While the doldrums of winter terrorize offshore anglers, March bookmarks the arrival of a prized fish "that eats like a steak" into Carolina coastal waters.
Whether grilled rare over charcoal, seared on a hot cast-iron skillet or served sashimi-style with pickled ginger and a dabble of wasabi horseradish, fresh yellowfin tuna is on the menu during March.
Growing more popular commercially and recreationally as a specialty food item, yellowfin also provide heart-pounding angling action in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.
Fresh tuna is becoming more popular for its unorthodox cooking preparation and methods, but more importantly, yellowfins are powerful opponents for offshore anglers in the spring. Yellowfin don't compare in size to bluefin tunas, their larger cousin, but will engage the angler in a similar fight. Tunas are considered a valued catch for their ferocious fight and their tasty table fare.
All tunas are football-shaped and are built for quick bursts of speed for capturing prey of all sizes. As a green tuna engulfs the bait, they make powerful runs testing the stamina and durability of your tackle. Any weak places in the line or tackle will prevent fresh tuna from being on the dinner menu. Landing a tuna, of any species, tests the endurance and the strength of anybody.
Tunas are pelagic fishes that cruise the open ocean eternally from one end to the other, but need warm waters to spawn. Generally, yellowfin restrict their travels within warm regions of the ocean to facilitate continued reproduction throughout the year.
Tuna keep their body temperature above the surrounding waters, hence, require a heavy diet. Tuna are voracious opportunistic feeders and will eat anything they can find that doesn't eat them first.
Tuna and other top level predatory game fishes, such as, wahoo, dolphin and billfish, may congregate at similar regions around temperature and/or current breaks or rips where forage is abundant.
Along the Carolinas, tuna frequent the warm waters of the Gulf Stream but will sometimes move inland into shallower waters trailing warm water plumes or spinoffs from the Gulf Stream, especially during mid-March. Plankton is attracted to the cooler coastal water that is lower in salinity and has more nutrient rich. Mid-March is the beginning of the Northern migration into the waters off the Carolina coast and just in reach for South Carolina offshore anglers.
During the early season in South Carolina yellowfin tuna are the prime target for offshore anglers, with wahoo, dolphin, and an occasional billfish falling into the mix. Yellowfin tuna along the S.C coast average in weight from. 20 to 50 pounds, but it's not uncommon to catch larger fish weighing as much as 100 pounds or greater later in the season.
Yellowfin grow rapidly and will be heavier later in the season, but catches of dolphin and wahoo reduce in size later in the season due to migration. Small dolphin are sometimes preyed upon by yellowfin and usually will not frequent the same parts of the ocean, except for an occasional bull dolphin. As the yellowfin migrate seaward, groups of dolphin move in and become more available.
Yellowfin tuna and all other species of tuna are real fighters. Built for speed, they're as strong as any fish in the ocean for there size.
Landing a tuna can be a major ordeal for any sort of reel, even the heaviest of tackle. Yellowfin will dive hard and refuse to be brought to the surface with any ease. The only way to land these brutes is through short steady pumps. Even a 30-pound tuna will wear down a seasoned angler. Anglers looking for a brutal fight need look no further than yellowfins.
According to Captain Dick Vance of Hot Shot Charters, "the best months to catch yellowfin tuna are mid-March through mid-June with the end of April being the peak. Seldom do you ever catch high numbers of yellowfin during the rest of the summer."
Operating out of Charleston, Captain Dick Vance is operator of the Hot Shot, a 43-foot custom-built "Carolina Style" charter boat made by the Ricky Scarborough. Vance and his crew have fished the waters off Charleston for more than 20 years.
Dick said he and his crew have developed the ability to "read" the waters and determine the best places to fish during different times of the year. Vance has also perfected his techniques that yield the most success.
During mid March, Captain Vance starts looking for yellowfin tuna 42 miles from Charleston in warmer waters as shallow as 180 feet and will continue to search for tunas as the water deepens to 1,000 feet and greater.
Yellowfin generally won't hang around structure as king mackerel and wahoo do but will congregate in groups around schools of bait that the Gulf Stream provides. Temperature breaks are extremely important. Weed lines usually support schools of bait, as well as, munching dolphin, but seldom harbor yellowfin tuna, Vance said.
From mid-March to mid-May, he regularly visits the Georgetown Hole and the Southwest Banks as well as other holes with similar characteristics. During the 2005 season, the Hot Shot averaged eight yellowfin (averaging 35 to 50 pounds) and five wahoo per trip and an occasional bull dolphin. During the peak of the season, 15 or more yellowfin tuna per trip isn't unusual aboard the Hot Shot.
Vance has perfected yellowfin tuna fishing in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. Through specialized angling and adaptive rigging techniques, he developed his proven method to put smiles on the faces of clients and heavy cooler full of tasty fillets for the return home.
Vance's "tuna rigs" are his "meat and potatoes" pulled off the long outriggers. Tuna are spooky and he sets his lines 200 yards or more behind the boat to entice a strike. More than 90 percent of Vance's yellowfin catches hits baits pulled by long outriggers.
Vance's "tuna rig" consists of a 30-foot section of 80-pound-test fluorocarbon with an 8/0 Mustad 7692 southern and tuna hook crimped with a 1.3-mm sleeve. The fluorocarbon is a must and produces many more yellowfin strikes than wire leaders, but wahoo break offs are an unfortunate incidence.
A 50-pound Spro swivel is used to attach the fluorocarbon to the mono. The Spro swivel allows the angler to wind the swivel through the guides bringing the fish into gaffing range.
Vance uses a bait spring to attach a small ballyhoo, as he said small ballyhoo tend to produce more hookups than larger-sized baits.
Through trial and error, Lehi's "Squitch" is his lure of choice and are approximately one-fourth the cost of other expensive lures that don't work as well. Blue/white and pink/white color combinations have the highest catch percentage versus others colors.
Since yellowfin tuna usually travel in schools, the Hot Shot continues to troll for a few minutes after the first initial hookup, trying to entice a second or third strike.
Vance also seeks temperature breaks that hold bait for the yellowfin to congregate. Using these rigging and fighting techniques, he and his crew produce screaming runs, deep dives, and great sushi for anglers.
But there's always another way to skin a cat. Fishermen across the country and even across the harbor express different opinions about rigging and fishing techniques for yellowfin tuna.
Vance searches from 180 to 1,000 feet or more and usually steers clear of weed lines in search of yellowfin.
But Jeff Kubu of High Maintenance Charters restricts his searches to 300 to 650 feet of water and prefers weed lines. In addition, Kubu invests additional cruise time seeking out surfacing fish to improve his catches.
"Yellowfin fishing can be very hit or miss, dependent on water conditions and forage availability," Kubu said. "Finding an actively feeding school of yellowfin drastically increases our chances for hookups. We usually can find them busting bait on the surface."
The owner/operator of High Maintenance Charters fishes from a 47-foot Post Sport boat. His charter business out of Shem Creek in Charleston.
Kubu only uses top quality equipment and employs a seasoned local captain and crew with superb knowledge of Charleston offshore fishing.
"Tthe best months to catch yellowfin are from March through early May, but landings are always a possibility throughout the summer, including a short run in the fall," Kubu said.
He targets yellowfins during March, but wahoo and dolphin are likely and an infrequent sailfish or blue marlin are also possible in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.
If no fish are actively feeding on the surface, Kubu looks for weed lines and/or a significant temperature break usually of 3 or 4 degrees with thermometer readings of surface water in the low 70s.
While the waters off the coast of Charleston provide ample opportunities to find yellowfin, Kubu concentrates his efforts at the famous Georgetown Hole, 226 Hole, and Edisto Banks.
Kubu uses Penn International 30s and 50s on custom rods spooled with Momoi's Hi-Catch Diamond Mono line. His boat typically trolls four lines daisy-chained to the outriggers, two off the transom, one on the way back, and one on a planer.
During the years, Kubu has learned to incorporate a variety of lure types and colors in his spread. A single lure combination won't always produce from year to year, so springtime conditions can vary and some combinations yield better results than others. As the season progresses and conditions change, certain combinations produce better than others.
As does Vance, Kubu expects double and triple hookups in succession during yellowfin trips. As a yellowfin strikes, more times than not, other fish in the school begin a feeding frenzy. To be the most successful, all lines must be free from tangles and presentable when fishing for yellowfin.
"Very seldom will you only catch one yellowfin," said Kubu.
While Kubu's tactics are somewhat different from Vance's, the two captains incorporate similar techniques and are successful yellowfin anglers. Several consistencies are revealed from these two strategies.
For starters, fishing lures a substantial distance away from the boat increases the chances for hookups. Tuna are wary pelagics and plenty of distance between the lures and boat is advantageous. Secondly, temperature breaks are extremely important while fishing for pelagic fishes. They provide optimum conditions for forage fish and squid at the bottom of the food chain and offer forage opportunities for predators at the top of the food chain.
Even smaller yellowfin tuna are susceptible to predation when larger predators such as sharks, billfish, and larger tunas are in the water.
Finally, multiple lure choices or color combinations facilitate "the buffet effect." The "buffet effect" demonstrates which lures and rigging techniques are more appealing to yellowfin at certain times of the year. This technique proves successful for most fishes, especially when trolling is the primary mode of lure presentation.
When fishing at a temperature break, the two captains prefer to fish at the warm or clear side of the current. Tuna are sight feeders and need the clearer water to locate prey. Zooplankton also migrate to the cool side, taking advantage of the nutrient rich coastal water. The current forms eddies intruding into the warm side, creating ambush zones for lower food-chain organisms, such as smaller fish or bite-size morsels for yellowfin.
Since the Gulf Stream flows north off the S.C. coast, trolled baits look more natural if trolled with the current. But the two captains try to stay close to the edge of the rip.
Fishermen will always have conflicting opinions in almost any situation, but at the end of the day no one can disagree that yellowfin tuna are excellent table fare. A good day yellowfin tuna fishing will feed many hungry mouths when the average-sized catch is eight fish at 40 pounds each - that's 320 pounds of tasty fillets and a lot of sushi.
And that's not to mention a couple of 50-pound wahoo and a 40-pound bull dolphin, both considered bycatch in this case.
As yellowfin begin to show up in South Carolina waters, the popular offshore places begin to look like parking lots. Charterboat booking calendars fill quickly.
"It's amazing once word gets out that the bite has turned on our phone really starts to ring with people wanting to target yellowfin," Kubu said.
"We get booked up in a hurry."