“But if you land a big tuna after a six-hour fight, fight him man against fish until your muscles are nauseated with the unceasing strain, and finally bring him up alongside the boat, green-blue and silver in the lazy ocean, you will be purified and will be able to enter unabashed into the presence of the very elder gods and they will make you welcome.” — Ernest Hemingway
If you travel far enough up the eastern United States, you’ll eventually run out of territory shadowed by the ol’ red, white, and blue, and come to the land of the maple leaf. That’s right. Canada. Where the people are supposed to be friendly, and everything is clean, and the ever-vigilant Mounties make boy scouts look like punks escaped from juvenile detention wards.
Yes, this is a land of fine people. And while all the stereotypes about a place are far from definitive, I can say the Mounties I met on my recent trip were all amazingly polite. More importantly, Canada’s east coast has a reputation for enormous fish, and I can tell you first-hand that this is not fiction. It’s a back-breaking fact.
The Gulf of St. Lawrence stretches away from rolling green hills that break up into a mix of sandy beaches and jagged, red cliffs. Offshore, the water is cold, dark…and cold. It’s also wonderfully rich in nutrients, and is visited by one of nature’s great beasts, the bluefin tuna. This apex predator draws anglers to the shores of Prince Edward Island each year, all of them seeking to do battle with one of the most prized sport fish in the Atlantic Ocean.
For a long time I’ve wanted to make this trip, and my chance came earlier this year. My connection for chasing bluefin was Tony MacDonald, owner of Tony’s Tuna Fishing. He called before the trip to confirm some details.
“Hi, Ozzy. Got ya booked for a cabin and fishing. Everything is good to go.”
I felt like a teenage girl waiting for a One Direction concert. This was going to be pure awesomeness. And yes, that’s a real word. Better yet, I would be joined by my friend, marine artist Raymond “Doug” Douglas, owner of King Sailfish Mounts. We’re avid offshore anglers, but this trip would be a new experience for us both.
Bluefin fishing happens in summer, when these super beasts follow the (relatively) warm waters of the Gulf Stream north in search of rich, fatty mackerel. The Gulf Stream passes just off the coast of Prince Edward Island, making the spot a prime location for tuna seekers. The north side of P.E.I. is where anglers find the best action, but it wasn’t until 1965 that island fishermen began to exploit the tuna fishery. The town of North Lake calls itself the “Tuna Capital of the World,” and they make a good case for claiming the title. They just point to the gargantuan, 1,496-lb. fish caught there in 1979 by Ken Fraser. Today, of course, such a beauty would be rare, but that catch helped cement the region’s reputation as a bluefin battleground.
We flew into Charlottetown, picked up a rental car and made the hour journey to Tony’s Cottages. From the first morning, I decided I liked fishing here. There’s no need for crazy, early morning wake up calls, because you don’t need to be at the dock until about seven o’clock. Too late, you think? Not at all, since it’s less than a three-mile run from boat slip to fishing grounds.
Tony’s Tuna Fishing fleet consists of seven modern and powerful vessels equipped with all the creature comforts you want when fishing the big water of the North Atlantic. These boats are loaded with hot water heaters, microwaves, tables, bunks, washrooms, a furnace and much more.
“Here is beer, soda, water and a container of lobster rolls,” says Tony, giving us an orientation of the boat. Umm…did he say lobster rolls? As it turns out, these guys harvest lobster just before the tuna season begins, so there’s an ample supply of fresh lobster to be used as snacks. Let me just say it beats the heck out of beef jerky. I’m starting to love me some Canada.
“Ozzy, are you doing standup?” asks Cory Chaisson. Tony’s deckhand breaks the lobster spell with his question. I look over and am now memorized by the sheer size of the tackle on board. Using that rod and reel in stand-up gear sounds like shooting a cruise missile off my shoulder.
“Let’s do the fighting chair first so you get a feel of the fight and then we will switch over to standup,” says Tony after sensing my hesitation. Now I love me some polite Canadians.
We hit the water and start looking for schools of mackerel, and they aren’t hard to find. On the horizon, we can see the commercial fleet at work. Even if the mackerel seem scarce, Tony’s Tuna Fishing has an advantage. His family—brothers, cousins and uncles—all have commercial boats, so it’s easy for Tony to keep up on the mackerel run and keep his customers in fresh bait.
We pull the boat right into the melee and mackerel practically jump in the boat. In short order, we use sabiki rigs to fill the live wells. We then run to our destination and pull out the big guns (130s), and start a slow drift around a nearby reef. Conditions are absolutely ideal and all we can do now is wait.
Minutes slowly turn to hours, but we’re not discouraged—it’s hard to be depressed when you’re eating lobster rolls. Lunch comes around and it is obvious we’re in for a slow day. Corey keeps on chumming the water with cuts of fresh mackerel, but we see no sign of tuna in the fish finder. Tony soon disappears into the cabin. He emerges a bit later with a pot of steamed mussels. O, Can-a-da!
By 3 pm, the doubts are starting to set in, but as everyone knows, once you start ignoring the rods, things usually happen. “Fish on!” Corey says. The screaming reel sets off a remarkable choreography among the crew. We all retrieve the rods and I slip into the fighting chair. The reel is losing line fast and it feels like we’ve hooked into a bullet train. Tony and Cory both grab the rod and position it in the rod gimbal.
I had been coached on what to do and I have a plan, but this battle is unlike anything I’ve ever done.
Half an hour into the fight, after inching and gaining momentum, the captain decides to put more pressure on the fish by increasing the drag—over 40 pounds.
Finally, I see the fish surface only several feet from us and Cory grabs the leader. He slowly muscles it to the side of the boat. Eager to see it, I unbuckle myself from the reel and lean over the gunnel.
“Holy Crap!” (Wait, can you say that up here?) Tony laughs at me, but it’s impossible not to go into full geeked-out tourist mode. I hooked a tuna on steroids. The fish’s tail loudly bangs against the boat and the body seems to be the width of a Prius. The crew estimates 750 pounds of angry bluefin flesh. Length is 96” and the fat girth indicates this is a healthy fish. After soaking in the moment and plenty of high fives to go around, we call it a day. It’s time to recharge because tomorrow will be Doug’s turn at a giant.
Our second day proves to be a mirror image of the first—calm and sunny weather. With a live well full of tuna candy, the plan is to go around the same spot as day one. But today, Tony brings out a kite and two flat lines. The key to enticing these fish on kite is to keep the bait just in the surface without the tuna seeing the line. Bluefin have excellent eyesight; plus, keeping the bait up top means you get to see the water boil on a massive strike.
Again, the fishing is slow through the morning, but we have high hopes for an afternoon bite. When it’s time for lunch, Tony vanishes into the cabin, soon to emerge with a bowl of scallops in garlic butter sauce. Oh, and more lobster rolls.
Waiting for the bite, it’s a good time to catch up with Tony and get to know more about the fishery. Bluefin are highly regulated here. One fish can be harvested per season and anglers can enter a lottery for a shot at another fish. Late September through October is the best time for landing prized fish since the tuna have fattened up throughout the season. With the vast majority of fish being released, crews try to keep fights under an hour to keep survivability rates at close to 100%.
“It can take hours to land a big tuna,” says Tony. “And while we want everyone that comes here to enjoy a great battle, we need to protect the fish as well.”
Our leisurely conversation is quickly interrupted. Within minutes of yesterday’s bite, we have a fish on! Doug gets in the chair and it’s apparent that he’s no rookie. Still, fighting a massive bluefin is different than battling other big fish, like a big marlin. Doug is in for something new. Close to an hour later, an estimated 850-lb., 102-in. fish is brought to the side of the boat. It feels great to be two-for-two!
Day three dawns and it’s obvious the weather has turned. The sunny mornings have been replaced with cloudy skies and a boat rocking 20 to 25 knots of wind. And the forecast is for things to get worse. Oh, did I mention today is my day for stand-up gear?
To this point, we’ve been fishing on Tony’s L’il Miss Maddy, but today we’re switching to a new ride. We’ll be with Tony’s brother, Captain Bradley MacDonald and deckhand Matt Rose on the Princess Nova. This crew has a reputation for putting you on the fish. Doug and I are excited, but the idea of battling a giant bluefin on stand-up gear while the boat rocks all over the place in five-foot seas is fueling a good bit of anxiety.
We take a short ride out to the fishing grounds. Buck decides to stay as close to shore as possible, because where we were the first two days is not protected by the island, and it’s starting to blow even worse. With all our lines in the water, I’m fitted into the harness and, luckily, I have my AFTCO foul weather gear to keep me dry and warm. As nervous as I am, I still want the bite to happen early in the morning. Sure enough, my prayers are answered.
“We have a fish on!” says Buck. As the fish takes line, I rush to put on the harness and make my way to the rod. Now it’s me against the fish…and the clock. With just an hour to get this beast to the boat, I hope it’s a smaller specimen than what we’ve caught already. I reel furiously each time the tuna gives me a chance to gain line. About 20 minutes into the fight, a good distance off the stern, the fish makes its first appearance. So much for hooking a smaller fish—this one looks plenty big.
Despite the cool weather, things are getting hot inside my foul weather gear and I get Doug to open the zippers. My arms are sore and I ask for some water. There’s nothing to do now but dig deep and put pressure on the fish. The harness really allows your body weight to hold and pump the reel, but I feel like I’m about to be snatched overboard any minute.
Still concerned about the clock, I try to put as much pressure on the fish as possible. Captain Bradley decides to increase the drag, which puts even more strain on the gear and me. It feels like an eternity fighting a fish this size, and I am hope I can make it to the end.
“Almost there, Ozzy,” says Matt, but the stubborn fish decides to take a power break at 70 feet. More drag is put on the fish and the captain tries to help with the boat, but Mr. Tuna is not cooperating. I can feel every muscle in my body starting to give up and my back feels strained to the limit.
After a grueling 10-minute standoff at 70 feet, the fish starts to tire and creep up the water column. Inch by inch, I start gaining line on it until we see color. I get a lot of “come on, Ozzy” and it’s encouraging.
Once Matt and the captain grabbed the leader, it’s an amazing relief. The battle is clocked at 55 minutes, and the 100-in. fish is estimated at 850 lbs. UTOPIA!
As fishermen, we love to debate the merits of fighting different species. After this experience, I am convinced nothing that swims in the ocean compares with giant tunas. In 1922, Ernest Hemingway reported in the Toronto Star Weekly that the giant bluefin tuna is “the king of all fish.”
After my Canadian adventure, I politely agree.
Special thanks to Captains Tony and Brad and their professional crews for a great experience and, of course, the obscene number of lobster rolls. For information on Tony’s Tuna Fishing, visit www.tonystunafishing.com.
Prince Edward Island is a gorgeous place. It’s the smallest and least populated of the Canadian provinces, and the economy runs on agriculture and fishing. The coastline has long beaches, dunes, cliffs, saltwater marshes, and numerous bays and harbors. Getting to and from Tony’s Cottages is easy from the Charlottetown airport. Built in 2012, the three cottages are set on an open and private stretch of land nestled in the seaside community of South Lake, minutes from the marina. On our second afternoon, we worked in a visit to the Basin Head Fisheries Museum. Anne Garrett, site director, was nice enough to open the doors after hours and give us a tour. If you get the chance, this is a great stop. It has artifacts and images that detail the history of both the island and its amazing fishery.