In fishing there are many superlatives, but nothing describes a big Atlantic bluefin tuna better than the word "giant."
A bluefin won't soar like a billfish, but what a bluefin lacks in flash, it makes up for in bullish endurance, preferring to conserve energy rather than show off. It may give a little jump as it strikes a bait but is more likely to appear for the first time as it senses the boat, battling stubbornly against the pressure of the leader in the mate's trembling hands.
This unmatched experience - the thrill of hooking, fighting and landing one of the ocean's toughest predators and gamest adversaries - often simply boils down to being in the right place at the right time. Right place: mid-Atlantic coast. Right time: winter bluefin season. For some anglers, it's an annual pilgrimage; for others, it's an attainable dream.
Here are five top destinations in the mid-Atlantic - places to look when you have your sights set on testing your tackle and stamina to tame one of the toughest foes that sports fins.
1. Virginia Beach
Virginia Beach Fishing Center hosts a dozen bluefin-capable boats. The town also ranks as a tourist mecca, so it offers ample options for dockage and lodging.
Capt. Steve Richardson, who operates Backlash Sport Fishing, says his 53-foot Jim Smith custom sport-fisherman begins catching bluefin with the onset of the winter holidays every year.
"The Thanksgiving/Christmas run consists of very big bluefins," he says. "Those fish average 300 to 400 pounds, but some top 600."
The fish school in 120-foot depths approximately 40 miles out but can move to the beach periodically to feed on striped bass. Best water temperatures are 60 to 65 degrees. Fish in colder water don't bite as well.
"We usually locate them with the depth finder," he says. "But sometimes we see them busting bait. Trolling with big ballyhoo rigged on a Hawaiian I [a blue-and-white Ilander] is the most popular method. But we have chunked them too."
By March, smaller fish around 150 pounds swarm. Richardson puts the big guns, the 130-pound gear, away and switches to 50- or 80-pound-class tackle.
"There are so many smaller fish; it's unbelievable," he says. "The only thing that hurts fishing is a west wind. We can fish under any conditions. But even a light west wind shuts them down."
Highs: Big-fish action early, followed by ops at enormous numbers of small fish.
Lows: The most comfortable conditions for anglers - light westerly winds and calm seas - turn off the bite.