• Published:August 19, 2020
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I will never forget the first time I saw a bluefin tuna explode on a topwater popper. We were fishing a few miles south of the Diamond Shoals light tower aboard Captain Kenny Koci's Hatteras-built Big Tahuna. We were slowly motoring along the edge of the Gulf Stream where warm, cobalt-blue water pushes against a bank of cool, pea-green water. Koci pulled the boat beside a greasy slick on the water and commanded the angler to cast. He jerked the rod tip to make the popper throw up a wave of spray then paused, dead still. After two pops, a trophy bluefin tuna the size of a grown man arched out of the water and engulfed the lure.


When bluefin tuna return to the Gulf Stream in late winter, Captain Koci is ready for them. "We start to see fish by mid-February, and they stick around through the end of April," he says. " I count the days until they show up each year." Koci looks for the tuna off Hatteras Inlet where the edge of the Stream crosses the 100-fathom line. "Then I work my way north along the break," he says. He looks for upwellings where bait and fish congregate. "If I don't find anything on my way up the break I'll start working out deeper," Koci says, explaining that he'll turn away from the break and head offshore towards rock mounds and canyon walls along the edge of the Continental Shelf. Capt. Ned Ashby, who runs out of Oregon Inlet aboard the Sea Breeze, set the current North Carolina state record in 2011 with an 805-pound bluefin. When you're chasing trophies like this, he notes that wind conditions play a big part in where the temperature break crosses the 100-fathom line. "Northwest wind pushes the Gulf Stream out and down the beach," he says, "which corrals the fish like a fence." He says that an east wind will break down the change and blend the water.   When Ashby finds signs of fish, he stops the boat and puts his anglers to work. "Of course, fish feeding or big slicks are a great sign," he says, "but even if I mark tuna below the boat we'll throw the poppers." Ashby says that even if the fish are holding deeper than 100 feet they will come up and eat a popper. "Last year the poppers worked better than the jigs," he says. "I think it has something to do with the bait the fish were eating." Koci and Ashby often spot schools of tuna swimming on the surface. "It's can be hard to get a bite out of fish on the surface," Koci admits, "but they'll hit a popper."


Landing these massive fish is one of the greatest challenges in all of sports. Few anglers have more experience than Sami Ghandor of Saltywaters Tackle in Sayreville, New Jersey. "You have to be in shape," he says, "and ready for a serious battle." Ghandor actually trains for tuna fishing in the offseason. "We run and lift weights," he says. "We push each other to stay in shape." Tying into one of these bruisers can be a long and strenuous battle. "We use Shimano's Stella spinning reels," Ghandor says, "which can produce over 45 pounds of drag." He matches the reel to a seven- to eight-foot rod. "I like a shorter rod that produces more torque," he says. The reel is spooled with 80- to 100-pound-test braided line. The keystone of the tuna rig is a leader that can take the abuse of a 300-pound fish and still pass through the rod guides. "We use a wind-on leader system that starts with hollow-core braided line attached to 150-pound twisted monofilament leader and a 150-pound test fluorocarbon bite leader," Ghandor says. The leader is connected to a 200 pound test ball bearing swivel that can be attached to the split ring on a jig or popper. The lures are shaped and balanced to fly far and sit seductively on the surface. "Topwater poppers and stickbaits are the most popular," Ghandor says, "and the best lures are through-wired and fit with J-hooks, which are stronger and hook the fish better."


Once the fish is on the hook, Ghandor uses a shoulder harness and gimble to tie himself in. "We put a lot of drag on the fish to keep it coming towards the boat," he says. He warns anglers to pace themselves and dress lightly to manage body temperature."Many guys overheat and burn out," Ghandor says. "You have to keep some energy reserves because when the fish sees the boat it will inevitably take off on a long run." The captain has to be on his A-game, too. "I don't back up on them a lot," Ashby says. "I let the angler fight the fish." Ashby has seen anglers beat these tuna in a matter of minutes. "The fish will usually freak out when it's first hooked," he says, "then it settles down and the angler can fight it to the boat." Anglers have so much fun fighting these bluefin that limiting out doesn't necessarily mean it's time to head in."After we've got our keeper fish on the boat," Kochi says, "we'll take the hooks off the plug and have some real fun." With the hooks removed the fish can attack the plug and take off running but the angler retrieves the lure as soon as he applies pressure. "We save stress on the fish and the fishermen," Koci laughs, "And it's the strike that's the best part!"


Captain Kenny Koci, Big Tahuna 252-995-2031 www.bigtahuna.com Captain Ned Ashby, Sea Breeze 252-473-2180 www.seabreezesportfishing.com Saltywater Tackle, Sayreville, New Jersey 732-307-2581 www.saltywaterstackle.com