THE GAME OF WILLS

ORE­GON IN­LET’S BLUEFIN TUNA FISH­ERY PUTS ON AN IN­CRED­I­BLE SHOW

Marlin - - CONTENTS - By An­drew Cox

Ore­gon In­let’s bluefin tuna fish­ery puts on an in­cred­i­ble show

Snap, crackle, pop. It’s not the har­mony pro­duced when you add milk to a bowl of Rice Krispies in the morn­ing; it’s the sound of the line peel­ing off a 130 against nearly 50 pounds of drag — the kind of pres­sure you don’t want to bat­tle for very long. The third hour has come and gone as we work the gi­ant bluefin off the North Carolina coast. I’ve been locked into the fight for far longer than any of us had ex­pected, and the con­tin­u­ous game of give and take doesn’t seem to be end­ing any­time soon. Gain 30 yards, im­me­di­ately lose it. Work your ass off to get it back, and there it goes again. The fish is not happy.

THE CALL

You have plenty of time to think when you’re strapped into a fight­ing chair and tied into a big fish for that long: I flash back to the days lead­ing up to this last-minute trip to Ore­gon In­let to fish with my good friend Capt. Chris Ku­bik aboard Point Run­ner. Ku­bik and I have known each other for quite some time from his days as the mate on Qual­i­fier with Capt. Fin Gaddy, and we’ve had plenty of me­morable days chas­ing sails off Isla Mu­jeres, Mex­ico, as well as fish­ing in sev­eral tour­na­ments in Hat­teras. This past fall dur­ing a ran­dom phone con­ver­sa­tion that segued away from the typ­i­cal foot­ball ban­ter, I men­tioned to him that I’d al­ways wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence the gi­ant bluefin tuna fish­ery off the Outer Banks. It’s a his­toric fish­ery and one that I believe is over­shad­owed by the highly ac­claimed gi­ant bluefin fish­ery off Prince Ed­ward Is­land and Nova Sco­tia. That was on my bucket list too, but Ku­bik promised that when the bluefin showed up off the North Carolina coast in the spring, as they usu­ally do, and there was a win­dow of pretty weather, he would call me … and he did.

“What’s Tues­day look like?” Ku­bik asked from the other end of the line. Mo­ments be­fore, I was clean­ing up the boat from a day on the wa­ter in South Florida. I quickly did a men­tal check of po­ten­tial sched­ule con­flicts be­fore re­al­iz­ing my cal­en­dar was pretty much empty for the week. “The tuna are balling blue­fish on the sur­face right now … nice ones, 300- to 400-pounders. One of the guys had five or six bites a cou­ple of days ago, and a cou­ple of the com­mer­cial guys were ba­si­cally hand-feed­ing the fish they wanted,” Ku­bik con­tin­ued, as I thought about the lo­gis­tics — I was go­ing to make the trip work.

NIGHT MANEUVERS

Two days later, I touched down in Nor­folk, Virginia, a lit­tle be­fore 10 p.m., and drove the two hours south to Man­teo be­fore check­ing into my ho­tel and try­ing to catch a cou­ple of hours of sleep. The only prob­lem was my adren­a­line was al­ready kick­ing with high hopes of just see­ing a gi­ant bluefin sky on a flee­ing blue­fish. Sure, sail­fish and mar­lin take to the air when on the other end of a line, but I al­ways find it as­ton­ish­ing when we are kite-fish­ing and see a king mack­erel come out of the wa­ter on a bait. To see some­thing the size a VW Beetle launch from the wa­ter chas­ing a 5-pound blue­fish would be tak­ing things to an en­tirely dif­fer­ent level.

DUE EAST

And it didn’t take long once we ar­rived on the fish­ing grounds about 30 miles due east of Ore­gon In­let to find ac­tiv­ity ev­ery­where on the sur­face. Paul Mann took a day off from boat­build­ing to join us for the day off­shore as an­other des­ig­nated “reel cranker,” and it was nice catch­ing up with him be­cause it had been a cou­ple of years since we shared a cock­pit. It wasn’t 15 min­utes af­ter putting lines in the wa­ter that Ku­bik spot­ted bluefin balling bait on the sur­face as mas­sive splashes erupted from the wa­ter. Min­utes later, the scream of the drag — even with the clicker turned off — erupted from the rod in the right-flat po­si­tion. Bill Quale, Ku­bik’s un­cle, sit­u­ated him­self in the

chair, and Mann worked the rod from the rod holder over to the chair as Quale pushed the drag up to strike, which was pre­set at 38 pounds.

The line con­tin­ued to peel off the spool as if the fish didn’t even no­tice the drag on the 80 wide. And un­like PEI where cap­tains tar­get bluefin in less than 200 feet of wa­ter, we were fish­ing “over­board” in 4,200 to 5,400 feet, which cre­ates a whole new set of chal­lenges for the crew. Af­ter 45 min­utes, the 93-inch fish, es­ti­mated at 350 to 400 pounds, was at the boat. Quale was glad the bat­tle was over, and the smile on his face was un­for­get­table — it was def­i­nitely a bat­tle and a fish he will never for­get.

Let’s be hon­est: The most ex­cit­ing sec­onds are the bite and the ini­tial run; the fight can be just pure work, and Paul Mann knew that. About an hour later, the 130 wide con­nected to the bait Mann had just ad­justed in the spread be­gan to hum — the kind of un­for­get­table hum­ming sound gen­er­ated when line streaks off a reel loaded with drag and the clicker turned off. But Mann was no rookie: He worked the rod over to the chair and pushed the drag up well past strike and held on. It’s a spec­ta­cle to wit­ness some­one dig into bat­tle at 60-plus pounds of drag, and Mann put on a clinic as he put the heat on the fish to elim­i­nate any kind of long run be­fore rhyth­mi­cally gain­ing line back. One thing was for sure, this bluefin was larger than the first as the load gen­er­ated be­tween the com­bi­na­tion of fish and drag put a bend in the broom­stick of a rod. And then just like that, the line went slack and the fish was gone: the price you some­times pay when push­ing your­self and the tackle to the limit.

That meant one thing — I was next — and it didn’t take long for the 130 to start sing­ing the bluefin blues again.

THE FI­NAL PUSH

“Are we get­ting any­where?” Ku­bik calls down from the bridge as he snaps me out of my daydream of re­count­ing the whirl­wind of the past 36 hours. I’m at a stand­still. Lucas Jolly, Ku­bik’s mate, had fas­tened a floss mark to the line ear­lier in the fight to pro­vide us with an in­di­ca­tion of where

we were. The piece of black floss is my best friend and my worst en­emy: a suc­cess when it reaches the rod tip or un­der a few yards of mono on the reel, or a de­feat when I watch it de­scend be­low the sur­face as the bluefin re­takes line. The pat­tern is con­sis­tent: I could work the gi­ant bluefin to a cer­tain spot in the wa­ter col­umn, and then it would not budge an­other inch. I think there has to be a ther­mo­cline of some sort, but noth­ing is show­ing up on the sounder. We found out later from a com­mer­cial fish­er­man that the im­pen­e­tra­ble bar­rier was a line of jel­ly­fish at 120 feet — they had also had is­sues with stub­born bluefin that just wouldn’t pass through the layer.

We con­tinue to try every trick in the book, and then some: up-sea, down-sea, stretch­ing the line out, get­ting right on top of the fish, tight for­ward turns to port and tight for­ward turns to star­board. Some work bet­ter than oth­ers, and some, to my dis­may, flat out put us at a dis­ad­van­tage. Thank­fully, Mann keeps me well-hy­drated with Ga­torade and well-fed with Oreos and ap­ples — quick bites to put some­thing back in the tank. I even con­sider hav­ing Jolly cut the legs off my jeans be­cause I’m drenched in sweat, but I can only think of how I’d look wear­ing jorts in a photo for the mag­a­zine. Mean­while, time is tick­ing by as I keep con­stant pres­sure on the fish in the fight­ing chair. I know if I let up the pres­sure, even for a mo­ment, the big bluefin would take ad­van­tage of it.

SUN­SET

The fish is the mean­est damn thing I’ve ever bat­tled — I hate it and love it at the same time. As soon as the clock hits the fifth hour, I holler up to Ku­bik that I need to make a de­ci­sion be­cause every inch of my body is fa­tigued from straight-leg­ging the fish in the chair. I’m re­ally not sure how much longer I can keep ap­ply­ing the same amount of torque on the fish: I don’t want to tap out, but I also don’t want to have the same out­come as Mann’s bluefin, with the en­tire five-plus-hour bat­tle be­ing for noth­ing. I do it any­way and slowly work the drag up near full — over 65 pounds — and then all the way, to al­most 70 pounds.

We match the pin­wheel. I gain line every time the gi­ant cir­cles to­ward the boat, and I grab the spool with one hand and the back of the chair with the other when the fish be­gins to turn away. I refuse to give an inch de­spite the bluefin’s in­cred­i­ble force as it tries to pull against me; the ag­o­niz­ing process be­gins to work, and the floss marker is soon buried un­der the newly gained line. Six to eight rounds of this game of back and forth, and there is color down be­low; an­other cou­ple and there it is: the gi­ant bluefin on the sur­face.

My worst night­mare at this point with the fish on the leader is for the tuna to sound again; I pray that Jolly doesn’t have to dump the leader, al­low­ing the gi­ant bluefin to de­scend back into the depths. I phys­i­cally have noth­ing left in me to bat­tle it out for an­other five hours. But Jolly holds onto the leader and re­fuses to let go each time the fish cir­cles away from the boat. The end is in sight, then it hap­pens in a flash: “He’s on it!” yells Ku­bik from the bridge as Jolly be­gins to pull the es­ti­mated 725-pound bluefin boat­side. A gi­ant splash erupts as a 500-pound mako leaves a red cloud in its wake. The fight is over.

Gi­ant bluefin tuna (above) fre­quent the waters off the North Carolina coast as part of their an­nual mi­gra­tion dur­ing late win­ter and early spring, with the end of March and the first two weeks in April be­ing the prime time for cap­tains and an­glers tar­get­ing them out of Ore­gon In­let. Bill Quale (op­po­site) goes to work on a gi­ant bluefin.

Heavy tackle is the name of the game for sub­du­ing gi­ant bluefin tuna. Crews troll a com­bi­na­tion of 80- and 130-wide reels spooled with heavy mono con­nected to 300- to 400-pound lead­ers. They use a com­bi­na­tion of SeaWitches and Ilan­ders (be­low) over bal­ly­hoo, an ef­fec­tive bait bluefin tuna sim­ply can­not refuse. A high-qual­ity bucket har­ness, like the new CP Pro Bucket Har­ness from Seamount (left and above), makes all the dif­fer­ence for an­glers dur­ing long bat­tles with heavy drag that is needed when fight­ing bluefin tuna from the chair. The tax man, a 500-pound mako shark, makes its pres­ence known (op­po­site).

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