Reprinted from the Spring 1999 special Bluefin Tuna issue of the Big Game Fishing Journal (Vol. 12, No. 2)
Is the western Atlantic bluefin tuna population on the brink of extinction?
Will they be lost forever?
James Chambers
Jack Cashman introduced me to sportfishing for giants two years ago. I'd been an avid saltwater fisherman for years and caught tarpon up to 170 pounds in Florida, but I never had the opportunity to fish for anything that came close to the size and power of these brutes. Since Jack has probably fought more large giants from 800 to 1,100 pounds than anyone, his friends hung the moniker "Jack the Giant Killer" on him. It was during a winter trip fishing for sailfish off Islamorada with Capt. Alex Adler on KALEX, that I first fished with Jack. I was thrilled fishing for the acrobatic billfish, but Jack kept pointing out that "catching a giant spoils you for all other fishing." He considers bluefin the ultimate big-game fish, so naturally, I wanted to know what it was eke to catch one: "Like hooking up to a Volkswagen doing 50 miles per hour straight away from you," came his reply.
"Are they more of a challenge than blue or black marlin," I asked, wanting to get a handle on just how strong they really are.
"Big billfish are spectacular," Jack explained, "but they wear themselves out with all their jumps and surface tactics. Giant bluefin have more power and stamina than anything else that swims!"
Because of their great size and awesome power, fishing for giants can be dangerous. In the heat of battle, fishermen have lost body parts and been dragged over the side to their deaths in attempts to catch them. Even with modern fishing tackle, it is certainly not a sure bet that after hooking a giant you'll actually get it to the boat. With populations at such a low level, the average success rate for the very best captains and crews, I'm told, is only about one hook-up per five days of fishing, something I learned when I made my first forays to try my hand at fighting one on rod and reel. I also found out these big fish have an excellent chance of freeing themselves during the battle, something else I learned first hand.
Successful giant tuna fishermen use 130-pound class, two-speed reels spooled with 300-pound mono over dacron backing and, sometimes, leaders of fluorocarbon. They use surprisingly small hooks and bury them in a chunk of herring with a wedge of Styrofoam to maintain neutral buoyancy so the bait will drift back with the ladled chunks in a natural manner. Unlimited-class rods are rarely used; they are just too stiff to provide the bending action and pressure needed to whip a giant. Long, softer-action chair rods are more the norm. Baits are held in position using 6- to 12-ounce sinkers, depending on current strength, wrapped to the line with a rubber band and suspended at specific depths under balloons. Both the balloons and the depthfnder are watched carefully while chunking.
A giant's mark on the colorscope is bright red and often appears arch-shaped, due to its speed and vertical movements, while slow-moving blue sharks, often found on the same feeding grounds, usually appear as horizontal marks. Bluefin travel in schools generally consisting of fish about the same size. Marking a bluefin on the depthfinder occurs infrequently and is cause for excitement and hope during the long wait common when fishing for giants. However, experienced crews know a mark is no assurance the fish will take a bait. On the other hand, many giants are hooked without ever seeing a mark. Even so, I'd prefer to see marks than not. Hours, and even days, of tossing chunks over the transom without seeing a mark on the screen are occasionally interrupted by sheer pandemonium when a strike finally does occur. If you want some excellent in-depth lessons on finding and chunking bluefin, check out the article "To Chunk A Giant" by Capt. Cal Robinson (Fall 1996 Issue, Northeast Edition of THE JOURNAL) is a wonderful explanation of the nuances of this fishing.