It’s 5 a.m. on a cold early March Saturday at a marina on Oregon Inlet in Wanchese, N.C., where several captains from the new National Geographic Channel series “Wicked Tuna: North vs. South” are debating whether to go out on the Atlantic.
The bluefin fishing to this point hasn’t been great and seas on this day are at 14 feet, the type of conditions that can shatter windshields, prompting Pin Wheel captain Tyler McLaughlin to quip to Zap2it, “I don’t want to be picking glass shards out of my teeth.” No one is thrilled at the prospect of riding these frigid waves.
The sun comes up and the seas calm down, though not that much, but a few hardy souls — TJ Ott and the Hot Tuna among them — decide to take their chances and steam out the five hours to the tuna grounds. A rough ride and little luck would ensue.
Things would get better for everyone as their stay in the Outer Banks progressed, but at this point in the 10-week shoot, frustration was the prevailing emotion among the Massachusetts boat captains, who just want to catch their quota of fish and go back home to their families.
The spinoff series, which premieres Sunday, Aug. 17, features several of the boats from the original Gloucester, Mass.-based show — McLaughlin’s Pin Wheel (which is co-captained in the new series by Paul Hebert of the Wicked Pissah), Ott’s Hot Tuna and Dave Marciano’s Hard Merchandise — vying against a local fleet of Greg Mayer of the Fishin’ Frenzy, Reed Meredith of the Wahoo and Britton Shackelford of the Doghouse.
“When the fish show up, it’s hot and heavy; it’s an absolute frenzy,” says Ott, back in Gloucester three months later, of the North Carolina shoot. “But until they show up, there’s not even a slight pick. It’s kind of all or nothing. And that was definitely the case for this year. It was slow, nothing around, and then when they showed up, it was like a light switch.”
“It’s really a unique fishery and it’s pretty amazing,” he continues. “A lot of people go to [Prince Edward Island in Atlantic Canada] every summer with the hopes of catching a bluefin, and they’re almost guaranteed a hook-up or two. And I would say the Outer Banks is the equivalent of that in the winter months. If you wanted to charter a boat in March, you’re almost guaranteed to catch a bluefin. It has definitely become a bluefin mecca in the winter.”
Overall, Ott says that despite the hot and cold running tuna, the hazards posed by Oregon Inlet and the time away from home, the trip south proved to be worth his while.
“It was an amazing experience,” he says. “Once we did get some fish to show up and we got out there and caught some, it was as good as it gets. We had some great, great days on the water and we also had some miserable days on the water. But I think the positives way outweighed the negatives.”