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Giant Hatteras Bluefin From a Small Boat

An Excellent How to by William Tyler


There is a recreational fishery on the East Coast and it is like no other in the world. Imagine catching 10 to 20 fish in one day ranging from 300 to 800 pounds and being able to keep one. The press has been labeling this fishery as strictly catch and release, but if you follow the guidelines set by NMFS, you can keep one of these giants per year for your freezer and friends.


Giant bluefin had been occasionally caught off NC sporadically for the past 30 years. Several years ago there was an incident that hit the news about a recreational fishermen who caught a giant off Hatteras and had to let it rot because he did not have the correct permits from NMFS. In 1992, a head boat captain had his 4 aught reels stripped in December at a wreck. Curious as to what it was, he told a charter captain who was a friend. In February the, the captain went out and caught the first giant bluefins and recognized the significance. There is a now a growing charter industry that fishes for them from December to the beginning of April. No one is certain as to whether the fish have always been at the wrecks off Hatteras in winter or is this is a new migration pattern.

Rigging your Boat

So now you are legal. But what about your equipment. For a boat you need at least 20 feet, preferable 25 or greater. To fish Hatteras in the winter you must abide by the two engine rule. Either have two engines on your boat, or fish with a buddy. You may be able to break this rule on a flat, hot, sunny, populated, mid March, Sunday but be prepared to wait a few years. You need to realize that the weather off Hatteras is unpredictable and that the area has a low population. You have to have a reliable boat capable of canyon runs and one that is dependable.


The current thought has been that you need a fighting chair and Penn International 130 with a bent-butt fishing rod as thick as a broom stick, 130 lb mono and the drag set at 70 lbs. I spent 1800 dollars for a rig just like this, and then promptly found out that on a small boat, this is the wrong way to go. On a huge sixty foot sportfisher with a 3,000 dollar fighting chair that has a foot rest and a bucket harness, you have enough leverage to handle that type of rod. But on a small boat with stand up harness or a cheap folding chair, you are gonna get dragged right out of the boat to bottom by one of these fish.

The first fish we hooked was on my big rod. I quickly found out that I was over matched and we stuck the rod in the rod holder where the gel coat cracked and the rod nearly ripped up my boat. It took three of us in a scene reminiscent of the Iwo Jima flag raising to lift that rod from the bad rod holder and put it in another. The physics are that if you try to lift a 10 lb weight on a string tied to the tip of broom stick, you are going to have a tough time. But if you tie the string closer to your hands, you will find it easier to lift the weight. So a short standup rod that is rated for a limp 50 to 100 lbs test will bend alot, but will give you the edge in leverage. This will allow you to fight the fish stand-up. The only deficit is that the line is held closer to the boat, so you need to specially train your lineman to watch the line and guide it around your engines. This will happen a few times in the fight anyway, so a trained lineman will stop the fish from cutting your line on the only sharp object within a mile of your boat: your engines.

Catch and release Ethic

There is much controversy as to whether the fish are actually harmed. Because most people have already caught their one incidental permit fish, they are catch-and-releasing up to 20 fish a day. The commercial fishermen from up north don’t like this new catch-and-release fishery in “their” fishery and are claiming hat it kills the fish. The charter boats out of Hatteras claim it doesn’t hurt them at all.

I am of the opinion that you can hurt them if you use the wrong equipment. If you use a rod that is too small with wimpy line, you will have a long fight and the fish might go belly up when you finally get him along side of the boat. If you use 130 lb test with the drag set at 50 to 70 lbs, you bring them in “green” and the fish rockets away from the boat when you cut them lose. So the heavy tackle is good for the fish but makes it damn tough to fight stand-up. That is why I recommend the heavy-line-wimpy-rod theory. It makes it possible to stand up and fight the fish AND you get to release the fish “green”. But it does make the fight a heavy weight affair for big strong fellows. No wimps allowed.


After the disaster with the big rod, I had rigged a smaller rod as a back up. this turned out to be the best set up. I had a Tiagra 50 W with 130 lb dacron and 200 ft of 200 lb wind-on leader. The smaller rod is much light and easier to handle. The rod gives less leverage, yet I fought the fish just as hard because I had set my drag at the same pressure as on the big reel. You absolutely must use a scale to set your drag. You simple cannot set the drag at this level by feel. Because the drag has to be set a 75 lbs for full drag, you have to have a 100 lb hand scale. I found the Murry Brothers (1-800-845-3474) has a scale for 30 bucks that works fine. On my Tiagra, I set the strike stetting at 50 lbs, and the full setting should be at about 75 lbs. I rigged up my 50 SW and found that the drag setting could be set for similar amounts. But both these reels are not designed to have the drag set this high. There is still 10 lbs drag when you put them in free spool, so pulling out line is a real pain. Also, the levers are quite stiff to push. I also found that a two speed is really desirable. You can get along with the standard 50 TW, but I feel it is worth buying a SW for you reel collection for this fish. The low gear will drop your fighting time from 1 hour to 1/2 hour. This will help save the fishes life when you are releasing them. The less fight time, more chance of survivability for the fish.


The big secret in using these smaller rods and reels is the line. I use 130 lb dacron with wind on leader. This works great because you get the hook setting no-stretch of dacron, and just enough shock absorbing stretch from the longer than normal leader. I use 200 feet of Momoi 200 lbs test leader because the diameter is less than normal leader diameter.


The wind-on connection is simple to make. Hold sand paper in your right hand and pull the last two feet of the leader through your hand to roughen up the surface. Use a razor to round the tip. Thread the 200 lbs mono into the inside of the dacron. You have to inchworm it on there for about two and a half feet. Get a pen of liquid superglue, mash the superglue pintip down on a metal surface to form a puddle and roll the line in it. Do this every inch. The end of the dacron fuzzes up, roll this in the super glue then trim with the razor against your thumbnail. This will allow you wind all the leader on the reel and get the fish close to the boat. This helps when you don’t have an experienced lineman and it is much safer.

Other equipment on Board

You will need a few other thing big game specialty items on board when dealing with fish this size. You need a 12 inch diameter flying gaff with a seven foot handle with twenty feet of half inch rope. I also have another 15 foot section of rope with a quick clip on the end and a bowline loop on the other to tie the rod and reel to a cleat. You die if you are in standup gear and one of these big fish drags you overboard. This is a must. You will also need a come-along hand winch to get the fish in the boat. Pulleys are a pain to deal with on a boat, come-alongs will drag a 1,000 lber in the boat with one person.


There general rule is that you cannot pick a Saturday and go because it will be rough, So, you and your fishing buddies need pick a two week stretch from February to April 1st, and wait. Watch the weather for a big stationary, slow moving High pressure system with real wide isobars. The telephone number for Hatteras weather is 1-800-697-7374. If you can stay on the phone, you can ask the weatherman for his opinion as to when the bast day is to go and they will tell you. If you are already down there and you want to save them the 800 charge, you can dial the local number at 223-5737. You can also dial the NOAH nationwide broadcast at 1-900-884-6622 and get the forcast for the 919 area code, but they charge a buck a minute for this service.

If you haven’t figured it out, he weather is the big problem with this fishery. In the summer, you get to go out nine out of ten days. In the winter, its one out of every ten and that day is often 6 feet seas. So the secret is to prepare your equipment and boat and wait. Do not go on marginal days. Wait for a guaranteed 3 day flat stretch. There is maybe one of these stretches in January or February, maybe two in March. Call the Red Drum Tackle Store 252-995-5414 and ask them if the giants are biting and how is the weather. This is where you can buy anything fishing tackle related when you are in Hatteras. Some people try the first time and the weather gets bad, so they leave their boat at Teaches Lair Marina (888) 868-2460 on the trailer and then go home and wait for the weather. Boat crime is non-existent in this little town.

Diamond shoals is the light tower off Hatteras and the wind there rarely drops less then 10. If you ever hear it is less than 10 at Diamond Shoals, then get in your car.

Cold and Engines

When you start your boat you may have cold weather trouble. I had checked the boat out the week before in 40 degrees and everything worked perfectly. But fist day I tried for bluefin, I was skunked because the day was a 25 degrees February day and a lot of things broke in the cold temperature. My starboard engine would not get full throttle because the temp gauge for the left cylinder bank malfunctioned and started cutting off the ignition for half the cylinders at 3,000 RPM. Then its shift cable got stuck so it would not go in reverse either. Then the port engine got stuck in full throttle because the butterfly choke valve froze in the open position. All of these things were temperature related malfunctions that happened all at once. Luckily, there is a great mechanic about half a mile from Teaches lair at Willis Boat Landing (252) 986-2208. There is also a NAPA in the town of Buxton which is about 8 miles north of Hatteras. The point I’m trying to make is that your boat will have a very high chance of malfunctioning in the cold and to take tools, WD-40 and have a mechanics number.


When you get the green light for weather, call the Comfort Inn in Buxton (1-252-995-6100) and reserve a room. The Red Drum is right next door and you are about 8 miles form Teaches Lair. (Continued)

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