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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I rolled out of bed and made my way outside where my father and grandfather were getting the boat ready. Still groggy and barely awake, my brother and I scrambled up into the camper and soon we were off to the coast. We climbed up onto the bed but we were too excited to go back to sleep, instead we watched for deer along the highway to the coast. It was always fun to see how many we could count on the two hour ride, from Corvallis to Newport, through the coast range. In 1969 the highway still had plenty of curves and deer along the road. Once we rolled into Newport we’d drive through the state park overlooking the jetties to get a look at the offshore conditions. If there were no white caps showing and the conditions looked favorable we’d launch the boat and soon be a few miles offshore fishing for salmon.

Fast forward about 20 years, same scenario, but this time I was towing my own boat and this would be the start of another chapter in my life, I was about to have my first experience with albacore tuna. When I heard tuna were close to shore and everyone was getting them, I had to try it. I had caught tuna in Mexico but never offshore after them in my own boat.

A three hour drive through the coast range before daylight and a quick stop for tuna feathers, from one of the locals, and we should be running offshore in no time but as luck would have it the best laid plans sometimes get derailed. The local tackle guy was a no show and after waiting for an hour we decided to run offshore and see what we could do. I figured these were predator type fish and some of the plugs I used for Mackinaw Lake Trout should work. A nice guy in the local marina store gave us some coordinates and said “just run to this location and you’ll see the fleet of boats and you should be in the fish”. Could it be that easy..? We were greeted with a smooth glassy ocean and it was a quick twenty miles to the coordinates we were given but it was a lonely ocean with no boats in sight. I scanned the horizon with binoculars, looking for the fleet, when my buddy mentioned there were fish jumping beside the boat. Amazing, we had found the tuna but the fleet of boats was nowhere to be found so we decided to try our luck and started deploying large mackerel looking plugs.

Wham, the first rod went off before I could even get it in the rod holder. Half way through a blistering run I could hear the sound of metal disintegrating right in my hands. The drag was toast leaving me to use my thumb for a drag. A few short runs later and the fish was up next to the boat, going around and around in what I would eventually come to know as the tuna death spiral. It was wild pandemonium and my buddies white shorts soon turned to pink from the blood bath that ensued. We were using heavy salmon rods which handled the fish fine but the reels were no match for the incredible blistering runs they’d make when they exploded on one of the plugs. We soon had eight nice fat tuna, four reels that were pretty much wasted and a cooler that was stuffed, so we decided to stop. Smiling and laughing at what had just happened, we rinsed the boat out and headed back to port. It wasn’t even noon yet and normally you’d think if you missed the first light bite, things would be slow but these silver bullets hit everything we put overboard and of course it was also mid-July and folks around here have a saying I’ve come to know well, “anyone can catch a tuna in July”. So true that day, as we were living proof.

Fast forward another 20 years to last season and you’ll hear many stories of similar experiences from fishermen getting their first taste of this incredible fishery. Throughout the late 1900’s the Chinook Salmon has been king of the saltwater in the pacific northwest but declining runs of Chinook and Coho have left offshore anglers looking for something else to chase. Albacore have been available and harvested by the commercial fishermen for many years and only recently in the last few years have a handful of sport fishermen realized they were out there. Albacore move into the waters off northern California, Oregon and Washington as the summer currents from the south push the warm temperatures above 58 degrees. Typically July 4th signals the start of the season and boats go looking running 40-60 miles offshore. The early part of the season is extraordinary by any standards and is what gets people addicted to the fishery. The singing of line screaming off reels with doubles, triples, and quads is to a tuna fisherman what a hit of cocaine is to a drug addict. Only a tuna fisherman has to wait all winter and spring to get their fix. That first fix of the season is the beginning and the end, the beginning of the offshore tuna season and the end to what wives know of the husbands until late fall when the season comes to an end and they sulk back into their semi-normal state.

To say that what has happened to fishermen in the waters of the northwest is a fad, would be a gross understatement. It is the fastest growing fishery on the west coast by any standards.

When you mention albacore on the west coast, most people think of southern California but things are constantly changing in the offshore fisheries and with liberal limits in Oregon and no limits in Washington, there are days when the bite is so hot you could boat 100 fish by noon, that is, if you had the storage and ice capacity. It’s not to uncommon for four anglers to bring home 40 plus fish the first few times until they realize they can’t eat all those fish and start imposing self limits just to be able to get another chance to run offshore and get another fix.

The albacore fishery off Oregon and Washington is very healthy and has seen a strong increase in the numbers of fish the last 10 years. Recreational anglers, even in spite of the liberal limits, take less than 1% of the overall harvest, leaving commercial boats from Oregon, Washington, California, Canada and Hawaii to take the bulk of the annual harvest.

Tuna addicts as many are referred to start watching online sea surface websites such as http://www.terrafin.com waiting for the warm water in northern California to form a solid connection to the warm water off Oregon and Washington, “Tuna Alley” or the “Tuna Highway” as it’s sometimes referred to. Once that has occurred and is within a reasonable distance offshore it’s time to run. Just a few short years ago a reasonable distance to run for most northwest anglers would’ve been 35-40 miles in their pursuit of Halibut but today reasonable is anything within 75 miles. On occasion the warm water will swing in within 10-15 miles and a few more salmon fishermen will get a taste of what’s it’s like to catch a sports car with a fishing rod and their lives will change forever. Welcome to the dark side and the addiction begins for another tuna newbee. They start looking at blue water tackle online and search for a bigger boat. The need for bigger smoother riding offshore boats has driven many anglers to the east coast for big center consoles with full enclosures, Hydra Sports and Yellowfins are showing up along with an occasional 35-57 foot Bertram, Cabos, Albemarle’s, Rivieras, Luhrs and other styles not readily known in the northwest. To say “the landscape of the offshore fishing in the pacific northwest is changing” would be putting it lightly.

Chasing this fabulous table fare is not a complicated endeavour. You wait for the warm water to show up, run offshore looking for birds working the surface or locate temperature breaks and chances are you’ll find these longfin bullets. Places where there are up wellings from sea mounds or dramatic changes in structure are also great places to look.

In between offshore ventures a few of these tuna addicts will get together at a local watering hole and you’ll hear phrases not commonly known to this latitude. Things mentioned like”Daisy chains”,…one might think this would be something your kids would play with or “teasers”,…no ladies, this is not some GQ looking guy that tuna addicts use to attract women to join them for a drink but it’s not a bad idea in some cases. A tuna addict who hasn’t fished for awhile can be a scruffy looking character. In the middle of winter someone will announce a TA meeting. The first time I ask my wife if she wanted to go with me, you should’ve seen the look, I had to explain it was for Tuna Aholics. I told her it’s no big deal, just a few guys getting together to talk about fishing, although we do have a 12 step program and if you really want to be cured, the first thing on the program is don’t go to a TA meeting, it just makes things worse.

This scenario will continue to be played out over and over throughout the month of July and into early August until they ply their tactics and return to port someday with little to show for their effort. The fish are still there but have now changed feeding habits and it’s time to change tactics. This is where the seasoned anglers continue to bring home the bounty while the beginners or tuna newbees, as they are referred to, either learn a new method or troll endlessly in hopes their tactics will still work. Some will go home to pursue other species, while others will still have the need for the fix and will learn to jig iron, pitch swim baits and in some cases get lucky enough to fish live bait.

Some might laugh at us since we are truly novices compared to anglers farther south, who have been catching tuna for years, but it’s still new enough for most that they get excited to hear stories of others catching fish or of another opportunity to run to the blue water. You have to be pretty hardy to chase these guys because the summer winds on the north Pacific can be brutal and a 4 foot wind chop on a 6 foot swell at 8 seconds apart can test the durability of any good boat as well as the endurance of any seasoned saltwater fisherman. Many a good angler will set on the sidelines and watch the weather forecast, then make plans to call in sick or take a day off from work, should the need arise during the week.

Labor Day weekend is the end for some as their kids are now back in school and fall hunting is pulling them away from the coast. Wives who have gone through a season know what to expect and are breathing a sigh of relief, as the man that resembles their husband starts to focus back on family, school, fall football, work, etc. The kinds of things most normal husbands deal with during the year. Many of them will never fully recover and soon will secretly start counting the days till they can run to the blue water. A few TA meetings to get them through the winter and they’ll have their own stories to share with fellow Tuna Aholics. Life will be good..

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