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.
**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.
**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.
**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.
**Capt. Jim Bowman
**Capt. Charles Haywood
**Capt. Mike Standing
_Joe Mahler / _www.markerjockey.com
**Once upon a time, fishing for bluefin tuna required thousands of dollars of heavy tackle. Now a crew armed with a handful of jigging rods and a pile of vertical jigs can get in on the action too. Start with a heavy-action 5 1/2-foot jigging rod matched to a high-speed high-capacity reel, and spool it with hundreds of yards of 80-pound braided line that is color-coded in 10-meter increments. Tie a Bimini twist in the braided line, and attach a 12-foot length of 80- to 100-pound-test fluorocarbon leader with a Bristol knot. Add a heavy-duty barrel swivel to the split ring on a 250-gram vertical jig, then tie the swivel to the fluoro leader with a uni-knot.
**When bluefin are feeding on the surface and are hesitant to respond to traditional ballyhoo bait, Haywood breaks out the kite rig. He starts out with a 50-pound-class outfit spooled with 50- to 80-pound braided line. “We used to think that we had to use heavy tackle for these fish,” he says, “but we learned that lighter stuff works even better.” Next he ties a 200-pound barrel swivel to the running line and crimps on a 15-foot section of 200-pound monofilament leader. The business end of the rig consists of a Yummee Fly’N Fish or a rubber squid armed with a double 10/0 hook. The bait dangles from a release clip attached to the 50-pound Dacron line spooled on an electric reel and a custom kite rod. “They eat the hell out of it,” says Haywood.
**One flat line hosted a SeaWitch and horse ballyhoo. The other held a downrigger with a No. 3 Drone. Each of the short riggers got a SeaWitch. The long riggers and the shotgun pulled Ilander skirts on horse ballyhoo that Standing dropped far behind the boat.
“The long riggers are 100 to 150 yards out,” he said, “and the shotgun can be from 175 to 200 yards back.” In fact, he’d started running 100-pound braided line on his shotgun reels to reduce line stretch when one of these big fish strikes.
**The ubiquitous skirted ballyhoo rig will catch everything from gaffer dolphin to blue marlin, and that includes bluefins. Start with a 50-pound combo spooled with 500 yards of 100-pound-test braided line. Attach the braid to a 100- to 200-yard top shot of 130-pound monofilament by using a hollow-core wind-on leader on the mono and a triple overhand loop knot from the braid. Crimp the top shot to a 280-pound Spro swivel. On the other end of the swivel, attach 15 feet of 200-pound fluorocarbon leader. Most crews will use a skirt with a large ballyhoo, but sharpies always add a naked ballyhoo to the spread. Slide the skirt onto the line, and crimp on a 10/0 hook. In between the line and the crimp, slide a 1-inch piece of No. 15 wire that can be bent up to make a pin. Then lash the bill of the ballyhoo to the line with a small rubber band or a 12-inch piece of Monel wire.