Top dogs of the tropics
One species that is on the bucket list of any serious jigging and popping enthusiast is the fearsome-looking dogtooth tuna. This tropical gamefish only occurs in specific locations, making it an exotic and sought-after species.
Its scientific name is Gymnosarda unicolor, making it more closely related to the true bonitos than the rest of the tuna family. This extreme predator lives around reef drop-offs on the edges of tropical atolls, where it patrols in search of any unwary smaller fish species, which it will attack with spectacular aggression.
These fish put more strain on fishing tackle than any other species. This is due to a combination of reasons. Firstly, they are big and very powerful and, secondly, they need to be stopped quickly, putting massive pressure on your tackle. For this reason, when targeting this species it is advisable to use the very best tackle that you can get your hands on – everything, from hooks, split rings, line and leader to rod and reel, is going to be tested to the maximum.
Fishing for dogtooth tuna is not for the fainthearted. It involves a lot of hard work, usually in conditions of extreme heat and humidity, which takes its toll on the angler. Hooking a dogtooth tuna is one of the most exciting things that can happen to a fisherman.
These fish scream off on a long, hard run, which is impressive considering how tight the drag is set when targeting this species. The reason for this is that a dogtooth tuna needs to be stopped before it can reach structure, or it will almost certainly cut the line. More often than not, this is the end result when a big doggie is hooked, as it is virtually impossible to control the fish for the first minute or two of the fight when it is fresh and in full flight mode.
Dogtooth tuna can be caught using a variety of methods. Slow trolling, or drifting with live bait is one method. Trolling Konas or big stickbaits along drop-offs is another. The most common method used to target this species is deep vertical jigging from a drifting boat over drop-offs where they occur.
By far the most exciting and adrenalin-inducing technique, however, is to target these giants with surface lures. They can be enticed into smashing both poppers and stickbaits when these lures are worked correctly. There is nothing quite like seeing a huge torpedo-shaped fish homing in on a surface lure in clear blue water and knowing that all hell is about to break loose!
When fishing for dogtooth tuna with topwater lures, it is generally ideal to have at least one angler working a large, cup-faced popper, while another casts a stickbait. The big splashes and loud bloops of the popper often attract the fish up from the depths to a range from which it can pick up the more subtle action of the stickbait. While a good number of doggies will actually hit the popper, I have found that they are far more likely to attack a stickbait worked more slowly nearby.
Another tip is to crank the stickbait really fast for about twenty metres after it lands so that it dances and skitters along the surface for a while, making it easier for it to get the fish’s attention. Then slow it right down and retrieve
it with twitches and pulls with long pauses in between. Most strikes from dogtooth tuna come while the lure is lying still on the surface.
When casting a popper for dogtooth tuna, if you see a fish following the popper, then it is best to stop the retrieve and allow the popper to just float on the surface. Now if you do that for a GT, the fish will lose interest and swim away, but a doggie is another animal. The doggie will often go down deeper a bit, then come back up to take another look at the popper.
At this point you either just leave it lying still, or give it the smallest twitch, just enough to make some ripples, and the doggie will often hurtle at the popper and smash it while it is lying absolutely still.
The same goes for a stickbait: when you see a doggie showing interest in the lure, then you must stop retrieving it. The lure sometimes lies there for a full minute before the smash comes, so you need to be patient. This is something that is kind of hard to get your head around when you have been fishing for GTs in the past and have learnt never to let the lure stop – but it works!
Setting the hooks on a dogtooth tuna that has hit a topwater lure is not always a given. Many times a fish will hit the lure and have it firmly in its mouth, and you can see that most of the lure is right inside when you strike. The fish will swim a couple of metres and then spit the lure out with disdain.
The reason for this is probably due to the large peg-shaped teeth that grace the mouth of a dogtooth tuna. These teeth, while not cutting teeth, nevertheless have very sharp points, which dig in to the lure and give the fish a powerful grip. When you strike, you are trying to get the lure to slide through the teeth in order for the hooks to find purchase in the fish’s jaw.
The answer is to strike a number of times firmly, and hope that you get it right. There will always be some that get away. Using very large hooks also helps get a better hook set.
When it comes to vertical jigging for dogtooth tuna, I have found that a similar technique pays dividends. Obviously you cannot see down there, so will not know that a doggie is showing interest in, or following your jig. The trick is to assume that this is the case and stop the retrieve about halfway up or so. I let the jig hang still for a few seconds, then give it a few erratic jiggles, before whipping it back up again. Many times, the strike comes just as I move the jig again after letting it pause for a couple of seconds.
Most dogtooth tuna are caught very close to a substantial drop-off, where the current is pushing from the deep against the ledge and creating an upwelling.
This means that your drift is from deep to shallow, whether jigging or popping.
The first thing a doggie will do once hooked is head for deeper water, so it is advisable to have your plan of action in place and previously discussed with your skipper.
As soon as a good fish is hooked, the boat must be started and the skipper must head for the deeper water, regardless of what the other anglers on the boat are doing. They can retrieve their lines later. Getting the boat onto the deep side of the drop-off reduces the chances of the line touching the reef edge as the fish dives over, heading down into the abyss. Once you are on the deep side of the fish, you can apply maximum pressure and hopefully keep the fish away from any structure where it is likely to cut you off.
After the first couple of runs, the fight will settle down into a tough, deep slugging match. The fish will be stubborn and fight with a distinctive nodding action on the rod. When the fish is landed, particularly if it was hooked on a jig, it will very often be bloated, as this species, curiously, suffers from barotrauma. It is a good idea to be prepared before fishing, by rigging a dedicated rod up with a heavy weight attached to an upside-down, barbless hook. This can be used to help the fish get down to a depth where the gasses
in its swim bladder are again compressed and the fish can swim away.
Dogtooth tuna are not plentiful, so we need to look after every one of them. They are resident in specific areas, and are easily over-exploited. For this reason, care must be taken with each and every fish in order to ensure its survival. If you are fortunate enough to land one of these spectacular fish, the least you can do is guarantee that it has the very best chance of coming away from the experience in good shape. Handle it carefully, get your pictures and then assist it to get back down to the depths from where it came.
For more information or to book trips specifically targeting this incredible species, contact Brad Cartwright at Wildfly Travel on 033 266 6966.
Craig Thomassen is the presenter of Inside Angling, which can beseen on Supersport 6 on Monday nights at 7pm.