Thursday, September 22, 2011

Killboxapalooza II

Degan's hooked up.
It was a trip that almost didn't happen - a Gulf Stream angling adventure right smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic hurricane season. It took foresight, tenacity and a bit of luck to pull off, but we did ... thank God we did.

Hurricane Irene threw the first punch with a track that slowly pounded eastern North Carolina and the Outer Banks just one week before our scheduled departure from Hatteras. By the time the storm's 80 mph sustained winds finally subsided, NC Hwy 12 had two major breaches where the ocean rushed across the island to mix with Pamlico Sound. Getting to Hatteras was out of the question.

I never doubted our captain. Brian Patteson and I have known each other and been friends for the last 15 years. He and his company, Seabirding Inc., is widely regarded as one of the East Coast's foremost authorities on seabirds and has led birding trips to the Gulf Stream in search of those fascinating pelagics for more than two decades. These days, he does it aboard his own boat, the Stormy Petrel II - a 61-foot, Maine-built headboat capable of 20 knots - that makes the long run to the Gulf Stream (sometimes more than 30 miles) expeditious and comfortable.

Patteson also happens to be the fishiest, saltiest mo-fo I have ever met. When he's not leading birding trips, he charters the boat out to anglers in pursuit of those denizens of the deep; wahoo, marlin, dolphin (the fish kind) and tuna. When he called me two days after the hurricane to announce he was still alive, still in business and just happened to have moved the Stormy Petrel II to the safe harbor of Wanchese ahead of the storm, it came as no surprise to me. My man is a bulldog.

Hank Shaw in mental preparation for Killboxapalooza.
It was excellent news on several fronts; I was going back East to fish with some of my best friends in the world, my dad was coming along and we were playing host to newly-minted book author Hank Shaw, who also runs the blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, on the fall leg of his circuitous, nationwide tour promoting Hunt, Gather, Cook. Hank's writing and philosophy of using the whole animal and treating it in the kitchen as the wondrous gift that it is has been a huge influence on me. My admiration led to an Internet friendship over the last couple of years that culminated in an agreement - if the book tour brought him to North Carolina, we'd go fishing.

Mother Nature still thought about making our lives miserable. In the days before our trip, Hurricane Katia  formed and took a track up the eastern seaboard. Happily, the storm's path kept it far enough to sea to give us nothing more than a long, gentle swell on an otherwise perfect day to head offshore.

How shall I describe it? Hank did a good job of it on his blog post. "Epic" was a popular descriptive, as was "insane," "mind-blowing," and "out of control." It was the greatest fishing day of my life. Our mate, Brian King, said it was the best tuna fishing he'd seen in 10 years. Brian Patteson said we put more yellowfin tuna in the boat in five hours of fishing than he'd caught aboard the Stormy Petrel II in fours years combined out of Hatteras.

Eric the "Tuna Monster" cranks up the first fish.
Let me start where the boat slowed down to trolling speed at approximately 8:30 a.m. We had steamed across the Continental Shelf in search of warm water at the edge of the Gulf Stream. The journey had taken us 35 miles from Oregon Inlet and had been mostly devoid of sea life. It was obvious when we got to where we needed to be; suddenly there were bridled terns in the air above the wheel house, pilot whales and offshore bottlenose dolphins (the mammal kind) breached and played at the surface, flying fish skittered across the swell, the currents had pushed a mat of sargassum together to form a long weedline that stretched as far as we could see and, oh yeah, one of the high-speed trolling rods bent over - fish on!

Everyone hoped for a wahoo, but it wasn't. There was an audible groan from the mate as Eric quickly reeled in a sizable great barracuda. While barracuda from some tropical waters are safe to eat, large individuals off North Carolina are generally avoided because they can carry the ciguatera toxin. Barracudas also suffer a cultural discrimination  off the Outer Banks and are considered to be bad luck by many in the charter fleet. Needless to say, Brian King scowled and never let this one in the boat, flipping it off the hook without touching the evil beastie (superstitions are funny).

If a dark cloud appeared over the crew of the Stormy Petrel II because of the 'cuda, it didn't last for long. The mate reset the trolling spread for dolphin and within minutes we had our first hit. The fish were small by dolphin standards, but that is expected off the Carolinas in early September. The 1- to 3-pound schoolies are called "bailers" because they can be slung directly into a kill box by hand - no gaffing necessary. The school we sat over held more than 100 fish and Brian King quickly had us working at maximum efficiency. Six anglers drifted cut baits back into the chum that King judiciously doled out to the hungry dolphin. As you hooked up, you danced around everyone else's lines while working your way to the middle of the transom, where King wrapped the leader, flipped the fish aboard, unhooked it and rebaited your line with terrifying speed - terrifying especially for the greedy dolphin. In an hour, we had more than 70 of those delicious little fish on ice before they quit biting.
Bailing dolphin.
Patteson turned the boat away from the weedline to search for a bigger bite and he didn't need to go very far. More bridled terns and Cory's shearwaters flocking in the distance told him something was up. As we drew closer to the commotion the cause was obvious - tuna were tearing things up on the surface. Again, Brian King's vast experience paid big dividends. Within minutes he had switched out the entire trolling spread - five rods in all - to tuna gear and within seconds after doing so we had hooked up.

Dad's first yellowfin tuna at 70 years young.
Hank took the first fish, followed in short order by Brian Degan, Seattle Chris and Asheville Nate. Hank's was a small skipjack tuna. The others were hard-charging yellowfins in the 15-20 pound range. This was what we'd all hoped for, as yellowfin tuna are special. Not only do they fight like runaway locomotives and look like exquisite quicksilver bullets, but they also taste like nothing else that swims in the ocean.

Nate and Chris in hand-to-fin combat.
That first triple-header was followed by another ... and another ... and then four on at a time ... and again ... and again. It was the stuff of legends. Patteson would troll through the feeding frenzy and we'd get multiple hook-ups. He'd take the boat out of gear as we fought the fish. Brian King gaffed and re-rigged as Patteson came back up to trolling speed and brought her around for another pass, and the fish kept biting. When Morehead City Nate asked him what was creating this perfect storm, Patteson replied, "I have no idea. I'm just going to keep making circles until it stops."

When it finally did stop, there wasn't any room left in the two giant fish boxes at the back of the boat. At the dock, the fish processors weighed us in at just over 450 pounds of yellowfin tuna. We had sacked the rest of the charter fleet and set ourselves up for a generous winter of meals featuring the kobe beef of the sea.

Even now, two weeks later, I shake my head in amazement when I think about it. A person only gets so many days in the woods and water that are truly worthy of being called "epic." Mine are stored right up at the front of my memory banks and Killpoxapalooza II will be spoken of often in the coming years. The fact that I shared the experience with great friends, both old and new, and my father, who taught me how to fish so long ago, makes it that much more.


  1. Wish I could've joined in on that bonanza, Jamie! You guys definitely slayed 'em, and it sounds like you had a real blast doing it.

    I'd be pretty jealous, except I loaded up on yellowfin down in Baja last month, and will probably be all winter trying to deplete that supply. It'll be a labor of love, though!

    Congrats, and good to see you back on here again!

  2. Man, I wish you could have been there too. I understand we missed a chance at your company by just a few days;one of these days ...
    Thanks for the welcome back. I just needed something to write about.

  3. Who did the CPR on Tommy? Don't tell me he brought that thing in on his own.

  4. Tommy "the Tuna Crusher" caught three. He says he never wants to do it again.

  5. By the way, is there anything cooler out there than a big, pelagic Great Barracuda?

    Was there a fly rod on the boat?

  6. that looks like a blast! Great blog, you got a new follower!