Bluefin on a Spinning Rod
by David Dodsworth
Photographs by Capt. Dan Rooks and David Dodsworth
the holidays fast approaching, the bluefin bite heating up off
Hatteras, and the temperatures outside plummeting, I found
myself frequently daydreaming of past winter bluefin trips with
Capt. Dan Rooks on the Tuna Duck. Hatteras NC has always been
good to me, and there is no better place on earth for a chance
at a giant bluefin tuna. For these reasons, I couldn't think of
a better place to spend the Christmas holidays!
The seeds for
this trip were actually planted on Cape Cod the previous August.
With the peak of the NE bluefin season fast approaching, I
contacted my good friend, Capt. Eric Stewart of The Hook-Up!
Bait and Tackle about a rod and reel setup for school bluefin
tuna. Being a charter Captain and commercial tuna fisherman,
Capt. Eric had designed a spinning rod for school tuna that had
routinely handled 150 lb. fish. The set-up consists of a custom
rod built on a stand-up, 30/80 lb. class E-glass blank with a
slick butt, metal gimble, Fuji saltwater reel seat, and Fuji silicon
carbide guides. This first class rod sported a Penn 9500 SS
spinning reel loaded with 300 yds. of 80 lb. PowerPro braid and
topped with 50 yds of 80 lb. Momoi Diamond mono. This was
exactly the big fish rig I was looking for!
With the rod
ordered, I finalized my plans to be on the Cape in early
September to try my luck at school bluefin. To make a long story
short, I saw fish, but never hooked up. The rod was put in the
basement, held captive until the following bluefin season would hopefully
present another opportunity.
Fast forward to
December.......As I was kicking around ideas for a Christmas
trip to Hatteras, It dawned on me that this would be the perfect
opportunity to break in my new rod. I also began to fantasize of
landing a giant bluefin tuna on spinning gear. All research
indicated that this has never been done (and probably for good
reason!). A quick call to Captain Dan Rooks and dates were set.
It was decided that we would try for December 28th and 29th,
with the 30th being a weather day. I told him what I wanted to
attempt, and he said he would put me on the fish, but the rest
was up to me (I also heard "crazy" in there
dawned clear, winds out of the NW at 10 knots, and temperatures forecast
to be in the mid 50's. Capt. Dan Rooks, mate Barry Peele Jr.,
and I headed off to the SE in search of a pronounced temperature
break that Dan had seen on the satellite image that morning. We
fished some pretty water along an 8 degree break for most of the
day. All the signs were there, but nothing showed other than a
constant stream of albacore. We decided to cut the day short and
regroup. There had been fish caught a few days earlier off Cape
Lookout, 50 miles to the SW. It was decided that we would gamble
on the fact that the fish would still be there. The bite off
Cape Lookout had been a morning bite, so we agreed to leave at
4:15 am the next day for the 2.5 hour trip. This would get our
lines in the water by daybreak.
As we eased
through Hatteras Inlet in the dark the next morning there was
excitement in the air in anticipation of what we may find come
sun-up. The winds were light out of the NW, and forecast to
swing SE later in the morning. The temperatures were forecast to
be in the low 60's. The day looked promising, and the fact that
there had been fish there in the preceding days was enough to
get the adrenalin going. During the long ride to Cape Lookout we
formulated our plan of attack.
We decided we
would start by fishing the spinning rod off a planer at 30 feet
deep with a ballyhoo dressed with a pink and white, custom tied,
sea witch. At the same time we would run a 130 off the port
rigger with a ballyhoo dressed with a blue and white Ilander. As
we neared our destination, the rods were readied, baits rigged,
and deck cleared. As daylight approached, Barry and I went over
all the possible scenarios and what our actions would be. As Dan
throttled back, we set the lines. With both lines set, and
darkness turning to dawn, we checked our set-up one more time.
Something told me that I should take my sweater off, and soon!
first indication of something going on was when a boat
"went off" about 1/4 mile to the east of us. As we
were watching this, Dan yelled from the bridge that there was a
big fish all over the rigger. Barry and I turned in unison in
time to see the line snap free from the rigger clip and start
melting from the Penn 130. Fish on! Barry headed for the rod as
I headed for the chair. He made it to the rod, but before I made
it to the chair, Dan yelled "spinning rod!" I lunged
for the spinning rod and hurriedly backed the drag off a hair.
We had to set it tighter than we would have liked to initially
in order to run it off the planer board. With this accomplished,
rod in hand, and line screaming from the spool, the fight was
on! As Barry fought his fish, I nervously reminded Dan that we
only had 350 yds. of line to work with. I looked at the spool,
looked up at Dan, looked at the spool again, and began to sweat.
At this point, Dan spun the 51' Tuna Duck on a dime and started
running parallel with the fish. This allowed me to gain back a
portion of what we had lost, but only a fraction of what was
out. After 15 minutes of give and take, Barry's fish broke off.
With the 130 cleared, we all could concentrate on doing what we
could to land the fish I had on. It became apparent from the
beginning that if we were going to have any chance at all of
landing this fish, we were going to have to cool the reel with
fresh water as the big tuna made his runs. It was also clear
that boat handling would be a huge part of the outcome. I was
glad I had Dan at the helm when the fish attempted numerous
times to head under the boat. More than once we made evasive maneuvers
under lots of throttle and tight quarters in order to get away
from the charging fish. Thirteen times I had the top shot on the spool, only to have the
fish run again. After 1 1/2 hours, Barry had a wrap on the
leader. The fish, at roughly 83" and an estimated weight of
350/400 lbs, had been landed on a spinning rod! A quick jerk of
the leader completed the release, and high fives were initiated
The feeling of
having accomplished this is hard to describe. But, there were
fish to be caught yet, so I stowed the spinning rod in the cabin
and we brought out a second 130. We ran both rods off the
riggers, and soon doubled up again! You didn't dare turn your
back in fear of missing the strike! I took the chair, and Barry
fought his out of the rod holder. Again, Barry's fish broke off,
and I landed the second fish. This fish was in the 90 inch range
with an estimated weight of 475 lbs.
We set the
lines out for the third time, with the same results, a double! I
headed for the chair to do battle with my third giant of the
morning. Another fish to the boat, tagged, and released to fight
another day. This fish measured 100 inches, with an estimated
weight of 550 lbs!
At this point
we decided to fish only one rod. We no sooner had the line set
when chatter on the radio indicated fish feeding to the NE, with
500 lb. fish going airborne, crashing bait. We looked off the starboard
bow and saw a mass of white water. Words cannot describe what we
saw as we eased up on the commotion . There was a bait ball of
menhaden packed so tight that you could have walked across it
(see photos below). All around this seething mass were giant
bluefin tuna, slashing and crashing bait with abandon. When I
said 500 lb. fish were airborne, I wasn't exaggerating. These
fish would charge up from the depths like a largemouth bass
after a bug! It did not bother these fish one bit when a boat
approached. They were literally in a feeding frenzy.
on images for a full size view
One pass around
the edge of this and we hooked up again. This fish didn't even
know it was hooked, and stayed among the crazed giants. The
number of fish involved in this frenzy was incredible. I
actually got cut off by another fish!
In 5 hours of
actual fishing, we hooked 7 giant bluefin tuna, landing 3 (350
lbs, 475 lbs, and 550 lbs), with one being landed in a spinning
rod! We were tight almost 4 of the 5 hours we were fishing. This
gives the phrase "It doesn't get any better than
this!" new meaning! Add to that the incredible feeding
frenzy we witnessed, and you have a day on the water that none
of us may ever experience again.
None of this
would have been possible without the dedication and team work of
all. If you would like to experience nonstop action like this, I
would highly recommend that you contact Capt. Dan Rooks,
Sportfishing. The Tuna Duck fishes out of
Harbor Marina in Hatteras Village, NC. You can reach Dan by
calling (252) 995-3076.