It doesn’t get much better than fishing for blackfin tuna

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At the T-dock, where Diane and I winter over on a houseboat in the Florida Keys, the word was spreading fast. The blackfin tuna were hitting well out on the “hump.” The “hump” is a stretch of water about 15 miles offshore from where we live in Islamorada. It is the edge of the Gulf Stream.

From my own experience, when the wind is up, the hump is not a user-friendly place to fish. That is unless you are one of those quirky, macho guys that just love to be out there in the roll, pitch and yaw. I have been out there a number of times. On windy days the combination of wind chop, swells, and churned up water from the many circling fishing boats makes for a rough ride. More times than not my fishing buddies and I have come back sunburned, beat up by the rough water and fishless.

Color me a soft, spleeny septuagenarian, but I won’t go out on the hump anymore unless the wind forecast is below 12 knots. As luck would have it the other day, the wind was down and the tuna fishing was hot.

Son Scotty and I teamed up with a fellow Islamorada snowbird, Lee Cliff, from Hermon, Maine who skippers a fine offshore boat called the Ann Marie, one stable craft. Captain Cliff’s boat is a World Cat powered by twin two-stroke Mercs that moves out, even on rough water. Lee is a capable, easy going skipper who loves to hunt and fish, Maine and Florida, and knows his way around the fishing grounds on the hump.

En route to the tuna grounds we stopped at a coral head to catch a dozen ballyhoo to be used as baitfish off shore. Using small hooks baited with dainty chunks of squid, we managed to fill the live well with a dozen ballyhoo. Then it was off to the hump. The dockside fishing scuttlebutt and moderate southeast winds — not to mention a clear sunny day — brought a lot of offshore anglers out on the water to join the quest for blackfin.

Once on site, with the Garmin showing 300 feet under the hull, we began our surface search for weed lines, circling birds, or breaking baitfish that are being chased by predators. For an hour or so, fishing was slow. No birds. No weed lines. And no bait fish that we could see.

Scott broke out a couple of newly purchased tuna rigs. These were double-hooked lash ups that featured gaudy purple hula skirts, which would scare any Maine fish half to death.

Moments later, Capt. Cliff shouted, “Bait fish breaking on top at 9 o’clock.” As Scott and I played out the heavy monofilament lines behind the churning wake of the twin mercs, I could see other boats heading our way at warp speed. Obviously, they had seen the breaking bait fish, too.

The throttles came up and in seconds Ann Marie was cutting a swath through the chop not far from the fleeing bait fish.

Zzzzzzzzzzz….fish on! Scott had a hookup. He grabbed the hefty saltwater rod and started pumping and reeling. At skipper Lee’s suggestion, I put the portable “fighting belt” around Scott’s midsection so he’d have a place to plant the rod butt other than his own abdomen.

Scott let out a whoop as he brought First Fish alongside. He was two dollars to the good in the fish wager. In moments we put his three or four-pound blackfin tuna in the fish well. After that, we developed a routine: find the breaking bait fish, head for the spot, and get a tuna hookup. Before the fun was over, we all caught fish. In one hookup, yours truly snagged into a two-fer, two blackfins on at the same time. The fighting belt came in handy.

By late afternoon we had enough tuna to supply a sushi house and headed home. On the way, Scott suggested to Lee that a big mutton snapper would really round things out. With the help of the Garmin we located an old diving wreck that once held Spanish treasures. These wrecks make ideal “structure” for tasty mutton snappers. Lee sewed on a ballyhoo and affixed a big weight to Scott’s line.

Mutton Snapper are a little like Maine togue: you have to be just off the bottom to get a hookup. In a few minutes, Scotty had a heavy fish take the ballyhoo, probably a mutton snapper. The rod was bent full circle and the fight was on. After a lot of rod pumping (the full drag setting could hardly handle the fish) the fish was almost in sight, then, snap, the line parted. Scotty sighed. “A predator got your fish,” Lee said. “It happens often.”

Throttled up and heading “back to the barn,” with the tropical sun dropping near the horizon and dancing off the green sea, all three of us looked at each other and smiled. Sometimes, in the outdoors, for whatever reason, it just all comes together. That’s not always the case. But it’s a blessing that keeps on giving.

The author is editor of the “Northwoods Sporting Journal.” He is also a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program — “Maine Outdoors” — heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on “The Voice of Maine News – Talk Network.” He has authored three books; online purchase information is available at

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