- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
Imagine a freight train. Now imagine a freight train, railcars fully loaded with tons of coal and steel, barreling down Mount Kilmanjaro, no brakes, and the road intersection five seconds ahead is grid locked with oblivious commuters in a pitiful traffic jam. Seconds solidify for impact. Hold your breath. Freeze that thought.
You are trolling baits off the North Carolina coastline in late winter, two miles out in 40 feet of water. Your bait is streaking through the water column, oblivious. A shadow with unheard of gigantic proportions emerges instantly behind it. It came from out of nowhere. There is a split instant of silence before the unthinkable materializes in all of its unspeakable reality. Now unfreeze that previous thought.
The last second ticks. It’s here. The looming shadow shows its colors.
That’s the precise moment when a giant bluefin tuna absolutely impacts your lure.
The fish of a lifetime. The author (6'3") wrestled with this mammoth bluefin last winter.
You can’t possibly hear the deafening impact 30 feet below the waterline. But the sound travels instantaneously up the line, through the guides, and hits the reel and rod. What was sound underwater is here, except now it’s transformed into sight. WHA-BAAAAMMMM! BAM-BAM-BAM! Your pitiful stand-up rod, built with the integrity and resolve to endure the apocalypse, is bucking like a frail toothpick. That poor rod. The only sound you hear is the reel crying a squeal so desperate that the line is leaving its golden body at an unfathomable pace which will strip it naked and burn it raw in 20 seconds flat. That poor reel. The explosion has occurred, on board bodies are running, flailing, and confused, your rod and reel are screaming. The silence is gone. You had better decide what to do—quick.
Giant bluefin are, in every sense of the words, colossally explosive.
Giant bluefin have recently, since about 1997, amended their migratory patterns to bend around the North Carolina coastline during the months of December through March of each successive year to date. A relatively new fishery of gargantuan proportions has opened up. In the early stages, the North Carolina fishing fleets started out trolling lures for striped bass and were getting absolutely spooled before they knew what hit them. Striped bass fishermen casting plugs and live-lining bunker from the beaches were telling tales of unfathomable hits stripping them in 5 seconds flat. After some trial and error and luck, some fishermen fought these fish long enough for them to unmask their identity—giant bluefin tuna. And in a frenzied hush, a secretive world-class fishery was born. Well, the secret is out.
The fishing fleets of the Outer Banks, from Hatteras to Morehead City, are privy to this intense bluefin activity. Setting out to the grounds that can range from one mile to 15 miles off of the infamous shoals, charter boats now specialize in targeting giants.
Those Poor Rods & Reels
No other fish will test the limits of your tackle like a giant bluefin.
Capt. John Sowerby of the 50-foot Carolina Custom Hooked Up has tackled these immense predators every season they’ve shown up. To outfit for these beasts, Capt. John sets up with 80- to 130-pound class Penn International or Shimano Tiagra two-speed reels, affixed to sturdy stand up 5- to 6-foot Penn International rods. For line, you may opt for 130- or 150-pound test, but line capacity is more of an issue rather than line strength, since, when angling correctly, the big fish are fought with drag set at about 33 to 40 percent. Giants can empty your reel in literally less than 30 seconds, so it pays to have more line backing your attempt rather than higher pound test line. Reels spooled with 100-pound mono will invariably hold tens to hundreds of yards more line, giving you the edge and the time to react when the locomotives scream line like liquid off the reel. The gear is heavy-duty, and needs to be.
Now the rigs. After 800 yards of 100-pound mono sits on the reel, Capt. John ties 30 feet of double line with a Bimini twist, then 8 feet of 300-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon with a Palomar knot to a 400- to 500-pound Sampo ball bearing swivel, then a Mustad 7691 size 9/0 to 11/0 stainless steel hook to complete the rig. Blue/white and pink/pink IIlander lures are then fixed to the hooks with a fat horse ballyhoo rigged onto the hook. It’s like building a depth charge, and all that’s left is to throw it out and wait for it to explode.
Most boats in the bluefin fleet troll, since they can cover more ground and not have to worry about trolling through another boat’s chum slick, though some boats do anchor up and chunk bunker for the blues on the anchor. To avoid making enemies on the water, if everyone is trolling, your best bet is to follow suit so as not to disrupt the rhythm and presentation that the tuna are used to seeing.
Once a giant is brought boatside, angler(s) and crew must execute a flawless plan in order to get the fish aboard.
The Hooked Up trolls three lines out the back of the stern at about 5 to 6 knots, one running 100 yards behind skipping the surface, and the two others 50 yards back attached with rubber bands and a # 8 planer, which is secured to the stern’s flatline, to get the baits down around 20 to 25 feet. The smaller of the giants (in the 200 to 300 pound range) generally move through in December when water temps hover around 56 to 60 degrees. In January and February, when the water temps lower a bit to the 54 to 56 degree valley, the big bullies in the 400- to 600-pound class take over.
A Violent Scene
Everyone on the boat has a crucial role when angling for giants. The angler and the rod are clipped in and strapped into the fighting chair. Two other mates clear the lines. The angler then fights the giant, pumping the rod high, then reeling down, then repeating until he begins to gain line. Even if you are fighting for what seems like an eternity, NEVER tighten the drag down, you will either snap the line, or the hook will pull through the worn tuna’s mouth. I’ve seen more than my share of broken dreams and broken hearts from a teeny crank down on the drag during a two-hour battle with a bluefin that ended in a sickeningly slack line.
When the giant gets close enough, it begins its death circle. The captain maneuvers the boat into a working position, two mates are ready with their gaffs, and a leader man is ready to grab the line to leader the majestic brute in close for a gaff shot. If all goes well, it’s clockwork. The leader man brings the tuna to the side of the boat, the tuna is stuck with both gaffs in a head shot, the angler is told to back off the drag a bit on the reel in case the tuna gets frisky and free and runs, and the Giant is heaved over the gunwale onto the deck, flopping and trying to break everyone’s legs.
Giant bluefin tuna—the stuff dreams and nightmares are made of.
Be careful when you get a brute on board, it could be a painfully enlightening experience if you’re not careful. Everybody on the boat at this point better be hootin’ and hollerin’, even the seasick guy in the john and the guy eating lunch in the cabin. It’s that simple. Or not.
Keep in mind that the bluefin tuna regulations practically change on a day-to-day basis—no exaggeration. First things first, you need to obtain a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to possess bluefin tuna by calling 1-888-USA-TUNA or visiting www.nmfspermits.com. As it stands of this writing, each registered boat is allowed one small to medium fish 47 to 73 inches and under per day, and is allowed to bring one trophy fish over 73 inches back per year. Yes, year. So you’d better have your gear right the first time you set out to tangle with a giant.
It’s no joke. It’s no secret anymore. Giant bluefin tuna have infiltrated the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And they have successfully implanted themselves into the dreams and nightmares of anglers worldwide. Forget about it, I can’t sleep anymore; I’m heading to Hatteras.