Hat­teras In­sider

FISH THE GRAVE­YARD OF THE AT­LANTIC AND LIVE TO TELL ABOUT IT

Saltwater Sportsman - - Table Of Contents / Features - By Ric Burn­ley

This sce­nario is pos­si­ble in only one place on Earth: Hat­teras Is­land, North Carolina, a 60-mile­long strip of sand and scrub that juts out into the mid-at­lantic, right at the con­junc­tion of two ma­jor cur­rents: the Gulf Stream and Labrador.

SPRING KICK­OFF

It’s early April, and I’m rolling around in the cock­pit of Tuna Fever 35 miles off Ore­gon In­let, trolling a dozen skirted bal­ly­hoo.

Capt. Billy Maxwell yells against the wind, “There they are!” I fol­low his point­ing arm and spot a squadron of yel­lowfin tuna swim­ming along a pro­nounced color change.

I re­turn my at­ten­tion to the bal­ly­hoo skip­ping on the sur­face when an ex­plo­sion on the right side of the boat causes the short rig­ger clip to pop and a reel to scream. Maxwell doesn’t pull the throt­tles back un­til 10 rods are bent over with heavy tuna.

Yel­lowfin tuna first show up along the edge of

IT’S A SPRING MORN­ING, AND 10 LINES ARE HEAVY WITH YEL­LOWFIN TUNA. FAST FOR­WARD FOUR MONTHS AND THREE AN­GLERS ARE TIGHT TO BIG COBIA. AN­OTHER FOUR MONTHS AND ONE AN­GLER IS WORK­ING ON A BIG WA­HOO WHEN AN­OTHER ONE STRIKES. FOUR MORE MONTHS AND A FU­RI­OUS BLUEFIN TUNA AT­TACKS A LARGE TOPWATER LURE.

the con­ti­nen­tal shelf, where the warm Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador Cur­rent. The fish haunt the seamounts and val­leys along the 100-fathom drop, fa­vor­ing water tem­per­a­tures from the up­per 60s to lower 70s.

Early in the sea­son, the tuna are con­tent to strike Sea Witches and bal­ly­hoo. As the water warms, the tuna menu switches to fly­ing fish. Then, crews dangle rub­ber fliers from a kite, and al­ways keep a heavy spin­ning rod rigged with a large, cup-faced pop­per to cast at airborne yel­low birds.

When the bite is hot, crews limit out on tuna and re­turn to the dock early. As soon as the boat hits the dock, I’m driv­ing south. An hour later, I pull up to Cape Point on the tip of Hat­teras Is­land to surf-fish for mon­ster red­fish.

I grab a 12-foot surf rod to join a dozen other an­glers lin­ing a sand­bar 20 yards off the beach.

I bait the hook with a chunk of men­haden and launch the rig 100 yards into waves. The guy to my left sets the hook as his rod bends over and line pours off his reel. On my right, an an­gler works a 40-pound red­fish into the shal­lows. As the sun dips be­low

the hori­zon, the wind picks up a notch, and I hope it will be my turn next.

Hat­teras Is­land hosts the largest red drum in the world. The fish re­turn from their win­ter grounds in early April and hang around un­til early sum­mer.

Surf an­glers fo­cus on the south-fac­ing beach at Cape Point and Hat­teras In­let, while boaters catch big drum by an­chor­ing along the edge of the shoals in Hat­teras In­let and fish­ing a chunk of men­haden or mul­let on a fish-finder rig.

On clear, sunny days, it pays to slowly mo­tor along the beach or around the in­let mouth, look­ing for huge schools of red­fish on the sur­face, then launch a 3-ounce buck­tail into the melee and hold on tight; if you don’t spook the school, you can fol­low the fish for miles.

SUM­MER HEATS UP

The early-morn­ing sky flecks gold off a glass-calm sea as we troll naked bal­ly­hoo down a sar­gas­sum line. One of the outrig­ger clips pops, then an­other, and in a few min­utes, half a dozen rods bend over with big dol­phin danc­ing in the dis­tance.

As the an­glers bring their fish to the boat, Capt. Ja­son Snead spots more dol­phin swim­ming be­low the stern. Ev­ery free hand grabs a medium-ac­tion boat rod rigged with chunks of squid and drops it to the gold-and-green fish dash­ing be­hind the boat. In short or­der, mate Jimmy Hills­man con­trols the chaos, while an­glers bail 20-pound dol­phin over the gun­wale.

With the fish box writhing neon gold, Snead looks at me and asks, “You want to go cobia fish­ing?” Never mind we’re 30 miles from the in­shore cobia grounds, I shake my head yes.

By the time the sun is high, we’re slowly chug­ging a mile off the beach, search­ing the green water for brown cobia swim­ming on the sur­face. “Ja­son! Ja­son!” Hills­man screams from the tuna tower. “Stop the boat!” Hills­man rushes to the bow and wings a buck­tail that lands a few feet in front of a cobia. The fish turns, lunges and grabs the bright or­ange buck­tail. Hills­man cranks tight, and line peels off the reel.

Two words sum­ma­rize sum­mer on the Outer Banks: cobia and dol­phin. Cobia show up as soon as the in­shore water tem­per­a­ture hits 70 de­grees. About the same time, dol­phin ar­rive to the long mats of sar­gas­sum grass at the edge of the Gulf Stream.

Fish­ing is bet­ter in early sum­mer, when the big­gest cobia and dol­phin show up. By late sum­mer, smaller dol­phin swarm the weed lines, and packs of cobia turn to sin­gles search­ing the sur­face for an easy meal.

FALL KICKS IT IN

On Satur­day, I’m fish­ing 15 miles off Hat­teras In­let with Capt. Rom Whi­taker IV aboard Re­lease, his fa­ther’s 50-foot char­ter boat. Five miles from the fish­ing grounds, he slows the boat to 15 knots and in­structs us to drop a high-speed trolling lure over­board. A few min­utes later, the heavy rod bucks heav­ily with the weight of a big wa­hoo.

The next day, I’m fish­ing from a 20foot skiff with Capt. Cameron Whi­taker, Rom’s brother, 4 miles be­hind Hat­teras In­let. He drops the an­chor on a shal­low flat and launches chunks of mul­let in ev­ery di­rec­tion. As the sun goes down, the first rod goes off, and a red­fish surges to­ward the hori­zon. Be­fore I can pull the rod from the holder, three other rods bend and line screams from the reels.

Hat­teras’ hottest fish­ing is in the fall. As the water cools and the days get shorter, sum­mer fish mi­grate past the is­land on their way to warmer climes.

The cir­cus starts in early Septem­ber with the ar­rival of white mar­lin off Ore­gon In­let. The fish key in on schools

of bait rid­ing warm-water ed­dies that spin down the edge of the con­ti­nen­tal shelf. Crews pull dredges and teasers to draw white mar­lin to naked bal­ly­hoo on cir­cle hooks. When the ac­tion is on fire and the crews are hot, dou­ble-digit flags line the rig­gers of boats re­turn­ing to port.

By Oc­to­ber, sum­mer is fi­nally over, and yel­lowfin tuna re­turn to their old haunts off Ore­gon In­let. Big­eye tuna are also in the mix. Trolling bal­ly­hoo on Sea Witches and Ilan­ders at dawn or dusk af­fords the best shot at be­ing at­tacked by a gang of bigeyes.

On the Hat­teras In­let side of the is­land, warm Gulf Stream wa­ters carry big wa­hoo to the off­shore pin­na­cles and val­leys. The best game plan is to roll to the fish­ing grounds pulling a high-speed trolling lure at 15 knots. Then, at the edge of the shelf, put out a spread of Sea Witches and Ilan­ders skirted with se­lect bal­ly­hoo rigged on sin­gle-strand wire.

At that same time of year, in­shore an­glers catch red drum and speck­led trout be­hind the is­land. Search­ing the grass flats for reds armed with a gold spoon on a medium-ac­tion spin­ning rod, or an­chor­ing up at the edge of a shal­low to fish chunks of cut bait on a dou­ble-hook bot­tom rig does the job.

Speck­led trout hang out in deep holes in the back­wa­ter of the sound or the deep sloughs along the surf line. You catch them with sus­pend­ing hard baits or a jig rigged with a soft plas­tic.

Big drum re­turn to the surf and shoals in Oc­to­ber, when an­glers fo­cus on the north-fac­ing beaches and piers, and the surf at Cape Point and Hat­teras In­let.

WIN­TER TUNA

It’s late Jan­uary, and I’ve found the best way to stay warm on the Outer Banks: tuna hunt­ing.

We’re drift­ing over a rock pile in 50 fath­oms as the wind blows the sea into a gray froth. De­spite the cold, sweat drips down my fore­head.

Capt. Jay Daniels calls, “Six col­ors!” from the bridge of Ru­n­away, a 45-foot clas­sic Carolina boat, and I drop my 7-ounce ver­ti­cal jig un­til the color on my depth-coded braid changes six times.

When my jig reaches the or­dered depth, I en­gage the reel and start crank­ing and jig­ging the rod tip. On the sixth jerk, my rod stops vi­o­lently, and the line rips in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. From the bend in my rod and burn in my fore­arms, I can tell it’s a big one.

Black­fin tuna keep an­glers warm un­til the big bluefins show up east of the 100-fathom drop. On a late-win­ter morn­ing, I’m rid­ing on the bridge of High Re­turn with Capt. David Swain. We’re 30 miles off Ore­gon In­let, fish­ing an area pocked with oily slicks criss­crossed by swirling seabirds.

When a ball of bait shows up on the fish finder, Swain comes off the throt­tles. In the cock­pit, three an­glers take turns launch­ing big topwater plugs be­hind the boat. A ner­vous si­lence con­sumes the crew un­til a huge ex­plo­sion breaks it.

The an­gler holds tight while the line dis­ap­pears from his spin­ning reel. The next 40 min­utes are a give-and-take bat­tle that brings a 200-pound bluefin to the back of the boat. The an­gler is ex­hausted, but the fish still has some fight; it makes a fi­nal vi­o­lent surge, break­ing the line and the an­gler’s heart.

Big bluefins draw a lot of at­ten­tion to the Outer Banks, where the ba­sic trolling setup of lo­cal crews is a 130-pound rod and reel rigged with a horse bal­ly­hoo and heavy Hawaiian Eye.

But when the fish get finicky, noth­ing fires them up like a big rub­ber squid dan­gling from a green stick. Don’t have a green stick? Don’t worry, the light touch of a 12-inch stick­bait on an ex­tra-heavy spin­ning out­fit can be just the trick.

FALL REG­U­LARS: With cooling tem­per­a­tures, wa­hoo make a pre­dictable ap­pear­ance, left. HOL­I­DAY TIME: Sum­mer­time an­glers find dol­phin abun­dant off Hat­teras.

WIN­TER WARM-UP: Fall and win­ter bring plenty of op­por­tu­nity for yel­lowfin, black­fin and bluefin tuna.

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