Have you ever tried targeting a type of fish for years only to start to believe they don't exist? You hear the stories, you see photos of people holding them up on the gantry, you see videos of them swimming but you never actually ‘see’ one first hand. All reports are second hand or third hand info; from mates of mates, over the internet, or whispers from blokes you just met at the pub. The fish were ‘everywhere’ just the other day/week/hour before you turn up. You decide to head out, the radio stays quiet and your fishing lines don’t get touched.
Some people might say that Darren, Jerom and Myself are some very unlucky fisherman. Not one of us had hooked a confirmed Bluefin tuna despite a combined total of 12 years chasing these fish. For myself and Jerom we were down 3 years, Darren was well seasoned at 6. I don’t believe in superstition, I’m wasn’t prepared to leave it to luck, it was a certainty that I would land a Bluefin tuna, I just wouldn’t give up until I was successful. I remember the first Bluefin tuna I ever saw, and it just so happens to be the day before we caught ours.
Darren called on Monday, he was off until Thursday and had been watching the weather forecast carefully. Three times this year we had call off pre-planned Bluefin tuna trips due to strong westerly winds, it appeared the weather was not cooperating this winter. This trip was to be different from previous ones, strong winds had been blowing for a week, we had no recent reports of fish but with an apparent 'break' in the weather a blind trip to Bermagui was being made.
With our customary 'day before' planning, none of our previous accommodation was available but we were able to book a cabin in a local caravan park. On leaving the Illawarra the forecast was looking promising to head wide, moderate north winds on Tuesday morning, dropping throughout the day to nothing at night and light winds on Wednesday. I don't know what happened in the bom office during the 5 hour trip down to the far south coast but on arrival to Bermagui saw the forecast had backflipped with 15kts of north wind all day Tuesday and Wednesday. So much for that break in the weather. Our hearts sank and our hands reached for the beers.
We woke early on Tuesday and arrived at the local tackle shop to try and raise our spirits. These guys have always been helpful and forthcoming with any knowledge they had on where the tuna may be found. We were met by reports of good catches by longliners but well outside the range of the 'Just Magic' 5.5m seafarer we were in. No good reports by recreational fisherman, a few albies and striped tuna caught, that's about it. Our enquiries on if there’s fish out there was met by ‘doesn’t matter, it looks like you’ve committed to heading out anyway’.
They were right, we couldn't justify driving down to this fishing town without at least giving it a go. Heading out in a north-east direction we soon hit the 1000m line in time to hear a report over the radio, a larger boat called Reeltime had hooked and landed a 60kg Bluefin about 30km southeast of our position and it was only mid-morning. We quickly decided to visit the area which had produced the fish only to be met with quiet as we trolled around area, other boats in the vicinity were also not getting any luck. Being cold and wet with the day wearing on we decided to troll back to the shelf as 15-18kts of wind in a 5.5m boat was not so comfortable. On reaching the shelf another report came over the radio of another boat hooked up in a similar area to the fish caught that morning, we decided that it’s too late to head back out so trolled the shelf looking for albacore (albys) only to be met by striped tuna (stripes) and gannets hitting garfish on the surface. A few hook-ups (and drops) later we were heading back to the harbour with a few big 4-6kg stripes.
A stripy who couldn't resist the purple skirt
A gannet who also couldn't resist the purple skirt
We met the Reeltime boat back at the tackle store who showed that Bluefin exist and what a 60kg fish looks like. This was the first Bluefin I had seen, these are some solid fish. We returned to the cabin
to find tomorrows forecast had yet again changed, 15-25kts of north wind for Wednesday. Some weather forecasts said dying off during the day, most predicted persistent winds. A unanimous decision was made that if winds tomorrow were as strong as today we would call it quits and head back to the Illawarra. Our hearts sank and our hands reached for the bottle of Krupnik.
The next day started 45 minutes later than the day before, it wasn’t the Krupnik that was at fault, it was the 25kt winds hitting Montague Island. Strange, it was light offshore at Bermagui. A quick stop at the tackle shop for a bacon and egg roll (bloody delicious!) also confirmed last nights weather forecast, there was still a reasonable chance the wind would lessen in the afternoon. We sat in the car at the boatramp, eating our bacon and egg rolls trying to get the keen and positivity back. Darren was inclinded to drive back home, Jerom was indecisive and I was leaning towards heading out and giving it a go. The wind at Montague dropped to 24kts and I was able to convince the boys wind was dropping (as it was originally 26kts) and it was worth it to give it another shot.
Two hours later we were in 800m of water in winds 5-10kts stronger than the day before, after a few chopped up waves sloshed over the windscreen it was decided we had enough and it was time to head in. On arrival to the 150m depth line the wind slackened to a breezy 15-20kts, we were able to get an update on the Montague Island station which read 12kts from the NNW. See, I said, the wind is dying off. The call was made to wait to see if conditions improved, over the radio larger 7-10m vessels were chatting with people at the boatramp telling them to give it a miss for today as it is a washing machine out wide and very unpleasant. After 20minutes of radio silence, we decided to pass the time by broadcasting the all-time favourite gay shark joke (which was presented perfectly), this was also met by radio silence. Hmm, apparently our humour is something to be desired, it was only an hour later that we noticed that we were broadcasting on the wrong channel. Doh!
Trolling around on the shelf had two pods of killer whales come up behind the boat and surf the wake like dolphins. This changed the feeling of the day from ‘what the hell are we doing out in this?’ to ‘oh my god, how freakin awesome is this!’. It was just the morale boost we needed.
The wind started to die off and we decided to risk a run out wide towards where the Bluefin were caught the day before, we were in no rush to get out there so we trolled the whole way, hoping for an alby. Two frigates were hooked (and one dropped) early on at the shelf and a big stripy was caught on the way out, meaning I was on strike. Hours passed without any action, one boat out wide put out a report of a dropped fish, possibly marlin based on the fight. We were approaching the mark, about 10kms off in 3000m of water when up ahead we saw a fin exposed on the surface of the water. Our first call was a shark, but on approach saw it turn into a sun-fish milling on the surface. The boat motor was idled, Darren and Jerom rushed over to film it. I went to clear the lines as tangled lines are an annoyance.
I was reeling in the second line on the TLD50 overhead, 24kg line attached to 250lb leader running a bibless trembler with twin singles. 10m from the back of the boat it gets taken. ‘I’m on!’ I yell, Jerom and Darren hardly take their eyes off the sunfish. The fish makes a small run, then turns and makes its way back towards the boat. Calls are being made from a small stripy to albacore. The fish wakes up, and starts screaming away just under the surface, it’s something bigger but I don’t want to be the first one to make that call. Everyone else is scrambling to bring in the last two lines.
10 minutes into the fight I am down to 2/3 of a reel, we all agree it’s not an alby. Calls are being made as to the identity of this mystery fish from mako, sunfish, marlin and yellowfin. Noone is calling this a Bluefin (at least not out loud), not surprising as everyone on the boat had not hooked one before and from what we heard they like fighting deep. Also I would say our catch rate per unit effort for Bluefin is very low, so low that even when targeting them we weren’t expecting to get one.
Some fancy boat driving by Darren in some windy conditions keeps the pressure on the line and line is recovered onto the reel. Jerom is running around clearing the deck and readys the gaff. Cubes are also being fed out the back of the boat in case there’s a school of fish in the area. I finally get a gimbal belt on and it’s game on!
The first run of the fish, the smile says it all
20 minutes into the fight we get the first glimpse of the fish in the water, close enough the leader is out of the water before it takes off again, a large silver belly is seen and I believe I see the yellow finlets. We’ve narrowed it down to either yellowfin of bluefin tuna, the fight is decent enough that we don’t care what type as it was confirmed to be a decent size. I’ve convinced myself the fish is getting tired, because my arms are getting tired. Time to get out the thigh gimbal so I can rest the arms during the long dashes the fish makes across the water surface. Every now and then when the fish changes direction I feel the leader rub on the tail of the fish, the line hums as it rips across the surface of the water.
30 minutes into the fight we are able to get the fish almost to boatside, the double (before the leader) held by an Australian twist is wound through the guides and the size of the fish is seen. Everyone gets extremely nervous, this is followed by the ting ting ting as the twist is pulled under pressure through the guides of the rod as the fish takes off on another surface dash. This fish is big, estimates of 60-100kg are being thrown around, and it is confirmed to be our white whale, a Bluefin. Jerom announces he can’t gaff the fish alone, it’s too big. With no fourth person, two gaffs are tied to the boat with Darren jumping between the wheel and the gaff. Each time the fish is brought boatside the double is wound on, the fish springs to life followed by a further ting ting ting. Jerom is getting more distraught, it’s his knot and he confesses he didn’t stretch any of the knots since tying them prior to the trip. The sound of the twist running through the guides under pressure does not leave a nice feeling in the stomach. Noone wants to lose this fish. Twice the fish runs under the boat with the wind pushing us over it, hard right down with the motor in reverse keeps the pressure on the fish and keeps us out of trouble. I’m struggling at this stage, my face is beetroot red, I’m overheating. I can’t believe I decided to wear thermals, ski pants, a jumper and spray jacket to fight this fish. The decision is made to up the drag, we’ve been fighting on strike drag this whole time.
40 minutes into the fight, the fish looks like it’s had it, it rolls to the side as I’m pulling it in, I decide to stop short of the twist as it had run through the guides enough during the fight that I am questioning how much longer it will hold out. Darren grabs the leader and a gaff is about to be placed behind the head. The fish goes for one more run, this run is different from the rest, for the first time it goes deep. Line keeps peeling off the reel, before we know it we’re down to a bit over half the line capacity. I keep watching it peel off thinking ‘Gahhh! So close! All that effort and now I have to do it all again!’. The line is down to half the spool, the drag is upped again yet the line continues to peel off, I’m also thumbing the reel. Darren makes the call to drive upwind and upcurrent of the fish in a hope to plane the fish up. Our repositioning of the boat takes the reel down to 1/3 of its capacity but it works! The decent of the fish stops and I switch the reel to low gear to winch it from the depths. Halfway to the surface the line loses the extra tension you would expect to have pulling a big fish up against current, it feels like I would be pulling in a bonito or stripy or dare I say it, the belly in the line with nothing attached to it. I start to believe we’ve lost it, I’m winding flat out and we’re gunning the boat away to put pressure on the fish (if it’s still there). Eventually I feel the familiar weight of the fish and bring it to the surface, the two single hooks are pinned solid in the corner of the mouth and the fish is on its side. Darren grabs the line leader and two quick gaff placements secure the fish with minimal thrashing (at least for its size) and rope is fed through the mouth and out through the gills. A quick handshake is shared by all before an attempt is made getting the fish on the boat. It took three attempts, I thought it was because of my sore arms that we struggled, but when the fish hit the deck it was apparent it was a behemoth. 2m long and round as a barrel. It was then that we went ballistic.
It was done!
It’s a funny thing estimating a fishes size when you have only seen one specimen before, the 60kg fish seen on Reeltime the day before was in a big boat and looked big, our fish was in a small boat and looked big. I estimated 80kg, Jerom called for 90kg and Darren said 100kg perhaps more. We put the call out on the radio on the details of our location and set up the camera for a few photos.
Throughout the fight we were marking bait in 10-60m of water and since a decent amount of cubes had gone over the side, we decided to cube for the next hour. We had dive gear on board and underwater cameras that we could film fish with if a school turned up. Instead a small blueshark that was attracted by the cubes, a line was fed out and the blueshark caught for a photo before being released. Several boats had by that stage turned up and we decided to head back to terra firma as we needed to be back in the Illawarra before the morning. Each kilometre closer to the coast the wind reduced until there was nothing, zero swell, zero wind. The water glassed out, bait fish were being hit by birds, seals and dolphins. Whales were heading up north and the sun was setting over the hills into a brilliant red sky twilight as we headed back to Bermagui with our first fish.
At the weigh station, Darren gawked at the reading on the scale and asked if it was in lbs, nope. The fish weighed 129kg.
A group photo as the fish is weighed
The small blueshark which came sniffing up the cube trail
Flying home after an epic day on the water
The afternoon glassout
Dolphins surfing the bow wave of Just Magic
Moving the fish to the weigh bridge