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Catching a Giant Bluefin Tuna

Days of Tuna

Battles with giant bluefin can push you to the limit.

Giant Bluefin Tuna

I have always enjoyed televised fishing shows. As a kid, Gadabout Gaddis, the Flying Fisherman captivated me. It’s the same with Wicked Tuna, and even if you find the cast of characters jarring, this is reality TV, bluefin style. 

I should know. In the late 1970s I visited Stellwagen Bank, a prime New England giant bluefin tuna haunt, and fished every day for two straight weeks—we managed two bites. Both bites came simultaneously so we cut one off to have a better shot at landing the other. Turned out we cut the wrong line, and lost the other after 10 minutes. 

I thought we should have done better (what fisherman doesn’t?) because I had experience catching giants in the Mudhole off the North Jersey coast. The Mudhole had it all: a mere 20-mile run from Manasquan Inlet, it was littered with wrecks that provided hotels for ling and whiting, which attracted migrating giant bluefin. Fishing started around Labor Day, and like you see on Wicked Tuna, there was a lot of waiting and tuna wishing. But the forage and other imprinted instincts in a tuna’s brain meant those fish would pass through like clockwork. The season would run through November depending upon the weather and the National Marine Fisheries Service. 

One October morning the government was set to shut us down based on the quota that was nearly filled just as a nor’easter was hammering the Jersey Shore. On its best day the Mudhole can be a nightmare for tuna chumming with its depth, raging currents, and wind-against-the-tide conditions. Even setting the anchor can be problematic because it is easy to miss your mark while 1,200 feet of anchor rode is put out. 

But tuna bite in rough conditions, so being young and stupid we really wanted to go. However, we talked ourselves out of it at first, reasoning if no boats fished chances were the quota would remain open. The next morning, a day older and dumber, we awoke to worse weather but decided to go anyway. 

It was rough and felt like a four-hour salt-water washing machine ride in our 42-foot boat to the 21-mile numbers we wanted to fish. Anchored in 252 feet of water, we set up with a single rod, barely able to stand in the cockpit. Thirty minutes later we hooked up. Forty-five minutes more and we saw the fish behind the boat literally over our heads as we watched from inside 8- to 10-foot troughs. For several minutes we were on this berserk see-saw ride when the angler screamed he could not reel anymore. The weight and strain from the fish had spread the reel spool and it was jammed tight. No free spool, no slack, and no way to retrieve an inch of line with a huge fish on the end of it. 

From the bridge I could see that the fish was not fighting but if it died and began to sink we would never get it in these violent conditions. There was only one thing to do and it had to be done now. I chopped off the leader on the spare outfit on the bridge, handed it down into the cockpit and began backing into walls of green water.    

The mate hand-lined several yards of the 130-pound Dacron pulling the fish closer to the stern while wrapping the line around his torso to prevent any slack. I passed a new rod down and the angler cut his line and quickly connected the new rod’s line to the leader with the fastest blood knot I have ever seen tied. He then feverishly reeled in the slack to get the knot onto the spool. A few minutes later the leader appeared, a flying gaff went into action, and we had our fish.

It was too large to fit through the transom door, so we had no choice but to tow it. At the scale the tuna, battered and scarred from pushing the boat home, weighed 1,012 pounds. This was one wicked tuna. I don’t chase giant bluefin anymore but I always respect fishermen who do. It’s hard work and despite what such fish fetch at an auction, the fishermen, the guys that do all the heavy lifting, make the least amount for the maximum effort.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.