The crew of the Grady Bunch, fishing the first two days of 2015 just outside Beaufort Inlet, may not have landed a state-record bluefin tuna, but the three men and a boy almost certainly accomplished a feat no other North Carolina saltwater crew has duplicated, two bluefin tuna that combined to weigh more than 1,500 pounds.
On Jan. 1, Pete O’Donnell of Beaufort was on the rod and brought a massive bluefin tuna to the stern where boat-owner Jason Davis, acting as first mate, harpooned the 785-pound giant. Ray Watkins of LakeRoyale was captain while Davis’ son, Hunter, took photographs.
The next day, even closer to shore, they caught a 767-pound bluefin, an unheard of back-to-back catch in North Carolina waters. Moreover, Davis’ 33-foot Grady White Express is essentially a king mackerel boat, not well-suited to decking giant tuna.
“The first day we were 3 miles out on the west side (of Cape Lookout Shoals) in 50 feet of water,” Davis said. “We hooked into the first fish at 10:30 a.m. and landed him after an hour.”
Admirers who came to the dock to see that bluefin wanted to know where the crew had fished. Davis, the 37-year-old owner of a grading business in Fuqua Varina, gave up the location.
“I told them,” he said. “We put baits (naked ballyhoo) out in the inlet because we’d marked more baitfish than I’d ever seen in my life. We were in 50 feet of water but only marking 20 feet because they were so thick.”
They trolled around Beaufort Inlet twice. “Then, we went up the beach to the corner and saw maybe 15 gannets, then all of a sudden there were maybe 150 gannets, pegging the water,” Davis said. “We drove right into the middle of them, and the reel started screaming.”
Davis had caught and released two sub-legal sized fish back in mid-December, but he hadn’t put a legal fish in his boat.
“People also say you have to have 130 (class) reels to land a bluefin, but we had 80s,” Davis said.
The fish almost spooled the reel, which carried more than 800 yards of line: a 50-foot section of 200-pound fluorocarbon leader, 300 yards of 130-pound test line, and 500 yards of Power Pro braid backing.
“Pete is only 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9, maybe 160 pounds, but he was on the same rod for both fish,” Davis said.
After O’Donnell cranked the first bluefin within striking distance, Davis’ harpoon toss impaled the beast, and they hauled it through the tuna door onto the deck.
The next day the bite came much quicker but landing the 767-pounder required considerably more effort — and a near disaster.
“The boats were thick where we caught the first tuna,” said Davis, who was trolling four rods pulling ballyhoo with Sail skirts. “We weren’t going there. We started trolling before we got out of the inlet.
“We had lines in the water for 5 minutes when the reel screamed. (The fish) took out 2,000 feet of line in a minute-and-a-half. It was like (we were) hooked to a sports car that had floored the gas.”
The second bluefin took 4 hours to subdue, even after they first got it to the boat in 90 minutes..
“When Pete got (it) to the boat, it came up out of the water and looked at us,” Davis said. “You could see its eyeball; this wasn’t something a tuna is supposed to do.”
The big fish then zipped under the boat and wrapped line around a propeller of one of the twin 225-HP Yamaha outboards. Watkins cut the engine, tilted the motor, and O’Donnell gave Davis some slack line. Standing on the stern, he leaned down and unwrapped the line in 4-foot seas.
“It was a miracle the line didn’t break and the tuna was still hooked,” Davis said.
That began another 2 ½ hours of fighting.
When O’Donnell reeled the fish to the boat, Davis’ first two harpoon throws bounced off the fish’s gill plate, then he hit underneath the dorsal fin and was able to haul the fish into the boat.
The first bluefin measured 117 inches and the second 110 inches.
“There was an experienced fisherman (at the dock), and I asked him the odds of getting two monster fish back to back in a 24-hour period, and he said it was a million to one,” Davis said.
Davis, who has a commercial fishing license, had to sell both fish, so neither was eligible as a possible state record, and they wound up just a little light. The state-record bluefin caught by a recreational fisherman weighed 805 pounds. It was caught Corey Schultz in 2011 off Oregon Inlet.