Chunking Chips for Tuna

By Steve Carson

Much has been written about the use of various live baits for tuna, and heavy chumming of the live stuff is almost always part of the program.
In a record-setting tuna year like 2015, what can a California small-boater do with limited live-bait carrying capacity and equally limited financial resources?
The technique known as “chunking” is nothing new and is practiced just about everywhere tuna are caught on the planet. Typically, California anglers cut up sardines into about four pieces each, an inch or two long, and toss them overboard at regular Two anglers on the Shogun boat, one holding a large fish.intervals.
“Small-boat owners can generally only hold a scoop or two in their boat’s live bait tanks, usually just enough to use as hook baits. Even carefully saving the baits that die and cutting them up into about four pieces used up our limited bait-carrying capacity pretty quickly,” says Doug Kern, manager of Fisherman’s Landing Tackle Shop (619-221-8500; in San Diego.
“This season, we have also been buying an extra scoop of live sardines and just putting them into a 5-gallon bucket. We cut the sardines up into ultrathin slices, not much more than the thickness of a potato chip at only one-quarter of an inch or so. The yield is around eight or nine slices per sardine.
“Any time we are near a kelp paddy, get a jig strike or have a good meter mark, we set up a drift. Start out by throwing a handful and then just keep a trail going by tossing one steadily every 30 seconds. The water this season is so clear, you can see the chunks 50 to 75 feet down. If all of a sudden you can’t see them, it’s probably because the fish have come through and eaten them. When you cut your catch open later, you will see that they have been eating your chunks. This year there has been a lot of waiting it out, but if you lay out a line of chum over a stretch of water of 300 or more yards, they will eventually find you.”
Dwayne Patenude, the past club president of San Diego Anglers (, agreed with Kern’s assessment.
“We use the chunks as hook bait too, and the fish are not shy about hitting on 40- or even 50-pound line,” he says. “We use a short piece of fluorocarbon, mainly for abrasion resistance, on a 3/0 circle hook. There are enough 50- to 60-pounders in every school that you don’t want to go too light. A long soak is not necessary; just let the hooked piece drift freely back with the chum about 100 feet, then crank it in and start over. The key is trying to make the hooked baits drift naturally back with the chummed baits.
“The whole technique is just a reaction to limited bait capacity. By doing this, you can stretch your chum power out three or four times longer on a private boat. Party boats, of course, have an almost unlimited supply of live bait that they can chum with.”
Chumming with the chunks, and then fishing live sardines as bait the standard way also works.
“On our little 17-footer, we thinslice the sardines ahead of time, and chum a slice regularly every 30 seconds. Then we just do a long soak with live sardines, every once in a while putting the reel in gear and cranking in a little, then letting it back out,” says Dawn Davis, fishing manager at West Marine (949-6739700) in Newport Beach. “We have done very well this season on bluefin tuna up to 50 pounds using this technique. Some days we’ll leave the harbor at 7 a.m. and are all done by 8:30 a.m.”

Another technique that has rapidly gained popularity over the past two seasons in California and northern Baja is topwater poppers. The most common species targeted with poppers is yellowfin tuna, and in some cases yellowfin will actually hit better on a popper than on live bait or traditional lures.
Yellowtail will also readily hit on poppers, as will skipjack tuna, although bluefin and albacore tend to be a little more reluctant. Dorado will often go after a popper, but there can be a safety issue with dorado that are jumping high in the air. They also can thrash on the deck, causing the lure to fly loose and injure anglers. Wahoo also love poppers but can be an expensive proposition with their razor-sharp jaws biting off a high percentage of lures.
Best popper sizes for local-grade tuna are around 2 to 3 ounces, with a popular choice being the 2½-ounce Williamson Jet-Popper. For larger fish, the 4-ounce Williamson Jet-Popper works well, and the extra water it pushes with each splash can sometimes trigger even small fish into biting. Conversely, finicky fish may prefer the slight subsurface disturbance created by the Williamson Surface Pro stickbait. Color is not as important as getting the proper splash on the retrieve, but natural colors like blue sardine, dorado, or black/silver all produce fish.
Spinning tackle is called for in most cases, especially if casting directly into the wind. Tuna fishing is definitely not the setting for inexpensive spinning gear. When fishing schoolie-size fish up to about 50 pounds or so, a PENN Spinfisher SSV7500 filled with 65-pound superbraid is sufficient. On multiday long-range trips that may regularly encounter tuna in the 75- to 125-pound class, stepping up to a premium-level PENN Torque TRQS9 filled with 80-pound superbraid is standard.
A short, 2-foot leader of 80- to 100-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon is primarily to allow easier handling of the fish on deck, and provide chafe resistance near the lure. Either a worm knot or John Collins knot connects the superbraid to the short leader. Due to the dead boat-style and lack of ability to chase the fish, spinning gear is not appropriate on party boats when tuna are exceeding 125 pounds.
In some cases, the hooks on less-expensive poppers may need to be upgraded to a heavier grade of wire or they may bend under the heavy pressure. When fishing is very good or when smaller fish may need to be released, changing the treble hooks out to single hooks is appropriate.
This writer always has one or two poppers with literally no hooks at all. When limits have been achieved or the grade of fish is a bit small, cranking back a hookless popper can result in 10 to 20 or even more spectacular strikes in a single cast! CS

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