Fearless Crew Fights Fish & Big Swells During Outer Banks Offshore Outing
Updated: Feb 24
Note: A version of this article also appears at www.fredericksburg.com.
"You never know unless you go."
That saying has had me talk myself into plenty of fishing or hunting trips where the game was sparse and the weather miserable. I've had several, "You should have been here last week," moments or times when I'm checking out Facebook a week after a trip and I see that the world once again became right and boats were loading up on fish. I don't know what fishing god I pissed off but I've had a mostly sustained run of weather blowing away chartered offshore fishing trips, especially when they're lined up out of Virginia Beach or North Carolina's Outer Banks.
Friends Dan and Jennifer Josselyn and Matt and Stephanie Hornbaker had rented one of those huge beach houses in Nags Head for the second week of June. That's usually prime time for tuna in the Gulf Stream waters off the OBX. as we like to call the Outer Banks. "Let's line up a fishing trip," I suggested. Dream Girl, regularly one of the top sportfishing boats out of Oregon Inlet was available for June 12 and we make a booking. Friends Herman Harke and Rick Busch (who would also be on our six-man crew) and I stayed that night at the beach house rental.
We watched the maritime forecast as the rosy prediction of a few days earlier rapidly deteriorated. The June 11 charter aboard Dream Girl out of Oregon Inlet caught a limit of dolphin (mahi-mahi) and one small yellowfin tuna. Then, Captain Jason Snead told us, “Some guys are saying the Wednesday forecast isn’t great and are considering not going in the morning. But, be here at 5 a.m. and we can make the call then.”
We checked the maritime forecast, pleased to find things seemed to have improved overnight. Now, the forecast called for 15-to--20 mile per hour easterly winds with 3-to-4-foot seas. Still far from a gentle excursion, but manageable. Some boats still cancelled, but many didn't and with a beautiful sunrise peeking over the horizon, we headed out with dreams of big tuna.
The first hour of the 2-hour-plus journey to the blue waters of the gulf stream weren’t bad. The second half revealed conditions slightly worse than advertised. Winds were down from what was expected, but squalls in every direction were churning up big waves and choppy whitecaps.
Snead received a radio call from a fellow captain who was on a school of dolphin along a patch of sargassum, a unique seaweed that floats in sometimes huge mats and provides a platform for an incredible array of marine life. Shrimp, crabs, small fish (which attract big fish) and young sea turtles love sargassum. It derives its name from the Sargasso Sea where it originates and then is blown by wind and currents. The Sargasso Sea isn’t an independent body of water, usually defined by geography, but a large elliptical region of the North Atlantic, with Bermuda at its west-center. The abundant seaweed defines its borders.
It was tough moving about the fishing boat’s deck and stand-up fishing for dolphin was challenging. Guys went down to their knees a couple times. Fortunately, everyone was experienced enough to know that the goal is to fall into the boat and not out of the boat. The sargassum line was fragmented and Snead tried to keep us close to its edge as waves tossed the boat. The first fish, a gaffer-size dolphin in the 8-pound range, hit a naked ballyhoo bait being trolled directly behind the boat. “Fog,” the ship’s mate, handed the rod to 13-year-old Colton Josselyn, Dan's son, and the youngster adeptly brought in the colorful fish. Hornbaker, Josselyn and Harke held rods baited with small chunks of cut fish. Within seconds, three more dolphin were hooked up. It looked as if things might be getting good, although it was sure to be a tough slog on the way to filling the ice chest with tasty mahi-mahi.
Ordinarily, a skipper can back down the boat to an idle and let everyone pitch morsels of cut bait to a beautiful school of hungry dolphin. Sometimes, it’s possible to catch a near-limit of grill-sized fish under this scenario. While we were obviously moving through a school of dolphin, we didn't have the luxury of leisurely doing the traditional drill of hooking up with a couple, always making sure one is in the water to keep the fish around, and then furiously "baling" for them with spinning gear. The rough conditions meant Snead had to keep the propellers going to manage the choppy swells hitting us every few seconds.
We put a half-dozen dolphin in the box. The sargassum line was rapidly deteriorating and the fish were
scattering. We struggled to land a few more fish, including one small but delicious blackfin tuna that Harke cranked in. Snead suggested we go hunt bigger tuna. As Fog set the lines, it was apparent we weren’t alone in the endeavor. As least 20 other sportfishing boats were rolling and rocking around the same patch of ocean. Sometimes the wave troughs were so deep they seemed to swallow much of these 50-foot boats. Occasionally, you’d spy a boat that had slowed with several people congregated at the stern, clearly working in a tuna.
The area had been productive for bigeye tuna, fish that can exceed 200 pounds, for better than a week. Not today, though. While a handful of boats caught one or two tuna and one lucked into several, many boats, including ours, came away empty when it came to the prized pelagic sportfish. We did collect one more gaffer dolphin.
The seas, happily for us, settled down for about 90 minutes in early afternoon, giving us the more comfortable 3-to-4 range that had been predicted. It was a marked difference. But, as mid-afternoon arrived, the swells again rose. Most boats return to the Inlet around 4 p.m., and Snead yelled down it was time to pull the lines and head back in. Nobody grumbled about the decision. It could have been worse in terms of the catch; it could have been better. That’s fishing.
Now, here are a few things stood out about the trip. First, Dream Girl is a comfortable boat with a good cruising speed. The salon was spacious and comfortable. Snead has fished the area his entire life. Our first mate "Fog" was filling in for the regular mate who was at a fishing tournament. Fog and Snead are both avid turkey hunters and have fished together a lot.
Second, the weather off the Outer Banks is always a gamble. Charters book well in advance and anglers have to lock in dates early. Rarely, is it a case of seeing a nice weather forecast and spontaneously saying, “Let’s go fishing.” A few boats caught a couple tuna the day we went out and others might have had a few more dolphin. Some did better; some did worse. Charters a couple days after our adventure were back in tuna bonanza territory with boats from Virginia Beach to Hatteras slamming the tuna and dolphin.
Finally, the group of guys I was with were remarkable in their perseverance and dedication to getting fish in
the boat. Colton continues to impress adults whenever he fishes with them. Let’s just say that the youngster had several intense moments where he was personally trying to chum in gamefish over the gunwale. Afterward, he just grabbed the onboard hose and washed things off. When fish were biting and it was time to get to work, he was all business. He is welcome to fish with me any day. Trips like this might be called “character builders.” I imagine you could fish in rougher conditions, but I wouldn’t want to. I'm also dreaming of my next trip offshore. We'll get 'em for sure then...