Topwater Tuna Fishing

Topwater Tuna Fishing

topwater tuna limits
Bluefin limits! Photo courtesy of Duane Diego of Pinnacle Sportfishing


Since Easter, the bluefin tuna fishing has been a spectacular scene in Southern California. This frenzy of people is comparable to Disneyland addicts seeking thrill and lifetime memories. Rather than breaking the bank on a 5-14 day trip or flying to coveted fishing grounds such as Puerto Vallarta, Cabo, Prince Edwards Island and anywhere else that requires hefty finances, this precious fishing opportunity has allowed West Coast anglers to experience something they have always dreamed of. To make things wilder, these 100-200lb trophies are being caught on topwater poppers! It’s already one thing to catch a tuna, but adding the element of catching them crashing on your lure like a scene from National Geographic is something that truly fulfills the fisherman’s spirit.

Although the fishing has been nothing short of incredible, these fish are still one of the most challenging creatures to both hook and land. Not only do they have sheer power, but they are also very intelligent, finicky fish with the exception of when they are in a feeding frenzy. Still, they are definitely unicorns of the sea! Within a moment’s notice the bite can completely change. They either disappear or will disregard anything you throw at them.

Another curveball that is constantly thrown at us is the weather. Although it is much easier to catch bluefin while fishing in smaller, agile sport boats, these vessels are more prone to facing the unrelenting conditions of Mother Nature. As this technique requires anglers to cast bow from bow which is more unstable compared to the stern and the constant “run and gun” of the boat onto breaking fish, it is very hazardous to do so when the winds are gusting making it a pain to fish.

Living in Northern California, has proved to be a challenge to get a shot at catching these Bluefin, as fishing conditions are unpredictable as it is and as it is a drive to San Diego, these trips must be planned in advance by my friends and I. My first trip of the year in May, I dealt with a crappy bite, but this time around it was something different. After weeks of getting us coordinated and scheduling our days of work off to make the 8 hour trip out only to learn a few days before our trip that it has been cancelled because the weather has taken a crap on us, is heartbreaking.

I have realized that none of these variables can ever be accounted for and it really is out of our hands. But really the only things we can make sure we get right is our tackle, our proficiencies of using the gear, and the preparation of fighting the fish.

bluefin tuna feeding frenzy


When you have a fish over 100lbs chomping down on your lure, you’d best be prepared! Nobody wants to lose sleep over getting spooled or breaking off on the fish of a lifetime, so here’s everything you need to be prepared.


Your options are limited when you are searching for the “right” long rod to handle a fish the can push up to 300lbs. But, there are a few that will handle such a fight.

phenix black diamondMY PERSONAL TUNA ROD

Phenix Black Diamond 909XHJ ($329)

  • 9 Feet
  • Rated 30-80lbs
  • Fast Action
  • Essex SiC Guides
  • Offers deckhand style or standard reel seat options

The other high-quality brands that we tend to hear about include:

  • United Composites
  • Rainshadow
  • Cousins
  • CalStar
  • Seeker (Ulua)
  • Shimano

Of these brands we have glass and graphite models. After examining most of the long rods out there, the Phenix Black Diamond 909XHJ is by far one of my favorite rods regarding price, action, durability and easygoing warranty service. As the era of fishing gear shifts towards more compact, powerful packages compared to previous years, this rod definitely gives you the best of both worlds. Composed of a graphite and carbon fiber blank, it allows you to fish without fatigue, especially when working strenuous lures like the popper. Full glass rods are significantly heavier, making it difficult to work poppers and other lures for extended hours.

The rod is built with the mindset that less is more. Because it offers both the deckhand or reel seat models, it gives the angler the option to adjust to their preferences and needs accordingly. I have the Fuji DPS reel seat model which is the best option to secure your reel without clamps while providing adequate weight reduction. The guides are SiC and double-footed allowing for optimal casting distance and enough strength to wrench on bigger fish. Most importantly, the Phenix Black Diamond series are more readily available than most other high-end brands, giving you enough opportunities to build your tuna gear collection.


My personal reel collection consists of:

Growing up as an avid largemouth angler, fishing a low profile saltwater reel is a no-brainer for me when it comes to throwing lures. The Tranx provides brute strength for these fish, a high gear ratio to work your lures correctly and it’s built with great components to withstand the fight, ultimately resulting in a compact yet tough reel for tuna. When compared to the Trinidad 20A, they are very similar in features, but each reel has its own time and place during your trips.

Tranx 500HG Specifications

Line Retrieve Per Crank (in) Mono Line Capacity (#Test/yd) PowerPro Line Capacity (# Test/yd) Max Drag (lb) S-ARB Ball Bearings Roller Bearing Gear Ratio Weight (oz) Retrieve
43 30/160,40/120,50/100 50/420,65/270,80/210 25 7 1 6.6:1 20 Right


Trinidad 20A Specifications

Line Retrieve Per Crank (in) Mono Line Capacity (#Test/yd) PowerPro Line Capacity (# Test/yd) Max Drag (lb) S-ARB Ball Bearings Roller Bearing Gear Ratio Weight (oz) Retrieve
46  20/420,25/300  50/710,65/375,80/310 25 8 1 6.2:1 19.8 Right


  • The Trinidad has the advantage in line capacity, 0.2 oz. weight difference, 1 extra ball bearing and 3 extra inches of line per crank.
  • The Tranx has the advantage in the level wind and its VBS braking system for better control when casting.

I tend to prefer the Tranx over the Trinidad because of the level-wind feature and VBS braking system specifically for casting the surface iron and popper, but because of the sheer size of fish we are seeing this year, the Trinidad provides me with peace of mind since I have 100 yards of extra line capacity.


I have grown to love 80lb Maxcuatro PowerPro Braid to 6-8 feet of 100lb Seaguar Blue Label Flourocarbon Leader.

Although there are jig guys who swear by the big and bulky 30-size reels with 40-50lb mono, it’s not as effective nor efficient as using a smaller reel with compact braid such as Maxcuatro. I get 270 yards of 80lb Maxcuatro on my Tranx and over 380 yards of 80lb  Maxcuatro on my Trinidad 20A. With these triple-digit cows lurking in the water, you definitely need to upsize from traditional methods.

It’s possible that 50lb straight mono will get broken off and it’s happened to me. It’s imperative to have 100lb+ leader line so you won’t have to deal with the heartbreak of getting bit off from the fish choking down your lure.

8 feet is a good length for a leader. Your rod should range between 9-12 feet, so with a 6-8ft leader it provides enough shock and abrasion resistance but will not affect your casting ability. The length of the leader depends on rod length and your casting skills. The connection knot will affect your casting distances depending on how many guides it goes through. Having the knot not go through any of the guides or less guides is ideal, so most guys bring their lure down to the reel before casting so the connection knot is above the rod tip.


Double San Diego Jam to the lure.

  • Strongest rated knot made for big game.

FG Knot for any braid-to-mono connection knot.

  • Strongest and thinnest diameter connection knot. Spend the time learning this one! It’s tricky but will give you


  • Shimano Orca 151 Poppers 3.1 oz.
  • Halco 195 Roosta Haymaker Poppers 4.25 oz. (Replace Trebles with Bigger and Stronger Owner Trebles
  • Yo Zuri Bull Pop R1155 5oz. (Replace Trebles with Bigger and Stronger Owner Trebles)
  • Ocean International Komodo Popper 1201 4.5oz
  • Tady 45 (Replace Treble with Owner Siwash Hook)


Make sure you have practiced casting both the surface iron and popper on your setup multiple times at a local body of water so you are dialed in when it counts! To get optimal casting distance, use the pendulum cast.

  1. Bring your lure down to about where the reel is located
  2. Swing the lure behind you so it pendulums away from you and then back towards you
  3. As the lure swings back towards you, drop your rod tip and use the momentum of the lure swinging away from you to whip your cast.

Once you get use to this motion, casting lures for tuna will become so much easier. Depending on how far you are casting and the frequency of backlashes, you can adjust your cast control and brakes (if they’re available) accordingly.

Upon approaching the “breezers,” don’t rush your casting. Gauge your casting distance and cast past the boil on the surface. Sometimes you only got one cast for these fish before they get spooked so take your time and make every cast count.


For the majority of the poppers you will sweep your rod tip downwards or to the side depending on what’s most comfortable for you. The cadence is simple: sweep the rod to the side, reel up all slack line and repeat. For Shimano Orca Poppers you should definitely slow the cadence, making long sweeps to get water shooting out of the lure properly.


The surface iron is as simple as it gets. Chuck and Wind! The only thing you will need to vary is the speed of the retrieve. The gear ratio of your reel will affect how fast you need to turn the handle. Basically, the jig should kick side-to-side right below the surface. Too slow and it won’t kick, too fast and it will start spinning. Once you find the right cadence all that’s left is to get bit!


Once you set the hook, reel as fast as you can until drag starts peeling off your reel. Otherwise, the fish may come loose if they are swimming towards you. Your drag should be set to a third of your line rating.

You can tuck the rod handle under your armpit but this can get you tired pretty quick. Instead, jam the butt of the handle into your thigh and keep your arm straight, leaning back with your body instead of lifting only with your arms.

For the “cows” (triple-digit fish), you’ll either need to lean your rod against the boat railing or use a fighting belt since it’s quite a lengthy fight. Keep the top of the rod handle pinned on the rail or somewhere manageable on the boat. To fight these fish “rail style” you will use the motion of the swells and control of the rod to pump the fish in. As the boat goes down with each swell, you will point the rod down towards the fish and reel at the same time. While as the boat come up with each swell, you will put your whole body into the base of the rod, which will leverage your rod upwards using the rail as the axis point.

If you are undergunned and getting spooled by a cow, making the split decision to chase the fish with the boat can make or break the outcome. If the fish has taken half your spool before you decide to chase, you might as well say “bye-bye fishy” since you’ll be completely spooled before your buddies can reel up and get the boat in gear.

When you see “color” (when you’re able to see the fish) at the boat, it’s crucial to position yourself properly on the boat before using the gaff. If the fish is coming towards you while the boat is drifting right over the fish, there is a chance you’ll get cut off. It is crucial that you’re in the right position on the boat so that if the fish dives under you the line doesn’t rub against the boat.


This is definitely a lot of information to retain, so please hit me up in the comments with any questions or suggestions! I appreciate the support, hopefully this has helped you whack some tuna! Tight lines.


  1. Good info research your boat before you book a trip! There are some boats and crew that are go above and beyond to help people catch fish.

  2. Makes me want to go right now….do your home work on boat and crew before you book your trip…some are better than others for sure!

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