"I'd heard fantastic stories about expensive equipment," says Fraser, "so I just didn't do anything." No one else on the island had done any research comparable to Fraser's, and for the next decade "Fraser's tuna" was one of the more popular Prince Edward folk stories. "I knew what they were," he says, "but I didn't know how to convince the world."
During this time Fraser kept telling fellow islanders that "tuna fishing could really build up our tourist business." Wedgeport was tuna capital of the world then; everyone knew that. And in the early '60s, when the Wedgeport fishing went bad, people started listening to Fraser. At last, in August of 1966, the Prince Edward Island Travel Bureau sent a fishing boat up to North Lake with tackle and a skipper. On the first day, less than a mile out, they hooked and lost a big fish. The act was repeated time and again until the season ended: strike, hookup, lost fish. But the next summer brought the 855-pounder—and the real start of Prince Edward Island tuna fishing.
In July of 1968 the provincial government hired a veteran Nova Scotia guide named Aubrey Purcell to conduct a free 10-day course for anyone who wanted to be a tuna guide. Wes Fraser took it, as did four other commercial fishermen, but that was all. People move slowly on Prince Edward Island; only five lobster boats fished tuna from North Lake in 1968, catching 14 more bluefin, including the 960-pounder and the two 930s, one of the latter by a client of Fraser's. He hooked up at 5:50 one evening and Fraser gaffed the fish at 11:30 the next morning, a fight of 17 hours and 40 minutes. "We were still a little green," Fraser says now. "We were afraid to tighten up on the drags."
Another islander to take the course was lobsterman Derrell Collings, now at 42 a lean, quiet man with deep creases fanning out from his eyes. The legal lobstering season is only two months long, so all his life Collings had dragged for scallops and dug for clams, tough winter work that ages a man. "Fishing is a job that gets you, though," he'd always say. "You always feel you'll have a good year, and there's no one to boss you." Tuna fishing would be like that, he thought, and it would also be something new. That was appealing. So Collings went to a mechanic and for $200 had a fighting chair made. No fancy chrome, just red-painted steel with a cushion and the bottom of a barber chair bolted to the floor of his old boat.
One morning in August 1970 Collings took out two New Jersey anglers, and a tuna struck at one p.m. It was on for two hours before they saw it—the only time they would—but the tuna saw them, too, and took a dive in 90 feet of water. Unlike Wes Fraser earlier, Collings urged the angler to tighten the reel drag, but the client was afraid the line would break and he refused. Six hours later, at nine p.m., Collings had to take over the rod; at two a.m., exhausted, he stuck it in the gimbal and roped it to the chair. The tuna had been pulling the boat steadily for 13 hours and, Collings admits, "I didn't know where we were." The rod had started splintering, the cork grip was peeling away and for three hours one of his clients had been begging him to cut off and head back. Finally, at three a.m., the line snapped. Looking out over the water, Collings recognized the flashes of the Cape George, Nova Scotia lighthouse; the tuna had towed them 40 miles. With the fuel low they could not chance heading back to port, so Collings waited until daybreak, landed on a Nova Scotia beach and hiked up the road to a gas station. It was 2:30 p.m. when they finally tied up at North Lake after a 25�-hour odyssey. Collings says, "Judging from the size of its tail, that tuna would have weighed 1,200 pounds. But then I've seen fish jump out of the water here—completely out—that would go 1,500."
The world record stood at 977 pounds then. On Sept. 8 a 980-pounder was brought into North Lake, but that was nine days after a 985-pounder was caught by Dr. Richard Hausknecht off Montauk, N.Y. Two weeks later a Derrell Collings client, Mel Immergut from Brooklyn, N.Y., hooked the 1,040-pounder and brought it to gaff in 38 minutes. Collings had learned a great deal about boat handling by then, and Immergut was fishing a very tight drag, on the theory that if a giant tuna is not boated in an hour the odds switch away from the fisherman; hooks can pull out, lines can fray, or at Prince Edward Island the fish might break off on one of the many trawl or lobster traplines in the shallow gulf waters. The angler's attitude is kill him before he kills you, and the intense pressure takes its toll at both ends of the line. Three days earlier Prince Edward Island's attorney general, Elmer Blanchard, lost a very large tuna after a 45-minute fight, stood up, collapsed and died. He was 43 years old and had never been seriously ill.
The last tuna of 1970 was brought into North Lake on Oct. 10. The fish did not disappear after that, but the winds began blowing from the north, making it impossible to get over the shallow bar at the harbor mouth. Two weeks before Christmas, Wes Fraser drove his truck to the bluff near North Lake. He stood on the roof with binoculars, and a quarter of a mile out in the gulf, he saw a school of tuna swimming in circles as if wondering where to go next.
The sandbar outside North Lake is still there, and it seems a ridiculously small obstacle for the most successful tuna fleet in history, but Prince Edward is a land of obstacles. North Lake must be the least pretentious big-game fishing center on Earth. A jumble of gray shacks cluster along the channel, homes for lobstermen and tuna fishermen in season. The year-round population is 90. A small restaurant sits on the bluff just west of the harbor, and while the clam chowder would never draw raves from Julia Child, at least it is clam chowder—and the only show in town. As for living accommodations, one goes elsewhere. Since the tuna do not arrive until mid-July and by mid-October the boats are stuck behind the sandbar, the motel business would be too seasonal to pay. The nearest place to sleep is a six-unit motel eight miles away, but so far most tuna anglers have stayed 40 miles south at one of the three motels in Montague and driven to the fishing boats each morning, past bright fields stretching down to the sea, along little dirt roads that lead to lonely, dune-lined beaches. It is easy to forget about the fishing.
Prince Edward Island is shark-shaped, facing east with a wide-open mouth. Montague is at the hinge of its jaws and North Lake is four miles in from East Point, the nose. Until this year all the giant tuna had been caught in one six-mile stretch from East Point to Campbells Cove, just west of North Lake, but the shark is 120 miles long, and there is no reason why there should not be tuna all the way to its tail.
One week this August the mackerel schools disappeared and fishing fell off at North Lake. When the newspaper reported huge commercial mackerel catches at the island's western end, two visiting anglers drove west toward Malpeque, a little town on the largest of a dozen or so bays on the island's north side. Someone was reported to be fishing at Malpeque, and at the dock were two boats with fighting chairs. Hanging nearby were two tuna, both well over 800 pounds. "See Bruce Champion," a man said. "He began the fishing here."