Going Tuna Fishing off the Virginia Coast

“I wasn’t quite expecting this” was the remark from our angler as we fitted him to the harness and urged him to be patient as the bluefin steadily took line off the reel, with no sign of stopping.

We had pushed hard to be among the first boats to set lines off the Virginia coast on this overcast July morning. We had set the center line, locally known as the way-way back or simply WWB. The rig consists of a bird, daisy chain of artificial squid and green machine. Within seconds of placing the rod in the rod holder, and before we could set the second line, we were hooked up to a nice bluefin tuna.

Moments later we boated our second fish, a #40 class yellowfin on another daisy chain as the bulk of the fleet were about to throttle back and begin setting lines. This was tuna fishing – Virginia style.

While this day we were successful, the season saw much of traditional tuna fishing knowledge proved worthless. Things that were not supposed to happen, did. Any seasoned Virginia angler will tell you that bluefin arrive first, eating cedar plugs in 20 fathoms. Farther offshore, yellowfin might appear, along the canyon edges.

Anglers were pleasantly surprised when sizable schools of small bluefin appeared along the canyon edges at the beginning of the season. Meanwhile yellowfin were absent, at least in the first weeks. Inshore, where bluefin were supposed to be, anglers found hordes of enormous bluefish which destroyed nearly any lure fished. Setting 4 lines would not be possible before all rods would go down.

Just 3-4 miles away lucky boaters could be in small bluefin, while those inshore were facing the monster blues. Eventually the bluefish invaded even the canyon waters, something that simply does not happen, ever. Tournament anglers in search of the season’s first marlin suffered horrific tackle losses as the hungry bluefish bit thru hundreds of ballyhoo rigged on mono leaders.

Eventually, the bluefish subsided and anglers began to key on the tuna. Most experienced boats enjoyed excellent catches in the troll using a variety of daisy chains and spreader bars. Initially the bluefin were small, and their behavior was quite odd. They would eagerly attack 6 inch squid daisy chains while 9 inch lures were ignored. Small squids rigged on a spreader bar were equally effective. Many of the normally effective lures went untouched.

Upon examination of the stomachs, small squid were found, which correlated with the marks of bait that most anglers were detecting on their fish finders. Soon after the initial flood of small fish, events changed for the better. Yellowfin appeared, and a much larger class of bluefin entered the area. Suddenly larger spreader bars, full size green machines and 9 inch squid daisy chains drew the attention of tuna.

Boats reported 100+ lb tuna crashing spreader bars right at the stern, jumping completely out of the water before taking the hook. Meanwhile yellowfin took spreaders or daisy chains up close some days, while other days all the fish came on the WWB line.

Another local rig that saw success has been gaining popularity in recent years. Anglers will pull a specially rigged ballyhoo as much as 350 yards behind the boat. Most anglers use a very small or no skirt. Most anglers choose to utilize a long leader, 20′ or more, attached to the main line with a small wind-on swivel. The rig is trolled at 6-7.5 knots in 20 -100 fathoms, depending on where the big bluefin have taken up residence. This rig is very effective in the dead of summer when bluefin are deep and refuse to bite other trolled baits. Fish over 100 lbs are common and some exceed 200.

Catches of tuna remained consistent thru August for those anglers that were able to capitalize on the fishes’ preferences. Unfortunately Hurricane Katrina took her toll, scattering the fish and leaving shreds of Sargasso on every square foot of ocean.

A few days of fair weather allowed anglers to return to fishing. Anglers working the steep drops in 500-1000 fathoms found themselves in battles with big eye, sometimes multiples.

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