4. Cape Lookout
In the Morehead City/Atlantic Beach area, the winter bluefin fleet balloons from the usual 30 year-round boats to about 50. Among the resident charter captains is Tracy Campbell, who runs the Island Girl, a 50-foot custom Carolina-built sport-fisher.
"Sometimes we have a spurt of action in November and December, then a falloff until sometime in January when fish numbers really jump," Campbell says. "We catch quite a few weighing 500-plus pounds."
The big-fish bite is usually over by Jan. 31. But some years, smaller fish remain into February.
"A good day is half a dozen bluefin with some double and triple hookups when we're pulling four lines," he says. "I have one chair, so somebody fights from the rail when we have a multiple."
Most of the action lies 15 miles from Beaufort Inlet. Target water temperatures range from 62 to 64 degrees. But the key to finding the fish is to find the temperature breaks, where the bait congregates. The tuna are eating menhaden, crabs, ladyfish, sea mullet, croaker, trout and squid.
The bluefin orient to structure or features that hold forage fish. Good places to hunt include the Atlas Tanker (34° 31.171' N, 76° 14.538' W), D Wreck (34° 36.419' N, 76° 14.538' W) and the Knuckle Buoy Ledges (34° 26.82' N, 76° 28.20' W).
"We use 80s and 130s because 50-pound tackle is just too light," Campbell says. "Some days, when a falling barometer shuts them off, you won't catch a fish. Rising pressures with south winds are more favorable. But a hard southwest wind can keep us from fishing."
Highs: High bluefin numbers. Specific structures attract fish.
Lows: Crowded waters. Tackling bigger fish means fewer fish landed. Strong southwesterly winds cancel trips. Compressed fishing season.