According to reports coming out of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, 2023 will go down as one of the best bluefin tuna seasons on record. Not only were anglers catching more bluefin over 500 pounds, but for the first time in years, smaller bluefin were mixed in with the migration.
Oceans East Bait and Tackle is located a few miles from Oregon Inlet, home of a major wintertime bluefin tuna fishing fleet. Serving as a clearinghouse for local fishing news and new tactics, shop owner Jimmy Hillsman is at the center of the bluefin scene.
“The neat thing is, we have two groups of fish,” Hillsman said. “Southeast of Oregon Inlet, bluefin averaging 600 pounds are mixed with wahoo, big eyes and blackfin tuna. Farther south off Diamond Shoals, a mixed class of fish from 60 pounds to over 500 are schooled up and hungry. It’s a great sign for the future.”
With the best bluefin fishing in recent memory, Hillsman has seen some hardcore anglers make amazing catches. Here are a few of his top picks from some of the best fishing teams of the season.
Bluefin Tuna Fishing Night and Day
Capt. Brandon Christian, on the boat Crime Scene, has been on a bluefin streak this winter. “He’s a private boater and every few days he sends us photos of big fish,” Hillsman explained.
When we reached Christian a few days after the trophy bluefin season ended, the Sport Drinking Apparel spokesman was still catching up on sleep. “I went pretty hard and fished a lot of long days and nights,” he said.
One of the highlights of Christian’s season was landing a bluefin he estimated to push 700 pounds. The fish was one of the season’s biggest, but he paid for it.
“I arrived at the fishing grounds at 7 am and got my first bite in 20 minutes,” he remembered. The fish quickly pulled the hook and Christian spent the next two days looking for his next encounter. “I didn’t get another bite until 5:30 the next night,” he said. That’s right, he trolled all day, drifted Boston mackerel all night, and trolled the next day until he finally connected just before sunset. “If I don’t [get it done], I have to stay out,” he laughed.
The hot bait was a green-head and crystal skirt Joe Shute lure. “This year was a green head year,” hinted Christian.
The Biggest Bluefin Tuna of the Year
Back at Oceans East, Jimmy Hillsman recalled one of the biggest bluefin of the year. “Eric Price, on the Outlaw, landed a 116 inch tuna estimated to weigh 750 pounds,” he said
When I asked Price about the catch, the veteran bluefin captain and Wicked Tuna Outer Banks participant said it was his personal best and the fish of a lifetime. “We hooked the fish before sunset and didn’t land it until after sunset,” he remembered. In the dark, Price didn’t realize the fish’s size until the three-man crew tried to pull it through the fish door. Price laughed, “We couldn’t even get the tuna’s lips into the door.”
Luckily, Price’s boat has a boom pole. “With the fish’s tail at the top of the boom its head was still dangling in the water,” he marveled. The crew managed to wrestle the fish onboard. “I didn’t really get a look at the size until it was laying on the deck,” he said.
Price caught the giant on a 3-ounce Joe Shute lure with a white head and white skirt. “I use the 3-and 5-ounce heads when the seas are rough,” he explained. He also mixes in naked ballyhoo and sea witches.
Bluefin Tuna Caught on a Greenstick
Another noteworthy bluefin team fished aboard Predator. Jimmy Hillsman, at Oceans East said, “He had some really big ones and he fished out of both Oregon Inlet and Hatteras this year.”
Captain Chris Barnett had just returned to Hatteras when I called for his take on the bluefin season. “My season was a huge success,” he reported. Barnett was on location in Oregon Inlet when the tuna showed in January. “I caught fish 12 out of 16 trips,” he calculated. Price said on an average day he faced 5- to 8-foot seas and winds over 20 knots.
One of Barnett’s best memories was the result of good karma. “I had just replaced both motors in the boat,” he explained. With less than an hour on the new motors, he headed to Diamond Shoals looking for bluefin. Along the way, he helped another boat that was taking on water. “We dropped off a pump and stayed with him until he was underway back home,” he remembered.
Predator continued to steam south. Less than an hour after they put lines in the water, they were hooked up. The fish turned out to be his biggest of the season at 106 inches and 542 pounds core weight. Barnett caught his big fish dangling rubber squid from a greenstick. “We caught a lot of fish on the greenstick this season,” he added.
Another highlight for Barnett came in the last days of the recreational giant season. “I put together a charter of my best clients and we hooked a doubleheader,” he remembered.
The two fish cooperated by running in different directions and Barnett quickly brought the first fish boatside. “We hooked it on a swim-hook and left it in the water while we fought the second tuna,” he explained. “The second fish was bigger, so we were able to release the first fish.”
The trophy tuna was 98 inches and estimated to weigh over 500 pounds.
Bluefin Season Continues
Speaking of good times, Capt. Andy Piland on the Hatteras boat named Good Times has been in the tuna bite all winter.
I dropped in on my old friend Captain Andy and his daughter April between fishing trips. Both anglers admitted that this season reminds them of the good old days when bluefin tuna were plentiful and close to Hatteras Inlet. “It’s like the nineties again,” Andy reminisced.
For Piland, the highlight in 2023 has been the variety of bluefin he’s encountering. “I’m most excited to see the little fish,” he laughed. While many anglers fixate on catching big tuna, Piland said the young tuna are a promising sign for the future.
Not only are the bluefin aggressive and in good numbers, but the mixture of small to medium size bluefin makes fighting the fish more enjoyable for the angler. “I love to watch a family out for the first time experience this fishery and have a great time,” said April, an accomplished mate on Good Times.
One of the crew’s highlights was hosting a family with a patriarch who had suffered several health issues over the past few years. “Everyone got in on the fishing,” April remembered. “This was truly a family-friendly size of bluefin tuna.”
Andy has been finding fish in 65- to 74-degree water, surprisingly close to shore. “We’re catching fish in 20 to 40 fathoms,” he said. In fact, Andy has spotted bluefin tuna within a mile of the inlet because of the plentiful baitfish inshore.
Mixed in with the bluefin, they get a shot at yellowfin and blackfin tuna. “Our last trip we had a 180-pound bluefin and a mess of blackfin,” Andy said. April added, “It’s a great time to score a slam by landing three different species of tuna.”
The crew has been trolling 1- to 3-ounce MagicTail Hoo Magic lures and ballyhoo. “I’m a crystal girl,” April said, preferring a translucent skirt over her bait.
While the bluefin season is already unprecedented, there is still great fishing ahead. Anglers are able to keep bluefin tuna under 73 inches, perfect size to target with vertical jigs and topwater lures. “We start out trolling and then switch to light tackle for something different,” April explained. Over the next few months, Hatteras turns into a Mecca for hardcore anglers obsessed with battling big fish on spinning rods.