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I have tried to go month by month, and give you a breakdown of what you can expect to catch in the gulfstream waters off of Hatteras. Remember that fishing is fishing, and there are always exceptions, nothing is ever set in stone. For example, just because you don't see dolphin and marlin as normal species we see in the winter months, it's never out of the question to find something unexpected! I have based this on what I've observed historically, since the late 70's.
It's hard for me to think of January as the beginning of a new season. To me, January is just a continuation of December, which is just a continuation of the fall. Normally our fall yellowfin fishing continues right on through the winter, and just winds up evolving into spring yellowfin fishing, so it's not uncommon to have great tuna fishing right on through January. Since the advent of the vertical, or butterfly jigs, we have discovered a fishery and technique that has attracted many anglers to Hatteras in January. The blackfin tuna fishing is as good as anywhere in the world, and normally range from 20-40 pounds this time of year. This has really taken off as something exciting to try, not to mention that most days the results are very good. Blackfins, in my opinion, are no different than yellowfin to eat, so here's an opportunity to stock up on some tuna during a time of year when most people are in need of a fishing trip! Our king mackerel fishing can be great on into January as well. The productivity of this fishery depends on how quickly it gets cold, and changes the water around in the depths that they inhabit. We are usually still geared up to commercial fish for king mackerels in January, so the fish need to be plentiful enough for that to be lucrative. If things are still in order, live bait fishing with 20 pound tackle would be the way we would fish for these. In years past, our striped bass fishing has been worth the trip to Hatteras, but as of late, hasn't been as productive. Like all fisheries, that will cycle back around and before you know it we'll see these fish plentiful again. As January wears on, there will be some bluefin tuna action, but lately this fishery has been peaking in February and March.
In February we are all geared up for the big boys. Back in the 90s, we experienced a phenomenon with these massive fish that simply needed to be seen to be believed. Miles and miles of them roamed the waters off of Hatteras each winter, until one year when they just didn't show. Well, they have been pretty dependable for the last few years, and only seem to be getting more plentiful. The average sizes of these tuna have been 150-200 pounders, but I feel like that number may be going up a little each winter. There are several ways to fish for these giants. In most cases we troll, but often we are able to get these fish feeding on chum, and do well chunking for them. Finally, this fishery has attracted a certain clientele that wants to put their bodies and equipment to the ultimate test. Vertical jigging. I have seen battles last over two hours. Sometimes the fish wins, sometimes not. In any case, the bluefin fishing is worth the trip. There is still a possibility of catching some yellowfin and blackfin tuna in February too.
March is just more of February. The bluefin action is the main attraction, and the yellowfins are starting to become a little more plentiful as spring nears. The weather is a little milder than February, in most cases, but the bluefin fishing is downright HOT! Don't be surprised to stumble across a stray wahoos or king mackerel either.
April has traditionally been our "peak" yellowfin month of the spring, but I think that happened before we really started fishing much in the winter. Never the less, the yellowfins are usually rockin' in April, and with the water starting to warm up, it's possible to start seeing some of the other pelagics common this area.
I have caught a few blue marlin in April, and even though it's not the norm, it becomes more of a possibility. There are usually a few wahoos around, in fact once in a while we have a "flurry", and catch several fish in a day.
An occasional dolphin (mahi) will be caught as well.
Often times in April, the kings get pretty thick, and we will drop down to some lighter tackle to catch them. They are smaller in the spring, usually 5 - 10 pounders, the best eating size!
To me, May begins a huge transition from spring to summer. Sometimes it's a gradual one, and sometimes it seems like somebody flipped a switch. Again, it's all about our conditions. At some point in May, we usually have a pretty good push of gaffer size dolphin, joined with, and followed by, a lot of school size, or "bailer" dolphin, which we are usually blessed with for the rest of the season. Upon locating a school of dolphin (often times there are hundreds in a school), we switch over from trolling gear to our "bailing"tackle, which is much lighter. My mate tosses a little chum, and we simply use cut bait to catch the fish, which usually swarm around the boat. Dolphin is one of my favorites to eat too, as I'm sure you have all seen it in restaurants, commonly sold as "Mahi - Mahi".
The water temperature is warming up, and so is the wahoo fishing. While they aren't as common as the dolphin or tuna, we still catch wahoos on a regular basis. We catch them trolling, and it is necessary to use wire leaders, due to their sharp teeth. Wahoos range in size from under ten pounds to over a hundred, but the average wahoo here would be a twenty-five pounder.
I'm happy to announce that in May, we start to see a few billfish, and though it's not quite "peak"season, its right around the corner!
Ah, June. By now it's definitely summer. Things are booming on the island, there are marlin tournaments going on, lots of people around the docks, and lots of fish on the docks as well!
Our mainstay in the summer, as far as meat fish, is dolphin. We usually continue to do well with them in June, and even though we still catch our share of bigger fish, we commonly find schools of the "bailers".
The marlin fishing starts heating up in June, and we often see good numbers of blue marlin, white marlin, and sailfish. I get a kick out of catching billfish, and even though we release all of them, it's always a thrill to me to catch another one. I'm sure you will agree!
Wahoos are fairly abundant up and down the ledges, usually a little shallower than where I would typically fish for the marlin. They are still welcome on board my boat anytime!
The tunas may still be hanging around, but often get "picky" in the warmer water. That's not to say we don't catch them in the summer, it's just that we don't consistently have big days on them, but there is plenty to do.
July is a favorite of mine as well, because most of my "big number" days on the billfish have occurred in this month. Even though they can be unpredictable at times, my observations are that July has yielded the best numbers for billfish in general, over the years. We gear up with 20 lb. tackle for the whites and sails, and 80 lb. gear for the blue marlins. Most of the time, we are able to switch the right fish on to the appropriate tackle, but occasionally a blue marlin unexpectantly eats the small rod, and then we've got our hands full!
The dolphin fishing remains hot in July, with numerous schools of fish feeding in and along the grass lines and tide rips. Dolphin fishing is very "hands on", and with the size of the fish we catch out of the schools, and the smaller tackle that we use, makes for great fun for kids and adults.
Tuna fishing can be hit or miss later in the summer for us. The ones we catch are usually nice size fish, but they aren't always as abundant as they are in the cooler months.
It's still pretty common to catch a wahoo or two, sometimes several on any given day in July.
August is usually our warmest month, and my parties in August are thankful, most days, for the air-conditioned cabin! We also tend to have some of our best weather late in the summer. As with fishing, there are always exceptions to the rule with weather as well, but generally, we have more pretty, calm days than windy ones.
August is fine with me because we can still expect to have good marlin fishing. This month is quite similar to the previous month in most ways. I've caught lots of billfish in August, but to me, the sailfish become a little more prominent than the others late in the summer, and in to the fall.
In September, we begin to see the beginning of a transition from summer to fall, not only in the weather, but in the fishing. The dolphin fishing is still terrific, but the sailfishing usually gets even better. Its not uncommon, in fact it's normal to have multiple strikes from schools, or "coveys" of sails. On many occasions I have seen four, five, or six fish in a group, hot on our teasers, flatlines, you name it!
You guessed it, the wahoos are getting more abundant too. Its funny, but a lot of times, in the fall, the sails and wahoos are in the same area, but fishing for both, at the same time, is complicated. As I mentioned in an earlier month, we use wire leader for the wahoos, simply due to their razor sharp teeth. This, however, is totally opposite to how I would normally fish for the sails. We use light tackle, and light mono leaders, which aren't exactly wahoo friendly. Ok, so we'll bait and switch, right? Let me tell you, you don't even see a wahoo coming, much less have a chance to crank a bait away and switch over to another one. So what do we do? Hope, and pray, fish some wire, and some mono, and if luck is on your side you get the right fish on the right rig!
Normally we will begin to see a few more tuna starting to show about now, as well.
We get a little bit of everything in October, although, the billfishing is usually on its way out by now. Yellowfin are coming in pretty good by now, and our tuna catches are consistently better than the last few months. We still troll for them, but I have chunked for them on occasion.
There's some dolphin fishing to be found, but you will normally find them in the hotter water, where we would quite possibly be fishing for tuna in cooler water.
It's still fairly common to have a couple of wahoo bites, sometimes more, and you will often find them along a color change in the fall.
The smoker kings usually show up in October, and a lot has to do with conditions, but it seems like lately it's been later in the month before there are any numbers of fish caught. We catch blackfin tuna all year, but in the fall they seem to be more prominent than the other seasons. They usually range from 10 - 30 pounds, with our average fish being 20-25 pounds. We did catch a 44 pounder once, but it's unusual.
When asked which month is my favorite, I almost always say November, and then I think about all the great marlin fishing in July, tunas in April, wahoos in September, and after considering all of that, I still say November! November is the total package. If we could have white marlins here in November too, I would wish for December to never come. Not only is the fishing CRAZY in November, but the weather is perfect. Now, please understand that we have our share of Northeaster's that typically screw things up for three days at a whack, but on a typical Hatteras November day, it's 68-70 degrees, long sleeved tee shirt in the morning, short sleeves by 10:00 AM.
A normal November holds two options. Trolling for yellowfin tuna, and live bait fishing for king mackerel. I've talked a lot in previous months about tuna fishing, but the fall season is at its peak in November.
I haven't discussed live bait king fishing in any other months, simply because this is when you need to be here to do this. You can ask anybody who knows and they will tell you that Hatteras in November is the place to be for this action. We catch live menhaden in the morning, and then head on out to find the smokers. It's generally less than an hour till we're fishing. We use 20 pound class tackle to catch 20-50 pound kings. The strikes are impressive, most of them on the surface, and a great number of them "sky rocket" out of the water with the bait in their mouth. My biggest, so far, has been 60 pounds, but years ago when my father was fishing, he landed one that weighed in at 73.
The tuna fishing remains hot in December, really it's no different than November, as far as the yellowfins are concerned, lots of fish, cooler weather.
The kings are still abundant, but at some point in December, the biggest fish will become scarce. We still catch nice size fish, just not as many over 30.
As I mentioned, the last few years, our bluefin fishing has been unpredictable, but it seems that if you are going to have a shot at one, December is the month to try.
For a variety, the blackfin tuna normally make their appearance by December, and begin to get thick enough to target with the vertical jigs. If you want to experience some great fishing during a cooler, quieter time of year, December is definitely worth a shot!