The big news on the West Coast over the past weekend was the giant yellowfin tuna that Capt. Justin Fleck and the crew of the San Diego-based long-range boat Excel unloaded when they returned from a 16-day trip to the Hurricane Bank. Though ineligible for the world record, this 445-pound tuna, landed by John Petruescu, is not only the largest yellowfin ever caught on rod and reel, it’s also the fourth yellowfin over 400 pounds caught in 2012.
This year of giant yellowfin tuna started off in January with a yellowfin caught off Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, by Ronnie Tegland. The tuna taped out at 430 pounds but was cleaned on the boat and never weighed. That fish was followed up with another Puerto Vallarta giant, caught by Robert Pedigo, which weighed in at 427.9 pounds. This fish, although larger than the 405-pound world record, was not submitted to the IGFA because another fisherman touched the angler’s fishing rod during the fight.
In September, another monster Mexican yellowfin tuna was caught. This yellowfin tuna is a pending world record. The fish, caught by Guy Yocom on a trip out of Cabo San Lucas, weighed in at 427 pounds. The year of the giants was capped off Petruescu’s behemoth yellowfin, which may not be the last 400-plus-pound fish we see this year.
What makes this run of big fish even more remarkable is that the old record, a 388-pounder caught by Curt Wiesenhutter in 1977, stood for 33 years before being broken by the 405.2-pound yellowfin tuna that Mike Livingston caught on the Vagabond in 2010 to claim the world record.
This quantum leap in the size of the yellowfin tuna caught this year led me to question what change occurred that caused these larger fish to start showing up. That was the first question I asked Captain Fleck when I spoke to him recently as he was headed out on another multi-day trip.
“There are several reasons that we’re catching more big fish these days,” said Justin Fleck. “First off, we are in the middle of a big-fish cycle. There has been a ton of bait around the last few years [including skipjack tuna, humboldt squid, box fish, red crabs and sardines] and the fish have had no problem getting enough food, and as a result they are getting bigger. It’s kind of like the big seabass that have been caught along the coast the last few years — the fish have just been bigger lately.”
Another reason we’re catching more big fish is because we’re using tackle that can land them. Not too long ago, guys were using reels that held 200 to 300 yards of 100-pound mono and when they hooked a big fish they’d need to use back up rods or chase the fish in a skiff, which resulted in longer fights and more lost fish. These days, guys are fishing with reels that hold 1,000 yards of 100-pound Spectra and have better gearing and heavier drags. The improved equipment has helped anglers get more big fish to the boat.
These advancements in tackle have also allowed us to use techniques to specifically target bigger fish, like fishing with live skipjack tuna for bait. There have always been a handful of guys that fished the big baits, but it wasn’t until the last four or five years that the rest of the fishermen started to embrace it. It’s tough to convince a guy that’s spent his life using 6-ounce sardines as bait to try using an 8-pound skipjack, but once they see guys catching giant fish (like the 445-pounder Petruescu caught on a skipjack) they start to get a little more receptive to trying something different.
When asked if there were even bigger fish around to be caught — maybe a yellowfin that could break the 500-pound mark — Fleck said, “I’m the ultimate optimist and I believe that there are always going to be bigger fish out there than the ones we’ve already caught.”
Fleck went on to mention that up until a few years ago, it was believed that yellowfin only lived for 6 to 8 years and as a result didn’t get much bigger than the 400-pound mark and a fish that made it to that size was an anomaly. But the results of tagging programs, coupled with the scientific study of some of the giants that have recently been caught, is proving those numbers to be incorrect.
For example, on April 20, 2001, a 15-pound yellowfin tuna, which was estimated to be 1½ to 2½ years old, was tagged in the Bahamas. It was caught again on May 26, 2010 off the west coast of Africa and the fish, which was now at least 10½ years old, weighed in at 189 pounds. This data shows just how little is actually known about the age and life expectancy of yellowfin tuna, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how big they can actually get.
If you’re interested in taking a shot at catching a giant yellowfin tuna, Fleck contends that a long-range trip will give you the most bang for your buck. “A lot of people think that long range trips are expensive, but at $250 to $300 per day they’re a lot cheaper than a trip to a fishing resort in Mexico or Central America. Another misconception about long-range fishing is that you need to be an experienced angler — that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“We have people come out on these trips with zero fishing experience and they have a great time and catch lots of fish,” Fleck said. “In fact, if someone is interested in trying out long-range fishing we’ll supply all of the tackle that they’ll need on their first trip at no cost. Just show up with your personal items and we’ll get you set up with everything else.”
For more information about booking a trip on the Excel, you can visit their website at www.excelsportfishing.com.