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January 05, 2010

North Carolina Cold-Weather Blackfin Tuna

Hefty off-season tuna take the dead out of winter off Hatteras.

Style Matters
Each angler dropped his jig into the water and watched the line as the color pattern changed six times. "The colored line makes this possible," Warren told me. "You've got to put the jig right in the fish." As each jig reached the target depth, each angler flipped his reel into gear and started cranking. It was obvious that some of the guys didn't have their form down, but nonetheless, within a half-dozen cranks of the reel the whole crew was hooked up. While each guy in the party gripped a rod that was bouncing up and down like it was hooked to a jackhammer, only Koci's rod was bent in half. "This is a tuna," he announced, trading rods with one of the other anglers.

While the crew sparred with stubborn amberjack and tenacious false albacore, the angler on the tuna was in a full-blown battle. Each time the guy got the fish near the surface, the tuna took off, peeling off more line. Koci choreographed the anglers as they weaved around each other following their fish and keeping their lines tight.

With the lines straight, he was able to release each albacore or jack by leaning over the gunwale, grabbing the jig and unhooking it.

Meanwhile, the dude on the tuna grunted and groaned as he watched the line he had gained leave his reel again. Koci coached the angler until he had his trophy doing circles under the transom. With the fish in range, Koci struck it with the gaff and swung it into the fish box. It was the largest blackfin that I had ever seen - easily over 25 pounds. But it wasn't the largest we would catch. Not even close.

Trophy Time
As the day wore on, the crew got the hang of vertical jigging. After some practice and a lot of jacks and albacore, they weeded out the trash fish and zeroed in on the tuna. The Big Tahuna's dance floor turned into a mosh pit of anglers jerking, jigging and slamming into each other while working their jigs and fighting fish.

While the weather worsened, the fishing only got better, and on each drop it seemed like the tuna were getting bigger. Once Warren had the school of blackfin dialed in, we returned to the school to hammer the fish again and again. Despite air temperature in the mid 50s, the shuffling and jigging had the guys peeling off layers of clothes until they were down to T-shirts. Vertical jigging isn't for the weak or weary. Working a 7-ounce jig up from 200 feet is tough enough, but hooking a hard-fighting amberjack, false albacore or blackfin on every drop only increases the intensity of the workout. After five hours of fishing, I felt like I'd spent the day at the gym, not on the water. By the end of the trip, every muscle was sore and I had bruises on my gut and under my jigging arm. But I'd never felt better.

Fighting false albacore averaging 10 pounds and amberjack pushing 30 was fun enough, but the blackfin really put on the heat. With their teeth-jarring strikes and line-smoking initial runs, it was easy to tell the species apart. Armed with only a medium-heavy jigging outfit and facing an adversary built for speed and power, it was clear who was in control.

Many seasoned anglers argue that, pound for pound, blackfin are the hardest-fighting tuna. And these weren't your average blackfin. The first fish we caught - a solid 25-pounder - was dwarfed by later additions to the fish box. I caught two fish that weighed over 30 pounds, and one of the anglers brought in a blackfin that came close to breaking the 40-pound North Carolina state record.

Despite the punishment, when the day was over, the crew begged Warren for one more drop, and he obliged. We had already filled Warren's 24-fish self-imposed creel limit, so the last round of tuna was strictly for fun. Warren turned the boat toward the inlet, and Koci collected the rods and started working on the rigs. The crew members crashed in the cabin and were soon sleeping so soundly that they weren't bothered by the chorus of snoring. I rejoined Warren in the bridge for the ride home.

"So, was it as good as I told you?" he asked me. "Even better," I said.