Pedra Branca Bluefin Bonanza
Tim Anderson tells the tale of an extraordinary fishing event-fishing for Southern bluefin tuna off Tasmania's south east coast.
Arrival 1 June
At 4.05pm and full of anticipation I stabbed the key into the vehicle ignition, left work and headed directly to Southport to meet a group of friends. A weather window had opened up and given us the opportunity for a two day shot at larger than average southern bluefin tuna off Southern Tasmania at Pedra Branca in the southern ocean.
Reports had been coming in for several weeks that fish to 80kg and more were being caught, mostly from larger boats and charter operations. Smaller craft were also joining in on the action albeit when weather permitted and the fish were still there and on the chew.
On my arrival at 8.20pm I located the boat "Ice Age" which would be our 25ft assault platform for several days and set about waiting for the group to return from god knows where. Our accommodation was great and we had a choice of several locations. The second option was taken on a subsequent trip and proved more fishermen friendly.
Information regarding where to stay was gained from the internet and our choice was Southport cottages, which was well priced and very comfortable. Another crew had hired one of the locals" shacks for a little more than a carton of premium beer for each night and also were happy with lodgings. The details of how they came to stay there are not known to me, however I have heard that several of these shacks are let out by the owners.
The night was spent checking drags and setting up gear. Reels were fitted with wind on leaders and the lures had shorter 400lb traces to enable easy handling of larger fish boat side. One of the crew (we shall call "Rob") had brought a 1942 broom handle rod which was fitted with a reel which can only be described as an elephant gun (it threw a leg out of bed later in the trip). On first appearance it appeared he had purchased a "jousting pole".
The following morning we slid the boat into the ramp and Cookie fired life into the twin 150s and waited for Rob and me to park the car and join him and Mason. The ramps were excellent and fairly new, however just prior to moving the vehicle Rob inadvertently decided to closely inspect the surface of the boat ramp.
This highlights that even new ramps can be very slippery, but luckily all extremities, cranium, hips remained undamaged and in their respective positions and we were luckily able to continue. The ramp is deep enough and excellently positioned to launch most, if not all trailerable craft.
Having passed the first hurdle we soon faced the second only a short distance from the ramp where the water shallows and a sand bar needs to be negotiated. "Animal" (another boat travelling in company) was kind enough to find the shallow water and mark it for us (on the plane). After a little help from the crew with paddles the skipper was back in business and we continued east and into the channel.
To negotiate the sand you need to stay close to a small island passing on the Northern side. A careful approach will enable easy navigation past this bar even on low tide. The water then deepens and becomes easily navigable. The approximately 30 nautical mile run to Pedra gave us several options. Once you pass Southport Island you can turn and head inside Actaeon and Sterile Islands toward Recherche Bay heading out at Whale head or go wide outside the Islands.
If you choose the latter course give the islands a wide berth as breakers can be seen outside the islands and there are a lot of reefs and foul ground around and up to several miles off the islands. Once you are at Whale Head, Pedra lies about 15 miles to sea in a south easterly direction, a good GPS or plotter should be used when heading to Pedra.
I would not recommend going in seas bigger than a 2.5 metres and check all the weather and swell forecasts. The best sources are "Bureau of Meteorology" (BOM) and "buoys weather" government internet sites. These will give wind, weather and wave height information and are far more accurate than channel X.
Slowly but surely Pedra loomed larger as we approached it was covered in birds, seals and guano. To the North was Eddystone Rock which is a needle towering some 50 metres from the water. We immediately deployed a squid and several pushers on 24kg and 37kg gear.
We had not travelled 100 metres in trolling mode before both pusher clad rods buckled to the deck and screamed line off. I have never seen line peel from 37kg so easily before. The 24Kg rod did not stay solid for long and Rob battled an 80kg plus bluefin with his jousting stick for around 30 minutes before it cut us off at the boat (can't believe that the rod was actually able to bend).
It took minutes of trolling again before a rod again went off. The squid were retired as pushers became the flavour of the day. Generally a variety of larger and smaller lures, both pusher and straight running should be tried to find what the fish are eating. Watching out the back the fish could be seen smashing the lure, leaving a large hole in the water or coming clear of the water on occasions. Free swimming fish were regularly observed smashing up bait under the birds and around seal packs.
To tag or land these fish a good boat man is required; and expect a lot of circling around to keep the seals at bay. We had several nice fish killed at the side of the boat or taken by seals and as such had to keep several fish. The helmsman will need to keep the boat above them or to chase if the fish turns on the afterburner. Fast reaction, boat speed, constant communication and manoeuvring is the key to keep the line from tagging the engines.
Tuna usually swim in circles and the task is made easier if the boat is used to circle in the same direction whilst the angler pumps and winds the fish up. Circling also leaves less opportunity for angry seals to grab the fish and kill it. I promote tag and release where possible and adhere to the two fish limit. I don't begrudge any one of taking a fish, but in doing so hope they consider when making that decision the longevity of the sport and the enormous pressure these fish are under.
A good quality stand up harness and bucket is required due to the length of the fights and the pressure on the body. Anglers need to keep the pressure on and this can be achieved by squatting to lever the rod upwards and then winding as you stand to recover line. If the line parts then as we discovered a smack in the forehead by the rod is not uncommon.
Over the course of the first day we landed, tagged and released or lost about 15 fish. Only three of these fish were below 50kg and most around 75kg. The seals are large and nasty. We heard via radio of a deckie on a large charter boat being grabbed on the arm by a seal sliding up the marlin board to take a fish. These seals will happily grab and devour 80kg fish and we observed several flinging captured carcasses into the air after eating their fill.
The rest of the day saw birds hitting the sea all around us in scenes that looked like heavy tropical rain, although the temperature hovered around 13 degrees. Getting on to the fish was as easy as heading toward the nearest pack of birds and before you arrived bang! As such we only deployed one or two rods at a time as any more were too difficult to handle. Triple hooks-ups on large fish spells "buy some more gear". The fish will often go in different directions and often any manoeuvring will cut one or more of the lines, or a tangle / spooling will be the result. The rule of thumb is, if the fish are running hot keep the numbers of rods down.
Day one was not all beer and skittles as Rob alone sacrificed over $180 in lures to the great god Poseidon, (the rest of us were not far behind). All were lost by break-ups or massive strikes and anything lumo was a delicacy. These cold water fish pull very hard and I submit 24kg gear is a minimum tackle. We were often broken off on 37kg. One of the 50ft Riviera boats on day two was using 60kg and was broken off numerous times!!!!.
Surprisingly Mason took last strike resisting the urge to brush all aside to get to a rod. His "custom" new 24kg Sabre, was top notch gear and he released several 75kg plus fish. This rod was a replacement for one that exploded into pieces on a large mako off St Helens (whilst testing some "Peter Pakula" theories).
On the day after my departure Mason tried the "big lure big fish theory" and was shortly after rewarded by having his 14 inch pusher lure hoovered by a Collins class submarine. The fight was indicative of a much larger than the average 75kg plus specimen and several glimpses of the fish speculatively estimated it to be triple figures. It was not to be however and the fish broke off after several hours.
Day two of the trip was much the same as the first however the action had slowed a little so we ventured out to a reef known as the Flying Scud. This lies about two miles South East of Pedra and the bottom sharply rises from 120 metres to about 9 metres. I cannot say if the tide was in or out however I believe this does break on most occasions and the waves can stand up to twice high as high so caution is required.
A 50ft Riviera had drifted off from most of the boats and did not return for several hours. The reason we later found out via radio was a double hook up on 90kg plus and a triple figure fish of 113kg both of which were landed.
Huge Thursday, Massive Friday
I now like to refer to the two days, (Harry you missed out) as described in the title of this paragraph. The fishing was way better than one fateful day last year on a day (we like to call "Big Wednesday"), where Mason and I hooked, lost, and caught yellowfin between 30kg and an estimated 90kg plus. That day yielded a nice fish of 57kg for Mason and I was told I would never see tuna fishing like that again.
How wrong could we have been (Harry you missed out again)!The catches of large bluefin off Portland Victoria had us all juicing at the extremities but after a trip south I can now say "Portland you got nothing baby". After an average year Mason capped with a 63kg record yellow fin on 15 kg then 5 - 6 Jumbo Blue fin at Pedra.
Every boat we saw had at least one if not more anglers bent over the side like u-bolts. On the radio, charter operators after the first half of the day chatted about struggling to convince someone to go and wind the fish in. Most anglers were spent and were not keen for subsequent goes at having fingers and arms stretched like to look like crayfish legs.
The trip certainly took away the mystery of the place and for first timers I suggest travelling with or in company of another craft that has traversed the distance before. This certainly makes a difference and adds a little bit of a safety factor. The seas here are treacherous and have taken life before so always keep an eye on the sea. Leave if you think it's getting worse or is going to cut up because it's a two hour plus journey back to the ramp.
Sometimes (due to windy conditions) as favoured by the southerners are weighted straight squid skirts about 8 inch, but on this trip the lures were basically anything that was a pusher style in 10 inch size like lumo Salt Shakers, Meridian lumos or general pushers in purple/blue, combinations green, or clear/pink ones.
The pushers on the top were getting hammered straight up most likely because the bait was on the top. This is supported by the bird action we saw.
Was a bit hard to set more than 2 rods in 500 metres of trolling!!!!
As the rock is a long journey and the remainder of the day is spent trolling around, serious consideration should be given to carrying extra fuel on board, (there is nothing between you and Antarctica if you run out). As a rough guide boats with 200 litres and under, powered by a large capacity motors should take extra fuel on board.