5. Cape Fear
The Ocean Isle/Southport/Wrightsville Beach/Carolina Beach area hosts one of the best bluefin runs on this coast, with what are apparently the same fish toggling between Cape Lookout and Cape Fear. This may be due to the abundance of baitfish drawn to the discharge of the vast Cape Fear River drainage. No one knows for sure, but that seems to have been the case for the past several years. A tourist destination, the region has many options for lodging and dockage, including the top-notch Ocean Isle Fishing Center.
Capt. Brant McMullan has honed his giant bluefin techniques perhaps more than any other small-boat operator using stand-up gear. Last season, his anglers boated bluefin tuna topping 300 pounds from his 32-foot Yellowfin center-console.
"We might catch fewer fish with our stand-up tackle, but it gives the angler a real feel for the fight. Usually, all he wants to catch is one," says McMullan.
Indeed, the fish schooling off the Cape Fear River in December and January may be the biggest anywhere along the mid-Atlantic. Tales of spooled reels and broken lines abound. Some anglers have fought a fish all day and into the night only to finally touch a fish that was still so green it ripped free. These are legendary fish, with several thought to be well in excess of the mythical grander mark. Fish weighing more than 500 pounds are not considered rare, with commercial landings of 500- to 800-pounders reported, and the chance for a grander is always lurking with the next strike.
The fishing occurs within sight of the beach, in waters clouded by river discharge. The principal food source is menhaden. Porpoises are the primary indicator of bluefin in the area because they share the same forage.
"When word gets around that the fish have arrived, the water is covered with boats," McMullan says. "Nearly every boat will have a hookup, with top boats landing one to four giants fishing with stand-up gear. The problem is not getting strikes, but hooking the fish and keeping them on the line. There are a hundred excuses for losing a giant. Only experience minimizes the mistakes and escapes."
Highs: Large numbers of big bluefin. Visual indicators help spot bluefin. Very short runs to the fishing grounds.
Lows: High fishing pressure. Fish may show up and disappear on a whim.
About the Author: Mike Marsh lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, and has written hundreds of articles as well as two books on his home state's saltwater fishing: Inshore Angler - Coastal Carolina's Small Boat Fishing Guide and Offshore Angler - Carolina's Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide. Purchase either book at www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.