by Ric Burnley
Originally published in Salt Water Sportsman Magazine
Steve Powell was anxious. Standing in the cockpit of a 31-foot Albemarle, gripping the hilt of a custom 30-pound-class rod, Powell was bowed up and fighting a stubborn fish. We’d been trolling off Virginia Beach all morning catching big yellowfin tuna, but Powell had more than sushi on his mind; he was one trophy fish away from reaching Master Angler status in the Virginia Game Fish Tournament and this could be the one. He gritted his teeth and leaned back against the pull. His friends, several of whom had already reached Master Angler, both taunted and cheered him on, but Powell only replied with dogged determination. He wanted that fish badly and had worked for years to get to this point. The angler bent his knees and cranked the reel while bending into the fish. Then he leaned back again, watching the line he’d gained disappear off the spool. Slowly, he was able to gain more line than he lost and, after a few minutes of hard work, the wind-on swivel came into view. Powell’s buddies looked over the stern, searching for a sign of the fish when a long blue streak flashed through the water. “Wahoo,” Ken Neill shouted from the bridge, “A big one.” Steve let out a blast of exasperation, knowing that his chances of landing a toothy wahoo on tuna tackle were slim, but he leaned back again and continued the fight. With one more blistering pass, it was over – the line popped and the rod snapped straight. Powell stumbled backward to the deck mumbling to himself. His Master Angler quest would continue.
It was just 3 a.m. when I met Ken Neill at Fisherman’s Warf in Virginia Beach. We loaded his boat, Healthy Grin, (Neill’s a dentist) with ice, ballyhoo, tackle and friends Charles Southall, Jorj Head, Dave Brabrand, Julie Ball and Steve Powell. There’s not a weekend warrior in the bunch and for them, every trip takes on the intensity of a tournament effort as they chase Citations in the Virginia Saltwater Game Fish Tournament. The popular program, in its 51st year, is administered by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission with funding provided by the Virginia Saltwater Recreational Fishing License. It awards plaques to anglers who catch fish that meet or exceed the requirements for trophy status as determined by the tournament committee. For casual fishermen, the program recognizes a catch of a lifetime. For hardcore anglers, the year-long tournament adds an element of competition to their intense pursuit of the sport. On this trip, Neill targeted several species in an effort to help two of the crew achieve Master Angler status. A Master Angler must catch 25 trophy-sized fish, but can only count one citation per species per year. It is no simple chore. As we sped offshore, I watched the full moon set off the stern and then turned to see the sun rise off the bow. A few minutes later, Neill came off the throttles and the crew sprang into action setting the baits (ballyhoo dressed wiih skirts) into a trolling spread. Once the baits were set, Neill turned the boat to follow one of the many weedlines that crisscrossed the predawn water. In short order, one of the rods popped and Charles Southall jumped on it. He made short work of the false albacore and after just a few minutes taped the fish at 30 inches, just short of the 32 inches required for a release citation. “We picked up a couple of release citations here last week,” Ken yelled down from the bridge, “lets see if we can find another.” We trolled on, catching and releasing several more albacore, each just short of the minimum length for a release citation. Then the radio barked a report of a tuna bite going off at Wayne’s World a few miles away. Neill’s good friend Captain Richard Bartlett, fishing on his boat Empty Wallet, found a cooperative school of yellowfins. The crew brought in the lines and Ken pushed the throttles forward. We blasted off toward Wayne’s World and the tuna.
Named after a local captain who started every charter trip there, Wayne’s World is a popular hotspot that lies 55 miles off Virginia Beach’s Rudee Inlet. The spot is actually part of a larger offshore structure called the Fingers that pokes west from the 20-fathom curve. “At the base of two of the Fingers,” Neill says, “is a series of lumps that consistently hold good numbers of fish.” After a 20-minute run, the crew quickly deployed the baits, set the teasers, and pushed the lever drags on the reels to the strike position. Off Virginia Beach, anglers can expect to encounter everything from football yellowfins to 500-pound blue marlin. In preparation, Neill uses everything from 30-pound gear to heavyweight 80s. He runs three TLD two-speed 30s on the flatlines: two pull naked split-billed ballyhoo and the center line drags a skipping ‘hoo in the wash. Another 30 works each short rigger with a skirted ‘hoo. A 50 is responsible for the skirted ballyhoo hanging from each long rigger, and a Tiagra 80w runs a horse ballyhoo way-back from the center rigger. The crew of the Healthy Grin has switched to wind-on leaders. They crimp a #3 low-profile Spro Heavy Duty swivel to a 20-foot topshot of 150-pound-test and then tie it with a uni-knot to the 10-foot leader of 80- to 150-pound-test monofilament. The small swivel can be cranked through the eyes of the rod and onto the reel allowing the angler to bring the fish close enough to the boat for the gaffman to get a hook in it without having to wrap the line around his hands. When a tuna smashes the bait, one of the crew members simply rigs a fresh ballyhoo on the same hook and tosses it back into the spread. Wind-on leaders are an obvious advantage for folks just getting into offshore fishing; likewise, many pros have made the switch, too. Neill drags a chain of soft heads on the left teaser and a natural squid daisy chain on the right. The key to the spread’s effectiveness is having a suitable rig ready for anything that might swim up to the boat, whether it’s a 36-inch albacore or a 63-inch wahoo. On our trip, Neill trolled a temperature break that jumped from 69 to 74 degrees. He ran the boat at six to seven knots along one side of the break then, if that didn’t produce, he would troll down the other side. An accurate fishing log helps him recognize patterns from year to year, but first-hand reports are golden. “Of course, diving birds are a wonderful thing,” Neill says – as are busting tuna. Other tip-offs are weedlines and rips that indicate colliding currents. He always keeps one eye on the fishfinder looking for bait or tuna marks.
Making Them Bite
The sky had not been blue for long when we got our first bite, which turned out to be a fat 40-pound yellowfin – a good sign of good fishing to come. When one of the 50s screamed, Dave Brabrand jumped on it. The result was a huge tuna that got everyone excited. The bite was on. We weeded through a couple gaffer dolphin before all hell broke loose. Three lines went down and three anglers were hooked into three tuna. Following a well-orchestrated dance around the cockpit, each fish was gaffed and dropped in the box. By the time the sun hit high noon, however, the action had calmed down. But when the fish are done eating Neill’s crew pulls some tricks out of the bait bucket to spark the action. The first trick is to deploy either a spoon or rigged ballyhoo behind a planer board. Another secret weapon is to downsize the leader material. They will go as light as 40-pound-test to avoid spooking the fish. Of course light leaders increase the risk of losing big fish, but the rational is that you can’t break off a fish that never hits the bait. The spoon wasn’t out long when the rod snapped to attention and the reel signaled that Neill’s trick had worked. The next angler on the roster grabbed the rod and fit it into his fighting harness. After a long battle and a quick gaff job, the crew boxed a 73 pound yellowfin – big enough for a trophy citation. That fish would put another plaque on Healthy Grin’s fuselage, adding to the hundreds of citations Neill’s crew has brought to the boat since his buddies started fishing together a decade ago. Steve Powell, on the other hand, would have to wait a little longer to catch his last citation for Master Angler, which ironically didn’t come from a sleek wahoo but a one-pound, five-ounce spot. After all, a nice catch is a nice catch and a Master Angler is a master angler.
Get With the Program
The Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament has recognized fantastic catches for over fifty years. The year-round event’s primary objective is to promote the state’s great fishing and award citation plaques to anglers who catch a fish that meets or exceeds minimum weight or length requirements in one of 34 species covered. For Ken Neill, who is a member of the tournament’s Board of Directors and a Level IV Master Angler, chasing paper gives him goals to shoot for each year while encouraging him to fish for species that he might not otherwise target. “For example, I wouldn’t normally fish for spot,” he says, “but the big ones were here and I wanted a citation.” In the end he had a great time exploring a different fishery and getting his citation as a bonus. However, the program does more than just award plaques for big fish. Statistics gathered by the tournament help fisheries managers see trends in the numbers of larger, breeding fish. Moreover, the tournament gives recreational fishing a high profile, encouraging managers to consider the sport’s impact when setting regulations. The Citation Program is a win, win, win situation where anglers win awards, fisheries managers win information, and Virginia’s trophy fish win some much deserved recognition. For more information on the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, go to www.mrc.state.va.us and click on recreational fishing or call 757-491-5160.