North Carolina Bluefin

Winter tuna fishing off the Outer Banks delivers big bluefin opportunitie
Lenny Rudow

Want to hook into a bluefin tuna long after summer fades away?

Few fish can match the bluefin tuna for sheer size and power, and few places can match the Outer Banks of North Carolina for winter bluefin hotspots. While the state angling record sits at 877 pounds with a fish caught in 2018 off Oregon Inlet, just a few years ago a commercial hook-and-liner weighed in a fish that bested the 1,000-pound mark by five pounds. There is no doubt about the presence of big fish, but each season varies as to when the fish show up.

The big fish move through this area each year (some years are better than others) with the stretch of coastline between Oregon Inlet and Southport, North Carolina, offering a range of options. Hunting giant bluefin during the winter is often a matter of finding an acceptable weather window when the fish are in town. The presence of bluefin is quite variable; some years the water is teeming with these fish, while other years they show up erratically with just a few fish here and there.

The bluefin tuna may show up in time for Christmas, or hold off and make their presence known as spring arrives. But whenever they show up, the biggest impediment to bending your rods is usually finding a break in the wind. Monitor the 16-day Buoyweather forecasts and schedule your trip with as wide a window as possible. Planning a week's stay to get in a day or two of fishing is your best bet. I've personally made this trip four times and sat in a hotel room without ever leaving the dock. The fifth trip, however, made it all worthwhile.

Carolina inlets present a challenge in the best of times, and cold-weather fishing always adds an extra element of danger to it. For this reason, the vast majority of the anglers who travel here book a charter with a veteran crew that knows the local waters. Many captains will troll with heavy tackle, period. Some discourage you from bringing your own gear. Others will be a bit more open-minded (possibly depending on how the bite has been) and willing to fish however the party would like.

There are many excellent North Carolina captains who care first and foremost about providing you with the experience you want, as opposed to fishing for bragging rights back at the dock - but there are also some who seem to care more about out-fishing the other captains than anything else. So it's important to talk turkey with the captain and verify that the trip will be the type you want, before you send a deposit.


Most folks will agree that 50-pound gear is slightly under-gunned for many of these tuna, which commonly run 300 to 500-plus pounds, and on occasion, even larger. Trolling is usually used to locate fish, and virtually all trips will start off by dragging lines. Horse ballyhoo, some skirted and some not, on 80s and 130s is the norm. At least one line will get rigged with the Carolina classic blue-and-white Ilander, which, by the way, is what those commercial guys were using when they caught the 1,005-pounder.

If you've arranged for a light-tackle trip, the captain will commonly search the immediate area after a knockdown with an eye on the fish finder and try to locate larger pods of fish beneath the surface. At that point, he may shift into neutral and call for the anglers to send their jigs over the side. Speed jigging with 5- to 9-inch Butterfly style and similar jigs dropped down to the depth of the fish on the fathometer and zipping them back up through the water column will trigger a strike. Pinks and blue/white mackerel patterns are often top color patterns.

Modern jigging rigs with high-speed conventional reels spooled with 65-, 80-, or 100-pound braid topped with a 150- to 200-pound wind-on leader can give you a realistic shot at most of the fish you're likely to encounter. A few high-end spinning rigs (with 18,000 series and larger high-capacity spinning reels) fall into the barely-capable category and can be used. On rare occasions you'll spot massive fish exploding on menhaden. When this occurs it's possible to hook a bluefin on a big surface popper, making for the ultimate in topwater thrills.

Big bluefin aren't the only fish you'll encounter cruising off the Carolina coast during the winter months. Some years a good blackfin tuna bite will develop, and unlike the blackfin tuna found farther south, these fish are in the 25- to 30-pound class. That's not exactly big compared to bluefin, but they are true trophies when it comes to blackfin. Another species that pops up in unusually large form is the king mackerel. This species heads farther offshore than usual in the winter months, and if they find warm enough water, the kingfish stick around in the same areas bluefin may generally be found. Savvy anglers will have a few king rigs aboard, and if the bluefin baits start coming back shredded, send back the wire and trebles.

Some seasons yellowfin are also in the mix during the winter months, and it's not unheard of to encounter a mahi-mahi before spring officially arrives. In fact, you really never know what pelagic game fish is going to pounce during a winter trip off the Carolina coast. But if catching a giant bluefin on light tackle is your goal, there's no better place to make it happen than wintertime off the Outer Banks.

For charter info, check out the Outer Banks Fishing Charter Guide.


Bftjigging-023 - You want to catch a fish bigger than you? These big winter bluefin make the grade - and then some.

Bftjigging-007 - The classic blue/white Ilander is a must-have, when trolling for winter bluefin.

BFTjigging-008 - This bluefin fell to a horse ballyhoo, trolled to find the fish prior to some light tackle action.

Bftjigging-051 - Modern jigging gear spooled with heavy braid is potent enough to do the trick, when battling with...

Bftjigging-053 - ...bruiser bluefin like this.

Trtl 002 - Butterfly jigs and similar high-speed jigging spoons are standard fare, when you want to tackle these fish on light gear.

During the winter and spring months, many crews target bluefin tuna off of North Carolina using trolled ballyhoo. Once you locate a school of fish, you can drop down jigs on the lighter tackle.
The biggest key to scoring a wintertime bluefin tuna is finding a clear weather window. Cold fronts can kick up the winds making the inlets especially harrowing.
The classic blue-and-white Ilander/ballyhoo combo is a must-have when trolling for winter bluefin.

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