North Carolina Cold-Weather Blackfin Tuna

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

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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.

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.

Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

Vertical jigging is an aerobic exercise, so tackle should be light and comfortable. Look for a rod with an ergonomic foregrip and a split butt. Padding under the arm will reduce bruising, while a bare blank between the butt and reel seat will allow the rod to move freely against clothes or foul-weather gear. Speed jiggers prefer shorter rods, under 6 feet, with a stiffer tip to work the heavy jig as quickly as possible. Reels should be high-capacity and high-speed, capable of holding 400 yards of 80-pound braided line and retrieving at least 46 inches with every crank of the handle. Speaking of the handle, conventional speed-jigging reels have an offset handle that keeps the grip closer to the spool in order to reduce wobble. Some jiggers prefer high-speed spinning reels with larger arbors and powerful drags. These outfits can be more user-friendly for anglers new to vertical jigging, and spinning rods are easier to cast and use for working a jig across the surface. According to Warren, the most important factor is the colored line, which allows the angler to drop the jig precisely to where the captain is marking the fish. "The tackle all comes together to make this work," he says.

Rods: Medium-heavy to heavy 5-foot-6-inch to 5-foot-8-inch vetical jigging rods.

Reels: 40- to 50-pound-class lever-drag reels. Conventional or spinning with a retrieve ratio of 6:1 or better and capable of producing 35 pounds of drag.

Lines: 80-pound-test color-coded braided line.

Leaders: 6 feet of 100-pound-test fluorocarbon.

Jigs: 7-ounce Williamson jig with twin assist hooks. Favorite colors are pink, purple, blue, silver and chartreuse.

Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

The key to catching blackfinsis weeding out the false albacore and amberjack. "You have to decipher blackfin marks from other fish on your fish finder," Capt. Scott Warren stresses. Once a skipper knows what to look for, it is possible to search out the schools of tuna while avoiding the other fish. Warren says that blackfins can occur on any of the many rock piles 20 to 30 miles from the inlet. "We usually start at the 230 rock and then work our way up to the 250, 260 and 280 rocks," he says, referring to the loran coordinates of each structure. "The tuna aren't always on top of the rocks either," he adds, explaining that strong current will often chase the fish into the lee of the structure. Another good place to look for blackfins is on any of the wrecks in the same vicinity. Water temperature plays a big part in the equation too. Warren looks for temps from 63 to 70 degrees but admits one of his best days was in dirty, green 59-degree water. When the tuna are absent from the rocks, Warren runs out to the edge of the Gulf Stream and looks for the fish on the temperature break. "You've got to be a fisherman and find the fish," he says.

What: Blackfin tuna.

Where: Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina. The only launch ramp is located behind Teach's Lair Marina.

When: December through March.

Who: Hatteras has one of the best charter fishing fleets on the east coast, so you won't have a problem finding a ride to the tuna grounds. Here are three top captains to get you on your way to a day of great blackfin action.

Capt. Scott Warren
The Big Tahuna
252-986-4077
www.bigtahuna.com

Capt. Jim Bowman
Marlin Mania Charters
252-475-0749
www.marlinmaniacharters.com

Capt. Andy Piland
Good Times Sportfishing
252-995-6577
www.goodtimessportfishing.com