If you’ve never been yellowfin tuna fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, then you need to make room on your bucket list. Watching these sickle-finned giants crash through the waves to blast schools of bait is one of the most exciting scenes in saltwater fishing. They make blistering runs and bend broomstick rods with ease. Plus, they are some of the best-eating fish you can target.

Also known as ahi tuna, Atlantic yellowfin tuna can grow up to 400 pounds and have a lifespan of about seven years. True to their name, yellowfin tuna have bright yellow dorsal and anal fins with dark blue coloring on the back and upper sides that transitions into a silver belly. The yellowfin tuna population is stable, and these fish are one of the most popular game species for saltwater anglers.

What makes ahi tuna so appealing is their aggressive nature, brute strength, and willingness to eat baits on the surface. And while you can target this species in many areas, the Gulf of Mexico is one of the best places to have a yellowfin adventure in the U.S. Here is everything you need to know for a successful yellowfin tuna fishing experience. 

yellowfin tuna fishing
A good-sized yellowfin tuna caught in the Gulf of Mexico. David A. Brown

Where to Look 

Yellowfins can usually be found in schools and burn a lot of calories through their life of constant motion. They define gluttony. You’ll find them prospecting weed lines and current rips where baitfish often gather, but in the northern Gulf of Mexico, you won’t find a more consistent tuna center than the offshore gas and oil platforms dotting the Mississippi Delta region.   

These unnatural structures miles out into the Gulf create concentrated ecosystems that include a wide variety of forage species. Rigs, as they’re known, consistently hold schools of blue runners, bluefish, and other baitfish. From stationary structures standing atop large frames fitted to the sea floor to the “floaters” anchored in deep water, these food factories impose a broad-reaching influence. As a result, it is common to find tuna feeding within a couple hundred yards of the visible structure. The Delta Region hosts the most consistent action, with Port Fourchon (west of the Delta) and Venice (the southernmost Delta port) offering convenient launch facilities and charter fleets. 

yellowfin tuna fishing next to oil rig
Yellowfin tuna often congregate around oil rigs to feed on large schools of bait. David A. Brown

When to Fish for Yellowfin Tuna

Yellowfin are available in different forms year-round, but weather often dictates the ability to pursue these fish. The fall and winter usually find the fish moving closer to the Delta, as low river flow allows the clean Gulf water to move closer to shore. Cold fronts all but guarantee sporty seas, with some days simply undoable. 

Spring ushers in more stable weather patterns. However, the Mississippi River flow generally intensifies with rains and northern snow melt. This results in high river plume pushing into the Gulf and nudging the tuna farther offshore, where salinity levels remain favorable for predators and forage. Summer typically offers an appealing balance of relatively calm conditions and fish abundance. This makes it easier to reach the deep water rigs, but keep watch for the Delta’s infamous pop-up storms. Isolated pockets of potentially severe thunderstorm activity can block your return trip or create unpleasant running conditions. 

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Yellowfin Tuna Fishing: Tips and Tactics

Chunk fishing with menhaden, blue runners, mullet, or ladyfish works for the smaller blackfin tuna and yellowfin in the 30 to 50-pound range, but slow trolling live bait tends to deliver bigger bites. Keep the speed down to about a knot, just fast enough to pull the lines straight and keep from washing out your baits. When the fish are up and aggressive, a spread of live bait will keep them high in the water column. If you see big marks on your graph, but the fish won’t rise, chumming with chunks of cut bait and dropping a couple of weighted rigs usually does the trick.  

For giant ahi, troll live mullet, menhaden, croakers, blue runners, or white trout. Blue runners are readily available around most rigs and easily gathered with sabiki rigs. No need to tip the hooks with squid or shrimp, but get your baits aboard quickly, as opportunistic king mackerel and barracuda love helping themselves to an easy meal. Lively baits get the most attention, so maintain your runners’ stamina by removing them with a hook-out tool. Drop ‘em straight into the live well, and they’ll be ready for duty on the tuna troll. 

blue runner bait for yellowfin tuna fishing
Fresh blue runners are some of the best yellowfin bait. David A. Brown

Tackle Up

A good template for tuna trolling tackle includes short, stout standup rods (5 1/2 to 6 feet) with 2-speed lever drag reels carrying 80-pound braid backing to 250 feet of 80-pound monofilament top shot and an 80-pound fluorocarbon wind-on leader snelled to a 7/0 circle hook. 

Artificial Intelligence

While trolling cedar plugs, jet heads, and rigged ballyhoo is more of a small tuna deal in the northern Gulf, large poppers and swimbaits rigged on stout spinning gear with braided line and fluoro leaders enable you to capitalize on breaking fish of all sizes—even the jumbos. You’ll often spot yellowfin airing it out ahead of the boat, so take a shot at them before the boat pushes them down in the water column. 

Battle Plan

Even with relatively modest yellowfins, a disciplined technique always outperforms macho attempts at horsing these fish. Maintain a consistent cadence, use your legs, not your back, and remember to hydrate. Smooth, measured strokes are the key to incrementally gaining line and working the fish to the boat. Once a tuna is nearly spent, the fish will settle into the “death spiral.” Use this to your advantage by steadily guiding the tuna higher in the water column on the outer pass and then reeling back down to gain line when the fish passes close to the boat. Stay ready for last-leg surges, but once the fish starts circling, the fight is done. 

A fighting belt helps the process by anchoring the rod butt and increasing control and leverage. For big tuna, a back brace with straps that clip to the reel maximizes your lean-back leverage while also allowing you to rest your arms without yielding pressure on the fish. 

Fight the good fight, and your efforts will be rewarded with one of the Gulf’s most prized table fare. Seared, grilled, broiled, or served raw (sashimi, sushi roll, poke bowl), a yellowfin tuna meal is not easily forgotten. But your sore muscles will help preserve the memory, too.