I spent last weekend Fri/Sat/Sun on the CONDOR out of Fisherman's Landing along with 23 others and it was a very challenging experience. Frustration, exasperation, desperation, all of the usual emotions that bluefin tuna bring to the party. Plus at the end, the toughest fight for me of the past decade, maybe longer, I'm getting older and forgetful. But I'm black and blue in several places and my legs are so sore that I can barely get up from a chair or walk without a serious limp. That fish tried to kill me!
Captain Jimmy Merrill and the rest of the excellent team (Greg, Kyler, Nestor, Aden, I'm sorry if I missed someone, I'm still foggy between the ears) told us we were on a bluefin hunt, no going down to Colonet for yellowtail on this trip, there were bazillions of big tuna just south of San Clemente Island and we were going to concentrate on them. We also were told that these were BIG tuna, not schoolies, so drop below 60# test only if you want to be humiliated by a fish. We loaded up a giant amount of excellent sardines and rolled out of San Diego.
By mid-afternoon Friday we were finding the fish. Hardly any surface sign all weekend, it was a sonar hunt, but for three days straight I don't remember us going more than an hour before Jimmy would come on the loudspeaker and say, "OK, we've got a nice school coming under us, they are between 120 and 200 feet down, go get them." And the engines would be cut and we would drift with the wind (which wasn't too bad, although it wasn't a calm sea) and often one or two of us would get hooked up. The cry "BITER" would get everyone amped-up, and we would quickly ask among ourselves, "What was he using? Bait or jig? On the drop or on the retrieve?" And often a second and third hookup would follow, and then we would spend the next half-hour trying to stay out of the way of the hooked fish and try to get them to the gaffs. Usually we would get one, sometimes two, out of three hookups onto the deck. But those bluefin were tough, and big, and had a real knack for getting into tangles. I think that they all had taken corespondent courses in macrame knitting, because a couple of the tangles were epic. And this happened even though we all were trying very hard to fish smart, and stay out of trouble. During the daylight hours the bluefin seemed to like the sardines better than the lures, presented with a rubber-banded sinker of four ounces or so several feet away from the hook. Using fluorocarbon leaders seemed to help, and I stayed with 80 pound leader to a 1/0 ringed Mutu circle all of Friday and Saturday when I was using sardines. I also dropped flat-falls of four different colors, and SK jigs and other knife jigs, and a couple of custom squid lures, and both Megabait and Colt Sniper metal jigs.
But no joy for me on Friday. Lost a jig in a tangle, that was the wild excitement of Friday for me. But a dozen nice tuna had hit the deck by the end of the day for some other people, and these were NICE tuna, from sixty pounds to mid-100's. So as we had dinner and drifted for the night, I was very confident about the next day. My two 80# rigs were set up properly, one for jigs and one for bait, and it was only a matter of time before a bluefin would make a mistake.
Saturday morning there were lights from twenty-seven other boats around us when I got up at 4:30am to try again, but it is a big ocean and I was not worried at all about other boats. There are lots of fish in the sea. Saturday was a repeat of Friday, lots of driving around and finding schools every half-hour or so of running, then fishing that school until it went away, usually getting a couple onto the deck and losing one or two. I still had not gotten a bite! About half of the boat had a fish tagged, several had more than one, but I was just not connecting. Getting good food from Greg in the galley was keeping my energy up as much as possible, although trying to keep your balance at the rail with heavy gear in your hands makes for a really serious core workout, and by Saturday afternoon I was on the heavier grade of ibuprofen and moving slower. But it was really beautiful to see the quality of those bluefin that we were tagging! Almost half of the fish that were coming aboard were over a hundred pounds, and I don't mean just barely, they were 140 to 190 pounds, gorgeous fat beasts, and the ones that were smaller were also very big, solid 60 to 90 pounders. It was very common for a fisherman to be on a fish for thirty minutes to an hour and to be run all around the boat a couple of times. The deck crew were working their butts off keeping everyone out of trouble as much as possible, and doing some amazing saves of impossible situations. At the end of Saturday we had another dozen fish in the hold, more losses had been taken too, and two-thirds of the guys had at least one fish tagged. But not me, yet. I hadn't lost any, either. Still no bites.
Sunday started the same way as Saturday, with finding schools of bluefin, but this time they seemed to be bigger. More fights started to be lost, partly because some guys were feeling a little desperate and were dropping down in line size, and partly because the fish were just running bigger. A cow over 200 came aboard, and a number of others that just barely missed the cow mark, and then a second over 200, and just as we were all getting tired from three days of offshore physical workouts the fish started to get bigger and meaner. One guy hooked up on decent gear and watched in disbelief as his spool was emptied no matter how much effort he was putting into stopping it. And gone, just like that. I assured him it wasn't his fault, probably snagged a transiting sub.
After lunch the sun came out and the wind started to be a little steadier, and Capt. Jimmy and Aden started flying a kite off of the bow to see if they could bring something up. A big crash on the surface, the kite goes down and the line to the rod goes tight, and he hollers for me to come take the rod! He's being kind, he knows that I haven't had a fight yet, it's being one of those trips. So I hussle up to the bow and find two crewmen straining with the rod and reel, trying to get a fighting position at the bow, and Kyler says, "This is a big one!" So I get a solid hold of the rod and reel and feel a ROCK with absolutely no give at all! Yikes! I drop to my knee to use the rail as a lever, and pull as hard as I can, and get maybe half of a turn of the reel handle, that's all! Holy Moly, this is going to be brutal! The boat is drifting to the left, but the fish is swimming faster to the left, so I can't just take a position, I have to keep getting up and moving left a few feet and then again drop to my knee and pull hard using the rail, and I get a couple of turns and then the fish takes the line back out. And repeat. And repeat. Now we're back at the stern, and we are trying to get clear of a dozen other fishermen's lines, two of which have big tuna connected. Kyler and Aden and Nestor are giving me much needed assistance, after about ten minutes of intense effort in the beginning I am giving out, my legs are trembling from having to strain getting up and down so many times, my hands are starting to cramp, so they are tag-teaming this fish with me, and they are really amazed at how tough this fish is, they are really straining and yet gaining very little. We work our way clear around the stern and up the lee side back to the bow, and still the fish is a hundred yards out and as strong as ever. He takes us around the bow and in and out of other lines, finally making five complete rotations of the boat, and a solid hour plus of fighting. It was all crew effort the last two-thirds of the fight, I stayed close because I wanted to help if there was any way that I could, but my legs were trembling and my back was killing me and I knew that if I held the rod again it would be going overboard. This fish had beaten me! But he hadn't beaten the CONDOR! And finally he came up on the side and the crew got gaffs into him and got him aboard!
We put him down on the deck at the base of the bait receiver, and went to get the hooks out of his mouth, and they weren't in his mouth! He had been snagged as he hit the flying fish, with one hook in the top front of his left gill cover, and the second hook on the back top of his left gill cover. And as the hooks were touched by the deck hand, they fell free. Not securely connected at all. If maximum effort had not been made by us at all times, if the slightest touch of slack had been allowed, he would have been free!
He taped out at 205 pounds, and all of us who fought him were surprised that he wasn't fifty pounds heavier, he fought that hard. I took a 256# bluefin four years ago and it wasn't half that tough. Having the hooks high on his gill plate like that gave him tremendous leverage, he could use the whole side of his body to plane through the water easily. It was certainly the hardest fight that I have had that I can remember, and I've caught bigger fish, both tunas and billfish.
I have photos on my iPhone and will try to load them soon. But you all know what a big bluefin looks like. The cover of the recent Western Outdoor News has a bluefin that could have been his brother. It was a good 3-day trip on the CONDOR, we brought back 36 bluefin tuna, including 3 over 200#, 13 over 100#, 19 between 60 and 90#, one at 40#, and five medium yellowtail. A fun trip.
And me? After that tuna was tagged and photographed, I racked my gear and hit my bunk and didn't come back up until dinner.
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