Chasing Giants

1It’s the beginning of five days chasing giants in the Outer Banks and the ladies are focusing. Yep, assuming their normal napping position on the couch. It’s two hours to the tuna grounds and when those big diesel engines throttle back they’ll be standing tall, dressed appropriately and ready for action. Carry on ladies a behemoth awaits you. Every athlete has their own way of preparing for the main event and if you don’t think tangling with the baddest, hardest fighting fish in the sea isn’t a main event, wake up buttercup – it is. Anything over 400 pounds is a battle of epic proportions that’s going to be a test of endurance, mental attitude and screaming muscles. There is no half time or end of the period once you’re strapped to the rod it’s time to go one on one with just you and the beast for the better part of the next couple hours.

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It had only a few weeks earlier we were in Costa Rica getting some badly needed sunshine and getting in a little warm up action on yellowfin tuna. The northwest is a great place to live but it helps to see the sun once in a while during the winter.

The sun and warmth was great but it had been two years since we last chased the big blue fin tuna off the Outer Banks of North Carolina and we were looking for a repeat of the last trip which was an amazing fishing adventure catching 12 of these giants in 4 days.

Now Megan, Weddy and I were in the Outer Banks again but this time the battles and drama will be captured on film for TV.

It’s day one for “Canyon Warrior’s” and the day begins at 100 fathoms.

You never know what to expect, from one trip to the next, when pursuing any big fish and we were fishing with a new skipper on this trip. The legends and rich history of the Outer Banks includes some big names in sport fishing and Captain Barry Sawyer is one of those skippers that make a trip out there a very memorable experience.

The sun was glowing bright but still barely over the horizon when we arrived on the tuna grounds and Barry soon throttled back the big diesels. The outriggers were laid out and our mate Nick started putting lines in the water. Once the last line went out and into its proper position he turned around to survey his crew – zzzzzzzzz – one of the lines popped off a rigger clip, ‘fish on”. The boat became a buzz of excitement and scrambling people. Things were happening fast.

First up was Josh Hemmert one of the two guest fishermen we were hosting the next four days. Josh and Shane Stutzman were the winning bidders the previous spring at the Tualatin Valley Chapter CCA banquet where Weddy and I donated the trip to their live auction. They had heard the stories and now it was time to feel the rush of adrenaline being strapped to a giant of the deep. Josh was now in for the time of his life and about to be punished.

The tuna was still peeling line and headed for the horizon while we got him settled into the bucket harness and hooked up to the rod. Until the fish stops running there’s nothing you can do but hope he stops before the spool is empty.

The bucket harness is one of the most effective methods for fighting a large fish. I’ve fought big fish on stand up gear and had a great time but when you have people of various skill levels the bucket harness is a great tool that can be adapted to fairly easily. It still requires using your legs, back and arms along with good technique. Bad technique or none at all and a 250 – pound fish could be hours to land.

Josh’s first experience lasted an hour and forty minutes before he had the 450 -pound class fish alongside the boat for a few photos before being released.

A few high fives and the lines went back out getting back on the troll.

It was barely thirty minutes before Shane was in the chair playing tug of war with a similar size fish. He had the benefit of listening and watching me coaching Josh and after tucking away a few mental notes his battle was over in a little over an hour.

When the reel went to singing the third time the ladies gave me the nod and insisted I go first. I didn’t question them even a moment before jumping into the chair and going toe to toe with a brute in the 600-pound class. The first twenty minutes it’s sometimes hard to tell how big the fish is because you need to let them run a little and try to wear them down – somewhat, if possible but after thirty minutes I pushed the drag well over 50 pounds. That’s a lot of drag pressure to put on a fish and easily enough tension to launch you overboard if you get your weight too far over the rod. Just to put this in perspective – we generally have about 7 pounds of drag pressure on albacore or pacific sailfish.

Every time the big fish made a run the line made a crackling sound as it was peeled off the reel.

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A little technique and a lot of pressure finally prevailed but not before working up a good sweat. The beast was finally alongside the boat and after a few pictures it was returned to the deep unharmed.

I stepped back from the gunnel after watching it swim away, exhilarated, sweating and riding a high. The adrenaline was still pumping as I found a place to sit and grabbed a water. Wow, what a rush. Almost two hours going toe to toe with my biggest blue fin yet… A behemoth well over 600 pounds.

The first day was amazing. Two fish over 400 pounds and one up in the 600-pound class. Not a bad start but a weather front was moving in and big seas was about to put chasing giants on hold for a couple days.

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In all the years of coming out to North Carolina in pursuit of these magnificent fish I’ve learned you need to plan on staying twice as many days as you plan to fish due to days when the weather is just too nasty. The weather died down later the third day and the forecast called for calm sea’s the next 4-5 days allowing us the opportunity to get back after them.

We left the harbor two hours before daylight in the stillness before dawn. A time when nature is at its purest state. The occasional truck going by on the highway was the only sound but soon that sound was replaced by the purr of the big diesels as they pushed the big boat towards the promise land where the giants waited.

We arrived on the tuna grounds as the sun was coming up and it wasn’t long before the action heated up to a fast pace, man against beast. Right out of the gate we had a double and Shane landed a dink by blue fin standards but a trophy by any other measure that weighed 186 pounds – a perfect keeper size since it fit below the 73″ slot limit, so in the fish box it went…

Josh had been keeping his fish tight while sitting on the gunnel and when his time came to move to the chair the fish pulled the hook and was gone.

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Megan was next in the rotation but before she got in the chair. I didn’t see it to confirm it – but I’m pretty sure she downed a can of “Whoop Ass” – because she flat put the wood to her 400- pound class tuna and wore it out bringing it to the boat in in a mere 23 minutes. At first we thought it might be a shark because she claimed it was trying to pull her in making her squeal every time it lifted her off the chair – she was sure it was going to eat her but soon it started acting more like a tuna and she settled down getting into her groove with perfect form and technique. That’s what happens when you put the wood to a hot fish, running the drag up before it’s worn down a little. It’s not brute strength but good technique and form that wins the day when you’re a 117 lady up against a 400- pound bruiser with a bad attitude. We pushed the drag lever well past the strike position and things got even more interesting because she was now half out of the chair most of the time. One false move and she’d been over the rail so needless to say I had my hand on the rod lightly to keep her from leaving the boat. It didn’t take long before she overcame the obstacles and won the moment bringing the beast alongside the boat to be released.

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It wasn’t long before Weddy was in the chair playing give and take with another large tuna…and after an hour we started moving the drag lever farther and farther past the strike position. We had so much drag on the fish Megan and I were holding here from flying out of the chair and overboard. The behemoth was trying to pull her out of the chair and we were holding her back while she put the pressure on. These fish were considerably bigger than the last trip two years earlier and we were also putting a lot more pressure on them. We weren’t used to being lifted off the chair and it was a little unnerving thinking about getting too far over the rod and being torn over the gunnel strapped to the rod and fish.

By now the drag lever was well up over 50 pounds of drag and after another 20 minutes she finally had her fish to the boat. A giant of a creature easily pushing 800 pounds.

We hooked 7 fish that day landing 6 ranging between 186 pounds up to 800 pounds. It was an epic day of blue fin tuna fishing.

The weather forecast for the next couple of days was predicted to be very nice and we were anxious to get after them again although we were thinking we might need to find Megan’s stash of Whoop Ass if these fish were going to keep getting bigger.

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The third day started out flying a kite with a weighed squid skipping the surface. Something a little different than I’ve seen for blue fin tuna but what the heck. We worked it for about 30 minutes before a 7-foot tuna crashed it and we were hooked up…it wasn’t a big bruiser like the previous day so it didn’t take long before it soon succumbed to the pressure of man and rod. It was a little guy in the 300 – pound class but it still had to go back.

That worked so well we decided to put out two squids skipping along the surface trying to entice multiple bites but as luck would have it the bite died. Eventually we brought the kite in and went back to trolling ballyhoo and endured a dry spell with no action for a whew hours…no worries we had NCAA Women’s basketball on the TV to keep us company. A few naps mixed in with a little basketball soon faded into a lazy afternoon slumber. The zzzzz sound of the clicker singing woke us out of our stupor and signaled it was time to mount up and do battle. It reminded us of why were there.

Captain Barry had moved away from all the other boats and about 1pm the afternoon bite came on. It was a still a slower day only boating 3 fish releasing 2 of them but we had now landed 12 giant blue fin tuna in three days…

Our fourth day of fishing we were greeted by a smooth flat ocean running at 27-30 knots but it’s still a 2-hour boat ride to where the action starts and there’s very little talking going on since everyone is spread out on the sofa or forward bunks trying to catch up on badly needed sleep.

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The day started chaotic with a double but as luck would have it the fish got crossed up on the hook up and when lines are coming off the reel at Mach III it doesn’t take much to burn through the monofilament and we lost the first two fish. By noon we had hooked 5 fish and only landed 1 but our luck was about to change and we would be on our way to another incredible day on the water.

Weddy was soon hooked up in bucket harness fighting and playing give and take with a 350- 400 – pound fish before it finally gave up after a 40-minute struggle and we released it.

We were now in the midst of a strong mid-day bite and it was now my turn to play with the beast from the deep. I moved to the fighting chair just to relax and enjoy the view but all that did was entice a bite and now I was playing tug of war with another monster from the deep. It turned out to be a small fish, maybe 250 – pounds but unfortunately it was still too long and it had to go back. We pulled him inside through the tuna door to get a quick measurement before being turned around and shoved head first back into the sea. He gave a good tail slap as he shot away unharmed.

7

During the next couple hours, we noticed quite a few jumpers. It’s quite a sight to see 8 – 9 feet of fish jumping clear out of the water. The tuna had circled and created large bait balls of blue fish and occasionally a blue fish would jump completely out of the water trying to escape the monster predators. Mesmerized by the sight our mate soon had an idea.
Nick had decided he was going to catch a blue fish and use it for bait. He rigged a series of treble hooks with a lead sinker he could cast into the school trying to snag one of these fish.
It only took him a couple attempts to catch what he was after and now we had a live bait. Once he had it rigged it went back overboard…

The explosion 20 feet from the boat was epic watching 9 feet of fish engulf a 3-foot live bait…. that’s right 3-foot live bait. I didn’t say that wrong… Holy moly, we were live bait fishing with a 10 to 12-pound live bait.

We come from the northwest where a live bait is 3-4 inches long and isn’t measured in feet or pounds. I have fished big black marlin with 5 – pound skip jacks but this was way beyond that.

Megan was next up and quickly scrambled into the fighting chair only to get the bucket harness all hooked up just in time to see the big fish spit the bait. The big tuna had peeled off 200 yards of line but wasn’t hooked well enough and pulled the hook within 20 seconds of the bite.

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She reeled back a mangled but still swimming bait so we set up to do it again and lobbed it back overboard and it didn’t take but a few seconds for a giant to boil on it once again.

Think of a 700 – pound bass exploding on a top water plug right in front of you. If that won’t make you pee your pants nothing will. Once again it was peeling line off at a blistering pace and then nothing – the hook didn’t set and the bait pulled free..again.

Megan was squirming anxiously sitting in the fighting chair watching the furious action unfolding in front of her…by now our live bait was a little worse for wear, swimming on its side, barely alive but still kicking, hopefully enough for a giant to make one more dash at it.

Nick lobbed it back out there again anxiously hoping. It had barely hit the water when another enormous explosion erupted 15 feet behind the boat but this time we let it run longer before running the drag up to the strike position and this time it stuck. The nine – foot monster came totally out of the water inhaling the bait.

Normally you don’t get to see how big the fish is you’re tangling with but when it came all the way out of the water we knew right away Megan was going to have her hands full. A 117 lbs. women was now strapped in and tugging on 800 lbs. of mean beast from the deep.

The first hour was the usual routine of reel most of the line onto the reel only to watch the beast peel it back off 3 or 4 times. On the backside of an hour we started pushing the drag lever forward past 30 lbs. and on upwards of 40-50lbs.
Putting the heat on a stubborn fish with 117 pounds of equally stubborn women is quite the match if you can hang onto her, keeping her from being launched out of the chair and over board. I had a good grip on the bucket harness while she played give and take for almost another hour before the victory was hers as we released the giant to be caught another day. What seemed like an eternity was soon over after one hour and 53 minutes.

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The next day started out like the previous couple days with red hot action right out of the gate.

Lines went into the water at 7:10am and were barely wet before the first fish hit and we were hooked up.

I think the ladies were suffering from lack of sleep after 5 days of getting up at 4am and wasted no time telling me to go first.

That first hook up only lasted long enough to peel a couple hundred yards of line off the reel before it performed a Houdini act and was gone.

Back on the troll we went and the lines were barely back to their normal positions when the clicker went to singing again. I hopped back into the chair then quickly hooked the bucket harness up to the reel and the blue fin rodeo went into full gear.

The first 30 minutes the mate had to move the chair around keeping the rod in line with the fish… normally a function performed by your fellow anglers but mine were AWOL. I looked around once to see if they were even still on the boat and they were sitting together chatting like a couple magpies on a fence and had pretty much abandoned me. Oh well, the battle continued.

After 40 minutes of give and take it was time to move the drag lever forward putting more pressure on the beast. This is the point in the battle where I had to rudely interrupt the magpie’s conversation since I now had more pressure on the fish and could use a little help staying in the fighting chair. The battle continued and so did the pressure as I moved the drag lever forward putting even more serious heat on the fish.

My comatose team mates had now rallied and were fully engaged and showing some signs of their former selves.

Finally, the 500-pound giant gave in to the pressure and came alongside the boat long enough for a few pictures before being released. A few high fives and we went back on the troll. On the hunt for more big tuna.

The hunt didn’t last 5 minutes before the clickers were singing their song and we were hooked up again. This time it was Weddy’s turn as she climbed into the chair while we snapped the reel to the bucket harness. It was game on once again.

The same scenario was playing out as if in repeat mode as she played the same give and take routine.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell how big these fish are until you start moving the drag lever forward applying some pressure to them. Once the drag lever goes past the strike position things change. Your form and technique become more critical if you have any hope of landing a big tuna. Without good form or technique your encounter with anything over 300 lbs. could last many hours. That’s the key to why we’ve been landing 500-750 lbs. fish in less than 2 hours.

Weddy’s form and technique prevailed and soon her trophy was alongside the boat where we released it to be caught another day.

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By 10am we were back on the hunt but the bite had died and Captain Barry Sawyer was searching for more fish.

The slight breeze had died and now the ocean had turned into a pond.

Lunch came and went with no action other than some slight snoring. The couch was feeling pretty comfy when the faint sound of the clicker woke me out of my stupor and I made my way to the door to make my presence known and offer moral support to Megan who was now toying with a 30 – pound yellowfin tuna…No, I didn’t miss a zero – it was only 30 – pounds. A few cranks on the reel and the gaff guided it to the fish box.

They showed on the sonar most of the day but stayed down choosing not to come up for what we were offering. We had nothing to complain about considering the action from the previous days.

Megan occupied the fighting chair the next hour soaking up some sun and anxiously waited for another opportunity to tangle with one of the big bruisers but as luck would have it we ended the day with only the 2 early morning tuna.

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A quiet day on the water to end 5 days of filming “Canyon Warriors” but a great trip overall. We landed 18 blue fin tuna averaging 450 – pounds. I landed a nice 600 – pound beast and the ladies both tangled and landed 800 – pound class behemoths. I can only imagine how much bigger they will be in March of 2019 when we return.

Fast forward 2 years and stay tuned because in 2 weeks Weddy and I will be hosting a couple new anglers for the experience of their life going toe to toe enduring epic battles with giants.

Tight Lines, Del Stephens

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