Bluefin bonanza

Al McGlashan | VOLUME 25, ISSUE 3
Southern bluefin tuna are making an unprecedented comeback. Tasmania’s Eaglehawk Neck is one of the few places anglers can troll for jumbos right on the shoreline.
Southern bluefin tuna have experienced an amazing resurgence in Australian waters, much to the delight of anglers.

The explosion on the lure was intense; the fish smashed it hard, sending white water everywhere. The Daiwa howled as the fish took off. Before I even managed to reach the rod, a second one came to life and then a third, as three big bluefin powered off into the depths. One fish pulled the hooks, but the other two stayed attached, resulting in a pair of big, fat bluefin.

The most amazing thing about this story is that it took place off Bermagui, NSW, a place that hadn’t seen recreational catches of southern bluefin tuna in close to a decade. And Strike zone wasn’t the only boat to hook up either; most of the other boats fishing the same area had found some action.

As a kid, my old man used to fish Bermagui and all he caught were bluefin, yet in my early years as a fisherman, I never saw one. To be honest, I never expected to see one, so catching a southern bluefin tuna was a personal milestone and a sure sign that things can improve.

MAJOR MIGRATION

The southern bluefin tuna is one of the great travelers of the open ocean. Spawning in the northeastern part of the Indian Ocean near Java, they undertake a massive journey, traveling down Australia’s west coast to Albany, where the stocks inexplicably split. Some bluefin head west, across the Indian Ocean towards South Africa, while the rest of the population turn eastward across the Great Australian Bight to the rich feeding grounds around Tasmania. No one knows why they go their separate ways.

For the fish heading east, Tasmania is just a port of call, not a final destination. Instead, they feed heavily in the rich Southern Ocean before continuing their journey into the Tasman Sea. Some follow the retreating east Australian current up the coast, while others head east to New Zealand. In effect, the southern bluefin tuna cross from one major ocean to another on a seasonal basis, something few other fish species do.

But what is really impressive is how fast they move. From their spawning grounds off Java, they can reach Tasmanian waters in as little as a few weeks – which means they are seriously motoring.

A SEASON OF SURPRISES

Once prolific across Southern Australia, southern bluefin tuna made an easy target for commercial purse seiners and were almost annihilated a few decades ago. The problem with bluefin is they spend a majority of their time on the surface, making them easy prey. It was like the proverbial ‘shooting fish in a barrel’, and in less than a decade, commercial fishermen decimated southern bluefin tuna stocks to the point where they were critically endangered.

Ironically, as the purse seiners worked themselves out of job, the Japanese acquired a taste for sashimi, opening a whole new market. However, with Australia and New Zealand imposing strict quotas, there was no way to supply Japan’s insatiable hunger for raw fish. But with the advent of tuna farming, everything changed. Suddenly, all the fishermen who were going broke from destroying the fishery became instant millionaires. Places like Port Lincoln, SA, went from rags to riches overnight.

A decade later, southern bluefin tuna are making an unprecedented comeback, and we are witnessing one of the best runs of big southern bluefin in sport fishing history. Portland, on Victoria’s west coast, started the ball rolling with good fish turning up a few years ago. Big fish (some over 100kg) were being pulled from the water almost on a weekly basis in early autumn. They were soon being seen off Tasmania, with reports of jumbos being encountered every day off the south-eastern coast at Eaglehawk Neck. There, anglers were encountering fish up to 140kg.

The NSW south coast was next to fire, when anglers unexpectedly encountered massive schools of huge bluefin in mid-year. Places like Bermagui and Merimbula burst to life as anglers flooded into town in pursuit of big bluefin. Some massive fish were caught, including one that tipped the scales at a whopping 167kg. In fact, in one day, no less than three records were broken, including a number of junior records. Unbelievably, while all this was going on, Portland continued to fire, which makes you wonder just how well the bluefin have recovered.

Despite all this, southern bluefin tuna is still classified as critical, but in light of the species’ comeback, I think that common sense will prevail and restrictions will relax as the population continues to grow. Ironically, some radical green groups are still trying to have the species listed as endangered, but typically, they mount these campaigns from an office and have never spent any time on the water.

TROLLING FOR SUCCESS

When it comes to catching big bluefin, the best approach is undoubtedly trolling. A lot of anglers try and complicate matters by running heaps of rods as well as teasers and anything else they can throw out the back. In reality, the best approach is to keep things simple and run an absolute maximum of five rods.

Everyone has their own little tricks they like to use, but as a basic guide, I like to run just four lures, which consist of two deep divers and two skirted lures. On the short rigger, I like to run a medium-sized skirted lure like a Hollow point, Meridian or JB Lures in dark colours, while on the opposite rigger, I run a 10-inch Strikezone Jethead well back.

On the flat lines, I run a hard-bodied, shallow running Laser Pro in metallic and silver on the long corner and a silver and purple Halco Trembler in close in the prop wash. One hint I can offer is that if you are chasing giants, then you have to replace the trebles on the Halcos with single hooks.

With all the lures set, further back I like to troll a bit faster and cover the ground and usually push it up to around 8 to 9 knots. Running at this speed, I not only seem to get more strikes, but I also cover a lot more ground, which is critical when fishing the offshore grounds, where the fish are spread out.

When you do get a strike, don’t stop trolling. The idea is to keep moving forward and see if you can entice more bites. While the line peeling off the reel can be disconcerting, the struggling actions of the fish often stir the rest of the school into coming up for a look, which often results in a multiple hook-up.

BATTLING GIANTS

There is only one way to beat jumbo bluefin, and that is to put a lot of pressure on them early in the fight. Unlike yellowfin, which have a ‘never say die’ attitude, southern bluefin tuna are quick to throw in the towel, if you can get their head up. During the initial run, I like to push the drag right up towards midnight, which usually stops them in their tracks.

Putting so much strain on your gear means you have to use brand-new line, which is always your weakest link. There is simply no excuse for using old line – I replace my line every couple of weeks when I’m fishing hard. However, to save money, all my reels are back-spooled with braid so I only have to change the top few hundred metres.

As the battle comes to a close, and the fish is coming up, I ease up on the drag a bit and play them gently. Now I know this is the opposite of what many ‘experts’ say, but believe me, it works a treat. Having worked so hard to get the tuna, there is nothing worse than busting it off at the boat, so take it easy and you’ll be rewarded with your own southern blue.

Anyone interested in learning more about catching big bluefin should check out Strikezone Tuna Time 2 – Search for a Jumbo at www.strikezonemedia.com.au. ¿

Hot-spots

Only a handful of places regularly produce big bluefin.

Port Lincoln, in South Australia, sees larger numbers of smaller fish in the late summer and autumn months. Portland, in western Victoria, sees a run of jumbos in autumn, which is then followed by a run of school fish. They can appear from just a mile offshore all the way out past the Continental Shelf.

Tasmania is a true hot-spot for southern bluefin and, while the weather can be harsh at the best of times, the fishing more than compensates. Eaglehawk Neck (in the south-west corner of Tasmania) and the remote Pedra Blanca (about 26km off the coast of Tasmania in the Southern Ocean) are the two hot-spots that produce fish from late autumn and winter.

The population of southern bluefin tuna off the NSW south coast fires in the winter months as the water temperatures cool and the area is renowned for producing the biggest bluefin available. The fish are usually found well offshore.

For the record …

In a timely bid to underline his bluefin tuna credentials, Al McGlashan landed a whopping 154.7kg example of the species just as we went to press.

After hearing about an incredible run of massive bluefin off Port Fairy in Victoria in mid-May, Al headed south and joined Trevor Hogan aboard his 6m Evolution Strikezone 2. Trolling just five miles off the southern Victoria coastline in 50 metres of water, he hooked up to a monster, but lost it after three hours.

But two days later, he hooked up again, a blind strike on the Laser Pro tearing line off at an incredible rate as he realised he was hooked up to the fish of a lifetime.

“It was another three and half hours before we finally saw the fish,” said Al. “Unbelievably, the huge tuna was still upright and swimming strong.

“After four hours, a seal ran into the line, forcing me to ease up a bit, but finally at 6 hours 50 minutes, the fish came up for the second time and we quickly secured it. Never in my life did I imagine fighting a fish for so long.”

It took three men to haul it on board and the tuna was so fat it became jammed in the side door. Back on shore, it pulled the scales down to a massive 154.7kg, making it the new state and national record on 24kg line – and just 2kg off the world record.

The fish created so much interest it was featured on several national news outlets.

View the video at: www.almcglashan.com/videos. php?video_id=51


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