Location: West of Bandar Rowdha Canyon off Muttrah
Weather: Calm am, moderate pm (up to 10mph breeze pm)
Water Temperature: ~24°C
Now, this was an excellent trip. I’d taken my colleague Tim out on a number of occasions, with yellowfin and longtail tuna as the main target. All we’d managed to achieve so far were a few dorado, baitfish, small groupers and a remora …! We’d also recorded a large number of blanks (see files in Public Folder). On this trip, all the omens were good. We left the marina mid-morning (c.10.00am) to find livebait in abundance at Cat Island. Whilst we were catching bait, we could see a large number of Omani boats c. 2km off the entrance to the marina. They had to be chasing tuna! We quickly set about making bait and within 1 ¼ hours we had a bait well full of about 60 goggle eyes. As we were loading up with bait, we’d kept an eye on the fleet. They were still visible and moving slowly west. This was another good sign – slow moving boats meant slow moving tuna schools, making the fishing much easier and much more pleasurable (vs. the frenetic chase & drop style of fishing when trying to keep up and get in the right position when the tuna are moving fast). We were ready! We quickly sped north-westwards towards the action.
Within 15 minutes we were at the edge of the fleet. The boats were scattered (another good sign, with fish spread around the area), and we noticed a fair number were hooked up to big tuna. I always marvelled at how efficient the locals were at baiting, hooking and fighting yellowfin tuna. No panic, just slow, methodical, well practised technique. Upon hooking up, they quickly turned a fish and steadily hand-line it to the surface with minimal fuss, even large (50kg +) fish. If they didn’t get a strike as the dolphins passed, they would start up the motor and re-position the boat and re-set the bait, confident that their time honoured technique would eventually produce a fish. We, on the other hand, would watch and try to match their positioning in-front of the dolphins. Often, when you thought that you were in a perfect position and had just dropped a bait, the boats around you would suddenly up lines and move. It was frustrating, and you always felt unsure that you were in the right position – this experience had to be gained the hard way by putting in the hours on the water! Anyway, we persevered, trying to get in-front of the dolphins (which were, by now, starting to group together and move with more purpose and speed) and dropping baits behind the boat. Tim was generally getting a bait in the water ahead of me as I positioned the boat & then slowed it down whilst trying to thumb a bait in the boat’s wake. It was difficult, and you’d get in what seemed to be a good line, only for the dolphins to turn away and head in a different direction. After around 2 hours we’d just made our 4th position and drop. For the first time we were in a good position, with the dolphins moving towards us (and no other boats in their path between us and them). Suddenly, Tim grabbed his rod. “I’m on” he shouted, as he struggled to control his rod. He was panicking a little as he felt the ferocious power of this fish. “I’m going to get spooled”, he shouted, “we need to chase this fish”. In the heat of the moment, he overcooked the drag and was pulled across the cockpit and slammed into the transom. “What pound line are you using” I asked. “100lb braid with a 100lb mono top shot” he replied. Luckily, the high drag was not enough to break the big fish off; and infact, Tim stopped it relatively early in it’s first run. The problem now, however, was that the fish sounded deep whilst still green and full of power. Now the battle began in earnest ….!!
The fish held deep and commence to make repeated short, powerful runs at depth. With the fish deep, it was difficult to see which direction the fish was running. Normally, especially whilst fishing alone (when manoeuvring the boat during a fight is challenging to say the least), I lift the engines to reduce the chances of line snagging under the boat. However, on this occasion, it was difficult to keep the line from the boat. I was constantly moving the boat to keep the tuna off the stern quarter. This was difficult as the fish made numerous arcing runs, often making sudden changes in direction, or swimming in large circles beneath the boat. Often, I had to slam the boat in reverse and lock the wheel to rotate the boat and avoid break-offs. At other times, Tim had to follow the fish around the boat as it sped off on yet another crazy run.
Now, Tim has got many years of angling experience behind him, mostly fishing for salmon in Alaska. He fought this fish with a lot of skill and determination. But after an hour he was tiring, especially in the arms, and he had to take a break. I took over whilst Tim rested. This was how the second stage of the battle progressed. I would take short turns on the rod whilst Tim rested before rejoining the fight. This fish was extremely strong and stubborn. You would move it up 4 or 5 metres in the water column only for it to suddenly strip line off and regain its former position.
Another problem emerged as the fight entered the second hour. Tim was using an Omoto (30 class, if I remember rightly) graphite trolling reel paired with a 50-80lb class Fishing Master stand-up rod. This tackle was simply not up to the task. The drag started to play-up. It became snatchy, and the dynamic range on the drag lever changed – the reel was nearly in free spool half way between the actual free spool setting and the strike position ….! This very nearly cost us the fish. After about 1 ½ hours of the fight, Tim accidentally knocked the drag lever, it went from fighting drag to free spool and immediately caused a big bird’s nest tangle. We were both pissed off – it looked like we’d loose the fish after such a long battle. I started to handline the fish whilst Tim frantically tried to untangle the mess. I felt the fish starting to go again and had to dump the line. “It’s running again”, I called to Tim so that he could get his hands clear of the line. Tim still hadn’t fully freed the tangle. I braced myself for the inevitable break-off. Miraculously, the remains of the tangle strained and then pulled free. We still had a chance!
It was around this time that we got our first glimpses of the fish. I saw a dark shape streak past the boat, about 10 meters down as the fish took off on yet another run. “It must quit soon”, I thought, but the battle continued. We now had another problem – the gimbal on the rod butt worked loose, allowing the rod to twist from side-to-side in the fighting belt, and keeping pressure on the fish more difficult. Luckily, this was towards the end of the fight when the fish was starting to tire! We finally ended up in a stalemate, being unable to lift the fish the final 10m to the boat. By now, my friend Mohammed Jahwari had come across in his new boat. He was encouraging us, and teasing us in equal measure. “It’s only a small one”, he shouted, “less than 50kgs!”.
We also speculated about the size of the fish – I thought that it would be in the 70kg class. In the end, I had to handline the fish up the last few metres. I had the gaff ready and took the fish with the first shot, and Tim dropped his rod and helped me heave the fish aboard. Tim then collapsed in exhaustion. Finally, it was over. The prize was a well condition yellowfin in the 50-60kg class size range.
Tim was beat, but I still wanted a shot at another fish. The afternoon breeze had kicked in and the sea had chopped up. We’d also lost contact with the fleet – they’d moved farther offshore chasing the tuna school. “I’m done”, said Tim, “I can’t do anymore today”. I realised that the battle had drained him and pushed him to his limit. We agreed to head back early, and give Fahal Buoy a pass for dorado on the way in. After a few quick passes, finding no one home at the Buoy, we returned to the marina to grab a beer and reflect on the days events. Back at the dock the fish tip the scales at a respectable (if surprisingly light) 55kg – a well earned personal best fish for Tim, as well as being his first ever yellowfin tuna.
Ok, so it was unconventional and not IGFA legal, but this fish tested angler, tackle and boat handling skills to the limit. This was a real Hemingwayesque, “Old Man and the Sea” type epic and I was glad to have been a part of it.
This was my second experience of a large tuna and I was awestruck with the power and stubbornness of this fish. I also learnt the following valuable lessons:
1) Let a big tuna go on it’s first run – don’t try to stop it too quickly or it will go into deep water fighting mode whilst still strong!
2) Buy a full harness. Fighting this size fish with only a belt pad is masochistic!!
3) Don’t fish for these monsters with budget tackle – it simply can’t cope with the demands of big game fishing.
I also wondered if it would be possible to handle fish of this size and power on the casting rod combo that I’d bought previously. I remember Mohammed telling me tales of woe trying to fight large tuna on casting tackle, with frequent break-offs and back-breaching fights.
After this experience, and before the next chance of big fish, I purchased myself a Braid Bluefin harness for fighting these big tuna stand-up style. I was ready to step up to the next challenge …… to catch even bigger fish!
Tim Putnam with his prize – 55kg Yellowfin Tuna
“Captain” Griffin posing with the big Yellowfin Tuna