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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.

In the dead of winter, North Carolina's Hatteras Village is quiet. The king mackerel run has ended, and the spring yellowfin tuna run is a long way off. Charter boats rest at the dock while local anglers turn their attention to other pursuits. But last winter, several area skippers, experimenting with vertical jigging, discovered big blackfin tuna on the rock piles and wrecks off Diamond Shoals. Word spread quickly, and what started out as a trickle of boats running out Hatteras Inlet turned into a deluge of anglers descending on the island to get in on the action. Almost overnight, the docks were bustling; tackle shops were selling out of jigging gear, and the charter fleet was called into duty. Blackfin tuna had brought life back to Hatteras Village.

Rumor Mill
As soon as reports of the blackfin bite started leaking off the island, I was quick to investigate. Most of the reports emanated from the local charter boat Big Tahuna. From the rumors, it seemed that Capt. Scott Warren was at the center of this emerging fishery. To get to the bottom of the story, I called Warren and made arrangements to tag along on a blackfin trip.

The morning I arrived at Teach's Lair Marina, a thin layer of frost sparkled on the grass, and a handful of men dressed in heavy coveralls shuffled around the marina breathing thick vapor into steaming cups of coffee. The scene didn't look like a typical prologue to a tuna trip, but Warren gathered us in the cabin of his 54-foot Carolina-built charter boat and dispelled our doubts with reports of excellent action the day before. "We caught tuna up to 30 pounds yesterday," he told us, "and we stopped keeping fish after we had 24." I felt warmer already.

After the pep talk, Warren fired up the Big Tahuna, and mate Kenny Koci carried a quiver of short jigging rods with oversized reels packed with rainbow-color braided line out of the cabin.

While Warren ran the boat through the winding channel and out of the inlet, Koci worked on the tackle. He tied a Bimini twist in the braided line on each rod and attached a 6-foot length of 100-pound-test fluorocarbon with a no-name knot. Then he tied a fresh 7-ounce jig onto the leader with a uni-knot. "These colors were hot yesterday," he said, pointing to a pink-and-purple jig and a blue-and-silver model, "but when the bite is on, they'll hit anything."

Proof in the Pudding
After all of the rumors and boasting, I couldn't wait to get a taste of the action. The run to the fishing ground was short, and by the time the rods were ready, Warren pulled back the throttles and started a search for signs of blackfin patterns with his fish finder.

Warren called me up on the bridge, and one look at the fish finder told the story. The screen was covered with fish marks, but Warren explained that the cloud of red and green covering half the screen was most likely a school of false albacore or amberjack. "When I started doing this, the first thing I had to figure out was what blackfin look like on the fish finder," he explained. In fact, he said, the hardest part of catching blackfin was keeping jacks and albies from beating the tuna to the jig.

While Warren searched for fish, Koci gave the crew a lesson in vertical jigging. "It's all about speed," he said. "The faster you work the jig, the better chance you have of hooking a tuna instead of a jack or an albacore." He placed the butt of the rod under his left arm and gripped the hilt with his left hand just in front of the reel. With the rod cradled in his arm, he turned the reel handle down as he lifted the rod tip up and then cranked the reel handle up while dropping the rod. This alternating rod-up/reel-handle-down, rod- down/reel-up motion retrieves the jig at supersonic speed, to keep it out of reach of anything but a supersonic tuna.

Warren drove the boat in ever-widening circles until the blob of green on the fish-finder screen was interrupted by a tight pack of individual dots. "We're on 'em," he said, pulling the throttle back and stopping the boat. He noted the depth of the marks and called "six colors" to the crew.