A storybook trip to Prince Edward Island, where giant bluefin make hundreds of yards of heavy line disappear in a blink
By Dave Laska Photos by Michael Cevoli
David Laska, whose family business in Branford, Connecticut, designs, builds and installs marine electronics systems, fished offshore for bigeye and yellowfin tuna in the 1980s and ’90s. After that, he throttled back to catching striped bass, sea bass, fluke and flounder with his children on Long Island Sound.
Over the years he has tangled with a couple of giant bluefin while fishing off Montauk, New York, but never managed to get a tail rope around one. Keen to finally look a giant in the eye, he and two friends chartered a boat to fish for bluefin off Prince Edward Island, the “Bluefin Capital of the World.”
They were not disappointed. Here, Laska, who is 56, looks back on his time fishing off the Canadian maritime province as his El Dorado, “the perfect fishing trip.”
We connected with five giant bluefin tuna in two days of fishing off Prince Edward Island, lost one, and tagged and released four — one of them over 800 pounds. In a lifetime of fishing local New England waters, I’d never get an opportunity like that — maybe once in 25 years. The giant season is from mid-August to late October. The bluefin come in to fatten up on migrating schools of herring before moving on to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn. We fished in mid-September. The lore is that there are so many giants off Prince Edward Island, you can almost feed them by hand. We happened to be there during the two weeks when the herring came in.
Finally, the right place at the right time. When you catch the herring run perfectly, the bait comes in close to shore, and the bluefin follow. We caught our four giants over the top of a 20-foot mound in just 100 feet of water. We were four miles off North Lake Harbour, where our charter boat and about 25 other Down East boats worked the structure. The water and sky teemed with life: herring, tuna, small whales and gannets.
Canadians are permitted to keep just one bluefin a year per license, so charter operators on Prince Edward Island wait to catch “the big one” as their keeper for the season. All other bluefin catches are tagged and released. Capt. Bradley “Buck” MacDonald, our charter captain, elected to keep a 600-pound tuna caught on a charter the day before our trip, as both the season and weather window were closing. He took the sure bet. Had the captain waited a day, he would have kept my 800-pounder, and I could have gotten a photo on the dock with it. As it turned out, the video I have of my giant being revived and swimming away after I cut the leader has given me the sense of accomplishment without the guilt.
Most bluefin run 500 to 800 pounds, but some weigh in at 1,000 to 1,100, and a very few have tipped the scale at 1,400 pounds. Prince Edward Island bluefin easily can bulk up to 800 pounds because herring are plentiful there, and commercial fishermen harvest herring with hand nets exclusively. The Canadians don’t have big factory ships coming in and wiping out a whole season of bait in a couple of weeks, which can happen in New England.
Fighting a giant is similar to marlin fishing — but without the marlin’s speed. Maybe closer to swordfishing. A bluefin will pick up a live bait but won’t know it’s hooked until you set that hook. That’s when the run starts. Ten to 15 seconds into it, the fish realizes it’s in danger, and it peels off, almost like a Nantucket sleigh ride. The boat’s chasing the rod, the rod’s chasing the fish, and the fish is trying to get away. And you’re hoping there’s enough thread on the reel.
Excitement turns to panic when you wonder whether you have the physical strength to handle the fish and the aggressive drag pressure (55 pounds) for more than an hour. That’s about how long it takes to put the 1,000 yards of line the fish just ripped off back on the reel. A number of scenarios go through your head. You’re sure the fish will tire — but when? You’re almost down to the spool, and you’re thinking, Wow, this fish has some legs on it. Suddenly the captain throttles up and chases the fish while you madly retrieve line.
It took about an hour and a half to bring the 800-pounder to the side of the boat. It was easily stripping off several hundred yards at a time. Although it didn’t run as fast or as long as a blue marlin, it never stopped. Remember, we’re fishing in 100 feet of water, so the fish can’t go down very deep. It has to run. It just kept running toward Nova Scotia until finally, 45 minutes or so into the fight, it started to sound instead of sprint.
We fished 130-pound-class rods, reels and line, which I first thought was a bit heavy. It was spot-on. Anything lighter, and I probably wouldn’t have landed my fish. Either that or the fish would have been too exhausted to be revived. There are a lot of lobster pots and herring nets out there, so the heavy line gave us a margin of safety when we had to untangle from those obstructions as the fish was screaming out. The leader was 250-pound fluorocarbon, and hooks were circles, size 12/0 — good for catch-and-release. Line drag was set around 55 pounds on very long rods, just shy of the leverage point needed to eject me out of my boots.
They gave us the option of using the fighting chair at a back corner of the boat or a swivel rod holder on the gunwale. I was fortunate enough to catch two fish, and I fought the 800-pounder from the chair and a 450-pounder from the rod holder. I guess fishing with the rod holder is the way to go because you can retrieve line faster, but I like doing it old school because you feel the fish pulling your whole body. When you lean back in the chair with the rod and fish aligned, retrieving line is more like a dance than the mechanical ratcheting motion of reeling from the rod holder.
The line on the reel is colored in sequence red, yellow, green and black. When my big fish hit, 300 yards of red disappeared pretty quickly. After that, the tuna ran off 300 yards of yellow and 300 yards of green. When the fish took me into the black, there wasn’t a lot of line left. All the while, the captain had the boat in gear and was steaming up fast on the fish. I reeled the green and yellow back in. Then the fish ran again — out went the yellow and the green once more. Now I had three colors to muscle back in.
The fish seemed to be settling into a rhythm as the boat chase slowed. I started to think I had some control over this fish when the captain asked, “Are you ready to go again?” I said, “Geez, can you give me another 30 seconds to catch my breath before you put her in gear?” I thought he was going to chase the fish again and I’d have to wind like crazy to keep the line tight. He said, “No, I won’t be moving the boat.” What he meant was: be ready for another run. A couple of minutes later, the fish made a second searing run and took off all the line I’d just retrieved. The captain smirked. He knew there’d be two big runs. As demoralizing as I felt at that moment, I had to admire the tremendous power of the fish, pushing the tackle and me to our limits. It’s exactly what I signed up for.
Before our flight out of Logan airport in Boston, I struck up a chance conversation at the gate with a mate on the 80-foot Merritt Speculator. He asked if I was heading to Prince Edward Island “to shake a net.” I didn’t know what he meant until the next day. Just about every boat at North Lake sets a gill net. Some harvest herring for the canneries. Others let their nets soak overnight and use them the next day to attract bluefin. Each morning, our crew pulled about a third of its net on board and, at intervals, lifted and shook the section in the water. Within minutes we had herring scales, guts, floaters and half-live bait all around us.
While the crew worked the net, we grabbed bait rods, put on Scotty rigs with feathers and dropped them to 80 feet, where we jigged for mackerel. These 12- to 14-inch baits are large enough to support a 12/0 hook. You sink the hook into the live mackerel’s lip, throw it out and drift fish. In New England we use magic markers, dental floss and other clever ways to bury the hooks so the fish don’t see them. But the fish off Prince Edward Island have less pressure and are under strict regulation. These bluefin aren’t content to just look; they’re here to eat. On the days we fished, we never set out more than two live baits. When we were marking fish, the captain usually pared the spread down to one.
Surprises? Our boat was using a searchlight sonar. I’ve been in the marine electronics business since I was old enough to carry a toolbox alongside my dad. I checked out our charter’s nav equipment in the morning as I passed through the wheelhouse to store my gear. Nice equipment, installation looked clean, but I came to fish and relax, not to talk shop. What I didn’t see when I glanced at the helm was the mini-keyboard that was tucked up under a smaller monitor on the port side.
Later in the day, this discovery was responsible for adding another fish to our total. Late in the afternoon on day two, the captain said he wanted to pick up and make one more move before heading back to the dock. The mate reeled in the lines and put the mackerel back in the live well. Just as the boat was about to go into gear, the captain quickly told the mate: “Seven o’clock … 100 feet.” The mate bolted to the transom, scooped out a mackerel, popped a hook into it and flipped it underhand as directed. Thirty seconds later we were tight on a fish. Can’t say I saw that one coming, but the sonar did.
There were large tape measure numbers painted on the side of the boat, just above the boot stripe. When a fish comes alongside, the captain grabs the leader and pulls the head of the fish toward the bow while the mate uses a modified boat hook to lift and control the tail. The goal is to lay the fish alongside the boat for a length measurement, tag insertion, photos and to have the fish in position to be revived when the boat goes back into gear. My largest fish was 112 inches, which translates to about 800 pounds, according to the Canadian fisheries length/weight ratio chart. This fish was well-fed and round. To the captain’s eye, it probably weighed in the mid-800-pound range. It took about two minutes to revive the giant. As soon as the fish’s tail started to beat, I reached down at the captain’s instructions and cut the leader.
Anything for a Buck is a 45-foot Down East workboat built by Hustler Fiberglass Boats, a local company. She is powered by a single Cummins diesel that pushes her in the 20- to 22-knot range. Our captain’s brother, Tony MacDonald, operates a fleet of six charter boats during bluefin season. Our mate was a young, very competent islander. Capt. Buck runs charters in-season and works as a volunteer firefighter in the offseason. He is personable, capable and always under control. He never once raised his voice. And he and his mate worked their butts off for us. There were three of us on the boat, but it could easily handle six. Anything for a Buck was spotless, the fishing gear new and in excellent repair. Cost of the charter was $1,250 a day, including lobster salad sandwiches for lunch and fresh marinated scallops for snacks. I scarfed down a whole bowl myself. It was cradle-to-grave treatment.
There aren’t a lot of lodgings in the area. We stayed at the Johnson Shore Inn, a 12-room B&B, for $160 a night ($195 with a three-course gourmet dinner), which was located about 20 minutes from the marina. The innkeepers, Mel Stephens and Dave Dixon, run a first-class operation, with water views that rival those of Nantucket. Dave was up before 5:30 each morning, brewing us coffee and cooking a hearty breakfast. Upon our return at 5 p.m., we were handed a predinner cocktail, celebrating our day’s success. In the late evening, after the inn’s more refined guests had gone to bed, Mel would open a bottle of her private reserve whisky, slap it down on the end table and say, “Tell me about yourselves, boys.” Real salt-of-the-earth.
For more information: tonystunafishing.com, (902) 357-2207.
Click through the gallery below
to see more of “the perfect fishing trip.”