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The Hemingway Dream

Handline trolling for southern bluefin tuna in a kayak

By Nick Gust
What is possible with modern kayak fishing and how far can
this hybrid sport be taken? Is it realistic to dream of successful
game fishing outings by kayak? How difficult would it actually
be to hook and land a bluefin tuna from a kayak on the great
Southern Ocean? Could these torpedos of streamlined muscle
flip a kayak or tow you out to sea? What about evading hungry
mobs of opportunistic seals? Or is the whole notion really just
an irresponsible fantasy, the product of too many drinks? Keen
Tasmanian anglers have no doubt pondered these questions
before, imagining this holy grail of fishing adventure. Over
the last couple of years in Hobart I decided to seek some
answers. Joining the chase for the world’s most valuable fish
species became something of a quest. Often far offshore on
the wild southern ocean. Alone, in a sea kayak.


The Dream
I blame Ernest Hemingway for seeding my mind with
ridiculous notions. As a child I was entranced by his novel “old
man and the sea”. Hemingway totally captured my imagination,
he messed with my impressionable young mind. His story
involves Santiago, an old and dignified Cuban fisherman who
spends days alone on the Caribbean Gulf Stream seeking and
then fighting a gigantic marlin. He fishes with a simple handline
from a tiny sailing dingy, exposed to the elements. Santiago has
a deep love of the sea and great respect for his “brother” the
marlin. Hemingways’ words must have spoken to my piscean
soul. He promoted the concept of an honest struggle between
man and fish, of simplicity and perseverance. I bought into it
all, and aspired to such deeds from the age of ten.

Over the subsequent 30 years many paddling adventures
were played out on wild rivers and exposed coastlines while
the Hemingway dream remained buried, barely alive. Tuna
fishing guru Stuart Nichols of Personalised Sea Charters
helped exhume the dream with a day of trolling near Tasman
Island. We caught bluefin to 35 kilos, in deep blue water within
a stone throw of towering dolerite cliffs. The whole place was
a bit overwhelming, preposterous even, and the Fish! Southern
bluefin tuna are hugely impressive creatures. Silvery blue
bullets, missiles of the deep, hydrodynamic marvels equipped
with retractable fi ns for speed, oozing power and authority.
A fish worthy of significant effort, a species commanding
deep respect.

Style matters
What is game fi shing anyhow? Is it the targeting of ‘game
species’- typically big, fast pelagics? Or is it really about the
‘game’ of fi shing itself? Although game fi shermen love to
eat their catch, the motivation generally isn’t subsistence
living, hunger just doesn’t explain it. In truth game fi shing is
often probably no more than an indulgent lark for most, with
personal rewards varying wildly amongst the players. Many are
in it for the novelty, the excitement and the challenge, some for
records, some for trophies, others for the stories. But regardless
of the motivations, like most worthwhile games the style of
play counts for something. Arguably fishing style matters, (at
least to recreational anglers). Some anglers supposedly launch
kayaks from larger powered vessels once offshore when fish
have already been found with depth sounders, or even hooked.
Presumably the aim is to experience the fight, to witness the
wonder of being towed around the ocean by a great fish. But
this seems like cheating to me. It reduces kayak game fishing
to a contrived extravagance, diminishing the endeavour and
undermining its potential integrity. The concept was probably
conceived by those bored with hauling yet another fish into
their floating gin palaces. Concocting a challenging and honest
style for kayak game fishing couldn’t be simpler; just paddle
out to where the fish are, catch one and paddle home with it!
How hard could it be?

Risk assessment
To my knowledge no-one has caught southern bluefin tuna
(Thunnus maccoyii) from a kayak before. Clearly some issues
could be expected. Kayaks are small, slow and their stability
is questionable for such a task many kilometres offshore.
Meanwhile SBT are fast, powerful and often heavy. Their
reputation as one of the best fighting fish in the world’s oceans
reflects their speed, power and tenacious endurance. SBT are
capable of swimming at more than 70km/hr. Many Tasman
Peninsula SBT seem to be around 20 to 30 kilos, with the
occasional 100kg monster about too. Conventional thinking
requires a trolling speed of 5 to 10 knots to catch tuna, however
even in good sea conditions fit sea kayakers can only maintain
3 or 4 knots for extended periods of time.
What about avoiding seals ‘stealing’ hooked fish? This has
become a major problem for anglers off the Tasman Peninsula.
Although the whiskered opportunists are unable to catch tuna
alone, they approach stationary fishing boats and happily grab
hooked tuna and literally tear them to shreds. In some places
probably more than half the hooked SBT are devoured by
seals. Frankly its hard to see how a kayaker fighting over a tuna
with a pack of seals could end satisfactorily, for us anyhow.
Individual fur seals can weigh over two hundred kilos, and
like large aquatic dogs, they get very angry if you try to pull
“their” food away from them. They are not to be trifled with,
especially from a kayak.
Despite marauding seals, exposure to weather and the
chance of encountering a great white shark, my biggest worry
was other fishermen. Getting run down at sea, or even having
lures trolled over the top of me was a vivid nightmare. So in
an attempt to manage these various risks the weather was
monitored, paddling fitness extended, visibility enhanced with
reflective tape on the paddle and kayak, and every conceivable
item of safety gear was assembled and stowed within easy
reach. In addition I outfitted an expedition style, sea worthy
5.5m Eco-Behzig sea kayak with fishing gear, notably a
handline, gaff and a couple of lures. The mission was on.

A marathon of paddling
Initially the whole thing was very exciting. Dawn
drives from Hobart were undertaken with a sense
of tingling anticipation. These drives were routinely
fuelled by gut wrenching coffees and thumping
tunes on the car stereo, which may explain some
of the tingling. The paddling began and ended each
day in Fortescue Bay, a sheltered haven amongst
the imposing cliff-lined coast. Each morning it
was a joy to quietly slip away from the pure white
of the beach, to move beyond the shelter of the
bay, heading 8km east towards the rising sun and
Hippolyte rocks. Occasional friends joined the
quest, but most often I headed out alone. There’s a
notable big ocean feel once outside the bay, and it
takes hours of paddling to reach the prime fishing
spots.
Over the 2009 tuna season I spent eight days
kayak fishing. Each involved from six to eight hours
of paddling for a combined distance exceeding
250km. This likely represents more than a million
individual paddle strokes. All conducted without
a single strike or hook up of any kind. Absolutely
nada. Doubts began to grow, resolve gradually
waned, especially since most days I didn’t see birds
working, or indeed any evidence of tuna. Was it
actually a pointless quest, was I kidding myself? Was
I just too damn slow for a trolled lure to interest a
tuna anyway? Perhaps there were better things to
be doing with precious spare time? I was beginning
to get psyched out by the scale and improbability
of the self imposed task. With growing doubts,
jealousy also grew of the smiling happy people on
passing vessels; anglers laughing and chatting with
their mates. Lucky bastards; effortlessly plying the
waters, immune to weather, sheltered from wind and
waves with a gaggle of lures swimming effectively
at high speed behind them.
Eventually it got to the point were I could either
throw in the towel in disgust or somehow reconcile
the low probability of success. So I tried paddling
around with open eyes, taking more in, enjoying the
paddling exercise while consciously lowering fishing
expectations. Long paddling bouts helped gradually
strengthen a shoulder recently broken in a white
water kayaking accident. The head of the humerous
had been shattered by slamming a boulder while
upside down on an alpine torrent. So kayak fishing
was therapy of sorts. The coastal scenery alone kept
me coming back, along with appraisal of potential
rock climbing routes, and a great deal of albatross
watching. I find it fascinating to witness them
effortless soaring across their rolling watery world.
Sometimes I even managed to settle into the simple
meditative rhythm of the paddling. Feeling each
stroke of the paddle slicing through the southern
ocean, while experiencing the swell, the wind and
the ocean’s moods intimately.
By the 8th day of attempts in the 2009 tuna
season though, I was pretty much over it, repetitively
going through the motions with little conviction or
hope. I couldn’t really take it seriously anymore. On
this occasion I paddled slowly nursing a hangover
and contemplating carrot berley technique. Slowly,
miserably I edged passed the lanterns when the
unexpected strike finally came. The handline began
to spin like a top mocking the resistance of heavy
bungy cords pinning it to the deck. In my lethargic
state I barely recognised what was happening. In a
few seconds it didn’t matter anyhow, to my horror
the line went slack, it was all over, the knot had
parted from the strain and the fish was simply
gone. I sat there in despair, shocked and stunned
by the brief violence of it all and the sudden loss.
After all that time and effort a knot let me down,
it was embarrassing, depressing. In retrospect,
despite such abject failure, at least I now knew it
was possible to hook one trolling from a kayak! But
time had run out on the 2009 season, and I’d have
to wait a full year and hope for another seasonal
bluefin migration.

Getting it together
Eventually at the end of march 2010 , near the
Hippolytes the Hemingway dream became reality.
There was no subtlety to the hook up. Game fishing
for tuna is a far cry from sitting on the end of the
pier with a bait out wondering ‘could that be a
nibble?’ Its more like casting from a car while driving
down the road, and hooking a school bus going the
opposite direction. In an instant it was all go. The
rate of line loss was ridiculous, and for a while I was
also towed backwards by the fish. It occurred to me
that I was now well and truly stuffed; I’d finally got
what I was after and wouldn’t be able to cope. But
after a few minutes things calmed down a bit, gloves
helped gradually ease the line loss, and I began to
gain control of the fi ght as it tired from towing me.
After 15 minutes I was surprised to see its silvery
flashes only metres below the kayak.
Although the fight itself went smoothly and
far more rapidly than imagined, getting it onto the
kayak, killing it and lashing it down by myself was
another thing altogether. I developed octopus envy;
a few extra arms would have been very handy. My
paddle was stashed under deck lines to keep it out
of the way during the fi ght. Since the gaff was also
tied off to the edge deck line I chose not to use it
in case the fish charged off and its leverage instantly
pulled me in. Instead I tried grabbing it by the tail
with my right hand while clinging desperately to the
trace with my left, while simultaneously pinning the
reel under my left elbow. Despite getting a good grip
the tuna thrashed away, surging off twice in a spray
of foam and whipping line. A change of strategy
was required. Eventually I got a hand inside the
operculum and a solid grip beneath its gills, which
allowed me to tilt the kayak and drag it on board.
I killed it with a knife and bled the fish to preserve
the meat. Unfortunately there is not much room on
a kayak, and with it lying virtually on top of me I
ended up awash in blood. Luckily no seals or sharks
seemed to have noticed the commotion or come to
investigate their options. All that was left now was
an 8 km paddle home with a 30 kilo bluefin lashed
to the deck. The Hemingway dream was realised and
the grin has barely left my face .