Catching tuna with a stick

If you are going to do something for the first time, then it is extra special to do it somewhere remarkable. I had the good fortune to do just that a couple of weeks ago when I got to pole a tuna from the waters around St Helena, one of the most remote islands on earth.

I had seen video clips of commercial tuna fishermen slinging fish back over their shoulders, using a pole, but had never seen it in action. It wasn’t something that I had even thought about doing myself, but when the opportunity presented itself, I was pretty keen to give it a bash.

We travelled to St Helena on the SA Airlink flight, leaving Johannesburg and stopping in Walvis Bay for a fuel top up, before winging our way over the Atlantic.

We checked in to the Mantis Hotel, conveniently situated in the main street of Jamestown and a very short walk to the harbor. After a quick walk around to get our bearings we met up back at the hotel with the operators that were going to take us out fishing. We had come to explore the fishing around the island, and to shoot an episode of Inside Angling.

The following morning Anthony Thomas, owner of Sub-Tropic Adventures, met us at the harbor just before sunrise. Anthony and crewmember Leroy had been out collecting live bait, and were ready to take us out to experience some fishing, St Helena style.

My old mate Brad Cartwright, who has fished many foreign waters with me, had come along and St Helena was a first for both of us. Brad knows about my love-hate relationship with yellowfin tuna, and I saw him smile wryly when Anthony told us that he was expecting us to catch some that morning. Yellowfin are a species that test your tackle and stamina to the limit and I have had my share of painful experiences with big tuna that just never seem to give up. On more than one occasion in the past I have vowed to never target big yellowfin again, but the fish never seem to get the memo.

We chugged out to the fishing grounds and then dropped anchor in 150m of water. The crew wasted no time in starting to throw live fish over board, basically chumming for predators. The live scads that they were using are called red tailed Kingston. These fish gather beneath the boat after being thrown overboard, as it is the only piece of structure in the area. Every fourth or fifth fish had an eyeball popped out with a thumbnail, causing it to swim erratically and give out plenty of panic signals, a serious attraction for any ocean predators in the area.

Hooks were baited up with live kingstons and these were dropped overboard and line fed out by hand, so that the livebaits were swimming below the boat. It took less than five minutes for the first reel to start screaming as line peeled off fast against the drag. I took the first rod and started pumping the rod, quickly realizing that I was into a pretty solid tuna when I felt the strength and weight of the fish. I sighed, once again the tuna hadn’t got the message.

Brad, in the meantime was having a leisurely time. He landed a fish in the 20kg range, then settled down with a cool drink and started throwing some chirps my way about how long I was taking to land my fish. The sweat was running into my eyes and my lower back was burning. It is hard work lifting a solid fish from depth directly beneath the boat, much harder than pulling it from an angle. With the boat anchored, there was no chance of changing the angle of the fight, and I had to just grit my teeth and get on with it.

When the fish finally broke surface and was leadered by a crewmember, I sat down and grabbed a bottle of ice water. I let the spots in front of my eyes dissolve and slowly got my breathing back to normal. Before me lay a solid yellowfin in the 40kg size range, not a monster, but a tough fish to catch from an anchored boat in 150m of water.

We caught a few more tuna in the 15-20kg size range, and then a couple of wahoo appeared near the boat. They were also interested in the baitfish huddled beneath our hull. I quickly put on a mask and snorkel and jumped overboard. I was keen for an opportunity to cool off a bit, and was also keen to have a look at what was going on in the water around us.

The water was warm and crystal clear. In the depths below us I could see some yellowfin circling around, while the two wahoo cruised around just below the surface, checking me out. It was so clean and warm that I felt like staying in the water forever. The little bait ball of kingstons, tucked beneath the boat looked very vulnerable, and I wondered what would happen to them when the boat moved.

After getting back on board, the anchor was weighed and we started heading back for port. I looked back and saw tuna and wahoo smashing the poor baitfish left in our wake. Without the boat as cover they were easy prey for the predators.

On our next outing we were following the same pattern, chumming with live bait, and catching some yellowfin and skipjack tuna. The fish were holding directly beneath the boat and smashing baitfish tossed overboard very quickly. One of the crew picked up a long bamboo pole with about 1.5m of heavy mono attached to the end, and a great big hook tied to the other end of the line. He jabbed the hook through a live scad and hung it overboard, allowing the baitfish to splash around on the surface next to the boat.

Within seconds a silver torpedo came rocketing out of the depths and inhaled the baitfish and the pole bent. The crewmember leaned back, lifting a skipjack tuna of around 4kg’s out of the water and swung it aboard. The fish was still totally green and it thrashed around on the deck in confusion.

I had to try this! I grabbed the pole and baited up, dropping the scad onto the surface of the water and allowed it to splash about, watching the water for an approaching game fish. When it happened it took me by surprise, as the fish appeared to come from beneath the boat. It was not the same silver torpedo shape as the skipjack, but rather a dark barrel shaped fish, and as I lifted I knew that my nemesis, the yellowfin tuna had come to play again. This fish was in the 20kg size range and it thrashed about on the surface as I heaved to lift it from the water.

The pole was long and awkward, and I had to try a few tricks to get the fish into the boat, amongst much laughter and chatter from the crew. I finally got it aboard, albeit with less style and panache than the locals.

Bringing the tuna onboard

Anthony told me that they regularly catch dozens of yellowfin on the pole, sometimes with numerous fish of over 70kg’s in the mix. I would love to see that for myself, as it must be quite a feat, but when I looked at the size of the crew’s forearms, I had no doubts about their ability to tame big fish in this manner.

I enjoyed experiencing how the Saints do their fishing, simple and effective. I was also very impressed with the amount of pelagic fish in the waters around the island. With that many tuna around there must be a pretty good billfish fishery there too. The locals almost never specifically target marlin, but they do catch some pretty impressive ones while fishing for tuna and wahoo. I am starting to think there may be a return to St Helena in the offing, to explore the billfish potential.






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