by George Poveromo

When blackfin tuna show on the fabled Islamorada Hump in the Florida Keys, there’s no faster way to get their attention than by chumming with live pilchards.

Broadcasting hookless live baits over The Hump draws these tuna up from the deep.  And when those explosive feeding frenzies occur at the surface as the live chum is chased down and devoured, that’s the time to freeline a hook bait back to the party.

Brian Cone is one of Islamorada’s most popular light tackle guides.  He runs the 33-foot charter boat Contagious from Robbie’s Marina. Brian majored in biology and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from Southern College.  His education and passion for fishing give him an edge when it comes to understanding and targeting game fish.

On this trip, he and I loaded the live well of my Mako 284 center console - MARC VI - with hundreds of live pilchards, racked several 12- and 20-pound class spinning outfits and cruised some 15 miles from Robbie’s Marina to the famous Islamorada Hump.

WHAT’S THE HUMP? – The Islamorada Hump isn’t a dance tune by Chubby Checker, nor is the Bimini Twist, for that matter, as some still believe.  Rather, it’s a large sea mount that rises to nearly 200-feet of the surface from a surrounding depth ranging from 500 to over 700 feet.  Situated some 15 miles offshore of Islamorada, and often smack in the path of the Gulf Stream, The Hump is rich with bait and game fish. Think of it as an offshore restaurant.

The “life” around The Hump is the result of upwellings created by currents that wash over and against this mammoth, submerged mountain.  These nutrient rich upwellings sustain small organisms that, in turn, feed smaller fishes.  And these smaller fishes serve as forage for larger predator fish, such as dolphin, tuna, wahoo, sailfish, marlin and sharks.  The Hump offers a lot of good fishing opportunities, but arguably none better than for blackfin tuna.

TIME FOR TUNA -  Blackfins appear around The Hump during the spring, and again in September and October.  The larger fish run during the fall, and those were the ones I came down here for.  Blackfin tuna are one of the most sought after game fish in the Florida Keys.  When hooked, they run long and fast.  They’ll eventually sound and turn the fight into a give and take slugfest.  They’re an outstanding light tackle game fish.  What’s more, they’re excellent table fare, whether served as sushi or grilled.

THE LURE OF LIVE BAIT -   While most other boats would likely be trolling small feathers and lures for the blackfins – and catching small fish, Brian and I planned on coaxing the big ones.  Our plan was to get up on the backside of The Hump (northeast side) in around 250 feet of water, and start live chumming.  We’d accomplish this by tossing out a dip net full of live pilchards every five minutes or so.  We’d drift with the current and go off the edge, into 500 feet of water.   At that point, we’d run back onto the edge and repeat the tactic.

We were marking blackfins 180 feet deep.  As anticipated, the live chum brought the tuna to the surface.  We watched excitedly as our live chum (pilchards) scattered in various directions, dogged by wolf packs of big blackfins.  The ocean behind our boat erupted into pockets of whitewater, from the blackfins massacring the pilchards. The chum pilchards were being punted into the air like footballs by the tuna, only to be devoured the second they hit the water.  Many a tuna skyrocketed at least ten feet from the water during their high speed attacks.  It was a wild show, to say the least!  

YOU STILL HAVE TO FOOL THEM -  Like all tuna, blackfins have keen eyesight.  Add in the clear blue water flowing over the Islamorada Hump, and a low visibility fluorocarbon leader becomes a huge advantage. We rigged with three feet of 30-pound test Sufix InvisiLine Fluorocarbon and a 6/0 VMC Tournament circle hook.  A Bristol knot joined the fluorocarbon leader to the short Bimini Twist in the fishing line.

To keep the fight sporting, yet with enough backbone in reserve to beat a tuna fairly quickly and lessen its exposure to sharks, we used 7-foot Penn spinning rods rated for 30-pound class line and Penn 750 and 850 Spinfisher SSm reels spooled with 20-pound test, Smoke Blue, Sufix Superior line.

I hooked my pilchards through their nostrils and freelined them out with a dip net full of live ones we’d broadcast for chum.  To force his baits to swim deep, Brian ran the hook under their throats.   As long as we freelined our hook baits with the pilchards we dispatched as live chum - and let them swim with no resistance, we’d hookup when the blackfins rose to feed.

Brian and I had a blast catching one tuna right after another.  The only limiting factor was our live chum.  After we finally ran out, the show was over.  The blackfins retreated into the depths.  But that was OK.  Brian and I caught and released plenty of fish, and got back to the marina a little after 1:00 p.m.

WHERE IT ALL HAPPENS -   Islamorada has long been dubbed the Sportfishing Capital of the World – and for good reason.  The Atlantic side reefs offer some of the best yellowtail snapper fishing in the Keys, along with good runs of mutton snapper and grouper.  Kingfish, mackerel, sailfish, wahoo, dolphin, marlin and swordfish round up the offshore game fish.  For the inshore angler, the local flats teem with some of the largest bonefish anywhere.  There’s also permit, tarpon and barracuda. Trout, snook and redfish join the list in the backcountry.

We stayed at the Islander Oceanfront Resort and Hotel.  This vintage 1950s style facility is situated on 25 acres and features a fresh water pool and a coral sand beach.  It also has plenty of space to park your boat trailer.  We kept the MARC VI at Robbie’s Marina, where we were greeted by hundreds of hungry tarpon when we docked.

There are numerous resorts and restaurants in Islamorada, and no shortages of things to do.  Points of interest include the Theater of the Sea, and Bass Pro Shop’s World Wide Sportsman. The famous Islamorada Fish Company Restaurant, owned by and adjacent to World Wide Sportsman, serves up some of the freshest local seafood in town, whereas Ziggy’s and Mad Dog’s serves up some of the finest cuisine you’ll find anywhere.  They’re all a must for the visiting angler.

The impact of just how effective live-chumming can be was evident on the Islamorada Hump that day.  While several boats trolled and caught a small tuna here and there, Brian Cone and I had schools of fish feeding recklessly behind the MARC VI.  It was like we were fishing in a totally different ocean.  But then again, that’s usually what happens when you’re at a place they call the Sportfishing Capital of the World, and bring the right tactic to the party!