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December 15, 2010

Mid-Atlantic Bluefin Bonanza

Tuna fishing heats up off Virginia and North Carolina

It's late winter.  I'm standing on the bridge of Capt. Jim Bowman's Marlin Mania as it rolls along the edge of the Gulf Stream 25 miles off Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina. All around the boat, bluefin tuna have turned the water black. In the cockpit below, four anglers are holding tightly to bucking jigging rods.

Fast-forward two months. Now I'm standing on the bow of Capt. Charles Haywood's Rigged Up 30 miles east of the Outer Banks' Oregon Inlet. In my right hand, I hold a heavy-action spinning rod rigged with a big topwater popper as I watch bluefin tuna rocketing out of the water.

Jump ahead two months. This time I'm standing in the cockpit of Capt. Mike Standing's Waterman. We're fishing the Virginia Beach Tuna Tournament, and the money-winning bluefin just attacked a Hawaiian Eye on the way-back shotgun.

Though these three scenes occurred several months and many miles apart, they are each part of an unprecedented run of big bluefin that those throughout the mid-Atlantic are referring to as epic.

Early Season
No one knows why, but three years ago bluefin tuna returned to the waters off Hatteras Island. That season the fish were generally small, and few anglers knew about them.

The next year the bluefin returned. This time the crowds were bigger, and so were the fish.

Last year the tuna showed up again. Not only were the fish larger, but there were more of them. "Lots of days you could catch all you wanted," Capt. Jim Bowman says. "They would eat anything you threw at them."

Bowman, a 25-year veteran of Hatteras fishing, says the key to finding bluefin is first finding the edge of the Gulf Stream.

"More times than not, I'll start at the Tower," he explains, referring to the point where the Gulf Stream passes Diamond Shoals Light 22 miles southeast of Hatteras Inlet. Then he'll search 10 to 15 miles up the line. "You just get out in the warm water and start looking," he says.

Once Bowman finds the fish, he has to figure out how he wants to catch them. While he's searching he'll troll SeaWitch lures and big ballyhoo. But when the tuna are thick, he pulls in the meat and puts out the metal.

"They'll hit a jig as fast as they'll hit anything," he says.

I found that out firsthand the day I joined Bowman and crew late last February. We were trolling along the break when the captain marked a school of fish below the boat. He took the engines out of gear and ordered the crew to drop their jigs down "four colors," a reference to the 10-meter color change in the braided line they were fishing.

Standing on the bridge, I watched each angler drop his jig, engage his reel and start rhythmically cranking the handle and jigging the rod. "Oomph," one of the guys groaned as his rod tip jerked to a stop and the butt delivered a body blow to his ribs. Then the big fish pummeled the angler with blistering runs, charges and turns as the braided line telegraphed every bob and weave.

The latest generation of jigging reels can produce up to 40 pounds of drag and hold over 500 yards of braided line, so there's no reason to chase these fish all over the ocean. With short pumps of the rod and quick cranks on the high-speed reel, the angler was able to get the fish to the boat.

In short order the man-size tuna was close enough for mate Tim Hagerich to grab it by the chin and remove the hook. The fish recovered quickly and disappeared into the blue while his human adversary retired to the cabin for the rest of the day.