Each winter, hordes of anglers invade Virginia Beach to chase the schools of big rockfish returning to Chesapeake Bay. When the bluefin tuna appeared, hundreds of anglers were already on the water fishing for striper.
In that situation, “the biggest challenge to catching one of these tuna is getting the fish out of the crowd of boats,” Foster says. Many anglers lost fish to cut lines and crossed tempers. “When I would target tuna,” he adds, “I would try to find the fish away from the fleet.” That usually meant hitting lumps and hills outside 3 miles from the beach where striper fishing is prohibited.
“Look for diving gannets and breaching whales, or keep an eye out for bait marks on the fish finder,” Neill adds. Foster found bluefin tuna feeding under small terns that were picking anchovies and sand eels off the surface.
Hot spots included the deep water off Cape Henry and the lumps from Damn Neck south to the 4A Drydock off Corolla, North Carolina. Boats that ran north, and fished the sloughs and ridges within sight of Cape Charles Light also found bluefin mixed in with striped bass.
Both skippers agree that the best time to catch bluefin is just before dawn and just after sunset. “But these fish will feed all day,” Neill says, “especially if it is overcast or rough.” And many anglers reported bites at the change of the tide. “It’s hard to put together a scenario for these fish,” Neill admits. “We just don’t catch enough of them.”
In fact, in a dozen trips Neill landed only a handful of tuna, and released several more at the boat. Foster landed 10 tuna total and released twice as many. A year later, both skippers and hundreds of other anglers waited impatiently for the tuna to return. “Everyone wondered whether the run was a freak thing or a regular event,” Neill says. So when the first bluefin were caught this past winter, anglers breathed a sigh of relief and took up the chase again. “Last year the fish were caught farther offshore around Chesapeake Light Tower,” Foster says. “That made it easier to target them without worrying about striped bass.”
So what about this year? “My fingers are crossed,” Neill says. “I can’t wait for winter!”
While Virginia Beach anglers were shocked to see bluefin tuna in the middle of winter, marine biologists weren’t. “If we’ve learned anything over the past 20 years working on Atlantic bluefin tuna,” says Molly Lutcavage, a research scientist at the University of Massachusetts, “it’s that they shift their dispersal routes over the years and decades.”
From the 1950s to ’70s, fishermen sight-fished for massive bluefin tuna off the Bahamas, in an area known as Tuna Alley. The narrow region of Great Bahama Bank that runs north from South Cat Cay was legendary for its schools that traveled in crystal-clear water over sandy bottom. Today, the Bahamas’ bluefin fishery is just a shadow of its past.
Lutcavage points to the awesome run of bluefin off Hatteras in the late ’90s. Then that bite slowed, and the fish were caught in other locations, such as Virginia, she says. Now it seems that the tuna are moving into Virginia Beach on their way to the Gulf of Mexico. “They swing inshore to top off their lipid reserves,” Lutcavage explains.
As for the cold winter water, Lutcavage isn’t surprised. “Bluefin are warmblooded,” she says. “They have been recorded in water as cold as 32 degrees.”
Then the big question is: Will the fish return this year?
Rules and Regulations
• For the latest Virginia fishing regulations, visit mrc.state.va.us.
• Check federal seasons and limits for bluefin tuna at hmspermits.noaa.gov.
Drop a Line
• Capt. Pat Foster, Wave Runner, 757-377-5018, vbsportfishing.com
• Ken Neill, facebook.com/healthygrinsportfishing
About the Author: After sweating and cursing for two hours while cranking in a 500-pound bluefin tuna 20 years ago, Ric Burnley retired from the fighting chair, and took up photography and writing. He currently lives in Virginia Beach, Va., where he teaches high school students, and fishes for anything that doesn’t require straps and a harness to fight.