Giant Tuna | Heartbreak and Redemption

Hooking a giant bluefin tuna is only the beginning of a rollercoaster ride of emotions.

Hooking into a giant bluefin tuna is only the beginning of a rollercoaster ride of emotions.

On the two-hour ride southeast from Stage Harbor aboard Clothier’s 36-foot Downeast, Shearwater, I thought I’d be ready for this moment—if it came. After all, I fish upward of 200 days a year. I’ve caught tuna on sportfishers, center consoles, and headboats while dropping jigs, casting poppers, and drifting chunks. But none of those experiences prepared me for seeing a pool-cue-thick rod buckle over while a paint-can-sized reel howled in protest.

When Clothier’s mate, Captain Taylor Lange, hands me a glove for my left hand, it sinks in that I’d never even seen an episode of Wicked Tuna (no, really). Given the show’s popularity, it’s almost certain that even the most novice of Clothier’s clients could claim that much giant tuna “experience.” With this in mind, I step up to the rod, place my right hand on the handle, and wait for the ferocious first run to end.

The fish finder sonars shows giant bluefin tuna swimming through schools of baitfish below the surface.
The fish finder sonars shows giant bluefin tuna swimming through schools of baitfish below the surface.

The most important thing, Clothier says, is keeping the rod bent and the pressure on the fish steady. Fish Fighting 101, I think, gaining confidence. Then again, for every other fish I’d fought, I’d been holding the rod.

While some fishermen lock horns with giant tuna using harnesses and stand-up gear, most of the fleet fights them on long, bent-butt rods left in swiveling rod holders. This, Clothier says, puts more pressure on the fish because the rod holder can withstand a higher drag setting than a fisherman. An angler fighting a giant out of the rod holder uses his left hand to pull line from the first stripper guide toward the reel, while at the same time cranking with the other hand to store that line on the reel.

➤ Watch the episode below | Cape Cod Giant Bluefin Tuna | Season 17, Episode 08 

The rod staying in the rod holder doesn’t mean I don’t feel the fight, however. My arms are already burning by the time the balloon reemerges and pops as I reel it through the big roller guides. I’m painfully aware of how awkward and uncomfortable I look as Matt Doucette and Adam Eldridge, the producers of On The Water TV, train their cameras on me as I muddle through my first fight with a giant.

I’m feeling better once the sinker breaks the surface, thinking the end of the fight is near, but when Lange removes it from the line, the tuna, feeling a change in pressure, takes another run. I’m working hard to keep the rod bent and the pressure on, but the rod still bounces as I awkwardly look for a rhythm in the “yank and crank” fighting style. This causes the hook to wear a large hole in the jaw of the tuna over the long fight. Just as we are about to get our first glimpse of the fish, the line slacks and the hook falls out.

Capt. John Clothier, Fish Chatham Charters, 508-237-7210
Capt. John Clothier at the helm of the Shearwater.

Clothier is unfazed. He smiles at me and says that losing a big tuna is just part of the game. He circles the boat around for another drift, and this time, he’s able to set out two live mackerel before a rod goes down.

Clothier’s tuna season starts in late May or early June and may extend into December if the weather and fishing warrants. While his charter business, Fish Chatham Charters, runs striper, groundfish, and sea bass trips, his specialty is bluefin tuna.

Clothier sends out a maximum of three baits at a time, but he brings a half dozen setups. To land a giant tuna, the tackle and connections must be perfect. After each shark bite or tuna fight, he rotates in a new rod with fresh rigging.

[Article: Big Bluefin Tuna Behavior]

His rods are CMS Chatham Specials, which are 80-pound class Calstar blanks with 130 butts, matched with Shimano Tiagra 130s. He prefers 80-pound-class rods because they are more forgiving, which helps keep even pressure on the fish and reduce the number of pulled hooks. The length of the rods helps keep the line away from the transom during the fight. He fills the reels with 600 yards of 200-pound Cortland hollow-core braid, adds 200- yard, 200-pound-test Monofilament top shots, tops them off with 170-pound-test fluorocarbon leaders, and ends each rig with a 7/0 Trokar offset circle hook. Despite being almost as thick as a #2 pencil, the hook isn’t much larger than the ones I use when casting eels for striped bass.

Clothier has several mackerel in the livewell from the previous day’s trip, but in between the first two tuna bites, we add a few more, including a couple of sea herring. I jig a few whiting that would be suitable in a pinch, but with herring and mackerel in the well, Clothier says to toss them back.

Bridling keeps the baitfish livelier longer and leaves the hook fully exposed for better hooksets.
Towing a tuna behind the boat on a swim hook helps it recover from the long fight for a healthy release.

He bridles each bait with a black elastic band passed through the eye sockets with a rigging needle and attached to the circle hook. This rigging not only leaves the entire hook exposed for a better hookset, but it keeps the bait livelier longer.

The reel is dumping line steadily as Lange jumps on the rod. The backing knot slides through the roller guides on the fish’s tremendous first run. As I see it disappear into the building seas, I imagine two football fields lined up endzone to endzone with the Shearwater at one end and the tuna on the other, and I’m almost grateful to be watching from the sidelines.

Lange gets the backing knot and a few wraps of 200-pound-test mono back on the reel when he waves me in. I step up to the rod with one goal: keep the line tight. However, by the time I’ve gotten back three-quarters of the topshot, my left hand is cramping, my right arm is burning, and my back hurts. At this point in the fight, it’s a battle of wills. The tuna is bigger, stronger, and in vastly better shape than I am—but by keeping steady pressure, I might be able to break his will.

Lange sets a tail rope on a 70-inch bluefin.
Lange sets a tail rope on a 70-inch bluefin.

I think of the time I watched Captain Bobby Rice battle a 74-inch tuna on spinning gear. He had the tuna steadily moving toward the boat from straight below, gaining line one half-turn of the reel handle at a time. As he was holding the fish steady, waiting for an opportunity to gain line, the anti-reverse on his reel failed, and the rotor spun a single revolution backwards, ceding about a foot of line to the tuna. Sensing a shift in power, the tuna took a hellacious run, stripping off line in just a few seconds that had taken 30 minutes to gain.

While the fish on the other end of my line is likely larger than 74 inches—judging by the look that Clothier and Lange exchanged on its first run—I’m also fighting it on much heavier tackle. So, as the sinker pops out of the face of a wave, I decide to impose my will on the tuna and end the fight before the hook falls out. As I put a G.I. Joe Kung-Fu grip on the line with my left hand, the tuna turns and the leader parts.

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Clothier had told me earlier that his clients land most of the tuna hooked on the Shearwater—a testament to his meticulous rigging, boat handling, and instruction, along with his client’s ability not to hit the panic button late in the fight. Still, he shows no frustration or disappointment as he brings the boat around while I sulk at the stern. I’ve learned from the first two fights, but a third opportunity at a giant tuna feels like a lot to ask for.

When the rod loads up for the third time of the morning, I tell Lange it’s all his. I figure that if I lose a third straight fish and doom this episode of On The Water TV, I’d be better off taking my chances with porbeagle sharks off Chatham than with my coworkers in East Falmouth.

This fish initially seems like a shark, staying straight down and not running, but it’s actually a 70-inch tuna hooked in the nose. The odd placement of the circle hook is likely the reason for the atypical fight. Since it’s shorter than 73 inches, this fish is a “recreational keeper” and Lange fights and harpoons the fish himself, securing sashimi for the crew and an episode for OTW TV.

Tuna under 73-inches, like this one held by Lange (left) and Clothier, can be kept by recreational anglers.
Tuna under 73-inches, like this one held by Lange (left) and Clothier, can be kept by recreational anglers.

With the tuna bled and bagged, Clothier circles back for a final drift. It occurs to me that of the five or so hours we’ve been on the tuna grounds, we’ve spent less than 30 minutes with baits swimming, waiting for a bite. The bulk of the time has been spent fighting tuna or replacing baits that have been mangled by sharks.

As he pulls back on the throttles, once again a school of tuna appears on the sounder. He doesn’t bother with a balloon this time, he simply sends the bait down and rubber-bands the line to the reel handle. Within 5 minutes, I watch the band stretch and snap as the rod folds. Lange jumps on it and gets the line tight as the fish takes its first run. Clothier encourages me to fight the fish, and I tag in.

The fight unfolds like the first two. I gain line, and the tuna takes most of it back. The seas have built to 4 to 6 feet at this point, and the swells are both a hindrance and a help. Lange tells me to use the swells to gain line, and I reel furiously every time the Shearwater slides into a trough, and I wince every time the boat rocks and the rod tip plunges toward the waves.

[Photos: 1,045-pound Bluefin Tuna caught in North Carolina]

Clothier, at the helm, angles the boat to help me gain line, and the tuna, clearly tiring, stops taking runs and locks into a standoff. I want to break his will, but not the line, so I wait.

As the tuna settles into an up-and-down battle, I’m ready to relinquish the rod. I don’t know how long I’ve been fighting it, but whether it’s been 10 minutes or 2 hours, I’m hurting. My throat is dry, I’ve sweated through the t-shirt under my insulated flannel jacket, and my arms and back are screaming.

There’s also the tuna to consider. With one already in the boat, we’ll be releasing this fish, no matter what size it is. I don’t want my impending physical breakdown to prolong the fight and hurt the tuna’s chances of survival.

[Article: Tuna Tail Taxidermy]

Without warning, the line angles up, and I catch my first glimpse of the fish, a deep purple torpedo ghosting through the trough. Just like that, the pain vanishes, and my energy returns.

The tuna angles toward the stern, where it surfaces. Its head breaks the surface and I’m struck by how small its eye appears relative to the rest of its head. I’ve thought the same about larger stripers – how once they reach a certain size, their facial features begin to change.

It’s the largest tuna I’ve ever seen in person, and the largest fish I’ve ever been attached to via rod and reel, but the fight’s not over yet. The tuna changes direction, and swims back up the starboard side, its scythe-like fin and tail slicing the waves.

Towing a tuna behind the boat on a swim hook helps it recover from the long fight for a healthy release.
Towing a tuna behind the boat on a swim hook helps it recover from the long fight for a healthy release.

All the while, Clothier is making clockwise circles, both to help me gain line and to keep the tuna off the starboard corner. I lose count of the laps the tuna makes, each one a couple feet closer to the boat. The swivel appears, and Lange grabs the leader. He strains to pull the fish the last few feet and yells at me to keep putting line on the reel. Almost in slow motion, the fish appears next to the boat, beautiful and enormous. Lange puts a “swim hook” in its lower jaw while Clothier reaches for the circle hook, which falls out with a slight touch. Awestruck, I remove my glove and pet the tuna’s gill plate. It feels warm.

The tuna is substantially larger than the fish we have on ice; not just longer, but wider and rounder. I try to resist asking, “How big?” because the massive, beautiful, perfect fish next to the boat means much more to me than a number. But, I can’t help it. Clothier estimates 100 inches.

The swim-hook rope is cleated off and Clothier slowly runs the Shearwater, which helps the tuna recover from the long fight. Over the 15 minutes we “swim” the fish, I watch as its color changes from rusty gray to metallic blue and its tail beat increases from a lazy wag to an angry kick. Clothier slows down and Lange removes the hook.

The fish hovers for a second before turning and swimming out of sight.

[Capt. John Clothier | Fish Chatham Charters | 508-237-7210]

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