Partnering to catch bluefin tuna for 2017, Tommy Adkins and his first mate, Stephen Lilly are having an outstanding season. After catching a doubleheader the first week of January, they hauled in a 106-inch beast on Jan. 11 that was estimated to weigh more than 800 pounds before being beheaded and gutted — and still weighing 626.
Adkins and Lilly left the dock in Beaufort, N.C., aboard Adkins’ Rampage 30 Express well before dawn last Wednesday, before the rest of the tuna-fishing fleet. After going through Beaufort Inlet, they immediately began marking baitfish and tuna and set to trolling a spread of four baits, 150 yards behind the boat, including two 5-ounce Joe Shute skirted ballyhoo on the outriggers, one on a No. 24 planer and one flat line behind the boat. Adkins’ reels were spooled with 200-pound Jerry Brown hollow-core braid, spliced to 350 yards of 200-pound monofilament and a 35-foot, 150-pound fluorocarbon leader. The business end carried a 10/0 Mustad turn back hook.
“We marked one fish in particular that was really big,” said Adkins, who hails from Reidsville. “We trolled down a mile or so and made our turn to come back to it. That’s when we met the rest of the fleet.”
“We had 25 boats coming straight at us, towards the sea buoy,” said Lilly, who is from Swansboro. “So, we went against them. We had boats on either side, one after the other, like a highway. After the last boat, we turned to go back up the buoy chain.”
Nearing the area where the big fish was marked at a depth of 35 feet, Adkins slowed the boat to allow the baits to sink. When he put the boat back in gear, the fish struck the bait pulled by the planer.
“He let out a quick burst and stopped,” Lilly said. “He didn’t even pop the rubber band on the planer.”
After lifting the planer and severing the connection, Lilly seemed to be winning a surprisingly easy battle as the fish came nice and easy to the boat.
“I got all the other lines in, and the reel let out a squeal,” said Lilly. “He took some line out and let us know that he was still there. At this point, we thought we might have a small bluefin.”
After an hour, the fish came close to the boat for the first time. With Adkins on the rod, Lilly was ready to harpoon the fish. But when it rolled onto its back, he got a real look at its size and decided not to take a risky shot. Then, the fish took another 100 yards of line and fought for another hour.
“He finally surfaced near the boat again, and he made a big mistake,” Adkins said. “He turned just right, and Stephen sunk the harpoon.It was a perfect shot. As soon as it hit him, the fish peeled off another 100 yards of line. He pulled out all the harpoon line and the poly ball.”
Feeling the fish weakening, Lilly pulled him again to the boat. There, Adkins attached a tuna swimming hook from local manufacturer South Chatham Tackle that latches around the fish’s lower jaw and secures it as the fish cools down to its natural temperature, allowing for the highest-quality meat.
Adkins and Lilly winched the fish through the tuna door, covered it in a wet sheet and delivered it to Portside Marina in Morehead City in 20 minutes. The fish was cored, weighed and put on an overnight flight to Tokyo, where it is expected to be sold for one of the highest prices ever for a tuna caught from North Carolina due to its size and superior quality.