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January 03, 2012

Flight of the Yellowfin

Anglers ply mid-Atlantic waters for schools of yellowfin tuna

Of all the fish that swim off the mid-Atlantic, yellowfin tuna can be the most fun to catch. These fish feed in packs, and encounters usually result in chaotic action with multiple hookups. Rigger clips pop, lines come tight, rods bend over, drags smoke — there’s nothing like a tuna whammy.

Last spring, big schools of small yellowfin appeared off Virginia Beach, Virginia, and then through the summer, the bite spread up the coast to South Jersey. But it was all a preamble to the real show last fall, when yellowfin tuna converged off Oregon Inlet, North Carolina.

Tuna-Fish Sandwich
Last October, schools of yellowfin tuna hit the waters off Oregon Inlet like an invading horde. Almost overnight, boats went from fishing for white marlin to filling the box with yellowfin.

“The tuna bite is on,” Capt. Jeff Ross told me over the phone. “Come on down.”

The next day, I was standing beside Ross on the flybridge of Obsession, his 55-foot Sheldon Midgett, as we watched almost a dozen Sea Witch lures skitter along the surface behind the boat.

Just after the water temperature gauge on the console hit 75 degrees, there was an explosion on one of the flat lines. Then another blew up behind the right long-rigger bait. Ross and mate Walt Ogden started jigging. “They’re here!” Ross announced to the crew, laughing. “Let’s not screw this up!” With four lines going in four different directions, there was potential for a major mess.

Ross choreographed Ogden’s moves as he danced around the cockpit uncrossing lines. When they couldn’t figure out how the lines were twisted, Ogden would instruct the anglers to hold their rod tips together so he could get a better angle on the lines.

“I got color,” one of the anglers said as his fish came to the surface. Ogden put the anglers in a holding pattern while he gaffed and landed one tuna after another. After all fish were in the boat, Ogden went back to work resetting the baits and Ross put the boat in a circle to make another pass over the same spot.
We were fishing a small finger of slightly warmer water that seemed to be holding the bait and the fish. With no color change or current edge to guide his search, Ross constantly kept an eye on the water temperature. He also worked in conjunction with other boats to make a mental map of the temperature breaks, noting where the warmer water was and what direction it was moving.

Ross explained that the key to catching yellowfin is finding the right temperature over the structure. Yellowfin will congregate wherever 68- to 76-degree water crosses the continental shelf. But sometimes the fish will favor 75.4-degree water over 74.5-degree — the slightest variance can make all the difference. Once he finds the right water, he looks for drops, ridges and plateaus to hold fish.

Then he trolls at 6 to 7 knots, running as many lines as possible, pulling Ilanders on one flat line and one short rigger, and Sea Witches everywhere else.
When the fish are holding deep, he replaces one flat line with a heavy rod spooled with braided line pulling a No. 12 planer and a Sea Witch. Ross doesn’t slow the boat until he’s fooled several fish. After one line’s down, everyone springs into action, jigging lines to encourage more bites.

Which is exactly what we did. While the bite was off slightly, after a few more singles and whammies, we had a nice catch in the box. “We got a mess of fish, and you guys had a great time,” Ross said at the end of the day. “What more could you ask for?”

What more could any angler ask for?

Kite Fliers
The first signs of yellowfin in early spring came when boats returned to Virginia Beach Fishing Center with holds full of tuna. As soon as water temperatures hit the upper 60s, the tuna bite was on. Leading the charge was Capt. Steve Richardson on Backlash, a 53-foot custom Jim Smith hull that is as remarkable as its skipper.

Richardson looks for the fish in any finger or eddy of warm water surrounded by significantly cooler temperatures. “That concentrates the fish and the bait,” he explains, “making them easy to find.”

Just like Ross and the rest of the tuna fleet, Richardson relies on Sea Witch lures and Ilanders to catch yellowfin. But when the bite gets tough, he switches it up.

“I love to fly a kite,” he says. “The tuna really come to it.” Late in the season, when the water is hot and clear and the tuna are focused on flying fish, Richardson uses a kite to dangle two rubber flying fish. “With no leader in the water, I get more bites,” he says.

He’ll fly his baits along a temperature break or over structure, and especially around breaking fish.

The conditions have to be right for a kite bite. “The bait should spend only 30 percent of the time in the water,” Richardson says. The rest of the time, the rubber flying fish is in the air. Richardson tells stories of yellowfin rocketing out of the water to attack the rubber flier. “That’s about as much excitement as you can take!” he says.