Giant Bluefin Tuna Fishing on Prince Edward Island
A storybook on a trip to Prince Edward Island, where a giant blue fin makes hundreds of meters of thick lines disappear in an instant
Taken by Dave Laska Photo by Michael Cevoli
David Laska, whose family business in Branford, Connecticut, designs, builds and installs electronic marine systems, offshore fishing for bigeye and yellowfin tuna in the 1980s and 90s. After that, he strangled again to catch striped bass, sea bass, coincidence and flounder with his children on Long Island Sound.
For years he had been at odds with a pair of giant blue fins while fishing in Montauk, New York, but never managed to get a tail strap around him. Interested in finally staring into the giant’s eyes, he and his two friends chartered a boat to lure blue fins on Prince Edward Island, “Capital of the Blue Fin World”.
They are not disappointed. Here, Laska, 56, looks back at fishing time in Canada’s maritime province as his El Dorado, “the perfect fishing trip.”
We connected with five giant bluefin tuna in two days of fishing on Prince Edward Island, lost one, and marked and released four – one of which was more than 800 pounds. In my entire life fishing in local New England waters, I would never get such an opportunity – maybe once in 25 years. The giant season is from mid-August to the end of October. The blue fin came to fatten up at the herring migrating school before moving to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn. We fished in mid-September. His knowledge is that there are so many giants on Prince Edward Island, you can almost feed them by hand. We happened to be there for two weeks when the herring entered.
Finally, the right place at the right time. When you catch the herring run perfectly, the bait approaches the beach, and the blue fin follows. We caught four of our giants on a 20 foot mound in only 100 feet of water. We are four miles from North Lake Harbor, where our chartered ship and about 25 other Down East vessels are working on the structure. Water and sky are filled with life: herring, tuna, small whale, and gannet.
Canadians are only allowed to have one blue fin per year per license, so charter operators on Prince Edward Island are waiting to catch “the big one” as their guard for this season. All other bluefin catches are marked and released. Captain Bradley “Buck” MacDonald, the captain of our chartered ship, chose to store 600-pound tuna caught on the chartered ship the day before our trip, because the season and weather window closed. He took a bet for sure. If the captain waited a day, he would save my 800-pound, and I could get a photo on the dock with it. As it turned out, the video I had about my giant revived and swimming away after I cut off the leader gave me a sense of accomplishment without guilt.
Most blue fins weigh 500 to 800 pounds, but some weigh 1,000 to 1,100, and very few weigh the scale at 1,400 pounds. Prince Edward Island’s blue fin can easily produce up to 800 pounds because there are plenty of herring there, and commercial fishermen harvest herring with hand nets exclusively. Canadians do not have large factory ships that enter and destroy the entire bait season in a few weeks, which can occur in New England.
Fighting a giant is similar to marlin fishing – but without marlin speed. Maybe closer to fishing sword. The blue fin will take the bait directly but will not know that the bait is connected until you attach the hook. That’s when the process begins. Ten to 15 seconds into it, the fish realized it was in danger, and was released, almost like riding a Nantucket sled. The ship pursues the fishing line, the fishing line chases the fish, and the fish tries to escape. And you hope there are enough threads in the reel.
The excitement turns to panic when you wonder if you have the physical strength to handle the fish and the aggressive pulling pressure (55 pounds) for more than an hour. That’s about how long it takes to put 1,000 yards of the fish line that has just been snatched back on the reel. A number of scenarios pass through your head. You are sure the fish will get tired – but when? You’re almost up to the roll, and you think, Wow, this fish has a few feet on it. The captain suddenly suffocates and chases after the fish while you take the line.
It took about an hour and a half to bring 800-pounds to the side of the ship. It is easily removed several hundred yards at a time. Even though it doesn’t run as fast or as long as the blue marlin, it never stops. Remember, we fish in 100 feet of water, so the fish can’t go down very deep. It must go on. It continued towards Nova Scotia until finally, 45 minutes or so into the fight, it started to sound not sprint.
We took stems, spools, and yarn for 130 pounds, which at first I thought was rather heavy. That’s right. Anything lighter, and I might not land my fish. Either that or the fish will be too tired to revive. There are plenty of lobster pots and herring nets out there, so the heavy lines give us a little safety when we have to get away from that barrier when the fish scream. The leader is a 250 pound fluorocarbon, and the hook is circular, 12/0 size – good for catching and releasing. Pull the line set at around 55 pounds on a very long rod, only a little of the leverage point needed to get me out of my boots.
They gave us the choice of using a combat seat in the back corner of the boat or a swivel stick holder on the fence. I was fortunate enough to catch two fish, and I fought 800-pounds from a chair and 450-pounds from a stick holder. I think fishing with a fishing rod is the way to go because you can take the line faster, but I like to do it old school because you feel the fish pulling all over your body. When you lean back in the chair with the rod and fish parallel, taking the line is more dance-like than the mechanical ratcheting movement shaken from the stick holder.
The lines on the reel are colored in red, yellow, green and black. When my big fish crashed, 300 yards of red disappeared quickly. After that, tuna ran 300 yards yellow and 300 yards green. When the fish took me to black, there weren’t many lines left. Meanwhile, the captain carries the boat in gear and steals quickly at the fish. I pulled back the green and yellow. Then the fish ran again – once again went yellow and green. Now I have three colors for my back muscles.
The fish seemed to be following the rhythm when the boat chase slowed. I began to think that I had control of this fish when the captain asked, “Are you ready to go again?” I think he will chase the fish again and I will have to wind crazy to keep the line tight. He said, “No, I will not move the ship.” The point is: be prepared to run again. A few minutes later, the fish ran with difficulty and released all the paths I had just taken. The captain grinned. He knew there would be two major activities. As demoralized as I felt at the time, I had to admire the extraordinary power of the fish, pushing the tackles and me to our limits. That’s exactly how I registered.
Before our flight left Logan airport in Boston, I started a chance conversation at the gate with the 80-foot Merritt Speculator match. He asked if I was heading to Prince Edward Island “to shake the net.” I did not know what he meant until the next day. Almost every ship on North Lake has gill nets. Some harvest herrings for canning. Others let their nets soak overnight and use them the next day to pull on the blue fin. Every morning, our crew pulls about one-third of the net onto the ship and, periodically, lifts and shakes parts in the water. Within minutes we had herring scales, guts, floaters, and half-alive baits around us.
While the crew worked on the net, we took the bait rod, put on a Scotty rig with feathers and dropped it to 80 feet, where we serrated for mackerel. This 12 to 14 inch bait is big enough to support a 12/0 hook. You sink the hook into the lips of a live bloated fish, throw it away and float the fish. In New England we use magic markers, dental floss, and other clever ways to bury the hook so the fish don’t see it. But fish from Prince Edward Island have less pressure and are under strict regulations. This blue fin is not just content to be seen; they are here to eat. In our fishing days, we never set more than two live baits. When we mark fish, the captain usually peels the spread into one.
Surprise? Our ship uses sonar floodlights. I have been in the marine electronics business since I was old enough to carry a toolbox with my father. I checked our charter narter equipment in the morning when I passed the wheelhouse to store my equipment. The equipment is good, the installation looks clean, but I come to fish and relax, not to talk at the store. What I don’t see when I glance at the helmet is a mini keyboard tucked under a smaller monitor on the port side.
Later that day, this discovery was responsible for adding another fish to our total. By the afternoon of the second day, the captain said he wanted to take and make one more step before returning to the dock. The couple circled around the line and put the mackerel back in the living well. Just as the ship was about to head for gear, the captain quickly told his partner, “Seven o’clock … 100 feet.” directed. Thirty seconds later we were really fast on a fish. Can’t say I saw who came, but Sonar did.
There is a large measuring tape number painted on the side of the ship, just above the boot line. When a fish comes together, the captain takes the leader and pulls the fish’s head towards the bow while the pair uses a modified boat hook to lift and control the tail. The aim is to put the fish next to the ship for length measurement, insertion of tags, photos and for the fish to be revived when the boat returns to gear. My biggest fish is 112 inches, which translates to around 800 pounds, according to a Canadian fishery length / weight ratio chart. This fish is well-fed and round. For the captain’s eye, it might be weighed in the middle 800-pound range. It took about two minutes to revive the giant. As soon as the fish’s tail began to beat, I grabbed the captain’s instructions and cut off the leader.
Anything for a Buck is a 45-foot Down East working boat built by Hustler Fiberglass Boats, a local company. It is powered by a Cummins diesel which drives it in the 20 to 22-node range. Our captain, Tony MacDonald, operates a fleet of six chartered ships during the blue fin season. Our partner is a young island who is very competent. Captain Buck runs charters in the season and works as a volunteer firefighter at the end of the season. He is personable, capable, and always in control. He never once raised his voice. And he and his partner work hard for us. There were three of us on board, but we could easily handle six. Anything to Buck is not clean, new fishing gear and in very good repair. The charter fee is $ 1,250 a day, including lobster salad sandwiches for lunch and fresh salted scallops for snacks. I take one full bowl. That is cradle-to-grave treatment.
There aren’t many inns in this area. We stayed at the Johnson Shore Inn, a 12 room B&B, for $ 160 per night ($ 195 with a three course gourmet dinner), which is located about 20 minutes from the marina. The innkeepers, Mel Stephens and Dave Dixon, run first-class operations, with views of the water that rival Nantucket. Dave woke up before 5:30 every morning, brewed us coffee and cooked a delicious breakfast. When we returned at 5 pm, we were given the main cocktail, celebrating the success of our day. Late at night, after the finer inn guest went to bed, Mel would open a bottle of his personal spare whiskey, slap her on the end table and say, “Tell me about yourself, son.” -earth. For more information: tonystunafishing.com, (902) 357-2207.