Fall in the North Atlantic, the currents of life quicken. Great birds grow restless and suddenly are gone. Sensing change, shoals of fishes gorge themselves on smaller ones. And though ecologists still cry doom, with cause, the strangest things are happening: the weakfish have returned to Long Island: at Nantucket the bluefish are bigger than ever; and, most stirring of all to anglers, off Prince Edward Island, Canada's smallest province, the largest bluefin tuna ever seen are being caught.
Last fall a giant bluefin weighing 1,040 pounds was taken there, the first half-ton tuna ever on a rod. And so were 10 others weighing more than 900 pounds—more bluefin that size than had been caught in all the annals of the sport. Then, just south of Prince Edward, with winter closing in, a fish of 1,065 pounds was landed off Nova Scotia; it had just left Prince Edward, the natives said, and scientists were inclined to agree. So it hardly comes as a surprise that last month the man who caught that fish, Glen Gibson of River Bourgeois, Nova Scotia, tied his boat to a Prince Edward dock, or that a 941-pounder has been taken, this one by Albert van der Reit, a South African who has a lifetime bluefin catch of 77 fish. All the world's big tuna men are on Prince Edward Island now, gathered in body or in spirit on this brand-new paradise.
There are other tuna ports, of course, legendary ones such as Wedgeport, Nova Scotia, for 25 years synonymous with tuna angling, until the quarry vanished; Bimini, where the tuna have come north each spring for decades; Point Judith, R.I.; Provincetown on Cape Cod; and, more recently, Conception Bay and Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland. But they are forgotten now by the big-time tuna fishermen, all but forsaken for Prince Edward Island, where only five years ago tuna was something the natives bought in little round cans at the North Lake grocery store.
For centuries the only large fish around the island were sharks, huge ones, or so the lobstermen claimed. 'There's no point learning to swim," they'd say. "If I fell over, how far would I get?" And then in 1967 a Nova Scotian, Bruce Oland, came up and landed an 855-pound tuna, the first bluefin ever taken in the province on rod and reel. The next year a few local lobstermen went out, and with very little knowledge got 14 more, two of 930 pounds and one of 960, the three largest tuna taken anywhere in the world that year. The fall of 1969 produced 31 tuna, one of 970 pounds, a mere seven pounds under the world record that had stood for 19 years. In 1970 there were 99 tuna caught off Prince Edward, including the 1,040-pounder, and nearly all were landed from half a dozen old lobster boats fishing two or three miles out of one small harbor, North Lake.
October 3, 1971
For tuna anglers the whole thing appears to be an agreeable accident of nature. Prince Edward Island lies in the shallow Gulf of St. Lawrence. It is above the crags of Nova Scotia and only 160 miles southwest of Newfoundland, where summer is a brief interval between icebergs and icebergs and swimming is a sport for seals. But the island belongs somewhere else. In summer the gulf is as warm as the waters off Atlantic City. Vacationers from Maine have been known to drive 250 miles north for the first comfortable swim of their lives.
What brings the world's largest tuna to Prince Edward? Only one man has seriously studied the question—James S. Beckett, an ichthyologist with the Fisheries Research Board of Canada. "The St. Lawrence is a gigantic nutrient pump," Beckett explains. "In coastal waters each spring there is a burst of phytoplankton. The plankton depends on mineral salts for growth, but in most areas these are depleted in a few weeks and the plankton growth is reduced. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, though, the warm river water is especially fertile. The river also creates a season-long upwelling of deep, mineral-rich water in the gulf. The level of phytoplankton produced is maintained, providing continuous forage for the larger zooplankton and on up through shrimp and young herring and mackerel, the bluefin's favorite food in the area. And, of course, the distribution of large predators is dependent on the food supply." Research indicates that the Gulf of St. Lawrence around Prince Edward Island is the biggest mackerel spawning area in the western North Atlantic, and there is very little commercial pressure on the mackerel. "Underharvested" is the word Canadian authorities use. The tuna have come to harvest.
No scientist has studied the island itself, however. Prince Edward is often called "the Million-Acre Farm," and from the air it resembles a vast gently rolling, multicolored quilt: neat rectangles and squares of mustard yellows, deep and pale greens—potatoes, hay, oats, wheat and barley—and the brick red of the fertile soil. If the St. Lawrence River's fertility is important, then Prince Edward's many rivers must also be a factor, considering the land they drain and all the nutrients they wash to sea. Probably this explains why first the mackerel and then the tuna have come so close to shore.
But none of this accounts for where the tuna were until 1967, a mystery whose solution may be credited to a burly, 52-year-old former commercial fisherman named Wesley Fraser. Fraser had fished out of North Lake all his life for lobster, cod and mackerel, despite the sharks, whose dorsal fins dotted local waters from July until early winter. Fraser is a bright, engaging, vital man, but like most islanders he never paid too much attention to what went on anywhere else. Life was exciting enough at home. At times it was a challenge just to row across North Lake, a big tidal pond connected to the ocean by a dredged, quarter-mile channel where the tuna boats now dock. One Sunday afternoon in 1939 Fraser was out in his skiff when he saw "a huge shark, right in the lake. The damned thing came up under the boat, knocked the oars from my hands and near capsized me. It was the closest I ever came to drowning.
"A week later we set a mackerel trap and caught it. I'd never seen one that close, but it certainly looked like a shark to me. It had that big fin, you know. It was exactly 11 feet long and it weighed a thousand pounds."
Soon afterward another one came into the lake. Fraser was digging clams on a nearby flat when he saw the fish stranded with the falling tide. So he ran home and told a friend, who came back with a .22 rifle and shot it. Something kept bothering Fraser, though. He wanted to know if this was the same kind of shark he had been seeing all his life. As he wondered, a dozen years went by—who could answer such a question?—but in 1952 he "wrote an uncle of mine up to New Haven, Conn. and he got me a book from the library that had information as to what the different kinds of fish looked like." The book came, Fraser studied it and—confusion—the pictures of sharks did not look like the sharks he had grown up with at all. But other pictures did, pictures of tuna. Finally he returned the book to New Haven, where his cousin paid a 23¢ overdue fine. Fraser was convinced his "sharks" were bluefin tuna. The next step was to catch them.
"I'd heard fantastic stories about expensive equipment," says Fraser, "so I just didn't do anything." No one else on the island had done any research comparable to Fraser's, and for the next decade "Fraser's tuna" was one of the more popular Prince Edward folk stories. "I knew what they were," he says, "but I didn't know how to convince the world."
During this time Fraser kept telling fellow islanders that "tuna fishing could really build up our tourist business." Wedgeport was tuna capital of the world then; everyone knew that. And in the early '60s, when the Wedgeport fishing went bad, people started listening to Fraser. At last, in August of 1966, the Prince Edward Island Travel Bureau sent a fishing boat up to North Lake with tackle and a skipper. On the first day, less than a mile out, they hooked and lost a big fish. The act was repeated time and again until the season ended: strike, hookup, lost fish. But the next summer brought the 855-pounder—and the real start of Prince Edward Island tuna fishing.
In July of 1968 the provincial government hired a veteran Nova Scotia guide named Aubrey Purcell to conduct a free 10-day course for anyone who wanted to be a tuna guide. Wes Fraser took it, as did four other commercial fishermen, but that was all. People move slowly on Prince Edward Island; only five lobster boats fished tuna from North Lake in 1968, catching 14 more bluefin, including the 960-pounder and the two 930s, one of the latter by a client of Fraser's. He hooked up at 5:50 one evening and Fraser gaffed the fish at 11:30 the next morning, a fight of 17 hours and 40 minutes. "We were still a little green," Fraser says now. "We were afraid to tighten up on the drags."
Another islander to take the course was lobsterman Derrell Collings, now at 42 a lean, quiet man with deep creases fanning out from his eyes. The legal lobstering season is only two months long, so all his life Collings had dragged for scallops and dug for clams, tough winter work that ages a man. "Fishing is a job that gets you, though," he'd always say. "You always feel you'll have a good year, and there's no one to boss you." Tuna fishing would be like that, he thought, and it would also be something new. That was appealing. So Collings went to a mechanic and for $200 had a fighting chair made. No fancy chrome, just red-painted steel with a cushion and the bottom of a barber chair bolted to the floor of his old boat.
One morning in August 1970 Collings took out two New Jersey anglers, and a tuna struck at one p.m. It was on for two hours before they saw it—the only time they would—but the tuna saw them, too, and took a dive in 90 feet of water. Unlike Wes Fraser earlier, Collings urged the angler to tighten the reel drag, but the client was afraid the line would break and he refused. Six hours later, at nine p.m., Collings had to take over the rod; at two a.m., exhausted, he stuck it in the gimbal and roped it to the chair. The tuna had been pulling the boat steadily for 13 hours and, Collings admits, "I didn't know where we were." The rod had started splintering, the cork grip was peeling away and for three hours one of his clients had been begging him to cut off and head back. Finally, at three a.m., the line snapped. Looking out over the water, Collings recognized the flashes of the Cape George, Nova Scotia lighthouse; the tuna had towed them 40 miles. With the fuel low they could not chance heading back to port, so Collings waited until daybreak, landed on a Nova Scotia beach and hiked up the road to a gas station. It was 2:30 p.m. when they finally tied up at North Lake after a 25½-hour odyssey. Collings says, "Judging from the size of its tail, that tuna would have weighed 1,200 pounds. But then I've seen fish jump out of the water here—completely out—that would go 1,500."
The world record stood at 977 pounds then. On Sept. 8 a 980-pounder was brought into North Lake, but that was nine days after a 985-pounder was caught by Dr. Richard Hausknecht off Montauk, N.Y. Two weeks later a Derrell Collings client, Mel Immergut from Brooklyn, N.Y., hooked the 1,040-pounder and brought it to gaff in 38 minutes. Collings had learned a great deal about boat handling by then, and Immergut was fishing a very tight drag, on the theory that if a giant tuna is not boated in an hour the odds switch away from the fisherman; hooks can pull out, lines can fray, or at Prince Edward Island the fish might break off on one of the many trawl or lobster traplines in the shallow gulf waters. The angler's attitude is kill him before he kills you, and the intense pressure takes its toll at both ends of the line. Three days earlier Prince Edward Island's attorney general, Elmer Blanchard, lost a very large tuna after a 45-minute fight, stood up, collapsed and died. He was 43 years old and had never been seriously ill.
The last tuna of 1970 was brought into North Lake on Oct. 10. The fish did not disappear after that, but the winds began blowing from the north, making it impossible to get over the shallow bar at the harbor mouth. Two weeks before Christmas, Wes Fraser drove his truck to the bluff near North Lake. He stood on the roof with binoculars, and a quarter of a mile out in the gulf, he saw a school of tuna swimming in circles as if wondering where to go next.
The sandbar outside North Lake is still there, and it seems a ridiculously small obstacle for the most successful tuna fleet in history, but Prince Edward is a land of obstacles. North Lake must be the least pretentious big-game fishing center on Earth. A jumble of gray shacks cluster along the channel, homes for lobstermen and tuna fishermen in season. The year-round population is 90. A small restaurant sits on the bluff just west of the harbor, and while the clam chowder would never draw raves from Julia Child, at least it is clam chowder—and the only show in town. As for living accommodations, one goes elsewhere. Since the tuna do not arrive until mid-July and by mid-October the boats are stuck behind the sandbar, the motel business would be too seasonal to pay. The nearest place to sleep is a six-unit motel eight miles away, but so far most tuna anglers have stayed 40 miles south at one of the three motels in Montague and driven to the fishing boats each morning, past bright fields stretching down to the sea, along little dirt roads that lead to lonely, dune-lined beaches. It is easy to forget about the fishing.
Prince Edward Island is shark-shaped, facing east with a wide-open mouth. Montague is at the hinge of its jaws and North Lake is four miles in from East Point, the nose. Until this year all the giant tuna had been caught in one six-mile stretch from East Point to Campbells Cove, just west of North Lake, but the shark is 120 miles long, and there is no reason why there should not be tuna all the way to its tail.
One week this August the mackerel schools disappeared and fishing fell off at North Lake. When the newspaper reported huge commercial mackerel catches at the island's western end, two visiting anglers drove west toward Malpeque, a little town on the largest of a dozen or so bays on the island's north side. Someone was reported to be fishing at Malpeque, and at the dock were two boats with fighting chairs. Hanging nearby were two tuna, both well over 800 pounds. "See Bruce Champion," a man said. "He began the fishing here."
Champion, who was aboard his boat, heard his name mentioned and came out of the cabin. Last year he was a 36-year-old potato farmer with a boat he used for weekend mackerel fishing. Then in September, he said, he went tuna fishing for the first time, at North Lake. He hooked a bluefin, lost it, came home, rigged up a fighting chair in his boat, sent away for tuna tackle and waited for the winter to pass. On July 11 he caught a 725-pounder, a week later one of 750. He began taking an occasional paying passenger, and on Aug. 14 one of them brought in an 885-pounder. Since then four fish of over 800 pounds have been landed.
Another Malpeque fisherman is Alphonse Le Blanc, a tuna guide from Wedgeport. The fishing went bad there nine years ago, he said, and he began chartering out of Halifax 130 miles east. But the tuna disappeared there, too, so this August he brought his boat to North Lake, only to find the natives would not let him fish. "I didn't want their charters, I had my own," he said. "But they didn't want no strangers, period. They wouldn't even sell me bait. They said I could stay, but they wouldn't be responsible for what happened to my boat."
Le Blanc had begun fishing at Wedge-port in 1935, and stayed there through its golden era. He pulled out a yellowed appointment book from those early days and opened it to a smudged page. "Can you read these names?" he asked, and one was unmistakable: Franklin D. Roosevelt. But Wedgeport could not compare with Malpeque, he said: "I've never seen such a run of big fish as they've got here. At Wedgeport 50% of our tuna were under 300 pounds. And mackerel? I thought I saw a lot down home, but that was nothing. Those tuna come here to eat."
He began shaking his head, as if searching for something to explain it all. "You know," he finally said, "I suspect there's something different about this Gulf of St. Lawrence." A listener, who had fished at Bimini, nodded in agreement. "For one thing," he said, "there aren't any sharks here."