The chartermen keep accurate data—wind direction, position, sea and weather conditions, etc.—on every bluefin hooked, and pass it on to the tourist office. Until this year they killed almost all the tuna that were caught. A fish-processing plant paid them $15 per fish (the tuna were frozen whole and shipped to Europe), and there was keen competition between boats for the Kiwanis Tuna Trophy, awarded annually to the angler with the heaviest bluefin. Since only a few fish were tagged and released and scientific studies on the fish killed had been sporadic, at best, it was an incredible waste.
In 1966 Newfoundland Premier Joseph R. Smallwood offered a $1,000 reward for the first bluefin of 1,000 pounds or more caught on rod and reel. Although there is every reason to believe that such a monster will some day be gaffed in Conception Bay (Deputy Minister of Economic Development Oliver Vardy holds the present Newfoundland record of 871 pounds), it just might not be a legal world's record. Some local chartermen like to tow hooked fish into the shallows, where they can be played out and gaffed more quickly. This technique, known as beaching, automatically disqualifies potential records under International Game Fish Association rules. It can also be a dangerous technique. During a beaching attempt several years ago, Captain Elie Pothier rammed his boat into a rock and tore a gaping hole in the hull. Fortunately, Pothier, with the help of other chartermen who came to his rescue, was able to keep his boat afloat with an emergency patching job. In the meantime his angler had to jump ashore and play his fish. Astonishingly he managed to bring it to gaff.
Obviously none of this has affected the growing popularity of tuna fishing in Conception Bay. Visiting anglers can now tag and release all their fish without having to compensate the crews for the price that they used to get on the dock which was very expensive on a hot fishing day. Furthermore, the angler can insist that the captain not beach the boat at any time. Once these details are worked out, the angler can settle down to fishing and, as Elwood K. Harry, a retired businessman from Pompano Beach, Fla. discovered last summer, these tuna are a different breed of cat. Harry has caught over 400 giant bluefins, most of them in the Bahamas, but he was intrigued with Conception Bay fishing. "In the Bahamas," Harry says, "you hunt for schools of tuna and put the bait out only when you find the fish. If the angler and the skipper have worked together long enough, they can bring a big fish to the boat in a surprisingly short time. Yet even against a reel drag of 60 pounds or more and the continuous pressure exerted by the rod, any bluefin can, if he feels like it, simply turn on the power and dive straight down, screaming off 400 yards of 130-pound test line. Then he usually dogs it, and the angler has to pump him all the way up again. What makes these Newfoundland fish so exciting to catch is that they rarely sound but instead make most of their sizzling runs near the surface [One theory is that the water temperature from 25 fathoms on down in the bay remains too cold for the bluefin]."
Torrey Hemby, a trucking executive from Charlotte, N.C., and Harry spent six days last summer fishing aboard Hilliard's Lawrenco. The action was a bit slow (the bulk of the fish showed up in the second week of August, a few days after they went home), especially for Hemby, who in four previous week-long trips had caught 53 tuna in the bay. It seemed just as slow to Captain Bill Staros and Mate Chuck Cichowski, who run Hemby's yacht Windsong out of Fort Lauderdale the rest of the year. But Harry and Hemby did manage to catch five tuna, and the last one was particularly memorable. After six frustrating hours of dragging a mullet in the Lawrenco's wake, Staros reluctantly switched to a squid daisy chain and trolled slowly along the shore off Ore Head. Suddenly six big tuna appeared in the boat's wake and began rolling over and around the squid, but not striking.
"Jig it," Staros yelled. Elwood Harry jerked the bait in toward the stern, making the squid dance on the surface. The tuna rushed the bait, trying to shoulder each other out of the way. After perhaps 10 agonizing seconds, Staros clenched his fist and shouted: "Git on it one time, you big dogs." That did it. One big dog finally pushed his way ahead of the pack and, with cavernous mouth open wide and gill plates flared, he inhaled the last squid.
The battle that followed was brief and anticlimactic. While Staros chased the fish, turning frequently to keep it from swimming under the boat, Harry kept the pressure on, using his rod tip and his legs and back to absorb the strain. It was all over in less than 10 minutes, but Harry was as elated as if it had been his first bluefin. "Tuna don't jump and they don't tail walk on the surface," he said, "but there is no game fish anywhere that can pull like they can. For my money they are the greatest fish of all, and Conception Bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world to catch them."
Unless commercial fishing for bluefins by U.S. seiners, Japanese longliners and Russian trawlers gets completely out of hand, and allowing for all the other variables—weather, water temperature and adequate bait to attract the big tuna—Conception Bay should continue to provide plenty of action for fishermen. And if a successful day on the bay does not tire them out, visiting anglers can whoop it up at Bell's, a waterfront bar that is the favorite hangout of commercial fishermen from all over the world whose ships move in and out of St. John's Harbour. Dressed in knee-high rubber boots and exuding the not-so-fragrant odor of fish, Russians, Portuguese, Spaniards and Norwegians dance the lancers and the reel and guzzle beer and rum. Fights break out frequently, so one would be smart to follow the taxi driver's advice:
"Bell's? Right. You got your helmet with you?"