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September 21, 2007

Overtime Tuna

Just when you think the action is starting to wind down off North Carolina, here come the yellowfins!


School-sized yellowfin turn up the heat off Hatteras shortly before the bluefin arrive, as Charlie Adams will attest.

The boat had barely come off plane when mate Dan Rooks threw a spread of ballyhoo overboard, rigged behind a colorful array of skirts on heavy mono leaders. We had just run a long way in some pretty rough seas off North Carolina's Outer Banks, and we were eager to get a bait in the water.

We didn't get very far before the long 'rigger line went down. Amid the shouts of excitement, Charlie Von Deck grabbed the rod and began fighting what we hoped would be the first yellowfin tuna of the day. It quickly became apparent that he had hooked a small fish, though, and we were all disappointed when a little tunny popped to the surface.

Undeterred, we re-set the spread as Captain Jerry Shepherd swung the Tuna Duck around for another pass under the small flock of birds off the starboard bow. This time two lines went off, and we immediately knew we had hooked something more substantial.

Joey Weller and Charlie Adams manned the rods as the rest of us cleared the remaining lines. It was hard to keep our footing in the sloppy conditions, but soon one, then two, school-size yellowfins broke the surface.

Where I normally target yellowfins, in South Florida and the Bahamas, double-headers are pretty rare. Also, we often have to resort to live bait, light leaders and small hooks to bring the fish up and get them to eat. It seems that warmer water makes them less willing to commit to a strike, but in the cool fall waters off the Outer Banks, the fish have no such qualms-as the next few hours proved.

Overtime Tuna
Larger boats, such as these at Hatteras Harbor Marina, are the platforms of choice for North Carolina tuna captains, who understand that conditions can change quickly.

On successive passes through the birds we hooked doubles, triples and even one quadruple-header. These fish were ravenous, and attacked everything we threw at them with abandon. The baits were ballyhoo rigged behind Ilander Hawaiian Eyes and Sea Witches, and were fished on leaders that most South Florida captains would consider too heavy for tuna. However, it sure made the fish easy to handle at boatside!

Hatteras Rendezvous

Von Deck and I had arrived in Hatteras two days before, meeting up with Weller and Adams from the Grady-White boat company. Also joining the party were SWS editor Barry Gibson and his fishing pal, Peter Drapeau of Maine. Our crew had fished for bluefins several times in the past with Jerry Shepherd, and he had told us about the spectacular yellowfin fishery that existed off North Carolina in the fall, just before the arrival of the large bluefins.

Spurred by Jerry's tales of yellowfin heaven, we had arrived in Hatteras at the end of November. After boarding the 50-foot Tuna Duck, we had run 35 miles east, crossing the rough waters of Diamond Shoals in the process, to reach a spot known as the 1250 Rocks. This area got its name from the old days of Loran A, and the moniker has stuck ever since. The run east kept us parallel to the beach, until the Carolina coast swung north again near Frisco.

Overtime Tuna
Mate Dan Rooks and Maine's Peter Drapeau savor the catch and the beautiful day off Hatteras.

The 1250 Rocks lie on the edge of the continental shelf in about 60 fathoms of water. The bottom drops off fast here, which is one reason the area holds tuna, according to Shepherd. "In the fall, it's a real consistent place to find fish," he said. "There's usually some sort of change right on top of the spot, and that's where the fish stay."

Shepherd says the color changes and rips that form here are created by cooler inshore water mixing with warmer offshore water. He adds that the water on the warmer side of the edges typically runs around 75 or 76 degrees, with the cooler water ranging from 58 to 60 degrees. His approach is to search for what he calls a "blended area," where temperatures might run in the 68- to 70-degree range. This blend of water temperatures indicates the convergence of two currents, where baitfish get trapped and predators such as yellowfin prey on them.

"We generally catch them on the warm side of the change," Jerry explained, "but you can also catch them on the cold side where the two temperatures mix, and even in the cooler water near the edge, where there may be warmer water beneath the surface."

Overtime Tuna
Charlie Von Deck admires his catch, gaffed by Rooks.

For that reason, he and Rooks often fish a planer to position one bait or lure down deep. They say it's a great way to locate fish and to catch the larger individuals. Rooks rigs the No. 4 planer with 30 feet of leader to a swivel and a wire trace, because wahoo are often caught out here too. He normally pulls a ballyhoo down deep, but will sometimes opt for a large spoon instead.

Spoons Down Deep

That's what we did on our trip offshore. The planer went out with a huge Drone spoon attached, and it didn't take long to draw a strike. It was a very big fish, as it ripped line from a Penn International 80 with ease. However, after we fought it for a few minutes, the line suddenly went slack. When we reeled in, we saw why-the hook had been torn right off the spoon! As with all large fish that get away, we've had many discussions about whether it was a huge yellowfin, wahoo or maybe even an early bluefin, but of course we'll never know.

The action aboard the Tuna Duck that day was non-stop, with each of us taking turns fighting fish, one after the other. These were school fish, ranging in size from 20 to 50 pounds. We caught them until the fishbox was full, and even though we were still below the recreational limit, we decided not to keep any more. That's Jerry's policy, a wise conservation stance. Besides, we had more yellowfin aboard than most of us had ever seen at one time.

Overtime Tuna
Trolling for yellowfins in the late fall lets anglers use heavier terminal tackle.

Chunk or Troll

If you want to specifically target larger fish, you can try the planer, or you can chunk. By chumming with chunks of bait, you can draw the fish right to your transom, and the bigger tuna will come up with the school fish. This is also a deadly method if you want to use casting tackle. Fly, plug or spinning tackle can all be used to cast to the fish after they've been brought to the surface with chunks.

For trolling, use large ballyhoo rigged on 7/0 to 9/0 hooks and 80- to 100-pound mono leaders. Take advantage of the fact that these fish aren't leader-shy. On the Tuna Duck, most of the skirts rigged ahead of the ballyhoo were light-colored, with blue/white and red/white being favorites. We used an array of tackle ranging from 30- to 80-pound test, but the 30s were perfect for these fish.

We should point out that the waters off Diamond Shoals in late November can get very rough, so this is probably not a good place for little boats. I can tell you that during the long ride to and from Hatteras it was awfully nice to have 50 feet of Carolina boat beneath our feet. The seas ran from six to eight feet all day, often higher. Just know what you're getting into before you go.

The day before our yellowfin trip we were blown out and had to settle for catching a dozen or so striped bass in the 20-pound range, right in Hatteras Inlet. And the day after our trip we caught a 350-pound bluefin, one of a few fish that had showed up early. We hooked it less than two miles from the Hatteras Inlet sea buoy! It just goes to show you that Hatteras offers an incredible variety of winter species. Every time I go I discover something new, and I'm already anticipating what I'll find there the next time the weather turns cold.

Fishing in Hatteras

Overtime Tuna
Yellowfin tuna seem to hit more readily in the cooler waters off North Carolina in the fall, often resulting in multiple hook-ups.

If you decide to bring your own boat to Hatteras, you'll find that Hatteras Harbor Marina (800) 676-4939; (252) 986-2166; www.hatterasharbor.com] has everything you'll need, from fuel and ice to a complete ship's store and motel rooms. It's where most of the fishing fleet in Hatteras is located, including the Tuna Duck.

If you'd prefer to charter, give Captain Jerry Shepherd a call at (252) 986-2257; info@tunaduck.com. He runs one of the best operations around, and can definitely put you on the fish.

-John Brownlee

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Travel Stand-Up Rods

Overtime Tuna
Grady-White's Joey Weller shows off a schoolie yellowfin.

Rival One-Piece Models
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During our trip we got the chance to try out one of the new four-piece stand-up rods offered by Capt. Harry's of Miami. We tested the 20-pound-class model, coupled with a Shimano Beastmaster 20/50 two-speed reel loaded with 30-pound mono, and fished from a Reliable aluminum fighting belt and a CYC harness.

Outfitted with AFTCO hardware and butt, with the sections locked together with special ferrules and collet nuts, the rod has the look, heft and feel of a high-end, one-piece job. Performance was superb, and it made short work of a half-dozen yellowfins to about 50 pounds. The blank "loaded" properly under pressure, and had plenty of lifting power. All four of us were impressed.

The best part is that I could simply toss the rod in my duffel bag, as the nylon travel case measures only 26" by 6" and total weight is just 42 ounces. The rod we tested measured 6" 3", but Carl Leiderman of Capt. Harry's tells me that they have now shortened all three models to 5' 9" for even better results. The 20 lb. rod sells for $549.95; the 30 lb. for $579,95; and the 50 lb. for $599.95. All are available via mail-order through Capt. Harry's Fishing Supply at (800) 327-4088. If you travel to fish and don't like lugging a rod tube around, these rods are the answer.-Barry Gibson