05 Aug A Stickman Tuna Trip
It’s been 10 years since there were football tuna around small enough for me to fish. I wrote this back on August 7, 2012, but it pretty much describes my renewed attempt last weekend.
This morning I went tuna fishing by myself in my trusty 21ft boat. I’ve never caught a tuna before, but on a guided trip a few weeks ago I learned a lot about fishing for them. So I left my dock at 5:00am just as the daylight was brightening the horizon looking for my unlikely prey.
First I had to catch bait, in this case Mackerel. I figured I’d try to get a dozen. I went to the familiar place, Breaking Rocks off Hampton Beach. Most of the time you can get a pile of mackerel here and be on your way. But not today. Just jigging a Sabiki rig and dragging a chum bag usually does the trick for me. I probably don’t know how to catch them as well as most.
I saw one guy out there, I’ll call him the Mackerel Whisperer, who was dragging in two at a time. He clearly knew what he was doing. Actually Mr. Whisperer was simultaneously using two rods. In one hand he jigged a sabiki like me, and in the other hand it looked like his rod had one big fly fishing hook on it. He’d jig with one hand, and keep the other hand still. Most of his fish came on the still one. I thought about asking to buy some mackerel from him.
After two and a half frustrating hours, I had only six mackerel for tuna bait, but four of them were each about a foot long. It was now 8:30, and the sun was way up. So I decided, since it was pretty unlikely I’d catch any tuna at all, I might as well make a move and use my bait.
At this point, the complete rookie in me found himself thinking, “Now what?” The only advice I’d been given on catching tuna was to fish live mackerel in 230 feet of water. I’ve been out scouting in previous years, looking for jumping pods of tuna. Even hooked and fought one for a couple of hours (finally lost it.) But the real skill, I think, is knowing where you’re likely to actually be near a tuna. That part I have literally no experience with. But I did remember, and mark a place on my GPS, that I called “Tuna Town.” That place pretty much always had 10-20 boats anchored up with a bunch of balloons floating behind them in the sea.
Back in the day when I found Tuna Town, the only tuna gear I had was a heavy spinning rod and some swimming lures (that looked like mackerel.) I knew the folks at Tuna Town were using bait, but I didn’t have any idea how to rig the gear. I didn’t have anchor line long enough to even reach the bottom, never mind anchor there. Having spent an uneventful day on my charter a few weeks back, I now knew how to rig the gear, and my wife had bought me a decent tuna reel and rod for Christmas. Of course if I were, by some miracle, to hook a fish, and by another miracle, bring that fish to the boat, there is most likely no way for me to actually land the fish, especially fishing alone like today. But, hey, what’s the worst that could happen. A big fish spools my $150 of line and I have a story.
So, I sadly have to report that I caught no tuna. But I did get a story.
The guide I had from First Light Anglers in Rowley, Massachusetts was kind enough to carefully show me how to bridle a mackerel. It’s a kind of diabolical process involving a rubber band, a long sewing needle, and moderately precise piercing the eye sockets of the mac. Then you twist the hook into the rubber band, and there you are. A mackerel that is attached to the hook in a way that doesn’t kill the bait, and allows it to swim along rather normally. You decide how deep you want the bait to swim by counting off the yards of line between the hook and the surface. Then you use another rubber band to attach a balloon to the line. Over the transom goes the rig and you are, indeed, fishing for tuna. Fascinating. I have two rods, so one has just the mackerel and balloon, and the other I learned to set deeper with a three ounce weight added between the balloon and the hooked mac.
I went to Tuna Town and found the average 10 boats anchored and bobbing balloons. Coincidently the water there is exactly 230 feet deep. Today’s weather was helpful now. There was only a slight breeze and the water was flat, so instead of using 600 feet of anchor line I do not own, I drifted. Because I didn’t want to drift too fast I wanted to use a drift sock – which I also do not own. So the do-it-yourself fellow inside me improvised. I took a 5-gallon bucket, tied it to a dock line, and dropped it off the transom. Perfect in a kind of hillbilly way. Slowed the drift to a crawl.
The next hour or so was a comical dance between me, two rods, two balloons, and two consistently indecisive mackerel. I’d set the rods on opposite gunnels. Balloons placed apart from each other. The macs would immediately decide to swim towards each other and cross the lines. I’d rearrange the rods. The macs would rearrange themselves. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Hell, I thought I’d just be sitting in the sun and eating snack food like on the charter. I also had a popping problem. The balloons I had would heat up in the sun and pop. No fish, no hit, just pop. I need a different vendor. This added all new steps to my line arrangement dance.
Finally settled down, my mackerel were happily bobbing to and fro. I was lazily munching oyster crackers, when something totally unexpected happened. On of the balloons just disappeared. Floop, it was gone. And then, also unexpectedly, the drag on one of the rods began that high-pitched squeal that all fishermen know and dream of. Honking fast too!
Your veteran tuna guide would now quickly drag in the other rod, pull in the drift sock (or unhook the anchor,) and get to work on the fish on the line. Not-so-veteran folks try to do the same, but forget to pull in the 5-gallon bucket. Oh, and they also forget to have their fighting harness on. See, professional tuna fishermen expect big fish, and have their boats set up to fight big fish with the rod still in the rod holder. My rod holders don’t work that way, so I am semi-prepard with a decent fighting harness. All I had to do was take the rod from the holder and attach it to my harness so I could fight the fish standing up.
You’d be amazed how hard it is to find and put on a fighting harness when you’re all alone and the drag is screaming away.
So this fish was clearly kind of big, or else the drag I’d set to 23lbs would not be making any noise. Eventually I got my harness set up, and got the rod into the right place and for all I knew I was fighting a tuna. The fish was rather uninspired until I started trying to pull in some line. I think that was the first time it dawned on whatever it was that something wasn’t right. So it tried to run away, fast. More screaming drag. True fun.
I wondered what I had hooked. The rhythmic pulsing of the fight felt a lot like a big striped bass. My tuna fight from a few years ago felt like I had a rocket ship on the end of the line. This fish moved me all around the boat, though I was trying hard to stay at the bow, by now remembering that I still had a 5-gallon bucket and dock line hanging off the transom. I was sure that would foul my line and scrape off the fish. But after 15 minutes or so I began to get comfortable in the harness and guide the fish a little bit. Five or six people in a passing sailboat were curiously watching me fight the fish. They even waved.
After another 20 minutes or so I finally saw the balloon coming up the line, and behind that was my swivel. That meant I only had about 6 feet of line remaining in the water, so I took a look over the gunnel. Down below I saw a long streak of bright blue. Ah ha! I recognized it as a Blue Shark from photos I’d seen online. Liquid, glowing, angry, iridescent blue. Wow. I’ve hooked a shark. Just then the shark looked up towards me, and saw the boat. Wanting no part of it, the shark spun around with it’s tail breaking the surface, and while splashing me in the face, darted straight down about 40 feet.
Given that my leader is about 6 feet long, and that the fish nearly slapped me in the face with it’s tail, I’m gonna estimate it was a little longer than I am tall. That would make it just under 7 feet long.
In another 5 minutes I worked it was right back to the surface next to my boat. Though I had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a TUNA onto my boat, I was sure that I didn’t want a 7 foot shark on it. But you have to make a story believable, so I really needed a picture or two. That’s not completely easy when you’re fishing alone, but the harness does allow you to keep pressure on the rod without using your hands. So I dug into my left pocket and grabbed the trusty camera-phone. The shark made a nice slow pass from the bow to the stern right in front of me as I clicked away. It got within 2 feet of the bow at one point. So high on the surface you could see the hook firmly planted in the right corner of it’s mouth. That’s just good luck, because I’m sure this shark had teeth, and easily sharp enough to cut fluorocarbon leader.
In an effort to get it even closer for more beauty shots I pressured the line pretty hard. I knew I’d have to cut the line eventually, but the big blue decided his or her visit with me was over. A quick couple of tail slaps and pow, the leader finally gave up. Off it disappeared into the deep. According to a couple of websites, that was an average-sized blue shark, and at 7 feet the fish probably weighed between 140 and 200 pounds. Outweighed my previous biggest fish by 115 pounds.
So ends the story of my failed tuna trip. I guess I gotta go again.