How to

East Coast southern bluefin tuna

Julian Coyne with the sort of southern bluefin that makes the long 80km drive offshore worthwhile!

Now’s the time to start preparing for the annual run of southern bluefin tuna. SBT specialist LEE RAYNER explains how to get amongst the blue barrels!

AFTER an hour and a half of travelling in what was proving to be a fairly sloppy sea I was able to give my mate Julian Coyne, and Fishing Edge cameraman Andrew Clark, the good news – we were now over half way out to our planned destination, which was the top end of a northward pushing current. Here the water was moving very slowly, and reports from Scott Bradley of Bermagui Bait and Tackle had it as the area the longliners had been finding big numbers of bluefin.

While the long trip offshore had us running at around the 20-22 knot mark, a call over the VHF radio indicated that one of the larger and faster Bermagui boats by the name of Aquaholic was already into the action with a big fish hooked up and loads more swimming around. Everyone waited in anticipation as the boys called out their GPS mark, which was about eight miles further from our position. I subconsciously pushed the throttle a bit further down …

Needless to say the other boats had the same idea as a comfortable run was forsaken in the hope of getting to the bite before the fish disappeared. As it turned out, the tuna departed before we could get into the action, however, it was a good sign and at least we knew the fish were there. Jules and I put a spread of lures out to work the area in the hope of finding them. As it turned out, the rest of the day proved to be fairly quiet with only a few more tuna being taken. We tagged one of around 60kg.

The following day, however, produced the sort of fishing the South Coast run is famous for with a patch of fish being found and everyone getting in on the action. When I say “getting in on the action” I mean it. The fleet was so close together you were in many cases pushing other boats off with your hands and feet. No one cared – it was wall-to-wall tuna and bent fishing rods. Awesome stuff!

Removing the hook out of a monster before releasing it – this shot clearly shows the bulk of a big bluefin!
East Coast Options

Unlike the longer running west coast SBT fishery, the east coast season is short and often very hectic. Running anything from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the ocean currents, this is definitely one of those fishing options that requires a “drop everything and go” attitude. Other logistics that often make it a short bite period is the fact that the tuna are on a migrating run up the east coast, travelling on north bound currents, which during June, July and August tend to run wide of the mainland.

However, at some point the eddy holding the fish tends to find its way within reach of trailer boat anglers with locations such as Sydney and Bermagui being fairly consistent over the past seasons. To get on these bites it’s important you learn to read the current charts such as and These will help to highlight the current movements and identify where the tuna should be. It’s also imperative you keep a close ear to the ground for reports from tackle stores and the like.

This is what a school of southern bluefin tuna looks like on the sounder screen.
Different Fishery

Unlike the west coast bluefin fishery which holds big numbers of school tuna in the 10-20kg size, the average fish on the east coast seems to be in the 30-60kg range. This is interesting as any Victorian tuna fisherman will know that it’s more uncommon to see a 50kg tuna on the west coast grounds than it is a 100kg bruiser. For some reason we don’t seem to see the big patches of these mid sized fish on the west coast.

Another notable difference on the east coast is what appears to be a lack of bait for the tuna. While I’m sure there’s plenty of food somewhere, it’s different to when the fish are in the west or down in Tasmania, where bait is so abundant it can often make it hard to get a bite. If there’s an upside to the lack of bait it’s definitely that when you find the fish, they’re generally keen to eat. It’s always exciting when you mark a fish or two on the sounder then look back at the lure spread to see it get creamed by one or several fish.

Unlike other offshore fishing where it can all become a bit of a secret squirrel affair as anglers try to keep the bite under wraps, the best thing you can do when you get an SBT bite is to get on the radio and let everyone know your exact location.
Some of you may now be thinking, “why the hell would you want to do this?”. The reason is pretty simple. The whole concept of relaying your position to other fishos is that with other boats coming in and starting a cube trail, the commotion and berley in the water will help to hold what could be a school of hundreds of tonnes of tuna in the area and keep them feeding. A single boat doing the same will usually struggle to hold the school. The guys who keep it to themselves generally end up getting just a couple of fish before the action dies.

Julian Coyne getting stretched on 15kg tackle while cubing – note all the boats in the background.
Boating Bits

It goes without saying that you need to ensure your boat and everything in it is up to scratch before heading big distances offshore chasing southern blues. Priority should be given to checking and then rechecking your safety gear, bilge pumps, marine radios and, of course, fuel. It’s also worth making sure that you have a fairly substantial tool kit with everything from socket sets to a fuel bulb and spare fuses – we blew a major fuse 90km offshore last year which saw us lose all electronics and the fly by wire throttle system shut down on the engine. That meant the motor was running but had no forward or reverse. With no radio to call anyone for help, you can take it from me that being in that sort of situation is not a good feeling … Thankfully, spare fuses saved the day.

The other bonus to having a decent tool kit and spare parts is that it can often help get fellow anglers going, which saves you from having to tow them back to shore. Even a good set of side cutters can save the day. On the same trip as mentioned above, I managed to put a hook through my palm. As we had the right tools we managed to get it out. Two days later a boat pulled up to us on a crazy bite after an angler onboard got himself attached to a popper. Knowing we had an incident a few days earlier they came to us as they knew we had cutters onboard.

Trolling multiple outfits definitely helps to get you in on the SBT action.
Tuna Tactics

Like all tuna, southern bluefin love to eat lures and also get stuck into a cube trail. Before heading offshore, we ensure there’s plenty of berley on board. We generally have about 15kg of berley for cubes, and a few kilos of good quality pilchards for baits. While the majority of the berley is frozen in the ice box, we do have a few kilos cut up in a bucket or container at the ready, along with a few good quality pilchards on top for baits. This is stored in a easily accessible spot. More on why later …

Once in the chosen area it’s a case of covering the water to find the schools of tuna. Keep in close radio contact with other boats so you can get to them quickly if they hook up. When it comes to lure spreads, we run five lures with an X-Rap 30 on the short corner – usually in the silver blue, red head or redbait pattern. Another minnow can be positioned on the long corner but I find SBT really love to eat the skirts, so this position generally sees an 8-10 inch skirt in the form of a Marlin Magic Baby Ruckus, JB Ripper or a Black Bart Cairns Prowler being deployed. These lures all have a strong swimming action and stand out in the prop wash. Colours are generally in the darker “stripey” patterns or a very bright Fishing Fever colour called “Toxic Yakka”.

Lee with a solid SBT taken during a hot bite off the East Coast.

Next up are the outriggers with three lure heads being true favourites. The first is the Marlin Magic Baby Hard Head. This guy is usually on the long ‘rigger in a lumo pattern, and has accounted for multiple big fish for us, including one we tagged at an estimated 120kg. If you are after a lumo variation I’m also a huge fan of a colour called “Dorado”.

Next is the Black Bart Pelagic Breakfast. Don’t let the diminutive size of this lure fool you – it gets nailed by big and small fish alike. The third choice is the JB small Dingo – this South Coast lure has a dynamite track record on tuna. When it comes to colours on the outriggers I like “evil”, blue and pink and often find it hard to go past a colour many call “Big Dog” – it’s a great sauri imitation with a solid track record on jumbo tuna. The fifth lure in the spread is the shotgun position, which is a definite tuna favourite. In this spot we generally have a bullet style lure like the Black Bart XXX, the Marlin Magic Baby and Infant Blue bullets.


When you get a bite, whether it’s a single or multiple hookup, the first thing to do is start cubing. In fact my mate Jules will often be throwing the cubes before the boat is stopped or he has even bothered picking up a screaming outfit. The idea of this is that the trail will usually help to not only bring the rest of the school up to the boat, but most importantly hold them there.

From that point it’s a matter of keeping the berley going into the water, and getting on the radio to relay your position. It’s worth starting your message by relaying your boat name, stating you are hooked up and have fish in the trail and that you will call out the marks in 20 seconds. This allows everyone to get ready for the numbers, otherwise you end up having to relay them over and over.

Interestingly a lot of the really big fish get taken on the troll. It’s when you start cubing that you tend to get the 30-60kg school fish. A good tactic if you’re after a monster is to pull away from the pack of boats and tuna and troll a 1-2km radius around the melee. The bigger fish will often be scouting the edges. We did just this last year while filming for Fishing Edge.
During a hot bite we’d caught enough fish on the cube and got the shots of other boats into the action so Jules said “let’s go get a monster”.

It may sound crazy that we left the bite but in no time the lures were in and we were working a large arc away from the main school. Half an hour later all hell broke loose when the Pelagic Breakfast on the outrigger got destroyed in a huge explosion. With the reel screaming I looked to the small JB Dingo on the long corner where I saw a massive fish come half out of the water as it ate the lure – we were on a pair of giants. Unfortunately that ended in tears with Jules having the leader wear through on his and mine pulling the hook after 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Down down, deeper and down – Lee hooked up to a solid bluefin motoring for deep water.
Gear of Choice

Tackle choices are really up to the angler, however, most people fish with 24 and 37kg gear and for good reason – there are plenty of big fish there and being able to put some hurt on them enables you to keep fight times down so you can get back to the action. Once on the patches of feeding fish it’s time to have some fun. Casting poppers and stickbaits or jigging with spin gear is an awesome way to enjoy the sporting characteristics of SBT.

Finally, it’s vital to realise that the SBT fishery is a slowly recovering resource. It’s up to us as anglers to look after it. Do yourself – and the fish – a favour and take only what you can ice down and realistically consume. New regs in NSW have seen a limit of one SBT per angler per day. That’s still a heap of fish if you’re out there with two mates and you each get a 50-60kg SBT. Not many trailer boats have the space to store 150kg of tuna on ice and not many of us can realistically eat that much fresh tuna. In this case the old adage of “limit your kill, don’t kill your limit” may well be worth considering …

A well known sportfisherman, Lee Rayner hosts the popular Fishing Edge TV show and runs the Melbourne-based Fishing Fever tackle shop.

Chad Rodgers with a solid tuna taken on spin tackle.

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