Fall Blue Water Awaits
If your agenda for the year includes a trip offshore for a shot at the big boys of the blue water, don’t wait; the big game scene off the Virginia and North Carolina coasts has been boiling between hurricane threats with even more action pending through the fall. As of late, billfish have taken the show, with elegant white marlin and powerful blues thrilling anglers with their explosive tail-walking displays with relative consistency. Meat seekers have been more than content, proudly rolling in with boatloads of respectably stout tuna and varying sizes of dolphin. Sporadic skirmishes with greedy wahoo are becoming more common, and at the minimum make for an interesting story back at the dock. What could make things any better? More. And more is on the way. Look for the fall tuna bite to flare again around late September, and it’s just a matter of time until the big king mackerel terrorize the coast, and the big blue fin tuna fishery tempts brave anglers with a battle of a lifetime.
When and Where:
Tuna make notorious entrances and exits, and as the yellow fin, smaller blue fin, and other varieties of tuna make their departure to the south through October, local anglers will have the chance to cash in on a particularly hungry tuna population at the usual haunts ranging from 40 to 60 miles out, with the “Fingers” and the Norfolk Canyon noted as favorite picks.
Billfish action start on a downward slope as late fall inches closer, but the occasional thrill of a white or blue marlin blissfully window-shopping through your baits is not unheard of through October, especially in the deeper waters down south.
Wahoo can be targeted most anywhere you find tuna, and can continue to stir up trouble into November after the tuna action has slowed. A fired-up wahoo is a handful, and will offer an exhilarating experience, along with a tasty trophy for the dinner table. King mackerel, also known for their fast-paced action, are often present in larger numbers closer inshore through October when the big kings are on patrol around structures, and wrecks. Just as with their wahoo cousins, king mackerel are decent table fare, and are certainly worthwhile targets.
Watch out when the big blue fin tuna decide to make their entrance. These fish can range in upwards of several hundred pounds, and are for strong anglers looking for a whopping battle with a Volkswagen of a fish. Once located, the giants will tend to hang in areas of up to twenty fathoms of water, frequently handing out beatings to courageous anglers well into the early winter months.
Weather and Intel:
Experts have differing opinions on how weather affects the offshore scene. From what I gather, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So if the bite’s been hot, a change in weather conditions is not necessarily a welcome entity. Many offshore experts will swear though, that a cold front with a stiff NE wind will stir up a lame bite just before and after it rolls through. And it’s no surprise that the general consensus is that hurricanes and tropical storms are bad news all around, and will likely scatter any conglomeration of fish with no discerning pattern. As for surface conditions in general, on any typical offshore day, tuna hunters will hope for a slight to moderate chop on the water to gain an edge, while marlin seekers tend to prefer calmer seas, helpful for spotting that telltale fin cruising in on the baits.
Intel and information gathering is an absolute requirement while planning an offshore extravaganza. Recent successes (and failures) of other’s offshore trips, postings on local internet sites, and gouge from local tackle shops, are extremely helpful in offering direction for locating fish. But most importantly, obtain and study a recent seawater temperature chart to locate the warmer water and major temperature breaks to help round out your game plan.
Equipment and Tackle:
Most offshore anglers prefer to employ an assortment of rod and reel combos ranging from 30-pound class, up to about 80-pound class equipment. The lighter set-ups are typically used for targeting species such as white marlin, dolphin and king mackerel, while the heavier combinations are hopeful for the larger tuna, wahoo, and big blue marlin. It is not uncommon, though to end up with quite a situation when that big tuna or blue marlin disagrees over which combo is his, and opts for the lighter class tackle instead. When big blue-fin tuna are on the agenda, taking along anything less than heavy equipment capable of handling 50-80 plus class tackle is asking for a lengthy struggle, which will overstress the fish-and the angler.
Bait and Lures:
Bait and lure selection, and rigging preferences certainly has a vast possibility of combinations based on personal choice, as well as time-proven success. Popular lures include an array of choices such as cedar plugs, Green Machines, and feathered lures. The most commonly used natural bait trolled for all the big game species is the well-known ballyhoo. Most offshore anglers will pull a variety of rigged ballyhoo, some rigged behind skirts such as Sea Witches or Islanders with or without weights, and some trolled plain, with no skirts. Other popular baits include rigged mullet, ocean squids, and the standard blue marlin magnet, the rigged spanish mackerel. If you plan to chunk for blue fin tuna, be sure to take along several flats of butterfish, available at local tackle shops.
The number of lines you pull depends on the experience level of your crew, the targeted species, sea conditions, and invariably, the size of your boat. It is not a requirement, but using outriggers will significantly enhance the quantity of lines, and the quality of your spread. Usually, two lines from the long-riggers further back, two lines from the short-riggers a little closer in, two flat lines, and a shot gun line is a good start for a decent presentation. Teasers, such as squid-chains, chuggers, and dredges secured off the riggers or behind the boat will draw attention to your spread, greatly enhancing the likelihood for strikes.
While pulling the lines at a clip ranging anywhere from 5-8 knots, the baits and lines should be watched closely in order to observe any fish swirling in the spread, and to ensure the baits are swimming naturally, and are free of grass. Washed-out baits and grass-cladden ballyhoo under the discerning eye of these pelagic fish will tip them off in a second.
There is no one standard hook-up technique, but most everyone agrees that hooking tuna while trolling is pretty much a no-brainer. Tuna have an uncanny tendency to hook themselves on a tight drag without any help at all. The trick is to continue trolling, leaving the lines in the water in the hopes that other tuna in the vicinity will commit to the same mistake. The most common billfish-hooking tactic involves beating the fish to the rod, feeding him the bait, reeling in the slack, and then lifting the rod tip to hook the fish. Once the fight is on, all the lines should be cleared as quickly as possible in preparation to back down on the fish.
When boating these fish, the crew should handle billfish with care, gently leadering the fish along side the boat and holding his bill while the hook is removed in the water. Once the fish can swim on his own, release him on his way.
The meat variety of fish such as tuna and dolphin can also be smoothly leadered to the side of the boat, until a firmly held gaff hits true to the head, and the fish is swiftly hauled into the boat. Once in the boat, stand back, these fish tend to have lots of energy, and depending on the fish, can sport a decent set of sharp teeth.
When considering your offshore options during the fall months, don’t delay, the fall blue water awaits.
A special thanks to Captain Randy Morton, Dr. Ken Neill, and Captain Steve Wray (757-481-7517 for charters) for sharing their knowledge and input.