A veteran commercial fisherman’s invite to fish for giants came along and I wasted no time in accepting.
Catching a giant bluefin with rod and reel has been on my bucket list for a long time. I grew up on the water and spent several summers as part of a crew that fished with handline or harpoon. My life’s path led me away from the ocean, and for years I’d wanted to go back and do it again with more sporting tackle. Decades passed without an opportunity and my desire was relegated to the back burner until a recent series of events rekindled the flame.
Several more years passed as I tried unsuccessfully to mooch my way onto a boat until I eventually connected with fellow Mainer, Don Fletcher. A veteran commercial fisherman, Don switched over to tuna fishing after he acquired an Ocean Yachts 55 SS he named the Blue Bandit. When the invitation came to join him, I wasted no time in accepting. Unfortunately, weather foiled our first attempt and we never left the dock in Portland Harbor. After that, work and hunting season filled up my fall schedule, and it looked like my quest would be put off yet another year. Renewed hope came when a window presented itself and plans were hastily made to meet Don and his mate, Bob, on the dock in South Portland.
My mood was severely dampened when I topped the hill on High Street only to see Portland Harbor shrouded in fog. The fates seemed to be stacked against me, but my trepidations were eased when Don advised me that his radar was in good working order. We made our way out, stopping along the way to catch bait. My first few drops came up with pollock, which went back in the drink, but subsequent attempts yielded an occasional mackerel—some of the biggest I’d ever seen—and a few herring. Once we had enough to get the lines out, we headed offshore, anchored up and set to fishing. The fog rolled in and out as the seas grew steadily throughout the afternoon. The forecast called for small craft advisories with seas building to 6 feet overnight, suggesting it was going to be a long and tiresome night.
It was several hours into the vigil when one of the rod tips started to bounce but no line paid out; not a good sign. As expected, our first catch was a porbeagle that we managed to release without any damage to the fluorocarbon leader. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last shark, but at least we’d gotten the skunk off the boat.
After dinner, assignments for the night watch were handed out. I would be on the second shift, starting at midnight, so I thought I’d catch a few winks beforehand. I typically don’t sleep very well on a boat, but the conditions made that task nigh impossible. The tide and the wind fought each other relentlessly, neither gaining the upper hand, which left us quartering to the still-building seas. As the boat pitched and rolled, anything that wasn’t fastened down would rattle, clang or bang. Sleep was out of the question. The best I could hope for was a little restless downtime.
It must have been close to midnight when I finally gave up my futile attempt to rest and made my way back out on deck. I figured a Devil Dog and a Mountain Dew would provide a quick jolt of energy to keep me awake during my vigil. Instead, it just gave me a headache and an upset stomach. That combined with the aroma of diesel fumes from the generator and cigarette smoke made for a bad combination on a rolling boat. I wasn’t about to show any signs of weakness in front of my hosts, so I went out on deck where I could at least take in some fresh air.
All this gave me cause to question my decision. The trip wasn’t quite the romantic, exciting adventure I’d anticipated. It was more like endurance. I took some solace in the thought that if I got tired enough I might actually sleep; and the hardest -earned prizes are sometimes the most rewarding.
I passed the rest of my watch catching herring and mackerel that had risen to the surface and were shoaled up underneath us, attracted by the boat’s lights. When I tired of that, I entertained myself trying to catch halfbeaks with a dip net, to no avail. And, sure enough, I was so exhausted by 3 a.m. that I did manage some fitful sleep.
The following day passed in long, slow hours periodically punctuated by an occasional porbeagle, which required replacing leaders. I knew catching a giant tuna was a long shot, a lot like deer hunting. You sit for hours, waiting, hoping. Most days you go home empty-handed, but every once in a while something magical happens.
The sun finally set and we were just finishing dinner when our next visitor arrived. “Looks like we got another shark,” Bob announced as he watched a rod tip bounce. “I might need a hand.” But, as Don and I slowly piled into the cockpit, the reel started ringing, line paid out at a lightning-fast pace and the mood suddenly changed. Could this really be it? I thought. Were we finally connected to the king of north Atlantic gamefish?
From the tip of the bent rod, the line angled out, beyond the glow of the cockpit and into the jet-black night. Somewhere out there, beyond our vision, was a big fish, and something more. As we backed down a vague shape began to appear: round, white, then another, round and orange. The anchor balls!
The duo of Don at the helm and Bob on the rod fought to move the fish away, but each time it drew us back in the same direction and it soon became apparent the fish was wrapped in the anchor rode. I knew what that meant, and I tempered my enthusiasm once again, expecting the line to part at any second. Don had other ideas. Deftly, he maneuvered the Blue Bandit closer to the ball, all the while shouting instructions to Bob, who kept just enough tension to keep the line from going slack.
Things can happen quickly on the water and you have to be prepared to move fast when they do. I had just lifted the anchor line, intending to clear it, when the fish appeared, looming out of the darkness and suddenly within harpoon range. Don was ready and drove the shaft home. Then came the words I’d longed to hear: “Got him!”
A Welcome Respite
With the seas calming, I figured to catch some sleep before another midnight watch. This time, rather than the commotion of a rolling boat, I struggled against the waning adrenaline as my mind replayed the recent battle over and over. Midnight came all too soon and I spent most of my shift watching late-night TV and periodically checking the lines. My shift ended at 3:00, but Don, who rarely sleeps, was sleeping comfortably, so I stayed up another hour until he stirred on his own, and then I hit the sack.
I slept fast and hard, and when I woke the sun was well up in the sky. Don reported no action. He’d checked the baits shortly after I turned in, and nothing had happened until I stepped out on deck to survey my surroundings. It was a gorgeous morning, calm seas, sunny skies and crisp, dry air. I’d barely turned back to the cabin when the middle reel screamed. “Fish on!” I yelled, and we sprang into action. Don and I cleared the other lines while Bob dropped the anchor line and then set to fighting the fish.
This one came easier, thanks in large part to daylight and calm seas. Plus, I already had one fish under my belt and a much better idea how we would fight it. I even got some reel time, but was happy to yield to Bob. I was there for pleasure, but catching tuna is his livelihood, and I didn’t want to be the one on the rod if something went wrong. Besides, it gave me a chance to watch, and learn.
The battle was less of a sprint and more of a tug of war. Bob would take in as much line as he could while Don maneuvered the boat to bring the fish closer, but not too close. Each time Bob gained a little line the fish would turn and take some back. So it went, back and forth, but with us gaining a few inches, sometimes a few feet at a time.
I once heard tuna referred to as “the fat man who won’t dance.” They don’t do the tail-dancing of a billfish or the vaulting pirouettes of a mako. Though capable of blistering runs, with the drag tightened down, a tuna simply pulls until all its great strength is exhausted.
The first sign of that came when the fish broke surface 40 yards off the stern, its scimitar fins slicing through the water. For a brief moment our adversary had a shape, a form. Then he submerged, taking more line with him. The fish rose again and was breaking the surface when a swell took the boat and pushed it forward. The fish yielded, its head turning back with the tension of the line. It wouldn’t be long now.
After a few more short runs, he came our way. Don ordered me to the helm as I handed him the harpoon, then he shouted directions. “Forward! Neutral! Forward!” I saw the big silvery shape for an instant before it disappeared below the transom. I saw Don throw and I held a long breath before I heard the words: “Got him!”
It’s immensely satisfying, but there’s also a little let-down you when finally achieve a long-sought-after goal. When you finally bag that trophy buck or particularly tough tom turkey you’ve been after for so long, you realize it’s the journey, not the destination that matters most. This journey was over, but the experience gave me the confidence to set a new goal and embark on a new journey, to catch a bluefin on my own boat.