Giant Bluefin Tunas
Bahamian Style Tuna Fishing
Historically, bluefin tuna season starts in the Bahamas about the middle of May and goes through the first two weeks of June. If the wind blows before or after this period, fishing can be good but the fish will be difficult to bait because there will be lots of singles and doubles which are hard to see on a cloudy day.
During the last four years there has been little southeasterly or southern wind in May and each year June has had low pressure systems come through bringing wind, clouds and rain.© Captain Bill Harrison
I remember when 12 or more boats would arrive in Bimini for the three or four weeks of tuna fishing every May. Docking in Bimini, we envied the 15 or more boats that fished out of Cat Cay because they arrived earlier and stayed longer during the season.
They also had a short run to tuna alley where most of the fishing is done. Tuna alley is a white strip of sand that starts just west of Gun Cay and runs for 15 miles to the south separating the deep blue Bahamian waters from the shallow bank.
Much of the shallow bank has miles of white sand making easy to see the tuna. The schools of bluefin migrate north along this edge and frequently go shallow when the water is clear. Every tuna fisherman wakes early with the hopes of wind out of the southeast to southwest.
The harder the wind blows the better! The ideal fishing day is one where there are southeasterly winds, north current and good sun light. A hard wind out of the southwest causes lots of fish to march up the edge but baiting these schools in 60 or 80 feet of water is hard with the waves breaking, and sometimes flooding the cockpit.
Bluefin tuna fishing is a team sport. A good tuna boat has a captain, a spotter, a man running the cockpit and, most importantly, an angler who is willing to use heavy tackle. Really heavy tackle! The spotter’s job is to ride in the tower with the captain. He will direct the mate in the cockpit when a school of tuna is seen and baited, leaving the captain to concentrate on controlling the school of tuna.
As the boat travels south down tuna alley, the group in the cockpit gets to eat, drink, talk and have fun while the captain and spotter concentrate on finding a school of bluefins. Once a school of tuna is spotted, the boat comes around and prepares to bait the group of fish. The crew in the cockpit then takes on a more serious mode since the chance of the “big bite” is always there.© Captain Bill Harrison
Each group or school averages 10 to 30 fish and everyone is big. I have not caught bluefin less than 500 pounds in the last 40 years. Since those in the cockpit are looking aft, straight down the line as the boat baits the school, they usually see the spectacular strike. The spotter is passing the instructions from the captain to the cockpit as he watches the perimeters of the school. If you get outside of the last tuna, the school will frequently accelerate and pass by, making it hard to start the process of baiting again. Every boat now uses 200-pound test or heavier. The days of fishing a tuna tournament with 130-pound test are over. With fewer tunas and no wind, the opportunity to bait tunas and have strikes are rare; no one wants to take a chance of not catching a tuna.
Angling for tuna involves fishing on sight and the sun makes it easy to see the schools of bluefin. The problem with the few windy days this year was the rain and clouds. Only two tuna boats participated in this year’s migration. They were both 43-foot Merritts, the perfect boat for catching tuna. The first is the Celia P owned by Nik and Coco Paleologos. The next is the Fighting Lady owned by Bart Sherwood. Both boats have a great history of catching bluefin tuna and blue marlin in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. I feel lucky to have run both boats, catching bluefin tuna, blue marlin and swordfish.
The last few years, Nik has taken the Ceila P over to Cat Cay in early May and stayed until July. Bart arrives later at Cat Cay with the Fighting Lady and is joined with veteran angler Don Barnes. His team has had the best track record for the last four years. Reports from the Ceila P were that the fishing was slow for most of May. Although they fished day after day, the wind rarely blew more than six or eight knots out of a southerly direction. The Ceila P did see several big schools of bluefin tuna during May; they were not able to bait them. Coco, Nik’s brother, kept a detailed daily log of the exact number of schools and, to their best ability, the number of tuna in each school. During May and June of 2006 those onboard the Ceila P logged 1,102 bluefin sightings. Sometimes there would be only one or two tuna, but there were schools with 50 or more. The largest school contained 75. Coco and Nik feel the average school during this year’s migration contained 20 tunas. The slow fishing all changed around June 9. A low pressure system came through the lower Bahamas and that afternoon, the southern wind started to blow at Cat Cay and Bimini. Every boat saw several schools of tuna including some private boats that were on the edge.© Captain Bill Harrison
The next day was like a different world. Nik, on the Ceila P, was the first boat out and saw a school before he hit the edge. He baited six schools and gave up at dark. Bart, on the Fighting Lady, saw four schools, but stopped fishing at dark. The next day, June 11, started with heavy clouds and some rain. The tunas were marching up the edge. Nik baited schools of tuna all day. Nik had veteran captain John Sabonis from the 43-foot Merritt Cats Meow riding the tower. This year the Ceila P had one of the best bluefin mates still fishing, “Tuna Tony” Carrizosa. He is known for making great tuna baits and being one of the best wire men around the tuna fleet. For 12 years, John and Tony teamed up on the Cats Meow, and were one of the most successful tuna boats on Bimini, always producing strikes and catching tuna.
The next day was overcast and very windy; this is a tuna fisherman’s dream. Nik was first on the edge and had already baited two schools of tuna when the Fighting Lady with Bart and Captain Alex Adler, of the 43-foot Merritt Tracker, turned south on tuna alley. Immediately seeing a school of tuna, Bart put Barnes in the fighting chair. And, to his credit, Barnes has been the most successful tuna angler during the last four years.
As they made their first pass at baiting this school, a wall of water as high as the tower erupted as the tuna struck the bait. His tail fl ailed high in the air throwing spray everywhere before the battle started. After an hour of racing around, Bart had the leader and the rest was history. The tuna tipped the scales at 800 pounds exactly. Everyone living on Cat Cay celebrated since Don and Bart gave packages of filleted tuna to all. Barnes has now teamed with Bart on the Fighting Lady to catch two bluefins weighing 800 pounds or more.
The wind started to drop and the tuna soon disappeared. Nik and the Celia P stayed for several weeks more. With no wind, however, there would be only a couple of small schools seen during the rest of June.