a try, so is an area where you record a sudden increase in surface water temperature.

An albacore that I will always remember was taken during a trip to Milford Sound in March 1981. I was fishing from “Samara” when one of my crew had a strike on a yellow and green skirted hex-head. Toothpick brought the fish alongside and requested that it be tagged and released. A yellow spaghetti tag was placed into the applicator on the end of the tagging pole and I placed this into the back of the struggling fish. I leaned over, took the lure in my hand and cut through the leader freeing the 8kg albacore. It slowly swam down out of sight into the clear blue water with two reminders of the incident.

This was the first albacore to be tagged by a recreational angler off the Fiordland coast. Over the following years, we tagged many more albacore as part of a worthwhile project that, I hope, resulted in a recapture so that scientists would understand more about the migrations and growth rates of this pelagic species.

When taken on light tackle, the albacore fights well and will give the budding angler experience in the correct use of gear when fighting fish, essential training before progressing onto the larger species of game fish.

Yes, the albacore is a very special adversary and Fiordland albacore tuna is even more so.

See our main albacore tuna page.

This post was last modified on 13/03/2024 3:02 pm

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