Monday, October 04, 2010

Out on a Tuna Boat

There's a lot of controversy about tuna fishing these days, but there's also some hope for a future in the form of ca catch-and-release sport fishery on Prince Edward Island. A couple of weeks ago I went out on the water as a guest participant for one day of the Canada Tuna Cup tournament and I learned a lot about how tuna fishing works and really gained an admiration for the people who are good at it. Here's what I wrote in an e-mai describing how the day went.

had a fantastic day yesterday out on the water. We got to North Lake just at around sunrise. Not quite a proper fisherman's hour but close enough to feel authentic. All the fishermen had this air about them, you could tell they were more excited to be able to catch tuna again than the structure of the actual tournament. We grabbed a copy of the rule sheet at the very last minute as we were heading out the door of the little restaurant where they serviced us breakfast and handed us these huge home made boxed lunches to eat out on the water.

My dad and I were invited as guests on one of the 6 boats entered into the tournament, along with a guy from the ministry of fisheries. We did our best to help out the three real fishermen with all the stuff that needed to happen on the boat, but tried to stay out of their way at the same time. Once we got out of the harbour the boat's pilot said 'hold on to something!' and engaged the engine and we just blasted off, faster than I had any idea a boat like that could go. I've never been out on a fishing boat before when it wasn't just a quiet tour of a harbour or something so this was totally unexpected but quite a thrill. I didn't even mind the water coming over the bow, over top of teh cabin and down on top of me on the deck, that's how rough the water gets when you're a normal-shaped fishing boat with that much power under the hood.

Our first stop was to fish for bait to catch the tuna with later. That means mackerel. Before I knew what we were doing someone threw a fishing pole into my hands and gave me the 20 second version of a "how to catch fish" lesson. Release the catch on the right here, guide out the line with your left thumb. One second is about a foot of depth. The mackerel are about 30 feet down according to the sonar. When you get to the depth you want, engage the catch, and start jigging the rod up and down to get their attention. If you don't feel one grab on after half a minute try a different depth. When you reel it in bring it up fairly quickly; don't let a seagull grab it off the hook on you, chances are he'll get caught in the line and then we'll have to untangle a pissed-off bird. Grab the fish as you swing it overboard, pull it off the hook upwards, then throw it in the bucket. If it slips out of your hand just slide it over with your foot and we'll throw it in.

I was the first one to catch something, unfortunately it was a too-small herring and we had to throw it back. After that, though, I got the hang of it really quite quickly. The fish are pretty small and the line goes down quite deep, so it's hard to tell at first if it's just the current or the movement of the boat that's causing your rod to pull one way or another, but as soon as you feel a real fish fighting on the other end you know right away. Granted, mackerel travel in schools and are pretty easy to catch, it's still a lot of fun to be good at something right away, and to be helping the rest of the crew get all the bait we need.

After a few minutes of plentiful fishing and one close encounter with a gannet - a crazy enormous sea bird with a frightening-looking long bill and wings that make a swan look diminutive, we pulled our lines up and were on our way again. Now we were off looking for the bluefin. One was watching the radar, looking for some arrangement of waves and lines on the screen that translate to "giant fish on the hunt for food". We sped along, even faster than before it seemed, and with the deck now wet and slippery I was doing a full-time job of trying to stay balanced, while next to me one of the other fishermen was solidly planted by the soide of the boat cutting up some of the bait with what must be a monster of a knife. I consider my 'staying out of the way' skill a pretty valuable one at this point.

That's the most excite we'll have for the next few hours. We had to try three different locations in all. They worked so efficiently you barely knew what was happening until you see the four long rods and heavy lines attached opposite sides of the deck and there's a discussion about how to launch the kite. Apparently the way to keep a live bait near the surface where you want him splashing around and drawing attention to itself is by suspending it from a kite. This also draws it away from the side of the boat so the bluefin isn't right under you when you hook it. It looked surprisingly tricky to launch the kite despite all the wind out on the water. The air blowing off of the cabin would get sucked down and cause a force of wind towards the deck and the water, Despite this they were able to get it launched and out over the side to do its thing, and we wait.

Aside: I used to be indifferent to country music. The XM satellite station that was going the whole while we waited for the mark on the radar that caused us to stop to come back was the distillation of all that is commercial and crass about Nashville country music. Lyrics that enforced fatalism, heros of songs that just had stuff happen to them instead of about _doing things_ was a common theme. It seems that for the target audience of pop country life was something that happened to you, and as bad as it gets that's how things just are. I think I was the only one who had nothing to really do that could help with the fish-finding effort or had calls to make - mobile phone reception when you're halfway to Cape Breton was apparently not all that surprising. So I was left to just sit and listen to this whole new world of music I had ignored before.

We hear over the radio that one of the other boats had a catch. a 750lb. fish, so they're done for the day. That this is now a catch-and-release tournament didn't seem to take away any amount of enthusiasm on the part of the fishermen. Our guys were thrilled that someone else had a catch already. That meant that fish were around and they weren't guarding their location or trying to be secretive at all. So we pulled down the kite, pulled up the lines and headed to one, then another spot to try to come up on a fish. Everyone was in it together and the more successful we all were the better case it will make to build a proper sports fishing industry here on the island.

We had the best mark yet on our last stop and the ones who knew how to tell the difference were keeping up the hopes of those of us who were along for the ride. The little water bottle that we used in lieu of something fancy to mark where the line with the bait was bobbing below the kite was well beyond my ability to see, but as soon as we got a bite the rest of the crew came alive to they knew how to do better than just about anyone else in the world, I'm sure. 'Get those otehr lines up' 'Bring in that kite'. To the pilot 'he's gone under the boat, get us clear!'

At this point I realized something I hadn't even considered before - to get the fish where you want him, when the fish is that big, you turn and move your whole boat. The whole time you have to keep the line from going slack, without jerking it or doing any number of things you might do wrong that I have no idea about that the fishermen knew in their muscle memory. That said, I still had the chance to man the reel for a couple of minutes. Big thick glove on my left hand to keep a huge on the tightness of the line, and massively difficult-to-turn reel to bring him in whenever he gives you any chance at all. Apparently they move through the water with only their tale in motion, which makes their already powerful bodies even more efficient at transforming strength into movement through the water. All I knew was I had to keep this line coming in and it involved more physical hard work in short but controlled bursts than I remember doing in my life. It took a pretty sadly short amount of time before I felt like my arm was going to give out and I passed control to someone else. Getting that reel around was a full-body exercise as you directly pulled against the something so massively more powerful than you, and your only advantage is classical mechanics.

The boat scores points for various achievements while the fish is on the hook. At minimum you have to fight him for fifteen minutes for it to count. You get bonus points for getting it up beside the boat, for getting a picture, and for touching it. You also have to have all of the bits that involve the fish out of water done within 30 seconds or you're disqualified from the tournament. They take the catch-and-release part very seriously and seem to respect the intent behind the rules fully. We didn't get it up out of the water but we managed to claim three points in total, which kept our boat in the running going into the next two days, which I unfortunately won't be participating in.

By al - 9:33 a.m. |

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