Giant Bluefin Tuna Fishing in the Outer Banks

May 17, 2022 | 6 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 6 minutes

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.

An angler wearing a cap kneeling by a giant Bluefin Tuna caught in the Outer Banks
They’re not kidding when they call the Tuna giant!

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.

An angler in orange waders kneeling by a tuna he caught when giant Bluefin Tuna fishing in the Outer Banks
A Tuna this size is well worth braving the cold for.

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

An angler on a boat holding a giant Bluefin Tuna with a spinning rod next to him
It takes some real skill to bring in Bluefin Tuna on spinning gear.

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.

Bluefin Jigging

A Garmin Fishfinder depth sounder showing giant Bluefin Tuna 139.9 feet below the surface
When the sounder looks like this, it’s time to start jigging.

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

A tired angler holding holding a large Tuna caught while giant Bluefin Tuna fishing in the Outer Banks
Bluefin Tuna will leave you completely exhausted however big they are.

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: Bluefin Tuna Fishing Tackle

A selection of 4 fishing rods used for giant Bluefin Tuna fishing
Only the best tackle out there can take the strain of giant Bluefin Tuna fishing

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

A Bluefin Tuna being released over the side rail of a boat
Tuna are a lot easier to release when they’re small.

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!

Comments (12)
  • Kelsey

    Feb 21, 2022

    Hi Albert! It looks like you might be able to help answer a few Atlantic bluefin questions I have. Would you be able to send me a private email?

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      Marko

      Feb 21, 2022

      Hi Kelsey,

      Thanks for getting in touch! Feel free to shoot an email to [email protected] and I’ll try and answer any Bluefin question you have.

      Tight lines,

      Marko

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  • James Burke

    Oct 9, 2021

    Hey you forgot to mention the boat that takes helps the vets. The one and only jaws boat the CRICKETT II based out of Morehead city right behind Olympus dive shop.

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      Katie

      Oct 11, 2021

      Hi James,

      Thanks for sharing this information, the Cricket 2 seems like a fantastic project. What a great way for vets to get out on the water!

      Tight lines,

      Katie

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  • Chip

    Nov 15, 2020

    I’ve tuna fished out of OC for the past 15 yrs. we are looking to move the boat south to try some of this.
    Can anyone tell me where to go, when to go and what type of rod is middle of the road for jogging and poping….we are set for trolling…just not the jig or poping

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      Albert

      Nov 16, 2020

      Hi Chip,

      Sounds like you’re in for a lot of fun!

      The where changes day to day and also depends on if you’re launching out of Oregon Inlet or Hatteras Inlet. There are some great spots in both, but by its very nature, Bluefin fishing usually involves a lot of run and gun.

      As for the when, Bluefin are coming into season right now, and should be around until the end of the year. After that, they’ll tail off slightly and pick up again around February. Again, though, this depends on where you’re launching from.

      In terms of gear, Stella 18000s or 20000s are good options for both jigging and popping, paired with a strong rod like an OTI Tuna Sniper or a Black Hole Cow Special if you can afford it. None of this comes cheap, though, and you’ll need a shorter rod for jigging if you really get into it.

      I hope this helps! Does anyone else have some tips to add?

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      Perry Barker

      Jan 2, 2021

      My buddy took me to Florida for some Goliath grouper fishing for my bachelor party. It was a great distraction since I had to put my 15 year old dog down the day before. Now, he’s getting married. He even met his fiancé at my engagement party. He’s my best friend, and he’s marrying my wife’s best friend. I want to take him to get a bluefin. Can you help?

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      Albert

      Jan 4, 2021

      Hi Perry,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’d love to help!

      If you want to get your buddy on Bluefin, your best bet is aboard a charter. As I said in my previous comments, the Bluefin bite tends to be pretty fickle, with the fish moving from spot to spot and changing depth throughout the day. Once you find them, the real challenge starts.

      We work with a lot of local Bluefin specialists in the area. I’d recommend getting in touch with a couple of them (hit “Message Captain” in their listing) to see what the fish are doing at the moment.

      I hope you and your buddy hook a monster – and manage to get it to the boat!

      Tight lines!

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  • Paul Kaplan

    Apr 29, 2020

    First time out Tuna fishing was in 1990 in Montauk Long Island. Since it was my first time I got first Hit. Well I hooked a 150 lb Bigeye Tuna, and I got the fish in. The Captain told me excellent job usually you get 1 out of 20 or so. Boy talk about cramps, I used every ounce of energy in my body to land that fish. It was followed up by 3 – 75 lb Albacores.

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      Albert

      Apr 30, 2020

      Hi Paul,

      Sounds like quite a trip. It’s definitely rare to bring in your first big Tuna – nice job!

      Have you done much Tuna fishing since? Ever been down to the OBX?

      All the best!

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  • Jim Lowry

    Feb 27, 2020

    Yes , I have caught a BlueFin Tuna !! But I have lost more than I caught !!! Be ready for a two and a half hour battle over a seven mile area, cramps in your hands and sweat on your forehead , never to see the fish !!!!

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      Albert

      Feb 28, 2020

      Hi Jim,

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      They don’t give up easily, that’s for sure. I guess it just makes actually catching one all the more exciting.

      Tight lines!

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