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Spring Tune-Up for Yellowfin Tuna

North Carolina captains pull out all the stops with kites, plugs, trolled baits and jigs.

February 16, 2021
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Yellowfin tuna brought boatside
Spring is a prime time to target yellowfin tuna out of North Carolina on trolled baits, topwater plugs, jigs or kite baits. Doug Olander

Yellowfin tuna attack in packs, like wolves descending on a flock of lambs. Often, these 50-pound footballs launch completely out of the water to crash bait from above.

On the hook, they fight like bulldogs with a headstrong run capable of pegging anglers to their limits. On the table, the meat tastes delicate, whether seared like a steak or sliced up cold and raw.

Among the top locations to catch this most-popular gamefish has to be Hatteras Island, North Carolina. Captains troll ballyhoo, cast topwater plugs, dangle baits from a kite or jig vertically. Fishing out of the famed Oregon Inlet, on the east side of Hatteras island, or the fabled Hatteras Inlet on the south side of the island, anglers find ample opportunities to catch the yellowfin tuna of a lifetime.

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Oregon Inlet

The combination of warm-water eddies and deep structure attracts tuna to the waters off Oregon Inlet from October through June. While blackfin, bigeye and bluefin tuna visit the area, yellowfin tuna remain the star attraction.

The charter fleet fishing out of Oregon Inlet developed the tactics that anglers all over the world use to score yellowfin. Based out of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, Capt. Charles Haywood chases tuna on his 55-foot custom boat, Rigged Up.

Tuna that's gaffed
Out of Oregon Inlet, anglers can catch tuna all winter. The bite heats up again in early May. Ric Burnley

Haywood has fished Oregon Inlet since childhood, starting as a mate for some of the most iconic anglers on the water and later becoming the owner operator of his own boat. After decades chasing yellowfin, Haywood and the rest of the tuna fleet have developed foolproof tuna tactics.

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“We can catch yellowfin tuna all winter,” Haywood says. Later, the spring season heats up from early May to late June. While every angler prays for calm weather, Haywood says the best tuna days are a little rough. “Not hell-bent, but a 12- to 18-knot wind seems to get the fish moving,” he says. On a stiff northeast swell, he spots schools of yellowfin swimming downsea.

Haywood looks for yellowfin where the edge of the Gulf Stream crosses the continental shelf, anywhere from 30 to 50 miles offshore. Ground zero is a cut in the shelf called The Point. The warmer, clearer water of the Gulf Stream meets the cooler, dirtier water of the Labrador Current in a noticeable seam. As the currents ebb and flow, the seam moves north and south along the edge of the shelf. When the warm water crosses over a hill, cliff or canyon in the edge of the abyss, yellowfin tuna stage to feed.

“This time of year, yellowfin will hold inside or outside the stream,” he says. Haywood has caught yellowfin in water from 68 to 78 degrees; he says 70 to 74 degrees is ideal.

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Haywood relies on his fish finder to mark tuna and bait as the boat moves from one piece of structure to another. Once he finds fish on a hill or canyon, he works the area until he dials in specific locations and determines the best direction to approach them.

Rigging up a ballyhoo
Trolling skirted ballyhoo in the 6- to 7-knot range usually jumpstarts the tuna bite. Ric Burnley

To catch yellowfin, Haywood trolls skirted ballyhoo at 6.5 to 7.2 knots. He starts with a large ballyhoo rigged beneath a Sea Witch skirt. Haywood keeps a complete palette of skirt colors, from black-and-red to bright pinks and whites. He changes colors to meet weather and water conditions.

He pulls the ballyhoo using 50-pound-class tackle and spools up with 130-pound braided backing. To the backing, he adds a 100-yard topshot of 80-pound mono and crimps a 25-foot leader of 180-pound fluorocarbon between the topshot and the lure.

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An effective tuna spread consists of a dozen baits fished from a web of lines. Haywood makes use of long riggers to long-short riggers, short-short riggers, two or three shotguns and flat lines splashing just a few feet from the transom.

Haywood recommends changing each lure’s position until it swims correctly: riding down the boat wake and popping out of the water every minute. Sometimes the fish favor long baits swimming deeper and other times, the tuna attack short baits splashing on the surface. With the right spread, a pack of yellowfin will attack every bait until every rod bends double.

After the first bite, Haywood keeps trolling, hoping to hook multiple fish. By the time he slows the boat to let the anglers work on the fish, he has moved away from the structure. With the swift Gulf Stream sweeping him away from the honey hole, Haywood turns his boat into the current while the anglers fight their fish.

When the spring bite turns hot, anglers descend from every direction to get in on the action. Chartering a professional captain can help you learn the ropes.

Haywood also encourages visitors to network with local captains to monitor weather conditions and navigation hazards. The channel markers don’t mark the channel, and a big winter swell can make the outer bar almost impassable. “We may be tough on the outboarders,” he laughs, “but the inlet is always changing. Don’t be afraid to ask for local knowledge.”

Large yellowfin tuna held up for the camera

SPF0221-NC-Tuna-4-DSC_0830-RB

Hatteras tuna fishing took a hiatus for a while but came back last year, locals say. Ric Burnley

Hatteras Inlet

Although it lies only 60 miles south of Oregon Inlet, Hatteras Inlet is a world away. While the fleet fishing out of Oregon Inlet enjoys steady action on yellowfin tuna, anglers fishing out of Hatteras Inlet chase tuna that ride eddies of cooler water spinning along the Gulf Stream.

Capt. Rom Whitaker has chased yellowfin out of Hatteras Inlet for 40 years. “Ten years ago, tuna fishing was excellent,” he recalls. Then, local anglers suffered a dry spell—until last year.

Whitaker says the behavior of the Gulf Stream eddies changed. “We had less current and more eddies,” he says — perfect conditions for yellowfin tuna.

The Gulf Stream current can rush faster than 5 knots up the coast, and that deep, blue water is too warm and turbulent for tuna. Instead, Whitaker looks for an eddy of cooler, slower, green water spinning up from the south.

“The water in the eddy can be 3 degrees cooler,” he says. “As the eddy moves up the coast, the current will change from southwest to nothing to a backing tide out of the northeast.”

For this reason, Whitaker starts each day studying satellite sea-surface-temperature images. While on the water, he monitors changes in the eddy with his Sirius XM satellite service. He also talks to captains who fish out of Morehead City to the south, asking about water temperature, current and other details for clues to where the tuna are holding—on the edge, in the center, or at the top or bottom.

Ballyhoo ready for rigging
Whitaker prefers to troll skirted ballyhoo, but if that doesn’t work, he might drop a spoon on a planer or add a spreader bar. Ric Burnley

Once he determines the most likely area, he looks for where the water crosses underwater structure. “The tuna ride the eddy like a train,” he says. The fish might stop at canyons and rock piles, but they continue to move with the water. “One day they might be south at the 800 line, then the next day they’ll be at the triple zeros, and the third day, they’ll stop behind the Rockpile,” he says, referring to Loran-C locations.

Whitaker says the Hatteras yellowfin season runs from April until early July. As the months progress, his tactics change. He prefers trolling Sea Witches and ballyhoo. If that doesn’t work, he might try dropping a spoon on a planer, or adding a spreader bar into the mix. “I like the spreader bar in the middle of the spread,” he says.

If Whitaker marks fish on his fish finder, but can’t get a bite, he drops 200-gram vertical jigs. If he sees yellowfin jumping out of the water, he grabs a spinning rod rigged with a topwater popper. But his favorite way to catch tuna is with the kite, he says.

Rubber flying fish under a kite for catching tuna
A new technique on East and West coasts involves dangling a rubber flying fish from a kite to entice tuna. Ric Burnley

When the tuna feed on flying fish, they turn up their noses at trolled baits. Dangling a rubber flying fish from a kite can be just the thing to entice the tuna to bite. Whitaker uses 30-pound tackle spooled with 65-pound braided line. He attaches the mainline to a 4-foot section of 200-pound monofilament holding the lure. He can run two lures off one kite, trolling fast enough to keep the kite in the air and the lures bouncing off the wave tops.

Read Next: More Yellowfin Tuna Tips

“It’s a very visual bite,” he says, describing how tuna launch into the air to snare a flying bait. Yellowfin seem to prefer their prey hanging three feet off the surface. With a lot of line in the air, it’s important to quickly retrieve slack. Sharp hooks snare the fish until the angler can catch up using the reel.

On a typical day tuna fishing, anglers might have to employ several tactics before hitting the mark. Expect to switch from trolling ballyhoo, to casting plugs, jigging metal and flying a kite. But if you can find the right water over the right structure, you’ll find some of the world’s best yellowfin tuna fishing.

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