|Degan's hooked up.|
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.|
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.|
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.
|Dad's first yellowfin tuna at 70 years young.|
|Nate and Chris in hand-to-fin combat.|
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.