With the flags ofalmost a dozen nations bowing their halyards in a chill Nova Scotia breeze,some 30 boats this week will invade narrow, tide-rent Soldier's Rip 10 miles tothe south'ard of tiny Wedgeport. The mood aboard them will be patience overlaidwith tension, as crews, like the one above, chum and tease to bring giantbluefin tuna boiling in their wakes. For this is the week of big game angling'sWorld Series, the 13th International Tuna Cup Match in which teams of top sportfishermen from all over the world compete for the tuna-mounted silver bowldonated by Alton B. Sharp, a Boston sportsman who helped organize the firstInternational Match in 1937.
Whether thefickle tuna will be cooperative this year, however, is a matter of seriousdebate and much anxiety. No catch has equaled that of golden 1949 when fiveteams boated 72 fish in three days of competition. In the same time last yearseven teams could produce only two fairly caught bluefins, with A. M. WhisnantJr. of New York pumping in a fortuitous 585-pounder to win for the UnitedStates and recapture the Sharp Cup from Mexico.
Actually, theoutlook for 1956's match is not so dismal as the 1955 results might suggest.The herring run is heavy, tuna are in the rip, and Wedgeport is buzzing withmultilingual speculation. It may be "tunny" to the British Empire Team,der Thunfisch to the Germans or, rather appropriately, o at√∫m to thePortuguese. But it is still the giant bluefin tuna they speak of, a fish with abizarre history, a partisan following and a migratory instinct which drives itfor thousands of miles.
To think ofnature's great migrations is to think of Barren Land caribou threading theirpath across reachless tundra, of sheets of wildfowl covering late autumn skies,of salmon struggling up rivers to spawn and die. These are dramatic sights, butno more dramatic than the glimpse man is permitted of the giant bluefins asthey start north in the spring.
September 9, 1956
Toward mid-Maythe first dark shadows poke onto the shallow Great Bahama Bank 50 miles east ofMiami. These are slim 500-pound fish plodding along at a purposeful three orfour knots, not feeding, just moving. School after school, fish after fishfollows, and for roughly a month they pour across the Bank to bore into deepwater at its outer tip. By late June the Bahama migration is over and theangler has taken his toll. Though not hungry, migrating bluefin will, out ofreflex or pique, strike a bait, and Cat Cay and Bimini in the spring rank asthe finest of tuna ports.
Perhaps threeweeks after they have straggled off the Great Bahama Bank, bluefin appear inNew Jersey, Long Island and Rhode Island waters. In a matter of days, morearrive off Cape Cod, in Cape Cod Bay and Massachusetts Bay. Others push on tothe coast of Maine, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The so-called school tuna,those reckless youngsters from 10 to 150 pounds, have by that time joined thegiants. They are will-o'-the-wisps and no one knows what ocean roads theytravel.
The tunapreoccupation now turns to feeding, and they drive after schools of mackerel,menhaden, squid, herring and all the lesser fish life upon which bluefin exist.Rarely do they take a fish over one pound, but they are gluttons for quantity.By late fall when they fade from northern waters those that were 500 pounds inJune may weigh a deep-bellied 750.
The bluefin isthe largest of 12 to 14 tunas in the ocean world. Only two millimeters inlength at hatching time and a one-pound sprout at two months, it will, if itsurvives the unpleasantries of a carnivorous society, in 15 years swell to 500pounds of beautifully streamlined energy (see pages 70 and 71). A patriarch mayexceed 1,000 pounds, though an angler has yet to take one of these.
Man has beenseeking bluefin for as long as man remembers. They were fished commercially inthe Mediterranean Sea in Roman times and still are. The Japanese and otherPacific nations have been tuna fishermen for centuries. Only in the westernNorth Atlantic in that area from the Bahamas to Nova Scotia does the tale takea different tack. There, until the turn of the century, bluefin provoked onlymeager interest, commercial or otherwise.
Then sporting mendeveloped an interest in deep salt water, and the first fish encountered wasthe bluefin. Efforts were heroic, results minimal. The boat was often anoar-powered dory and few reels had the luxury of a mechanical drag. More oftenthey were a vicious free-spool contrivance. Departing line spun the handle likea propeller, and braking power on the spool was applied via thumb. It was onsuch primitive tackle in 1896 that W. Greer Campbell off Avalon, Californiacaught the first rod-and-reel tuna in angling history, and mechanical mattershad not improved appreciably by 1898 when Dr. Charles F. Holder took a183-pounder from the same waters and founded the Catalina Tuna Club, anorganization which contributed much to early tackle development.
To California gothe firsts, and it does not detract from their accomplishment to questionwhether Avalon's Gay Nineties tuna were bluefin or, in fact, yellowfin. Ineither case, Atlantic events were about to eclipse them, and the West Coast wasleft to make its name with other fish.
In 1908 CommanderJ. K. L. Ross, R.C.N, arrived in St. Ann Bay, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.His stated purpose was to catch tuna. He had some light southern tackle, anoptimistic turn of mind and remarkable tenacity. He hooked 22 fish and lostevery one of them before he called it a season. Three years later his firstfish fought for 19 hours and exhausted even the dogged commander, who finallycut his line. He then hooked and lost 19 more tuna. No. 21 he stayed with. Itweighed 680 pounds.
Thirty-nine yearslater Commander Duncan McIntyre Hodgson, fishing in the same St. Ann Bay,caught the present all-tackle world record, a 977-pound bluefin tuna. Hodgsonhad Ross's old guide. Hodgson was, in fact, Ross's son-in-law. In those fourdecades big game angling and its tackle was bred of the quest for bluefintuna.
The 1930s werebright years for bluefin. With prodding from a tuna disciple named MichaelLerner, Wedgeport converted itself for sport fishermen. Tuna were found on thewestern edge of the Great Bahama Bank near minute Bimini and Cat Cay, and in1935 Ernest Hemingway took the first fish there. S. Kip Farrington Jr., anindefatigable angler, was right behind him. As a matter of fact, by this timetuna were found all along the eastern seaboard, and some anglers, for whom itis never quite enough simply to catch a fish, began to wonder where the bluefinwere before they trekked past the Bahamas. And where did they go from theirsummering grounds? Those anglers became amateur scientists, badgered truescientists and even donated healthy sums to find the answers.
The anglercertainly did not force tuna research; he did, however, with time, funds andenergy broaden the scope of investigation. Some endowed laboratories andfoundations for general ocean research which have, at one time or another,contributed pieces to the tuna puzzle. Wendell Anderson has provided valuablesupport to Yale's Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory, and the Charles F. JohnsonFoundation is sponsoring intensive bluefin effort at the Marine Laboratory ofthe University of Miami. The names these organizations bear are all wellregarded in sport-fishing circles (Wendell Anderson's son John W. II is amember of the 1956 U.S. tuna team), but there is also the Woods HoleOceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, the National Geographic Society and theU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and they too have an interest in the Atlanticbluefin.
And there are thescientists, the marine biologists and ichthyologists, many tuna anglersthemselves. They have explored and studied. They have tracked tuna by plane andboat, tagged them, caught them and taken them apart. They have asked questions,correlated tens of thousands of observations, and innumerable anglers havecooperated with interest and energy.
Bit by bit,during recent years, more pieces have gone into the puzzle, and it has takendefinite shape (see map, page 69). There is, to be sure, still controversy andthere will be until man solves all the mysteries of the sea.
What, onewonders, is the lure of the bluefin? It is not the largest game fish; thePacific black marlin is that. Neither does it jump like the marlin. It runslong, sounds deep, and a man has likened the catching of one to hoisting a buswith the doors open from the very floor of the ocean. Yet both men and womenbecome addicted to tuna. Perhaps there is in them a little of Hemingway's OldMan and the Sea, or of the mountaineer. Whatever they may feel, there iscertainly an abiding respect for the bluefin and its epic battles against rodand reel.
There was thetime, for instance, in 1934 off Liverpool, Nova Scotia when six anglers tookturns and fought a tuna for 62 hours though they were well aware that the fishwas foul hooked and if not disqualified for record consideration on that countwould be because more than one man had handled the rod. And there was the timewhen Mrs. S. Kip Farrington Jr. fought a bluefin for 10 hours and 25 minutesthough she knew all the time it was a small fish as far as records go.
There have beenmany other such struggles. When an angler hooks a bluefin he never can tell howlong it will take him to win or lose, and that too is a characteristic of tunafishing.
In Nova Scotiathe boat is a rough-built lobsterman temporarily rigged for the summer or falltuna angler. Elsewhere in bluefin waters it may be a charter boat or almostanything seaworthy up to a specially constructed $80,000 sportfishing craft. Inthe stern of each there is a fighting chair of varying refinement that looksand works very much like a backless barber chair. In it sits the angler. Bentaround him is a harness which snaps to the reel. That reel is probably size12/0 which means it can hold 500 to 800 yards of 39-thread line with a wetstrength of 117 pounds. The rod is glass (a few sportsmen still use bamboo) andthe tip with its high, roller guides weighs about 28 ounces. The notched rodbutt fits in gimbals on the angler's chair. Tuna are taken on lighterequipment, but this is big game tackle as it has evolved since the pioneeringdays of Commander Ross, Laurie Mitchell and Zane Grey.
If the angler ischumming and drifting, the strike may be gentle. If he is trolling, it is moreoften hard. The skipping bait vanishes in a great churn of water as if a stovehad dropped on it. The angler is lifted forward off his chair and the reelskirls a song like no other as the fish strips off 300 yards of line againstthe drag. The tuna veers this way or that and leaves great bellies of line inthe water. When it stops or turns, the angler can settle down to the businessat hand. He takes the strain on his harness, driving with his legs as anoarsman does. The heavy rod arcs as he lies far back to gain line andstraightens as he leans forward to crank it on the reel. The mate turns thefighting chair. The captain watches. The way he handles the boat is a factor inthe outcome of this match.
The tuna runs,circles, lunges or sounds. The angler paces himself. He gives and takes. He maywhip his fish in half an hour, or in many hours. That depends on the man andthe fish. Then too, he may lose it at any time from start to near finish, butassuming he does not, the fish eventually tires. Finally, it is by the boat, agreat blue and silver creature nine feet long and with a full fathom girth. Theangler slacks his drag against a last run, the mate takes the leader, anotherman sinks the flying gaff. A tuna is boated.
In Wedgeport,Nova Scotia this week angling teams from eight nations hope for like battles.They have traveled a total of 500,000 miles with no other purpose than to catchand talk tuna—from Germany, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Cuba, Portugal, bothcoasts of the United States and many corners of the British Empire. They arebluefin tuna anglers and nothing would satisfy them more than to fit the poetOppian's description written over 17 centuries ago of a Mediterranean bluefinfisherman:
His armsstretched out, his cracking shoulders bow,
And furrowed frowns contract his ardent brow,
Each length'ning muscle to its tendons strains,
In livid ridges swell the bloated veins.
...Tunnies, and he that's named from beauteous dye,
Cetaceous kinds, a strength like this apply,
But by the arms of swains like these must die.
MIGRATORY SEA ROADS OF THE GIANT BLUEFIN TUNA
Journey's beginning for tuna comes at the spawninggrounds (1) where primary spring migration movement brings the fish from theCaribbean around the west end of Cuba, through the Florida straits and up overthe Great Bahama Bank. Traveling northward, the 500-pound adult fish passBimini and Cat Cay (2) in May and June and reach Montauk, Long Island, and theRhode Island coast (3) in late June and early July. Of all tuna summeringgrounds, including Cape Cod Bay (4), Wedgeport, Nova Scotia (5) has long hadthe biggest concentration of tuna from August to September. This year they arebeing fished as high as Newfoundland (6), but as winter months come they turnback for their southward migration which takes them past Bermuda (7) and on tothe Lesser Antilles (8). Winter migration continues in a westerly direction offthe Venezuelan coast (9) and by February-April bluefin are running pastJamaica, B.W.I. (10). Another possible spawning ground may be in the WindwardPassage (11) and scientists believe that some tuna head north (see brokenlines) through the Passage and also up the Old Bahama Channel (12) and MonaPassage (13). A further spawning ground is suspected south of Cuba (14) but sofar is unconfirmed. Most recent report on tuna movement was the sighting lastwinter of large concentrations in the Gulf of Mexico (15), especially off theMississippi Delta region.
WHAT IT TAKES TO CATCH GIANT TUNA
Reeling in, Neumann M. Harris of U.S. team is model ofwell-accoutered tuna fisherman. Basic equipment includes: 12/0 reel withadjustable mechanical drag ($75-$645) holding 500 to 800 yards of 24- or39-thread linen line ($25-$65); gloves both to guide the line and increasepressure on fish (50¢); high-roller guides on rod to minimize line friction;sponge-rubber-padded kidney harness (app. $25); fighting chair steered by mateso that angler is always pointed at fish (up to $550 for chrome-plated models);rod holder (app. $18); rod, usually glass, which is more durable than bamboo($50-$150).
BIMINI CAT CAY