Capt. Joe Seegers was just offshore of the East Beach of Bald Head Island on Dec. 3, when a 92-inch bluefin tuna grabbed a bait and headed offshore. He was trolling the Hooked Up and crew to the spot of last year's encounter with a 900-pounder when he noticed a flock of birds closer to the beach and turned towards them.
"The birds were a mixture of pelicans, smaller gulls and terns, not gannets like you expect to see with bluefins," Seegers said. "However, they were the first action we had seen so we went in to check them out. They were about a mile off the beach in 25 feet of water about halfway between the Point (Cape Fear) and Fort Fisher. There were only 30 to 40 birds and they weren't working hard, but they were staying low over this school of bait and picking at it pretty well."
Seegers said something had the school herded tight enough they were making a dark spot in the water. He decided to work the spot for a while just in case it was bluefins herding the smaller baits.
Michael Kellett, Bobby Phillips and Tommy Phillips dropped the long outrigger lines back farther so Seegers could steer around the school of bait and not disrupt it while trolling the longer running lines through it. Around 10:30, one of the Shimano Tiagra 80 Wide reels began howling the song that bluefin tuna know how to play. The fish was ripping 100 pound line from the reel with the drag set at 25 pounds. In the shallow water so close to the beach, the odds were pretty high it was a big tuna, not a marlin.
The Phillips brothers tag teamed the big tuna and had it to the boat in short order. Seegers said they were all thankful the fish wore out so quickly. A quick look showed the fish was obviously longer than the 73-inch minimum for keeping, so they brought it aboard.
"This was a nice fish, but it wasn't huge," said Seegars. "The body shape was medium, not thin like the early fish from the Mediterranean sometimes can be, yet wasn't chunky like many Gulf of Mexico bluefins.
"This tuna ate a select ballyhoo rigged in a custom tied Ilander head," Seegers said. "I tie many of my own lures and use a finer hair than what is standard. I like the way it shapes around the bait and moves in the water. It's not as buoyant either and trolls just a little deeper. I use a lot of pink for nearshore trolling and this one was pink and crystal."
The bait school had been disrupted during the fight and hadn't reformed, so Seegers turned the Hooked Up towards the 4 Mile Slough at Frying Pan Shoals and they set another spread while trolling that way and back to the Cape Fear River and Southport.
Seegers hauled their catch to Blackburn Brothers Seafood at Carolina Beach, the first place he found that was ready to handle the fish.
To get back down the river and to his home base of South Harbor Marina before dark, Seegers and crew left before the fish was cored and weighed, but Seegers estimated it would dress to approximately 300 pounds, or maybe just a little more. Seegers said this was a great way to begin the 2017-18 bluefin season, and the Christmas season.
A few days later on Dec. 6, NOAA closed the December season, stating the quota had been exceeded.