Rigging for tuna will always be one part personal preference and one part current trends.  For anyone new to the game, or (like me) who has been tuna fishing for years and wants stay current and keep it interesting, you may want to consider a more “freestyle” approach to what you are doing.  If you are tired of heavy and bulky 50 class standup outfits then a switch to some modern lightweight gear could be the answer to bringing more of the “game” back into your tuna fishing.

If you surf around social media and forums these days you can find many discussions around the topic of what type of rod and reel setups are best for tuna (let’s assume a maximum of up to 200# class).  Often the discussion may be a “new to tuna fishing” thread asking about tackle. These discussions have become some of the most interesting to read because there has never been more contrast among fishermen on what is “best” for tuna than there is today.  Scroll down a thread and you are likely to find the old salt that always says “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight” or “that’s all well and good until a 600# marlin vapes your line in 60 seconds”. Right next to those comments are the guys that say “light and powerful modern rigs are the way to go”.  It’s safe to say, based on the title of this feature, that I am one of the latter. While there is no right or wrong when it comes to gear offshore let’s consider going freestyle.

If you have been fishing offshore long enough you have seen it all from Senators (what I fished with my father) to single speed Internationals, to modern 2 speed narrow and wide configurations.  All of this modernization has come with increased drag capacities and opened up stand up fishing to larger and larger pelagics. But with the advancements in technology came constant increases in weight.  Most average anglers with a modern 50 wide, a belt and no harness will tire quickly on an 80-100# tuna. In my opinion a harness should not be required on an 80-100 class fish. On my boat I have seen time and time again a guy battle a nice fish only to be completely gassed with the fish 50’ from the boat. Unable to finish, he has to pass the rod off to a fresh body. Of course there is always the option of a harness, and that is ultimately necessary with this class of tackle on larger fish, but my experience has always been that guys don’t like to harness up if they don’t have to.

Enter the increased popularity of jigging for tuna in the last decade and a half with its accompanied advancements in rod and reel design.  All of the sudden we were out there fighting 100# fish on short rods without a harness saying to ourselves “man, this is epic”. Those of you that have done it regularly know that a tuna hates nothing more than the bend and lockdown of a short jigging rod.  It’s the easiest way available to turn the head of a fish (provided the reel used can produce the drag) and shorten the duration of the fight. Make no mistake about it – today the advancements in jigging rod blanks like the Saltywater OBX, Black Hole Cape Cod Specials, MC Works and more are landing GBFT to 90+” on stand up both in PEI and OBX.  So it hasn’t taken long for anglers to make the connection that if this gear is so functional and light why not just get rid of all of the heavy trolling gear and get into the lightweight freestyle game offshore???

My first introduction to this entire concept came from a discussion with Ralph Craft at Crafty One Customs in Rhode Island.  I was directed to Ralph by Captain Louis DeFusco (Hot Reels Sportfishing) as “the man” to build deep drop swordfish rods. I was shocked to find out that he recommended my rod be built up on a jigging blank.  I trusted him completely and when I received my rod it just blew my mind. I told him “dude, this thing is incredible, why not just troll with these blanks??” His response was “guys already are – you can do anything with them”.  I knew what a jig blank could do to a fish from years of working my way up from my first Shimano Trevala to modern high-end jig rods today. I also knew plenty of guys that went lighter by swapping over to Talica 25 two speeds as they gained popularity after their release in 2010.  So I was already interested in going lighter years ago but had no idea that guys were using completely different style blanks offshore. It all started to come together as sort of an epiphany – no more heavy 50s, no more 30s, no more heavy rods, no more full roller rods, etc…everything super light and incredibly powerful.  Rods pushed to over 25kg of drag without breaking that function beautifully at 22-30# of drag (note: we have found that 24-26# drag is the reasonable max for most guys freestyling) combined with ultra light high drag output reels capable of holding 600-700 yards of HC backing. And today if you walk into a modern tackle shop you will find someone that knows guys that pull jig blanks with high capacity lightweight high drag reels offshore.    

The table below is a comparison of popular 50 class, 30 class, and modern high capacity lightweight reels ranked in descending order by weight – which is the major factor in consider a move to a more freestyle approach.  

Shimano Tiagra 50WLRSA 1235/100 44 86 $699.99
AVET EXW 50 1400/130 57 67 $599.00
Penn 50 VISWS 1505/130 45 67 $699.95
Okuma Makaira 50WIISEa not published 85 65 $649.99
Shimano Tiagra 30WLRSA 865/100 34 56 $599.99
Penn 30 VISWS 1220/100 30 56 $649.95
Okuma Makaira 30WIISEa not published 55 50 $579.99
AVET EXW 30 1000/100 40 49 $469.00
Shimano Talica 25II 730/80 45 33 $649.99
Avet HXW Raptor2 750/100 50 32 $512.99
Accurate BV2 1000 1000/100 40 29 $699.95

NOTE: This is by no means a complete list of what is available and is solely for comparison.  For example a Penn 20VISX is 51oz, the Okuma Makaira 16SEa is 46oz and the Penn 16VSXS is 41oz .  All are viable lighter weight options that are very capable.  These particular examples were left off the list because they were 18, 13, and 8 ounces heavier heavier than a Talica 25 respectively.  The Penn 2 speed 16 VSXS is absolutely a viable contender in the lightweight offshore game!!!


OPTION #1:  If you want to go “somewhat” lighter but would like to stay with traditional trolling style gear then consider downsizing to modern 30 wide reels (Avet EXW 30 being one of the lightest and most cost effective) and combine them with lightweight blanks like a Calstar 6460XH (mini-boomer) or a Phenix Hybrid.  You will achieve a lighter weight but can still build them up with full roller guides and aluminum butts if desired. NOTE: This can also be done with E Glass blanks for less money but the performance is going to drop when compared to Graphite Composite or Carbon Fiber. Some of you may remember the old G-Loomis IGFA 50 Hybrids from back in the day that were discontinued.  I had a pair of these with Avet EXW 30s for years and they were hands down everyone’s favorite rigs on my boat. Why? Light, great bend, and powerful!!!  Also, while some may consider this type of setup “lightweight” one of these would still feel downright heavy compared to the setups discussed in option #3.

OPTION #2:  Using the same rod options as #1 simply drop down to one of the ultralight reels on the list.  This has become a VERY common rig for many tuna fishermen in the Northeast. The Talica 25II on a Calstar 6460 is probably one of the most common modern lightweight rigs going at the moment and it can stop pretty much anything out there within reason.  With the release of the Accurate BV2 1000 you can actually approach 50 class line capacity at more than ½ the overall weight savings and dismiss all of the line capacity naysayers in one shot.

OPTION #3:  Go ultralight!!!  Pair one of the ultralight reels with a one or two piece lightweight jigging rod (that has a gimbal base for the rod holders or in case you do need a harness) and use them for everything!!!  In one purchase you can, in theory, have trolling, jigging, live bait, and chunk rigs all in one that will shave close to ½ the weight of option #1. My personal setups are Avet HXW Raptors backed with 650yds of 100# HC braid topped with 100yds of smoke blue monofilament (very full).  These are paired with Black Hole Cape Cod Special 350g and 450g blanks. They will put a hurting on an inexperienced angler for sure but if you know how to fight a tuna they are just magical. For you car guys think of option #1 as managing a CTS V around a road course and option #3 being a 911 GT3. 

Rods to consider for this game would be as follows:

  • Entry level: Okuma Makaira 601XH, Shimano Trevala 58XH, or comparable
  • Mid tier: Black Hole Cape Cod Special 350g or 450g, Phenix MPX569C, or comparable
  • High end:  Saltywater Outer Banks 400g or comparable.  

This is just a quick guideline if you start doing some research as there are MANY options to choose from quality manufacturers.  The nice thing for us, as stated previously, is  these are also incredible jig setups as well as excellent chunk/live bait rigs.  Also, a very viable option to consider would be a hybrid of option #2 and #3 with a custom rod from someone like Crafty One that has experience building up jig blanks in these applications.  This would be a bit heavier but allow for an aluminum butt or roller tips if desired.  Lastly, Black Hole does offer a “trolling series” that is built up on Cape Cod Jig Blanks with full rollers and an aluminum butt which offers one of the only non-custom options in this type of trolling rod design that I am aware of.

PHOTO RIGHT:  The authors Cape Cod Special 350g Rod and HXW Raptor at 24# true drag pressure.  When fighting tuna in this style it allows the angler the ability to lower the rod tip closer to the water and generate tremendous lifting power on the fish which is not as easily accomplished in a harness with heavier gear.

Trolling with lightweight modern jig blanks does require a little more finesse in terms of setting up your drags before a trip and setting out lines.  As discussed previously there is an obvious line capacity issue if you have a way back line set out and a sea monster decides to have a go. If you have your strike drag preset to 18 or 20 pounds you may be saying goodbye or have to risk tying it off the rig and sending it deep which is never favorable.  Even in this case you are going to get down to the spool and have to hope your arbor knot is going to be up to the task as well as whatever system you use to tie off the rig in that scenario. We choose to avoid this as much as possible by setting our presets high – sometimes as high as 28# if we are targeting a bit bigger fish on the troll.  Doing this has proved successful for us but it requires having a good feel for around 16# by hand so we can set the strike drags while trolling (if you are unfamiliar with this concept simply set your drags to 16# with a scale and then practice feeling what it’s like to strip a little line off that by hand while its in a rod holder – or put a small piece of tape even with 16# on the lever so you know where to set the drag when trolling).  We, like most, prefer to stay in gear and hope for other bites after a strike and then if nothing else takes a swing we notch it down to 2-3 knots to clear lines. All of this forward motion with a big fish running in the other direction is an issue with an HWX Raptor or Talica 25II (less with the BV2 1000). The only reasonable solution is drag. We have found the lever drag to be so reliable and adjustable on the HWX Raptors during a battle that we are able to put the pins on a fish during the initial run and then dial it back to find the magic spot depending on the angler’s preferences and ability.

If you are like me and get little pleasure out of stand-up fishing with heavy, bulky gear I invite you to consider switching up your offshore game to a more “freestyle” oriented approach and hope I have given you some food for thought.  Today we almost always leave the belts and harnesses in the bag in favor of having a handful of Cush-Its on board ready to go. We favor lighter weight and opt for lifting power over heavier weight with larger spool diameters and cranking power.  Ultimately, there is NO right answer when it comes to what is best out there as I have plenty of friends that pull all 50 class gear and catch way more fish than I do as well as friends that use any one of the lighter options listed above with great success.  I use this type of gear on my boat because it provides me the most enjoyable way to fight tuna and, in the end, that’s what this article is all about. Do some research and find which option will provide the most enjoyment for your fishing style. Tight Lines!!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Captain Doug Phillips is on the staff at OpenBow.Org and runs Openbow Charters on his North Rip 30 out of Barnegat Inlet New Jersey.  He is a Sterling Tackle Pro Staff Member and has been published in On The Water Magazine.