Beer and Loathing on the Outer Banks

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Bluefin tuna are one of the largest and most powerful fish that inhabit the world’s oceans. The waters off Bimini and Cat Cay were known as “Tuna Alley” during the spring run in the golden age of sportfishing. There has been a summer recreational fishery in the Northeast especially off Nova Scotia for decades. With the boom times in Japan in the late eighties and early nineties, the value of sushi grade bluefin skyrocketed, triggering a worldwide commercial assault on the species. With single fish selling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s easy to understand why pressure mounted and the stock went into a serious decline. Due to their value, and ineffective international fisheries management, bluefin tuna remain the most hunted animal on the planet today.

Sometime during the winter of 1993, an improbable sight was witnessed off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Captains began reporting schools of large fish bearing a remarkable resemblance to bluefin tuna in the relatively shallow coastal waters within twenty miles of shore. An accidental hooking usually resulted in lost line, an astonished angler and a smoked drag. A few brave anglers ventured forth equipped to deal with these sea monsters and actually began to catch them reliably between November and March. Resembling nothing more than the California gold rush, big game anglers from around the world beat a path to tiny Hatteras, NC during ensuing winters to take on the giant bluefin tuna.

My story begins in the fall of 1997. The usual cast of characters; my talented wife, Doris; Crisp Gatewood from Georgia; Capts. John Cagle and Sam Schirmer from Charleston and R.D. Wallace of Alachua conspired to have a shot at these huge fish in February of 1998. We booked John’s regionally famous brother-in-law, Capt. Peter DuBois and his new 61’ Blackwell custom, Suspense. Due to the problematic weather on the Outer Banks, we booked three straight days in the third week of February and hoped to be able to fish at least one of them. As the time grew closer, our group expanded to include a couple of pilots from Spartanburg and some veteran New Jersey tuna fishermen. The New Jersey guys were driving to Hatteras and the rest of us were flying out of Charleston with the two pilots on their Beech King Air.

My branch of the family tree leads indirectly to Dare County, NC in the mid-eighteenth century, so two weeks before we were to leave, Doris and I decided to take our time and drive to the Outer Banks. An additional pilot and another angler immediately filled our spots on the plane. We left two days before our first fishing day and agreed to pick everyone up at the airport around five pm the following day. We spent the night in Rocky Mount, NC. The next morning we knocked the frost off the windshield and were off early to the coast. Riding east along the Albemarle Sound, we passed through the famous fishing and shipbuilding v illages of Manteo, Wanchese and Mann’s Harbor. At Nag’s Head we made a turn to the south and took the bridge over Oregon Inlet. The gentle breeze made the notorious pass look quite peaceful but those big flared bows on Carolina boats were created by and for men desperate to get through one of the most dangerous channels on the Atlantic coast.

Heading further south, I felt a strange but familiar resonance as we passed over miles of chilly dunes and salt mist. My ancestors once strode this same spit of land. I wondered aloud what they would think of traveling hundreds of miles to catch fish for sport. The beachside hamlets of Rodanthe, Waves, Duck, Avon, and Buxton were all but deserted. The aging lighthouse at Cape Hatteras had not been moved yet and was perched perilously close to the surf. We got to Hatteras village just after noon, had lunch and checked into the Holiday Inn. We spent the afternoon rummaging through every tackle store; Doris has a keen eye for a deal.

At four thirty, we headed back up the road to the airport to meet our friends. The Hatteras airport consists of a two-acre tie-down area and a skinny, five thousand foot runway carved out into the sand. As we waited, we watched four small planes land. All seemed to have difficulty with the approach and would momentarily disappear behind a small dune, only to appear on the other side to complete the landing. At dusk, the lights of the King Air popped into view. The big turboprop appeared to be landing shorter than the other planes before it. When it touched down behind the dune, the tall t-tail visibly shuddered. As the airplane raced into view from behind the dune, the left landing gear was damaged and swinging wildly at the KingAir’s120 knot landing speed.

I immediately thought of my friends on board; Crisp, John, Sam and R.D. and felt frustrated at my inability to help them. Doris and I said a quick prayer as I dropped the gear lever into drive and spun off after them. Viewed from behind, the landing was nothing short of spectacular. When the left wing settled and touched the runway, showers of sparks flew into the cold evening sky. The pilot did a great job with the rudder to keep the plane on the pavement. There was the inevitable thwack as the left prop struck the ground and sent out it’s own set of sparks. The aircraft screeched to a smoky stop just off the center of the runway about the time as we caught it from behind.

On a normal King Air, the entry/exit is called an Air-stair. When released, it glides open gracefully to provide access to the plane. This Air-stair flopped open under the weight of several bodies and men began running from the plane. They were shouting at me to back up my truck because the plane could explode any second. We stopped about fifty yards away from the wreckage and got out to congratulate everyone on surviving. Sam and Bob could not remember if they hugged their children before they left. Crisp, a veteran pilot, knelt and kissed the ground albeit a safe distance from the smoldering wreckage.

After everyone was evacuated, we all piled onto the truck and went to the far end of the runway to determine what had caused the problem. The edge of the asphalt surface was raised six inches above the sand. In an attempt to grease the landing, the pilot had caught the left wheel on the asphalt berm causing it to shear the support strut. The pilot was an attorney from Spartanburg who commandeered my cell phone for the rest of the evening. The FAA investigates every accident and there is apparently no end to the red tape. All I know is I had a nice cell phone bill and probably got the better end of the deal.

Dinner that night was cause for celebration, we were at land’s end on the frigid Outer Banks and several members of the party just lived through a harrowing event. There was no end to the retelling of the saga. Because we had twelve anglers, Cagle had booked another boat for the following three days. Crisp, Sam, RD, Doris and I got stuck on a 48’ Ocean for the first day with the last two days on Suspense.

We arrived at the boat at 6am the next morning, air temp: 31 degrees. The Captain was quiet and went straight away to the bridge to warm up the engines. The mate was a stocky young man who explained the drill as we idled out to the inlet. We were using a beefy tuna chair with a bucket harness, unlimited class rods and a Penn International 2 speed reel rated for 130lb test line but spooled with 400lb test orange Dacron. Each rig had a 50-foot 400lb fluorocarbon leader connected to a 20/0 circle hook. In order to put as little stress as possible on the fish, we would be using 90lbs of drag and try to catch and release them quickly. We would be chunking with jumbo pogies to attract the fish to the boat once a school was located. The slot limit for keeping a recreationally caught fish was 68 to 72 inches. The mate predicted we would not see any that small.

The fishing grounds were around 20 miles offshore; the wind was light and the sea a collection of glassy swells. The sun did it’s best to warm the frigid air. At 8am, a school was located by another boat. The radio came alive as charter and private boats converged on the area. By 9am there were 60+ boats in various stages of fight around us. Doris went first and caught a 30lb yellowfin. Sam went next and pulled the hook on a nice fish. Crisp was third in the chair but managed a release on a big fish in less than 8 minutes. Around 11am the wind picked up to 15-20 knots from the northeast. The ocean responded with 5 foot breaking waves. I sat in the chair for 20 minutes before a big fish crashed the bait 30 yards from the boat. The first run was nothing short of amazing. With 90lbs of drag, you feel every tail beat. The hook pulled 5 minutes into the fight…..I was mentally disappointed while physically relieved to be rid of that weight trying to pull me out of the boat.

The wind goes to a steady 20 knots and the seas are 6 feet. The morning’s clear skies have given way to a close gray scud. R.D. strapped in for his turn on the rod. We have to move to find the school a couple of times. A nice fish hits with an explosion close to the boat. The tuna and the seas make keeping the bent butt rod off the gunnel a problem but R.D. has him alongside quickly. This fish is within the slot at 69 inches. The mate places the gaff in the fish’s jaw and uses a wave to guide him into the cockpit via the tuna door. I start wondering where the wasabi is stored.

By 12:30 everyone has had two shots. While chunking, the boat sits at idle in the trough. The wind is gusting well over 20 knots. A wave breaks over the side of the cockpit and soaks Sam with 42 degree green water. We tell the Captain that we’ve had enough and please head in. He agrees. The trip in is miserable as the boat pounds through 8-foot head seas, shuddering violently at the bottom of every wave. I decided right then that there would never be a 48’ Ocean in my future. For a seemingly recurring theme in my fishing experiences, the northeast wind opposed the incoming tide at Hatteras inlet creating 12-foot standing waves. The Carolina boats including Suspense, bred for exactly this environment, race by us as we lumber through the slop. Back at the dock, NOAA fisheries agents inspect all fish brought in. Ours passes muster and weighs in at 175lbs.

Once again the party atmosphere prevails as everyone celebrates a great day of fishing. The weather service is calling for 25-30 knot winds for the following four days so our trip is cut short. We join in the festivities, hauling the tuna to two men in oilskin overalls that clean it under a shed and expertly package it in zip locks as we hoist the first of many beverages.

Around 4pm we decide to take a nap. Everyone agrees to meet at Peter’s boat at 6:30 for an appetizer prior to dinner. Suspense is just a gorgeous boat. At 63 feet LOA, she’s powered by a single 1400hp Caterpillar diesel that pushes her to a 28-knot cruise. The salon is finished in a rich mahogany, belying her charter boat status. Peter has fermented some wasabi in beer and sliced a bluefin steak into razor thin strips. The sashimi was set up on the cockpit freezer and a dozen of us had plenty of room to make trip after trip to grab another bite. Unlike yellowfin, the bluefin is striated with fat. Dipped in some soy with a dab of wasabi, the bluefin melts in your mouth while the wasabi tries to melt your sinuses. I don’t remember what I ordered for dinner later in the evening, but that first taste of bluefin has stayed with me.

The next morning we examined our transportation options. We have ten folks and gear that need to get back to Charleston and two pilots that want to get to the nearest airport they can rent an airplane. Six pile into my truck and six into Cagle’s. The trip winds it way back up to Nags Head and turns toward the mainland.

We stop in Manteo at Blackwell Boats to look at Cagle’s unfinished 53 footer and several others in the shop. The process of cold molding wood into these beautiful craft is fascinating. The shear, flare and tumblehome represent the nexus of art and function as evidenced by their performance on the water. Our journey continued through an endless succession of small coastal towns to get to Wilmington, where we bade our pilots farewell and watched as they took off and disappeared into the clouds. We arrived in Charleston just before 9pm. Cagle had a table at his favorite restaurant on Sullivan’s Island waiting for us. Once again we relived the adventures over food and drink and basked in the glow of our shared experiences.

I am not sure I care to ever tangle with a bluefin tuna again. Without the biggest and baddest tackle available, they simply have too much power to safely end the fight quickly enough not to harm the fish…..and I can get the same thrill tying my line to a teenager’s car...stand by, the telephone is ringing and its Cagle’s number...I’ll get back to you.

Copyright by Capt. Wiley Horton