Story and photos by David Dodsworth
"The hunt for giant Bluefin"
is an ongoing adventure documenting one man’s pursuit of one of angling's
greatest treasures, the giant Bluefin tuna.
Friday, September 22, 2000
The trip was to begin early, a 2:00 am
departure from Stage Harbor, Chatham, MA, with Capt. Eric Stewart, owner
and captain of the "Tammy Rose". The "Tammy Rose"
fishes out of Rock Harbor, Orleans, MA, but today we would be fishing
aboard the "Hampton Caught II", a beautiful Nauset 33’
Bridgedeck, located in Stage Harbor, and outfitted for some very serious
Our planned early morning departure
proved futile, as the wind was blowing at 20 knots out of the NW.
Definitely not a good time to be venturing 40 miles offshore! It was
decided that we would try again at 6:00 am, as the winds were gradually
decreasing. I headed home for a couple hours sleep, eager to begin my long
Upon returning to the dock at 6:00 am, I
found Eric readying the rods, engine warmed up, and the live well full of
feisty bluefish. The morning looked good, as the winds had subsided to 10
knots, and the sky was clear. We eased away from the dock and slipped into
the main harbor, only to discover that the tuna fleet was still at anchor.
These are the guys that make their living fishing for tuna, and the fact
that they had not gone out was disturbing.
We left the harbor and headed south
towards Monomoy Point. From there we would turn southeast and steam for
the "BB" buoy, a known haunt of the giant tuna. Monomoy Point is
an area of multiple rips and a very confused sea. What we encountered
there convinced us that a trip offshore would not be in our best interest.
Saturday’s forecast looked promising, so we decided to head to the east
side of Monomoy and troll for bluefish, the preferred live bait for tuna
Within the hour we had caught a dozen
nice bluefish, all about 6 lbs. This was the perfect size for what we
wanted. With fresh bait in the live well, and a promising forecast for the
following day, we headed for the dock, eagerly anticipating the next day’s
Saturday, September 23, 2000
I arrived at the dock at 2:00 am, again
to find Eric readying the boat for the long trip offshore. The winds were
out of the SE at 5 knots and the seas were minimal. The prospect for the
day’s fishing looked great as we untied and eased our way out of the
Our trip to the "BB" buoy was
to be a long one, 3 ½ hours on a good day. As we steamed towards Monomoy
Point it was clear that we would not be making the journey alone. There
were boats in front of us, behind us, and on either side, all steaming to
the SE. Tuna fishing is serious business, and it appeared that every tuna
boat on the east coast would be fishing off Chatham today. This thought
was further reinforced as we neared our destination. The horizon was aglow
with the lights of 250 boats, some trolling, some steaming, and some
drifting. The radio was alive with chatter, and there was a definite
excitement in the air. We slowly eased our way through the fleet,
constantly checking water depth and temperature, looking for the perfect
spot to set up.
We decided to head to the eastern edge
of the main body of boats, due north of the "BB". As the dawn
began to break, we turned into the wind and shut the engines down. Here we
would set our baits, eagerly waiting for the feeding tuna to make their
presence known. The 4 matched Penn International 130’s were set in the
rod holders, and as Eric rigged the baits, Cory (the mate) and I blew up
This method of fishing consists of
suspending live bluefish, at varying depths, below inflated balloons. We
also rigged a whole, dead herring, and dropped it 90 feet below the stern.
With the baits in place, and the early morning sun inching it’s way
above the horizon, the wait began. The only sport I can compare to tuna
fishing is deer hunting. If you have ever spent countless hours in a tree
stand, eagerly waiting for a buck to magically appear, then you can
appreciate the drama of tuna fishing.
After about an hour of
inactivity, the fleet began to break-up. Each boat heading to where they
thought the fish might be. We decided to head south, so we pulled the
baits in and steamed toward a small pocket of boats barely visible on the
horizon. Eric had caught a fish here on a previous trip, so our hopes were
high. The constant radio traffic indicated that no one was into fish yet,
although there were faint murmurings of small fish to the north. Again we
set the baits, and again we waited. At least the weather was cooperating.
There was a faint breeze from the SW, and the early autumn air was
pleasant. We passed the time listening to the constant radio noise eagerly
waiting to hear that the bite was on.
After another hour of
drifting, we decided to again head south. A short 20 minute ride brought
us to another small pocket of boats. We eased into position on the
northern edge of the group and set the baits out once again. Then the
planes came. A circling plane is a sure indication of a school of
fish. Spotter planes are hired by commercial harpooner’s (stick boats)
to locate fish and guide the boat into striking position. Just off our
stern was a circling plane.
We were all excited at the
prospect of being this close to fish. We constantly scanned our baits, hoping
that one of the balloons would disappear below the surface.
Suddenly a fish broke the surface off our port bow. Now the adrenalin was
really pumping! Planes overhead and fish breaking water, it doesn’t get
more exciting than that! But no matter how hard we hoped and prayed,
nothing happened. The plane headed south and the sea was still. The fish
had either moved or went deep. We waited awhile longer and decided that we
better make a move. But where? Again we heard inklings of some action to
the north. Committing in that direction would mean an hours steam, and
there were no guarantees that we would find fish. The plane had headed
south. It was a tough decision, and we finally decided to head south.
Another ten miles and we were in 500 feet of water. Again we found a small
pocket of boats, and again we eased into position on the northern edge of
the group. We didn’t want to go further south because there was
obviously a school of fish being pursued by the stick boats. We noticed
that the plane had company. There were now two planes circling the area,
soon to be joined by four more.
The six planes were all making
tight circles about a ¼ of a mile off our bow. There were approximately
30 boats in the area, with ½ of them being stick boats. We quickly set
the baits, praying the school would move our way. The planes kept
circling, but as far, if not farther, than they had been when we arrived.
The tension began to mount as we watched our baits struggle against the
balloons. The radio gave no indication that the bite was on, yet we knew
that there were fish close. As the minutes passed our frustration grew.
Everything was right, so why weren’t
we hooked up? I was scanning the horizon to the north when it
happened. I heard Eric say “what the…”and then all hell broke loose.
The next words I heard were “We’re hooked up”! I immediately began
reeling in the closest bait, hoping I could clear it before it was tangled
with the other lines. Corey headed for the bridge to start the engines and
Eric was reeling for all he was
worth. Eric told me to forget the other lines and start reeling the
rod that went off. He headed for the cockpit controls as I reeled as fast
as I could. My heart sank as I realized that whatever hit the bait was no
longer there. So I thought! Eric screamed “Reel! Reel! It’s headed for
the boat!” I was reeling as fast as I could as he slammed the boat into
gear. We lunged forward for what seemed like an eternity before the line
finally became tight. Eric eased off the throttles as the drag began to
sing. I struggled to keep the rod tip pointed at the fish when we realized
that we had a problem. The fish was streaking across our stern, and we
still had three baits out. To get tangled up now would be a disaster.
Quick thinking by Eric and a sharp knife cured that problem!
With the other lines now
clear, Eric quickly stowed the other rods. We then struggled to transfer
the remaining rod to the fighting post. From here I could swivel the rod
and keep the tip always pointed at the fish. With this accomplished, the
It is impossible to
describe the shear power of a giant bluefin tuna. The rod was bent at a
precarious angle, and the line had so much tension on it that water
droplets danced as if dropped on a hot skillet. My stomach was in knots as
I watched the line melt off the spool, fully anticipating that at any
moment the line would part and the fish would be gone. As the initial run
slowed, I struggled to gain back what the fish had taken, literally an
inch at a time. Miraculously, I was actually gaining ground! Temporarily
that is! What ever I gained, the fish would take back, and then some.
After what seemed like hours, I finally had all the backing on the spool,
and was gaining on the mono. Soon the remnants of the balloon passed
through the roller tip, which meant that I was within 50 feet of the giant
fish. My heart sank as once again the fish headed for the bottom, taking
back all the line that I had fought so hard to gain. This scenario
repeated itself three more times. Finally the line began to angle high off
the stern. The fish was coming up! Emotions were high as we anticipated
our first look at the fish.
The fish came up briefly
twenty feet off our port side, looked us in the eye, and slowly sank below
the surface. The fish was tired, but definitely not ready to give up. The
giant tuna made two more lazy circles before surfacing again; it’s
iridescent shades of blue shimmering in the autumn sun. I would be hard
pressed to describe a more beautiful sight.
It was now time to
hopefully end this battle, but there was one more thing left to do. The
fish had to be harpooned and tied off before a victor could be declared.
Eric grabbed the harpoon and took aim. I held my breath as he launched the
shaft. The fish rolled and the harpoon slid harmlessly over it’s back!
There were a multitude of things that could go wrong at this point, and my
mouth was dry as Eric hauled back the harpoon and took careful aim. Once
again he launched the shaft, this time striking the fish hard. We quickly
hauled back the line, bringing the fish close. I grabbed a line and
struggled to loop it over the tail, fully expecting the fish to make one
last attempt at escape. With the line safely wrapped around the tail, I
pulled the fish tight to the side and tied it off. It was over! I sat on
the stern, emotionally drained, staring at the fish in utter amazement.
After two years of trying, I had finally caught a giant!
In real time, the fight
was relatively short, about an hour start to finish. In terms of
intensity, it seemed like an eternity. Words cannot truly describe the
experience, it must be lived to fully appreciate the drama. If you can
believe in the hunt, handle the intensity, and put in the time, then
pursuing the giant bluefin is definitely an experience worth attempting.