Catching the Big One
By Bruno Vassel III, iboats.com CEO
The local tackle shop reported that good numbers of tuna were being caught east of Chatham, off of Cape Cod, MA. That's about 60 miles from where we have our boat moored on Martha's Vineyard.
You have to understand that for Cooper "Coop" Gilkes, the owner of Coop's Bait and Tackle, in Edgartown, MA, to tell me that good numbers of big tuna are being caught is like dangling a 5-pound box of wonderful chocolates in front of a chocoholic. The adrenalin starts flowing and I am sure a doctor would tell you that my pupils became dilated. I know I began to breathe harder. All this because a tuna is not just another fish. Tunas are built like 6-10 foot long torpedoes, swimming at speeds of up to 40 miles an hour and weighing more than 1,200 pounds.
You don't fish for tuna using a number 2 weight, 6 foot long ultra-light fly rod, the kind that is wonderful for high mountain stream fishing for brook trout. For tuna you use really heavy rods and reels that hold from 300 to 1500 yards of 80-130 pound test line. You wrap a harness around yourself and strap the harness to the rod and reel.... And then you hope to have someone stand behind you holding you so that the tuna won't pull the rod and reel, and you, overboard. To get an idea of what fighting a giant tuna is like, imagine tying that heavy fishing line to the back of an H-1 Hummer and having someone put the Hummer in gear and step on the gas... and your job is to tighten down on the drag, hold on tight, and stop the Hummer. Good luck!
It would take about 2 1/2 hours going at about 28 mph for my Pursuit OS 345 boat to get to where the tuna were reported to be feeding. There were 5 of us on this adventure, my son Bruno IV, and friends Greg McKenna, Gordon Peterson, Mike Olsen and me. I got up at 3:30 AM and my wife, Cari, dropped me off at the dock so I could take the dinghy over to the boat on a mooring on the other side of Lake Tashmoo harbor and bring it back to the dock. While I was doing that, Cari went to the Mansion Hotel in Vineyard Haven to pick up the other guys and bring them to the dock. You notice that none of this would have been possible without Cari's help. I am most grateful for her terrific help!
We were underway by 5:00 AM. It was still pitch black at that point so the radar, GPS, chart plotter and especially the thermo-imaging camera were indispensable in navigating around the many boats moored around the harbor, and in helping us to avoid the jetty as we exited the bay into Vineyard Haven Sound and the open water. Once we cleared the harbor, I set a way point on the GPS map at where we wanted to end up, which was at the Regal Sword some 60 miles away. The Regal Sword is a freighter that sank in 275 feet of water in 1979 just outside of the Boston to New York shipping lane, 30 miles SE of Chatham.
The sea was a little choppier than I had hoped, with waves in the 3-5 foot range, but my Pursuit OS 345 handled the seas beautifully and we were able to run at about 28 mph. Some of the guys took turns sleeping in the cabin below deck or sitting in the helm area and visiting with me as I piloted the boat with the terrific help of the auto pilot...an amazing navigational tool for such trips that keeps you on a perfectly straight course that you set. By 6 am I could begin to see the first signs of dawn right in front of us as we were heading due east. By 7 am we saw the spectacular sight of the sun coming right up out of the sea on the horizon in front of us. It was a beautiful cloudless day.
As we approached longitude and latitude coordinates of our destination, I could see on the radar that there were already 12-15 other boats in the area pursuing the noble tuna. The radar showed that these boats were spread out over an area of about 3 square miles with several of the boats working closer together in one specific area. We headed for that spot.
The preparation for tuna fishing is more than just throwing a hook and line overboard. I put the boat in neutral and could barely hear the quiet hum of the two V-8 Yamaha 350 outboards and the almost inaudible sound of the below-deck Fischer Panda generator, all performing flawlessly. We swung out the two outriggers and locked them into place and began the process of getting the various lures and bait that we were going to use ready for trolling. I had five tuna rods, each with a two-speed Penn 50 reel, spooled withover 400 yards of 100-pound test line. On three of the lines I put spreader bars, which are 3-foot wide metal bars with 6 lines of artificial squid going back about 3 or 5 feet behind each bar as they are trolled through the water. In the middle of each spreader bar is a 200-pound test leader that is about 6 feet long, to which the lure or bait is attached. On two of these, I ran Ballyhoo baits that I had rigged with large tuna hooks. On the third spreader bar I attached a large, bright orange and yellow 12-inch artificial squid with tuna hook. These spreader bars bounce and splash along the surface as you troll, simulating a school of baitfish to attract the tuna we were going to try to catch. On the fourth rod and reel, I just ran the Ballyhoo bait by itself. On the fifth rod and reel I ran a 9-inch long deep-diving metal lure shaped like a fish with a tuna hook on either end of the lure. This deep-diving lure I ran very close to the boat in the wake of the motors, not more than 30 feet from the transom. The foam and churning waters produced by the propellers actually attracts the tuna as they are used to seeing such churning waters produced by large numbers of baitfish being chased by other tuna.
We started trolling at the speed of 4 mph which is considered the ideal speed for bluefin tuna. As an FYI, yellowfin tuna prefer speeds of 7-9 mph.
As we arrived in the fishing area we immediately started seeing right whales everywhere. Their exhaling huge plumes of moist air shooting up as high as 15 to 25 feet made it possible to see the whales at an amazing distance. They were everywhere, from horizon to horizon. It remained a spectacular site throughout the day. Whales and tuna very often run together feeding on baitfish. So seeing so many whales was a very good sign. There were also sea gulls of various kinds that were actively flying and occasionally diving, another unmistakable sign that bait-fish and their predators were close by, feeding.
With our excitement level high and adrenalin freely flowing, we sat out the lines and began trolling. My job was to steer the boat toward any actively feeding fish or birds that I could see while staying clear of other boats and their lines and trying not to turn too sharply which could foul our own lines. I also kept track of our depth and anything else that would show on the fish finder.
Our first hit took place about 45 minutes after we had set out the five lines. The rod bent significantly and the drag on the reel screamed the exciting sound of line being rapidly pulled out. Before anyone could get to the rod, however, it was all over and the line went slack. Reeling in the line was easier than normal...not a good sign. Something had bitten through or broken the 200-pound test leader and the lure was gone. Probably a big Mako shark. I re-rigged the line with another ballyhoo and put it out as we continued trolling. The next several hours were both exciting and very frustrating. We would periodically see a school of tuna explode on the surface as they chased bait-fish but we could not get one to bite. At one point as I looked back at our lines, I saw two tuna in our wake literally jump completely out of the water as they chased foot-long baitfish. What was most frustrating was they did so right in the middle of our wake and lines but we got no hits. By 3:00 pm, we were all getting a little nervous that we might go home skunked even though there were tuna all around us. We needed to start heading home by 4:00 pm in order to get back to the harbor before dark.
And then it happened! A few hundred yards off the port side I saw a large school of tuna chasing baitfish as they exploded to the surface in what can only be described as a feeding frenzy. I headed the boat in a direction that I hoped would intercept the acrobatic tuna as they moved through the water. This looked like it could finally be the chance we had worked for all day. The next 60 seconds happened so fast yet in seeming slow motion that every detail is permenently engraved in my mind. Tuna were jumping all around the boat as they chased dinner. And then mid-ship to our port side, and heading straight for us, was a huge whale that had surfaced with gaping open-mouth, large enough to swallow a compact car. He had exploded out of the water and we could clearly see hundreds of baitfish in his cavernous mouth as he headed right towards the side of our boat. It looked like there was no way he would avoid hitting our boat. But at the very last split second he slammed shut his mouth and sank into the foaming white and blue water just below us, passing under our boat by what seemed to be just inches as we each tried to catch our breath.
Before any of us could say a word, one reel after another shrieked out the screaming sound of line being pulled out at seemingly impossibly fast speeds. Everyone jumped to grab a heavily bent over rod but almost before a single turn of the reels could be made, four of the five lines snapped as if they were sewing threads being violently jerked by raging bulls. It was obvious that we had tied into a school of giant tuna and that four of the five lines had gotten instantly crossed, tangled and thereby cut by each other. The fifth rod was still heavily bent over with line screaming out. It still had a giant tuna on. This was the rod that was running very close to the stern of the boat in the wake and had somehow avoided getting tangled in the other lines as this fish dove. Gordon grabbed the rod from out of the rod holder and helped snap it into Bruno's harness and rod-butt holder. Bruno was instantly jerked forward and had to fight to not be pulled overboard. Gregg grabbed Bruno and the harness from behind and held on to help him withstand the tremendous pull.
The next half hour was nothing short of a tug of war between giant, inexhaustible fish and strong but tiring fisherman. Even with the drag set almost as tight as we dared, it was insufficient to prevent the huge fish from rapidly stripping off yard after yard of line as he headed in one direction or another whether to the stern, the bow or straight out from either side of the boat. I was constantly putting the engines into reverse then forward and trying to race backwards followed by racing forward or turning the boat to try to keep the line from going under the boat and into the engines or trying to give Bruno some advantage as he almost futilely tried to reel in even a little of the large amount of line the giant fish was stripping off the reel. We were in a desperate struggle to prevent the tuna from simply stripping all the line off the reel and getting away.
After half an hour of this grueling battle, Bruno asked if I could take a turn fighting the fish. I turned over the helm to Gordon, ran to the stern and made the difficult exchange of rod and reel and harness with Bruno. Any thoughts that I might have had that I could rapidly just begin to pump and reel in this Goliath were instantly dashed. It was instantly crystal clear that this was not a 50 or 100 pound fish that could be tamed so quickly. As I held onto the rod with both hands and leaned back with all of my weight and strength, I tried to pull the rod tip slowly up into the air so as to then be able to quickly drop the rod tip while reeling in a few precious yards of line as fast as I could. But, the fish would have none of it. He would react violently to any such attempt to bring him up by doggedly heading even deeper, pulling the rod tip down and striping out even more line as he ran.
This battle just went on and on and on for the next hour. The giant tuna did not seem to lose one ounce of his energy and determination, but I was sure getting tired! After that back-breaking hour, the tuna employed a new tactic. He began to swim in large circles around and under the boat. Every circle was exactly the same. He would head deeper off the stern port side of the boat, stripping out a few yards of line even though the drag was set amazingly tight. Without coming up at all, he would then angle parallel to the boat heading forward and then turn toward the boat and head under it. Only then for a few brief seconds, would he relax enough that I could quickly reel back in the few yards he had stripped out. At that point, instead of continuing to come up, he would gain new-found strength and lunge down and toward the stern of the boat causing the line to come perilously close to the engine propellers as the rod would violently jerk downward and onto the gunnel. I would have to thrust the rod out from the side of the boat and down, with the tip into the water, in order to keep the singing-tight line from being cut by the props. At that point the giant tuna would then again turn to his right and head down and away from the boat stripping out line again as he began the circle anew. Twenty minutes later nothing had changed except every muscle in my body had about had it and I was about ready to cry out "uncle" and turn the rod over to someone else. But I didn't want this fish to lick me. I was determined to win this battle and so I continued to hang on and crank as fast as I could each time he gave me those few precious seconds during each circle.
It was approaching two hours since this mighty fish had taken our lure. With my own strength waning fast, I felt that I had to do something now. As the tuna ended his short run and began swimming parallel to the boat untold yards below us, I leaned back and pulled up on the rod with all of my strength. The rod very slowly came up. I dropped the tip quickly while reeling in a desperate fury to gain some line. I gained a few yards. He then turned under the boat and again relaxed his pull slightly which gave me the chance to reel in a few more yards before the huge fish again lunged and circled to his right. As he then turned and swam parallel to the boat I leaned back again and was able to pull the rod tip up and repeat the maneuver and began taking in a few more yards of line. Around and around he went with my finally taking in a few more yards each circle than he was pulling out. He was coming up.
Five minutes later we began to see a large light-colored shape deep in the rich, clear blue water. It was impossible to tell how large he was but the shape looked BIG. Thoughts ran through my mind. Was it in fact a huge shark and not a giant tuna? Once he got close to the boat would he panic and explode again into the depths?
A few more circles by the tuna and I was able to finally begin to steadily reel him in with the reel now in low gear as he circled. Two more circles by the tuna and I saw the knot in the line where the line then doubles for the last few yards down to the leader. Gordon had gloves on to grab that double line. I stepped back while pulling up hard to get the double line close enough to the boat for Gordon to grab on. As he did so, the line began to instantly slip through his gloves as the tuna pulled down hard. I dropped the rod and jumped to the gunnel and also grabbed the line to help Gordon to pull up the giant. Together we were able to move him forward and he slowly rose to the surface and for the first time we got a really good look at this monster as his head broke the surface.
He was enormous. His head was as big around as my body and I could see that both of the hooks in the lure were firmly embedded in his jaw. My son, Bruno IV, was right next to us with the harpoon ready and I remember shouting to him, "Take your time and get the tip really close to his head before you drive the harpoon home." Bruno IV did just that and it was a perfect shot going into the head just behind the eye and coming out the other side of the massive scull. From all I had heard about harpooning giant tuna, I was expecting an explosion of fury from the tuna. It did not happen. The harpoon had done its job perfectly and this giant, magnificent fish quickly died. We had done it!
Almost immediately after the cheers and hand-slapping excitement, we all looked at each other with the same thought. Now what? How do we get this several hundred pound monster tuna into the boat? You can't just lift such an enormous fish up and over the gunnel like you would a 10-pound bass or bluefish. I had thought quite a bit about this question and thought that I had the answer. I would walk him around to the stern of the boat, open the hatch door and pull him up and onto the swim platform area and through the hatch door and onto the deck. The only question now was would he even fit through the hatch door? It was going to be a tight squeeze. I had been holding onto the harpoon line and fishing line while keeping the fish's head slightly out of the water. So, I walked to the stern of the boat pulling the fish as I went. I positioned his head behind the swim platform in line with the open hatch door and with a heavy lift and pull motion, he slowly slid up and onto the boat. He was even larger than we had imagined. By turning him, with great difficulty I must add, onto his belly and several of us pulling, we were able to barely get him through the hatch door and onto the deck.
What a fulfillment of a summer-long dream to catch such a beautiful magnificent fish.
As must be done immediately with tuna to maintain the amazing quality of their meat, I bled him and we then took lots of pictures. The tuna was too large to put into either of the in-hull fish boxes so Bruno IV and Greg took ice that we had brought with us and put it inside the gills area to try to further cool the fish. They placed other ice in the fishing net and in trash bags and laid them on top of the fish. Greg then sat there all the way home holding the ice in place. Greg had also spent the full two hours that we fought the fish holding Bruno IV and then me up and onboard, from behind. We could not have done it without his help and extend a special thanks to him for that.
It was now 6:20 pm and we had another 2 1/2 hour boat ride to get back to the harbor. It would be dark in an hour so we would have to run in the dark for much of the way home using the electronic instruments.
As a final exclamation point on the day as we left the tuna grounds, we had not gone two miles running at about 25 mph when a tremendous explosion of water erupted just feet from the port side of our boat throwing spray onto the boat and drenching the three guys sitting back in the open deck area by the tuna. A huge whale had breeched literally within feet of our boat. He had come completely out of the water and crashed back into the water perilously close to us. We were all shaken yet grateful that he had not landed on our boat. We continued on.
Once at the dock in Lake Tashmoo on Martha's Vineyard, we tied a heavy rope to the tuna's tail and then pulled him back through the transom door and up onto the dock. It took three of us to pull him onto the dock. The tuna was 78" long and weighed approximately 320 lbs......clearly a giant tuna! I spent the next two hours filleting the fish, which means skinning and then removing 8 huge sections of meat and leaving virtually nothing but an empty carcass that was later given to the crabs at the bottom of Lake Tashmoo.
On the way back to the dock, once I got into cell phone range I communicated by text message with Cari that we would be later than planned and why. She was very excited. She also agreed to round up a number of coolers with lots of ice and to meet us at the dock at 9:00 PM. She contacted a good friend and LDS branch member, Lou Dimovich, and he graciously volunteered to help. He brought 4 large coolers with ice. When he saw the size of the fish and the enormity of the task I had in front of me to fillet the fish, he went home and got his battery-powered Sawzall saw which was a terrific help in removing the head. The skin on a tuna was up to a quarter inch thick and extremely tough so removing it before removing the large fillets was a back-breaking task as the fish lay on the dock.
Our grandson, Justin Lewis, came with Cari and he was amazed at the size of the fish. As I filleted the fish, Justin documented the event by taking some sixty photographs. He was excited. The fish's head alone weighed well over fifty pounds.
It became evident that we needed even more ice so Cari went to the store and brought back 16 more bags of ice. By 11:30 pm the fillets were all on ice and the coolers filled our Subaru Forester completely. Justin and I took the boat from the dock back to the mooring, tied the boat up and came back in the dinghy and tied it up as Cari waited at the dock while shining the headlights of the car over the water so we could see better. We came home exhausted and exuberant.
The next morning we sorted the tuna into 17 packages to share with family and church members and friends on the island. We shipped overnight packages of tuna through Net Result, a fish market in Vineyard Haven, to our 5 children's families and to Gordon and Greg and friends, the Wilsons. The other eight portions of tuna we then delivered throughout that day to those on the island. Lesson learned... catching a 320 pound Bluefin tuna is thrilling but also exhausting and can easily turn into a multi-day ordeal. I would do it again in a Nano second.
(Note: The reaction of our children receiving this box of fresh Bluefin tuna has been gratifying. Some of the packages arrived in two days instead of overnight but the fish was still fresh and delicious. Our son, Christopher researched the market value of such a tuna as this and determined that it's street value would have been in the range of $6,000-$10,000. But for all of us that day, it was priceless!)