It was barely first light, and we were at the “Hundred Square” of Hudson Canyon off New Jersey, three years ago. I had just put out a pair of large ballyhoo rigged under black and purple Joe Shute skirts and was free-spooling a spreader bar down the middle when all three were demolished simultaneously. An expletive escaped my lips as the line burned my thumb, and before I could push the drag to strike, the fish was gone.
The reel on the rod in the starboard holder screamed for 20 seconds before it snapped back to attention, the result of some undetermined tackle failure. My buddy Kris Trasberg grabbed the screaming port-side outfit knowing he was about to tangle with his first bigeye tuna — and it was a good one. He was both ecstatic and intimidated. He’d caught plenty of yellowfins, and although they’re similar in outward appearance, he knew bigeyes inflict a lot more hurt on any angler who steps into the ring with one.
Kris was strapped into a standup outfit loaded with 80-pound test, and it seemed as if the initial run would never end. Line disappeared at a brisk pace until most of the 50-pound-class reel’s spool was stretched out behind the boat.
“I’m running out of line,” he hollered. “Back down! Back down!”
The tuna stopped, and as Kris began to pump back some of what he had lost, the fish turned, kicked and went deep. This was going to be a back-breaker, and the fight dragged on for the better part of an hour until the fish was close to the boat. Then came the bigeye lament, the end game that tortures anglers. Kris would regain most of the last 100 feet of line only to have the fish take it back repeatedly. After a dozen back and forths, the bigeye began circling under the boat and was eventually dispatched with the gaff. It took three of us to haul the 250-pounder into the cockpit. Kris displayed a pained smile, then sat down, exhausted.
When the conversation turns to the top brawlers of the pelagic realm, tunas take a back seat to no one. Even the lightweights and middleweights in the clan — the bonito and little tunny, the yellowfin and dogtooth — fight like hell. However, one species is universally recognized as the toughest brawler of them all: Thunnus obesus, the bigeye tuna.
Bigeyes are certainly not the biggest of the tuna species. They don’t reach half the size of a full-grown bluefin, and the IGFA All Tackle record (392 pounds, 6 ounces) is about 35 pounds shy of their middleweight cousin, the yellowfin. What sets them apart is sheer stamina. When you hook a large bigeye, you do so with the understanding that it will force you to earn every last inch of line with muscle and sweat. I’ve caught more than a dozen bigeyes, and they’ve all fought like hell.
Fifty years ago, when anglers started venturing to the edge of the Continental Shelf, encounters with schools of bigeye ended with spooled reels, broken rods, parted lines, and other failures and missed opportunities. Sometimes anglers would simply give up and cut them off. As tackle advanced, the odds of boating a bigeye increased, and landings escalated, but their reputation for punishing anglers never waned.
Bigeye live a vertical lifestyle, going deep to feed on squid by day with broadbill swordfish, then returning toward the surface as the sun fades, which is why most encounters take place early and late in the day. Electronic archival tags have tracked them to depths of 4,000 feet, where the ocean is in a perpetual twilight, the water is cold, oxygen levels are low, and pressures are extreme. Bigeye can tolerate this environment for hours because their hemoglobin has a high oxygen affinity. It is this biological advantage that is believed to be responsible for their remarkable stamina and ability to fight longer and harder than their brethren.
No matter how you size up the competition, the bigeye is the “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler of the tunas, one of the toughest fish in the ocean and, on a pound-for-pound basis, possibly the top contender for the overall title.
Read about the other fish in our "Who's the Toughest?" survey here (updated as fish are added):