By Ric Burnley
As soon as tuna reports leak onto the Internet, people go crazy. The day after a hot bite, every charter boat is booked and the launch ramp is backed up a mile. The madness has many causes. Tuna live in a beautiful place. They promise an explosive strike followed by a bull-dog fight. But most of all, tuna are delicious. From the hook to the dinner table, tuna are one of the most valuable fish in the ocean. From hook up to the table, the following is a best practice for making the most of your next tuna.
From Hook Up to Fish Box
The big draw is the tuna’s thick, red meat. On the plate, it looks like a dark, red ruby. On the tongue, it feels like cool butter and tastes like sweet sea water. Tuna is one of the highest priced meat on the market. Connoisseurs will fight for it. To protect the quality of this delicacy, experts start caring for their catch as soon as the tuna takes the bait. Captain Greg Mayer chases tuna year-round off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. As captain of the Fishing Frenzy, he splits his time between commercial and charter fishing. He’s also the top captain on the National Geographic Channel’s “Wicked Tuna North vs. South.”
“As soon as the fish starts to fight, lactic acid builds up in the meat,” he says. Mayer keeps the fight as short as possible without overpowering the fish. When it gets close to the boat, he’s careful where he places the gaff or harpoon. “Hit it in the head,” he recommends, “if you don’t you could ruin 10 to 20 pounds of meat.” For yellowfin tuna, he stacks them in his fishbox like cord wood. “Wait until they die before adding ice,” he says, “the fish will often kick off the ice.” He carries 400-pounds of ice every day. “Even when we’re fishing for dolphin, we carry a full load of ice in case we catch a bigeye.”
When he catches a bluefin, he brings it alongside the boat and places a large hook in the fish’s jaw. “I swim the fish beside the boat to lower the lactic acid,” he says. Mayer cuts the gill latch and lets the fish bleed out. “By watching the blood pump out, I can tell when the heart stops pumping.” Once the fish is on the deck, he secures the tail and head to cleats so the tuna doesn’t bang around and bruise the meat. “Whatever side is down will stay down until the fish sells at auction,” he adds.
With the fish stationary, the crew goes to work with a six-inch Dexter boning knife and a slime knife removing one gill plate to access the fish’s gills and innards. “A lot of guys use a serrated edge,” Mayer admits. “But I don’t like the damage the serrated edge could do to the meat or my hand.” With the innards carved out, he packs the cavity with ice. For a detailed step-by-step description of the process, check out Woods Hole Oceanic Institute website (https://web.whoi.edu) under Tips on Tuna Handling.
Mayer covers the fish’s skin with rice paper to protect the color and texture. Then the fish is placed in a large fish bag and surrounded more ice. Bluefin tuna have the unique ability to warm their blood. Expect the fish to burn through a lot of ice. Continually refresh the ice on the ride back to the dock.
Middle Man: The Seafood Professional’s Perspective
When a commercial crew returns to port with a bluefin tuna, Lucas Pina, general manager at North Atlantic Traders is waiting to meet them. Pina’s job is to get the best quality tuna to market. For Pina, the most important factor is ice.
Pina credits captains like Mayer who take care of the fish before bringing it to the dock. Cooling the fish starts with swimming it beside the boat, cleaning the fish and packing it with ice. “Keep adding ice and draining water,” he suggests. It can take hours to bring a tuna’s temperature under 40 degrees. The process continues when the fish hits the dock. Pina measures quality of all tuna by looking at the meat. “It should be bright pink and translucent,” he says. Grading bluefin tuna requires years of experience and fine-tuned senses. “You have to see a lot to grade tuna,” he says, “like evaluating a fine wine.”
“A lot of factors can affect how much fat is in the meat,” he says, pointing to where the fish was caught and what it was eating. The process starts with the whole fish. A round, fat tuna with shiny, silver skin will have the best meat. Pina considers how the meat looks, smells and feels. To sample the meat, he takes a slice out of the base of the tuna’s tail and a plug from behind the
pectoral fin. The key to quality is fat content. “Thick lines of fat will indicate fat content in the belly,” he explains. He looks for swirls of white fat at the edges of the sample, like marbling in beef.
Then, he pinches the meat between his fingers to test its greasiness. While he’s evaluating the meat, the fish is back on ice and prepared to truck to the processing plant. “Don’t leave the fish on the dock or hold it up in the sunshine to take photos,” he says. The cooling process continues at the processor where the fish is packed in ice or even soaked in a cold brine to further bring the temperature down. Pina recommends completely cooling the fish before cleaning it. “I would leave it on ice for 24 hours or more before cleaning it,” he says. “Some chefs will wait two days before cutting a tuna.” Not only does this improve the quality of the meat, but it firms the flesh making it easier to clean and handle without damaging it.
From the second the fish hits the dock, it’s a race against time to get it to market while it’s fresh. Pina says freezing the tuna dramatically changes the texture, appearance and taste of the meat. If the whole fish can’t be consumed fresh the best practice is to vacuum seal the meat before freezing it to remove excess moisture and air. Next a bluefi n tuna heads to the processing plant for further cooling and grading. “We pull fish that will be sent overseas, separate out fish that will go to high-end local customers and red meat for other buyers,” he explains. Fish heading to Japan are packed in boxes on ice and sent via Federal Express. A bluefin can go from the dock to the auction block in Japan in 48-hours.
Intense competition in the wholesale fish market and FDA regulations keep his tuna at top quality. For recreational anglers, respect for the fish and the time and energy required to harvest a tuna should encourage him to maintain the highest possible quality.
On the Plate: The Chef ’s Take
All the excitement and energy comes down to one thing, a slice of tuna on the plate. As chef at Waterman’s in Virginia Beach, Carey McPhee puts hundreds of tuna slices on plates every night. “We buy 200 to 300 pounds of tuna each week,” he says, “I ask a lot of questions.”
His first questions is about the origin of the fish. McPhee says some tuna are imported from South America and other times tuna may be in a hold for weeks. “By the time it hits the dock it’s practically frozen.” Fresh tuna, McPhee says, is firm and dry, not slimy. “Just because tuna isn’t bright red doesn’t mean it’s fresh,” he says. The origin of the fish and what it eats can affect how it looks.
McPhee buys tuna loins and removes the off-color line of dark meat. He then slices the loin into steaks. “At least an inch thick,” he says, “thicker is better for cooking tuna.” He uses a seven-inch fillet knife to cut the loin across the grain. He doesn’t rinse off the meat and avoids all contact with water. He pats each steak dry with a towel and wraps it with cellophane before putting it on a perforated metal tray filled with ice. That tray is placed in another tray that catches the meltwater. “Ice keeps the steaks cold and moist,”
McPhee says, but he stresses that the meat must stay out of any water. The key to cooking tuna is using high heat to sear the outside while leaving the inside raw. “Ideally, a tuna steak should be cold in the middle,” he adds. For blackened tuna, he only seasons one side of the steak. “Cook it a minute on the non-seasoned side then a little longer on the seasoned side,” he instructs.
High temperature and short cook time crust the seasoning and transfer more flavor to the meat. Fresh fish can last a couple days on ice, but McPhee doesn’t keep them around long. “We go through them fast,” he says. He buys hundreds of pounds of tuna each week, it’s one of the most popular dishes on the menu. “People are crazy about tuna,” he says.
The 44ST is the largest, and perhaps most anticipated, offering in Contender’s 35-year history. With a beam of 12’ and coming in at 44 feet long, the 44ST is perfectly stationed for serious bluewater application. With a maximum horsepower rating of 2,000 and a 600-gallon fuel capacity, the 44ST delivers on Contender’s promise of “performance through innovation.” Powered with triple or quad engine configurations, the boat excels in speed, performance and reliability.
Forward Anchor Locker w/Storage
70 Gallon Water Capacity
340 Gallon Forward Fish Box
315 Gallon Forward Storage
(2) 10′ Rod Lockers
(2) 110 Gallon Aft Fish Boxes
(2) 55 Gallon Transom Live Wells
8″ Pop-Up Cleat
Heavy Duty Bow Lifting Ring in Floor Peak Locker
(2) Heavy Duty Stern Lifting Rings
(2) 10″ Stern Cleats
(2) 8″ Cleats w/Hause Pipes – Midship
(4) Flush Mount Gunnel Rod Holders
Custom Aluminum Recessed Bow Handrail
LOA: 43′ 10″
Weight: 19,600 lbs.
Fuel: 600 Gallons
Dead rise: 22.7 degrees
Max HP: 2,000 HP
By Elliott Stark
“I am a redneck, I eat gas station nachos. Before that phone call, I didn’t even know what a feminist was… and I certainly wasn’t trying to piss any of them off,” says Bobby MacGrath, director of the Marlin Grander Prix. “We’ve just been down here, minding our own business – running a fishing tournament for three decades. Aside from a couple weather cancellations, the events have gone off without a hitch. Then this happened.”
Bobby MacGrath has run the Marlin Grander Prix for the past 30 years. While the tournament has made headlines for big fish weighed through the years, the event itself has never been a focal point of the international news media. That all changed in 2017. “Two days before the 2017 tournament, I get a phone call. In and of itself this is not an unusual scenario. It was a lady on the phone – said her name was Dr. Martha Jones. She said she was the director of some organization. We give lots of money to charity each year, so I figured she was after a charitable contribution from the tournament. Turns out she wasn’t.”
Dr. Martha Jones is the director of the International Female Empowerment Symposium, or IFES. Traditional feminist groups focus on such things as equality of payment for men and women and ending sexual and workplace harassment. IFES’ cause, however, goes far beyond the standard platform of feminism. Dr. Martha Jones’ objections to the Marlin Grander Prix had nothing to do with the Lady Angler division. The following excerpt is taken from a press release published by the International Femalem Empowerment Symposium: “IFES aims to bring about a new world order.
Our vision is for a world in which females – human or animal – are treated fairly, equally and justly. We aim to end discrimination against females of any species, human or otherwise. The Marlin Grander Prix awards prizes for the boat that kills the largest blue marlin. All large blue marlin are female – male blue marlin, in fact, do not even grow large enough to be killed in the tournament. Because the Marlin Grander Prix targets only large, FEMALE blue marlin the event discriminates against women. This is gender inequality that is morally wrong and socially irresponsible. The International Female Empowerment Symposium stands with our blue marlin sisters in opposition to this injustice. It must stop.”
“Dr. Jones was nice enough during our first conversation on the phone, but she insisted on coming by the tournament office at the marina. I thought that was a strange request for someone who wanted a piece of the charity purse, but I told her to come on by. What a mistake that was….” MacGrath says. “I should have called Sheriff Johnson right then.”
“The next morning at 9:30 sharp, a convoy of Subarus pulled into the parking lot. There must have been 45 of them. All of them were the same… black with super dark tints. You couldn’t see who was driving or how many ladies were inside,” the tournament director describes.
“On the road leading to the marina, they were driving single file. When they hit of the parking lot out front of the marina, they spread out into attack formation. They looked like a flock of pelicans flying in a vee. All the Subarus screeched to a halt, spreading out to block all access to the weigh station and the registration table.”
“When they finally stopped, a single car door opened. Out stepped Dr. Jones. She walked over to my office door and knocked three times. I opened it up, thinking she was from the Ronald McDonald House or some place. I reached out to shake her hand… that was another mistake. Her grip was like Hulk Hogan’s… she actually dislocated one of my knuckles.”
“After shaking her hand, she told me ‘Bobby, there will be no tournament this year. Times have changed!’ I was pretty surprised, I still thought she wanted charity money,” MacGrath explains. “As she said this, three yellow Priuses drove into the parking lot. Out jumped eight man-hippies. They were wearing leather sandals and those pants that are half jeans and half shorts. My office is downwind of where they parked… they smelled like lemon balm. It was weird.”
“I am not sure what they thought was going on, but the man-hippies jumped out of their cars and chained themselves to the palm trees that sit out front of the office. They were chanting something or other… Apparently they thought someone was trying to cut the palm trees down for lumber… and they were not gonna let it happen.”
“The Subarus and the Priuses blocked the whole parking lot. Nobody – not the anglers, the vendors or even the band could get anywhere near the registration table. All of a sudden, all of the cars started a synchronized honk attack. They were layin’ on it,” MacGrath says with a look of wild bewilderment in his eyes. “At first I thought they were just trying to annoy us into cancelling the tournament. But it turns out that all the honking was a signal. They were starting their sea attack. It was a blockade!”
“As soon as the cars stopped beeping, I heard a horn blast from what looked like a cruise ship. It was one of them boats that is normally chasing the Japanese whaling ships in the Antarctic. It was backing into the fuel dock at the marina. There were two lines stretched from its bow. Each ran to a sailboat – one to its left and the other to its right. The sailboats were full masted. Their sails had logos of the International Female Empowerment Symposium and a Marlin Grander Prix logo with a big red x on it. That’s when I knew they were serious…”
“If the boats and the lines blocking the marina were not bad enough, they also bombarded our radio communications. Someone on the antiwhaling ship had teevo’d all 13 seasons of The View. They somehow found out that the tournament runs on VHF channel 68. Next thing you know we had the audio of 159 episodes of The View playing back to back on Channel 68! How the hell are you supposed to have a tournament in conditions like that?!”
“What all came of it? You might guess. Long and short of it, for the first time in 33 years, there was no Marlin Grander Prix. All because a bunch of ladies thought we were unfairly discriminating against their blue marlin sisters. Times are a changing I guess… it’s a dismal tide.”
By Elliott Stark
Kona, Hawaii is a wonderful place. In terms of distance from a continental landmass, the Hawaiian archipelago is one of the most remote strings of islands in the world. Kona sits on the western edge of the Island of Hawaii—the Big Island. Its rocky coastline is the result of millions of years of volcanic deposits piling atop one another. The Hawaiian Islands are mountains that jut from the sea floor, covering thousands of feet beneath the waterline and thousands more above it. The mountainous interior of the Island of Hawaii creates a giant wind block, large enough to create a permanent lee and break apart hurricanes.
Thousands of miles from the nearest large river mouth and input of nutrients necessary for green or brown water, the waters that encircle Kona are bluer than blue. Not only is the water blue, so too are the majority of the marlin that transverse them. Many of the largest blue marlin ever tamed on rod and reel were Hawaiian-caught—most of them caught out of Kona. Grander blue marlin have been caught in every calendar month here.
The combination of calm waters, big and consistent blue marlin, remoteness, and Hawaiian hospitality has created one of the most unique and influential cultural traditions in sportfishing. Over the years, what has happened in Kona has touched the sportfishing world at large in many ways.
Captain Bart Miller, fishing aboard the Kona-based Black Bart, is credited by many with having the tuna tubes. Many of the lures you see dragged everywhere in the world were first designed in Hawaii—the tradition of master lure makers here is too great to mention. Kona is also on par with any place in the world when it comes to crews coming to accumulate knowledge. For many, the place is so enamoring that what was intended to be a stint working in the cockpit of a Hawaiian master soon becomes a longer-term job or the place they make their career.
There are many charming things about Kona. These charms relate to the fishing and the place generally. If you enjoy being offshore or have ever dreamed about catching a bruiser blue marlin, you should fish here. The following provides some context to this claim.
If This Dock Could Talk
One of the most charming things about Kona (even more so than the fact there are wild mongoose running all over the place!) are the people who fish here. The careers and catch statistics, which are measured chiefly in the number of granders hung, are second to none. The lineup of captains and boats fishing out of Kononkohau Harbor could just as easily be found in the pages of a Zane Grey or Ernest Hemingway novel. There are too many great captains and boats fishing there to list here.
Most anyone who has spent any time fishing here has seen his or her share of big fish. As the fishing community is close knit, there are plenty of firsthand accounts of Bobby Brown’s world record Pacific blue marlin or Choy’s 1,805-pound monster or the exploits of Capt. Bart Miller. Captains are as excited to speak of the big fish they’ve seen and lost as they are about the granders they’ve captured. You can ask the question, “Have you ever seen anything bigger than the biggest you’ve caught?” in plenty of places. But when a man who has hung multiple granders and seen plenty of others weighed gets the faraway look in his eyes while recalling a sea monster lost, it makes you sit up a bit straighter in your chair.
To put this in perspective, we asked Capt. Fran O’Brien this question. When Bart Miller hooked up to the fabled 1,656, he called O’Brien in to leader it. There might be someone in the world with more big fish credibility than Fran, but I’m just not sure who it would be. In response to the query about whether he had seen anything bigger than what he had caught, he recalled this story…
“You can’t ever really know for sure, but one time we had been fighting a fish for 14 hours. It was the middle of the night… she took a big run and came up jumping. You could hear the splashing,” O’Brien recalled. “I looked up at the captain and he said, ‘We’re ___ed.’” The fish would go on to break the line.
A PhD in Lure Fishing super
While it has been years since most places in the world succumbed to the dink ballyhoo revolution, Hawaiian captains still proudly pull plastic. In some of places where lures still appear, their selection is haphazard… the old, “Grab that one over there and throw a hook in it” type thing. In Kona, lure fishing is equal parts science and applied engineering with a healthy dose of aesthetic appeal mixed in.
The scientific approach to lure fishing makes sense. Many of the lures used around the world were designed here—some by captains still fishing out of Kona. Many captains still make their own pulling lures (producing a batch whenever they need some themselves—keeping some, selling a few others). If you were to ask around, you’d probably find that by percentage there are about as many “craft lure makers” among the charter fishing docks in Kona as there are craft beer makers in a neighborhood full of hipsters.
The hook sets and rigging procedures are equally dialed in. Where mates in other places might spend the ride out rigging dredge mullet or swimming ballyhoo, Kona mates will meticulously adjust hook sets to match the day’s conditions. “Hook up for slant heads, hook down for everything else.” In 2019 it is a unique proposition to set out for a day’s marlin fishing without a cooler full of dead baits.
The global domination of dink fishing has been accompanied by the prominence of smaller and smaller high-performance reels, fitted with strong drags and hundreds of yards of braid. Kona has largely been immune from this. Hawaii, along with perhaps Bermuda, the Great Barrier Reef and Nova Scotia, is one of the last strong holds of the 130. Whereas some boats fishing the Northeast or the Gulf or elsewhere pull out a couple 130s to look cool, the big guns are used here for a reason.
Big fish and deep water have spawned a saying that we heard more than a couple times, “They’re big reels but sometimes they are not big enough.” Captain Gene Vanderhoek runs the Sea Genie II, a charmingly appointed 39-foot Rybovich. Vanderhoek is credited with four grander blue marlin here— and he has released another. A more than capable conversationalist whose perspective is as wide-ranging as the stories he launches into, Vanderhoek provides context for the captains’ preference to use the big stuff.
“We had a father and son fishing with us. They wanted to catch a big tuna on 30-pound. We caught them one, and they wanted to put the 30 back out. There had been a good class of fish around—a grander had already been caught. I suggested that we stick to the 130s as a very special opportunity could present itself,” Vanderhoek begins. “We put out the 30 as a shotgun. A little while later, a grander came up and guess what it ate? It looked to be 1,100-pounds…I warned them.”
There is more than a bit of charm to watching lures bounce behind the boat, cockpit equipped with four hooked 130s. This type of charm emanates from the fact that, statistically speaking, a day fishing in Hawaii has a greater chance to produce the largest blue marlin you’ll ever catch than do most places. Any bite can be that bite. Most captains seem to prefer to remove chance from the equation, 130s spooled to the brim. While other places a captain’s success is measured in numbers of releases or grand slams, the king metric in Kona is number of granders brought to the scale.
A slow day of fishing in Kona is given solace by the fact that after catching a massive blue in the afternoon, nobody in the history of fishing has ever cared that the morning might have been a little slow. There is additional comfort in the fact that it is most always calm fishing out of Kona and that big fish have been caught in every calendar month. This same charm does not extend to places where sailfish bite best in 8’ seas and it’s 40-degrees outside. When you’re having a slow day of sailfishing— cold, wet and getting your teeth kicked in, there is generally no hope that thing that will break the cycle of monotony might weigh 900 pounds.
But the Flight is So Long?
This is perhaps the biggest objection to someone from the eastern or central time zones planning to fish Kona. There are a couple of approaches to resolving this dilemma. Sure, it’s a long trip and it takes a bit of time to adjust to jet lag. But you can take solace from the fact that if you are tired while fishing, you’re still trolling around for giant blue marlin in one of the most productive, historically and culturally influential destinations in sportfishing.
You can also think about it another way, considering two scenarios.
Scenario One—Four Days of East Coast Marlin Fishing: Say you live in a spot on the East Coast and plan to go marlin fishing for four days. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the ledge or canyon you are targeting is 75 miles from the dock and that you come and go from the dock each day (no overnighters). Let’s further assume that your boat cruises 25 knots and that there is no travel time between your house and the dock. Your total travel time for four days of fishing is 24 hours—three hours out and three hours back each day—six hours total per day, for four days.
Scenario Two—Four Days of Kona Marlin Fishing: Say you live in the same place on the east coast and decide that instead of marlin fishing out of your place, you decide to fish four days out of Kona. Assume that you decide not to cheap out on plane tickets and book a trip that includes one layover. You fly from
the east coast to LAX and then to Kona. Your total travel time each way is 12 and a half hours. Next you factor the run time out of Kona… the first day fishing with Gene Vanderhoek aboard the Sea Genie II, we nearly snagged the dock with our long rigger! (Not really, but you get the point…there is no run in Kona.)
For those keeping score, the total travel time, combining flights and runs to and from the fishing over four days, is within an hour or so of being equal. If you were so inclined, you could next factor the cost. The fuel tab on your four-day east coast endeavor would dwarf the charter bill for your Hawaiian marlin fishing expedition. The options for a day’s rate on a great boat out of Kona would set you back in the $1,000-$1,500 range, before tip. After all, costs are low when the fuel burn is minimized, and there’s no ballyhoo tab. A final benefit? You can get a much more awesome Hawaiian shirt in Kona than you can at your local marina store.
Beyond the draw of big blue marlin, Kona sits squarely on the list of most people who are serious about the Royal Slam. It’s perhaps the best place in the world to tick off the spearfish (the species that might be the most common bottleneck in the quest). The tuna bite here can be good too and certain times of year there is a great wahoo bite. So now that you’re thinking about booking your ticket, when should you come?
Captain Gene Vanderhoek provides a breakdown of Kona’s fishing seasons. “Up until about five or ten years ago, we had good winter runs of small stripies and spearfish. Now it seems that the blue marlin fishing is good year round—it has been the past two years. The best times to come for blue marlin would be June through September. The best days are dictated by the tides and the moon—Kona has always been a dark of the moon type of place. That said, this year there was a grander caught on the full moon—so who knows? There are blue marlin, tuna… everything. Lots of spearfish in June and July,” the Kona veteran describes.
“In the spring, April and May, there are lots of wahoo around. The Sea Genie’s boat record is 28 in five and half hours. The spearfish are best in May, June and July. The big tuna show up in late May and June, through August. We typically catch them on jets and lures… 200 is a big one here.”
By Winslow Taylor
Between fish whistles, square groupers, and the inherent “leisure” aspect of fishing, it’s no secret that booze and other recreational substances have long since been around the sportfishing scene. I’m not condoning or promoting, it’s just a fact. If you can show me a sportfishing captain/mate who hasn’t seen some absurd behavior, I’ll buy you dinner for a month. Although booze has been legal since 1933, it’s only in the past few years that the political climate regarding marijuana legalization has begun to drastically change.
Medical marijuana was legalized in a few states as far back as the late 1990’s, but it wasn’t until 2012 that recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado. Since then ten states have legalized recreation marijuana, and of those ten states, seven border the ocean or a navigable body of water (Alaska, Oregon, Nevada, California, Maine, Rhode Island, and Michigan).
What does this mean? It means that many folks where marijuana is “legal” are avid boaters/fishermen and hold USCG merchant marine credentials. As a result, many may not understand the ramifications of marijuana’s use on themselves, their license(s), and vessel operation in navigable waters.
Legality of Marijuana
First off, I think it goes without saying, DO NOT USE ANY IMPAIRING SUBSTANCE while operating a vessel (or vehicle). It doesn’t matter if it’s a 9’ tender or a cruise ship – DON’T do it! Not only do you jeopardize your passengers and crew, but also the vessel, your license, your employment, and possibly your freedom. Where marijuana use is state legal, it’s STATE legal. Meaning if you finish up washing the boat in California and fire up a joint, you are not breaking any California laws. Again, don’t operate a vehicle while stoned, but you aren’t breaking any state laws onshore.
The problem is that marijuana is still illegal on the federal level. At the risk of preaching to the choir, the United States Coast Guard is a federal agency that enforces both federal and state laws on the water. It’s important to note that federal law supersedes states law. So, what does that mean?
By Dave Ferrell
Grander marlin popped up like ants at a summer picnic this past November on the Great Barrier Reef, providing lucky anglers and crews with some of the best black marlin fishing they’ve seen here for some time. According to Granderwatch.com, boats took or released 15 fish over 1,000 pounds this year, with two weighing over 1,200 and one topping 1,400! (And the way they routinely let go of 900-pluses on the Reef, you can rest assured crews caught plenty more). Th e 1,431-pounder, caught on the Too Easy II on November 29 with Capt. Russel Gage at the helm, narrowly missed Capt. Peter Wright’s Australian-record fish weighing 1,442-pounds caught way back in 1973!
Not only do you get to use the heaviest tackle and the biggest baits to catch the biggest fish, you get to leader those fish on .040 wire or 600-pound-plus mono…and use the gaffs when they are big enough! It’s a learning experience that you really can’t get anywhere else in the world. So yeah, everybody who wants to pull on a big fish wants to work on the Reef for at least a season…and if you are serious about fishing as your profession, you should. But it’s not all “Granders every day and rum all night” either…a season on the Reef means long, hard days with barely any time off. You cook, clean and fish nonstop for 60-plus days, almost 24 hours a day. You do pay a price for every big girl you get to pull on…but it’s worth every penny.
Not a Regular Gig
Nicholas “Nick” Bovell gets around. A good fisherman with a tremendous work ethic, Bovell hails from Trinidad, but has fished all over the world with some of the best crews in the business – including stints on Gray Ingram’s Big Oh. He’s seen a lot of big fish on the leader and he knows how to get them in the boat – a skill that’s become increasingly rare since most sportfishing crews let the vast majority of their fish go unless they are in a big-fish, big-money tournament.
Those skills with a gaff make him a prized team member for crews looking to take big fish…That’s precisely how he wound up on the Adventum with Capt. Darren “Biggles” Haydon in 2018 for his third season on the Great Barrier Reef.
Bovell came to fish on the brand new Adventum thanks to Haydon’s relationship with the boat’s proud new owner, Kevin Hodgson, from South Africa. Hodgson hosted Captain Haydon on a trip to Cape Verde to fish his big boat. It was in Cape Verde that Haydon talked to the new owner and his captain, Dean Comberbach, about a possible first mate for the boat’s first season on the reef. Comberbach, who would be coming along for the boat’s maiden season as the second mate, brought up Bovell’s name.
“I was looking for the right job and was grateful for the chance to come back here. There are a finite number of boats and spots each season, especially good ones,” says Bovell. “The fish on the Reef are the biggest in the world and they test everything,” says Bovell. “And it all starts with the bait fishing in the morning…everything has to be perfect. There’s no Baitmasters out there, so you have to catch and process all of your own bait.”
You go through a lot of bait when you are black marlin fishing on the reef, even if you are only pulling two or three at time. Everything in Australia sports a nasty set of teeth and chop-offs can come fast and furious. “The sheer volume of everything is a lot more than I expected,” said Comberbach, “Catching and processing a lot more bait than I’m used to was a big adjustment. Instead of having ten baits rigged and ready, you need 20 here. Looking after your baits is such a critical element to this fishery. The boats are mainly set up for taking care of bait; with good brine boxes, freezers, storage…everything. The attention to detail in every aspect was startling. The weather is a big factor too… It can blow like hell for an entire month…20 knots…which just makes everything a bit harder.”
“You certainly don’t have to rig scad like you do here anywhere else in the world,” says Bovell. “Bait rigging here is an art form, and I’ve learned from some of the best guys. This place can humble anyone really quick. The mates here are really good fisherman who have worked with some of the best captains, who, in turn, were some of the best mates. And they all catch the biggest fish in the world. I’m so grateful the for local mates that have taught me. They have been very welcoming. If you’re not cocky and a dick they are very welcoming. Dave Cassar helped me out a lot; and Jay and Rhys [Reese] on the Askari and Dean Ford. I’m very grateful that they let me come and enjoy their fishery. They all have a lot of knowledge and have seen a lot of big fish…you can learn if you listen.” “You just can’t buy a boat and come here and do this shit!” says Comberbach. “Just listen and learn. Put your ego aside. If you are not hitting the bed entirely wore out every night, you’re doing it wrong.”
One unique aspect of the Great Barrier Reef fishery presents one of the biggest challenges for any crewman who wants to spend a season on the reef – the live aboard charter. A fishing trip to Australia takes a lot of time, money and commitment. Charters here usually run five days or more, with an average charter lasting ten days. Most of these are done without the benefit of a mothership – with the charter and crew sharing close quarters for the duration of the trip. Most of the charter boats here are 50-feet or less. This means that cooking three squares a day (plus snacks), doing laundry, washing tons of dishes and trying to make sure you guests have a great trip…no matter what kind of fishing or weather you might encounter – is all done in close quarters. It’s a 24/7 job that you never get to leave. There are no trips home until the season is over.
“It’s not that hard, it’s just different. Not going home or getting off the boat each day, a lot of guys have a hard time with that aspect. A lot of the guys from North Carolina make it; not so much the sailfish guys from south Florida,” says Bovell with a grin. With everything going on at once, Bovell likes to establish a routine and stick to it. “Since you are essentially a floating hotel and restaurant, getting into a good routine ensures that you don’t forget to do something. We can’t control the fishing, but we can control what you eat and how much fun you have. I’m not the guy who likes to stay up late and entertain, I get up early and clean all the heads. I tap out early and let Dean stay up late…hangovers are the worst!”
“You certainly provide a lot more than just the fishing,” agrees Comberbach. “You have to provide entertainment above and beyond. You are still on when the sun goes down.” Although he agrees that a routine keeps things humming, Comberbach also realizes the need to know when to make adjustments to fit each client. “You really get to know your clients when you are with them 24 hours a day. You can start to anticipate what they are going to need or want. If a guy is going through a ton a of beer a day, you have to make sure to make time to get those beers into the cooler so you don’t run out of cold ones!” With just a short 60- or 70-day window to the big fish season, crews scramble to come into port with one charter and leave the next day with another. After a fi ve or 10-day trip there’s a whole host of cleaning and provisioning chores that need to be executed in a very short amount of time.
“You have to pull all the sheets and get all the laundry done and then you have to make the boat look like it’s the first day of the season. I like a clean boat. Th e clients appreciate it and it makes things easy for us as well…less hassle,” says Bovell. “Team work makes the dream work…and it takes a really good team to go 60 or 70 days straight here.” “We spent 30 days with one charter, the owner Kevin Hodgson, and we had one half day in Cooktown,” says Comberbach. “We were on this brand-new boat and we were working a few things out…fortunately nothing major occurred and we never missed a day of fi shing. You just have to build some trust with each other and do a good job. It helps if you have a great captain like Biggles. Capt. Haydon is amazing. He makes the hard stuff look easy…his program is sick.”
Aussies still frequently use a lot of words that American English speakers have largely abandoned – with “feral,” meaning “wild,” an obvious favorite of mine. (Ferrell-feral … get it?) “Keen” is another example. Keen pretty much translates as “eager” or “hungry” to do something. According to local Aussie mate, Rhys Younan-Wise (pronounced Reese Uniwize), on the Askari, “keenness” for fishing is the most important thing a mate can bring to Great Barrier Reef when looking for a job. “Th ey can expect hard work and long days…you need to be keen. You need to be a very keen fisherman to be able to handle it and do it for the whole season. Lots of rookies show up…and lots of rookies do really well. But to perform consistently for the entire season you really have to want it. It’s a long slog, but good fun!” he says. “It’s all worth it when you finally get here and catch the big one,” says Jay Househan, Askari’s second mate. In addition to being keen, that Younan-Wise suggests making sure you have a job lined up before you get there. “
These days, with all the Facebook and other social media, it’s a smart move to get in contact with a lot of people and let them know that you are wanting to come. Get your name out there among the captains and mates. It shouldn’t be too hard to get a bit of work. And once you’ve done it, your name gets around pretty quick. It’s not hard after that if you do a good job. Just make sure you get your name out there before you turn up. If you turn up without a job…just keep walking the docks. Keep talking to people and making friends. Keep asking all the captains…somebody is going to go down during the season.” “You don’t do it for the money either,” says Bovell. “You get paid, but it’s not a whole lot.” It’s the experience that keeps you coming back. “The wildness of this place, out on the reef at night, with all the jacks in the lights it’s just indescribable,” says Comberbach. Comberbach got a real treat during his first season when the Adventum caught a big fish for the owner.
“We wanted to take a big one for Kevin. He’s always wanted a big one and we were working hard towards doing it. To get it done you have to have a plan.” The plan came together on October 29th and Dean was on the gaff. Dean made a perfect shot in the dark under the lights and the team got the 1,260-pounder into the boat. It was Capt. Haydon’s biggest fish in his 31 years on the reef. Can you imagine? Your first year on the reef, sticking a 1,260 in the dark? Gives me a horn just thinking about it.
As we near the end of our fishing season in the Texas Gulf, I began to reflect back on the incredible marlin fishing our tournament fleet has experienced in the previous few years. This year, on the other hand, has been a little off in comparison. While the bulk of the season hasn’t lived up to the previous few years, it seems to picking up here towards the end.
Last year at this time, this column described the Hoover/Diana Spar producing over 45 blue marlin in a five week period. These catches and releases were all reported between the Poco Bueno tournament in July and the Texas Legends tournament in August. Were the numbers not enough, many of them being solid fish and a few in the 600- and 700-pound class.
The Diana bite never really happened this summer. In fact, if you were to combine the action from all season in all of our normal tournament target areas that it would have matched last year’s bite from the Hoover/Diana Spar alone. What accounts for the difference in fishing results? For starters, the favorable current and bait conditions that produced the bite last year have not been present at Hoover/Diana in 2019.
While the overall number may have been down, there were a few boats that did have epic trips throughout the summer. In early June the Hook N Bull released six blues on an overnight trip to Diana. These early results had many thinking that the bite was about to go off again this year… but not much really happened at Diana thereafter.
In the Texas Billfish Classic, our tournament season starter this year, there was a really good bite at the shelf rigs for about a week. This area produced the majority of the 22 blues for the 26 boat fleet fishing the tournament. Of these 22 blue ones, the Bali Ha’i caught four and took home second place in the release division. The Done Deal, who won the release division, also picked up the last couple of their blues in the same area. Their total for the tournament was six blues and one white.
Fishing finally picked back up on Labor Day weekend with most of the boats reporting at least one blue marlin release. If the wide distribution of action were not enough, the Game Plan set a new Gulf record going 8 for 10 on blue marlin in a single day! Game Plan caught all eight of their blues at the Perdido spar rig using stand up tackle and estimated them all to be between 400- and 600-pounds.
Perdido is the southernmost rig that we fish off the Texas coast. In addition to the new single day Gulf record, the rig has produced many tournament winners in the past. The following weekend, the crew on the Sigsbee Deep headed back to the same spot and went three for four on blues with an extremely big girl that they gave a very conservative estimate of 700 plus pounds.
Before we call 2019 a thing of the past, we still have a little time before hunting season is full on. As long as the weather cooperates, we hope to tack on a couple more good reports.
– That’s the report from Texas.
Pure Fishing recently announced they will be acquiring iconic fishing brands Fin-Nor and Van Staal from W.C. Bradley/Zebco Holdings, Inc. The addition of these brands add to Pure Fishing’s dominant offering in the saltwater category, including the premium PENN Fishing brand, one of the most widely-respected saltwater fishing equipment brands.
The company is working to bring newness and marketing support to the two brands in order to accelerate momentum as part of Pure Fishing’s ongoing focus on driving growth of the fishing industry. Captain Craig Cantelmo will also be joining the Pure fishing team as part of this acquisition. Cantelmo will be reporting to Dave Bulthuis, Pure Fishing’s newly appointed President of North America, who was the director of sales for Fin-Nor earlier in his career.
“The Fin-Nor and Van Staal brands are some of the most storied brands in the fishing industry,” said Harlan Kent, CEO of Pure Fishing. “We are excited to add them to our portfolio and are committed to maintaining their focus on the independent retailer channel. Our Pure Fishing team looks forward to driving growth of these brands and of our overall saltwater business anchored by the iconic PENN brand.”
Fin-Nor was started in 1933, when Captain Tommy Gifford and inventor Frederick Martin Grieten, along with a few other salty Miami captains, created a prototype reel that caught a 527-pound bluefin tuna in Cat Cay. This event carved out a unique position for the brand and Fin-Nor reels have racked up more than 900 International Gamefish Association (IGFA) records in the years since.
Van Staal was created in the early 1990’s to fulfill a need for extreme performance in challenging saltwater conditions. The brand was born in the salt, rock, sand and surf of the Atlantic Ocean and has been building equipment with the same durability and performance attributes ever since.