Omie Tillett and the rest of the skippers at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center here charge $525 a day for a fishing trip to the Gulf Stream, which sounds like a pile of money and is.
But if you have it, it's worth it.
It's worth it because the edge of the Gulf Stream 30 miles out to sea, where Tillett and his colleagues take their parties, is as wild and untamed a place as the average Eastern urbanite is likely to see in his lifetime, and because the Oregon Inlet fleet fishes hard and the stakes are big.
"I've fished from Nova Scotia to Panama," said Tom Sleesman, a New Jersey businessman who has chartered Tillett since 1954, when the captain was a barefoot lad of 16, "and the Oregon Inlet captains are as good as there is."
Big-game fishermen will wait another month or so before chartering a boat like Tillett's 50-foot Sportsman, in hopes of hooking up with the kings of East Coast game fish -- white or blue marlin, which arrive a little later in the season. But for the last several years the Oregon Inlet boats have had remarkable success early in the year chasing yellowfin tuna, recording daily catches of up to 30 tuna a boat.
As a longstanding fan of the delicious, hard-fighting tuna, I called Tillett last week to see about a charter. His wife said that wouldn't be easy: "He's booked every day through October."
Happily, Sleesman, who had the boat booked Friday, agreed to take an observer, and dawn found us easing out of the shoal-riddled inlet on a glassy-calm morning. The mate, Dickie Harris, commented glumly that tuna bite better with a chop, but no one grumbled too loudly. Calm days off Cape Hatteras are rare treats.
It took an hour and a half to reach the fishing grounds. Instantly the action began.
"Weed line," Tillett shouted from the bridge. Harris got the trolling lines over and within minutes a colorful dolphin fish had poked out from under the weeds, snapped up a bait and tail-walked itself to exhaustion.
A half-hour later there were eight dolphin in the catch box and Tillett took off after tuna.
Soon the trolling rods started singing their protest songs as the tuna took up the challenge.
Yellowfins are among the smaller tunas, averaging perhaps 20 pounds apiece, but they are strong devils and give you a workout. Then, just as you get one to the boat, he'll give one last, brave run for the deep. It tests the forearms of an out-of-shape desk jockey.
Even more intriguing, perhaps, than the fun of catching and later eating these denizens of the deep is the pleasure of invading their blue-water habitat and watching them work.
Tillett was trolling along a weed line about midmorning, just at the edge of the Gulf Stream where gray-green inshore waters give way to brilliant blue and the offsetting currents creat wild whorls and eddies.
"See the tuna jumping over there?" said Harris, the mate, pointing 100 yards off. "They're busting flying fish. See him nail that one? He hit him so hard he busted him clean in two. Look at that!"
This violent feeding ritual was going on just far enough away that the particulars were hard to discern. The tuna were identifiable, greyhounding bullet-fast and sleek as torpedoes as they shot out of the water for the kill, then dropped back in. But even with Harris' description to go by, it was hard spotting the beleaguered little flying fish.
Tillett drew the boat closer and all of a sudden the fleeing flying fish were soaring practically over our heads. Harris made a backhanded stab and nearly caught one.
With the bait close by, the tuna were, too. The water sprayed as they splashed down from their predatory leaps and shards of flying fish meat flew around like cinders from a red-hot fire. It was life and death in an offshore wilderness, and it captivated the fishermen, at least until the rods went down again with more tuna, and the work resumed.
By day's end Sleesman and his crew of four could count out 20 tuna, 10 dolphin, four bonita and a sleek, 45-pound wahoo as the rewards of their voyage to sea. Tillett, for his part, was a little disappointed.
"The wahoo kind of made up for the rest of it," he said. "We did the best we could."
He said tuna fishing always has been decent early in the season off Hatteras, but lately the season has been starting in early May, a month earlier than normal. The tuna and dolphin will be around all summer, he said, though tuna fishing tapers off in the heat.
By then the marlin should have arrived.
"We're blessed," said Tillett. "When one thing drops out, there's always something to take it's place. Don't you think that's a blessing, to have fishing like that in these times?"
'Deed I do.