VIDEO - Kayak fisherman Dave Lamoureux (Fortitude Fishing) hooks up with a giant bluefin tuna that tows his kayak for 15 miles over 4 hours! Head over to our Fishing Portal for more Cool Videos and News.
Written by Dave Lamoureux
After decades of big game fishing from the fighting chairs of sportfishing yachts I decided I needed a bigger challenge. The idea came to me when I saw an article in a New England tourist booklet for Cape Cod about how local bluefish and striped bass can actually pull a kayak fisherman around after being hooked. My immediate thought was to picture a kayak as a “mobile fighting chair.” Ideally, the kayak could provide me a fabled “Nantucket sleigh-ride” behind the most prized and most powerful fish in the North Atlantic- the bluefin tuna. Author Herman Melville made the Nantucket sleigh-ride immortal in his book Moby Dick, wherein a harpooned whale would violently tow the predatory whaleboat during a hunt.
My chosen challenge quickly grew in complexity as I researched my target species. Bluefin are relatively rare due to decades of overfishing. ICCAT & NOAA estimate stock levels of Western Atlantic bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus, have declined 82% since the 1950’s. Other challenges included that the bluefin is notoriously hard to catch, exceptionally tough on gear and they are a pelagic (offshore) species. My only possible fishing ground for these majestic creatures in a kayak was off the remote tip of the Cape Cod peninsula, which itself is 35 miles out to sea from Boston Harbor.
I also had to accomplish it within the strict federal bluefin regulations, and do so by myself. This meant no mothership, chase boat, other kayaking companions or any other form of safety and support except for what I could fit into my generic recreational kayak. In essence, I had to go out, fish and return under my own power (paddling) and could not receive any assistance from another vessel. Safety is always the primary concern and I do bring a cellphone, GPS, VHF radio, dive fins, tourniquet, PFD, dry suit and 3 safety knives for line entanglement (ironically how Capt. Ahab dies in Moby Dick). In essence, it is a true solo effort where one has to be fully self-sufficient and self-rescuing.
Aside from being one of the historically most treacherous areas for shipwrecks and being alone in my kayak up to 5.5 miles offshore from the Cape, there were still other dangers to contend with. The most harrowing being four encounters with Great White sharks. Here in Massachusetts, up to 20 of the awe-inspiring primeval monsters congregate each summer patrolling a 40-mile stretch of the outer Cape’s remote National Seashore.
This media dubbed “Shark Alley” runs from Chatham to Provincetown where grey seals have recently colonized and proliferated. Just this August, a man was attacked off a beach that I launch my kayak from. To assuage would-be tuna angler’s enthusiasm, I would like to point out that there is no cool National Geographic moment when you encounter a Great White Shark while alone in the ocean over a mile from shore in a kayak with bloody decks, bloody bait and occasionally a bloody tuna in tow. To say the least, it is disconcerting. But in brief, I learned three hard and fast rules- keep thinking (current, rips, obstacles, drop off, shoals, seal activity, etc.), fight the adrenaline and don’t act like prey (seals).
The hard part is that these rules are un-natural to perform under the circumstances because your first thought and instinct is to paddle to shore as fast as you can and that is the worst thing you can do. Other lone offshore dangers include paddling amidst the commercial tuna fleet, occasional trawlers, from 5 to 50 whales, hypothermia, exhaustion and sunstroke.
The most important things that I do are preparation and risk management, because you always have to get back to shore to fish another day. The most fun thing I do, as any fisherman can guess, is the actual fishing. Unfortunately, there is probably five hours of preparation, travel and exertion for every hour of tuna fishing.
The preparation starts with a marine weather spreadsheet I developed which draws off 8-10 websites. If the weather, tides and currents don’t align, you either won’t catch a tuna or you won’t make it back to shore. Neither of these prospects is palatable given the effort involved. One also has to carry the kayak and gear down 4 story dunes, rig the kayak with over 40 safety and fishing items, paddle an average five miles to the tuna grounds, troll for a few hours, fight the tuna for up to four hours (my longest fight), paddle up to seven miles back to the launching point (sometimes towing a tuna), carry the gear and tuna up the dunes (worst part of the day), then drive home and prepare the sushi before scombroidia poisoning sets in. From the time you hook the tuna until it is home and packed away in the refrigerator (you may need a second fridge solely for tuna) it’s like a race against physical exhaustion, encountering a Great White or having the harvested fish spoil.
There are five distinct stages to landing a bluefin tuna successfully from a kayak and each of these stages I learned through trial and error, with many tuna lost. If you want to repeatedly catch bluefin and not just rely on getting lucky once or twice, you have to learn how to (1) HOOK the rare and overfished bluefin considering the extensive limitations of a kayak, especially its low mass and speed. If you are trolling like I do, the traditional lures and spreader bars create too much drag and act like a sea anchor. The solution I eventually found was to rig frozen ballyhoo specially altered for kayak and bluefin application. It became so successful, I hooked 20 tuna my first season and I have since taught many commercial tunamen the rigging technique. Their interest stemmed from the amount of hookups I have despite my limited time at the tuna grounds. Something to be cognizant of is that you never want to make a mistake on your reel’s drag setting. I neglected to check it once and when a tuna hit, a custom rod, reel, rod holder and a piece of the deck was ripped right out of the kayak. However, losing the gear and a piece of my boat was much better than being dragged under.
The second stage to learn is how to (2) RIDE the tuna as in a Nantucket sleigh-ride. It becomes imperative because in keeping the fishing as sporting as possible I use line limiting spinning reels and light custom titanium rod components with a 400g jigging blank. Due to the limited line, I must ride along behind the tuna reaching from 10-20 mph. Obviously the larger the mass of the fish, the faster and further I go. This is one instance where your high school physics class pays off with its Force = Mass X Acceleration which allows one to gauge the size of fish. In essence, one’s drag control turns into a gas pedal. As you tighten the drag to reduce the rate of line loss, you increase speed. One of the hardest tricks to learn is steering a rudderless kayak while planed out at 15-20 mph. I like to analogize it to learning to snowboard from a sitting position yet much more dangerous. It doesn’t sound that fast at first but you have to remember that I am alone 2-5 miles from shore in the open North Atlantic, in a sit-in kayak, in unpredictable seas, and strapped to a fish that has ranged as large as 800 pounds on the end of my line. I definitely do not want to make a mistake or to have to put on the ocean dive fins that I bring just in case I flip and have to swim in. At a place that was notoriously named Race Point due to the extreme currents, you will never catch your kayak once separated from it. This is an often-overlooked area of risk for kayakers.
After the sleigh-ride slows, usually after the tuna has 3-4 independent runs, the third stage begins. How to (3) FIGHT the bluefin from a kayak starts with staying upright and is wholly dependent on 2 things…technique and endurance. When you are trying to land the toughest fighting fish in the ocean that has ranged from 50 to 800 pounds for me, one has to apply a unique technique(s) that will wear the monster down while preserving your own energy. In essence, it is a strategy of asphyxia based on the animal’s biology and instinctual behavior. Critically, one has to always remember that even after you may fight the fish for up to four hours, even if you lose the fish you still have to paddle back to your launch point which has been up to 7 miles away for me. You also have the unpredictability of weather, and if you are exhausted paddling against tides or wind becomes impossible.
Unfortunately stage four, how to (4) LAND a bluefin, will also take an additional 20 to 60 minutes of effort and oddly, it is the most dangerous and likely stage for mistakes and mishaps to occur. Getting the fish next to the kayak does not mean that it is caught. You still have the difficult task of restraining and preparing the tuna for transport back to shore. The main challenges are that you have the shortest reaction time to any sudden action by the powerful fish and you are physically exhausted with diminished dexterity to perform overlapping tasks. In particular, I lost one estimated 70 pound tuna because as I raised its head to attach a swim hook to secure it, the fish leaped right over my lap and kayak nearly rolling me in the process.
Lamoureux's new line of FORTITUDE Titanium Fishing Gear
You can’t catch an air born 70-pounder and not flip your kayak. The key was resisting the temptation to grab it. The question arises, ”how do you restrain a fish that is often over a hundred pounds without flipping the kayak?" Worse, if the fish dies as planned through asphyxiation technique then the tuna will not thrash about but a separate problem becomes evident since the fish loses its buoyancy with death. Now the dilemma is “how do you balance the kayak with 100+ pounds of dead weight on one side of the kayak without flipping, hold that 100+ pound fish with one hand while trying to secure it with only one free hand?” The issues become more complicated if the fish got tail wrapped during the fight and came up tail first. Some but not all solutions are helped by innovative fishing gear such as a titanium swim hook, single-handed harpoon, A2 tuna buoy and a two-foot titanium gill-needle.
Stage five, is how to (5) TRANSPORT the bluefin back to shore. It is laborious partly because of all the strict federal regulations regarding bluefin. In essence, it is illegal to fish for bluefin from a mother ship or to receive assistance (unless safety related). Hence, you are paddling a long distance with dead weight. Another complication and risk is the presence of Great White sharks in the area. What I do is tie the tuna off and drag it behind the kayak about 10 feet, keeping the tag end of the line in my hand for the purpose of immediate safety release.
It is much harder and awkward to paddle holding a very heavy towline but if a Great White attacks, I can immediately release the tuna vs. getting pulled under if it is attached to the boat. You want the tuna at least 10 feet back so that the Great Whites don’t associate the kayak and tuna together. You can also be happy that you saw the Great White when you had a tuna because that means it’s just interested in the tuna. If a Great White shows up when you don’t have a tuna, it is much worse because it means the shark is interested in you. On one occasion I had a Great White slowly tracking in on me (zigzagging) for 3 hours as I paddled an 80-pounder back to shore. When I reached shore I was met by a ranger from the Provincetown National Seashore Ranger station and a lifeguard who warned me of my stalker and informed me that they were tracking the event for my safety. The moral to the story is, when towing a tuna, never stop paddling to rest no matter how exhausted you are.
For those interested, I will be on Animal Planet’s show “Off The Hook: Extreme Catches” in June 2013. We caught the host Eric Young a 100-pound tuna amongst humpback whales in his kayak. I will also be posting daily to Facebook and Twitter as I chronicle my catches and promote my equipment by Fortitude Fishing. You can find out more at FortitudeFishing.com or DaveLamoureux.com.