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Offshore fishing action, finally

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By Brant McMullan, Fishing Correspondent

This past weekend the weather finally gave offshore fishermen an opportunity to head offshore to pioneer the 2011 fishing season. The water temperatures out to 50 miles are still in the low to middle 60s, which does not offer much opportunity at top-water gamefish. 

However, a fishery that has developed over the past few years is vertical jigging in 150-300 feet of water. The technique specifically targets blackfin tuna that don’t mind the cooler temperatures. Blackfin average 15 pounds or so, but 20- to 30-pounders are not uncommon, and on the right day, a boat can spend hours dropping jigs to hungry blackfin holding 50-100 feet below.

Blackfin tuna typically hold in the above-mentioned 150- to 300-foot depth range over structures. Typical hot spots include the Black Jack, Steeples and Same Ole Hole. The trick is to find the school using the boat’s fish finder, determine the depth the blackfin are holding and then drop a vertical jig exactly to that depth. The equipment needed is a jigging rod and reel combo spooled with 65-80 pound braid. For the best results, braid that changes color at specific length increments will help the angler to drop the jig to a specific depth. A topshot of 80-pound fluorocarbon is tied to the braid. The jig used is typically 6-12 ounces, long and slender. 

There are many brands and varieties and most will work, the key being to get the jig in the right spot, then rapidly jerk and wind the jig to the surface. Repeat, repeat and repeat again until the rod bends double. Sometimes you will drop right to the fish and sometimes you have to work on jigging speed and location. 

Amid blackfin will be the occasional wahoo, which will scream off line and offer a nice surprise. That is option one for vertical jigging. The second option and guarantee for a back-breaking rod bend is to drop the jig to the bottom and rapidly jerk and jig it 20 feet and then drop back to the bottom; repeat. It won’t take but one or two times up and down before you’ll be hooked up. With what, who knows? Amberjack love the jigs, but we often catch big grouper, snapper, cobia, African pompano, big sharks or whatever. You just don’t ever know.

And so, back to the fishing action we encountered this weekend. Capt. Steele Parks and Capt. Chris Dew of the Ocean Isle Fishing Center captained a mixed party of fishing enthusiasts to the Steeples on Friday. The water temperature satellite shots showed water temperatures in the 68-degree range, thus they knew trolling would likely not be much of an option. The day’s plan was to vertical jig, but be ready for anything. 

Upon arrival, the team quickly got hooked up on amberjacks and the occasional blackfin  tuna and false albacore. Other boats in the area attempted trolling with no success, so jigging became the plan for the day.

Throughout the day Capt. Parks and Capt. Dew worked the many humps called the Steeples in 150-300 feet of water. Capt. Parks reported losing many unidentified “toothy” fish, many of which he suspected to be sharks, although he is quite sure a nice wahoo was lost as well because of its sharp teeth biting through the hookset on the jig. 

The crew of four fishermen jerked and wound all day; catching a variety of blackfin tuna, false albacore, amberjack and big sharks. It was not the typical Gulf Stream day of tuna, dolphin and wahoo action that we look for in April and May, but it was a good day of fishing with lots of action. And most importantly, it was a day to kick off the 2011 season, shake the cobwebs off and break loose of grips of cabin fever. See you on the water. 

And speaking of season kickoffs, the Ocean Isle Fishing Center is hosting its annual Spring Kickoff on Saturday, March 26. The event offers a forum for fishermen to bring their used tackle and sell it. In addition, the Ocean Isle Fishing Center offers free seminars from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on a variety of offshore and inshore fishing topics. The event is free, and fishermen are welcome to attend to help get the season kicked off. See you there.