I clearly remember that moment when my fishing DNA changed forever.
It was late fall nearly 20 years ago, and we had run out of Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, bound for the edge of the continental shelf, where the plan was to drift for yellowfin tuna. I had scored a ride offshore with Gary Adolf and his crew, who trailered Adolf’s 25-foot center console through the night from Virginia to the ramp at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. In predawn darkness, Gary followed a long line of sportfishing boats through the channel and out the inlet.
By the time the sun broke the horizon, we were on the edge of the shelf. Cold air steamed off the warm Gulf Stream. Long-winged birds whirled over blue water, and several boats were stopped along the edge of a green-blue color change. Gary pulled back the throttles, and the boat settled into a slow chug. We gathered around the fishfinder like a family watching a holiday special on television. A huge red blob appeared. Gary took the boat out of gear, and the crew moved quickly to set things up.
Back then, just about everyone who was fishing for tuna was chunking. On the run to the grounds, we chopped two flats of butterfish into bite-size pieces. As the boat drifted in the Stream, we pitched chunks into the water. Gary pulled three 30-pound-class outfits off the T-top rod holders. We baited the hooks and set the lines at various depths.
Before the third bait was in place, the first rod bowed, and the reel sang out as a fast-moving fish lit out for Neptune’s abyss. Gary pushed the drag forward and the protestations turned into a howl. He pulled the rod out of the holder and helped me clip it to my shoulder harness.
That’s the moment my fishing world turned upside down. The rod bent deeply, and the reel gave line against heavy drag. I leaned back to keep the fish from yanking me overboard. I had pulled big striped bass and red drum out of the water, but I had never hooked into anything that had a chance of pulling me into the water. After 15 minutes of frantic give and take, the fish was in sight, and Gary hit it with the gaff. That 50-pound yellowfin lying at my feet rewrote my definition of fishing.
Life and Times
Yellowfin tuna aren’t just tough — they’re pretty, too. These football-shaped fish have a dark black back that fades to neon blue above the lateral line. A bold streak of yellow runs from eye to tail, and the lower half of the body is mercurial silver streaked with vertical stripes. The fish gets its name from the yellow finlets that run along the top and bottom of its aft section. The most striking feature is the long yellow anal and dorsal fins that curve like a scythe.
An average Atlantic yellowfin weighs between 30 and 50 pounds, with some besting 100 pounds. In the Pacific the fish grow to more than 400 pounds. The International Game Fish Association record is 427 pounds, caught off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Yellowfin tuna spend most of their time above the thermocline, but satellite tagging data show that they occasionally dive deep. They travel in packs — one of their most endearing qualities — and will not only join other yellowfin but will also school with dolphin and whales.
Unlike most fish, which are cold-blooded, tuna can warm their blood to survive in cooler water. This, along with their muscle-bound, missile-shaped bodies, make yellowfin one of the hardest-pulling fish in the ocean.
Many fish species follow regular, predictable migrations that anglers can track, but there’s no set pattern of movement for yellowfin. Not only will these world travelers move east and west across the Gulf Stream, they’ll also ride the currents north and south, and even venture thousands of miles between Europe and the Americas. And they’ll eat anything from squid and anchovies to worms and flying fish. Yellowfin always order the soupe du jour, a cause of endless anxiety and constant innovation among those who pursue them with a passion.
In the Mid-Atlantic region, Oregon Inlet is tuna central. For years, the arrival of yellowfin brought anglers to this fishing outpost on the Outer Banks. You might say that Oregon Inlet Fishing Center — just north of its precarious namesake inlet — is the town that tuna built.
Capt. Billy Baum started fishing the Outer Banks when he was 12. He’s 88 this year. Baum’s early offshore trips targeted dolphin on weed lines, usually within sight of land. He doesn’t remember his first yellowfin, but he recalls the early days of the fishery. “Every once in a while, the Gulf Stream would move in, and we’d get hit by a school of yellowfin,” he says. But the tackle of the day was inadequate for handling tuna, and the encounter usually resulted in busted gear and parted lines.
As technology improved and anglers were able to navigate with Loran and find the edge of the continental shelf with sonar, Baum and the burgeoning Fishing Center fleet ventured farther offshore. Hearty reels and heavy rods could handle tuna and just about anything else Neptune had to offer.
Baum and his colleagues initially trolled with rigged squid. “Run the hook in through the mantle and out the head,” he says. “It was simple but deadly.” The bait was lashed to the hook with twine soaked in beeswax. The right squid could be difficult to find, however, and they didn’t last long on the hook.
Baum spent summers fishing off Oregon Inlet and winters in Florida. That’s where he discovered fishing with ballyhoo. “I brought as many as I could back each year,” he recalls.
His success with ballyhoo persuaded other skippers to switch their bait, and before long the Fishing Center was ordering it by the truckload. “The competition at the Fishing Center is so intense; we’re constantly perfecting our tactics,” he says. Not long after, they added skirts to the ballyhoo, helping to pioneer modern tuna fishing. “The more you fish, the more you learn.”
Perhaps no one fishes more — and learns more — than Capt. Rom Whitaker. He’s been fishing out of Hatteras Inlet since the 1970s, and he still remembers his first yellowfin. “I was fishing on a borrowed boat,” he laughs, “with 6/0 reels and Dacron line.”
In 1970, navigation was limited to a compass and a watch. “When we lost the bottom on the flasher, I would troll out for a half-hour, then turn around and troll back in,” he says, “and never lose sight of Diamond Shoals light tower so I could get home.”
On one of his first trips offshore a yellowfin exploded on a Psycho Squid, a plastic trolling bait popular in the early days. “Someone told me that they catch fish, so I bought one at the tackle shop,” Whitaker says. That fish made a lasting impression.
Fifteen years later, he left the 9-to-5 rat race and joined the Hatteras charter fleet. “Yellowfin tuna had a tremendous impact on Hatteras charter fishing,” Whitaker says.
He tells stories of the glory days in the ’80s and ’90s,when yellowfin arrived each fall and spring like clockwork. “Boats would come from Oregon Inlet and all over to fish out of Hatteras,” he says. “The charter fleet flourished.” Today the fishing is tougher. “With fewer fish and more anglers, we had to innovate.”
Hatteras has been a petri dish for producing tuna techniques used around the world. Hatteras anglers were the first east of Hawaii to embrace the greenstick, a vertical outrigger that drags baits from a dropper line.
Over the years, the tuna have gotten smarter. Whitaker and his Hatteras colleagues had to innovate to stay ahead of the fish. “We could see the tuna chasing flying fish, but we couldn’t get them to bite,” he says. So Capt. Randy Turner and Whitaker rigged flying fish to kites. “That worked,” he says. Eventually they switched to rubber flying fish and squid. “It’s still the best way to catch tuna in late spring.”
The Hatteras tuna fleet also developed the wind-on leader and started using 80-pound fluorocarbon to catch more tuna. “Back in the day, a ballyhoo on No. 9 wire was deadly,” he says. “You can catch them on anything when they are there.”
Whitaker now sees more anglers who only want to fish for tuna with jigging and popping tackle. “We’ve created jigging snobs,” he jokes. “But they’d rather catch one tuna on light tackle than a limit with trolling gear.”
The Future is Now
“Blame it on El Niño or global warming, but the fish aren’t there like they were,” Whitaker says. In winters past, crews would run 60 miles south to find the edge of the Gulf Stream. Now the warm water is 15 miles from Hatteras Inlet. “Maybe the fish are farther north, or maybe they are on the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream,” Whitaker says.
Baum agrees. “For whatever reason, the fish seem to be farther north,” he says. “Used to be we could catch yellowfin on the edge of the Gulf Stream all winter.”
In addition to running charters, Whitaker is a 17-year veteran of the National Marine Fisheries Commission Highly Migratory Species panel. “I’ve been asking them for years to do something about yellowfin tuna,” says Whitaker, who believes restrictions need to be tightened on yellowfin. Recently the commission listed yellowfin as overfished. “But they haven’t put any restrictions,” he says.
That may change. Dr. John Graves, chairman of the U.S. Advisory Committee for the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, says yellowfin tuna populations will be assessed this year. Last year, the commission looked at the bigeye fishery. “That population had tanked,” he says.
Graves believes purse seiners in the eastern Atlantic may be to blame. “Juvenile yellowfin and bigeye co-school with skipjack tuna,” he says, and skipjack harvest limits were increased by 100,000 metric tons. “That results in removal of large numbers of young yellowfin and bigeye.”
After the assessment is completed, Graves is hopeful that ICCAT will respond. “They didn’t do much to curtail the practice at the last meeting,” he says.
Whatever the future holds for yellowfin, anglers out of Oregon Inlet and Hatteras will be at the forefront of the fishery. Jigging, chunking, trolling, kite fishing or using the greenstick, there is no better place to catch yellowfin — be it your first or 50th.