Week 38. Ric Burnley: Salt Water Sportsman
Most people thirty or fifty miles out into the Atlantic would see an endless expanse of ocean, but Ric Burnley might look at the same scene and tell you there’s a Gulf Stream eddy swirling over an underwater canyon, which has a good chance of carrying white marlin. His instincts are honed from decades running out to the continental shelf and talking to a network of some of the most prolific anglers in the region as an editor for Salt Water Sportsman and Kayak Angler Magazine.
“If you can find where the warm water of the Gulf Stream hits with the cold water of the Labrador Current at the 100-fathom line,” says Ric, “that’s where the action is.” It’s easier said than done and countless dollars are spent each year in pursuit, but Ric has it as dialed in as anyone. I was fortunate to speak with him on a July afternoon in the midst of high yellowfin season to pick his brain on the seasonal patterns of some of the most prized offshore sportfish.
Ric and I talked about the yearly runs of white marlin, blue marlin, yellowfin, bluefin, dolphin, wahoo, and other gamefish, as well as the best places to target them. Each specie is obviously different, but the big canyons and underwater structure around the 100-fathom line will typically hold fish if the currents and temperatures are right. That being said, as I learned, the science behind that hydrology is a multimillion industry. Ric was gracious enough to give me a crash course.
Below questions are in bold below followed by his answers.
What are your home waters?
I live in Virginia Beach and mostly fish out of there, Oregon Inlet, or Hatteras, and occasionally Ocean City.
From Virginia Beach, it's about 50-60 miles out to Norfolk Canyon or the continental shelf at the 100-fathom line. Some people will go to Washington Canyon or wherever you can get that blue water coming in swirls and eddies off the Gulf Stream hitting the 100-fathom line, but it's mostly Norfolk Canyon. Some will also fish inshore -- so-called "inshore" -- to what's called the Lumps about 20-30 miles out that can produce good wahoo and dolphin.
From Oregon Inlet, most of the guys are fishing The Point, which is about 35 miles southeast of the inlet and due east of Rodanthe, North Carolina. The continental shelf sort of angles into this point that has all kinds of jagged formations. There are valleys and all kinds of crazy stuff -- just a lot of structure. That's their equivalent of the 100-fathom line. You can go to that spot every day of the year and catch yellowfin tuna. It’s so good there that I'd almost rather drive a couple of extra miles in the truck to Oregon Inlet to have a shorter boat ride and be closer to fishing.
When you get down to Hatteras, it's definitely a unique place. It's very isolated; there are only a few hundred people on the island. You can be out in the blue water [beyond the 100-fathom line] in only 15-20 miles. About 20 miles south-southeast of Hatteras is a place called The Rockpile where fish stack up. But the current moves very fast -- at 4-5 knots -- and that moves the fish too, so it's a very dynamic place. One minute you can have a whole bunch of fish piled up there, but it changes so quickly that they could be gone the next.
So it sounds like the currents and the 100-fathom line are key?
That's all part of the equation. Most guys will check the satellite water temperature before they head out to know the right spots. Rutgers has sea surface temperatures from satellites available online. The general rule of thumb is, where the warm water from the Gulf Stream hits the cold water at the 100-fathom line, that's where the action is going to be.
You're also looking for current and structure. Off Hatteras, you have water whipping right up off the Gulf Stream, so sometimes you actually want to find less current there. Sometimes you're also looking at chlorophyll levels, which tells you how clear the water is.
Is most of that structure going to be in the canyons?
Yea, the canyons and gullies at the edge of the continental shelf. They’re like the Grand Canyon underwater. They are thousands of feet deep. You can imagine that each one holds fish and is just packed with fish. But it’s any underwater structure. The Point is where the shelf angles and juts out, and there are areas where the shelf is jagged and broken that produces nice structure.
Some of these guys are so good that they can look at open water and know there's a mound or bay there. I know these guys that were catching king mackerel -- one after another -- by just going around in circles in the size of a football field on what looked like open water because they knew there was a mound there.
What are the most popular fish that people are targeting, and what is your favorite?
White marlin is the ultimate game fish. If you have unlimited resources, you fish for white marlin. Some of these guys that fish for white marlin could go to the moon on Space X if they wanted to or go fish for white marlin instead. It’s the ultimate sport fish, and the whole process is what gets people so amped up. You’re trolling with small ballyhoo, and when it whacks it, you need to frantically dump the line and feed the fish -- it's chaos! The captain is chasing him at 6-7 knots, and there’s a big cloud of black smoke, and everyone is yelling!
Yellowfin is everyman’s fish. If white marlin is a gentleman’s fish, yellowfin is everyman’s. But when you get down to it, yellowfin is the center of the show. When the yellowfin are in, every boat is chartered and every parking spot down at the dock is full. Dolphin and wahoo are also fun to find.
How about blue marlin and bluefin? Those are the granddaddies?
Blue marlin is not easy. If you had the time and patience, you could spend a whole summer targeting them. You could spend from May to Fall, just looking for blue marlin. They’re so random. They don’t travel in schools, and you can run into them anywhere. They don’t really follow a pattern. They’re not like a white marlin, where if it’s September and there’s a hurricane on the way spinning off warm water into an eddy, you can bet there are white marlin in there. Or yellowfin, when it’s 76 degrees off The Point -- there’s gonna be yellowfin in there. No -- blue marlin can be in there at 69 or 85 degrees, and anywhere within 1,000 feet.
The bluefin are big, and they're getting bigger. Last year, they were catching 800 pounders, with guys averaging 500-600.
Why are they getting bigger?
It's probably just the year class of fish. Back in the ‘90s, they had a big bluefin bite and a whole fishery grew up around it. And then they were gone, and people kind of forgot about it. People would catch 150-200 pounders but that's about it. But then around 2008-2010ish, they started showing up again at Hatteras and Oregon Inlet, and last year, there were a bunch in the 600-700 range.
When they’re here, they are here. It makes it dangerous, because they all pile up. When you get a weather day, you can catch some.
When’s the peak run for each species?
The bluefin start showing up in February, and the height is around the end of March in Oregon Inlet. That can change depending on conditions, but at least that’s when they've shown up in the past.
In April, the yellowfin start showing up in numbers. Most people would rather have a yellowfin than anything that swims. When the word goes out that the yellowfin are in, people drop whatever they're doing and run to get out there. Every parking spot it taken, and you can't find a place to park your truck! April and May, everyone is trolling with sea witches. By June, it's flying fish and even top-water poppers on spinners.
Late spring into early summer is a really good season for yellowfin [around Oregon Inlet and Hatteras]. When the grass line starts to show up in June, they’ll troll the grass line. The yellowfins will be about 10-15 lbs in early June, and by July and August, they’ll be 20-30 lbs.
By July, they’ll move up to Virginia Beach -- they’ll get a run there early June to July, and they’ll be there all the way through by August.
The dolphin also start to move up from Hatteras to Virginia Beach. All summer, you can also get marlin and bigeye. By August and September, that’s the height of white marlin. They could be anywhere. Some years it’s Virginia Beach or Oregon Inlet or Ocean City. The wahoo are also big in Hatteras, and the king mackerel is world class down there.
I had to fish for one white marlin for only one week, I’d pick sometime around the end of August and early September before the first big hurricane comes through.
We also get another peak for yellowfin in late summer into early Fall, and that can last through October and even November. Starting in November, we’ll start vertical jigging too.
For December through February, you can’t forget about the blackfin off of Hatteras. That can be really excellent.
Yellowfin are available almost year-round. Throughout the mid-Atlantic, you can really fish every day of the year if you wanted to!