Steaming out of the North Lake Harbour on Prince Edward Island, your mind can only imagine what you may encounter. Articles you may have read, videos you may have seen and stories that sound like pure fiction fill your thoughts. Could this place be everything that you have been told it is? You’re damn right!
The sound that a 130-size reel spooled with 200-pound Dacron makes when a giant bluefin tuna takes the bait only feet from the transom is almost impossible to describe. As is an initial run of 300 or 400 yards of line effortlessly stripping off the reel by a fish that is so large it’s hardly bothered by 40 or 50 pounds of drag. Then there’s the throbbing tail beats that lift you out of the fighting chair with the fish straight down at color. The vision ends, watching the fish of your lifetime swim away after a clean release.
At the island we chose to fish with Tony’s Tuna Fishing on this adventure. I fished with Capt. Tony MacDonald’s fleet back in 2012 and was extremely pleased. MacDonald was the first to bring the catch and release charter idea to the island. He runs a fleet of six boats, all equipped with fighting chairs and high end tackle. Each craft is a converted lobster boat in the 45-foot range—and is built like a tank.
The tackle ranges from 130 reels on large, bent butt rods to 80-size reels and stand-up rods for the daring angler. A key to his operation’s success is that his fleet works together. They are constantly on the radio or cell phone finding out who is hooked up or where the school of fish is located.
All of his captains fish the same areas and follow the same protocol. We have fished with three different boats in the fleet and have had great experiences on each. My favorite part of the trip is when the fleet breaks out the bag of mussels and cooks them right there on the boat to enjoy. After a whole morning of eating lobster sandwiches, “making room” is tough, but I had no problem! These are just a couple of the added perks with Tony’s fleet.
This particular trip included Scott Dahlem from PCS and my buddy Joe Zammit from Australia. Both had heard the stories and viewed the videos and photos. They had seen the mount of the 900-pounder at the office, but nothing takes the place of seeing things first hand. Anticipation was high as Scott and Joe prepared for the trip; weekly emails from Joe were filled with questions of how things would go down. Daily conversations with Scott and viewings of the last trip kept the excitement in the air. But three weeks before the trip, Scott had an accident and fractured his leg. Because it was a fracture and not a full break, the doctor gave Scott the choice of a hard cast or a soft brace. Scott chose the soft brace knowing that this was his only shot he would have at catching a giant in his condition; there was no way to fight in the chair with a hard cast on.
We decided to stay in one of Tony’s well-appointed cottages just a mile from the harbor. There are three, each equipped with stove, refrigerator, microwave, barbecue and all the utensils and dishes. They are two bedrooms—one with a larger bed and one with two smaller beds. You can also sleep a guy on the couch. The price is comparable to a smaller room down in Souris, but then you would have to drive a bit to the boats each day. These were literally right down the street from the boat.
A great feature that the cabins offer is that Tony and Bradley’s mother will make you a lobster dinner with potato salad, scallop bake, coleslaw and a dessert for a minimal fee. Let me tell you, there is nothing like a home-cooked meal! One night we grabbed some mussels and steamed them up at the cabin as well. The town of Souris is a short 20-minute drive away and has a few restaurants to enjoy if you want to head out to dinner instead.
When we arrived at the island, we headed up to North Lake to see the boats return from the day trips. We talked with a few of Tony’s deckhands and captains and found out the fishing that day had been nothing short of outstanding, with all six boats in his fleet catching two giants apiece! The docks were hopping with a nice 800-pounder that was weighed in by one of Tony’s boats. To put it lightly, sleep was tough with the anticipation of giants the next day.
Let the Games Begin
Capt. Bradley MacDonald had us meet him at the boat for a 7 a.m. start. When we arrived, his deckhand Matt had everything ready on the boat so we shoved off to the grounds. The winds were light and the day was off to a great start. Shortly after leaving the harbor we arrived to the live bait grounds to catch mackerel. After jigging for a bit, we had a tank of large mackerel and were ready to head over to the area of the herring fleet, just a short mile away. Once we arrived we got word that it had blown pretty hard the night before and the fleet had just recently set their nets. They were not marking giants like the day before so we moved a half mile or so away and started a drift.
Here they typically will fish three live bait rigs while blind drifting. One is fished deeper, rubber-banded off to a water bottle as a float a short way from the boat. The next one has a water bottle as well but is a bit more shallow and closer to the boat. These are rigged up with 180-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon and a Mustad circle hook on a Okuma Makaira 130 or a PENN International 130-sized reel since we chose to use the fighting chair. The last rig is flown off a kite. One great part about the kite is that you can use a larger hook and larger leader such as the 400-pound we were using since the line isn’t dangling in the water. This also gives the bait lots of action as it thrashes on the surface.
The deckhands will typically cut herring and mackerel chunks for bait and toss a couple every few minutes on the drift. When they mark a tuna they will then begin to throw whole fish as chum. As you watch the meter you can tell if the fish responds to the chum as he will move up in the water column. Early on we marked a couple fish but they were not interested in what we had to offer. As the day went on it became apparent that the fish had moved off the feeding grounds for the day.
As Capt. Bradley called around, we learned the other boats weren’t even marking fish. After finishing up our mussel snack we actually marked another fish and shortly afterward our short rod got smashed. Unfortunately, the fish didn’t eat the bait down far enough and we never came tight.
I am pretty sure we were the only boat in the fleet to have a bite that day and that situation is a prime example of why you always want to book a minimum of three days when going on a big game fishing trip. There are many factors that come into play when chasing monsters, including weather, migration and feeding schedules. If you book the minimum three days, you will make sure you get your shot. Also try and keep it to three guys or less per boat to ensure that everyone gets their shot over those days. Piling six guys on a boat for a couple of days will not get the job done. Knowing that the fish had been there the day before and that they moved in and out of the feeding zone, it was obvious things could change on a dime. And boy, did they!
A Brand New Day
Day two started off with the typical bait catching, which was done very quickly, then off to the herring fleet. Unlike the previous day, however, fish were being marked. The baits were set out in the same fashion, but this time the marks were frequent. Still, they weren’t responding to the chum too well so minds began to wander. Then all of the sudden the kite rod got crushed. It looked as if someone had dropped a car in the water!
Joe quickly jumped on the rod and climbed in the fighting chair. His fish made a huge run out to sea showing no sign of slowing down. Bradley then jumped on the throttle and started the chase. The Australian had battled a giant 800-pound black marlin on the Great Barrier Reef, so he was no novice to the fighting chair. Once the fish settled down, he was able to gain ground and work the fish toward the boat.
The fish was tough and made some head shakes that pulled Joe around like a rag doll. After the first 30 minutes he pushed the drag forward, driving the pressure upwards of 45 pounds. The fish succumbed and within 15 minutes we had the fish boatside. We got a clean measurement and judging from its giant girth, they estimated the fish at around 850 pounds, a personal best. It was a great feeling seeing a friend experience something for the first time. After some photos Joe cut the fish loose and it swam away to battle again.
Later in the day it was Scott’s turn on the rod. The captain set us up a bit outside the herring fleet to avoid the risk of losing fish. Fishing near the herring nets can be dangerous as the fish tend to run straight for them, tangle and break off. Just outside of us a commercial boat was doing battle with a giant and just inside of us a charter boat was hooked up for a time but hung up in a couple of nets.
While we gawked at the boats around us doing battle, Matt noticed a few marks on the meter. He started chumming heavily while Capt. Bradley carefully let out a live mackerel to get a natural look. Within seconds the line ripped from his hands and we were on!
Scott jumped on the rod, but at first the fish didn’t do much, pulling a little line then shaking its head in succession. The guys briefly thought we were hung up in something, but eventually the fish started peeling line. Scott handled the fish remarkably well in the chair even with the busted-up leg. The fish was tough and did a lot of fighting on the surface in the final minutes.
Once we got the fish to leader, it was the perfect size to harvest and the boys brought out the gear to keep the fish. Each commercial boat is given one tag to harvest a bluefin for the year. The fish was quickly lip hooked and let out behind the boat to calm down. We then slowly maneuvered into the harbor to weigh the fish. I am guessing this was a first to have a guy with a broken leg catch a giant bluefin up there. On the scale the fish hit 649 pounds, nice and round, just the way they want them.
In Pursuit of a Grander
On the final day, with my guests having landed the fish they had come for, it was my day to try and hang the grander. Dad let one go last trip that was well over 120 inches and way over the mark, and I had one that was 113 inches. It looked as if it may have made it, but without hanging it on the scale we really couldn’t call it. (We were prepared, though, as Capt. Tony had a tag and would use it on this voyage if the fish was over the mark.)
We caught bait quickly and jetted off to the herring fleet. Tony had got a call from his uncle that the bluefin were feeding right off his starboard side. We slid up and watched an amazing show of power while we fed giants boatside. Most were in the 500- to 800-pound range, but one big one stood out and looked to be well over the thousand-pound mark. We tried to lure the bluefin away with chum but could not get them to budge.
Eventually, Tony got the okay from his uncle and we dropped a bait. Our fingers were crossed as the fish would have to swim away from the nets to be landed. For our respect for the herring fleet, if the tuna went toward the nets, we would have to button the drag and break off the fish.
Our deckhand Cory slid a herring with a hook in it over the side along with a few free swimming baits. Right away the big one ate our offering and we were on. We knew the chance we had taken. Unfortunately, the brute ran right at the fleet and Tony gave the order to lock down the drag.
Sometimes you get lucky and the fish respond and come with you, but when you are talking about granders they don’t walk on the leash well and we broke it off. Still, we slid back up for one more shot at the tuna. We were on again instantly, but the same scenario played out quickly.
Our captain was frustrated and made a move outside the herring boats so we could get our fish. The move worked out and we were bit quickly. And this time the fish ran the right direction and gave us quite a show with some outstanding runs. We pushed the drag up quickly and it fought straight up and down for a half an hour. Cory grabbed the leader when the fish was boatside. It was another beautiful giant but not the one we were looking for—maybe 600 pounds—and it was released.
High fives went around and we gave it one more effort seeing charter boats are allowed to release two per day. We ran over to Tony’s herring net and tied off for a spell. We started marking quickly but they were not responding.
About an hour went by and we saw a small swirl under the kite bait. We ran back with the cameras and started filming. We witnessed one explosive strike after another but it just wouldn’t stick. Then as we watched a fish swirl on it one more time, our short rod got bit. We were literally seconds away from having a double hook up on giants!
The fish started peeling line and I jumped in the chair. This fish fought the entire time on the surface, which can be a sign of a big one. We inched the drag farther and farther up as the battle went on and the bluefin swam around on the surface, almost taunting us to catch it. After 50 minutes it came to leader and Cory pulled it alongside. It was a monster, but not a guaranteed grander. The call was made to let it go, and after photos the fish swam into the depths.
Clearly, this was another amazing trip with Tony’s Tuna Fishing. A life-changing experience is one way of putting it, but I am still wanting more. I cannot say enough about his captains and crews. They are the most professional and courteous people in the business, and I wouldn’t choose to fish with anyone else. I will be back next year in pursuit of a confirmed grander.
Note: The season runs from the end of July to well into October and fish are present the entire time. To book your own adventure of a lifetime, log onto www.tonystunafishing.com and book your dates for next year before they are sold out.