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BLUEFINS IN A CANYON
Duncan Barnes
August 12, 1968
In Newfoundland's Conception Bay tuna are caught close by rugged headlands that rise to a height of 800 feet
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August 12, 1968

Bluefins In A Canyon

In Newfoundland's Conception Bay tuna are caught close by rugged headlands that rise to a height of 800 feet

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For more years than the provincial tourist office cares to count, Newfoundland, which is billed (with Labrador) as Canada's "Happy Province," has been known to mainlanders, if indeed they knew of it at all, as a desolate, fogbound island somewhere in the North Atlantic—a place that too often crops up in jokes ("That's like being banished to Newfoundland"), a place where fishermen catch Atlantic salmon and eat fried cod tongues, provided they can figure out how to get there.

The provincial government would like to set things straight. First of all, one doesn't have to row to Newfoundland; commercial flights arrive there every day. Second, the capital city of St. John's, hard on the island's northeast coast, has 100,000 residents and proudly calls itself "Old Mother Hubbard in a mod world miniskirt." And as for visiting fishermen, Newfoundland has something else to offer besides salmon and cod tongues. In fact, the long, deep fjords that cut into the rocky coast just may be the greatest giant bluefin tuna fishing holes in the world, and all but one of them, Conception Bay, still remain virtually unfished.

Some 60 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, on the eastern edge of the Grand Banks, the icy waters of the Labrador Current mingle with the warm, rich waters of the Gulf Stream. Every summer schools of hungry bluefins that have migrated up the Atlantic Coast from their spawning grounds in tropical waters move inshore from this confluence to gorge on squid, herring and mackerel. The first fish are caught sometime in early July, but the great glut of tuna usually appears in late July or early August. Although the first rod-and-reel bluefin in Newfoundland was taken back in 1938, the sports fishery has only been flourishing since 1961. Today some 28 charter boats, most of them slow-but-seaworthy 38-foot Cape Islanders built in Nova Scotia, set out from Long Pond, Manuels and Holyrood to troll mullet baits, flown in from Florida, or daisy chains of squid around hotspots like Portugal Cove, Ore Head and Harbour Grace Islands. If the giant bluefins—fish in the 400-to-800-pound class—are showing, busting on the surface or pushing just under it, the boats cut and wheel like slalom skiers as they try to get the baits in front of the fish. When the blue-fins are feeding deep, gulls, terns and fulmars give them away by diving down to snatch up bits of squid, capelin and herring that float to the surface. More often the tuna will strike blind, momentarily catching captain, mate and angler by surprise. On rough days, when the beamy tuna boats pitch and roll, a hookup means that the angler must not only gauge the action of the fish but the heaving seas, as well.

The sport in Conception Bay is unique in many ways. The scenery is magnificent. Quaint fishing villages, with stark frame houses built four-square to the prevailing sea breezes, are scattered along the coast. Except for the seabirds and the pounding surf, the rocky headlands that rise 800 feet straight out of the bay give one the impression of being in the bottom of a canyon. The dropoff is so sudden and sharp that tuna are frequently hooked within 50 feet of shore in 30 fathoms of water. The hazards normally associated with bluefin fishing—barracuda and sharks in the Bahamas, rockweed and eelgrass that foul baits in Wedgeport, N.S.—do not exist in Newfoundland. There are 1,000-pound giant squid, ocean sunfish and schools of bullhead whales to make things interesting, but when something strikes a trolled bait in Conception Bay it is either a tuna or a cod net. Despite many ichthyological studies, the tuna's migratory pattern, like that of most great pelagic fishes, remains a mystery. None of the nearly 700 blue-fins marked with stainless-steel or plastic tags and released by anglers in the Bahamas has yet been recovered in North American waters. Oddly, several tuna tagged in the Bahamas have been recaptured off Norway's west coast, and others tagged between Maryland and Cape Cod have turned up in nets in the Bay of Biscay, but most scientists believe these fish simply did not turn inshore from the Gulf Stream until they suddenly found themselves in European waters.

Few game fish are as powerful as the bluefin tuna, and few swim with less effort. To permit a constant flow of oxygenated waters over its gills, a tuna swims with its mouth open. But its torpedo shape, retractable first dorsal fin and pectoral fins (they fit into grooves and thus reduce drag in the water) and thick, propellerlike tails make it easy to believe that the giant bluefin can attain speeds up to 45 miles an hour for a 10-to-20-second sprint.

For years tuna fishermen have congregated in the Bahamas and in Nova Scotia. The annual run in the Bahamas is probably the most predictable of all, but the cost—roughly $250 a day to charter a fast boat with a three-man crew and the best tackle—is out of sight for most sportsmen. A tuna boat in Wedge-port or Cape St. Mary's, N.S. costs $75 a day, but the thousands of tuna sighted in these waters during the past few years seem to have been on a diet—at least they no longer strike at daisy chains of herring (five or six herring with the hook in the last bait) as they did 20 years ago. Which leaves Newfoundland. The bluefins are there; they do strike often enough to make a trip there in August a good gamble for American anglers and, at $85 a day for a charter boat equipped with tackle, the price is a bargain.

Fishermen have been chasing bluefins in Newfoundland waters since 1900, when Edward Dyke of Eastport first harpooned them for fun in Bonavista Bay and gave the rich, oily meat to friends. A few natives hooked and quickly lost tuna on cane rods and wooden reels in the interim, but it wasn't until just before World War II that Lee Wulff, the fishing writer and photographer, boated the first rod-and-reel bluefin—a 470-pounder—in Bonne Bay on the island's west coast. In 1956 Oliver L. Vardy, Newfoundland's tourist-development officer, decided to exploit the possibility of a sports fishery. Two Cape Island boats and four Wedgeport guides were imported from Nova Scotia. In the meantime William K. Carpenter, the duPont heir and alltime bluefin-catching champion (more than 600 giants in 17 years) arrived in Conception Bay with his own Nova Scotia boat, the Moose Pie, a crew of three fishing captains from Florida and A. M. Whisnant of New York, a former captain of the U.S. Tuna Team. Carpenter and crew had trolled the bay for 21 days the previous summer without even seeing a tuna. This time they were more successful. Whisnant boated a 620-pounder on September 4, beating out a government boat, which caught its first tuna a half hour later. Since then some 25 local cod and lobster fishermen have turned to guiding tuna anglers, but few have equaled Carpenter's record of more than 100 bluefins on the bay since 1956.

Admittedly, serious tuna fishing is very much a team effort, and experienced big-game anglers, like Carpenter, who have the time and the money to fish faraway places with their own efficient crews and the finest tackle have a definite advantage. Consider the summer of 1966. the best tuna year ever in Conception Bay. The usual glut of bait was not present that summer, and the tuna were working overtime to fill their bellies. The result was that between July 11 and September 26, 24 boats, eight of them (including Carpenter's) fishing only part time, caught 388 bluefins ranging in weight from 336 to 725 pounds, and played and lost some 454 more. During the peak of the 1966 season—the last two weeks in July—Carpenter brought 36 bluefins to the boat and let his crew catch 14 more for a phenomenal total of 50 tuna in five days. Even in the Bahamas during the peak of the spring season, 40 fish in a month or six weeks of fishing is considered exceptional for one boat. Bill Staros of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., one of Carpenter's skippers, still hasn't gotten over the whole thing.

"We'd be baiting one school," Staros says, "and we'd have maybe 12 other schools spotted at the same time. The fish were busting through squid and capelin on the surface. Twelve strikes a day was nothing. Those fish were just leaving for home with anything we dragged behind the boat. One day we had 18 strikes, brought six fish to the boat, ran out of mullet baits and still managed to catch six more fish on Japanese feather jigs. There was one day when Carpenter was fighting a fish off Cape St. Francis at the mouth of the bay. Suddenly we heard something that sounded like, well, like an express train. We turned and there was a huge school of busters—maybe 300 or 400 tuna. They were ripping so ferociously through the bait that they were actually roaring."

It should not be inferred that the local boats did not catch their share of tuna during those five days in 1966. They did and they still do, and much of what they have learned about making up baits, instructing inexperienced anglers in how to fight tuna and land them, came from the Florida captains and mates brought to the bay by Carpenter and other American big-game anglers. Most Newfoundland boats today are equipped with adequate fighting chairs, tuna towers and Citizen Band radios. Their weighted mullet baits that are trolled just under the surface are flown in by A. Ewart Hilliard, a St. John's businessman and the leading local angler (114 tuna in five years).

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