Historically, the giant bluefin tuna has been the quintessential big fish on heavy tackle. From the 1930s to the ’70s, the spring migration of giant bluefin out of the Gulf of Mexico and past storied Tuna Alley, off Cat Cay in the Bahamas, represented the epitome of big-game fishing. Once the fish made it to their summer feeding grounds, few fisheries have ever demanded so much of anglers and tackle as giant bluefin tuna in the Canadian Maritime Provinces.
The legendary spots — Notre Dame and Conception Bay, in Newfoundland; North Lake, on Prince Edward Island; Wedgeport and Canso, in Nova Scotia — attracted anglers from around the world. The 1,496-pound IGFA men’s all-tackle record caught by Ken Fraser on Oct. 26, 1979, out of Aulds Cove, in the Straits of Canso, stands today, as does Colette Perras’ women’s record, a 1,170-pounder caught out of North Lake on Oct. 2, 1978.
Wedgeport was home of the prestigious International Tuna Cup Match from 1937 to the late 1970s. Pioneer angler Michael Lerner visited that legendary port in 1935 and, over eight days, caught 21 tuna on the tackle of the day from a dory towed out to the grounds.
In the late 1960s, Capt. Buddy Merritt took his 42-foot Caliban from Florida to Newfoundland with crewmen Charlie “Splittail” Hayden and Gary Stuve, IGFA president E.K. Harry, and noted anglers George Mathews and Gil Keech, racking up impressive numbers while fishing Notre Dame Bay — and a long-held record of 16 giants in one day while trolling. This fishing lasted into the 1970s, when the overharvest of herring and the global demand for tuna took a toll on the fish.
Now, with the rebound of herring stocks, giant bluefins have returned to the Canadian Maritimes, providing a renewed chance to take part in this one-of-a kind catch-and-release fishery.
North Lake, PEI
Fishing with Capt. Scott Bruce on his Caroline Jake out of North Lake last September, I had an excellent chance to experience this great fishery. Our first afternoon, before we headed out of the harbor and through the narrow cut to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, fellow crewman Adam Sherer of New Jersey and I were joined by Paul and Leah Hebert of Louisiana and Texas angler Francy Fondren.
As we pulled up to the grounds a mile offshore, it was a dream scene. We watched huge fish busting and feeding on the herring falling overboard as the commercial boats hauled their nets. Bruce got us in position, and we began throwing the whole herring we had gotten that morning from a herring boat.
With Paul Hebert in the chair, we threw the first bait and hooked up within half a minute. The fish took line when Paul pushed the drag up, and he fought the fish for 25 minutes, then tagged and released a bluefin we called 500 pounds.
In 61/2 days of fishing, we watched this awesome show several times and cast hookless topwater plugs to draw explosive strikes to record on film and video — it was a mesmerizing scene. We ended up with 13 fish from 450 to 950 pounds. Bruce had two harvest tags, so Paul caught a fish weighing 837 pounds, and Fondren boated another that tipped the scales at 905 pounds.
Cape St. George, Nova Scotia
We also fished the past several seasons from Ballantynes Cove, at the tip of Cape St. George, on the northeast corner of mainland Nova Scotia. Ballantynes Cove is a 30-minute drive up the coast from Antigonish.
When fishing the noted Fishermans Bank, in the Northumberland Strait, between the southeastern coast of PEI and the northern Nova Scotia coast, you look for the same fish that swim the waters of North Lake. When herring move on the bank, the tuna follow. In the early morning hours, the herring netters start to haul their gear, and when they do, the feeding frenzy is on.
However, the herring boats are not always there, so sometimes you chum and put kites up to get bites. Jigging for Boston mackerel is an important part of the day, as live bait is key. A livewell full of fresh bait goes a long way in securing solid bites once you mark fish on your bottom machine.
The past several seasons out of Ballantynes Cove, longtime friend James Roberts has fished with Capt. Darrell Neary aboard the Hey Man’s Honey. The pair has had numerous successful seasons, releasing several fish exceeding 1,000 pounds.
Roberts developed the terminal tackle system used by the majority of the fleet. This simple rig starts with high-visibility 130-pound Magibraid Dacron backing compression-spliced and served over one end of 100 feet of 130-pound mono top shot. The bait end of the top shot slides into a 4-foot section of Dacron for a compression splice, and the other end is spliced back into itself, forming a loop through one end of a SPRO 240-pound wind-on swivel. Another short 3-foot section of Dacron is looped through the other leg of the swivel, and the outboard end is spliced back through itself to form another loop. This is joined loop-to-loop to the loop on a length of Dacron that is compression-spliced to the mono leader. Crimp a hook on the end, and the wind-on is complete.
For bait, use a live mackerel hooked through the back or a chunk of chum with a hook buried in it to drift with the rest of the chum.