Tuna 101: A Primer for Voyaging Sailors

Bjorn Lee
Safety risks
Fishing from a moving sailboat presents safety risks, requiring gloves, shoes, and inflatable harnesses. Jayme Okma Lee gaffs a fish aboard.

I grew up spending my summers fishing the waters of Lake Huron. When my family and I moved onto Sargo, our 46-foot Garcia Passoa, I had plenty of enthusiasm for fishing, but close to no actual saltwater fishing skills. Over the past 12 months, I have taken every opportunity to talk to (interrogate) experienced saltwater fishermen. I’ve also learned from many mistakes. As we have caught more fish, my enthusiasm for fishing has gradually spread to the entire Sargo crew. Aboard a cruising sailboat, catching and landing fish takes a full team effort. On our recent passage from the U.S. Virgin Islands to St. Augustine, Fla., we landed five tuna and two mahi-mahi. For sailors who would like to catch more fish, here are some basic tips to catch, land and eat fresh tuna while voyaging!

You don’t need a lot of fancy, expensive gear to be a successful voyaging fisherman. Our “go-to” tuna lure is the basic cedar plug. You can find these in the fishing section of nearly any saltwater fishing store. I like the ones that come rigged with a heavy-duty monofilament leader. They don’t look like much, but I’ve been told their spiraling action mimics a distressed or injured baitfish. Whatever the reason, they do seem to catch fish!

We typically fish two lines while under way. The first is a 100-foot handline of 200-pound line with a shock-absorbing bungee cord attached. The second is on a short fishing rod with at least 30- to 50-pound line that we send “way back” at least 100 yards behind the boat. Once you have your gear in the water, make sure to check it frequently for weeds. Sometimes it seems like we have to clear weeds on a near-constant basis.

Finding tuna
Even with the right gear, you’re not going to catch any fish if there are none to catch. The best and simplest piece of advice I have received was from my friend Kevin Ferrie of @FearKnot_Fishing. Kevin and his family are the most successful voyaging fishermen I’ve ever met. Kevin’s advice to cruisers is to “fish where the fish are.” Although we typically don’t alter our course significantly to increase our chances of catching fish, we definitely follow Kevin’s advice. Routing is sometimes a point of contention aboard Sargo. Our kids, Alice and Toren, favor the shortest, quickest route; my husband Bjorn favors the best sailing route and I favor the optimal fishing route.

Wherever you sail, the following signs are helpful to increase the odds of finding fish. First, keep a lookout for feeding birds; we’ve caught the most tuna when we spot birds feeding and alter course slightly to pass near the birds. Second, look for drastic changes in water depth, such as a sharp drop-off or a seamount. We are pretty tired of catching barracuda, so we don’t typically put out fishing lines until we are “off soundings” in more than 200 feet of water. According to Kevin, a great speed through the water for sailboat trolling is between 6 and 8 knots. This has held true for us, with no tuna caught below 6 knots.

Getting the tuna on board
Luckily, we’ve found tuna to be one of the easiest fish to reel in and get aboard Sargo. Most times they are relatively small like the tuna pictured in this article. With these smaller tuna, you shouldn’t have any trouble pulling the fish on board by grabbing the leader ahead of the lure. Slowing your boat speed down to 4 knots or less, wearing gloves, tethering yourself to the boat, taking care not to get tangled in the handline slack, and bringing in all other fishing line will increase your chances of safely landing the fish. We have a hand gaff aboard Sargo and use it from time to time. We’ve found it most helpful once the fish is on deck in order to better secure it from flopping overboard. Every boat’s transom type, dinghy davit systems and various cruising gear present their own challenges. Bring the fish in quickly to an area where you have room to work.

Killing and bleeding the tuna
Best be prepared, tuna can certainly make a mess of your cockpit. The first thing we do is secure the fish by either putting a foot on it, or better yet, putting a gaff through the gills and out the mouth. There is nothing worse than watching your tuna flop back overboard. Next, remove the hook from the fish. Once the chaos has subsided somewhat, we then squirt vodka over the gills to quickly sedate and often kill the fish. It’s important to bleed tuna in order to preserve the meat quality. To do this, make small incisions perpendicular to the length of the fish at the rear bases of the pectoral fins to sever the main arteries. With a good hold on the tail, trail the fish behind the boat for a few minutes, or dunk it up and down headfirst in a bucket of saltwater.

Identifying your tuna
It’s pretty easy to misidentify tuna. There are some species that look a lot like tuna, such as Bonito and false albacore (also known as Little Tunny). I made this mistake with some Little Tunny that we caught in a Gulf Stream eddy off the coast of South Carolina. There’s nothing wrong with eating these other fish, but once you catch and eat your first true tuna, you’ll taste the difference! On our voyages between Maine and the U.S. Virgin Islands, we have encountered mostly yellowfin, blackfin and skipjack tuna.

Cleaning, filleting and storing
Since we don’t have the luxury of a cooler full of ice, we usually clean and fillet our fish right away. You’ll want a good-sized cutting surface, a sharp fillet knife and a sharpening stone. If you haven’t cleaned many fish before, it would help to watch a few videos. The goal in cleaning a typical size tuna is to cut away four individual loins — each about the size and shape of a pork tenderloin. Each side of the tuna has two loins separated lengthwise by the bones coming off the spine and the dark bloodline. There are endless ways of loining a tuna. We like to remove the head and guts first, leaving just the body of the tuna from which the four loins will be cut. Work on one side and remove the two loins on that side by cutting down along the spine. Remove the skin, then cut between the loins to remove the bones and the dark red meat known as the bloodline. You should now have two of the four loins. Sharpen your knife and tackle the other side.

One tuna of average size can feed our family of four for about two meals. Even if you’re going to eat the tuna that day, I would place the loins in the coldest part of your refrigerator or in your freezer to cool down the meat. It’s best to do this immediately after loining. This improves the quality of the meat. If you plan on freezing the tuna, it is beneficial to have a vacuum sealer on board. This decreases freezer burn.

We enjoy tuna in many forms, including sushi, sashimi, poke, homemade tuna salad, tuna puttanesca with pasta, or simply seasoned and seared. Sargo’s crew prefers tuna poke! For an easy and versatile tuna poke, see attached recipe.

Our saltwater fishing skills have improved with experience, helpful friends and focus. Keep at it and don’t get discouraged; remember, it’s called fishing — not catching — for a reason. n

Jayme Okma Lee lives aboard with her husband Bjorn, daughter Alice and son Toren. Their website is www.sailingsargo.com

By Ocean Navigator