Fishing for yellowfin and bigeye tuna has been stellar this spring for offshore anglers able to get out on sport fishing boats.
Restrictions due to COVID-19 severely hampered charter operations from Virginia Beach to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, with offshore boats unable to operate charters until May 15.
But tuna still were abundant as things opened up. After salivating over glowing fishing reports, my offshore itch became insatiable. I scratched it by booking a six-person charter out of Oregon Inlet, just south of Nags Head. We booked with Captain Kenneth Brown, who pilots the comfortable, 55-foot, custom-built boat named “Trophy Hunter.”
My luck has stunk, in weather terms, in recent years. Most scheduled trips were scrubbed because of high winds. We made it out of Oregon Inlet last year, but seas were rough. Despite the conditions, we managed to catch a dozen dolphin (mahi-mahi) and a blackfin tuna.
Last Friday, we left a rainy Oregon Inlet Fishing Center at 4:45 a.m., with much of the fleet following us toward the Gulf Stream’s blue waters. Offshore skies were more friendly. Most of the early morning was a mix of sun and clouds. The seas were mostly gentle, although certainly not flat-calm.
First mate Will Brown, a junior in college and the captain’s son, started setting lines at about 6:30. A couple of lines sported colorful teaser baits that splashed near the surface or created a commotion just beneath. All lines were rigged with ballyhoo adorned with multicolored skirts.
The first bite came within 15 minutes. Michael Hundley of King George had the honor of cranking in his first-ever yellowfin tuna.
The party really got rolling soon after that with five simultaneous bites from tuna. It was a cockpit fire drill with Brown capably directly traffic and keeping lines from entanglements while deftly bringing tuna alongside the boat where he could gaff them.
All five fish were brought aboard. It doesn’t always happen that way. Of course, the captain and the mate “catch” the fish when trolling. We “anglers” simply enjoy the privilege of a forearm workout as we wind that powerful pelagic fish toward the boat. It does help, though, when most of the charter anglers have some experience and follow directions.
Four of our six anglers were well-versed in the process. Only Hundley and John Culclasure were on their first bluewater adventure. Hundley, Culclashure, Herman Harke, Bob Ackerman, Kenny Jones and I rotated in and out of the three cockpit chairs.
By 9:30, the fish box was nearly full with tuna. We were back at the docks at 11:30 with more than 600 pounds of tuna.
Sidestepped the sharks
Sharks have learned that fishing boats and tuna make for easy meals. A tired, hooked-up tuna is easier to devour than a free-swimming specimen. Sharks have been showing up over the last few weeks, sometimes eating up to half the fish that were hooked.
One of our fish was hit by a shark; the line’s leader was obviously severed by sharp teeth. Overall, though, minimal bites were missed, and all of our fish came over the gunwale wholly intact.
Brown said some days start off shark-free, but the leathery-skinned predators often find you.
“You’ll hook seven or eight tuna and get them in. You’ll hook three more and get them in. Then, boom, it’s lights out,” he said.
Brown said we were fishing at least 6 miles from the spot where the western edge of the main Gulf Stream was flowing. Both current and water temperature increase there. Sharks like that area, too. Instead, we were plying what Brown called “a pocket of blended water,” sort of an eddy off the main Gulf Stream where the warm water collides with the cool water flowing south in the Labrador Current.
“The good thing about the conditions we saw was there is a good volume of fish spread over a large area; we didn’t have to go into locations where the sharks might have been bad,” Brown said.
Fish when you can
Brown was born and raised in Dare County. His father was a charter fisherman and one of the original stockholders of Oregon Inlet. He began working with his dad when he was just 8 years old. Before captaining his own boat, he worked as a mate for experienced Outer Banks captains, including Omie Tillet, Brynner Parks, Ned Ashby and Tony Tillet.
“People ask all the time, ‘When’s the best time to go fishing?’” he said. “Fortunately, at Oregon Inlet we have pretty good fishing almost all year. ... Right now, we’re at a high point. It just doesn’t get any better. The water conditions here are what the tuna want to be in. The fish have stopped and they’ve stayed here for a long time. Some years, by the middle of May, the bulk of the tuna have gone through, especially when they have a lot of good water up around the canyons and other places north.”
Dolphin (mahi-mahi) fishing, however, has been slow so far, Brown said.
Dolphin are often found near patches or defined lines of sargassum, the floating grass that has broken off from the distant Sargasso Sea. Brown said strong currents made it a tough day for the one boat that set out to find dolphin on the day of our trip. They picked up a few yellow-green acrobatic mahi-mahi, but the fast-moving tide made things difficult.
“I fish seven days a week. I always expect to catch something. I’ve caught fish under every possible condition,” Brown said.
The Virginia side
If traveling to the Outer Banks isn’t ideal, you can always look at a trip from Virginia Beach and Rudee Inlet. Northern Neck Capt. Ryan Rogers and his first mate Doug Gray operate the Midnight Sun, and they’ve also been filing glowing reports with loads of tuna, many caught after they made a slight run south toward the same waters being fished by the Oregon Inlet fleet.
Rogers and Gray mix up their baits, using plenty of ballyhoo with a couple Killer Bee Customs’ “green machines” behind spreader bars. To contact Rogers, see fishmidnightsun.com.