Hatteras Blue Fin Tuna

When you live in places like the Pacific Northwest the winters can be wet and cold leaving us offshore guys wondering what to do or maybe where to go for some sun or a little fishing. A few years back I was fortunate enough to get an introduction into a fishery that will get your juices flowing good.

When you think of places like the Outer Banks names like Oregon Inlet, Nags Head and Hatteras come to mind. From Portland Oregon there is no short way to get there either. The closest airport is Norfolk, VA and then a 3 hour drive down the coast line then out onto the island traveling south through the little coastal communities that dot the Outer Banks.

I had researched a few charters and had been wanting to go after giant blue fin tuna when out of the blue I received an email, that was forwarded to me, from a charter skipper who had fished one of my friends on a previous trip and he was sending him a note to say “they were in.”

The first morning I arrived at the Hatteras Village Marina at 6:15 am road weary with blood shot eyes from dealing with the time change since it was only 3:15 am Oregon time. A brief introduction to Captain Dan Rooks and his first mate Mike Edwards and we cast the lines then eased out of the slip in the morning darkness. We slowly sneaked our way out of the small harbor moving past magnificent 50-60ft. custom built sportfishers. The Carolina’s are known for their rich history of boat building, huge flared bows and many are built in a small shed out behind the house. This was one of those boats and my crew had a reputation of knowing the tricks of their trade.

It wasn’t long before we dropped lines in the water and started trolling. A few skirted ballyhoos on the long riggers with a couple lines down the middle to fill the spread. It was a nice day on the ocean and you could hear the radio chatter of other charters working the area, all in search of these big fish. After an hour of trolling with no luck we picked up the lines and ran 10 miles to where half a dozen charters were into them with multiple hookups reported. We dropped our lines back in and within a few minutes I had my first blue fin tuna on the hook and was doing battle. I quickly realized I had way too many clothes on and was over heating badly, I was plenty warm for a boat ride but too well dressed for the workout that ensued.

The first day produced constant action once we got into them about 10:00am and by 2:00 pm I was ready to call it a day. I yelled up to the bridge and told Captain Dan I could handle one more and then I’d be done for the day. A few minutes later he obliged and we had number 8 on the hook. The tally now was 8 fish landed, 7 tagged and released with a nice 125 pounder in the box to take home. What a first day, landing fish ranging from 125-200lbs and doing it in 10-15 minutes each time. If you would have told me I’d land these brutes in only 10-15 minutes I would’ve thought you were crazy. The key – reels with drags set at 22 pounds at strike and able to go to 30 pounds max drag to finish them off and get them to the boat. They generally make a couple of good runs then it’s gain a little – lose a little, back and forth before you finally wear them down and get the upper hand on them depending on the size of fish..

On the ride back in I collapsed in a heap on the bench in the salon, I was really in need of a little sleep, but all the action of the first day was replaying over and over in my mind leaving me too excited to sleep. That would just have to wait.

My muscles we tired, my whole body was exhausted and felt like a noodle. Welcome to Blue Fin boot camp – I had three days of fishing with these guys and if this was any indication of how things were going to be I was in for the time of my life.

Day two – still a little groggy but chipper as I bid good morning to the guys and climbed aboard for another day. Lines cast and we were soon leaving the sleepy lights of Hatteras Village.

We went back to where we left off the day before and after an hour with no action I was nodding off sitting on the ice box against the bulkhead. The seas were forecasted to be rough in the afternoon but we already had a three foot wind chop. I was desperately lacking sleep, still tired from the day before, and nothing will put you to sleep quicker than a rocking boat with no action. At 10:30am I moved into the salon to have a snack and my thoughts wandered back to the day before. Another hour slowly dragged by, no blue fin tuna yet, and now it was time for a sandwich. I had just taken my first bite, my mouth was still on the sandwich, and the sound of singing reels told me we had found the fish. The sandwich got tossed and things were about to get exciting again…

I made a dash for the fighting chair for the first hookup of the day, a triple, and my thoughts were now focused on the task at hand. What a way to start the day. The first fish was barely 100 pounds but the skipper ask if I would keep it and donate it to the community, so it went in the box. Now it was on to number two and either the activities of the day before were taking their toll or this was a much larger fish. The second fish was kicking my tail, my muscles were screaming and my whole body ached as this battle was an endurance test of strength and will. This fight took longer but after what seemed like an eternity we were able to tag and release a tuna well over 250 pounds. It was now onto number three and by now I was hot and overheating again. Mike took my hat off, threw it into the salon, and after a short battle was surprised when the fish came to the boat in just a few minutes. A nice fish in the mid 150’s but considerably smaller than number two. Mike tagged and released the third fish as I stood up, out of the fighting chair, on wobbly legs.

A few high fives and I turned around making my way to the salon to shed some clothes and cool off. I downed a whole bottle of water while sitting on the bench in the salon with my arms and legs just hanging limp trying to let them recuperate. I was in a daze trying to fathom what just happened.

My reprieve lasted a very brief five minutes before the sound of singing clickers brought me out of my stupor and back into the fighting chair. This time, a double, and I set out to cranking them in slow and steady…pump, lift and reel…pump, lift and reel. By now my muscles were loosening up and the fish were coming in easier. I was now starting to focus more on technique my muscles were warmed up making things less awkward. Getting in a rhythm and using the fighting harness is a must or you’ll be all day landing one of these beasts.

The first fish came in, was tagged then released and Mike handed me the second rod. I caught a glimpse of other fish darting back and forth past the back of the boat. It was incredible, they were swarming all around us and it reminded me of a live bait bite with albacore. I was working the fish, slow and steady, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a ballyhoo go sailing past me out over the back of the boat and before it even came close to the water six feet of fish came clear out of the water just ten feet behind the boat and inhaled the bait. What a sight, another 150 pounder on the hook and now fish number three was waiting for me. I was now in a groove and my technique was now bringing these brutes to the boat in less than 10 minutes. Another fish tagged, released, and on to number three then, a moment later another ballyhoo went sailing past me out over the back of the boat. This bait landed and was in the water less than a few seconds when a huge behemoth boiled on it, crashing the bait, and now number four was on the hook and waiting for me. What started out as a double had turned into a four fish hookup and Mike was just keeping them tight until I could get to it.

Finally number seven had been tagged and released. I stood up out of the fighting chair and told Captain Dan we needed to break yesterdays eight fish total. He said no problem and I headed to the salon for more water and a break. We didn’t even have all the gear out again before things started happening again. I took the rod and after a short fight number eight was now tagged and released. We had established a routine and now things were getting easier. The fish were coming in within a few minutes tagged and being released. I had just enough time to have a snack and sip of water before the sound of a singing clicker indicated number nine was on the hook. I dashed out of the salon and took up my position in the chair to battle with our last fish but my skipper couldn’t resist seeing all the fish swarming behind the boat and pitched yet another ballyhoo out the back hooking. There would be one more before we were done – making it a ten fish day.

In no time I had them up to the boat, one at a time. Mike was an animal man handling these fish like a linebacker focused on his job. It only took him barking at me a few times that first day to realize it was dangerous leadering these brutes and you needed to pay attention to what he tells you or things can come unraveled quickly. Mike was the coach and when I was in the chair but he became the athlete when it was time to lift the big tuna’s head to unhook and release it.

It was only 1:30pm and I couldn’t believe we had landed ten fish in just two hours. There was no way we would’ve achieved this if it had not been for Mike’s coaching while I focused on my technique battling these magnificent fish. If you’d told me I could land ten fish between 100 and 250 pounds all in a manner of two hours, I’d of said “no way” but that’s what just happened. I felt a sense of satisfaction and a definite feeling of accomplishment and couldn’t wait to tell my buddies back home. The skipper and his mate had really put on a show and with some coaching this angler had experienced way more than I had ever dreamed possible.

The wind had been forecast to build in the afternoon so it was a good time to be headed in for the day. I finished the rest of my sandwich and lay down on the bench as we started the long run back to Hatteras. We were 55 miles out, 15 miles farther up the coastline than the day before and now had a sporty sea. Fortunately it was a following sea and should make for a smooth ride back.

The next morning I was at the boat with a smile and Captain Dan took me up to the little café at the marina store for a cup of coffee. He mentioned we were not in a big hurry since we were only going to be running a short distance today. We pulled out of the slip as the sun was just breaking over the horizon and it was a beautiful sight shinning against the low cloud cover.

We only ran 15 miles before it was time to deploy the gear. A rigged a diver rod for Wahoo, a few close lines for yellow fin and a couple lines out for blue fin tuna was the flavors of the morning. The morning eek by slowly with no action but around noon we picked up a couple small yellow fin tuna as well as a black fin tuna that all went in the box. We were trolling over sunken wrecks, under water structures and after a few passes over the same wreck the skipper noticed fish below about 120 feet. Captain Dan asks if I know how to use a butterfly jig and after a nod of acknowledgement said he’d stop the boat over the wreck if I wanted to try my luck. Inquisitive, he questioned if I was any good at it and I just grinned back then chose one of the jig rods in the salon. They had been left by another fisherman and my crew didn’t really know much about them or how to use them so hopefully I could contribute a little and maybe they could learn something.

The boat came to a stop. I counted to 120 as the jig was dropping and when I thought I had it about where it should be I flip the bail and started the erratic jig retrieve pump and reel action used for bringing up the jig. It only took about three pumps of the rod and I was hooked up and the skipper laughed and commented- “Yeah you definitely know what your doing”. Mike put a fighting belt on me and after a brief battle I landed a nice 20 pound amberjack that went in the box. I showed them the technique again and explained the action used with the jig.

By 3:00pm we had a nice box full of yellow fin tuna to go with the amberjack. We pulled the gear and headed for the home. No blue fin tuna today but still a great day on the water.

Once back in the slip I stayed and visited with Captain Dan and Mike covering more details of the techniques and gear used over the last couple days.

It was a fabulous trip and turned out to be way more than I had expected. We had hit the Blue Fin Tuna at an opportune time the first couple days and these guys really put on a show. I came out to learn more about this fishery and they were very willing to share some of their successful techniques for a west coast guy hoping to give it a try off the Oregon coast once the summer water temps warmed and the tuna were within reach.

I told them I’d be back and look forward to getting out there again sometime this winter or next spring, whenever the blue fin tuna show up again.

I have since made it an annual trip out to Hatteras the last few years. If you’re thinking of giving it a go, the blue fin tuna can show up anytime from November thru April but the last couple seasons the best times have been late February thru March. The weather is generally a little better late March but you need to be prepared for winter time conditions should a cold front move in. Just layer up because one of these big fish will heat you up in no time.

For a view some of the photos of these magnificent fish caught on these trips go to my facebook page gallery. http://www.facebook.com/people/Del-Stephens/100000866078701

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