“You guys see that offshore edge?” Capt. Jay Kavanagh queried of another boat in the Hatteras fleet as he kept the nose of the “Bite Me” pointed southeast. “There’s some 78-79 degree water out there.”
Kavanagh handed me his iPhone, and the satellite sea surface temperature image pulled up clearly showed a second temperature break well offshore of the mid-70’s water pushed inshore of the 100 fathom curve off Hatteras Inlet. Kavanagh saves the last temperature shot he sees as he loses cell phone signal heading offshore, giving him the most recent intel on where to begin his fishing day.
We’d been the first charter boat out the inlet that morning, and with good reason, as the captain wanted to explore some deep, offshore water in the hopes of tempting a blue marlin to snack on one of the lure/ballyhoo combos in the 51’ sportfisherman’s wake.
Kavanagh and his mate, Cat Peele, were a frenetic blur the moment the boat slowed to trolling speed, deploying a 7-line spread primarily composed of Ilander/ballyhoo combos with a Pakula trolling plug and a naked “dink” ballyhoo thrown on the flat lines for spice.
As blue marlin were on our minds, a huge and hookless Black Bart plug rode on the left side of the wake for a teaser and did a convincing impression of a small tuna, popping out of the water at regular intervals and diving back down with a tight wiggle and long bubble trail. A squid daisy chain with another Ilander and ballyhoo was affixed to Kavanagh’s port teaser reel for added hookless enticement.
Just 14 hours before the spread hit the water, Gary Hurley, myself, and the rest of the Fisherman’s Post team—Sales Manager Joshua Alexander and Office Manager Chris Saunders—had been in our office brainstorming about how to get a little fishing in before we go to our weekly publication schedule and serious shortages of free time. We’d heard that dolphin were making a strong showing off Hatteras and that the year’s first push of blue marlin were also in the neighborhood, so it wasn’t a difficult decision when we heard the “Bite Me” was open the next day.
Some frantic packing and goodbyes to wives, girlfriends, and dogs gave way to six hours of driving, followed by half that time sleeping at Dare Haven Hotel, before the four of us made it to Hatteras Harbor Marina and clambered aboard Kavanagh’s boat at 5:45 the next morning.
“I still haven’t quite found that water I’m looking for,” Kavanagh said half an hour into our troll. Our first gaffer dolphin of the day cut him off, inhaling the Ilander trolled long on the port outrigger. The captain fishes his long outrigger baits from the bridge, and as the 50 Wide outfit surrendered line to the stubborn ‘phin, Kavanagh drew it from its spot on his rocket launcher and passed it down to Peele. Always hungry for a fish, Joshua was first to accept the rod.
The dolphin, clearly onto the fact that its meal came with consequences, protested with several splashy leaps, but the salesman was soon making steady progress.
“Let’s clear the lines on that side,” Peele said, and Chris and I each manned a rod, bringing in the short rigger ballyhoo and the trolling plug on the port flatline.
“Alright Josh, stop reeling,” the mate continued, grabbing the wire leader just below the snap swivel.
Pulling the dolphin into range, he reached out with a 6’ gaff and a streak of green, gold, and blue came over the gunnel and into the spacious fish box in the transom.
Some celebration for the first fish in the boat waited until Jay and Cat had reset our trolling spread, but then we high-fived over the ‘phin and continued the search.
Our crew picked away at a few more dolphin as we continued our way offshore, with everyone taking a turn on the rod and a handful more of the flashy fish made their way into the box.
After a strikeless half-hour, Jay called down to his mate. I missed the first bit of the conversation, but heard him ask Cat to pull something out from down below.
My curiosity was satisfied when Cat emerged from the salon with a massive dredge teaser, with six arms bearing chains of 12” squids in purple/black and pink.
“This thing is highly experimental,” Cat said while snapping some weights to the front of the beastly teaser. “We just put it together.”
Clearly meant to attract some large predators, the dredge meant business. Cat attached it to the double pulley/downrigger system that allows “Bite Me” to pull a pair of dredges in addition to the hookless attractors on Jay’s bridge teaser reels, and prepared to get the contraption wet for the first time.
“Max, help me get this thing in the water,” Cat said, lifting the framework above the gunnel. “Just toss the squids over at the back and we’ll make sure they aren’t tangled.”
Once in the water, the dredge came alive, looking very much like a school of small bonito or other tuna relatives about to break water. It wasn’t long before the teaser attracted its first window shopper, but not the marlin we were hoping for. Jay had spied some porpoises in the distance and headed their way, and moments later one of the mammals zoomed in behind the boat and took a very deliberate look at the dredge.
Jay and Cat agreed that they liked the look of their new invention, and though its first customer wasn’t a billfish, it clearly held some appeal to the creatures of the deep blue sea as well.
With our lures and ballyhoo popping and swimming in the wake behind the teasers, we continued heading deeper.
“I think we’re further offshore than I’ve even been out of Hatteras,” Kavanagh called down from the bridge a few minutes later. “We’re in 1500 fathoms.”
Used to a 60 mile run to get to 100 fathoms from southeastern NC, I was amazed that we were in 9,000’ of water just 40 miles off Hatteras Inlet, but there we were. The proximity to the legitimate ocean depths surely is at least part of the reason the Outer Banks crews see more billfish, yellowfin tuna, and other pelagic predators in a single season than many anglers further south do in a decade.
Sargassum seaweed, which had been isolated at best thus far, was becoming more and more abundant as we worked offshore. This made it a bit more of a headache for captain and mate to keep the spread grass-free and running true, but it also made for more dolphin action as well.
“This is marlin water,” Peele explained, shagging grass off the port short ‘rigger bait another time. “They like this scattered grass.”
The grass soon formed into a defined weedline, and our dolphin starting coming in twos, threes, and fours.
“Blue barrel!” Jay called down, looking off the starboard bow. “Whoa, look at the tripletails!”
When the barrel came into view from the cockpit, dozens of the unusual fish were swimming around and beneath it, and apparently disturbed by the presence of the boat, they began jumping frantically.
Our attention was quickly distracted from the odd scene, however, as the tripletails weren’t the only marine life in the neighborhood. The sound of outrigger clips popping came from both sides of the boat, as a swarm of dolphin invaded the spread in a neon show of electric blue and green streaks. All four of the Fish Post crew were soon holding bent rods attached to leaping mahi, and dozens more of the colorful predators were zipping around amongst their hooked comrades.
“Max, go over Josh! Chris, under!” How Jay and Cat were able to tell which lines went where and which fish was which were beyond me, but they kept the chaos organized, and more dolphin were soon meeting the steel of Cat’s gaff hook.
“Josh, leave yours in the water,” Cat said, disappearing into the cabin.
“I just can’t help myself,” he said, grinning as he emerged, bearing a trio of lighter “bailer” rods and a Ziplock bag full of false albacore chunks.
Dolphin are highly curious, and leaving one of the fish in the water tends to keep the rest of the school in the area and watching the action, a formula that played out perfectly over the ensuing minutes.
Baiting each hook, Cat handed out rods and directed us just to let them back in the wake. We could barely get our reels in gear before the bait chunks were inhaled by more dolphin, and the frenzy went on. Cat was a blur of activity, directing us over and under, gaffing and slinging fish into the box, and even taking time to hook fish himself and pass them off. Jay had taken a spinning rod from the bridge rigged with a pitch bait ballyhoo and also had a bent rod to pass down when one of my fish hit the ice.
After adding around a dozen fish to our total, we took mercy on the school and left the fish biting to continue the hunt for a marlin.
I decided to take in the action from the bridge for a bit, and climbed up just as Jay was steering the boat through the grass line.
The other side of the rip featured slightly cooler water, less current, and noticeably calmer seas, likely due to the fact that the current was bucking a fresh breeze on the warmer, 78 degree side.
Dolphin bites had been so frequent on the warm side of the grass that there hadn’t been any time to snack, grab a drink, or do much other than reel in dolphin, clear lines, and do what we could to help Jay and Cat reset their spread.
The cooler, 76 degree water we were now trolling in, however, was hosting substantially less life. We could still see tripletails hugging the grass and floating objects and neon flashes of the occasional dolphin zooming about under the weed, but nothing wanted to venture out from the floating structure and take a look at the spread.
I used the downtime to get a sandwich, and noticed Gary and Chris doing the same. After 20 or so minutes dragging baits in the cool water, Jay had had enough.
“We haven’t gotten a bite since we came over to the calm side,” he said, scanning the grass ahead for a sparse patch. “Let’s go back to the rough water.”
He soon found an area where the golden grass thinned a bit, and was able to slide back to the warm side of the rip with only one bait fouling.
Cat barely had time to shake the grass off the ballyhoo before we heard the sweet sounds of monofilament popping from outrigger clips, as the dolphin clearly hadn’t gotten any less hungry in our absence.
This time three fish found the hooks, and Gary, Josh, and Chris were soon back shuffling about the cockpit as their adversaries did their best to weave the lines into a snarled mess.
Cat and Jay again calmly directed the anglers over-and-under one another, and the fish steadily drew closer to the boat. Apparently fed up with the situation, Josh’s mahi spit the hook in a leap 20’ off the transom, but Gary’s and Chris’s soon joined their brethren in the fish box, their color dulling quickly from vivid blues and greens as the ice took its toll.
Several more dolphin met their fate at the end of Cat’s gaff before we decided we had all the mahi meat we needed.
“A couple boats have seen blue ones inshore of us,” Jay reported, having chatted with most of the other boats fishing that day on the radio. “Let’s head that way.”
With 20+ dolphin in the fish box, and the majority of them solid gaffers, continuing the marlin quest was an easy decision, and the weedline receded in our wake as we trolled back towards land.
As expected, the dolphin action faded along with the weedline, but our sights were set on a marlin, and we had more than enough meat to feed the extended Fisherman’s Post family many hearty meals.
The “Bite Me” had made it back into 1200 fathoms (a mere 7,200’of water), when the fish we’d been looking for came calling.
Having never seen a blue marlin, I didn’t exactly know what I was looking for when Jay’s shouts came down from up top.
“There he is! Left short rigger!” the skipper burst out. My gaze fell on the bait lure combo popping along in the wake, and then immediately to a huge purple/black shadow trailing a few yards behind.
Cat immediately was on the rod, cranking the bait several feet back towards the transom in an effort to excite the fish into an attack.
I lost sight of the shadow momentarily, but it reappeared behind the trolling plug popping and diving even closer to the transom. Cat transitioned to that rod, and this time the fish offered a bit more response, speeding up when he pulled the lure away, but just as it seemed to me a crashing strike was inevitable, it turned and again faded into the blue.
I thought the encounter was over, but a few moments later Jay spied it again.
“Shotgun!” he shouted, and indeed, the shadow emerged anew under our longest bait. It transitioned to the long rigger bait on the right side of the wake, putting my circulatory system into overdrive as I willed it to come up and inhale the baited Ilander. The purple fish tracked the bait for several more seconds before again disappearing from view, unfortunately for the final time.
Jay immediately put the big boat into as tight a circle as he could without crossing the lines, and kept it up for several minutes in an effort to draw the beast back into our spread, but the marlin was gone for good.
I honestly have no idea how long the marlin was in the wake, but what seemed like long minutes with the dark mass eyeing our offerings was probably more realistically measured in seconds. Despite the fact that we didn’t hook it, I was thrilled to see the first blue marlin of my angling career, and peppered both Jay and Cat with questions about the encounter.
“He never got fired up at all,” Jay explained on the bridge a few minutes later. “We’d have seen him get lit up if he had. Every one is different. He’s probably full of baby dolphins or maybe was just kind of napping when we drove over him.”
Both captain and mate estimated the fish around 250 lbs., certainly a sizeable fish, but slightly below average for the fish seen by the Hatteras fleet.
“They come in waves, though,” Jay explained. “Sometimes they’re all big, and sometimes they’re 100 pounders. I’d say overall average is 300-400 lbs., though.”
What I could see of the marlin looked larger than 250 to these novice eyes, but I was quite willing to defer to a crew that sees dozens of blues in a season.
We weren’t able to raise another blue in our last hour of trolling, but with a pile of delicious mahi in the box, there were no complaints from team Fish Post, not to mention a story to tell from our exhilarating encounter with the marlin.
Boats run across blue marlin off Hatteras virtually year-round, but the prime season for sightings and hookups runs from May to October. Dolphin are numerous for most of that time as well, and yellowfin and blackfin tuna and wahoo are always possibilities, adding some diversity to the meatfish.
The tunas and wahoo stick around in the fall and early winter, and king mackerel action can be superb as the water cools down as well. Giant bluefin tuna take up feeding stations off Hatteras later in the winter months, so there’s something exciting to chase year-round in the productive waters off the Outer Banks.
Give Capt. Jay Kavanagh a call at (252) 995-3035 or (252) 996-0295 to discuss your own trip on the “Bite Me,” or visit www.fishbiteme.com to track the action via daily fishing reports or learn more about the boat and charters.