Goodness me! Early season SBT! by Andy Smith

March is here and that usually means anglers have the game gear rigged, the boat given a once over for offshore use and an eye on the early season tuna reports around the West Coast of Victoria. If that's you this season, you are late... months late!
The Victorian and Tasmanian southern bluefin tuna fishery has grown from strength to strength over the last ten years. And at the rate things are accelerating over the past couple of years, who knows where this fishery may end up! The vast majority of Victorians who chase southern bluefin head west, to ports from Apollo Bay across to Portland, and also into southeastern South Australian ports such as Port MacDonnell. Don't discount turning focus to the east of the state later in the season, as there is a little town named Mallacoota that flies often unnoticed...
Historically, reports have seen some early fish caught around Portland and Port Fairy, often mixed with schools of yellowtail kingfish. The last two years have seen a solid increase in the numbers of these early fish, usually in water less than 40m depth, which can provide sensational fishing opportunities when the fish are switched on.
Chasing these shallow water early season fish up to a genuine 30kg can be challenging at times, with the fish pushing into the shallow reef areas close to the coast and a lower abundance of their usual food source of small deep water squid, pilchards and sauries can see these fish switch to a variety of other foods.
If you are tempted to troll skirted lures, a popular method is to downsize the usual lures into models that are under 5" in length.
These fish in shallow water can also be targeted well with cast lures. Stickbaits, poppers with a moderate action and soft plastics can prove deadly. Crucial to this fishing is the use of a great quality pair of polarised sunglasses and the ability to read the water and the bird life in the proximity. Blue mirror lenses are ideal for cutting out bright glare in ocean situations. The ideal tell-tale birds in this situation are terns, feeding on the inshore coastal bait and are renowned for following tuna. Watch for them flying erratically, looking down and bobbing into the water.
If you sight fish cruising, they can often be quite shy and scare easily, especially when in water less than 15m depth. Often, the best approach can be to move ahead of the school, cut you motor and cast a stickbait ahead of the moving school. Ideal lures for this are Jack Fin Pelagus, Heru Wahoo, Lurenzo Don Belone, Amegari Leen, CB One Ozma and Strategic Angler Mikros. Quality lures in this situation can prove the difference on a tough bite. Designed and prototyped for this exact style of fishing, they come into a league of their own.
As the season progresses, these shallow water fish don't draw the same attraction as the ones out wider towards the deep blue. The currents change along the coast and the cold, nutrient rich water from deep offshore pushes towards the surface and the coastline, bringing with it the ideal food source for southern bluefin tuna. The Portland area is known for being the central hub of a deep water ocean current cycle known as the Bonney Upwelling, created by the southeasterly trade winds that blow in Victoria from November to March.
These winds assist in lifting the nutrient rich water to the surface from deep offshore and push it parallel to the coastline. This water generally holds masses of krill, providing a superb tuna food source for fish species such as pilchards, cowanyoung, mackerel and sauries and red bait. In addition to these fish species, the waters hold huge numbers of squid, from small squid only a few centimetres long, to fully-grown arrow squid. Squid are a favourite of tuna, and numerous scientific studies show that they make up the vast majority of the southern bluefin diet.
In turn, these areas are where anglers flock. At this time of year, there is a large increase of fishing effort from many anglers. Keeping an eye out for early reports on social media and around the local club, many anglers then hit the road and head west.
The current plays a huge role on the bite locations, with the past several years seeing an ideal situation of great water (and loads of food!) being held in relatively close to the coastline (within 10km). The result was great fishing for numbers of tuna and some of massive sizes, with numbers of fish over the magical 100kg mark. We can only hope the currents are favourable again. Some key things to look for are the cold temperature edges, or 'breaks' along the current line. Also areas where the current slows, eddies or is held will congregate bait and help to attract tuna.
Ensure your boat is up to the offshore waters. These areas can be ruthless and it's no place for being under prepared. A full suite of safety gear and common sense goes a long way. If you are new to the tuna or game fishing scene, a great way to gain some valuable experience is to either head out on-board a board with an experienced crew or part with a few dollars to book a charter. There are plenty around and some research will point you towards a quality operation. The quality charter skippers are legitimate professionals in their field and you will be surprised how much information they will share with you if you simply ask questions and show some interest. Don't simply jump on-board and wait until you get to catch a fish!
Generally speaking, the fish that are regularly and most often caught are school sized fish from 10-25kg, and while you do not need a boat full of 24-37kg premium range game fishing outfits for these fish, you never know when a monster tuna may decide your lure is on the menu.
Medium-sized game outfits around the 15kg line class bracket are great all rounders for many anglers. If you do fancy your chances on a big fish, then don't muck around and tempt fate on lighter line classes. There is an fraternity of game anglers out there who specifically target big fish on light line, but this takes many years of experience and dedication. A great all round leader weight for your lures is to use 150lb breaking strain monofilament leader. Brands such as Momoi are famous for superb quality and great value.