Yellow Fever

April and May are the top months for anglers to encounter yellowfins, but dolphins, wahoos and some billfish may attack trolled baits.

The No. 1 offshore sportfish for N.C. anglers are yellowfin tunas and they provide fun from Oregon Inlet to Frying Pan.

Yellowfin tunas (Thunnus albacares) are abundant year round in Gulf Stream waters off North Carolina’s Atlantic coast.

Despite ads and banners hyping billfishing, the main spring charterboat catches off North Carolina are yellowfin tunas —and nobody complains.

Yellowfins are strong fighters, great eating, and a generous regulatory allowance allows anglers to take home lots of meat.

And that’s not the half of it.

A lot of guys use their own boats to go chasing after yellowfins. Experienced anglers with 24-footers (smaller boats tempt fate) reach them after an hour from Hatteras Inlet during calm days. At other ports and times of year, no port is too far for a charterboat.

The bottom line for do-it-yourselfers is you can safely get to the Gulf Stream during flat summer days and go with professionals on big boats (40- to 60-footers) other times.

Worldwide in warm seas, yellowfins make up most of the market in red-meat “tunas,” although bluefin and bigeye command higher prices.

Many nations list yellowfins as their major seafood export. In North Carolina, you’re more likely to have a banner day fishing for yellowfins than crappies.

They’re tough fighters that provide a workout, are predictable, abundant, and, not being the brightest bulbs in the Gulf Stream, you don’t need know-how to put them in the box.

If you find them, you catch them. However, sometimes that can be a big “if.”

Morehead City

Bill Dillon is skipper of the Beagle, a 62-foot Harris sportfisherman at Atlantic Beach.

He emphasized the importance of a wide, heavy, seaworthy boat.

“The wind blows hard in March and often April, and the seas can beat you to death,” he said. “If you don’t have a big boat to get out, you won’t have a good ride or a good time.”

Dillon starts catching yellowfin tunas during March, but it’s tough because so many windy days force cancellations.

April is better and often really good. He manages sometimes as many as 14 charters but often only four charters in April because of windy days. Dillon always advises people to reschedule rather than face big seas built by 20- to 25-knot winds.

It’s a long way to the Gulf Stream and deep water, where yellowfins prowl.

“You can’t start hard looking until you hit 35 miles (off the beach),” he said. “Anywhere inshore, you’re wasting your time.”

The most important structure off Morehead City is the Big Rock, a plateau jutting upward into the Gulf Stream, forcing the current up and over it, the drag pulling sediments and nutrients off the sea floor to feed year-round plankton that bring baitfish and predators.

The strongest currents flow and greatest baitfish concentrations are at the northeast corner of Big Rock, and it’s first choice during billfish tournaments.

But is it the best place for yellowfins?

“The northeast corner is done,” Dillon said.

He’ll fish there during weekdays since it’s hard to beat, but crowds of small boats during weekends interfere with trolling and fighting, and it’s pointless to put lines on top of everyone else’s if you can find good ocean to yourself.

The Big Rock isn’t the only place out there.

Dillon keeps going until he reaches the Continental Shelf break, the 50-fathom drop into deep slope water. He’ll often start south to southwest looking for blended water or a sharp temperature change from the 400 line southward.

He trolls small ballyhoos naked near to the boat or white, blue or pink sea witches on the long lines, and flathead baits on the short-riggers. All trolling outfits for yellowfins are 50-pound tackle, but bigger gear is stowed just in case.

“We’ll occasionally kite fish, which has spectacular strikes,” he said, “but wind direction limits when you do that.”

March produces only yellowfins that can see and avoid wire, but April brings wahoo that slice through anything except wire, so it’s a judgment call. When wahoo are around (a cutoff is a hint), Dillon puts wired baits on the short-riggers.

“You’ll catch some yellowfins on wire,” he said, “but it’s tough.”

Every now and then, there’s an early billfish during April, but it’s not like July and August, the billfish peak at Morehead.

If March is tough and April better, May beats both because windy days are fewer and everyone gets more fishing, said Pete Zook, skipper of the Energizer, a 46-foot Harris also berthed at Morehead City.

“April can be very, very good, but it’s hard to get a pretty day. Last year it blew every weekend,” he said. “April and May are both tops for big yellowfin, but in May we’ll also see big dolphin, wahoo, and the first billfish of the year.”

“Try to fish a weekday because your chance of having a great trip are increased dramatically.”

Fewer people out on weekdays means fewer distractions and baits in the water. If you’re the only boat (or one of few), you’re more likely to get hits and the tuna less likely to be spooked.

Zook fishes everything, from trolling to stand-up with TLD 25s, 20 pound conventional or spinning, or even fly fishing gear. Some people bring their own for light tackle fishing, but he carries everything for every taste. Most people want to do meat fishing, for which he rigs 30- to 50-pound-class trolling tackle.

He trolls mostly small ballyhoo, some chin-weighted, naked or not. He likes blue-and-white or blue-and-crystal sea witches, Carolina witches, Islanders, Tuna Busters or softheads.

Like Dillon, Zook avoids the crowds at the Rock’s northeast corner.

“It’s an excellent place during the week but covered with small boats on weekends,” he said.

Mostly he heads south to the 50-fathom break, but some years as far as 200 or 250 fathoms before finding the right water. And that’s another reason to be on a big boat. Twenty-four footers don’t have the fuel or the range, and (most of all) most amateurs don’t have the skills and experience to handle sudden big seas, never mind big fish from small boats..


No inlet is closer to the Gulf Stream and shelf break than Hatteras, the best port for a small boat running out for billfish and tuna.

Sportfishing clubs run out from here, the guys with trailered boats carrying other members who split costs and cleanup afterward. It’s safer to traverse than Oregon Inlet, and the shortest run to blue water.

Fine in summer, at any other season running small boats to the Gulf Stream is risky no matter how many boats run together. There’s more risk-taking than safety in numbers.

Hatteras is all about commercial and sport fishing. Offshore charters and commercial boats fill the marinas in Hatteras Village, where Jim Bowman berths his 54-foot Carolina Custom Marlin Mania.

“It takes us up to an hour and a half to the Gulf Stream, and sometimes an hour,” he said, noting that the 25-mile run (on average) is half the distance than from Oregon Inlet. That’s more sleep or fishing time, your choice.

If the runs is shorter, the season also begins earlier. Bowman starts after yellowfin during January although strong winds keep him in port much of the month.

“February and March are peak months for yellowfins here,” he said. “The fish are thick and you don’t have to spend time looking for them.”

The wind limits fishing days. Bowman checks the marine report, and makes decisions on wind speed and direction and on seas. A north wind is not a deal breaker, if it’s less than 20 knots and the seas less than 4 feet at Diamond Shoals. Winds out of the south, east, or southeast make for sloppy water.

Last year Bowman had hardly any fishing days during January, but 10 or 12 during February, with March as good.

“Last February 1st,” he said, “the water was 73 degrees and choppy, and the fish didn’t start hitting until the afternoon, but before it got too rough we boated 10 fish. We could have stayed and gotten more, but it was enough.”

Bowman uses 50-pound gear, the reels loaded with 80-pound line. He has 80-pound fluorocarbon leaders (tuna are wire-shy). He sometimes puts out squid daisy chains or a spreader bar. Generally he uses small ballyhoos, some naked and some dressed in sea witches. He’ll do some stand-up fishing with people who bring their own tackle or supply it. It doesn’t take long before they want his baits on their gear.

When looking for tunas, anglers want to watch temperature, clarity, depth and current. In early spring Bowman runs 24 knots to 40 or 50 fathoms but may keep going to 200 fathoms looking for the right water where there’s little to no current.

“No current at all is important for billfish, less important for tuna,” he said. “You’ll get yellowfin in a 2- or 3-knot current, but no current is better.

“At 50 fathoms I’ll turn 240 degrees to the southwest, and if the current is slowing me by 3 knots, I may go out still further looking for slower water or no current at all,” he said.

He’s also able to judge current by stopping the boat and checking GPS locations over time to get the rate of drift, which is the current rate if there’s no wind.

If the drift is too fast, he keeps going sometimes to 200 fathoms, where current is less important.

Some days when fishing yellowfin or dolphin (lots of people get a kick out of dolphin), he’ll find water with no current. When that happens, he’ll advise: “Let’s go after billfish.”

On the other hand, if the current is just too fast everywhere, he’ll encourage people to go after dolphin.

Oregon Inlet

The fishing is later and different near the Virginia Border, with boats out of Oregon Inlet, Pirates Cove, Broad Creek and Thicket Lump traversing Oregon Inlet and working the same offshore grounds.

“April and May are great yellowfin tuna months,” said Steve Budd of the 45-foot Midgett sportfisher Free Spool out of Oregon Inlet, “and it extends into June, when we also might get bigeye tuna near the Point. “

He advises chartering a weekday, if anglers can swing it, for two reasons. It’s easier to get a weekday charter on short notice and there are fewer boats out there, so people aren’t running over each other’s lines.

Weekends bring everybody and his uncle onto the same grounds, and it gets crowded when the fish are bunched in one place.

“In the spring we often run south toward Hatteras to around the 280 rocks and then up to the 400 line,” he said. “Later in the year we go straight east toward the Point. We’ll check anywhere from 30 to 200 fathoms, always looking for clear water and a temperature break.”

Budd said the best temperatures for yellowfins are middle to upper 70s, but he finds them down to 63 to 68 degrees.

“They don’t like temperatures as high as 80,” he said, which is why mid summer is not a good time to fish them.

“I like to find at a temperature that breaks from the 60s to a sudden 73 or 74 degrees with clear water.”

Those aren’t the only indicators. At a distance, he’ll make for any concentration of birds or bonitos (small tunas) crashing the surface. Bonitos mark baitfish such as glass minnows, which anglers can see from the bridge when the wind is flat calm; they dapple the surface like rain drops. It’s a lot easier to rely on bonitos to locate bait.

“Squids are also good,” Budd said. “I can mark them on my bottom-sounder just off the bottom, but easier when they’re making a midwater mark. Sometimes you’ll even mark tunas passing under the boat.”

Budd couldn’t say exactly what tunas look like in his viewer, pointing out that every sounder is different. What he sees might look different on another model.

When he finds a likely spot, he trolls medium ballyhoos, since the small ones don’t hold up. At least two (often more) are naked and produce better than ’hoos dressed with skirts or Sea Witches.

“They’re all weighted with a ¾-ounce chin lead to keep them under the surface,” he said.

Budd also drifts ballyhoo for tunas and said naked baits work better than anything else.

About 90 percent of the time he rigs with about 50 feet (8 arm-widths) of 130-pound monofilament crank-on leader from the swivel to the bait, enough for repeated trimming of abraded ends during the day. Other times he’ll use a lighter 100-pound crank-on leader.

Budd also runs spreader bars with squids. He’ll usually pull one farthest back off the bridge. If it produces well, he’ll pull a second smaller spreader bar on a short rigger.

The bigger spreader carries 9- to 12-inch squid, and the smaller one 5- or 6-inch squid.

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