I love those rare winter days when everything comes together: calm seas, light winds, bright sun and giant bluefin tuna crashing schools of chopper bluefish on the surface.
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On just such a bright March day, I was standing on the bow of Wasabi, a classic Carolina charter boat, 40 miles off the coast of Hatteras Island, North Carolina. “Not yet!” Capt. Kenny Koci hollered from the bridge. “Wait for it!” Koci is way over 6 feet tall, bald and bulging with muscles. I felt like I had Sasquatch sitting on my shoulder. “Not yet!” he repeated.
The boat slowly moved toward the melee. I held an oversize spinning rod I had armed with an oversize popper. Since we already had a bluefin in the box, I had removed the hooks from the popper. I was looking for an encounter, not a long-term relationship.
Fifty yards in front of me, a tightly packed school of big bluefish swirled on the surface. Every few seconds, the water around the school exploded as a giant bluefin picked off another victim.
“Get ready,” Koci barked from behind me. I opened the bail and felt a twinge of dread. What am I getting myself into? As we got closer, I could see the huge tuna darting through the school of terrified bluefish.
“Make the cast!” Koci ordered. I obeyed, landing the plug a few feet past the school. I turned the reel handle and jerked the rod tip to make the plug pop on the surface. Then I paused. Pop and pause. Pop and pause. On the third pop, the lure disappeared into a black void, followed by a car-size boil.
Line raced off the reel, and the rod bent to severe pressure. I braced as the fish dragged me across the bow. Just before I reached the edge, the fish let go of the lure, sending the plug ricocheting back at me. My anxiety broke into laughter. “That was fun!” I raved. “Let’s do it again!”
If you define true game fishing as targeting the biggest fish with the lightest possible tackle, then chasing bluefin with jigs and topwater baits creates the ultimate challenge. Each winter, big-fish junkies from all over the world come to Hatteras for a shot at giant bluefin with jigs and plugs.
Capt. Dan Rooks, who runs Tuna Duck out of this famed Outer Banks port, has been hosting these “finatics” since 2010. “When the bluefin first showed up that winter, a group of guys chartered me for light-tackle jigging,” says Rooks, recalling his shock when the crew showed up with spinning and jigging rods. “Guys on the dock thought it was ridiculous.”
On the first trip, they scored half a dozen 200-pound bluefin and birthed a new fishery.
Today, the docks and tackle shops around Hatteras and Oregon Inlet crawl with similar anglers looking for a shot at glory. “They come from everywhere,” Rooks marvels. He has hosted anglers from Russia, Japan, Europe and beyond. “There’s nowhere in the world like Hatteras,” he says. “It’s the best place to catch an 800-pound bluefin with a spinning rod.”
Rooks catches bluefin as early as Halloween and as late as two weeks after Easter, but the best months are February through early April. The first push of fish comes through in November. “The fish are shallow, in cooler water,” he says. He looks for an early bite in 72-degree water over 120- to 300-foot depths, as close as 10 to 20 miles off the beach. He expects the fish to be scattered. “Once you find the tuna, you can get them to bite a plug or jig.”
Rooks theorizes that in the early season, the tuna are migrating south, feeding on menhaden. “Take everything you know about water clarity and temperature and throw it out the window,” he says with a laugh. “The fish are looking for something to eat.”
By late winter, the tuna move far offshore, into the Gulf Stream. Rooks takes his parties as deep as 3,000 feet, 50 to 60 miles out, in search of bluefin. He looks for schools of tuna surfing down the waves, or big flat spots and slicks on the surface. He also watches the fish finder for clouds of bait and tuna. “I’ve seen schools of tuna that were 2 miles long,” he says.
The fish often feed along the temperature break between the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current, but they also hold over deep hills and valleys that break up the current and attract bait. Rooks says his ideal day combines clear skies, light winds and a 6-foot groundswell. “The waves make it easier to see fish on the surface,” he says.