They’re baaaaaack. That’s the call bouncing down the Morehead City Waterfront and along the Atlantic Beach Causeway, and it’s about bluefin tuna. The largest members of the tuna family arrived off North Carolina’s Crystal Coast this past weekend after a very conspicuous absence for a handful of years. 

“There is a little question as to who might have seen them first, but Maurice Davis and his crew from the Capt. Stacy Fishing Center were the first to land one,” said Joe Shute of Atlantic Beach’s Cape Lookout Fly Shop. “They caught the first one on Sunday, Nov. 30, and added two more on Monday, Dec. 1.

“This is a really good group of fish and contains bluefins from about 70 inches to more than 100 inches,” Shute said. “The biggest one taken so far was 104 inches; it was caught by Capt. John Cawthern and the crew of the Procastinator on Monday. They’re a little thin right now, but they have a little fat and should butterball up pretty quickly with all the bait that’s out there for them. There are big pods of shad from the Trawler out to the Knuckle, and the bluefins are there, fattening back up after their journey.”

Shute said that when Dr. Barbara Block of Stanford University was here tagging and measuring, she would refer to fish with these characteristics as Mediterranean stock, fish that made their migration directly to North Carolina waters from the Mediterranean sea, explaining why they were so thin. Shute said Block, a leading bluefin researcher, would be very pleased to see the multiple year-classes represented in the latest catches.

Only six boats fished on Monday, according to Shute, and they caught 13 bluefins. Every boat had multiple hookups, and five fish were kept. He expects to have a small fleet targeting them over the next few days. Catches have been reported from both sides of Cape Lookout shoals, so this appears to be a sizeable body of bluefins. 

Several fishermen are wondering aloud if this might be good bluefin fishing coming around on a cycle. When they first showed to be noticed in the 1990s, most were off Hatteras for about five years before moving to Cape Lookout. They have been gone from Cape Lookout but being caught at Hatteras for the past four or five years, and now this group has moved in.

Randy Gregory of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries cautioned fishermen to have the proper permits and know the regulations before heading out for bluefins. There is a HMS Angling Category for private recreational vessels, a HMC Charter/Headboat Category for vessels for hire and a General Category for commercial vessels. The permits are federal permits, the same ones required to keep yellowfin, bigeye, skipjack and albacore tuna. They can be purchased one of three ways from the NMFS Permit Shop at https://hmspermits.noaa.gov/default.asp. Fishermen can apply using a credit card and print their permit after completing the transaction.  

Regulations allow keeping one bluefin daily between 27 and 47 inches and one 47 to 73 inches for Angling Category permits and two from 27 to 47 inches and one from 47 to 73 inches for HMS Charter/Headboat permitted vessels per day. No fish larger than 73 inches may be kept by recreational fishermen. No fish smaller than 73 inches may be kept by commercial fishermen.

Bluefin tuna are highly monitored, and regulations can change quickly. They should be checked before a trip and are available on the NMFS Permits Shop website.