Fish of a lifetime Huge southern bluefin tuna
Geoff Madden's day off with his sons was heaven sent.
Fishing for me has always been a part of my life. Growing up living on the banks of the Derwent River, and having a family holiday home on the East Coast, gave plenty of opportunities from an early age to throw in a line. I'd lived in a family where any sort of fishing-fresh or salt water-was the norm, and somehow, I'd passed on this passion to my sons as well. We'd always welcome the chance to get out on the water- even if it meant taking a day off work if the conditions suited and the opportunity presented itself.
Being self-employed in the building industry gave some flexibility with time, and having my two sons working with me as carpenters meant that we could choose the hours that suited us best. Working on the Tasman Peninsula was always going to have its perks-but two months into a house renovation job we were doing at Premaydena, the boys made the comment "I thought there were going to be more perks with this job".
Well that set me to thinking-If I don't do something soon, team morale is going to go down pretty quickly. The fishing season (tuna) for us had been a good one. We'd caught plenty of albacore, and after 8 years of trying, we'd had our first taste of Southern Bluefin, catching our first "schoolie" blues earlier this year.
The year was moving on though and we were into May, and the next few weeks were looking busy, with our weekends already accounted for, with no opportunity for fishing. With that in mind, I'd packed the boat (a 5m Tristar with a 90 hp Yamaha 2 stroke outboard) away for the winter, as the bluefin had gone quiet for the last week anyway, so we didn't think we'd be missing anything.
That was until I read an email from Stuart Nichols (Personalised Sea Charters) saying that the bluefin had turned up again and that this may be the last chance to have a go at "the big ones".
It sure sounded enticing-what had we to lose except a few hours of work. So the decision was made to tow the boat to work and leave it on the job for the week and just wait till the weather looked good, and we'd give it a shot.
The day was Tuesday 5th May, and the evening before was looking calm following a hard blow on the Monday. Monday 4th May was looking really nasty on the water with 40 knot South Westerlies keeping all the boats on their moorings and on the trailers. But by evening, things were calming down quickly, and looking good for the next day.
So the day dawned-Tuesday 5th May, and the alarm went off at the usual time of 5.30 in time to prepare for work at 6.30. After checking outside, looking at the sky, seeing the wind direction, and listening to the 5.55 weather forecast, we decided to head to sea to give the big blues one last try.
We were at the boat ramp at Eagle Hawk Neck by 6.30, and with just 4 other boats out, we sensed that it wasn't going to be crowded on the water. Usually going for the day, we had never set out without catering with plenty of food for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea. But this day we had nothing, (other than emergency supplies stowed in the bow) as we had thought we'd be back on the job for a late morning tea, ready for work, dressed in our work clothes and Blundstone boots.
What had been the norm for the year, was that we'd have a guest crew on board to give them a treat-tuna fishing and sightseeing for the day. That usually meant that I (Geoff) wouldn't get to fish, as the crew and guests always took priority. Today however, there were just two up on the boat, so we decided to each fish with our own gear - two rods apiece, and we'd each choose our owns lures.
I was running a small Penn 45 GLS with 15 kg line and a Penn International 50V SW, spooled with 37 kg line. My son Ben was running 24 kg line on his Penn Senator outfit and another Shakespeare combo with 24 kg line.
So off we headed-father and son-Geoff and Ben, making a direct line for the Hippolyte Rock. We stopped short, and started running the lines as we came up to "Foxies" and had our lines set by 7am. The morning was brisk with beanies and jackets essential for any degree of comfort in the chilly 5 - 10 knot North Westerly breeze. The water looked "fishy", with plenty of bird - and seal activity. Because the Hippolyte had been so productive, our fishing plan was to fish till 11, then straight back to work.
We'd been trolling for 3 hours (now 10am), circling both the big and little Hippolyte Rocks, with the occasional wider run as well-but absolutely nothing was on the bite, not for us, or any of the other boats out for the morning. My other son, Chris, was out on another boat for the day and following some radio talk we decided to "split up", as they had also caught nothing. They'd go one way and we'd go another in order to cover more ground to try to locate some fish. They decided to head for the (Continental) shelf and we decided to head south. By 10.30 the call came over the radio from Chris that the albacore were going "ballistic" out on the shelf. Ben and I were done, after fishing for 3 1/2 hours without a strike, we were just about to head back to work. Anyway- I looked at Ben-he looked at me, and we both thought that at least a couple of albacore would be a good end to the season rather than go back empty handed.
By this time, the sun was well up, there were no clouds, the wind had dropped and the remnant SW swell sneaking up the coast earlier, was all but gone. So we went up, up and away and sped out to the shelf to quickly get a feed of albacore before our prearranged curfew time of 11am. Inshore, around the Hipplolyte, we were running some of our bigger lures for the "blues". A recently acquired "killer vib 200", and old "Zuker", a gold "laser pro" and a large blue pusher type lure were on offer. Out on the shelf, we knew the albies were taking the smaller lures, and green was the colour. So after a quick change downsizing our lures, we were all hooked up to the albacore, a few quick ones on board, and true to our word, we were calling it a day by 11 am.
With the sea conditions so calm, we again planed our way back in from the shelf, heading for work. I thought as we neared the Hippolyte and this would be the last pass for the year, why don't we just troll the lures from the big to the little Hipploite-then that's it for the year. After all, it would only put an extra 10 minutes on the day.
We approached the reef on the outside of the big Hippolyte and still had our small albacore lures on, but decided that we'd just use them anyway. We could see that there was a foam wash from the reef running south and thus decided to pass to the south of the reef as it would be darker running our lures under the foam and wash, but it was just where about 20 - 30 seals were enjoying themselves.
Being Christians, we always sought God's blessing on our trips to sea, and just at the completion of running our lines, unbeknown to me, Ben was offering up a prayer-.praying specifically for 4 things-That God would provide a big fish, that it would be on the new 37kg Penn outfit, that it would cap the season off, and that it would happen NOW. Well no sooner had Ben finished praying, and the line started stripping from the reel, just as we trolled the lures through the foam and in between the seals.
The sound of the reel screaming was sweet, but my initial thought was that we'd hooked a seal on the way through. This soon changed as the first run was maybe 60 - 80 metres of line, and the fish went straight to the bottom and stopped. I knew a seal would need to come up for air, so after about 5 minutes, it was clear that what we had hooked was in fact a big bluefin. For us, anything bigger that 27 kg was going to be big, because that was our previous biggest fish, but just how big was going to become apparent later in the day.
By now, any thought of work was as remote as flying to the moon. We were fixed on somehow-sometime-.landing this fish. Initially we could do nothing. The fish had stopped, and the rod was hard on the gunnel of the boat with a full bend. I was unable to lift and unable to wind. I was content just to sit in this holding position for maybe the first 10 minutes. Then, the fish backed off and I was able to get some line in. I guess the rest of the fight is a similar story for so many other anglers that have been in this situation so many times before us. It's a tale of sheer grit and determination, together with patience and a genuine appreciation for the fact that this fish, as majestic and powerful it may be-could possibly end its life following the ensuing fight.
I had been in this situation 2 years earlier, when we were in a tussle with what would have been a 70 - 80 kg Yellow fin and following a 1½ hour struggle and getting the fish to surface 3 times, my patience wore thin, my ego and determination took over, I tensioned up the line and thought-now I'll just wind you in-.. Alas the fish broke the line; I took a deep breath, and learnt a huge lesson that day.
Nothing gets wasted in the wonderful world of fishing. Every expedition, every fish, every person's story all gets tucked away in the memory bank for drawing on at some stage in life. So having this big fish on the end of the line now, I knew that one of maybe 10 or a dozen things could happen at any given point of time, which would end this fight.
The line could bust, the hooks could straighten, the hooks could pull out of the mouth, the rod could snap, we could get spooled, the seals could attack, we could suffer from cramp in the hands, arms and legs, it could get dark before we finish, the weather could deteriorate, the crimps on the leader may give, the knots could slip, the swivel could fail or we could lose the whole rig overboard complete with gaffs. With so much to concentrate on, we realized that if this fish was to come aboard, we would have to defy the odds.
So the battle continued, and we knew that we were in for a long haul, sometimes with nothing happening, sometime with intense activity as we put the boat in gear and pursued the fish at pace as it stripped line in amazing displays of power and speed. I had the strike drag set at 8kg, and was content to leave it at that for the first hour so that if it wanted to run-it had the freedom to do so.
This was certainly the pinnacle of my fishing experience in terms of remaining calm, sharing a lifetime opportunity with my son and enjoying the emotional rollercoaster that we were on. I knew I had to share the rod, I didn't want to do it all on my own, I couldn't let Ben just sit and watch for hours while I did all the work. Somewhat reluctantly, but also thankfully, I said to Ben- "C'mon mate, time to step up". We shared the rod. I had the first 50 minutes then Ben had half an hour. It was during Ben's stint at the reel that I had the opportunity to prepare the boat. One question that so many have asked following the catch was "How did you get it in the boat?" It's a question that I had given much thought to prior to this day. We had 2 gaffs on board, both of which I had tied rope loops in the end of. I knew though, that the power and size of this fish could easily tear the gaff from our hands once the gaff was lodged, so I tied the gaffs to the boat with some ski rope-just in case. I had a large thicker rope on board that I use to lash the boat down while travelling, and prepared a slip noose in one end of it, then tied the other end to the boat. I knew that if we could somehow manage to lasso its tail, the fight would be all but over.
All this time we were in contact this Chris, my eldest son, on the other boat which was in close range, and keen to offer assistance if and when required. As time went on, we still had no idea of the fish's actual size. In my mind, I was thinking maybe 80 - 100 kg which was a 50 kg lift each for Ben and me-no doubt a struggle for two guys to get a fish that size into the boat, but quite possible. But something niggled in my mind, "What if this fish is something extra-ordinary, something special?" As I thought through the process of getting this fish on board, I realized that we were still a man short. One needed to hold the rod, one to place the initial gaff and hold the fish, one to place the tail gaff to lift the tail from the water to stop it's power-that made 3, but we still needed a fourth person to place the rope around its tail.
I cranked the lever tension up a couple of notches to 10 kg of drag to really have a go with low gear.
By this time 2 hours had passed and the intensity had begun to rise. We had seen the fish a couple of times, circling about 15 metres below. We had been towed about 4 km south from where we first hooked up, but even so-the seals had followed. "Look out!!!"....Another scream from the reel, line again stripping off, the seals lining up for an easy meal, how was this fight going to end? We needed help. It was time for Chris to jump ship and come aboard our boat, for what was to be the final showdown.
Thankfully, there was a supply of albacore heads caught earlier that we could offer the seals as a decoy while we tackled the tuna. Ben had the rod, Chris had one gaff, and I had another. The anxiety levels rose, the fish inched its way nearer as it circled beneath us-and the seals continued to chuckle and frolic just metres from our boat.
So much seemed to happen in such a short space of time. The fish was getting closer, the seals were getting closer, the arms were getting tired and the line was getting stretched. We thought the fish was getting in range to gaff at any minute. The line was up to the "wind on leader" and we could see the fish quite clearly circling below. Even seeing the fish so close, I was still only expecting it to be about 100 kg, or about 1.5 metres long. The first couple of gaff attempts just "bounced" off the head, but this, understandably, rattled the fish enough to take another dive.
Again the next few minutes seemed like hours, but all our planning and preparation was about to pay off. We had just run out of albacore heads to feed the seals as a decoy, so this was our last chance to land the tuna. As it circled and disappeared under the boat, the leader was chafing along the chine, then hitting the skeg of the outboard-.things were tenuous-.and in the balance. I was now hauling in the leader by hand as Ben struggled to wind with the full weight of the fish now on the rod. We planned that the next pass of the fish as it came out from beneath the boat was going to be it.
Here it comes-.ready-..GAFF--WOW!
What an explosion of water and tail thrashing from this huge monster from the deep. The first gaff landed just behind the gills, but looked fairly superficial. I went for the second gaff in the tail-.YES! -..Look out!!!-.. This tuna was so much bigger than what we'd thought. The cockpit on our boat was about 5" long, but the fish was so much longer-7 feet maybe. It was thrashing so intensely at the side of the boat, we were all getting drenched with the spray. Two gaffs in now, but it wasn't over yet, we had to noose the tail. This fish had saved its most awesome display of power till the end. We'd run out of hands, we were still a man short. Ben had the rod, Chris had one gaff and I had the other. It was all we could do to just hold the fish with the power of it thrashing and the sheer weight of it. The gaffs were at their maximum, bending with the weight. The seals now knew that this was their moment also, so they moved in for their share. This was so intense, so much going on. Chris shut his eyes, gaff in one hand, and rope in the other, next moment-the rope was around the tail, and tight.
This was another one of those "God" moments. How did that noose actually get around the tail while Chris had his eyes shut? No way was this tuna going to escape now.
But if we didn't get it aboard pretty soon, the seals were going to enjoy tuna mince for tea.
We were able to haul it around to the back of what now seemed to be our tiny boat. We knew that if the three of us were on one side hauling the fish over the side, we may have sunk a gunnel and filled the boat with water, so we knew the transom was our only hope. With all our might, and another shot of adrenalin, we managed to heave ho one more time to drag the mighty tuna over the back of the boat. As it came aboard, because we were all hauling so hard, it finally came with a huge THUD as it landed on the floor. The three of us all tumbled to the front in an exhausted heap. We looked back-we couldn't believe it-this enormous fish now lay motionless on the floor of the boat.
We were unanimously ecstatic with cheers, hurrahs and high fives everywhere. We'd done it! After 2 hours and 15 minutes, we'd landed the fish of a lifetime. This was extra ordinary. This was defying the odds. This was truly supernatural. We needed 10 minutes just to savour the moment, to take it all in, to enjoy the achievement. But we were still yet to be blown away by its weight.
It was now mid afternoon and no-one else had landed a bluefin this day, but with all the radio chatter, word quickly spread that we had landed a big one and that we were heading for the weigh station at Pirates Bay. No one was confident to call its weight. Ben and Chris had seen an 88kg fish weighed in the week before, and they both knew that it was bigger than that - without a doubt - but just how much bigger?
It wasn't till some time later, after we had some photos developed and studied them that we realized that no-one had actually taken the hook out of the tuna's mouth. What must have happened is as soon as the gaff was lodged, the lure released itself. It was just the constant pressure of the taut line that kept the hooks in place. Much speculation was made about the lure-what size, what brand, what colour? Well it was actually an "unbranded" squid type bright green lure that would have been in the $2 clearance special bin as you walk out the door of the tackle shop, nothing special.
As we rounded the point at Pirates Bay and made our way into the jetty, we could see from the boat that quite a crowd had begun to gather. It was certainly a greeting that we were unaccustomed to. It was like we were royalty almost...but folks weren't gathering to greet us, they wanted to see the fish. It was far too big to think about tossing it up onto the jetty, so we hauled the boat out and parked it adjacent the weigh centre. Stuart Nichols, one of the local and well respected charter operators was on hand to assist with the weighing. He offered his certified scales to accurately record the size-the all important weight.
Just getting the fish out of the boat was nearly as much a struggle as it was to get it in the boat. We were able to recruit some onlookers and that made the job that little bit easier. As this huge fish hung lifeless on the girder, there was much talk and exclaiming as to the sheer depth and broadness of it. This was going to be the telling factor. The first attempt to lift the fish onto the scales resulted in the astonishing fact that the scales were being pushed to the limit-the reading was in fact off the scale. Stu then made the comment that this was going to go past 300 pounds. This was no ordinary 100 kg fish.
After a few attempts, we managed to finally get the fish clear of the ground and swinging free on the scales-then the counting began. The scales read 300 pounds, and we calibrated the over run to be an extra 24 pounds-so that was the call -Stu exclaimed 324 pounds! The conversion was quickly made then the number 147.27 was cried out-.WOW, 147 kg. This was certainly well up there in terms of how big these southern blues actually grow. With all the bluefin caught and weighed in Southern Tasmanian waters over all the years of game fishing, this was to be the second heaviest ever, just falling short of the 148.6 kg tuna recorded last year in 2008.
This was truly a granddaddy of the ocean. We were ecstatic, thrilled, overjoyed, amazed, in disbelief, humbled, respectful and proud-all at the same time, but it hadn't really sunk in as to the magnitude of our achievement. I guess history will ascertain where this catch comes in the record books, but it's reportedly the fourth heaviest Southern Bluefin Tuna caught in the world.
Cameras came from everywhere and quickly reeled off a few snaps. But the proud fishermen, Geoff, Ben and Chris stood tallest. Even with the nose of the fish touching the ground, its tail still hovered over our heads.
News travels fast these and by the time we had made our trip home to Lauderdale, there were congratulatory phone calls and well wishers to greet us on our arrival home. The Mercury photographers had been called and they were keen for some pictures and the story. But first we had to get the block and tackle to haul the fish out of the boat.
Because it was now home, and was going to be talked about for quite some time, it was given the affectionate name of "Charlie". So Charlie had now become immortalized into the family and our memories. We delayed cleaning it till everyone was just about photographed out, and then out came the knives-.and the floodlights, as nightfall was now upon us.
Our advice was to fillet it whilst it was still hanging from the tail, so that's what we did. Starting from the top and working down, we quartered the fillets and with gravity working for us, it was a clean, neat job. Once the fillets were finished with, we were curious to see what was in its stomach, which was about the size of 2 footballs. We surgically opened the stomach and to our amazement, there were 3 paper nautilus shells in there with the fish (squid like) still attached. The shells were still intact and would have been on Charlie's breakfast menu that morning. It's apparently unusual for tuna to eat paper nautilus.
So what was going to be a quick fish out in the bay before work, ended up being a full, hard yakka workout that didn't finish till after 10pm that night when the last of the fillets was bagged, labeled, and safely stored away.
With our friends and family's freezers full, we'll be looking for all the tuna variety recipes we can find. Smoked, baked, barbequed, curried, fried, grilled, pated, mornay, quiche and tuna dip were all going to have their turn. If we collect enough recipes, we could have tuna dishes to see us through all winter. So many people have asked the question "What did you do with the fish"? Well, at the time of writing, we counted that there have been at least 130 people who have had some share in the tasting and it's still a long way from being finished.
But what do you actually do with a fish carcass that measures over 2 metres long? After consultation with a taxidermist, we decided that Charlie's head would look just great hanging on the wall above all our fishing rods as a permanent reminder of the sheer size of the fish. He would become a trophy-as he was surely the fish of a life time.
Some measurements for the statistically minded
Weight 324 pounds, 147.27 kilos
Length from nose to fork 204 cm
Overall nose to tail tip 220 cm
Girth 165 cm
Tail width 62 cm
Width across pectoral fins 100.5 cm
Body depth 64 cm
Upon reflection, having the event sink in over the ensuing days and with all the hype now settled down a bit, I know that it really was an amazing set of circumstances that enabled us to boat such a wonderful fish. They were circumstances that were beyond human skill or luck. We had a divine appointment - a God ordained moment - that enabled the result to be what it was. With all the things that could have gone wrong, or broken along the way-nothing did. It was truly remarkable. We thank God for the privilege of being allowed the honour of catching such a wonderful specimen of southern bluefin tuna.