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December 15, 2010

Mid-Atlantic Bluefin Bonanza

Tuna fishing heats up off Virginia and North Carolina

Trick the Trickster
As the season wore on, the schools of tuna moved up the coast, eventually staging off Oregon Inlet by early spring. It was mid-April when I tagged along with Capt. Charles Haywood on his classic Carolina boat Rigged Up.

This time the tuna weren't as reckless. Even though we were surrounded by bluefin, we couldn't get them to bite.

That's when I climbed onto the bow with my popper. Haywood pulled up to a circus of jumping fish, and I made a cast and then popped the plug through the acrobats. One big tuna broke from the school and swiped at the plug three times before pouncing on it.

Then the fish bucked and dived, dumping line off the reel. Suddenly, spinning tackle for bluefin tuna didn't seem like such a good idea. I could feel the fish run, stop, charge, stop, change direction and run again. All I could do was crank like mad, then hold on for dear life. After a few minutes of chaos, the fish made a surge that snapped the line.

"Just as well," Haywood called from the bridge, laughing. "That would have been a long-term relationship." I was relieved too; the initial strike and blistering run were enough to give me my fill.

Next, Haywood and mate Graham Alexander pulled another trick out of their bag. Alexander grabbed two wire-line outfits rigged with a clip-on inline sinker and a 312-inch Drone spoon. Haywood slowly trolled through the fish marks while Alexander and I each jigged a rod.

Alexander got hit first, suddenly pivoting back toward the stern like he'd been cross-checked by an NHL enforcer. He answered the attack by yanking the rod Bill Dance-style to set the hook. "Son!" I called from the other side of the cockpit.

Later in the year, Alexander and Haywood resorted to a kite rig to entice these wary bluefin. "That's a beautiful bite," Haywood says.

As spring warmed into summer, the fish moved farther up the Gulf Stream. By early summer, they had arrived off Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Summer Schools
Each summer the bluefin return like snow-white tourists to the humps, hills and drops off Virginia.

 "We haven't missed a run in 25 years," said Capt. Mike Standing as we barreled offshore on the last day of the Virginia Beach Tuna Tournament.
"It's weird," he said. "Finding the fish isn't necessarily about finding the right water temperature." Instead, he looks for bait and fish on the many lumps, hills and canyons that pock the bottom from Virginia Beach to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

We started the day at the Fingers, 45 miles east of Virginia Beach, where the team quickly caught a yellowfin tuna. Then Standing turned and ran 25 miles north to the Crotch, a V-shaped seamount 40 miles off Wachapreague. "When we saw bait on the surface and started marking fish, we threw on the brakes," Standing said.

The crew put out a simple seven-line spread.

The baits were in the water only a few minutes when we got a bite on the center bait trailing far behind the boat. With so much line out, it took tenuous minutes to bring the prize tuna to the stern. But when the big-money bluefin hit the deck, the crew erupted in excitement.

With bluefin fishing better than ever, anglers fishing the mid-Atlantic have plenty to celebrate. "It's the best I've ever seen," said Bowman. Standing describes the fishery as "very healthy, to say the least." But Haywood summed it up best: "Miles and miles of fish - the pure abundance is mind-boggling."


What: Bluefin tuna.
When: December through July.
Where: North Carolina's Hatteras Inlet and Oregon Inlet, along with the Virginia coast.
Who: Every port along the coast has its seasoned tuna pros, and capable captains are available at all the sport-fishing docks. Here are three of the best to help you get started.

Hatteras Inlet
Capt. Jim Bowman
Marlin Mania

Oregon Inlet
Capt. Charles Haywood
Rigged Up

Virginia Beach
Capt. Mike Standing