My admiration for yellowfin tuna started when I was young and fished with my father. It’s relatively rare to catch yellowfin off Florida, at least consistently, but we caught one quite by accident, and Dad was elated. He liked nothing more than eating fish he’d caught himself, and this small tuna was a treat.
When I bought my own boat as an adult, I began fishing in the Bahamas, and I prized yellowfin more than any other fish, except maybe marlin. The yellowfin in the Bahamas don’t usually run large, as they do in the Pacific and off Venice, Louisiana. Hundred-pounders are rare, and I’ve never seen one more than 200 in the Bahamas, although I’ve heard of them. The average school fish probably runs 40 to 60 pounds, a nice eating size and great sport on light tackle, if you can keep them away from the sharks.
The biggest yellowfin caught in the Bahamas on my boat came in 2005. My wife, Poppy, and son, Ben, were with me at Harbour Island, on the northeast corner of Eleuthera. This well-known area holds lots of yellowfin in spring and summer, and most people catch them on live bait.
With some friends aboard and a live well full of Bahamian pilchards, we headed northwest to an area of reef known as “Dutch bars.” A strong easterly breeze whipped the sea into steep 4- to 6-footers, but the tuna bite had been relatively good, so we slogged along until we found the tuna birds.
No one had seen a big fish in weeks, so we scaled down to 20-pound-test spinning gear with a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader to make the day more sporting. Poppy pinned a lively bait to a circle hook and cast it out as I tossed a net full of live bait as chum.
She hooked up almost immediately with a blackfin tuna that maybe weighed 2 pounds. We repeated the process, and the second time, she landed a little tunny (what we call bonito) about half the size of the first fish. The third bait had no sooner hit the water than a huge splash erupted, and something large engulfed it. We were seriously outmatched. Line screamed from the spinning reel.
I backed down, chasing the fish, which of course swam up-sea, and waves crashed into the cockpit and over the flybridge of my 37 Bertram. The fish spooled the reel twice, taking her to the knot, but miraculously, the line never broke. My friend Scott Salyers joined me on the bridge, and we agreed that we had little chance of landing this fish. Surely sharks would take it.
Then the fish made a fatal mistake. It came to the surface and stayed there, probably chased up by sharks. I relentlessly backed down after the fish and soon had it within a few feet of the transom, where it stayed for about 45 minutes. Ben tried to sink a large wahoo gaff into it, but we didn’t dare grab the light leader. He finally got a smaller gaff into the fish’s tail, and someone sunk the large gaff into its shoulder. In a surge of adrenalin, they hauled the fish over the rail, and it landed with a mighty thud in the cockpit. After an hour and 15 minutes, game over.
That yellowfin weighed 136 pounds and fed us, along with several Bahamians, that night and many more to come. I’ve never tasted a better fish.