This was supposed to be a striped-bass tournament, but you wouldn't know it by all of the attention being paid Thursday to the big-fish scales at the Virginia Beach Fishing Center.
As striped-bass anglers shuffled their catches in wheelbarrows to the weigh-ins for the ninth annual Mid-Atlantic Rockfish Shootout, most of the crowd descended on a boom straining to lift a huge bluefin tuna onto another set of scales about a hundred yards down the dock.
J.T. Holt of Virginia Beach was on Team Pimp Fish Pirates when the tuna hit a parachute rig designed for the event's targeted species.
After a 35-minute fight and a short ride down the beach to Rudee Inlet, Holt's fish tipped the scales at 265 pounds. It could be worth several thousands of dollars - partly in tournament winnings and more from a tuna buyer on scene to purchase the fish.
A trio of anglers on the Just Add H2O - not fishing in the tournament - brought a 208-pounder to the docks an hour before Holt's fish.
The possibility that a team in a rockfish tournament had a shot at a big tuna might come as a surprise to many. Tuna usually are caught dozens of miles out to sea, while rockfishing is confined to an area between the beach and 3 miles out.
But anglers who have been working the coast for striper the past couple of weeks have run into large schools of bluefin that have followed migrating striper into coastal waters, feeding on the same menhaden their smaller brethren are eating.
Most often, the big tuna overpower rigs set up for striped bass - stripping off hundreds of yards of line, mangling lures and burning up reel drags. But anglers have gotten smarter, dispatching heavier tackle to troll their lures. When they get lucky, the tuna hit the bigger rods and reels, giving them at least a fighting chance against fish known for long, tackle-busting runs.
"We had five tuna bites (Thursday)," said Capt. Pat Foster, who runs the Wave Runner III on which Holt and his teammates were fishing. "I've brought three to the docks in the last few weeks.
"It's absolutely amazing what's going on out there right now. We see it every now and then, but not for this long."
The fish caught on Foster's boat pales in comparison with a tuna caught a couple of days ago off the northeastern coast of Japan. The 593-pound fish brought a Japanese-record $736,000 at auction Wednesday.
Rhode Island tuna buyer Dennis Gore said the purchase, which eclipsed a 10-year-old record of $369,000, was a publicity stunt.
News organizations in Japan agree, writing that the buyer bid high to help raise money for the victims of last year's earthquake and tsunami.
That fish filets out to about $1,238 per pound.
Gore said Holt's tuna should bring anywhere from $10 to $25 a pound, depending on the meat color from a core sample and the fat content taken from a slice of the tail.
If it wins the tuna division of the rockfish tournament - the first in the event's history - it could be worth $3,500 in a $100-a-team, winner-take-all competition.
"It's hard to say right now," said Gore, who put the fish on a George's Seafood truck for transportation to Boston, where it will be flown today to Tokyo. "It's going to depend on the market and what the fish looks like when it gets there on Monday.
"They're very particular."
The Rockfish Shootout continues through Saturday, and weather forecasts are favorable for lots of big striper and a few more tuna to be brought to the scales.
When the smoke clears and the attention returns to rockfish, $156,074 will be paid out to the winners.
But it's doubtful anybody will forget this incredible run of bluefin tuna taking place a lure's throw off the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.
Lee Tolliver, (757) 222-5844, email@example.com
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