Whenever the opportunity to fish for bluefin tuna presents itself, I immediately start scrolling through my contacts to dial for intel. These are fish that can swim clear across the Atlantic Ocean in three days! Fresh intel is just as valuable as fresh bait.
I get right to the point on these calls: “Where’s the life been? What bait have they been on? At what depth are the fish? Is it a live bait bite? Jig bite? Any surface feeds? All big fish? What channel will you be on? Where are you making bait? Thanks.” Next.
I work my network like a detective working a homicide case. I look for consistencies, throw out outliers, and zero in on a location to point the bow the next morning. And, of course, I’m ready to reciprocate whenever those calls come to me.
On August 12, my line of questioning identifies east of Chatham as the destination. One buddy tells me where I should stop to make bait, then where to start the first drift, being sure I drop a mackerel three turns from the bottom. With a game plan in place, the final preparation begins. I ice down the boat and pore over my gear. Each leader that had seen salt water before is changed out; each connection is heavily scrutinized for perfection. If the knot doesn’t seat perfectly, I cut and retie. There is no point in rushing because I know I’m not going to sleep anyway. I run through everything in my head, taking close inventory of all I might need (and then some) until all the bases are covered.
My obsession with bluefin tuna was genetically inherited. It began in the early 90s when I got called up to the “big leagues” by the very man who passed along those genes—my father, Tony.
For years, he told me stories about the good ol’ days when they learned how to tussle with sea monsters the size of Volkswagen buses. I’d look in awe as he showed me the two photo albums full of pictures of fish that were double and sometimes triple the size of grown men.
Around age 9, I begged my mother to let me skip school and tag along with my dad and uncle when they went giant fishing. She always said no, and my Dad, respecting her decision, assured me that my day would come, while also pointing out that I was still a little young to be of any use on a tuna boat. On some of those days, I heard the phone ring and my mom congratulated Dad, so I’d jump on my Dyno GT to race to the marina in Hull, Massachusetts, just in time to see the travel lift winching a giant tuna out of the cockpit of my dad’s Blackfin.
When I was 12, I was allowed to join some of the giant tuna trips when the weather wasn’t too bad. I chunked herring and mackerel for chum and ladled it over the side with the specific cadence and amount my father instructed. However, on our first two trips I don’t think we even saw or marked a tuna. I was beginning to think tuna fishing was boring.
The third trip was a school day. My father convinced my mother it would happen for us that day because of recent reports and the moon phase. If we succeeded, he said he wouldn’t allow me to miss school for fishing again. She agreed, and he, my Uncle Bo, and I were soon making the 23.5-mile trip to the northwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. We dropped anchor and began chumming and setting out a three-rod spread with two sewn mackerel under balloons and a live bait on the down rod. About an hour in, we started hearing engines turn on and boats unhooking from their poly balls. We started marking, and Dad looked at us as he loudly said, “Get ready, boys!” The red balloon on the closest rod started ripping across the surface and then out of sight. Dad yelled to me to start cranking on that rod and my uncle immediately cleared the others.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when the fish surfaced about an hour into the fight. My father seemed to be even more in awe of it than I was. His eyes lit up as he exclaimed, “Bo, you see the size of that thing!?”
I immediately got nervous but stayed focused. I was fighting the fish from a fighting station with a leaning post and gimble a few feet from the end of the transom. Another hour passed, and I got the fish within 30 yards of the back of the boat twice more before it started spooling me again. Dad said, “You’re getting smoked, kid. Why don’t you let your uncle beat it and we won’t tell a soul.”
I refused. “No, Dad, c’mon! It’s my first tuna. I can do it myself.” He looked at my uncle and shrugged, smirking.
Once we hit the 3-hour mark, Dad again tried to sell me on letting my uncle end it, explaining that the 300-pound-test line was so stretched that we had no more than 30 minutes left to end the fight. I was gassed but determined, and certainly naïve, so my answer didn’t change. Exactly 33 minutes from that warning, the line popped. I was sick. Nobody spoke. In silence, we made our way back to the ball and, to my surprise, pulled the anchor and headed for home. At some point, Dad just looked at me and said, “That fish beat you. There was nothing else you could have done.” And that was that.
The very next weekend, we hooked three tuna at the same time. At one point, two lines got tangled and Dad held the two lines in his bare, calloused hands while my brother and uncle wove 130s around one another until they were free. I couldn’t believe it. Dad gritted his teeth and held on, then called for one to be cut off. We fought the two remaining fish, landing and releasing the first, until we harpooned what turned out to be my first-ever bluefin. It weighed 587 pounds. The next week, Dad returned from work with a 14k-gold bluefin tuna charm that I’ve never taken off to this very day.
Once bitten by the tuna bug, nothing else mattered—stripers, bottom fishing—anything else didn’t do it anymore. However, tuna fishing with my dad didn’t happen as much as I’d hoped, especially after Uncle Bo didn’t show for a trip one morning, which wasn’t like him. At 54 years young, he had passed away in his sleep. It was the first time I saw my father cry. Because Dad was busy running his company, my uncle did all the prep work so Dad could fit tuna fishing into his work and family schedule. From that point forward, it just wasn’t the same for Dad, and we fished for tuna far less often. Plus, I was getting to an age where friends and other distractions leapfrogged fishing. Before long, Dad downsized to a boat he could run and fish on his own.
The following morning, Chris Megan, Jimmy Fee, and I point the nose of OTW’s Regulator southeast from Falmouth Harbor in the pitch-black night, nervous energy coursing through our veins that was amplified by a zero-visibility run through the fog. Our only eyes are the Simrad Halo open-array radar overlayed on our charts.
At the first stop, we deploy our mackerel rigs, and just as my intel had said, three to four horse mackerel end up in our livewell with each drop. As soon as we have an 18 count of feisty macks, we continue east.
As we began our first drift over 260 feet of water, we bridle two macks and send one to the bottom. When the sinker touches down, three cranks of the Penn International 80 lifts the mackerel just off the bottom, where the tuna are rumored to be feeding.
Chris monitors the radar, which is showing a massive fleet (with many of the well-known tuna killers) a mile to our southeast. The second-guessing that always nips at my decision-making starts almost instantly, but then we mark a fish, which is enough to buy us 30 more minutes at the current location. Soon after, another mark crawls across the sounder, just off the bottom, and our observation of that mark is shortly followed by the snap of a rubber band holding the down bait tight to the base of the rod.
The 80 starts squealing, and we all realize at the same time—fish on! We immediately jump into our roles: Chris on the rod, Jimmy clearing the lines, and me taking the helm.
After 40 minutes of give and take, Chris is finally taking more than he gives, and he and Jimmy shout, “Color!” as the tuna wheels into view. Three more full turns of the reel handle, and the fish will be ours. However, before that happens, the tuna rolls out of its death spiral, changing the angle and popping out the hook. Heartbreak. Defeat. Pure excitement and adrenaline are replaced by crushing despair. We glumly return to port.
Once I graduated from college and got my first real job, I ran my 1984 23’ Sea Craft all over Stellwagen Bank and Peaked Hill Bar, trying to show my Dad I could put a tuna in the boat on my own. After 11 fishless trips, I caught a 120-pounder on a spreader bar, and I couldn’t get home fast enough to show him.
When I produced the fish from the bed of my truck, he looked at me, laughed, and said, “Where the heck did you go? Chatham?” At the time, Chatham was known for school-sized tuna, so that was his way of keeping me from getting too cocky, even though he was happy for me.
My rejuvenated passion for tuna was contagious and inspired Dad to start fishing again like he once had. Shortly after retiring, he put in an offer for a massive Downeaster that we could fish anywhere in any weather. Later that same week, Dad was forced to withdraw the offer because he’d been handed a death sentence in the form of a stage IV kidney cancer diagnosis. He battled the disease for 2½ years, and the only time I wasn’t consumed by thoughts that my father and best friend was dying of cancer was when I was fishing. It is still where I feel most connected to him, and to this day, I say a little prayer when I step on the boat and invite him along for that day’s journey. Once in a while, he sends me a little sign to let me know he’s along for the ride.
About a month later, we start the entire process over, trading bent butts and live bait for spinning reels and surface plugs. Departing this time from Sandwich Marina, I input our coordinates based on some recent success by my good friend, Kevin Gould. On the ride out, I suppress the second guessing and look up to the heavens, hoping for a divine sign from Dad. Almost immediately, out of the blanket of fog, a gannet emerges that, I swear, cranes its head toward me, making eye contact, as if to say, “Trust your gut.”
Just as the fog begins to lift, we see one wheeling shearwater and then another. From the bow, Jimmy yells, “Tuna!”
We stop and cast at the fleeting feed, but the tuna sound before our lures touch down. I study the contour line revealed by the electronics and make a mental note. As we continue to our destination, more and more life appears through the fog. We scan two giant humps and the cavernous channel running between them that I hoped would have tuna, but there is no one home. We agree to run back along the contour line, and as we head that way, the sun finally takes the upper hand over the fog, sending it scattering like a ball of halfbeaks being harried by tuna.
We start to encounter feed after feed, with tuna erupting on bait more and more frequently along the same contour line where we caught our first glimpse of feeding tuna. It seems like a bite is imminent.
After getting the boat in position for Chris and Jimmy to make well-placed casts, I grab my rod and try to get my own lure into the action. It has the distance and the accuracy, but a sharp report informs me that it’s no longer attached to my line. The costly wind knot relieves me of a Strategic Angler Nautilus, but there’s no time to dwell on it. I scan through the contents of the tackle box, looking for a closer imitation of the small butterfish the tuna appear to be feeding on. A soft-plastic paddletail is the closest match so I tie on a fresh leader (no time for a splice or FG Knot) and then tie directly to the lure. Nervous about my knots, I loosen the drag a couple clicks, just in case.
Though the tuna have gone down, I cast anyway. My retrieve is quick: three rapid cranks of the reel handle, a brief pause, three rapid cranks , a pause, and…stop. As I start to turn the handle after the second pause, the line goes tight. Game on!
Forty minutes in, just as I think I’ve gained the upper hand, I hit a wall. I bring in fresh arms, handing off the rod to Jimmy. He inches the drag knob to put a little more heat on the fish and settles in. Chris does the same when Jimmy tires, and I tighten the drag even further when I’m handed the rod again.
The fish chews us up and spits us out as we rotate through rod, boat, and gaff stations, each of our “rests” becoming increasingly shorter. Finally, we see color. Jimmy is on the rod, Chris is at the helm, and I’m holding the gaff. I hear my old man’s instruction in my head for gaffing a tuna “Behind the line, Cheech, right in the middle of the head meat between the eye and the top curl of the gill plate.”
Everything moves in slow motion as I focus on my bullseye. Jimmy stores line on the reel a half turn at a time, then, suddenly, the fish is at the surface. I drag the gaff over the back of the fish, sinking it into exactly the spot Dad had always instructed. The fish subdued, Chris leaves the helm and plants a second gaff in the tuna’s lip. Together, we hoist 68 inches of bluefin tuna over the gunwale. The fat butterball hits the deck with a thud. This is what I live for.
As we run the Regulator through the Cape Cod Canal, I can’t wipe the smile of sweet tuna glory off my face. As he soaks in the unseasonable warmth of that late autumn day, Chris admires the spoils of our efforts snugly zipped into the Calcutta Outdoors fish bag up on the bow. The sound of victory is blaring from the Regulator’s speakers, but that’s about to change as Kenny Chesney’s “Guys Named Captain” begins to play.
Guys named Captain are always characters
Livin’ by the water, somewhere in the Americas
The lyrics start hitting me deeper and deeper as my thoughts shift to the man who was responsible for hooking me on tuna.
Guys named Captain aren’t haters, they’re lovers
Livin’ life large, but largely undercover
Dive bars and cocktails, waitresses, and totems
Chasin’ the sun, run aground a fossil, like
Captain Outrageous and Captain Tony
I paint around a sailor, hope he wears Chronies
The beginning line of the third verse strikes hard as Chesney mentions my father’s name, and I can’t stop the tears. I think back to all the memories my dad and I shared tuna fishing, but then the moment I came tight on this specific tuna replays in my head, and I smile. I remember the first tuna I fought and then when Dad, on his deathbed, summoned me close to tell me something I expected to be profound. Instead, he spoke of our first tuna trip together, saying, “You lost the biggest tuna I ever laid eyes on.” I look up to the heavens and shake my head with a big grin, knowing he’s smiling down after today’s events.
I know Dad’s not gone, he’s just different. There have been far too many “signs,” too obvious and oddly timed, to be coincidences. That’s enough to invite him with me every time I set out on a fishing adventure. I’ll ride this tuna high until the next trip, which can never come soon enough.