Guide Time – Blackfins By Any Means
The plan was to catch blackfins by just about any means necessary, and since we were with Capt. Rick Croson, of Living Waters Guide Service out of Wrightsville Beach, we had a lot of options.
We left the dock in the dark at 5:30 am, heading out under the stars, and the calm seas meant a fast run that the electronics predicted would put us 60 miles offshore a little after 7:30. One quick bathroom stop on the way out wasn’t enough to throw off our ETA, so after a few passes around some structure at the 170 Ledge, an area off of Wrightsville Beach that sits on Loran’s 170 line, we still were ready to have our first lines in the water before 8:00.
Rick’s plan was to start off by jigging and popping, and then later we could go to the troll if needed. He was just finishing the third loop over some productive bottom, an area all but covered up by track marks on his electronics from previous trips where he had regularly marked fish. He checked the sounder intently hoping to find that the blackfins were here again on our day.
Rick was seeding fish, but most this early morning were showing on the bottom. Ideally, we would locate fish that were not just down deep but suspended in the water column. We headed upwind of the marks, and once in neutral, Rick turned the engines to make sure we drifted beam to the sea, the ideal boat position when jigging. He then started to explain to Zakk, Billy, Tony, and me the Rick Croson process of jigging for blackfins.
All of the fish had been marking at around 175-200 feet, so Rick wanted us to drop our long jigs down five colors of braid. Each color pattern on the braided line represented 10 meters (33 feet), so five colors would have the jigs about 150’ deep and just above the fish. Then once we got to five colors and took the reels out of free spool, the suggestion was to let the jigs pause for a second or two before starting to jig them back up.
“Blackfins are always looking up,” Rick explained. “That’s why on the drop when you get to the desired depth, you just stop and relax a second. That gives tunas time to see the jig, and then all of a sudden it goes flying away from them and that creates a reaction bite.”
Based on observations of GoPro videos, Rick’s theory is that the jig looks just like a fleeing squid.
There’s another problem, though, with dropping the long jigs too far down—there’s almost always amberjacks directly under the tunas. The challenge of fighting the hard-pulling jacks is fun in its right place and time, but for us that wasn’t today. Today our hopes were to come home heroes with plenty of fresh blackfin tuna for the dinner table.
Rick grabbed one of the many rods already rigged for our day’s purpose and showed us the terminal tackle. “Any kind of long jig works fine,” he noted, holding one out and moving to the starboard gunnel. “You’re looking for something 7-9 inches long, 150-210 grams, and whatever your favorite color is. My color preference is pink and blues.”
Rick then spent a moment telling us how drop the jig, “You want to hold the jig in the water a little below the surface before you start to drop it. You want it as close to the boat as possible and as vertical as possible, with some tension. This keeps the jig from fluttering on the way down, and the jig drops straight down and won’t tangle with a neighbor.”
The jigging motion itself, Rick then addressed, is basically a one-to-one ratio—pull up quick on the rod and then drop it, and this up and down motion of the rod correlates with one complete crank on the reel. The goal is one crank per rod lift and fall, and even more important is to do this one-to-one motion fast.
To emphasize his point on the importance of jigging in short bursts and at a fast pace, Rick smiled and said, “Speed kills.”
Different anglers have different theories on whether or not it’s a good sign or a bad sign when you catch a fish on the first cast (or drop) of the day, but I’m firmly in the “good sign” camp. Rick’s demo drop went down five colors. He took the reel out of free spool, waited just a second, and then began the fluid but hurried motion of jigging that he had just described. Four seconds into the retrieve, his rod bent over hard and he handed it to Billy, a member of the Fisherman’s Post crew who had never caught a blackfin.
Billy successfully fought the fish up the boat, but then created a teaching moment when instead of waiting for Rick to hit the fish with the gaff, he decided to bring the fish out of the water and then hold it suspended by the side of the boat. The estimated 20 lb. blackfin shook the hook and disappeared into the bluewater.
During Billy’s struggles, the rest of us had found a position on the boat and sent our own jigs down five colors. The hookups came quick, and we steadily put a few fish in the box. Then the sharks moved in on us. The sharks weren’t hitting our jigs, rather they were hitting the blackfins on our jigs.
Since most of our blackfin bites happened almost as soon as we started the retrieve, we had a lot of water to bring the hard-fighting blackfins through, and that, unfortunately, also gave the sharks plenty of water to find our hooked and struggling blackfins. However, Rick had a plan to mitigate the shark damage.
The idea was to fight the fish almost like you were still jigging, with quick upward pulls and quick downward cranks, gaining line in short bursts.
“The key is to change the way you’re pulling on the fish, confusing the fish,” Rick explained. “The fish then doesn’t know which way the pressure’s coming from. With a straight and steady upward pull, the fish is just going to pull straight down, directly against the pressure.”
And pulling straight down meant more chance that a shark would come by and take away our hooked blackfin.
“Closer to the boat,” Rick continued, “relax a little on the quick bursts. There’s more of a chance of pulling the hook because closer to the boat there’s more translation of that snatch to the fish. Dead pulling when closer to the boat keeps the hook buried in the mouth better.”
The quick burst technique worked, but only worked sometimes. Unfortunately, the sharks still found some of our fish, at times taking a big section of the fish away and leaving the rest on the hook, but more often leaving us bringing nothing to the boat but the end of cleanly cut braided line.
We were making repeated drifts over roughly the same piece of structure, picking up at least a hookup or two on every pass. Sometimes the fish were on the high side of the ledge, and on other drifts they were on the low side. We kept an eye on the machine, of course, but we also started seeing more birds and fish activity on the surface.
Tony grabbed one of the popper rods while we drifted, and the rest of us kept jigging. He’s been blackfinning a number of times with Rick, so he already knew that the first step was to give the popper a big cast. Distance gets the popper away from the boat, but more importantly a longer cast offers more water to cover on the retrieve.
When retrieving, Rick has found that the best technique isn’t a dramatic or violent pop, but just enough pop to make some movement.
“The idea is that you’re mimicking a flying fish,” Rick explained, “that doesn’t make a big splash but settles quietly on the water. Flying fish typically make a nice, clean splash.”
“Then after the soft pop, let the popper sit, and the longer you can stand to let it sit, the better,” Rick continued while looking over and trying to determine if Zakk was pulling against a blackfin or an amberjack. “The target time for the popper to rest is anywhere from 8-12 seconds. Again, this pause mimics a flying fish that will pause after it settles on the water. When the popper is still, that’s when the blackfin strikes and not during the pop.”
We hadn’t seen any surface activity since the beginning of our drift, but that didn’t stop the popper from working. Tony hooked up and brought our biggest blackfin of the day to Rick’s waiting gaff.
As we pulled back up to the top of another drift, I grabbed one of the popper rods myself, asking Rick how important it is to see fish on the surface before deciding to go with a popper. His explanation about not needing to see surface activity before deciding to pop made complete sense.
“If they’re down 125 feet or less, they’ll come up for the popper,” Rick explained. “Popping is really the same as trolling. When trolling, the fish are coming up through the water column to hit surface or near-surface baits. With poppers, you’re just drifting instead of trolling.”
And just like trolling, weather conditions matter little to the success of popping. The popper can work whether it’s sunny, cloudy, with white caps or clean.
For poppers, Rick likes 5-7 inches long and in the 2 oz. range. He also wants a nice big cup so that it can splash without a whole lot of rod movement.
I came tight to a blackfin on my popper almost immediately, but then in the fight back to the boat, my fish fell prey to yet another shark.
On a topwater bite, the tendency can be to pause to make sure the fish is really hooked before pulling on it. It’s also fun to pause to enjoy the big run the fish makes once discovering it’s hooked. The idea with so many sharks in the area, just like when you hook up on the jig, though, is to quickly and forcefully crank on the hooked blackfin to try and disorient and confuse the fish.
“Work the fish in as quick as possible,” Rick told me as he handed me another rigged popper rod, “so that it stays up on top and doesn’t dive down where it becomes much more of a shark attractant.”
On the next drift, the topwater bite didn’t happen. Though there were fish in the area visibly on the surface, both Tony and I couldn’t produce another topwater bite. Then while we slowly took the boat up to the top of another drift, the subsurface lure that Rick had purposely left out behind the boat started screaming line. While the lure trolls well up to 7-8 knots, Rick most often puts one back kind of long while slowly heading to the next drift or scouting around and checking the sounder for the next location.
Our list of the day’s successful blackfin techniques now included jigging, popping, and trolling.
The subsurface lure was a Halco trembler plug, a lipless vibrating plug with a rattle in it. Rick likes these particular models because they cast good and sink fast, and once we started our drift, Rick had Billy start a cast and retrieve action with the Halco. If the lure caught a blackfin on the troll, then it could just as easily catch one on the cast.
Billy, following instructions, cast the lure out as far as he could, let it sink for a few seconds, and then cranked it in as fast as he could—no other action was needed. The idea of the subsurface lure is to mimic a sardine or some other baitfish, and it didn’t take long for Billy to generate a strike and put yet another blackfin in the boat.
We spent the day hooking blackfins on the jig, on the popper, trolling a subsurface, and casting a subsurface, and at times we did so battling sharks or fighting the incidental amberjack. The hookset between an amberjack and a blackfin is almost indistinguishable, as you feel the same hard strike and the power of the fish pulling away. However, after that initial pull, the quick tail pulse of the tuna being telegraphed through the line when pulling drag was always a welcome sensation.
There are certainly blackfin that winter off of the North Carolina coast, but spring and fall are the optimum times to get in on the best blackfin action. For the fall, it’s ideal to schedule a trip from late September to Christmas, and in the spring, the better times are early-March to early-June. Anglers can find the quality 20+ lb. blackfins in both fall and spring, but April and May has historically been the better months to routinely find fish over 35 lbs.
It was April 2011 when Rick guided a novice angler to catch what still stands as the current NC state record blackfin at 40 lbs. 11 oz.
If you want to target blackfins and you like the confidence that comes with being able to land them a variety of ways, the choice is easy—Capt. Rick Croson of Living Waters Guide Service. And Rick brings that same mentality of “any means necessary” to all of his offshore trips, whether chasing wahoo, billfish, mahi, or dropping for bottomfish.
You can visit his Facebook page (search Living Waters Guide Service) or call him direct at (910) 620-7709. As part of the conversation, you can ask him if all blackfin trips come complete with a billfish hookup on a topwater popper (Rick hooked a sailfish on a popper on our day together, his second to date) and a 9+ foot sandbar shark (Zakk was the lucky one on the end of that rod).