If any of you have ever watched the show Wicked Tuna; have I got a tale for you!
There’s a reason they call the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna “Wicked”, that reason is because no other fish can break your heart, break your spirit, break your body and flush every sorrow from your soul when you secure your catch alongside your vessel the way a North Atlantic Bluefin Tuna can!
Several years back, one of my best mates and decorated Newfoundland Fisherman; Robert and his brothers, single handedly saved the Bluefin Tuna fishery on the treacherous Grandbanks of Newfoundland.
Each year only 150 tags are printed for the province of Newfoundland and the government was on the verge of giving these tags away to other provinces as no one was fishing them. Not about to miss an opportunity to revive the lost art of tuna fishing in the province; Robert stepped up and brought this fishery from obsolete to a booming industry!
Robert and I are the kind of friends who can go months without speaking; that’s how life goes as you grow older and your careers and obligations consume you. But when we get together it’s as if we’ve never missed a moment. Our thrill for the kill, be it moose, birds, crab or fish keeps our bond tight and what better way than to chase and land the must lucrative fish in the sea?
Staying over three hours outside the capital city of St. John’s, Robert and his brothers were in Bonavista bay and a plan had been made for me to meet them at the air bnb they were renting for the Bluefin season. The first day I arrived there was a gale of northerly wind blowing in from the Atlantic. Anyone who is versed in hunting, of any form, knows that northerly wind keeps animals dormant; the same goes for fish.
We woke at five in the morning and even the excitement of a day on the ocean was overshadowed by the fact that we both knew inside there was no way we were landing a fish that day. But we let go the lines and steamed out the bay. All day we circled long liners who were hauling their gill nets hoping to see a big banana (the shape a tuna makes on the sounder) coming for a feast. But even the long liners were having no luck that day as the cod weren’t moving due to the damn northerly gales from the day before. So we floated around all day enjoying the craic and our lunches; our minds drifting faster than the boat, but in the direction of the coolers chinched to the brim with beer, whiskey and rum back at “Grammies” – the air bnb.
Once we tied up the ship we were hell bent to tie one on!
A friend of ours, Matthew, showed up in his 1986 Volkswagen Camper Van, and myself, Robert, his brothers Matt, and Andrew, and Matthew sat around the table for a few drinks and laughs.
We talked about heading to a rural brewery, Port Rexton Brewery, about thirty minutes drive from Grammies. Matt, not being a drinker, offered to drive and off we went in the Shaggin’ Wagon in search of a good time. Being a flat faced vehicle carrying four men that weighed over a thousand pounds together; the van was struggling. Which, in retrospect, was an ideal situation considering we almost hit a moth which surely would’ve been the end of us in that jalopy! Tomorrow being the last day I was free to fish, bothered me little and we partied hard throughout the night knowing that this would be the last time together for a long time.
The morning brought long faces as cold as the thick frost that blanketed the ground, but there were fish to catch. The day before we opted to sail the boat to Princeton, and to the dock right across the road from Gammies to save us the hour drive down the Bonavista Peninsula. Seemed like a great idea the day before; but the bitter cold and large swell, still in the water, drove our spirits lower than any depth we had seen on the sounder the day before.
Thirty five miles we steamed to the fishing grounds, the bow raising on every crest and slamming our churning guts to the bottom of our pelvis in every trough. Round and round we jogged chumming the water to find the bananas on the sounder. But this morning seemed no better than the day before!
As Robert chummed the water and prepared his hook I kept seeking at the helm. “Banana!!”. This was it, we were marking a fish! Heart thumping with excitement, I watched Robert throw the baited hooked over the starboard side of the boat and within milliseconds the biggest fish I had ever seen (up until then) came to the surface and swallowed the baited hook.
For anyone reading who fishes salmon or large trout with a fly rod, you’re familiar with rush of the reels drag as a fish first takes the hook, now picture that same feeling and sound but with a two hundred pound test and a high and low gear reel with forty pounds of drag! The spring on the reels drag popping the gears back in place almost sounds like a steady grind as opposed to the ‘click, click, click’ you can hear individually as this powerful force of nature frantically swims clear of the boat. “Go! Go! GO! Follow ‘em!” Robert guided me with a look of utter joy on his face.
Hammering down on the throttle I reached a speed of twelve knots before I felt we were keeping pace. Robert on the reel and me at the helm, we practiced as he preached ‘always be ready to switch, because it gets tiring… Fast’. And this switch wasn’t long occurring. “Ready?!” He asked. Without a word I slacked the throttle and ran to the reel. As soon as my hand gripped the reel I could feel the unbelievable force of this fish taking the hook. It was unlike anything I ever experienced!
For over forty minutes we each wrestled the tuna; switching roles back and forth from the helm to the reel, the reel to the helm, the helm to the reel. The fish started to tire and so did we! Anxious to get this monster along side we inching it closer and closer to the surface. But this fish wasn’t coming without a fight! Every time we got the fish to a depth of around twelve fathoms; it would head straight down once again. Man could it fight back! Another thirty minutes passed of up to twelve fathoms, back down to fifty, up to twelve fathoms, back down to fifty. We had had enough, but the fish hadn’t. Anxious to get this animal along side Robert started to pull the line by hand while I was steady on the reel in low gear. Robert dipping his hands to the icy cold water and pulling with all his might over and over, I thought surely this sucker had to be close! With a swift pull Robert almost landed on his back on the deck, “well, so much for that!”
The hook had ripped clear of the jaws of the fish. I had never known the sudden sinking feeling of defeat could come so quickly. Almost ninety minutes of serotonin rushing to every receptor in my brain came to an abrupt halt. Gone. The fish was gone!
We steamed around, heartbroken, and spirits dampened in search of the next banana. Matt, Andrew and Matthew stayed in the area and continued to search while Robert and I made the ridiculous decision to steam out further in the pounding Atlantic, around the Cape Bonavista head, in search fish and calmer waters. An hour we sailed, wave over wave crashing head long in to the bow. The gruelling transition from weightlessness to every ounce of our bodies weight being transferred to the soles of our feet seemed to never end. It was though the sea state dropped not an inch as the day crept along.
We were ready to give up.
Our bodies were ready to give up. We saw the wharf of Catalina in a sheltered bay and talked about throwing in the towel. That’s it, that’s fishing. That’s why they don’t call it catching.
We radioed the lads to tell them we were done; the night before and pounding sea had us done in. We were going in to shore empty handed. “Calling it off b’ys, going to head for home.” Robert called over the radio. “Yeah, ye can, we are marking fish here off the Green Island, but we are running out of bait.” Matt came back on the radio. Our bait buckets were full of cod guts that we had jug in the morning, but what good are two boats when one has bait and the other is marking fish an hour away? Steaming while talking with Matt, Robert lowered the radio “what do you want to do?” I turned and looked one hundred and eighty degrees over my shoulder “turn this bitch around and let’s go catch the fish!” In one swift motion Robert swung the bow around to the starboard and hammered the throttle, the sea swell now in our stern and ready to make up time.
Along the way I thought to myself ‘we must be out of our minds!? No one else would do this after the punishment we endured all morning fighting fish, sea swells and hangovers bigger than Christmas!’. But away we went like the blood thirsty lunatics that we are!
As we pulled around Cape Bonavista we called over the radio “Still markin? Over.” “Still markin, but we are out of bait. He’s right here along side the boat. Over” Matt replied. Excitement filling our spirits once again. Matt pointing north and us pointing south we came up along side, port side to port side, and we could see the banana on the sounder. “Grab that bucket of bait for the b’ys, I’ll throw the hook.” Robert ordered. I never had my hand on the handle when I heard the scream of the reel that I had heard hours before. “Wooo!” Robert yelled as the hook and line shot away from the boat.
I tossed the bucket as fast as I could and ran to the helm to catch up. Only looking back once to see Matt break his gaff off in two pieces over the gunnel of the boat, swearing in a rage as we hammered the throttle down to catch up to the fish he had kept entertained and fed for over an hour.
The work was upon us again! Helm to reel, reel to helm, helm to reel, reel to helm. Sixty minutes passed by in the blink of an eye. Would this be the fish? Would we land my first Bluefin Tuna!? Robert’s next turn on the reel to allow me yo catch my breath he looks at me with a grin, “He’s ready!”. The fish, smart and desperate, made every attempt to go under the boat to the port side, tangle the line around the propeller, shoot back to bottom, swim in circles, everything this fish could think of! But his day was today. I would’ve dove in and swam him to surface if I had to. He was coming with us! With his hands on the line, Robert started to wrestle the fish to surface, the same as he did with the last one.
Now comes the tricky part. Getting this monstrous, angry fish to the side of the ship so we can secure it.
After wrestling this furious hunk of muscle along side we rushed to shove a long piece of tubing with the securing rope attached through the gills and out through its mouth. Clamping the carabiner on one end of the securing line into the stainless steel ring on the opposite end and placing it over the gump on the gunnel was one of the greatest feelings of accomplishment I had ever felt.
Now this fish was ours, it wasn’t going anywhere. Screaming with delight and high fiving each other we realized we had succeeded!
This day was the day that got me hooked, pardon the pun, on Bluefin Tuna fishing.
Never had I experienced such a roller coaster of emotions for an animal. Such tremendous highs and terrible lows in a single day! While we slowly steamed to shore, exhausted but thrilled, towing behind this 810lb (official weight) I turned to Robert and dubbed the turn around that ended in a successful catch ‘the u-turn of the century’.
Still, years later, we sit around on other hunting or fishing trips and one of us will look up from the glass, watching the ice cubes float in our drink of choice and with a smirk say “The u-turn of the century”.
The following Christmas, Robert gifted me the hook from this catch framed with picture and information plaque that now hangs proudly on the wall of my hunting cabin. It is a fantastic conversation piece as everyone who enters has a dozen questions. I always tell them of the U-Turn of the Century!
About The Author
Born and raised in rural Newfoundland, Canada, living off the land has been a way of life for me since I was a boy. We fished the Summers and hunted through the Falls. At 8 years old I was gifted my first shotgun and .22 from my late grandfather. At 12, my first rifle was a .308. Being the only son in the family and having a father who worked away from home most of the year; it was my duty to hunt rabbits, partridge, ducks, turrs, caribou, and moose for the family.
I spent my life in the wilderness and on the North Atlantic Ocean; hunting and fishing to provide for the family. Most of my tactics were all self-taught and what I learned from books and older gentlemen and uncles. This way of life has remained even though now I live in the city of St. John’s, Newfoundland. It doesn’t hurt that my lady supports my hobby and loves to pack up and get away from the city to enjoy the tranquility of cabin life. She doesn’t come on the hunts, but when I call on the radio and tell her I’m heading back, she always has a hot meal on the table! She’s a keeper! Sitka and Browning are my go-to’s for gear and guns and I wouldn’t have it any other way!