Tussling with Tuna
Updated: Aug 19, 2020
I TOOK A BOAT TRIP TO THE DEEP WATER BEYOND CAPE POINT TO DO BATTLE WITH SOME OF THE OCEAN’S MOST FEROCIOUS FIGHTERS, YELLOWFIN TUNA
Imagine pitting yourself against 80 kg of steely and streamlined muscle, armed with nothing but a rod, reel and the determination to save face in front of a boatload of hardened fishermen. This is what I signed up for when I decided to take a trip out to the tuna grounds with Johnny and Justin from a Cape Town-based fishing charter company.
I’m not a morning person, but it is amazing how much easier it is to get up at 4 am when there is fishing on the cards. It was with bleary eyes, but sufficient excitement, that I made my way to Miller’s Point, the launch site a couple of kilometres past Simon’s Town.
After what had been a week of miserable and blustery weather, it was a glorious morning without a breath of wind, and the dark waters of False Bay, just visible by the peach-tinged dawn light, were as flat and exquisite as I’ve seen them. I found the guys already queuing at the slip behind a fleet of commercial fishermen looking to get a head start on the first fishable day in a week.
It wasn’t long before our boat, a new Carry Cat 760, slid off the trailer into the harbour and roared off towards Cape Point with six of us aboard, the water mercifully un-choppy and the ride smooth. The plan was to troll the waters near Cape Point for yellowtail before heading off to the deep. As we neared the famous rocky outcrop standing sentinel around the Point’s lighthouse, we started laying out the spread.
The spread consists of six lines, rigged with lures of various descriptions and laid out at different lengths behind the boat, which are dragged through (some on the surface of) the water at a speed of around eight knots. The last line had barely hit the water when one reel started screaming (a noise that gets the saltiest sea dogs as giddy as schoolgirls), indicating that a fish had taken a hook and was running with it.
One of our number fumbled to get the rod off its rest and started reeling it in furiously. ‘Lines up!’ Johnny shouted, and we retrieved the other lines so as not to impede the angler with the fish on. After a short but vigorous struggle, the fish was on the boat – a beautiful yellowtail of about eight kilograms. Backs were heartily slapped and the mood was cheerful after a promising start to the day.
Yellowtail usually run in large schools, so we were quick to get the lines back out in the hope of landing a few more. But after a while with no luck, we brought up the lines and sped to where the seriously big game hunts – around 30 km south of the Point. Arriving at the hallowed Cape tuna grounds, we once again put out the spread and waited for that shrill and splendid scream of a reel.
We followed the birds, which hover over a shoal of baitfish – and wherever there are baitfish, the game fish aren’t far off. We encountered a commercial longliner, which attaches hundreds of hooks to long lines and then drags it. As we crossed its wake, we saw several hake that had fallen off hooks and were floating on the surface. Hardly believing our luck, we happily proceeded to scoop up a few of the delicious table fish and, suddenly, one of the reels went berserk.
We had all nominated a rod beforehand, so the lucky winner whose reel was now shrilly protesting snatched up the rod and was instantly taken aback by the strength of whatever was on the end of his line. He could do nothing but watch on as the line was stripped off his reel, the behemoth on the end of it probably not even aware that it had been hooked. After a while, he succeeded in slowing the line and finally managed to retrieve some of it. But for every three metres gained, the massive fish took back two straight away, making progress agonising.
It was clear the bounty was enormous and the fight would last long. After two gruelling hours and the combined efforts of two anglers, we could finally see the first flashes of the yellowfin as it circled far below the boat. A few opportunistic blue sharks had also started circling the boat, which made the huge tuna even more skittish and obstinate. But eventually, three of us managed to heave the colossus on to the boat. An 83 kg yellowfin, as the scale would later show us.
Sweaty and breathless, but happy and exhilarated, we had our first big prize and we put out the lines for more. It wasn’t very long before the next fish took Justin’s lure, and finally, a minute later, my reel let rip. While Justin battled his tuna at the front, I wrestled with mine at the stern. I instantly knew mine wasn’t as big as the one caught earlier, but that’s not to say that it wasn’t feisty.
It was after about 15 minutes of back-and-forth, and my arms and back were starting to take strain as the fish dived repeatedly, when I managed to bring it to the top. A yellowfin. A beautiful specimen of 30 kg. Justin’s turned out to be another monster of more than 60 kg. After that, our luck dried up a bit and we decided to head back to the Point for another go at the yellowtail that hang around there.
This time, we used spinning rods instead of the back lines, and after two casts, Justin was on to one. And then another, and another. It was a feeding frenzy and all six of us each landed a yellowtail in quick succession. What an end to a spectacular day. We cruised back to Miller’s Point some time after 5 pm, filthy and exhausted, but with happy hearts and a collection of tales that will almost certainly get taller with each telling.
Yellowtail Yellowtail (Seriola lalandi) are large, fast-growing fish found in schools. They are the second most commonly caught species in SA in the line-fishing sector. Average weight in Cape waters: 5–8 kg
Yellowfin Yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) are migratory fish with a relatively long lifespan. They’re found in open waters and often form mixed schools with other species of tuna. They are highly valued for sashimi and therefore are often served in restaurants. Average weight in Cape waters: 15–40 kg
Yellowfin and yellowtail are on Sassi’s (South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative) green list. This list contains the most sustainable choices from the healthiest and most well-managed fish populations.