Nothing beats the thrill of giant Bluefin Tuna fishing. Seeing a quarter-ton Tuna burst out of the water is enough to send shivers down any angler’s spine. Bluefin show up all around the States, but nowhere offers more hair-raising action than the Outer Banks.
Anglers in the Outer Banks have seen a rebirth of their once-declining giant Bluefin Tuna fishery. The state record was broken twice in under a decade, almost unbelievable when the world record has stood for half a century. Every winter, the fish get bigger, and tackle brands are sprinting to keep up. It really is one of the most exciting fisheries in the country.
It’s not just the fish themselves that make Outer Banks Bluefin Tuna trips so special. The area has become the testing ground for some of the most ambitious tactics and techniques out there. Let’s take a look at how, when, and where people are landing these monster Tuna.
When is Tuna Season in the Outer Banks?
The first Bluefin show up as early as November and they often stick around through May. The early-season Bluefin bite comes a lot farther inshore, as little as 10 miles from the beach. In fact, November through December you can take on Tuna in just over 100 feet of water.
It’s the late-season bite that everyone gets excited about, though. February through April sees the biggest Bluefin show up offshore. You need to travel a good 50 miles to find them sometimes, but it’s well worth it. Just ask the guy who reeled in an 877 lb behemoth in March 2018. This second wave really puts the “giant” in giant Bluefin Tuna fishing.
Above or Below: Bluefin Tuna Tactics
In the past, you were pretty limited in how you caught big Bluefin. You either trolled Ilander lures over ballyhoo baits or chunked the water with enough fish to start a feeding frenzy. Recently, people have ditched the baits and trolling spreads in favor of a new generation of all-action tactics.
Topwater Tuna Fishing
Giant Bluefin aren’t shy when it comes to topwater lures. Whether they’re feeding on the surface or holding 100 feet below, hungry Tuna go for oversized plugs or poppers. The dream is to find Tuna actively feeding. Luckily for you, Bluefin spend most of their time on the Outer Banks tearing through schools of menhaden and bluefish.
Once you find the fish, approach them upwind and make a long cast just past them as the boat drifts you closer. The trick is to retrieve through the fish. Make long pulls and short pauses, reeling only to take in the slack.
Large topwater lures are good at bringing fish up from below the surface, but even they won’t do much for fish below 120 feet. When the Tuna are holding deeper, you need to ditch the topwater gear and grab your jigs instead.
As you approach a likely spot, watch the sounder and mark the signature boomerang of a Tuna’s swim bladder. When you’re in position, drop your jigs off the back of the boat, spacing out your lines to avoid getting tangled. You want your lures just below the fish so you can jig past them. Precision is key here, so a lot of anglers use colored line to count out their depth as they drop their jigs.
On the Hook: How to Fight a Giant Bluefin
So you can get a Tuna to bite, but how do you get it to the boat? When you get a hit, wait for the rod to bend before you set the hook. You’re going to lose around 300 yards of line before you even start. That’s just a fact. Once you’re sure the hook is set, dial up the drag and get ready for the fight of your life.
Positioning is key in giant Bluefin Tuna fishing. The captain needs to keep you ahead of the fish with your line diagonal through the water. This stops the fish turning or digging in. Move too far ahead or put too much pressure on, and you risk breaking off your line. Slow down too much, and the fish turns, emptying your spool in seconds.
It will be a hard, vertical battle, and you’ll fight tooth and nail for every crank of the reel. If you let the fish run, it gets water through its gills and comes back twice as strong. The only way to bring in Bluefin is to keep the pressure on constantly. You need to be prepared for this both physically and mentally if you’re going to stand a chance.
What to Pack: Giant Bluefin Tuna Fishing Tackle
You’re not the only one getting pushed to the breaking point here. Your equipment will take a serious beating during the battle. Giant Bluefin will find any weak link and snap it like a twig, so double and triple-check everything before your lines go in the water.
You’ll want a short, heavy-action rod and a super heavy-duty spinning reel with a solid 50 lb of drag. You might not use it all for fear of breaking off, but it’s nice to have the option. For topwater fishing, rig your reels with 130 lb hollowcore braided line and 150 lb shock and bite leaders. For jigging, leaders can be even heavier, up to 175 lb test.
Lastly, lures. It’s a case of “go big or go home” out here, and most experts stock custom big game lures. We’re talking 9″ plugs and 12 oz jigs. If you’re planning on releasing the fish, swapping out the treble hooks for a single circle hook makes the release a lot easier. Hooking up on Bluefin is fun, but getting your hand hooked onto one really isn’t!
Back in the Water: How to Release Bluefin Safely
Safe release is in many ways the most important part of the whole trip. Regulations change regularly, but you can expect most of the fishing to be catch and release.
Remove the hook while the fish is in the water whenever you can. If you need to bring the fish aboard to check the size, make sure it’s back in the water as soon as possible. Aim for no more than 45 seconds on board, with a saltwater hose in its mouth the whole time. If you want to take a photo of your Tuna, lie down next to it, don’t try and stand it up.
North Carolina’s giant Bluefin Tuna fishing is getting better and better, but the species is still endangered. Making sure every fish swims off healthy is incredibly important. After all, we all want our grandkids to have the chance to fight these apex predators.
What sounds more exciting, jigging or popping? Have you ever caught a Bluefin? We’d love to hear your fishing stories in the comments section below!