I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not a die-hard fisherman, and dollars don’t just fall out of my pocket every time I stump my toe or drop my car keys, but I do consider myself a fairly cool dad as far as fathers go. I’m always working on what kind of memories we can make together as a family. So, when I share with you that going offshore charter fishing for the very first time this summer with my son was one of the most fun and rewarding days I’ve ever had on the Outer Banks, consider it a little hint from someone who’s lived here for 20 years. It took me way too long to try it, and I found out the experience is so much more than just fishing the Gulf Stream. Think about it. You’re taking your kids to the edge of the world and back, to another part of the planet! If you can pull it off, that is some serious hero factor that you and your kids will talk about for life.
A few weeks ago, one of my wife’s coworkers reached out to see if I’d like to join him for a trip out to the Gulf Stream the next day. He had tried to put together a high school reunion friend’s trip and had a couple last minute cancellations. Luke and I go way back, and my wife Megan had offered to pay for my participation as a bonus Father’s Day gift if I wanted to take our nine-year-old son. To further add a confluence of circumstances, it just so happens, that my younger brother was on the OBX that weekend and had just gone charter fishing that very morning for the first time with his own set of friends. You see, there was a big tuna blitz that had everyone from Richmond to Raleigh down here and it kind of triggered a little friendly sibling rivalry. Know what I mean? I couldn’t help but say “yes” after hearing about my brother’s charter party catching 500 lbs. of fish between six buddies in one afternoon. I mean… he was on my turf, and now he’d gotten a taste of the blue water fishing, of which I never really got to taste myself.
The way it usually works, if someone wants to go offshore fishing for tuna, mahi, marlin, grouper, whatever is running, they call their favorite marina or the one close to their accommodations and either book a “make-up” spot on a charter boat or book the whole boat for up to six people. All the Outer Banks marinas have their own websites, and you can either pick your boat from the listings and photos to see if they’re available during your visit or you can have the marina figure out which boat and crew might be best suited for your needs.
Each colorfully named vessel usually has its own website with photos and often history on the captain and mate, which coexists with the marina or docks website with photos and contact info to ask questions or book a reservation. With what’s called a make-up trip, if it’s just you or another friend or two, they’ll put you with vacationers in the same position to fill up a boat with up to six people to split costs. The booked boat usually costs the same whether it’s one or six people, so a lot of folks try to figure out how to fill a boat with six people, in what’s called a six-pack charter. That’s the basic gist of it and boat captains do their best to be easy to find for a reservation.
It quickly gets exciting once you and your tribe commit to going out on a trip. In my case, I only had half an afternoon to figure out what I needed before the next day’s big trip out to sea. Me, being an offshore newbie with my first-born wingman to look out for, I asked for some tips from some of my local charter fishing crew friends about what to bring and whether L.T. was old enough to handle being on boat, outside of land, for what might be anywhere from four to eight hours. Now, when I say “boat,” I’m talking about the workhorse yachts that go out to the fishing fields every day, that are usually in that 50, 60, 70 or more feet long class of vessel with twin inboard motors below deck. The kind you could drive to the Bahamas or Bermuda without running out of fuel.
When I revealed to my brother that I have friends too, and I was about to go out and get my own piece of that tuna tornado, we started trading pictures of the boats he had just been on and the one I was hopping aboard in the morning to see who had the biggest and flashiest. But it’s not truly about the size of the boat, but who’s driving and what kind of amenities come with it. Some are like a floating man-cave and others are a little more spartan. There are scores and scores of boats to pick from up and down the Outer Banks, with captains who know where to find fish in indigo colored water that’s hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet deep.
For me, this trip was almost 20 years in the making, and most importantly, I wanted to be prepared for anything and everything pertaining to how my nine-year-old was going to react to the waves, the weather, the fishing, possible boredom, getting seasick, whatever life had to give us when we woke up. We would be out on a boat for several hours over the ocean, possibly all day, from the wee hours of total darkness at departure through the full summer sun upon return. I’ll throw in food and hydration in that category, too. Secondarily, I wanted to take some good pictures and iPhone videos to mark the occasion.
I hit the local pharmacy and picked up bottles of anti-nausea medicine, both the adult and kid versions. The one thing you can’t guarantee nor predict is the weather, and even folks with iron stomachs can get a little unsettled or even downright sick if the waves are rougher than you’d like. That doesn’t happen often, but you never know how you or your child will react, especially if you’re new. You can also get these small, soft nausea relief bracelets called Sea-Bands that come in blue or pink for your child. I got one for L.T. to wear in addition to the nausea tablets as a little extra cushion. Another thing you want to make sure you do is pack your prescription medications. The goal is to go out and come back in a boat, not a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter because you didn’t bring insulin or heart medication and you’re an hour and half boat ride from the beach.
I grabbed a bundle of chips and crackers and chews to eat on the boat. I made sure I brought power cords for my phone and my son’s tablet. Be sure to bring a tablet or book or something to do in case the kids need a break from fishing. There’s a good chance you won’t have internet, unless your boat has some kind of satellite wi-fi, so be prepared to be out of range of calling or texting during most of the actual fishing. I packed a cooler with lots of water and a few sandwiches. At the end of the trip, this will be what you bring home your fish in, so make sure it’s a good sized one. Mine is 24 gallons and I’d wished it was bigger, because I ended up having a bonanza day.
I also packed a sweatshirt or jacket for each of us. It gets chilly on the morning run from the docks to the continental shelf, even in high summer, but it doesn’t last long. You can quickly come under full summer sun during the hour or better boat ride from the marina to the Gulf Stream, so bring sunscreen and polarized sunglasses for everyone. Pack a cooler with water and your favorite beverages, and simple sandwiches or lunch packs. Bring your own ice. The Outer Banks has some 24-hour convenience stores where you can pick up last-minute items on the way to meet your group at a pre-determined time, often between 4:30am and 5:30am.
Given that early rise, you might not want to have a heavy, greasy or rich breakfast, because once you get to the docks before dawn, there’s not a whole lot of standing around before your trip gets underway and you start plowing the waves on the way out to sea. We fished with Captain Jamie Reibel and his brother Jeff aboard the Phideaux out of Wanchese Marina. Me, my son, Luke and his two friends Meredith and Nelson arrived separately at the docks and began loading up the backed-in boat full of our coolers and bags for the day. Now, fishing rods, tackle and bait are provided and there are life jackets aboard the boat. If you have one that really fits your child well, then I would recommend bringing it along as backup. I’m sure different boats have different house rules, but our group and the crew laid out the Phideaux do’s and don’ts before saying good-bye to dry land.
We chugged our way out of the no wake zone to the rich smell of marine diesel before Captain Jamie put the throttle down and got into the wind as we plowed our way through Oregon Inlet. Seeing the new Marc Basnight Bridge to Hatteras from below looking at its belly isn’t something I get to do every day. If you’re fishing out of a Hatteras Island marina, then the quickest way to the ocean is of course through Hatteras Inlet. For us that morning, it was about an hour and a half ride out to where the crew thought the fish might be biting.
Those early, pre-dawn moments are just stunning. You’re sitting in the main cabin, which is like a modest den-sized room, looking out the door at the big wake behind the boat, but there are no forward-facing windows like in a car to see where we’re headed, but you can go outside into the wind to where the fishing chairs are and sneak a peek around to the front of the boat. That’s where you’ll see an amazing sight. The sun coming up over the endless horizon, lighting up the rolling waves that go on forever. You’ll see other boats filing in behind you or peeling off into the darkness in search of their own spots, visible until the running lights disappear into the flexing watery landscape.
And then at some point, the captain will throttle back the boat and the mate starts baiting the hooks of these huge rods with ballyhoo, or some other bait, and he gives us all some basics on what happens if we catch one, and then he casts out the lines and rigging and puts the rods in holders on each side of the boat until something strikes them from the deep. You just kind of chill out and catch up on talking, have a drink or snack and just appreciate where you are. Luke works with my wife at Kitty Hawk Kites, so we had tourism stuff to talk about. His friend Nelson is a Navy jet fighter pilot, which was so cool to ask him all the stuff I’d wondered about that line of work. Luke’s other friend Meredith was a newbie like me. The mate Jeff and I went to East Carolina University around the same time, so we talked about old haunts. And of course, I got to enjoy my son’s excitement of just being in a whole new world. The point is, the actual fishing is just half the fun.
Then, bam! bam! bam! We had three fish strikes back-to-back that had everyone scrambling to get settled in for a good workout while the mate kept everyone cool and the lines from tangling. Let me tell you, a good size fat football shaped tuna will wage war on your forearms. They’re solid muscle. Tasty muscle. You never really know what you’ve got at the end of the hook, it could be anything until one of two things happen. It jumps out of the water and walks on its tail on top of the water for a few seconds or you manage to successfully reel it in within reach of the back of the boat after 20 or 30 minutes.
It’s at that moment, when everyone who’s not in the chair reeling can see the ghost of colors come out of the royal blue depths, when the fish will show its true colors and you know what you’ve got. You can see down probably 20 feet into the water, it’s that clear. Probably even deeper. The mate hooks and hauls the fish on deck for a few quick pics and video then adds them to the house cooler. You don’t really want a 60lbs hunk of muscle flapping around too long in a crowd, so get your pics quick and get reloaded for another one. It was during the first melee when the fish all surprised everyone that I had to rouse my son, who I’d let snooze after seeing the sunrise, to get into video taking mode. He’s pretty good at being my sidekick for photo ops and grabbed my cell phone to record my first tuna catch. Everyone was taking pics with each others phones to record the fun for sharing on social media.
Once the adults all had a tuna fish each safely off the gaffs and in the built-in cooler, it was L.T.’s turn to sit in the chair. I don’t know if we had a line out longer than five minutes when the line started to sing and run hard away from the boat. I jumped behind his chair, standing over him and we started reeling in together what felt like a mile of line, when all of a sudden this giant mahi jumped out of the water and started wagging across the boat wake. I’d say it was even a harder fight than the tuna. My arms were burning a little but it was the kind of pain you don’t mind. When Jeff pulled that fish out of the water on a stick, it was bigger than my boy. Turns out L.T. had just caught the biggest mahi of the Phideaux’s summer season at that time, at over 60 lbs. and 52 inches. I don’t think either one of us could have been more proud and stoked to be out there doing that. In the end, everyone caught one or two fish and we made the call to head back to the marina after catching only what we could responsibly eat.
There’s a point where you can be in range of cell phone again, so I called my wife and daughter in enough time where they could be waiting at the docks for us to unload our catch and take some photos with our charter group. I’d seen other folks do that same thing countless times over the years and I finally got to have that moment with my family. We tipped the mate as customary for his hard work and our great experience. Next, the marina’s filet team will come and hand truck your catch away in big rubber cans to the fish house, where they’ll take the meat off the bone and pack your coolers full of filets. We had simple pan-seared mahi that night and tuna the next, and my kids tore through that fresh catch like little sharks. I’ve got a cheap copy paper print out of my favorite pic hanging on the fridge. It’s the same one I texted my brother showing him he’s not the only one in the family who can catch badass fish. LOL.
Hopefully, some of what I’ve shared will connect with you and open up the possibilities you can have with your favorite people out there at the farthest edges of the Outer Banks.