Presented from Issue 104, June 2013
Eaglehawk Neck, located on the rugged Tasman Peninsula, has really become a paradise for those seeking the elusive ‘jumbo’ sized southern bluefin tuna. The ‘barrel’ has become an Australian fishing icon, especially here in Tasmania. People have travelled the country and the world searching for these fish, from Portland in Victoria, right around the Tasmanian coastline and as far north as Bermagui in New South Wales, there are virtually no boundaries on how far an angler will go to catch one of these awesome creatures. Here in Tasmania though, we are blessed with our tuna fishery, especially down on the Tasman Peninsula. Where else in the country can you launch a boat and start fishing for monster tuna just a stone throw away from the ramp? Each year, Dad and I spend at least one week fishing around the Peninsula, targeting one thing and one thing only, the legendary jumbo bluefin.
This year, our trip started a day after local fishing messiah Michael Haley bagged a solid 100kg odd barrel while fishing around the Hippolyte early on a Thursday morning in May. During my morning smoko at work, I received an image of Michael and his tuna, needles to say I was pretty keen for Friday to come and go so I could jump out of my resin and gelcoat stained overalls and into a pair of battle hardened wet weather pants! Friday soon came and I was out of work quicker than green grass though a goose. Dad, myself and our good mate Tim ‘Bunter’ Blight now had a whole week too pursue a jumbo or two! After arriving at Eaglehawk Neck at around midnight, we soon set up shop and got some sleep, the next day was to start our week with a bang.
Gentleman’s hours some may call it, we were still pretty wrecked from the long drive down but still keen to get out as early as we could. After chucking all the gear into the tub, we launched from Port Arthur and quickly made our way around to Tasman Island. As soon as we started trolling past Black Head, I stood up on the gunwale to get a better view. No sooner had I set foot on the gunwale, I spotted one albatross almost running along on top of the water, as if it were chasing something. Chasing something it was! A school of big tuna travelling as fast, if not faster, than the boat! The school was quick to disappear however, so we continued our journey to the Island.
As we approached the Island, we could see there was a boat or twenty trolling around, so we decided to head out a little further, too the east. Time passed and the boats in tight to Tasman started to dwindle, so we eventually started to work our way back in. I was almost asleep on top of the esky when we had our first strike for the trip. The big 37kg outfit on the starboard side suddenly buckled over and almost touched the gunwale as a heap of line was torn from the reel. Bunter picked up the rod and slowly slid from the cabin to the transom as the fish took more line. As soon as we screamed ‘live action’ and ‘jumbo’, the fish spat the hook and we were left with a long face and a thought no angler would like to think. Was that our only shot?
The next day brought with it high expectations, especially since we had launched from Pirates Bay and were heading for the ‘Promised Land’ that is the big Hippolyte. Brendan Wing and the YouFish TV crew were out at the rock already, they probably knew that today was going to be their day! Shortly after the sun came up, ‘Winga’ hooked a solid barrel. It was a blind strike, hooked between the northern face of the Hippolyte and a nasty steep piece of reef called the ‘Pinnacle’ or the ‘Needle’. The YouFish TV crew drifted off into the distance as they duelled with the fish and other ‘natural’ elements. Brendan and the crew eventually landed the fish and ducked in behind the rock for a few well deserved photographs and high fives.
As time passed, we slowly grew tired of trolling around in the same spot.
As soon as we made the decision to move away from the Hippolyte however, a school of fish started to work a bait school on the northern side of the needle, so we quickly shot over for a look. I stood on the gunwale and watched a few smaller fish smash the surface for a minute or two until the rod finally went off. I picked up the 24kg outfit, backed the drag off to about 6kg and let the fish run, just so he could get away from ‘nature’. After I’d let the fish take a little line, I cranked the drag lever up to strike. To my surprise, the fish didn’t feel too small. It felt too small for a really big fish, but too big for a school sized sorta thing. Shortly after cranking the hurt up a little, a solid 30kg odd fish came alongside the boat. We actually managed to get this fish past the seals! After that, I finally got to witness a bait ball being smashed to pieces by what looked like Russian submarines. They were everywhere. They just wouldn’t take anything! We did manage two solid albacore at the end of the day though which was a pleasant surprise!
Monday arrived and we knew we were going to hook a barrel or two, landing one unscathed was going to be the ultimate challenge. The morning passed and it started to rain out at the Hippolyte, it became perfect bluefin weather. Time passed and a few other boats turned up, all looking for a big fish. It was just about lunch time when the Russian submarines returned to the surface for a feed. They were everywhere, yet again. I’m talking everywhere too, under the boat, behind the boat, in front of the boat, they were just about launching into the boat! With all the boats working around and around the same school of fish, the sea literally turned into a whirlpool of white water, seals, redbait, krill and massive bluefin. Stu Nichols aboard his charter vessel ‘Big Pig’ was the first to hook up. In the midst of all the chaos, I just had to try and capture these fish on my DSLR, but no sooner had I taken a picture of the lucky customer hooked up aboard the ‘Pig’, the one and only 24kg outfit in the transom bent over and the poor old Okuma reel started to scream. I turfed the camera up to dad, who was behind the wheel at the time and picked up the rod.
The first thing I did was turn the clicker off, that baby was making one hell of a racket! Considering that once again we were faced with marauding fur seals, otherwise known as ‘nature’ like I mentioned before, multiple boats and lines going everywhere, I backed the drag right off and let the barrel take as much line as it wanted. Once we had cleared the deck and moved away from the whirlpool, I cranked the drag up to strike. Ok, lever up on strike and the fish is still going. I bumped the drag up yet again, all the way to the stopper, fish still going, not good! It was over in a matter of seconds. The giant powered off around the ‘Back Reef’ of the Hippoltye and severed my connection. I was devastated, another barrel lost! After that, the fish shut down and never returned to the top. Stu ended up landing his fish, it went a touch over 90kg from memory.
When Tuesday came around, we knew it was only going to be a matter of time before we hooked another one. It wasn’t a matter of if, just a matter of when. We gave up on the 24g outfit and replaced it with a 37kg stick that Stu Nichols kindly gave us to borrow. After trolling around the southern face of the Hippolyte for an hour or two, as usual, the fish returned to the surface to feed. This was the biggest school of any type of fish I have ever seen! The school stretched from the northern face of the rock, all the way south and past the back reef. They were feeding for well over half an hour before we finally hooked one. Once again I was trying to photograph the fish as they jumped around the boat when the 37kg outfit beside me slowly bent over.
I picked the rod up once again, set the drag to strike and held on for dear life! This jumbo didn’t take a whole lot of line. Instead, it looked like it was trying to stay with the school of fish still feeding on the surface behind us. By the time the school had finally dispersed, the fish still seemed to be swimming up on top. After a while I started to wind a little line back onto the reel, unaware of what was stalking my fish. I fought the fish all the way to the boat, which didn’t really take too long, but as soon as we could see it swimming just below the surface, a gigantic bull seal appeared out of the depths and grabbed it! After all the time, effort and money we put into finding one of these illustrious fish, a seal had bitten and killed it! I was heartbroken!
We spent an hour chasing my fish while the seal had its way with it. Once we got a gaff into the barrel and hoisted it aboard, the seal simply swam off, seemingly content with his ‘glorious’ kill. The fish hit the deck with an almighty thump and bowled dad over in the process! There it laid, the fish I had waited so long to see, chewed and disfigured. It wasn’t the result we had all hoped for, but I was thankful the seal had let my fish go. It really would have been awesome to let this barrel swim away unharmed, but unfortunately, it was the way the cookie crumbled that day.
Once we took a few photographs and bled the fish out, we decided to head back and weigh the magnificent beast. It weighed in at a touch over 111kg, a new personal best for me! The eagle had finally landed.
Wednesday and Thursday brought with it the same sort of scenario. The fish would begin feeding on the surface, usually during lunch time or right on the tide change and after trolling around a school a few times, we would hook up. Dad managed to hook an unstoppable monster on his Saltiga S-Extreme spinning outfit on Wednesday, which ended up spooling him. We had the hammer down trying to gain some line on the fish, but we just couldn’t keep up! On Thursday, we hooked another one between Fortesque Bay and Hippolyte. Bunter was on the rod, but after an hour long fight on 37kg, the fish spat the hook after one last effort to escape the wolves. I actually saw that fish launch clear of a pack of pursuing seals. It was incredible!
Friday was the same again, only this time we actually landed a fish!
It was early in the morning, before the tide change when we hooked our last barrel for the trip. I picked up the screaming 37kg outfit one last time. This time I let the fish take plenty of line, as I had done earlier in the trip. The rock had almost disappeared on the horizon when I finally kicked the drag up to strike. I wound the fish all the way to the boat with a seal hanging off it. The fish must have been killed while I was letting it swim away from us! After getting a gaff into the fish, the seal cleared off and we hauled yet another mangled barrel into the boat. This poor soul had half his head chewed off! It was the last fish for the trip and weighed in at 100kg.
Believe it or not, after landing two monster fish, being spooled, broken off and simply smoked by numerous other fish, we decided to head home. It was a fantastic little adventure and I’m really looking forward to doing it all again next year. If you head down to the Peninsula for a crack at one of these fish, just remember to keep an eye on the tide change, make sure you stay with the fish while they are feeding and most importantly, make sure you match the hatch while choosing the lures to run in your spread!