“What the heck” is what Avo Oughourlian said to himself as he filled out the simple Race to PEI entry form on BD Outdoors, a contest where the winner joins the BD Team in Prince Edward Island to chase a giant bluefin tuna aboard Capt. Tony’s Tuna Fishing. “What the #%^&#@” was all he could say when BD’s Ali Hussainy called him to say he had won the all-expense paid trip.
Avo, a long-time BD member and active sportsman who lives in the LA area, said, “It was very exciting, but the timing was tough because I had just gotten home from a five-day fishing trip and had to explain to my pregnant wife that I wanted to go again. But she was very supportive and said I would have to take this rare opportunity.”
The crew from BD Outdoors has been going to PEI to fish with Capt. Tony McDonald for the last four years and every year has been a success due to the hard work and knowledge of Capt. Tony and his crews. Capt. Tony was one of the first to pioneer the recreational aspect of this amazing bluefin fishery and has now taken seven other captains under his wing. Each subscribing to the work hard, be prepared and treat your clients right mentality that is so refreshing but often lacking in the charter business. It also allows the crews to spread out and work as a team to find the fish, which has obvious advantages that can save the day.
I’ve been lucky enough to go on the last two trips and though I’ve fished and run boats in many places around the world, the experience in PEI is unique. You are fishing for one of the largest gamefish on the planet and yet you rarely travel more than a few miles offshore. In many places where one might hook a bluefin, the depth is such that they can spool you by going straight down. This is not the case in PEI, where the fishing depth is only about ninety-feet. This changes everything, as the tuna cannot sound on you and often runs around near the surface, even breaking water at times. This fact, however, does not make them pull any less and big tackle is required to catch them in the timely fashion that is required by Canadian law.
In fact the amount of pressure used to subdue these giants is still mind-blowing.
Upon arrival to PEI, which is a small journey in itself, we settled into the very comfortable cottages available to rent from Capt. Tony. Only four years old and looking like new, these two bedroom cabins can accommodate up to four persons and for a very reasonable charge, Capt. Tony’s Mom delivers some amazing home cooking to your doorstep. That part can’t be beat after a day of battling giants. Not that you go hungry on the boats, because lobster rolls and mussels cooked while you are fishing are part of the experience.
Day one, we assembled our gear and camera equipment and made the short, scenic drive to the boats. PEI is known for two things, fishing and farming. Lobster fishing is the principle work for many of the fishermen in PEI. In the months of May and June, the crews work hard to harvest lobsters from the local waters.
After lobster season wraps up, the boats are cleaned up and rigged for the newly established recreational tuna season. Many of the boats are forty-five foot Hustlers, a locally made commercial boat with a low center of gravity and lots of room. The crews bolt on their rooftops and homemade rocket launchers to hold a set of 80 and 130 outfits used to tackle tuna. The boats are incredibly stable and the ride is amazing in the short, choppy seas that one often finds in PEI. The fishing grounds are normally within a few miles of the harbor, so the ride is short. A quick stop to make bait, and your off to the herring grounds where the bluefin have arrived to gorge on the fat-laden herring.
The weather on this day was unusually warm, calm and sunny. It very much reminded me of a warm, winter day in Florida, except for the red-earthen cliffs and giant windmills that dot the landscape.
Farmlands, cows and red barns seem like an odd mix as they run right up to the seaside cliffs and the ocean.
We pulled up the small herring nets that the boats are allowed to set for bait and tied it off to the side of the boat. These nets do double duty, they provide the herring that are used for chum and bait, and they attract the tuna to the area because of the herring falling out of the nets. So as a result, the boat is anchored amongst the fleet with a self-chumming tether.
Everyone keeps an eye on the sounder in hopes of seeing the tell tale marks of big tuna swimming under the boat. Our mate, Matt, sets a slow but steady pace of herring that are cast into the sea in an attempt to draw the tuna to the surface. Both live mackerel and dead herring are set out in our first attempts to hook up. We came up here with the goal to let Avo tackle the first fish on stand-up 80’s.
Fitted into the Aftco harness and trying to absorb the barrage of information being delivered, Avo was excited to get on the rod and see what this is all about. With very few marks on the screen and no bites, Capt. Bradley McDonald decided to move around and make some drifts to see if we could scratch out a bite.
After marking some bait, we set out two flat lines with live mackerel and Matt deployed the kite from which we dangled a tantalizing live mackerel. The key to the kite is that the frisky bait froths the surface, yet the hook and leader are held out of the water and therefore are unseen by the visually aware tuna. It also makes for an incredible bite as the massive girth of the tuna parts the water on a strike. Unfortunately, no water was parted and time passed without a bite. Capt. Bradley kept moving, changing baits and talking to other captains, but everyone had the same report: no bites. We ate mussels, scallops and lobster rolls and still had a blast despite the slow fishing. It just proved again, that no matter where you go, and how good the fishing is in a location, you can still have an off day. The next day the wind was forecast to blow, so despite cringing at the elevated seas, we hoped it would trigger the bite.
The cool morning was enhanced by a stiff 20 to 25 knot breeze as we loaded up on the Lil’ Miss Maddy, Capt. Tony’s boat. We were leaving earlier than normal in hopes that we would be one of the first to pull up the herring net and offer the tuna their breakfast.
As the hydraulic winch strained to pull the lines, the net began to come into view. The welcome shine of ensnared herring began to be visible and the trickle of chum began. It was much rougher this morning, though luckily the wind was coming off the land, making the fishing grounds a decent chop instead of a rolling sea. The bottom machine lit up like Christmas with giant marks and put adrenaline in our blood and excitement in the cool salt air.
Capt. Tony hooked a lively mackerel in the tail and fed it down. The key is to feed the line off the reel by hand, so that it never comes tight on the panicking bait. The same holds true when using a dead bait, it must look and sink just like the chum otherwise the tuna pass it by on their way to inhale a fish without a hook. Well the bait must have passed the test because the line jumped and began to peel line against the clicker of the free-spooled Okuma 80.
Sliding the drag up to strike, the welcomed bow in the rod and the now screaming drag sent everyone into a scramble. We had to clear the other rods, release the herring net from the winch and get underway after the now charging fish.
All the while the captain is calculating the best route through the tangle of boats and net buoys. We managed to follow the fish through the obstacles of the fleet and get into open water. The drag of the Okuma Makaira was impressively smooth, despite the forty-pounds of drag pressure we were applying to the fleeing bluefin.
It was immediately obvious that Avo was no stranger to fighting a fish.
Avo set the pace and rhythm and was always ready to turn the handle if the tuna allowed any line to be gained. The only struggle was that this fish was ten times bigger than Avo’s previous 100-pound tuna at home.
Now overshadowing the entire fight is the legal requirement to catch the fish in an hour or less. This is no easy feat and after the first blazing runs, Avo was instructed to slide the drag lever up a couple notches. With wide eyes and already sore arms, he dug deep to handle this new level of pressure being applied not only on the fish, but to him as well. It punishes your body, despite the fact that you have the advantage of being in a harness that allows your body weight to help hold and pump the reel. After a while, Capt. Tony came back and said, “time to go to sunset” which to fishermen means going to full drag, not a walk on the beach. I was amazed that any tackle could take the pressure we were applying, and yet it did as Avo continued to make short pumps and gain little bits of line. Finally the fish was straight down, and judging from the line back on the spool, his tuna was very close to “color”. Right then as spirits were high, the sickening pop of the 150-pound main line dashed our hopes as the tuna won his hard earned freedom.
Now almost all tuna in this fishery are released, so normally we are going to let them swim off anyway after the leader is brought to the tip, but each boat is given one tag per year which allows them to take one tuna for market. Capt. Tony had been saving his tag for the right fish. Size, girth, fat content and current market price are all factors swirling around in a captain’s head as he ponders which fish to use his tag on. Capt. Tony hinted that the market price was up and that if we caught a big one, we could take it as his one fish for the year. This of course heightened the pressure to get these fish to the boat and make the yes or no call on the gaff. With an exhausted body and disappointed mind, Avo still had one more day to conquer his goal, but now he would start off with an aching body and tired muscles.
Our third and last day was another first-light start, but the winds had eased off to a light breeze and much smaller seas. We were quiet and efficient as we caught our bait and motored over to Capt. Tony’s herring net. The net came up with some herring in it, but the bottom machine showed nothing yet. We chummed and worked the baits, but to no avail. A call from one of Tony’s other captains told us they had just hooked up and left a pack of fish around their net. As they chased their fish into the distance, we eased over and took up position on their net as they had suggested.
The giant marks of tuna were all over the screen and brought everyone to attention. Ali, our fearless leader, fired down a mackerel that was immediately engulfed by a passing tuna. A few harrowing moments of chaos consumed us as the fish ran up under the boat and towards the net that Capt. Tony was working to release. With a little luck, the line remained tight and we shed ourselves of the immediate hazards of nets and keels.
Once again Avo clipped himself to the screaming reel as the boat began to give chase.
Two other boats had also hooked up and as fate or Murphy would have it, they were all coming together around us. Capt. Bradley, who is Capt. Tony’s brother, was hooked up and his line and fish passed below our running gear. Everyone was holding their breath in suspense, fully expecting the strained braid to part on cold steel, but it cleared our running gear and they chased it into open water. Meanwhile our charging fish was passing below the line of another boat’s fish and this one did not look good for them. Capt. Tony has a unique custom feature on his boat that came in handy for a whole new reason. Because of a bridge he must pass under in the harbor, Capt. Tony has all of his upright antennae and structures on a single bracket hooked to a hydraulic ram. This allows him to lower them all in unison to pass under the bridge. He quickly energized the system and shouted to the other crew to pass their line over our boat.
Like a delicate ballet, the crews did the over and under dance of crossed lines, but using their boats, not rods and reels.
The other mate ran to the bow and held the rod as high as he could as we drove under his line. It passed over our boat with only inches to spare and everyone cheered as the line cleared our bow. Now we could concentrate on pouring the heat to our fish.
This fish dug deep and so did Avo for any stamina he could muster. Again we increased the drag pressure as the fight settled into a give and take. After grueling sessions of short pumping to gain line, Avo would have to watch his progress melt off of the reel as the fish took it all back to the sound of crinkling line being stretched by forty-five-pounds of drag pressure.
The fish came to the top and threw whitewater with its tail, giving us a visual estimate of its size. That is when the harpoon came back out. Capt. Tony said this could be another fish around one thousand-pounds and well worth taking. Now the pressure was on again, the clock was ticking and our hearts were pounding.
Our mate Cory was working hard to communicate the fish’s position and intentions to the captain and ensure that the rod or line did not touch the rail or get under the boat. At times the rod would come down hard across his back and shoulders, but that was what he wanted to cushion the gear.
As inch by inch was put on the reel, the shine of a giant circled closer to the surface.
“SWIVEL” Avo yelled as if to assure his mind and body that the pain was almost over.
The leader, 15-feet of 180-pound Seaguar flourocarbon attatched to an amazingly strong Mustad circle hook, was now in Cory’s hand and the catch was official. All that was left was for one more circle to ensure a clean harpoon shot. But it was not this tuna’s day to die and the line parted from the strain just as we were about to close the deal. The tuna swam away to fight another day and we rejoiced in the catching of a giant and tried to shake off the disappointment of not getting that rare chance to harvest a grander.
A mixture of emotions runs through your head at these moments and you work hard to focus on the bright side and remember the privilege you have just been given to reach a pinnacle in the sportfishing world.
Avo celebrated with a collapse onto the bench and a great big smile on his face. He had done it and should always be proud of the time he spent hooked to these giant bluefin tuna. Finding the endurance to reel and a great attitude are extremely hard to maintain under these incredible amounts of pressure, but he did it with flying colors.
One note for others who dream of doing battle with a giant is that we chose the stand-up option, but Capt. Tony’s boats are equipped with modern fighting chairs as would be found on any top-of-the-line sportfish boats. When using the chair, he is also able to use 130-pound class reels and put more pressure on the fish, but less on the angler. This by no means makes it an easy task, just wanted everyone to realize there are plenty of options when you charter with Tony’s Tuna Fishing.
BD would like to give a hearty thanks to Capt. Tony, Capt. Bradley, Matt and Cory for all of their hard work and tireless hospitality. Also to our industry partners, Okuma, Aftco, Costa, Mustad, and Seaguar for making such incredibly tough gear that can stand up to the most punishing fishing environment you can imagine. Without their dedication to making quality products, you would not be able to catch these fish day in and day out. We give a hearty congrats to Avo, who is now part of the BD team and was a pleasure to fish with.
So the next time you see a BD contest pop up, just say “what the heck” because you never know, you just may be the next winner.