On a relatively calm day in November of 2008, 27 miles out to sea, I thrust my harpoon dart into a Giant Bluefin that I had been fighting for the last 3 hrs. That fish was 122” long, and weighed 1082 pounds, and is the biggest bluefin tuna I have caught to date. The following day, my boat, the “Marilyn S”, landed two more giants, each weighing over 800 pounds. Then the winds blew for about a week and by the time we got back out to fish again, the fish were gone.
The following year, I fought a fish for 3 hours before losing it. Another boat broke one off after an 8 hour battle! I had seen my fish a couple times on the surface during the fight, and it was even bigger than the 1082 bluefin from the previous year. This monster stayed 60-80 feet under the boat for the entire last hour of the fight, I never moved him more than 10 feet before he would take it back out again. Back and forth we see sawed until my lack of patience took hold and I tightened the drag one more notch. POW ! He was gone.......
Fish this size and age have experienced boats and been hooked before. They are smart, and you have to be lucky, calm, premeditated and measured in your thought processes to get one. If you get too exited, impatient or panicky, your results will be like mine above. Your best preparation is to think big, and then bigger still, yet remain calm. Sure, some folks get lucky and land a tuna and manage to tow it home and sell it, but the majority of the tuna caught by unprepared folks are lost at the side of the boat.
Most folks think of tuna fishing as unrelenting boredom, as you troll or chum along, waiting for the bite. For me, its different. It excites me yet there is a fear that slowly builds and is present as I prepare for and go fishing for Giant Bluefin Tuna. In preparing the day before a trip, there never seems to be enough time to get groceries, fuel, and ice down the boat, then drive to the market for bait, and remember the Bic lighter and to check the propane tank, and oh yeah I was supposed to pick up a couple packs of smokes for the crew. Forget about stopping to have lunch! Hopefully, there will be time to make it home for a shower, dinner and a few hours of sleep before we leave except I’m so keyed up with anticipation, hope, worry, and excitement, its doubtful I’m getting to sleep. Four hours later I ring my crew’s house with one ring, and hang up. He’s awake and ready too, theres no sense in waking his whole house to let him know I’m on the way. He can sleep on the way out, at least halfway. It will take that long for me to calm down enough to get a couple hours of sleep, which is enough for the first day. As we steam out, I’m thawing baits in the brine, laying out leaders and hooks, estimating tide and drift patterns and monitoring the video sounder, and sifting through the radio chatter for anything significant, as I calm my thoughts and marvel at the huge expanse of increasingly visible stars as we get further away from the land. My crew has instructions to wake me a good 6-8 miles from my destination, in time for me to wake up, make a pot of coffee, and closely watch the video sounder for bait and individual tuna fish. The deck lights go on and as the crew breaks up the thawing herring blocks, I start sewing hook baits on the leaders.
Successful giant tuna fishing is simply controlled fear. I’m afraid I wont catch one on the trip, I’m afraid I won’t even get a bite, or worse, lose the one I hook during the fight. It seems that all I do before and during a trip, is to think of all the things that can go wrong and try to prepare for and prevent them from happening. One can do everything right, and fight your fish correctly, then just before he’s close enough to throw the harpoon into the fish, he rolls over, the hook falls out, and he slowly swims down and away, leaving you with that awful, bitter, fear feeling in your throat. Its gonna happen, and the sooner you realize its “fishing,” and not “catching”, the better. So you lost that one, he’s gone, get over it, and just go get another one! Getting down in the dumps and depressed over a lost fish is something that novices can let get to them. They may bite for only and hour or two, so get back in the game! From the first moment you see the big red blobs on the video sounder indicating you have giants under the boat and in the chum slick, you feel that fear in your chest. Its exciting, yet sickly feeling at the same time. Will he stay? Will he take the hook bait or just eat the chum? Are my baits at the right depth? Should I reset that line? Do I have a mackerel out? Should I have a used live bait? Am I chumming too heavy, or maybe not enough? Are my leaders too heavy, or too light?
Preparation in advance is the best way to increase your odds of landing these great fishes. I am currently looking for and freezing hook baits in May for use in October. I order my leader material, hooks, swivels, darts and other materials I need from my supplier now, because I know that in October they will be scarce. Tackle maintenance in advance is critical. Roller guides must be cleaned and lubed, top shots and leaders need to be checked periodically and redone when stretched or nicked. Reels need to be gone through, cleaned and lubed. With your tackle in good shape, what about the cockpit gear? You will need at least 3 gaffs that float, a harpoon or two with the dart attached to a line and basket, and a half dozen tail ropes with eye splices on one end. When you hook up, all this stuff must be in easy reach on both sides of the boat. Keep in mind you are targeting fish that can go over 1000 pounds. How will you get your fish into the boat after you reel it in? I once had a 25 foot boat that I built a ramp that attached to the stern with eye bolts and was supported by the out drive. I slid the tuna partway up the ramp and then lifted the outdrive and slid the fish the rest of the way into the boat! Most small boats have a “gin pole” with a block and tackle at the top end. If you fish by yourself or with less “stout” crew I recommend a pair of triple blocks of the ball bearing sailing variety to help you lift that fish over the rail. Keep in mind small boats have rolled over with two or three big guys all on one side of the boat trying to lift a big tuna into the boat. Use your head and think it through first. (make the big guys go to the far side of the boat to pull the fish up to equalize the weight)
Setting up the boat to fight and land giant tuna is a trail and error process, that one learns by making mistakes and losing fish. This year I added some very expensive through hull LED lighting in the stern to help me see the fish at night. Many times you will hook up at dusk and by the time you get him to the boat, its dark. I lost a fish last year that I could not see good enough in the light from my deck lights to throw the harpoon. I have a steering station in the stern so I can both shift and steer the boat from where I fight the fish. I have heavy duty rod holders at any location where I could foresee fighting a tuna. Some in outboard powered boats may want to mount a rod holder at the outboard side of the steering station. Using the longer “Chatham Special” rod you would be able to keep the fish away from the boat and the props at the end of the battle, and be able to maneuver. Communications between rod man and boat handler are critical, and if you are in an enclosed cabin trying to hear a guy in the stern over the wind and waves and engine noise, it can be hard. My vessel has a live bait system and two large coolers for ice, all securely fastened to the deck and rail in a location that will not interfere with my fish fighting. I have a rocket launcher setup to get all my other rods out of the way when Im fighting a fish. My electronics are all situated where I can swivel them facing aft so I can monitor them while I’m fishing. If you notice, the guys that catch them consistently are always in the back of the boat where the “work” of catching is done. Watching the chum frequency and drift, and working the baits is how you catch one, not sitting in the cabin listening to the radio and drinking coffee. Speaking of coffee, having some comfort on a trip is great for morale. An inverter powered microwave or coffee pot, or just a small propane stove for a hot bowl of soup or burger can really help you stay longer for the “bite”.
Once you make the decision to go after a giant tuna to sell, you have entered into the “General Category”, a highly controlled commercial fishery, and the rules change considerably from the “Angling Category” or recreational fishing. One can go to the Nation Marine Fisheries website for the actual rules, as they change often during the season. The address is: https://hmspermits.noaa.gov/Default.asp. Angling category fishers cannot sell any bluefin. General Category participants can. A license is required and must be on board while fishing. Harbormasters of many municipal ports usually also require a permit to offload your catch to a dealer. Not only do the NMFS minimum size and daily bag regulations change when you become commercial, but the safety requirements for vessels and operators are quite different as well. Safety regulation compliance for vessels targeting bluefin tuna commercially can be expensive, depending upon the size of the boat and the distance you go offshore. Generally, liferafts, EPIRBS and survival suits for every man on board are all required. The Coast Guard is out there and they board every boat for an inspection. If you are lacking the proper gear they will demand you put to shore and will escort you if need be. Know the rules and prepare your vessel accordingly.
Be safe, be prepared, work hard, leave early and come back late, and if you are both lucky and good, you will land yourself one of the hardest fighting fish in the ocean. Take care of your fish after you harpoon him. Lay him down on the side that the harpoon went in. Take the guts and gills out of the fish and pack his cavity with ice. Put the fish in an insulated fish bag and surround his body with ice. Don’t let the fish bang or slide around on the way home and get bruised or dinged up. Then, if you are really lucky, you will have a quality fish that when compared to the rest on the market the day your fish goes to auction, you will have a decent payday to offset all that dough you put into the boat, and the time, stress and energy expended to go after them. Good Luck !
Capt. Bruce Peters F/V Marilyn S www.sportfishingcapecod.com