giant tuna main
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.
Most charter boats have the basic gear you’ll need, but you should make sure to bring the essentials to fish comfortably: warm clothing, rain gear, bibs, an overcoat and good boots. Be sure the boat is outfitted properly with quality tackle and a fighting chair; many of the local boats are not exactly up to date or equipped with the best gear. You may want to bring new line, hooks and leader material to supplement what the boat has unless you have fished on it and know it is fully and properly stocked.
The boats you’ll fish from are single-screw lobster boats, which add to the charm and mystique of the trip but also add transit time to and from the fishing grounds, and difficulty in fighting the fish. Bring your camera, and allow enough time for weather days and sightseeing. The Canadian Maritimes in the summer and fall are beautiful.
Because we were fishing for an extended time and I wanted to be prepared for everything, we drove to Canada with a truckload of gear, including four specially built unlimited tuna rods and 130-class reels, two 80-pound outfits, a fighting chair, bait rods, kite rods and kites, helium, leads, tag sticks, line, leader, rigging tools, crimps, crimpers, hooks, and wind-ons — you name it; we brought it.
Rods: Four unlimited rods with quality AFTCO Big Foot roller guides.
Reels: 130-pound-class two-speeds.
Lines: 130-pound high-visibility Magibraid Dacron backing, IGFA 130-class clear or smoke mono, 220-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader.
Tackle: An AFTCO Maxforce III GBR harness, Mustad 10/0 3X Strong Ultrapoint Demon Perfect Circle hooks, 240-pound SPRO swivels, multi-wind kites, two kite rods and reels, a large spin rod with assortment of large hookless swimming and popping plugs for getting topwater bites, sabiki bait rigs, R&R Tackle bait dehookers, two bait rods and calibrated crimpers, crimping sleeves, and rigging gear.
Tuna fishing in Canada is highly regulated, and rules vary from province to province. In PEI, you’re allowed one fish per trip. We split our day, fishing a half-day in the morning, heading in for lunch and then going back out for our second half-day trip, which gave us the opportunity to catch two fish in one day.
In Nova Scotia, you’re also allowed one fish per trip, but the distance to the fishing grounds makes a day split into two trips inconvenient. The rules, called Fishing Conditions, specify you are allowed up to four strikes per day, with a strike considered from zero to 45 minutes.
You are allowed one hookup, defined as fighting the fish from 45 to 90 minutes. After 90 minutes, fish must be cut off. In Nova Scotia, line cannot exceed IGFA-rated 130-pound-test, and the fish must be fought from a chair.
In PEI, it is accepted practice to leave the rod in the covering board, as few boats have proper fighting chairs and there is no limit on line strength. Some boats use tackle that is less than sporting, which disqualifies potential IGFA world records. It’s hard to set records here because a harvest permit cannot be filled by a paying charter. I watched several anglers attempt stand-up fishing, but few succeeded due to broken rods, blown-up reels and less-than-agile boat handling.
WIND ON LEADERS
To learn how to make the perfect wind-on leader for big tuna, check out the photo gallery at the top of the page or see the instructional video below:
What: Giant bluefin tuna.
When: July through September.
Where: Canadian Maritime Provinces.
Who: For more information on regulations and fishery statistics, consult Fisheries and Oceans Canada at dfo-mpo.gc.ca.
Prince Edward Island
Capt. Scott Bruce
Capt. Darrell Neary
Hey Man’s Honey
Travel/accommodations: The charter skipper you book can advise you on accommodations and transfer details.
Frequent commercial flights serve Charlottetown, PEI, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The closest hotel in PEI for North Lake is the Inn at Bay Fortune (902-687-3745).
Antigonish has several hotels, including the Antigonish Evergreen Inn (902-863-0830) and Oceanfront Shanties (902-867-1985).