They say time flies and we must be having fun, because the once distant Race To PEI, The Return, trip was upon us. We found ourselves once again making the pilgrimage to Prince Edward Island off the East Coast of Canada. Like many great fishing locations, it takes some doing to get there, but the chance to fish with Tony’s Tuna Fishing in PEI is worth every mile and each connecting flight.
Our chosen winner, Andrew Sanford, was flying from San Diego with Ali Hussainy, the President of BD Outdoors. Michael Torbisco, our camera guru, and I were converging from Florida, preparing ourselves mentally for the 40-degree change in the weather.
Our flight schedule put us into PEI about 3 AM and we settled in to Tony’s Lake House rental cottage for a short night’s sleep. The plan was to sleep in a little and then get to fishing at the “crack of 11”.
The winds were calm as we pulled out of the harbor aboard the All For A Buc with Capt. Bradley McDonald and his longtime deckhand Matt Rose. The 45-foot lobster boat, turned tuna sportboat for the season, was looking great with fresh paint and brimming with the tools for the job at hand; catching giant bluefin tuna that invade the coastal waters of PEI in the fall in search of fat-laden herring and mackerel.
The latter would be the available bait at that moment and a quick stop with feathered, multi-hook rigs would yield a tank full of 8″ to 16” mackerel.
The benefit of fishing in a giant commercial boat is the unending amount of deck space and the huge livewell that housed our new friends pumping plenty of fresh frigid seawater to keep them healthy and kicking.
One of the best parts of fishing PEI, besides the hospitality of Capt. Tony, his family and crew, is the close proximity to the fishing grounds. Often one starts fishing within a few miles of breaking the harbor and this was the case on day one as we joined the fleet that was already catching tuna around some local depressions in the sea floor that hold bait.
We would once again be fishing stand up gear, so the Okuma Makira 80’s came out, rigged and ready with 180# Seaguar fluorocarbon leaders terminating with a Mustad Demon 12/0 circle hook. The hooks seem surprisingly small when you realize the size fish you are after, but these black beauties have proven themselves fish after fish for years.
You can’t argue with success, so we pinned on a frisky mackerel on two flat lines and one kite rod on the opposing side.
Once settled in, the low rumble of the single Cummins diesel hushed and the only sound was the hum of the baitwell pump and sloshing of gentle waves on the hull. Andrew was fitted into the fighting harness and then we settled into the game of waiting.
Throughout the day, Capt. Bradley would emerge from the cabin bearing a steaming pile of incredible local seafood like PEI mussels and clams. Lobster rolls were always on hand too, but hot melted butter and the freshest seafood is hard to beat.
Anticipation was high and we kept our focus on the splashing of the poor kite bait that dangled precariously from the sky, keeping the leader and hardware out of sight from wary tuna below. How many times we saw the crashing roll of a giant tuna in our minds, so it was with surprise when the flatline bait behind us was plucked from Matt’s hands as he was letting out some more line.
Nothing can prepare you for the sound of the Makira clicker roaring to life as the line dumps from the reel under 35-pounds of drag. The boat’s engine also roars back to life and the same goes for everyone on board. Clearing lines, stowing gear and getting Andrew suited for battle.
The starboard aft corner is modified with a padded cushion for tuna season and Capt. Bradley skillfully keeps the fish and angler in said corner so he can see what’s happening. Matt also keeps him in tune with the tuna’s antics using well-rehearsed hand signals and the whole event goes very smoothly. The process is a thing of beauty to watch and an obvious testament to their big fish experience.
Andrew was now committed, strapped to the fish and then tethered to the boat himself, just in case.
As in all types of fishing, each fish is it’s own beast and each one acts differently during the fight. Andrew’s fish liked to come up top and thrash its tail, leaving huge boils in the cold green water. Still too far away to estimate its size, the fish would then blast off leaving Andrew with nothing to do but hang on.
“I’ve never been in a harness before, but I’ve been studying videos on YouTube in preparation for this”, Andrew said. “Being from SoCal, I’ve never even fished in slickers and boots, but I’m sure happy to have these Grundens on now”
But no one would have ever known this was his first time against a giant, as he leaned into the harness to gain a few precious cranks of line coming back his direction. Taking advantage of every moment of gain, the game of give and take went on including one harrowing moment when the fish rushed the boat and Andrew and Capt. Bradley worked hard to take up the slack. If anyone tells you fishing isn’t stressful, they’ve never endured that brief eternity of slack line, praying to see the line come tight again. Luckily this time the rod slowly bent back over towards the fish that we were still connected to. Whew! Thank goodness for circle hooks!
Those few seconds of unknown are almost painful to witness.
Now the fish was closer and the steeper angle put more pressure on both parties. With our Costas on, we could see deep color and it was a nice one. Once the mono topshot starts to stay on the reel, the decision to slide the Makira’s lever drag just past the button is made, increasing the drag to 40-plus pounds. Now was the time to short pump and keep the fish’s head moving upward if possible. Of course responding to this pressure, the the tuna gave a few powerful tail strokes burning the tighter drag as if wasn’t there.
As the swivel broke the surface, Matt delicately applied the maximum pressure required to keep the fish ascending to boatside where Capt. Bradley was waiting with a lip gaff followed by the large tail hook. It was official; Andrew just caught his first giant bluefin tuna. Now the race is on to relish in one’s success, while keeping the fish moving and begin its revival before release.
Andrew, with quivering muscles, got to reach out and touch his catch and then give it freedom by cutting the leader. A clutch-ahead motion gave the tuna some life-giving water flow across its gills and with signs of revival; it was released to fight again another day. The Canadian government strictly regulates the numbers of fish and the methods of catch of the entire fleet. A new push to tag these released fish is underway and Andrew’s tuna, estimated around 700-pounds joined the ranks of fish bearing a spaghetti tag for future research possibilities.
Spirits couldn’t have been higher as high fives were flying!
A sense of joy and relief swept over us because no matter what happened next, our winner got to reach that pinnacle in big game fishing. Relief because there is no guarantee that one will get to check that box, despite the dependability of this fishery and the expertise of the crew; it’s still fishing.
Still absorbing the high from our success, we made a short move back to the spot and set about putting the spread back out. As we drifted with the light winds, Matt decided to dump some “quite fragrant” frozen bait from their giant bait box. The cloud of chummed bait had no sooner passed under the boat, when the aft-flatline jumped to life as the double rubber bands broke, shaking the rod violently as the reel started its roar. This time with much more aggression than the previous fish. Several really strong bursts had us looking at each other and thinking this could be “him”.
Strapped in and the rods cleared, Andrew, despite his burning muscles, began to work on the next fish. Keeping its aggressive stance, the fish took line at will and was off the starboard bow as we eased forward to keep up. Under smooth steady pressure, the rod suddenly gave that sickening release of pressure that all fishermen dread. Reeling like crazy, praying for the braid to come tight, Andrew did just as he should, but our fears came true; the hook had pulled.
This was a harsh reminder that there is no sure thing in fishing.
We fished until early evening and then called it a day, chugging back towards the harbor at Northlake. Reveling in the memory of catching a giant and anticipating what tomorrow might bring.
In the early morning darkness of day two, the glorious sound of the coffee pot heating element was cancelled out by the horrible sounds of wind-driven rain pelting the chilled glass of the window panes. We felt that heart sinking feeling of waking up to 30-knot gusts and driving rain, knowing that it would shut down the possibility of today’s fishing.
That’s the only catch to fishing. You can plan a trip for years, but until that morning, you never know if you can go. We spent the day exploring the island, which has such beautiful countryside. Pastures and farm fields that stretch right up to ocean-side cliffs are such a unique set of visuals. Old wood shingled houses and new ones too dotted the still-green fields.
The large piles of firewood being stockpiled were visible reminders of the frozen tundra that will soon descend upon these hardy islanders. So cold in fact, that the entire fleet of boats has to be moved on to land for the winter as the ocean itself freezes. I don’t think I want to see that in person. The rain never stopped as we made our trip to the Charlottetown Wal Mart for more layers. The forecast predicted even more wind, but much less rain and at that moment, it seemed like a fair trade.
Day three started better, the coffee pot was louder than the wind, though with the first hint of daylight, I could see the windmills were cranking out some volts. The good news is that today’s wind was blowing out of the south, which in theory puts us in the lee of East Point, the tip of the island. “That’s just something we say to talk ourselves into going”, said Mikey, who is no stranger to a whipping from the ocean. He was right of course, but we always believe ourselves again; we want to believe. This time it was true for the most part and we donned our AFTCO rain gear and left the harbor to catch our bait on the way to the tuna grounds.
It was certainly windier than the first day, but plenty doable in Capt. Bradley’s 45’ Hustler lobster boat. They are wide and stable, though like all boats when it’s blowing 25-knots, a little wet. We caught our bait but had to endure the constant dive-bombing attack of the local gannets who seemed extra hungry this morning.
We set out the drift lines and the kite, though the kite had some serious pressure on it from the gusty winds. After resetting the drift a couple times, the aft flatline jumped to life and we were on again. I turned to clear the kite rod and as I did I saw the line had just popped from the clip. Seconds later the reel in my hand jolted and screamed as a second tuna came tight.
We had a double header of bluefin tuna!
Andrew suited up in the harness, while I kept mine tight in the rod holder. Luckily the fish went in opposing directions and we got settled in for the fight.
A second harness emerged from the cabin and I suited up for the stand up battle. It would be an advantage for both of us to be mobile if the fish decided to dance. Surprisingly we only had to swap sides once and my fish stayed in closer while Andrew’s stretched out; just right.
After a few secondary runs, my swivel broke the surface into Matt’s gloved hands. The catch was official and the release was smooth. A tag in place, the perfectly hooked circle hook was cut and the fish was revived. A decent 450-pounds was the estimate and we turned our attention back to Andrew who was still leaning back and winding forward.
We saw color on his fish when it raced to the top, paused a moment and then shot off to the right, up sea and at that moment, the line gave that quick, agonizing slackening and he was gone. The tuna had chaffed through the leader and there was nothing you could do different.
We had been pulled offshore and the seas were steadily growing in size as the wind continued to freshen. We tucked up under the pilothouse overhang and made our way up sea to make another drift. Occasionally a tuna would blast something and make enough splash to been seen amongst the constant white caps.
Water came off the roof and over the gunnel creating rivers on the deck headed towards the four-inch scuppers. At no time was it uncomfortable and we never felt like we were hanging on for dear life, as you would have in most other boats. We set up for another drift and with two flatlines out; we lay side-to to the passing waves. After and hour or so, the forward flatline, stretched out and sliced the oncoming wave in half. We were on again!
Looking to settle the score, Andrew strapped in for another epic battle and Capt. Bradley gave chase and kept us headed into the sea. Despite burning muscles from fighting multiple bluefin, Andrew never stopped and soon our second release was at hand.
The lip and tail were cradled and we released a nice 500-pound bluefin. We pointed it towards the cut and cleaned up the deck. The current law allows for no more than three hook ups or two fish caught per day and that’s exactly what we had.
The windmills were still spinning as they grew larger on the horizon, but the seas were fading as we drew closer to the island. Now it was time for malt beverages, lobster rolls and celebrations.
As I sit here writing this the wind is shaking the windowpanes, but our fingers are crossed that we can get in one more day.
The next morning found the windmills still spinning swiftly, but unfortunately from the opposite direction. As forecasted the 25-knot wind had come around 180-degrees to blow right out of the north and we pulled up to the marina still hoping we had a chance to fish.
Capt. Tony was also pulling up and had just driven down to the point to survey the narrow, shallow inlet where the tide happened to be falling hard.
“It’s a no go boys”, Capt. Tony said with a grim face. “The cut is really dangerous in this wind and no one is going this morning. We will take a look at it after lunch and see if it lets up at all.” This is why Capt. Tony and crew always recommend booking at least 3 days to increase the odds you can beat the weather on some of them. Unfortunately, the afternoon did not bring a break in the wind and this trip was in the books. Despite the weather days, we still caught and hooked the most bluefin tuna we ever had and it was a phenomenal trip.
Andrew said, “I don’t want to leave without booking another trip for next year. This has been an incredible experience and my friends and family are lining up to come with me. I still can’t believe it happened.”
If you are looking to battle a giant and have a truly unique experience in the fishing world, you have to get with Tony’s Tuna Fishing. I guarantee, no matter what, you will enjoy incredible fishing, amazing scenery and the most heartfelt Canadian hospitality from Capt. Tony and his crew.
As always a huge thanks to our sponsors who make this trip possible and successful with their gear and tackle. Stay tuned to see where the next “Race To Somewhere” takes us and the lucky winner!