The whole spectacle of tuna fishing is very exciting, and something that most anglers want to experience. It involves incredible bust-ups and screaming runs, and that never-say-die attitude of a hooked tuna really gets the casting arm twitching.
When you think of locations that have good tuna fishing, you might not think of Moreton Bay. However, Moreton Bay is one of the greatest destinations in the country to catch big longtail tuna, and it's right on the doorstep of most South East Queensland anglers. Longtail tuna are a highly prized sportfish, renowned for their incredible runs and stubborn yet powerful fighting behaviour. They can also grow quite large (over 30kg), will take a wide variety of lures and are great on the plate if you love tuna steaks or sashimi.
Moreton Bay longies are known for being incredibly hard to catch at times, but with a little knowledge it can be quite easy to capture one of these highly prized sportfish.
The Moreton Bay longtail fishery is virtually year round, but numbers and size vary depending on the time of year. Longtail tuna generally migrate along the east coast of Australia from north of Cape York to southern NSW, following the currents and migrations of baitfish along the coast. Longtail tuna schools generally start their migration down the coast in late spring and summer, with hordes of 6-15kg school-size fish showing up in Moreton Bay between summer and early autumn. These school-size fish will move in and out of the bay, and slowly retreat north through winter and spring.
However, not all the tuna leave; the bigger fish stay in the bay through winter and spring. Because Moreton Bay is quite large and has a huge array of islands, mud flats, sand banks, drop-offs, reefs, sea grass beds, bays and rivers, it holds a wide variety of bait, and plenty of it, to sustain the diets of these tuna all year.
Generally the best times to catch a longtail are through autumn and early winter, as the large numbers of school-size fish move through the bay. In spring and summer it's not as easy. You have to go to the right location at the right time and look for the tuna schools destroying baitfish on the surface. Longtail tuna love busting up on bait, as most tuna do, and one of the most exciting way to catch these fish is to cast lures at them. It's incredibly visual and very effective.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
The right gear and lures are very important when catching these fish, as longtails will put a lot of strain on your gear during the fight and exploit any fault to earn their freedom. When it comes to the right set-up for these fish, I find it's better to have two outfits rather than one. I have a lighter set-up rigged with a small soft plastic or slug, and a heavier outfit with a bigger plastic or stickbait. This allows me to quickly swap rods depending on the feeding behaviour of the fish.
For lighter plastics and slugs I use a 20-30lb, 7' soft plastic rod with a 4000 Daiwa or 5000 Shimano reel loaded with 30lb braid and a 30-40lb leader. This lighter outfit needs to be able to cast out lighter lures a good distance, but also be heavy enough to put some hurt on the fish so the fight doesn't become too drawn-out, increasing the likelihood of a sharking.
For the heavier set-up I run a 30-50lb, 7-8' long rod with a 4500 Daiwa or 6000-8000 Shimano reel running 40-50lb braid and 50-60lb leader. The heavier outfit needs to be heavy enough to turn a tuna, but still light enough through the tip so you can cast larger 30-60g lures with ease, making longer and more accurate casts at bust-ups. The heavier set-up is a must-have if you are casting at larger longtails, as you will have a much greater chance of landing one and keeping it away from sharks.
Using the right lures is key to getting a bite from these fish some days. When casting lighter gear I like to use 4-5" soft plastics rigged with either a 3/8oz or 3/4oz jighead depending on the conditions and mood of the fish. For metal slugs on my lighter set-up I like to use 20-40g sizes, but I always upgrade the tail hook with either a heaver treble or single hook. I prefer the single hook as you can get a greater hook set on the fish and go a lot harder on them than if you were to use a treble.
When it comes to larger lures, I like to use stickbaits. There's a huge variety on the market, but anything from 100-140mm and 30-60g will catch fish. I prefer to upgrade the hooks to singles or stronger trebles if they haven't already come pre-rigged like that. Occasionally I will run an assist hook off the front tow point, as I find it boosts hook-up rates and hook set when chasing bigger tuna. It makes it difficult for the fish to find leverage to destroy your terminals, too.
I have also had good results on 7" soft plastics rigged with a 1/2-3/4oz jighead. If you wanted to you could opt to use a weighted weedless worm hook as a more finesse and natural alternative.
HIDE AND GO SEEK
Once you are rigged up and ready, it's time to find these fish. There are many locations to find longtails in Moreton Bay, from Coochiemudlo to the beaches off Bribie and the shipping channel in the northern bay. The main spots to look for tuna in the bay are around Peel and Goat islands, along the Rainbow Channel, around Harry Atkinson artificial reef and the drop-offs and foul ground to the northeast, east of Mud and up to the Measured Mile, around the Four Beacons and south towards the Sand Hills and along the main shipping channel on the west side of Moreton Island, and up to Bribie Island and due east of Bribie along the beach. The tuna can be in any of these spots at any given time of year, but you can narrow it down by going into your local tackle store and talking to staff about reports of longtails. These guys will give you a good idea of which areas to look at before you head out.
Longtails will feed on most stages of the tide and at any time of the day, but generally the best time to fish these areas is on an incoming tide and around lower light periods, especially around a full moon or new moon. This is when the tide runs harder, allowing the fish to herd up bait and ambush it more easily.
There are exceptions to this though. You will find some spots fish better on an outgoing tide then an incoming, as the water drains off sand banks and weed beds, or bait gets pushed into an area with dirty water. Keep that in mind when looking at different areas.
Generally you will find longies feeding close to drop-offs in some of these areas, as the bait will hold tight to a drop-off. Looking for the birds that feed on the same bait as the tuna is the easiest way to find these fish feeding. If the spot you're fishing is deep and featureless, you will need to use the birds to your advantage. They will be hovering over bait schools, waiting for the tuna to herd them to the surface so they can get an easy feed. You should always keep an eye out for flocks on the horizon, and when you get closer you'll be able to use the birds' behaviour to predict where the next tuna school will pop up. This will allow you to position the boat and ready yourself before the tuna pop up again.
Occasionally you will find birds hovering over a school of tuna on the move. You won't be able to see the tuna, but trust me - they are there. By taking your time and positioning a cast ahead of the bird or birds, you can come up tight to a longie almost instantly.
Finally, a good sounder can be very useful when waiting for tuna to come to the surface to feed, as you can tell if they are around before moving.
DRIVE IT LIKE GRANDPA
Boat driving is a very important factor when chasing longtails, as they can be very spooky. If you don't approach them correctly, they can be nearly impossible to get close to. One very important piece of information I can give when chasing longtails is to never turn the motor off when chasing them, and never rev the motor too hard when approaching them. The level of noise that the motor puts through the water can drastically affect the way the longtails feed, and cause them to stop feeding. You may ask, "why leave the motor on?" The simple answer to this is that they will get used to the noise of lower revs after a while, and feed normally. On the flip side, if you drive at full speed towards a school and turn off the motor when you're near them, the change in noise is very noticeable and will cause them to go down.
I find a very casual approach is the best way to get close to them and keep them feeding. I like to get the boat on the plane between schools or bust-ups and ease off the throttle a good 80-100m away. I slow the boat down to a trolling speed, then leave the motor just in gear or just a bit faster when approaching them from 50-60m away. I finally knock the engine out of gear once I'm within casting range.
Although this approach is very effective, you still need to approach the tuna from the right direction to be successful. Because tuna mainly feed into the wind or tide, depending on which of the two is more predominant, you need to come from upwind or upcurrent so the tuna feed towards you, allowing you to make the perfect cast or multiple casts and work your lure in front of the feeding fish. When the tuna are a little finicky and there are a few birds flying about, I drive around at a slow trolling speed and pick out a bird that seems to have half an idea of what they're doing. I then slowly follow from a distance. When a few birds join the first one, you know you're following the right bird. Then, when it starts to hover and more birds join, get ready to cast as the tuna will be right under the birds, ready to feed. In this situation, soft plastics and slugs are supper effective. It's a more finesse approach, and with a well-aimed cast you will be hooked up to a tuna in no time.
CAST AND RETRIEVE
Making your cast count is very important when catching longtail tuna. If you cast behind them they won't turn around and chase your lure. Cast too far to the side and they simply won't see it. You need to be able to cast with accuracy and plonk it straight in front of their feeding path, allowing them to see it and pounce on it almost immediately. Yes, on some days the tuna can be in that much of a frenzy it doesn't matter where you cast, but a lot of the time if you take your time it can only take one good cast to get a hook-up. Watching which way the tuna are feeding before casting is extremely important if you want consistent success.
Each different lure requires its own special retrieve to work effectively. With soft plastics I like to retrieve at a steady pace with a single hop mixed in every so often, or alternatively let the plastic sink before I start a steady retrieve. Generally the tuna will eat on the sink or as you start to retrieve.
With slugs I retrieve the lure at a faster pace, without any hops or twitches, and for stickbaits I find a twitch-and-wind under the surface is best. This makes the stickbait dart erratically from side to side. Alternatively, you can keep the tip up and make a steady retrieve, allowing the lure to skip along the surface like a fleeing baitfish. Stickbaiting can be the most effective method for catching these fish, with either retrieve producing some very explosive strikes from the tuna.
It is wise to remember that Moreton Bay is a very large area, and you may need to cover a lot of water to find the fish. Make sure you fuel up before your pursuit so that once you find them you don't have to leave them chewing in case you run out of fuel.
I hope this handy information gives you the confidence to get out there and catch some of these incredible sportfish. Until next time, good luck and stay safe.