The Boom or Bust Tuna Trip

THINGS didn’t start out so well. After driving half the night to get to Bermagui and getting only a few hours of broken sleep in the back of my Navara ute, I wasn’t exactly happy when a bloke with a serious case of tuna fever accidentally drove his trailer into my outboard while we were getting the boat ready in the carpark. The collision resulted in the skeg on my E-TEC 175 snapping clean off. Bugger!

After surveying the damage, and getting the contact details of the deeply apologetic trailer driver, we finished getting the boat loaded with supplies, lures, bait, outriggers and a big esky full of ice. It would take more than a damaged skeg to stop us. Personally speaking, I reckon I would have swum out there – I was foaming to get amongst the fish! For those who are interested in such things, the busted skeg didn’t seem to affect the boat’s performance to any great extent, apart from increased cavitation and noise at speed.

After we’d sorted the boat, and I’d collected all the pieces of broken skeg scattered around the gravel carpark, we regrouped and started thinking about our plans for the day. All the reports we had were that the southern bluefin tuna were fewer in number than on previous days but of bigger average size. As long as they were still there, we didn’t care what size they were.

I saw Fisho writer Lee Rayner at the ramp. Lee, a well-known SBT specialist who runs the successful Fishing Fever tackle shop in Melbourne and is also a presenter on the popular Adventure Bound fishing TV show, told me he’d caught and released a 110kg tuna the previous day. He’d also boated a 100kg model plus released multiple smaller (30-40kg) fish. Lee quickly gave me an idea of where to head and after a quick discussion with my companions, Fisho’s Chris Yu and keen young Shoalhaven angler Guy Jamieson, we positioned the Fishing World Bar Crusher in the growing queue of boats waiting to launch. We were all pretty excited by the news of 100kg+ fish – that’s a big tuna by anyone’s reckoning.

Once on the water we headed east and slightly south. The sea was calm with the wind barely more than a whisper. We quickly reached the shelf line – Bermi, like my home waters of JB, is close – 10-12 miles – to the shelf – and set a spread of lures – a Halco Laser Pro on the short corner, a Rapala X-Rap 30 for the long corner, a JB Lures Dingo in Evil on the short rigger and a small red and black Blacks Snacks pusher on the long rigger. I ran a Sebile Bonga Jerk down the middle for a while but pulled it in after thinking about what would happen if we had five lures all taken by big tuna …

We trolled south-east for a few miles before getting the first strike on the Halco. It took drag on the 15kg Penn International – but not much – so we didn’t call it for a rampaging 100kg+ southern bluefin. As expected, it was a smallish albacore which was swiftly dispatched and put in the ice slurry. We ended up catching several more tasty albies on the deep minnows.

The word was that the SBTs were southwards, east from Tathra. We headed that way and eventually spotted several boats all working the same patch of water. The radio chatter revealed that a few fish had been caught on the troll and that cubing was resulting in more and better tuna.
We trolled for the next hour, wanting to hook up and then start cubing in the hope that we’d get a school of hungry tuna behind the boat. We gradually headed east, sighting pods of dolphins and pilot whales and following a few birds in the hope they’d lead us to the fish.

The guys on Frigate, a Wollongong boat, caught a couple of fish half a kay ahead of us and immediately started cubing. They hooked up to a beauty on 37kg gear and kindly called us over to see if we could catch one of the fish in their trail. We set up our own cube trail and I got a good run almost as soon as I started stripping a whole pilly back amongst the cubes.
I came up tight to a good fish just as Guy also had a solid bite. Unfortunately Guy’s fish failed to hook up – his pilly came back bitten in half. So while Guy and Chris continued cubing and stripping back baits, I hunkered down in the starboard corner to experience my first southern bluefin tuna.

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I was using one of the new Makaira 30 two-speeds loaded with 15kg Sufix mono. The fish took a few short runs then settled into a dogged up and down battle, making three more good runs and doing the usual tuna circle work before I got it boatside. We called it for about 40-50 kilos and after a few photos we bled the mighty tuna and slid it into the ice slurry. To my way of thinking, there’s no point taking a tuna if you’re not going to look after it – bleeding and icing these great fish maximises their eating qualities. If you haven’t got a big esky full of ice then you are better off releasing any tuna you catch – left on the deck, they quickly turn to red mush. Treat these amazing gamefish with respect so that you can enjoy fresh tuna with family and friends – to do otherwise is just wasteful.

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We kept cubing but it soon became obvious that the school had moved on. That was the story of the day – the fish were flighty and hard to pin down. We put the troll lines back out and got a double hook up, one on the Halco and the other on the Rapala. Both fish scorched off and Guy and Chris fought them back almost to the boat before the hooks pulled. Disappointed, we set the lines again and started trolling north, back towards Bermi. The sun was starting to set when we pulled the lines in and headed back to port. The sea was still calm, which was good because we had a 26-mile run ahead of us. Back in Bermi harbour, we cleaned the tuna and albacore, ending up with a respectable pile of fresh fish which we carefully bagged up and put on ice. The flesh of our fish was firm and clean, thanks to our ice slurry. I noted other anglers cleaning tuna that obviously hadn’t been iced down – they didn’t look all that appetising …

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It was amazing to see how many trailer boats there were coming out of Bermi – anglers from as far away as Melbourne and Sydney had obviously cancelled all work and other commitments when they heard the SBTs were on. I know that’s pretty much what I did – I had work to do but I canned it, thinking a chance at a big SBT just doesn’t come around all that often. The payback was that I spent a fair chunk of the weekend doing work stuff. It’s a price I was happy to pay.

It’s interesting to look at this developing SBT fishery. For the past few seasons more and more bluefin have been making their way up the coast. These fish have sparked a gamefishing boom in SA, Tasmania, Victoria and southern NSW. The economic benefits this now annual run of fish brings to small coastal communities like Bermagui are significant. The wider economic fallout obviously spreads to the marine, fishing and tourist industries. Charter operations, boat builders, tackle distributors and retailers, fuel outlets, pubs, holiday accommodation venues, plus all the other businesses that rely on fishing and fishing tourism, all stand to profit from the southern bluefin tuna fishery.

The key to ensuring that the economic and social benefits of this fishery are maximised is for us – ie, anglers – do our bit to look after the fish. We need to show moderation with the tuna we take. In NSW, an angler is allowed to take five SBTs under 90cm and two over 90cm. That’s absurd, in my view. No-one could possibly eat that much tuna. No-one needs that much tuna. I reckon proactive angling groups like ANSA should lobby fisheries departments to mandate a catch limit of one southern bluefin tuna (of any size) per angler and a maximum of three per boat. The mandated use of circle hooks when cubing will help ensure that fish which are released are in prime condition. Lure caught fish should pose no problems for effective C&R and basic fish handling techniques – such as minimising time out of the water and so on – have been proven to work on other gamefish such as marlin. Sensible recreational bag limits, combined with effective C&R procedures, strict commercial quotas and international action to prevent countries like Japan from poaching SBTs, will help these fantastic gamefish to continue their comeback from near extinction.

My take on this is that if we act responsibly towards bluefin stocks now the upshot will be that SBT stocks will continue to improve season after season. This will mean that these fish will continue to thrill anglers and also bring much needed socio-economic benefits to towns like Bermi.

What do you reckon? Should we take action to ensure that recreational fishos are seen to be doing all that we can to help SBT stocks continue to improve? Or should we just make hay while the sun shines and catch as many of the fish as we can? I’m interested in your thoughts and ideas.

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