The Biggest Tuna Ever Caught (From a Kayak)

Matt Shepard of Virginia Beach, Virginia, landed this 166-pound bluefin tuna on March 10 while fishing from a kayak about 40 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The fish sets a new record for the largest tuna ever caught from a kayak. Shepard is part of a small but growing band of kayak anglers who practice mothershipping--using a charter boat to get to deep offshore water that is normally out of kayaking range--in pursuit of big-water gamefish. No official group recognizes the sport yet; instead, kayak anglers keep tabs on record catches via Internet sites such as kayakfishrecords.com.
Back in whaling times, they called it a Nantucket sleighride: those harrowing moments when a harpoon found its mark, the rope snapped taut and the whaling-boat crew was yanked across the waves on a high-speed ride behind a (hopefully) tiring whale. The next best thing, these days, is hooking up on a ferociously powerful gamefish that can approach 800 pounds and 8 feet in length.
During his 90-minute fight with the fish, Shepard and his 13-foot ocean kayak were towed three miles, at times sideways and backwards, at speeds of up to 7 knots.
"You're just paddling along with your bait out, and when that fish hits it's like hooking a speeding sports car," says Shepard, who on previous mothershipping trips fished for amberjack and mahi-mahi. "Catching a bluefin is way beyond anything else I've done kayak fishing; way beyond anything I've done fishing period."
The Big Tahuna, a charter fishing boat out of Hatteras captained by Scott Warren, served as the mothership for this trip.
"There's lots of old-school captains who only want to troll, so it's hard to find someone to take you out," Shepard says. "But Scott was willing and he's interested in doing this for other kayakers who might want to try it."
With the run offshore done, Big Tahuna first mate Kenny Koci settled in with some chips to enjoy the show.
Matt Williams, who joined Shepard on the trip (along with Ric Burnley, who took most of these photographs) also hooked up with a bluefin and got to enjoy a ride before the fish broke off.
Even though his bluefin got away, Williams had better luck with this false albacore. Only Shepard was able to land one of the big fish. "The three of us hooked up more than a dozen times, but we had a lot of tackle problems," Shepard says. "Not enough line, line breaking, knots breaking, hooks pulling, you name it."
Shepard used an Accurate BX 2500 reel with a 5-foot, 8-inch Custom Jigging Master rod baited with ballyhoo. He spooled 80-pound-test Spectra line with a 40-foot 100-pound mono leader. Pretty light tackle for the task at hand.
"It peeled line so fast I couldn't stop it," Shepard says. "I had the reel on full drag and it was pulling line off the reel and pulling the kayak at the same time. You're just hoping the thing stops running before you run out of line."
At one point Shepard had only a quarter of his line in reserve, but after 20 minutes he had the leader on the spool. "Then he must have seen the kayak, because he sounded down and it was another hour of up-and-down fighting. We were in about 70 fathoms of water, and the fish was on the bottom."
"We were fishing the temperature break, where the cold water meets the warm Gulf Stream," Shepard recounts. "The fish were in the warm water, which had a 3-foot chop and 5-foot swells, but as soon as I hooked up it headed to cold water. It was calmer but it also gave the fish stamina. Finally he tired and I started gaining line on him."
Shepard got his first good look at the bluefin …
…. as Williams moved in with the gaffe. "When we first came out, the boat threw a couple of test lines in the water and hooked some 50 to 60 pound bluefins, so we thought we were going to be catching nice kayak-sized tuna," Shepard says. "But the longer the fight went on, I knew this fish was bigger. When it got to the surface I was in shock; I couldn't believe how big it was."
Finally Shepard hauled his tuna back to the boat …
… and took the trophy shot he'd hoped for.

Photos 5 and 6 courtesy of Scott Warren at Big Tahuna Sport Fishing Charters (bigtahuna.com), Hatteras, NC, 252-986-4077. All other photos courtesy of Ric Burnley.