Spring tuna run along North Carolina’s Outer Banks is top-drawer

The result of a successful yellowfin tuna fishing day will be a lot of steaks for the happy anglers to enjoy.

From OBX ports, it’s a short hop to the Atlantic’s great oceanic river and delightful, delicious yellowfins and other deepwater denizens.

It’s not exactly a scene that would be considered heroic by the stretch of any angler’s imagination, but it’s one that will be forever burned in his or her mind.Your fingers are cramped around a heavy rod, so bad that when it’s all over, you have to use your other hand to straighten out your digits — one by one.

Your forearms feel like you’ve been carrying cinder blocks across the desert, and if somebody would just pour a cooler of Gatorade over your head, you’d gladly change places with a football coach who’d just won a big game.

That’s what you feel like when, out of the deep, azure waters of the Gulf Stream, there appears a tiny sliver of metal. It’s the swivel that connects the line coming off your reel to the leader and the business end of the whole deal, complete with 11/0 hook.

When it comes up out of the water, a friendly voice says your part is done, just before he wraps his gloved hands around the leader, gives a couple of good pulls, then reaches into the water with a gaff and heaves a big, football-shaped fish into the fish box.

Welcome to spring tuna fishing, Outer Banks style.

Dozens of boats from a handful of outposts leave the calm waters around Manteo every morning, slide out through the roiling waters of Oregon Inlet, then head 30 miles south-southeast to the tuna-rich areas due east of the tiny fishing villages of Rodanthe, Salvo and Waves.

Out there, they find the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream, teeming with marine life. And beginning in April, one of the top shelves on that moving food chain is the yellowfin tuna.

“In my opinion, we get really good numbers of yellowfins from about mid-April to the end of April, then through May and into the first week of June,” said Brian White, who runs the Wave Runner charterboat out of Broad Creek Marina near his home in Manteo. “The long-liners get them well offshore all winter, but this is the time when we begin to see them in good numbers, coming up from the south.”

White and Will Ross, who runs the Haphazard out of Pirates Cove Marina on the Manteo-to-Nags Head causeway, agreed that yellowfins are there for the taking — depending, of course, on a captain’s ability to find the right combination of water color, temperatures and depth.

“Normally, if you find the right kid of water, you’ll find the fish,” Ross said. “But it can change overnight at this time of the year. When it’s good, it’s real good, but when it’s not, it’s dead.”

Finding the right kind of water in the right place at the right time is the big key.

White said he’s caught a lot of yellowfins in water that’s 65 degrees or warmer, but he’s also caught them in water as cool as 62 degrees. He pays special attention to areas where the water is displacing the cold, inshore water left over from the winter.

“We find them anywhere from 80 to 100 to 150 fathoms (deep), where you find that first warm-water change — when it goes from 62 to 65 or so,” said White (252-216-8350). “They’re moving in there as the water temperature warms up because the bait — the menhaden and cigar minnows — get stacked up in there.”

Ross also likes to find a temperature change, and he’d much rather it be a subtle one, or several subtle ones, across the space of a few miles between the extremely cold and extremely warm currents.

“I think as soon as it gets to about 68 degrees, you can really catch ’em,” said Ross (252-473-6824). “But if you find water that’s hot – mid-70s – that’s the Gulf Stream a lot of the time — and there’ll be a lot of current in it, and that’s not good. Three knots of current is okay, but 4 to 4 1/2 knots is not, especially if it’s outside the 100-fathom (curve).

“Hot water can be good if you find it inside the 100-fathom (curve), but what’s ideal is that blended water, where it goes from 68 to 71 or 72 degrees. It’ll have less current, and it’ll be a lot better than those places where the temperature jumps from about 57 to 62 to 71 or 72 degrees.

“You want a gradual warming before you get to the hotter water. But there are a lot of times in the spring when it will go from 65 to 78 and four knots of current right away.”

White said, in general, the closer to the shoreline you find the temperature change — and sometimes, a color change — the difference in the current from one side to the other isn’t as great. On the other hand, the farther offshore you travel before finding the warm water, the more likely it is to have a lot of current on the warm side.

“I like to zig-zag back and forth across the temperature break until I figure out what the fish are doing that day,” he said. “You’re basically doing the same things a bass fisherman is doing; you’re fishing edges and structure.”

One area where a lot of the charter fleet that uses Oregon Inlet as its jumping-off point starts looking for fish is an offshore area known as “The Point.” It’s roughly 30 to 35 miles due east of Salvo and Waves, and within the space of 4 or 5 miles, the ocean floor drops from 60 to 120 fathoms.

A good offshore chart shows the area as roughly similar to a side view of a stack of uncooked lasagna — lost of wiggly lines close together. At the east side of the point is the edge of the Continental shelf, where the bottom drops away even deeper.

“We usually start down there, but we might fish anywhere from Diamond Shoals Tower (18 miles southwest of The Point), up to the 400 line (a LORAN coordinate),” White said. “You’re fishing color changes and current rips and anything else you can find in the water.

“I learned long ago never to take anything for granted. If you see something, anything, that looks interesting, you’d better go look at it and fish it.”

Ross said in early April, he often finds himself fishing much farther to the south, often running into boats from the charter fleet out of Hatteras Inlet, which runs a good 30 to 35 miles to the east-northeast, to reach popular offshore structure such as the “280 Rock.”

“Sometimes, the (warm) water gets shoved way out, and we have to run to Diamond Shoals to fish,” Ross said. “Normally, I’ll pull up the computer (water charts) and see where the warmer water comes in closest to the 100-fathom and start there. You want to stay between 60 and 100 fathoms, and sometimes, we have to go down below Diamond Shoals to find it.

“You do what you have to do; if you’ve got to run 60 miles to catch tuna, you do it. If I’m fishing, and I’ve got to run 10 more miles to get the right kind of water, so be it. The good thing is, at this time of year, when you find the right kind of water and you find fish, they’ll hit just about anything. It’s just a matter of running across them.”

The first yellowfins the charterboats generally run into in April are medium-sized tuna known as “pups” — fish that weigh anywhere from 25 to 40 pounds. But there’ll be plenty of them, so boats often will finish off their limits of 18 fish — 3 per angler based on six fishermen per boat — in relatively quick order. As May arrives, those “pups” turn into 45- to 65-pound fish.

“The bigger yellowfin will be there from about mid-May through the first of June,” White said. “In April a lot of the times when you’re catching the 25- to 40-pound fish, you’re getting hookups. It’s not uncommon to pull through a school and see five or six on at one time.”

“It seems,” Ross said, “that the later in April you go, the fish get a little bigger. Sometimes, if you’ve got the hotter water up on The Point and you go further south, you won’t be on as many fish, but they’ll be bigger, and you might see scattered dolphin or king mackerel or a wahoo down that way.”

There won’t be a lot of fancy $25 or $35 lures running through the water on a typical charter captain’s bait spread. Running anywhere from six to eight rods through clips on the transom, outriggers and in riggers and far, far behind the boat, they stick to basics.

“I like to troll between 6 and 9 knots, and I like to troll 12-pack (medium) ballyhoo — naked, without any skirts — and I’ll troll with a spreader bar a lot,” White said. “I like to fish 50s and 80s (50- and 80-pound-class tackle) with 15 to 20 feet of 90- to 130-pound fluorocarbon leader.”

The “spreader bar” that White uses is just that, a wide, tubular metal bar behind which a dozen or so plastic squid bodies are pulled, offering gamefish the appearance of a small school of squid swimming just below the surface. But one plastic squid is trolled about 4 feet behind the rest of them — the one that carries a big hook and is attached directly to the swivel.

“I like to troll pinks, dark blues and green, depending on the color of the water,” White said. “I prefer darker baits in darker water and brighter baits in real clear water.”

A daisy chain of plastic squid is another trick White and a lot of captains use. It’s merely a half-dozen or so plastic squid bodies trolled in line, with the last one hiding a hook.

“Sometimes, in place of the squid (that conceals the hook), you might pull an Ilander with a ballyhoo,” he said.

Ross also sticks with a standard spread of tuna baits — ballyhoo fished behind pink skirts or SeaWitches. He keeps one heavy planer rod at hand most of the time, and he’ll drop a bait down between 15- and 25-feet deep behind a planer if he starts marking a lot of bait and what he believes to be tuna on his depth-finder.

“Sometimes, you’ll find birds around them when they’re on top; sometimes you mark ’em, and sometimes you just run across ’em,” Ross said. “It can be great fishing if you get pretty weather. If you’ve got pretty water, it will be pretty good fishing, and normally, it gets more stable, and you get better fishing on into May.”

About Dan Kibler 887 Articles
Dan Kibler is the former managing editor of Carolina Sportsman Magazine. If every fish were a redfish and every big-game animal a wild turkey, he wouldn’t ever complain. His writing and photography skills have earned him numerous awards throughout his career.

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