A small volcanic outcrop in the South Atlantic Ocean some 2000km from anywhere … it’s not surprising that very few people have heard of Ascension Island. An English Territory, it lies just below the equator, roughly halfway between Africa and South America. It is remote – seriously remote, in fact – and is considered one of the most isolated islands on earth.
A couple of years ago, rumours began circulating about huge yellowfin tuna around Ascension Island. At first, it was the odd group of adventurous spearfishers. Then anglers began to report catching monsters on poppers. The reports were not just of big fish, but of true monsters, with heaps over the magical 100kg mark and some true beasts up to 150kg. However, what really interested me was that this was happening in crystal-clear waters, making it ideal for my underwater photography.
At the same time, I had just teamed up with a new production company, Klinik TV, which wanted to do a new television series that lifted Aussie fishing shows to the next level.
“Where can we go that is out of this world?” they asked. The answer was easy … getting there, however, proved to be a mission like no other.
Ascension is a military island with UK and US bases, so access is restricted at the best of times, but throw in a camera crew and suddenly the paperwork and security checks go through the roof! It took six months to get over that hurdle as, apparently, we were the first-ever TV crew to seek permission. Then we had to get to England’s Brize Norton Royal Air Force base, from where the only flight to Ascension leaves. Logistically, it was a nightmare because of the extensive flights, endless baggage restrictions and, to top it all off, only 10 spots are available for civilians on the flight.
But the whole debacle of getting there vanished the moment we hit the water. I was very nervous because there was a lot of pressure to perform and, after all that effort, we were finally there … but that just compounded the weight on my shoulders. If we didn’t get the footage, I would be lynched by the production company. I need not have worried, though!
We drove barely a mile offshore before pulling up. Our skipper, Colin Chester, started cubing with the pilchards, which we had shipped in all the way from South Africa. “Shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes to get them up,” he said. I admit I was sceptical, having cubed for years and knowing it can take hours – but sure enough, within minutes, the water came alive with yellowfin.
It’s such a cool sight to see tuna boiling right beside the boat – just watching them is mesmerising. School-sized fish in the 25 to 35kg range darted about, scooping up each and every pilchard we tossed over. And that was only the beginning.
Twenty minutes proved to be the longest time it would take to get the tuna up. In most cases, it was minutes. It wasn’t just little ones, either – some days the jumbos arrived first, with distinct sickles rolling back towards their tails. There is something very special about yellowfin and they’re easily the prettiest of the tuna clan. Those distinct sickles and bright-yellow fins make them stand out brilliantly.
All my life, I have wanted to catch a big yellowfin over the magical 100kg mark. But now, suddenly being up close and personal with not just one, but a multitude of big fish, all I wanted to do was swim with them. I have to admit, these days I am consumed by my underwater photography because I desperately want to show everyone how awesome the oceans are. And I also hope to exploit my images to grow awareness of these awesome creatures, so we can protect them for the future.
Each day, instead of catching them, we kept cubing and then just hand-fed them. Mick Lyons, who was in the boat with me, felt the same way. It was just cool to be in the presence of such huge yellowfin. Watching them swim around, snapping up pilchards was way cooler than the pain of hooking one up!
BIG BOY CAPTURE
The biggest fish we encountered was a true beast. While we saw 100kg fish almost on a daily basis, when the 300-pounder turned up it dwarfed everything else. Roughly halfway through the trip I had dived with several massive fish to around 115kg. Sondal Benson had managed a 112kg fish on a popper and another boat had cracked a 132kg fish, while the spearos had also picked up a few to 118kg. So we had certainly seen our share of big fish, but this one was in a whole new league.
We were fishing a few hundred metres away from Sondal and Jamie in the other boat when they reported some huge sharks. Ascension is meant to be shark-free – but as soon as I turned up, so did the sharks!
Known locally as Galapagos sharks, they looked just like dirty big whalers to me when they arrived at the back of our boat. My producer, Brad, took one look at them and thought they would make great footage, so suggested, in no uncertain terms, that I should jump in. Somewhat nervously, I jumped in, armed only with my camera.
Despite their size, the sharks didn’t appear threatening and quickly backed off. I was just starting to think they were scared of me when, suddenly, the biggest tuna I have ever seen appeared. All my life I had dreamed about this moment and there it was, cruising right up to me!
It is an experience I will never forget – a huge barrel of a yellowfin, with massive sickles stretching right down past its tail, cruising about effortlessly. Unlike the smaller fish that zipped about, this big boy did everything with purpose. For the next half hour I was transfixed by this mega tuna, which seemed completely unfazed by my presence, to the point that I could touch it as it passed by.
An hour later, I was back in the boat and on a high like no other. Brad, who wasn’t happy with just the shark footage, now wanted some fishing footage. “You’re hosting a fishing show Al, you need to catch one. Besides, everyone wants to see you in pain!”
Now, I’m sure everyone out there doesn’t really want to see me in pain but, admittedly, I really did want to tag it.
I had brought the Shimano Stella 30,000 reel and Compleat Angler Ballistix rod specifically for this job, and it was time to test the equipment.
We quickly realised that getting a bite out of the monster with all the little ones racing around was going to be a real mission. Countless times, we tried to get the bait in front of it, but each time the little buggers were just too fast. We had caught several small ones before, finally, with the bait sitting straight off the rod tip, the big fella decided he wanted it and took it off the top. It will go down in history as one of the best yellowfin bites ever and we got it on camera from several angles!
That’s where the fun finished and the pain began. I knew from the outset this puppy was going to be a serious challenge but, two hours later, I was seriously feeling it. By this stage, we had snapped the harness and the makeshift repair was putting excess pressure on the reel seat. This, in turn, was pulling it down into the rear hypalon grip and, with the reel seat loose, it meant every time I tried to crank the handle, the Stella would swing sideways, making it almost impossible to get a wind.
As the fight dragged on, my concerns for the fish grew. I had no intention of killing such an awesome creature – instead all I wanted to do was tag it, making it one of the biggest yellowfins ever released. However, the longer the fish fought, the greater the chance it might die. So as difficult as it was, I decided to up the drag … it was make or break time.
My back was killing me, but the added pressure worked and I started to gain line, ending the stalemate. I must have gained 30m with the fish just out of sight when, suddenly, the 50kg braid exploded. I have never heard a noise quite like it, but I knew instantly what had happened. I had mixed feelings about losing that fish … I desperately wanted to catch what would have been the biggest yellowfin I will ever see but, equally, I didn’t want to kill it. So even though I lost it, I’m happy to know that it’s still swimming around to fight another day.
BAITBALLS ON THE BEACH
Despite having lost the giant, I was still amping to get back out there the following day, even with a sore back. Our skipper, Craig Hall, however, decided to detour toward the beach. “Want to see something cool?” was all he said.
To be honest, I was a little bit confused but, on Ascension, everything is amazing, so I was eager to see what he had up his sleeve.
Swinging around the corner toward the beach we were greeted by an insane scene. Boobies lined up to drop down on the rippling water, while frigate birds circled above. As we closed in, the water erupted as predators charged in, attacking the bait school. What was really amazing was that it was happening right on the beach and was so close, you could have cast right off the sand.
Hastily, I rigged up a Roosta popper and cast it into the melee. One bloop and I was on. That fish fell off before, seconds later, another one nailed it. Suddenly, it was on for young and old – almaco jacks, black jacks (black trevally) and rainbow runners were in plague proportions. It sounds silly, but the fishing was too easy, so we pulled the hooks off, which sent the fish into a complete frenzy. They forgot the baitball and stacked up around the boat, determined to get the popper.
It got so intense that, in the end, we just ripped the popper back and forth beside the boat as the fish climbed over each other to get at it.
It was too much, so grabbing my gear, I jumped into one of the most amazing scenes ever. There were literally thousands of jacks and almacos swarming about and every time the Roosta touched the water, it exploded as they all raced up to hit it. The action was so intense they turned the water to foam … to the point that I had to move back because I couldn’t get a clear shot.
FISHING FOR RESEARCH
Being so remote, Ascension Island has a great opportunity to manage its yellowfin fishery, with early indications suggesting the fish are semi-resident. I see a lot of similarities to the inshore yellowfin run we had in Australia. Places like NSW’s The Peak, Four Mile and Montague Island used to be home to the biggest tuna in the country, but anglers fished them out and they never recovered. I saw the end of that heyday and it peeves me that poor management means my kids will never witness it. Don’t get me wrong – I am not against killing one for dinner, but we still need to be very careful with what we take.
With this in mind, we teamed up with the Ascension Island Conservation Unit while on the island and tagged all the tuna we caught. On the first day they gave us 10 tags and we were finished in an hour. The next day, they gave us more.
The biggest problem with tagging the fish was that it distracted me from filming them underwater. I did, however, catch and release heaps of the smaller fish and, interestingly, three have been recaptured since we left, which certainly points toward a localised population.
LONG ROAD TO ASCENSION
Getting to Ascension Island is, as I said, not easy. Or cheap, for that matter. You can’t just jump on a plane and head on over – instead, you have to get permission. As an English territory it’s UK-owned but, with a strong military presence, you have to apply for an entry permit.
And then there’s the plane. The only way in is with Air Tanker, which flies out of the RAF Brize Norton station in England. With only 10 seats on the plane allocated to civilians, you need to book at least six months in advance.
Accommodation is limited to one hotel, which is reasonably priced and, while it offers a selection of accommodation options, is anything but fancy. The good news is there are a few bars on the island and the beer is relatively cheap which, I can assure you, we made good use of.
Despite all those difficulties, though, it is an incredible, unique destination with some seriously wild tuna fishing that is unrivalled anywhere else I have ever been. Sure – it’s a tough, long road to get there, but that’s half the adventure!