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Bluefin tuna are maybe the most highly sought after species that we fish for. These mysterious fish are hunted by commercial and sport fishermen worldwide. They have been the topic of many political controversies due to their high commercial value. So far, forty-two countries, worldwide, have joined together in an effort to manage the stocks of about 30 species, bluefin being at the top of the list. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) was formed in the 60's, and limits each country, by quota, to how many metric tons of bluefin can be landed. This quota has been divided in to different user groups, and a certain amount has been allocated each year, for each category. In an effort to keep things fair and equitable for all user groups, commercial bluefin seasons open and close, depending on landings. Recreationally, we catch and release bluefin tuna, and are permitted, at times, to keep one fish per day between 57 and 73 inches.
In years past most of the historical bluefin landings off of the East Coast have been from New England and the Bahamas. Who knows when they first showed up here, maybe they have always wintered off of the Outer Banks. I have heard stories told by old timers about these huge fish sighted near some of the wrecks, and various places years ago. I even have a friend that picked up a bluefin in his truck that had beached itself while feeding and weighed it in at over 800 pounds. Back in the early to mid 90's, a commercial fisherman sighted a school of bluefin feeding on bluefish around a wreck. Some of the charter boats checked it out, and things have never been the same.
When we first started taking parties out to catch these magnificent fish, we were anything but rigged up. No one around here had 130-pound class tackle, so we were doing the best we could with 80s. It was a "no brainer" so to speak, all you had to do was hook up a chunk of bait, most anything would work, and toss it over the side. We used the heaviest leader we could find and didn't worry too much about concealing the hook. As time went by, and more boats came, the tunas got fished harder and we had to drop down on leader size and hide the hook a little better -- but on most days, it was non-stop action. Equipped now with 130s, we would catch these tunas as fast as we could, until the party was exhausted. Each year they would show up, usually in December, and hang around until sometime in March. All of a sudden, motels in Hatteras were booked in the winter, restaurants were staying open, and we were running charters year round. There were studies being done, tagging programs to research the migratory patterns of these great fish. I'm not sure if they found out anything except that when they leave the waters off of North Carolina, they travel all over the place, and are very unpredictable.
Over the last several years, the tunas have become a little more elusive, and don't seem to show up in the giant schools or stick around like they did a few years back. We still catch a few fish, but it's mostly on the troll, and one or two bites in a day would be more common than the "red hot" action that we had grown accustomed to. As unpredictable as they are, I certainly expect them to show back up in great numbers any winter.
Personally, I have tried cooking bluefin several ways and what I have discovered is that it is, well, awful. The Japanese pay a premium price for bluefin because it is in high demand, and valuable on the sushi market. The thrill of bluefin fishing is in the battle, not in the table fare, so if you want to wind in a Volkswagen, it's right up your alley, but if you want to take home some delicious fresh fish, you should try another species.