Mention tuna to anglers, and it might bring mental images of a small section of boiling ocean as yellowfins feed relentlessly. For some it evokes memories of aching backs and sore muscles; for others the vision is a lightly-seared steak coming off a grill or a piece of sashimi lightly seasoned with soy and bristling with the raw bite of wasabi.
Tuna are incredibly strong fish and conjure strong images. Just about everyone enjoys eating fresh tuna and many relish the search and battle to put these fish in a boat.
The annual Carolinas yellowfin tuna run typically begins at the end of February or first of March and involves several approaches as they move along the coast. Fishing techniques include a couple of standard trolling scenarios plus another pair of tactics whose acceptance literally is “up in the air.”
Different approaches to tuna fishing are interesting to watch, fun for participants and provide some tasty strips and steaks for the dinner table.
Capt. Michael Wells operates the Miss Anne (919-422-5280, www.missannsportfishing.com) based at Atlantic Beach and loves chasing early-season yellowfins.
He said during the early portion of N.C.’s tuna run, fish are scattered, so it’s beneficial to cover a lot of water rather than concentrating at a single spot.
His approach means using lures that troll at faster speeds than rigged natural baits. However, if Wells discovers a feeding school of yellowfins, he quickly switches his lure spread to ballyhoo rigged behind small Sea Witches and colorful plastic lures.
Wells said tuna are his primary targets during early spring trips to the rips and eddies that flow off the Gulf Stream. Occasionally wahoo and stray dolphin or billfishes also crash his lures. These fish move quickly at the edges of temperature breaks and often have ravenous appetites.
“Because the fish are always moving, early in the year we are working to cover a lot of water to find them,” Wells said.
“I like to pull cedar plugs and swimming lures that have good action at a little higher speed. I usually troll lures between 8 and 10 knots and know I can speed up even more if needed.
“This approach works best early in the year when there aren’t many baitfish, and fish are hungry and not too particular about what they’re eating. It also works pretty well in the fall.”
Wells said he usually trolls an assortment of skirted and unskirted 6-inch Sea Striker cedar plugs. He mixes natural wood and colored lures, plus some diving plugs into his trolling spread. His favorite cedar plug colors are natural, red, pink, blue, green, white and combinations of those colors.
Wells also uses Yo-Zuri Bonito and Braid Runner swimming plugs, jet heads and Wahoo Bombs for trolling below the surface. He sometimes adds a high-speed planer or trolling sinker to get these lures to run even deeper.
Wells said keeping a sharp lookout sometimes allows him to spot tuna jumping in the distance, so he increases his boat speed to intercept these fish.
“That usually produces a few strikes,” he said.
A few times his boat’s speed causes heavy cedar plugs and jet heads to bounce out of the water. However, the lures are ready as soon as he pulls in front of the tuna and slows to fishing speed. Rigged natural baits would have torn apart in the same circumstance.
“When the bait begins to show up, and the tuna concentrate around it, we switch to rigged ballyhoo and slow down and concentrate on fishing baitfish schools,” Wells said. “Sometimes we find a school of tuna that have herded up some bait early in the year. I always have some rigged baits with me, but it usually doesn’t happen until we start seeing flying fish regularly.”
Wells’ rigged natural baits are brined small-to-medium ballyhoo rigged into Sea Witches and smaller plastic-skirted lures. He also uses a selection of 8- to 12-inch squid, some also rigged plain, some hooked to Sea Witches or small plastic lures. Even brined well, the natural baits generally troll best at about 5 to 7 knots.
With lures and natural baits, Wells generally deploys a V-shaped spread using six to eight lines. Outside lines are trolled from out-riggers and at least a pair of the inside lines are set to troll at different depths below the surface.
Take the high road
Capt. Mike Webb, who operates the Pelagic and Pelagic Too, (252-222-4659, www.pelagicsportfishing.com) at Atlantic Beach, begins his yellowfin season by trolling lures and rigged baits much like Wells. However, he has a trick up his sleeve when the tuna become boat or leader shy.
While he trolls several rigged ballyhoo, he also puts up a kite and trolls a couple of lines from it. With a kite, the leaders are out of the water and the kite can be set as near or far from the boat as he wants. The tactic creates a different presentation of baits and works surprisingly well.
Webb’s tuna kite setup begins with an older Penn 6/0 reel mounted on a short rod that resembles a planer rod. The Penn holds 80-pound-test Power Pro small-diameter superbraid line rigged with several small swivels and out-rigger clips already on the line.
Webb uses a Parafoil 5 kite that wasn’t designed for fishing but handles the job well. When he bought the Parafoil, it was a common kite available at any kite shop. Webb prefers the multiple-tail version of the Parafoil 5, which he said is more stable.
The Parafoil 5 has a bridle that’s attached to a small snap swivel at the end of the short rod’s line. Three release clips slide on the line from the reel and are spread apart by resting on different size swivels. The first swivel is the smallest and about 75 feet from the end of the line. The two lower release clips slide across this swivel, while the highest catches on its upper eye. Appropriate size swivels and holes in the release clips place other release clips 50 and 100 feet down the line.
“I can fish two lines just about any time, but I need a little bit of wind to fish all three lines,” Webb said. “The trolling speed from the boat will create enough lift in the kite to hold up two lines, but the best and most versatile presentation is with a steady wind of 12 to 13 knots.
“The extra wind also helps me present lures at various angles, When the wind and whatever rip or weed line I’m fishing are lined up in the right direction, I like to position the kite off the side of the boat and fish up or down the line.”
Webb said the key is positioning kite lures so they skip across the water. Lures should spend about two-thirds of the time out of the water and should touch, splash and skip across the surface but not dive into the water.
Webb also uses home-made flying fish lures with his kite. They’re made from a couple of pieces of 1-inch clear tubing, egg sinkers, a small skirt and a hook. Except for the wing-like parts, they don’t resemble flying fish, but still they mesmerize yellowfins, not only attracting them but rendering them incapable of resisting. Tuna often leap from the water to catch these bouncing lures.
Capt. Billy Maxwell, who runs the Tuna Fever (www.tunafever.com, 252-473-1097) from Oregon Inlet Fishing Center along with longtime mate Billy Dickerson, concentrates on catching tuna.
At Oregon Inlet, Maxwell has easy access to the productive waters north of Cape Hatteras that feature the longest tuna season at the N.C. coast.
While many good ocean fishing areas for tunas are created by undersea rock formations — and there are numerous ones in this area. The waters between Cape Hatteras and Oregon Inlet are where the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current collide. The blending of the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream, both nutrient and bait rich, creates many currents and food sources for tuna. Many tuna species find the region appealing, including yellowfin, blackfin and bigeye.
Maxwell and Dickerson pride themselves on their ability to catch tuna. Their arsenal of techniques includes methods previously discussed, plus one referred to as “green sticking.”
Green sticking, a technique invented by Japanese fishermen, began as an effective commercial tactic. Maxwell and Dickerson, along with area captains, quickly adopted green sticking for charter fishing.
With the heavy tackle it requires, it might not be the most sporting way to catch tuna, but it’s effective, exciting to watch and sometimes saves the day.
Green-stick fishing is similar to kite fishing as lures are suspended from an overhead line and dangle, barely brushing the water. Instead of a kite in the air, a huge wooden “bird” is towed through the water. An anchor ball is attached to the bird to help it float when first deployed and serves as an attractors to raise deep tuna.
The green stick’s name originated from composition of fiberglass resin and material that created a green color. Today green sticks are made of different materials and may be any color, but the original name has stuck.
A green stick is mounted vertically, just aft of the cabin and may be 34- to 45-feet tall. A heavy tag line is attached, with a clip at the end to attach to the main line. A breakaway line, which breaks when a pre-determined amount of weight or force is applied, is also attached to the main-line clip.
For commercial applications the main line is usually 800-pound or heavier monofilament and is attached to an electric or hydraulic winch. On the Tuna Fever, the main line is 400-pound mono and spooled on a Penn 130 International two-speed reel mounted on a custom bent-butt rod.
To deploy the green stick line, the bird and anchor ball are attached to the end of the main line and tossed overboard. Line is deployed from the Penn reel until it reaches a special cushioned section of the line. At this point a specific length drop leader with a plastic squid is attached to the cushioned section of line with a long-line clip.
Then more line is let out until the second special cushioned section of line clears the rod tip. Now a second drop leader and squid, specifically cut for this position on the main line, is attached. This continues until a total of five drop leaders and squids are attached.
Maxwell and Dickerson designed the arrangement for the Tuna Fever. Commercial green stick outfits may include more than a dozen drop leaders.
With drop leaders attached, the main line is dropped back to the next cushioned section and the tag line, with breakaway line attached. More line is let out until it comes tight with the tag line and rises up to run straight from the tip of the green stick to the bird. The five drop leaders are now suspended above the water with their squids brushing and skipping along the water while the bird and anchor ball churn the water into a froth.
With the green stick line in place, Dickerson sets a pair of rigged ballyhoo from the outriggers and places them just outside and behind the closest green stick squid. He also positions a spreader bar bait just ahead of the closest green stick squid.
From the bridge, Maxwell continuously scans the water for whales, birds, jumping tuna or other signs of tuna activity. He keeps strict attention to the fish-finder for tuna marks below the surface.
When Maxwell locates tuna sign, he swings Tuna Fever into a wide circle above the marks, reducing the pressure on the green stick main line. Dickerson picks it up near the reel. As the boat works into the circle, Dickerson begins jigging the main line and soon has the squid jumping across the water in unison.
The baits look so real it’s understandable that tuna react so strongly.
The teamwork of the Tuna Fever captain and mate is impressive and usually results in a strike, but they don’t stop with one hooked fish. Unless it’s a large tuna, the breakaway line won’t give just yet.
A second tuna usually breaks the breakaway line and someone jumps into the fighting chair.
It’s hard work, but always gets a little easier when the first tuna becomes visible just behind the boat. The second one is rarely hard to finish.
As with kite fishing, tuna get excited and sometimes jump clear of the water to grab a green-stick bait.
Other fish also fall for the allure of this fishing technique. Gaffer dolphin often make fools of themselves, sometimes jumping several times before grabbing one of the dancing baits and impaling themselves on the hook.
The 2008 tuna season will begin later this month off the Tar Heel coast. If tuna are present, one of these techniques usually will entice them into striking. At that point it’s up to the angler to subdue them and introduce them to a fillet knife and grill.