Yellowfin tunas made the ocean sparkle like diamonds under a jeweler's loupe. As the tuna skied for flying fish, their scale flashed in the sun. The tuna's splash on re-entry into the cobalt ocean only enhanced the explosion of motion.
With flying fish attempting to be anywhere but in the water and yellowfins seemingly everywhere but in the water, it looked like it was raining fish. Anglers in the dormant cockpit jumped up to see the sight and anticipation began heating up with the thought of pending action.
The cockpit was getting ready to catch fire.
The captain steered the boat to the outside of the schooling yellowfin tuna. The plan was to sweep the bait spread, and not the boat, through the school.
With a turn to the north, lines cut a tighter circle. Sensing what was about to happen, watching those lines head for the school was like watching a bullet coming at you.
Reaching the school first, the lines on the left short and medium rigger went off. The lines on the right side short and medium rigger followed. Four yellowfins hooked up is a big job for one mate.
Two fish were quickly in the box as the boat kept trolling forward. That speedy work, combined with the fact that both long-riggers were way back, bought some time.
While the other two tunas were fought, the long-riggers reached the school, and one went down.
The school sounded as quickly as it showed, but some dandy cockpit management and captaining permitted a five-for-five on the tuna hookups. Not a bad way to get the morning started.
The captain beat the area a few more in hopes to getting the tuna to bite again, but we were unsuccessful. After witnessing the carnage of flying fish, someone joked the tunas were full and needed to take a siesta, which seemed quite possible.
Lines were pulled, and we made a 30-minute run towards deeper water. We never encountered another fire-and-rain school that day, but we managed three more tunas before turning back toward Charleston.
April marks the return of yellowfin tunas off the South Carolina coast, and the offshore fishing season gets its official start. Tuna fishing will hold through June most years and be augmented with dolphin once May arrives. Billfish and wahoos are sprinkled in at all times, just to keep anglers guessing.
One boat that has a tuna-catching reputation is the Aggressor (www.shemcreekcharters.com or 843-856-4090), captained by Michael Runey and docked at Shem Creek in the heart of Mount Pleasant.
The Aggressor runs a spider web of lines and was one of three boats last season to try something new off of Charleston.
"We run a lot more rods than the average boat out there trolling," Runey said. "With as many as 10 to 12 rods trolled, the advantage comes when the bite hits.
"Most boats run six rods, and get excited when half of them go off. When eight rods get hit at once, and that's the only fish you find all day, then you have already had a better day than most boats."
Aggressor's standard setup is four rods off the bridge. The two outside rods are run to the out-riggers, and track farthest back at 350 to 400 yards. The two center rods pull baits at two distances to avoid tangling. One rod skips its bait nearly to the outside rods, with the short center rod about 100 yards behind the stern.
Runey cautioned that running lines so far back can lead to cutoffs from other boats.
"Most charterboat captains know the lines are really far back," he said. "It's the other guys out there who doesn't realize where the lines are located and cuts them with his prop."
Down below in the cockpit is where the remainder of the rods is staked. Two more rods are run off each out-rigger. In addition, there's usually a flat line and one or two rods attached to planers, which will take deep-dwelling yellowfins and the always-present wahoos.
Custom-made poles and Penn 50s loaded with 80-pound-test monofilament are Aggressor's standard battle gear. The boat will step up to Penn 80s spooled with 130-pound line, but that's usually for tournament fishing.
The main line is connected to an 80-foot leader of 100- to 130-pound-test line with a SPRO 130-pound-test power swivel. The swivels are wind-on types that allow anglers to reel the leader right into the rods, which saves valuable time by bringing tunas next to the boat for the mate's gaff rather than waiting for the mate to wire the fish then gaff it.
Sea Witches dress up various-sized ballyhoos. Most captains start the day with several color combinations overboard, but usual suspects include blue-and-white, pink-and-white and purple-and-black.
Ballyhoos are rigged with a 3/4-ounce egg sinker and a No. 9/0 Mustad 7766 hook.
"If the tunas seem to get picky, we drop poles farther back and scale down the components," Runey said. "The cockpit poles get dropped back a little farther, and we might go down to 60- or 80-pound fluorocarbon leaders.
"Even the baits will be smaller. We'll put small ballyhoos on No. 6/0 Mustad 9175 hooks."
Runey said it's imperative that boats use good baits. By trolling as many rods as the Aggressor does, he expects to go through a minimum of three-dozen baits and as many as 10 dozen during a busy day.
Aggressor's crew frequently checks the stomachs of landed tuna for flying fish that are useable as baits. Yellowfins devour flying fish, so getting your hands on them is a good practice.
The yellowfin-and-flying fish connection also had Aggressor and two other boats experimenting last season.
"Last year was the first time I tried using a kite for yellowfin tuna," said Capt. John Thomas of the 54-foot Special Lady (www.seafix.com or 800-487-7565 or 843- 577-0800) from Toler's Cove Marina at Mount Pleasant.
"Capt. Jay Weaver of the Ali-L was the first to try it, then he showed the technique to me and Michael Runey of the Aggressor. It's absolutely amazing to watch a tuna take a bait under a kite."
Thomas said the technique was started down in Islamorada, Fla., and has since spread to the West Coast as well as up to North Carolina's Oregon Inlet. Popular for king mackerel and sailfish, kites present baits to tunas in a similar fashion.
"Tunas love flying fish over ballyhoo," Thomas said. "The kite allows the bait to skip across the surface, mimicking a flying fish.
"I've been up at the Georgetown Hole and seen no one getting a bite by trolling, but they'll bite the kite. It is a technique with devastating results."
Thomas normally runs three poles off the bridge and seven rods from the cockpit. He replaces bridge poles for rods hooked to the kite.
"I normally run two rods off of the kites," Thomas said. "Jay ran has many as four rods, but that's a lot to keep up with.
"The kite is hooked to a rod with an electric reel. There are two bait clips, about 10 arm lengths apart, on the kite line. Each one of these is hooked to a rod on the bridge.
"The kite is run up the outrigger on a clip. Once the kite reaches the outrigger's tip, I turn quartering into the wind and pop the kite from the outrigger. I'll troll at about 6 1/2 knots."
Thomas said he ran the kite about 100 yards off the boat. He said he has had bites as close as 75 feet from the boat but farther away is better for tuna, which can be skittish at times.
"Running the kite is a lot of work," Thomas said. "You're constantly tracking back and forth, quartering into the wind. You have to watch out for other boats in the process, and you're continually adjusting the kite as well as watching it for bites. It restricts your maneuverability as well, so you have to be always thinking.
"You're dog tired by the end of the day."
Thomas orders kites on-line at www.windpowersports.com. Last year he used a No. 14 Power Sled kite that retails for about $30. He tried a No. 10 in lighter winds, but the bait dragged it down and a No. 24 was too big. Locally, Haddrell's Point Tackle and Supply (www.haddrellspoint.com or 843-881-3644) began carrying fishing kites as well.
"The baits we used were Yummee Flying Fish," Thomas said. "It's an artificial bait that we rigged with two hooks.
"Jay started out using only a single hook but had a lot of misses. You have to use two hooks.
"The first hook is a No. 9/0 or 10/0, then we run a fang hook that's a No. 7/0 or 8/0. The fang hook is attached to the first hook by running its hook through the fang hook's eye. The entire rig is held straight on the flying fish with wax thread."
Thomas said Weaver also used MoleCraft squids; he's heard of some captains fabricating flying fish from the tubes in which Ilander lures are packaged.
"A 10- to 15-knot wind with a light chop is perfect for flying the kite," Thomas said. "Around 20 knots, the rig can be a real pain.
"One of the things you need to be aware of is the belly in the line. I used 200-pound-test Power Pro line because it seems to have less resistance to the wind."
To help with cost, Thomas avoids spooling an entire reel with Power Pro by adding 130-pound-test backing.
"From the main line, I used a 150-pound SPRO power swivel to attach the leader," he said. "The leader can run from 130- to 200-pound test."
Thomas said the kite seems to produce the best at areas known for tuna concentrations.
"The kite appears to have had the best results at places like the Georgetown Hole," he said. "I tried it at the 226 Hole, and had a bite or two, but nothing like up at the Hole where tunas are routinely found.
"It also really worked well when you saw tunas on the surface chasing flying fish. I usually start out the day fishing as normal but have the kite ready for when the fish come up."
Thomas said the kite has a drawback.
"Everyone on the boat can become distracted by the baits under the kite," he said. "It's such an absolutely awesome and magnificent bite when a tuna hits that everyone is staring at the baits because they don't want to miss it. In the meantime, hardly anyone watches the rest of the spread. That's when a billfish will sneak in on you."
Besides realistically mimicking a flying fish, Thomas said the kite bait is so effective because the leader is in the air, not dragging in front of the bait.
"It seemed that we caught bigger tuna under the kite than when trolling," Thomas said. "I believe it's because there's nothing there to spook them. You'll probably see a new state record set with this technique."