IT SEEMED AS IF my longstanding luck involving weather blowing away chartered offshore fishing trips was going to surface once again last week.
The Tuesday charter aboard Dream Girl out of Oregon Inlet caught a limit of dolphin (mahi-mahi) and one small yellowfin tuna. Then, Captain Jason Snead told us, “Some guys are saying the Wednesday forecast isn’t great and are considering not going in the morning. But, be here at 5 a.m. and we can make the call then.”
Friends Herman Harke and Rick Busch and I stayed that night at the beach house rental Dan Josselyn and Matt Hornbaker had in Nags Head. Josselyn’s 13-year-old son Colton would round out our crew. We made an early night of it and upon waking checked the maritime forecast. It appeared things had improved overnight. Now, the forecast called for 15-20-mph easterly winds with 3-to-4-foot seas. Still far from a gentle excursion, but manageable.
As a beautiful sunrise peeked over the horizon, we headed out with dreams of big tuna.
The first hour of the two-hour-plus journey to the blue waters of the gulf stream weren’t bad. The second half of the trip revealed conditions slightly worse than advertised. Winds were down from what was expected but squalls in every direction were churning up big waves and choppy whitecaps. Oh well.
Snead received a radio call from a fellow captain who was on a school of dolphin along a patch of sargassum, a unique seaweed that floats in sometimes huge mats and provides a platform for an incredible array of marine life.
Shrimp, crabs, small fish (which attract big fish) and young sea turtles love sargassum. It derives its name from the Sargasso Sea where it originates and then is blown by wind and currents. The Sargasso Sea isn’t an independent body of water, usually defined by geography, but a large elliptical region of the North Atlantic, with Bermuda at its west-center. The abundant seaweed defines its borders.
It was tough moving about the fishing boat’s deck and stand-up fishing for dolphin was challenging. The sargassum line was fragmented and Snead tried to keep us close to its edge as waves tossed the boat.
The first fish, a gaffer-size dolphin in the 8-pound range, hit a naked ballyhoo bait being trolled directly behind the boat. “Fog,” the ship’s mate, handed the rod to Colton and the youngster adeptly brought in the colorful fish. Hornbaker, Josselyn and Harke held rods baited with small chunks of cut fish. Within minutes, three more dolphin were hooked up. It looked as if things might be getting good, although it was sure to be a tough slog on the way to filling the ice chest with tasty mahi.
Ordinarily, a skipper can back down the boat to an idle and let everyone pitch morsels of cut bait to a beautiful school of hungry dolphin. Sometimes, it’s possible to catch a near-limit of grill-sized fish under this scenario. The rough conditions, though, meant Snead had to keep the propellers going to manage the choppy swells hitting us every few seconds.
We put a half-dozen dolphin in the box. The sargassum line was rapidly deteriorating and the fish were scattering. We struggled to land a several more fish, including one small but delicious blackfin tuna that Harke cranked in. Snead suggested we go hunt bigger tuna.
As Fog set the lines, it was apparent we weren’t alone in the endeavor. As least 20 other sport fishing boats were rolling and rocking around the same patch of ocean. Sometimes the wave troughs were so deep they seemed to swallow much of these 50-foot boats. Occasionally, you’d spy a boat that had slowed with several people congregated at the stern, clearly working in a tuna.
The area had been productive for bigeye tuna, fish that can exceed 200 pounds, for better than a week. Not today, though. While a handful of boats caught one or two tuna and one lucked into several, many boats (including ours) came away empty when it came to the prized pelagic sportfish. We did collect one more gaffer dolphin.
The seas settled down for about 90 minutes in early afternoon, giving us the more comfortable 3-to-4 range that had been predicted. It was a marked difference. But, as mid-afternoon arrived, the swells again rose. Snead yelled down it was time to pull the lines and head back to Oregon Inlet.
It could have been worse in terms of the catch; it could have been better. That’s fishing.
A few things stood out about the trip.
First, Dream Girl is a comfortable boat with a good cruising speed. Snead has fished the area his entire life.
Second, the weather off the Outer Banks is always a gamble. Charters book well in advance and anglers have to lock in dates early. Rarely, is it a case of seeing a nice weather forecast and spontaneously saying, “Let’s go fishing.” Charters a couple days after our adventure were back in tuna bonanza territory.
Finally, the group of guys I was with were remarkable in their perseverance and dedication to getting fish in the boat. Colton continues to impress adults whenever he fishes with them. Let’s just say that the youngster had several intense moments where he was personally trying to chum in gamefish over the gunwale. Afterward, he just grabbed the onboard hose and washed things off. When fish were biting and it was time to get to work, he was all business. He is welcome to fish with me any day.
Trips like this might be called “character builders.” I imagine you could fish in rougher conditions but I wouldn’t want to.
You never know unless you go.
For more about this trip, including some incredible video of the action, see Ken Perrotte’s www.outdoorsrambler.com web site.