Bluefin Tuna – The First Tuna Fishing Expedition to the Fiordland Sounds
by Dick Marquand
Southlander Ken Hay had a fascination for tuna. During the late summer months, while fishing for blue cod in Foveaux Strait, he had often seen southern bluefin tuna leaping from the surface of the sea. One particular day, while fishing near Barracouta Rock from the commercial fishing vessel ’Huia,’ a school of southern bluefin swam around the boat. These were big fish, having a length of around two metres. That day, Ken made a vow to catch a bluefin tuna.
Ken spent a lot of time and effort doing research about bluefin tuna, taking note of water temperature preferences and recording dates and places where tuna had been sighted. During his inquiries, he met many of the Bluff and Riverton based commercial fishermen who fished Fiordland waters. One such fisherman boasted that he had caught a tuna as long as the wheelhouse on his boat was wide.
On a trip to Milford Sound during late 1961, Ken had a yarn to some commercial fishermen regarding access to the Fiordland Sounds. He was told about George Brassell, Jack Egerton and the vessel “Miss Akaroa.” A ‘short time later, Ken met Iack in Te Anau and arrangements were made for a trip into Fiordland. He prepared some heavy game fishing gear, formed a ﬁshing party, and after a lot of organising, Ken Hay led the first tuna ﬁshing expedition to the Fiordland Sounds.
The party consisted of Ken, Murray Barnfield, Ernie Halliday and Vic Horner. On 9 April 1962, they all met in Te Anau. Here they boarded the Southern Scenic Cessna floatplane and took off, heading for the Fiordland coast. The plane touched down in Doubtful Sound, south of Bauza Island where they met up with George Brassell and the “Miss Akaroa.” Gear and persons were transferred to the boat and soon after, the plane took off on its return trip to Te Anau.
George and his crew made the pioneering party welcome, although they were very sceptical about the chances of catching bluefin tuna. The “Miss Akaroa” headed into Deep Cove then around to Hall Arm where it moored for the night.
Next morning, George decided to head back to the camp on the eastern side of Secretary Island. Ken and Murray assembled two 37kg class game fishing outfits and put a couple of feather jigs out in the wash behind “Miss Akaroa.” The waterfalls and streams entering the sound were full, and the freshwater that lay on the surface was evidence of the recent heavy rain.
The action came fast, only a few kilometres from Deep Cove on the south side of Elizabeth Island. Within half an hour of commencing trolling, there was a heavy strike on one of the rigs followed almost immediately by a hook-up on the other.
As Murray later put it, “For the first time in my life, I watched a few hundred metres of line smoke off a reel!” The two fish took Ken and Murray around each other a couple of times, but most of the fight was just a hard slog. Ken wound away on the big 10/0 Penn Senator reel for about a quarter of an hour before he saw his fish. After a short struggle, the southern bluefin tuna was eased alongside the boat. In went, the big gaff and the exhausted fish was hauled on board. A few minutes later, Murray had his tuna alongside the boat, then it joined Ken’s fish on the deck of “Miss Akaroa.”
For Ken, it was a dream come true, all the plans and research had paid off. Measurements were made of the two tuna and by using an accurate fish weight formula, both fish were found to weigh 27.5kg (61lb).
Murray later said, “I must add that I had smuggled a bottle of Johnnie Walker, and rightly so, full justice was observed on such an exciting occasion.”
During the next four days, the party fished from the “Miss Akaroa” and the smaller “Mate.” Fifteen more southern bluefin were landed, all within the central portion of the Thompson and Doubtful Sound complex. The total weight of the seventeen tuna was a little over 454kg (1000lb) – The tuna averaged 27.5kg (61lb), and all fish weighed within a kilogram of each other.
On 16 April, the party flew back to Te Anau by ﬂoatplane. The pioneering party were convinced that Fiordland offered a world ranking sport – tuna fishing.
During mid-1974, I was on board a Mount Cook Airlines Hawker Siddeley en route to Christchurch. In the seat next to me was a fellow Wildlife Service Ranger whom I had not previously met. His name was Brent Vincent and he was stationed in Te Anau. On the lapel of his jacket was a curious little badge, a tuna encircled by the words Fiordland Game Fishing Club.
During our conversation which consisted wholly of game ﬁshing, I found out that he was the President of this organisation. It appeared that like myself, he thought of very little other than ﬁshing, or to be more precise, chasing the big fast variety – tuna. Some of the stories he told me sounded a bit preposterous, I knew that there were tuna in Fiordland waters, but surely not that many.
He suggested that I join his Club and take part in some of their organised trips. I nodded in agreement and said that I would certainly be interested in doing so. I had recently transferred from Rotorua to
Queenstown and it had appeared to me that I was moving to an area most unsuitable for me to pursue my keenest hobby. Over the following years, I was to learn just how wrong I was.
My first experience with southern blueﬁn tuna happened the following March at the mouth of Thompson Sound. On this particular day I was fishing with John Beattie in Maurice Mee’s 6 metre Cresta Craft. It was their first attempt at game fishing and as the gear they had been using was somewhat under-gunned, I loaned John my 24kg out-fit. We trolled around the mouth of Thompson Sound for a few hours without success and as the sea conditions were quickly deteriorating, Maurice decided to troll back to our camp near the Pandora River mouth.
We were close to the entrance of the sound when the 24kg rod bent back in the rod holder with the Penn Senator screaming as line melted from the spool. As John took hold of the straining rod, Maurice cut the throttle on the big Mercury outboard. There was no fighting chair onboard so John made himself comfortable sitting on a 55 litre steel drum and settled in for a long and hard ﬁght.
A huge southwesterly swell had developed and as John fought the tuna, Maurice fought to keep the bow of his small boat into the increasing fury of the sea. A couple of times, green water crashed over the bow and cabin soaking John.
“We’d better cut the line and head in,” John said nervously.
“That’s not your choice John,” I told him, “Maurice is the skipper, you just concentrate on keeping a tight line to that tuna.”
Maurice’s mind had been made up, he decided that we all wanted to land this fish and besides, nobody knew his boat better than he did. Two long hours later, John pumped the fish closer to the boat where it swam on the surface, just out of gaffing range. Soon after, he was able to ease the tuna within range, so I leaned out and secured it with the flying gaff. I realised that it was a good fish as I hauled it into the cockpit and after handshakes and congratulations all round, we headed towards camp, out of the fury of the open sea. When we weighed the tuna at our campsite, it pulled the scales around to 44.45kg (98lb), an outstanding angling effort considering the sea conditions at the time.
A couple of days later, we awoke to a murky drizzling day and so decided to troll inside the mouth of Thompson Sound. This day would have to rate as one of my most frustrating angling days. For hours we trolled amongst a huge school of leaping southern bluefin, the school was at least ten kilometres long and one kilometre wide. As far as the eye could see, tuna were visible leaping from the surface of the sound.
Many thousands of sooty shearwaters darkened the sky as they screamed and dived on the small fish that the tuna were herding. Despite five boats trolling at least ten lures, nobody experienced a single strike. Nevertheless, we all suffered a severe bout of “bluefin fever.”
The bluefin tuna is recognised throughout the world as one of the hardest fighting species of gamefish and for this reason, it is highly prized by the big game angler. A sports fishery for bluefin exists off Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in Canada, and each year a number of lucky anglers land huge fish.
At the time of writing, the All-Tackle World Record is a bluefin of 679kg (1496lb), taken on 60kg gear by Mr Ken Fraser who was fishing out of Aulds Cove, Nova Scotia in Canada on 26 October 1979. The future of this sports fishery is uncertain as it is felt by some fisheries scientists that the bluefin population is in a decline.
The bluefin found in New Zealand’s waters is the southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii), particularly off the west coast of the South Island between February and September when the warm South Tasman Current pushes the water temperatures close to 20deg. C.
The two largest bluefin tuna so far taken in New Zealand are a 298kg (658lb) tuna taken by Mr E. Andrews at Mayor Island in 1970 and a 235.64kg (519.5lb) specimen in Mercury Bay waters by Mr Jack Jackman in 1967.
There is some doubt amongst the experts that these two specimens are not southern bluefin, but are giant bluefin (Thunnus thynnus). It is the opinion of noted game ﬁshing expert Peter Goadby that any bluefin exceeding 180kg (400lb) is most probably the giant bluefin. Those readers lucky enough to have a copy of Peter’s excellent book “Saltwater Gameﬁshing Offshore and Onshore” will notice that on page 13, Peter shows the giant bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) as occurring in New Zealand waters.
The southern bluefin tuna is a typical member of the tuna family Scombridae. The body is round with a pointed head, and obviously able to go through the water with very little resistance. The eyes lie flat against the head and the first dorsal fin folds down into a groove. In addition, the pectoral ﬁns fit into an indentation making this ﬁsh perfectly streamlined. The caudal keel on the caudal peduncle also found on billfish and the mackerel shark acts as a stabiliser when the fish is swimming at a high speed. These adaptations make the bluefin a true pelagic speedster and a wary game ﬁsh opponent.
One has to see a bluefin tuna fresh from the sea to appreciate the brilliant colouration of this fish. The back is an iridescent bluish-black fading to a silvery-white on the lower sides and belly. The small finlets found on all Scombrids lying between the second dorsal fin and the tail, and the anal fin and the tail, are brilliant yellow.
The food demand for tuna is very high. Research undertaken by the Scripps Oceanographic Institute has shown that some species require a daily food intake of up to 25% of their body weight.
Scientific studies have also shown that bluefin tuna, like the white, porbeagle and mako sharks, are warm-blooded, in some cases their temperature is 10deg. C above that of the surrounding water. Perhaps this is the reason that they are able to turn on the power with long runs of over 70 kilometres per hour.
Southern bluefin tuna can be taken on a wide variety of trolled lures, including “hex-heads, feather jigs, Kona-heads, Rapala plugs and “bones.” If the angler uses a monofilament nylon leader instead of a steel leader, the chances and number of strikes will increase considerably. When a bluefin takes a trolled lure, it pays to leave the boat going forward for at least another fifteen seconds as often strikes will occur on the other trolled lures.
A bluefin tuna taken on a trolled lure is a hard fighter, and after a long initial run that may take out over 400 metres of the line from the reel, the hard slog starts with the angler pumping back line only to have it stripped off again. The last third of the fight will generally see shorter runs with the tuna circling deep beneath the boat. A bend must be kept in the rod at all times as by now the hook will have worn a hole in the mouth of the fish and any slack line will allow the hook to simply drop out.
The fighting ability of the species varies with each individual, one fish weighing 19.73kg (43.5lb) took me one hour and twenty minutes to land while another weighing 20.2kg (44.5lb) took only seventeen minutes. Both were taken on 10kg gear.
Large bluefin tuna may be taken while drift fishing with fish fillets as bait in a chum trail. However, these fish are usually gut hooked and as such do not have the fighting ability of tuna that are hooked in the mouth. Each July, August and September, large southern bluefish are found off Westport and in the past, keen anglers have arranged to go out on commercial boats to fish for them. The big tuna were chummed to the surface where they readily took hooks baited with whole fillets.
One bluefin that I will always remember was taken by myself in 1976 from Daryl Munro’s six-metre “Yellowfin.” We were part of an organised Fiordland Game Fishing Club trip to the remote and beautiful Thompson and Doubtful Sound complex.
Early one April morning, we headed away from our camp in Deas Cove to the mouth-of Thompson Sound. Daryl was trolling a blue Striker plug, while I was using a blue and silver CD 18 Rapala plug, and as we were both chasing records, we were using 10kg gear. Outside the mouth, the sea was broken with a southwesterly swell and chop. Despite trolling our lures for a couple of hours, we had no strikes and so we decided to head in and troll around the entrance to the sound.
Close in, I could see white-fronted terns, sooty shearwaters and mollyhawks working. Leaping from the surface were three schools of skipjack tuna, the first and only time that I have seen “skippies” off the Fiordland coast.
Shortly before 0900 hours, I observed a congregation of sea birds diving amongst a school of leaping southern bluefin tuna. As we closed in on the action, the ratchet on my Penn Senator screamed as something connected with the Rapala plug only ten metres from our stem. As Daryl cut the throttle and reeled in his lure, I watched 150 metres of line melt from the reel spool.
I kept steady pressure on the fish and half an hour after hook-up, I managed to pump it close enough for us to get a good look at our quarry. It was a southern bluefin tuna and a good one which promptly ran non stop for 500 metres.
The sea was rough making fighting the fish difficult, however, I sat on the improvised fuel tank/game chair and worked the light ﬁbreglass rod to it’s extreme, slowly winning back some of the line. At one stage, I managed to get the tuna to within 250 metres of “Yellowfin,” but again it panicked and ran, this time leaving me with only 200 metres of line on the reel. Daryl started up one of the outboards and attempted to follow the fish so that I could regain some line, but a gust of wind blew the boat over the line. I had to put the rod tip deep under the water to avoid the line catching on one of the outboards. Needless to say, we did not risk using the boat motors again.
Time passed quickly and when two hours of the fight were behind me, I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to land this fish. Half an hour later, the tuna still had over 500 metres of line out and although it was still fighting hard, I realised that at last, I was winning. Carefully I pumped the rod, slowly building line back onto the reel.
At midday exactly, the tuna died having burnt itself completely out. It was a sad sight to see such a magnificent fish floating tail down with only a few centimetres of its head above the surface. The thought of sharks crossed my mind as I eased the tuna alongside the boat, but Daryl leaned out and put the gaff in, I grabbed the tail and we hauled it aboard “Yellowfin.” During the three hour fight, we had covered ten kilometres of ocean. After locating the game fishing launch “Samara,” we went ashore to officially weigh the tuna on the Fiordland Game Fishing Club’s certified scales. It went 67.13kg (148lb), and was the Club’s heaviest blueﬁn to date.
Later, when we went through the International Angling Rules as laid down by the l.G.F.A., we found that the treble hooks on the Rapala CD 18 plug disqualified my chances for a record claim. Had the tuna been eligible, it would have not only been a New Zealand Record Claim, but a World Record for 10kg class gear, exceeding the previous record by 8.l6kg (18lb). The l.G.F.A. rules in force during 1976 clearly stated that treble hooks were only allowed on plugs that were cast.
Although it was a disappointment being unable to claim a World Record with this fish, I was able to claim a New Zealand Record during the 1978 National Open Game Fishing Tournament. I was part of Team Samara, fishing from the game fishing launch “Samara,” my teammates being Brent Vincent and Dave Lamming.
On the second day of this tournament, we were trolling Rapala plugs at the mouth of Milford Sound. The I.G.F.A. had made some changes to the International Angling Rules and as from 1 January 1978, our beloved Rapalas and their treble hooks became legal trolling tackle. Out at sea a light northwesterly was blowing and the sky was overcast with rain. At the mouth, we found a lot of seabird activity and the promise of action felt positive. We saw a few bluefin tuna weighing between 30kg and 40kg leaping clear of the surface but all remained quiet until late morning.
The action came suddenly when Brent and I had a double strike on our 10kg outfits. Dave wound in his lure and raced forward to take the controls of “Samara.” My fish ran hard and took about 400 metres of line with its first run. Both Brent and I knew that we had hooked bluefin and with the contest bonus points offered to us for the light 10kg class, we took the fighting very carefully.
Half an hour later, my bluefin came close enough to the boat for me to see that it was a good one. As often happens with double strikes, the tuna went around each other a couple of times, but we managed to free the lines from each other. Mine took me onto the bow of “Samara,” but Brent’s tuna took him completely around the boat four times.
An hour later, Brent had his tuna on about 400 metres of line and a further quarter of an hour saw his fish alongside the boat. Dave leaned out with the gaff and lifted the exhausted tuna into the cockpit. Mine was circling deep and after pumping the tuna just within the limits of my gear, I brought the double line onto the reel. I eased the fish alongside and Dave did the honours with the gaff. It had taken me an hour and three quarters to land.
It was the bigger of the two and I knew that it was heavier than Brent’s current New Zealand Record which stood at 21.32kg (47lb). I immediately removed my lure and twenty metres of dacron line in order to make a claim on the record. Brent’s tuna later weighed in at 27.22kg (60lb), mine went 31.07kg (68.5lb), exceeding his New Zealand Record on 10kg gear by 9.76kg (21.5lb).
Another bluefin that I will never forget was taken by one of my crew fishing from “Samara” during April 1982.
We were on a game fishing expedition that had taken us south from Milford Sound to the waters of George Sound. The night before had been spent on a mooring in George Sound at Anchorage Cove, behind Shelter Island.
The morning looked promising so we contemplated heading south of the mouth to Houseroof Rock, an area noted for strikes from yellowtail kingfish. As “Samara” passed through the entrance and headed out into the open sea, the big swell that was running put aside any thoughts of taking the boat through the passage lying inshore of the rock. The ocean roared as the huge swells crashed into Houseroof Rock, sending plumes of spray high into the air. We decided instead to head offshore in search of blueﬁn.
We trolled five lures, one off each outrigger, one off each stern quarter and one down the centre of the wake. The green hex-head that I was trolling on 6kg gear was taken and after a brief ﬁght, I landed a small albacore. A promising drift line was trolled without incident and so I decided to head offshore in search of warm blue water. Alan Ashley was at the wheel, Toothpick and Neil Drysdale were in the tuna tower and I was in the cockpit, and all of us were searching the sea for pelagic activity.
Suddenly the 24kg rod in the centre rod holder was bent over with the Penn Senator reel screaming like a siren.
“Keep her going! Keep her going!” I yelled at Alan.
Then the starboard outrigger was pulled back and the line twanged free from the outrigger release mechanism. The two 9/0 Penn Senators were making one hell of a racket as hundreds of metres of line spun off the spools at an alarming rate. It was obvious that we were only going to get the two strikes so I yelled at Alan to put the boat out of gear.
Within seconds, Toothpick and Neil were out of the tuna tower and back in the cockpit, gripped by blueﬁn fever. In the excitement of it all, Alan free-spooled his reel while it was in the rod holder and it was only the ratchet that prevented a massive birds nest of overrun line. Neil was first into the ﬁghting chair with a 24kg outfit, but with only one ﬁghting chair on “Samara,” Alan had to do his best from the stand-up position while Neil gave his tuna the treatment. He really leaned into it, slowly building line back onto the reel spool. Next second, the hook pulled out and the green and yellow skirted Sevenstrand
Kona head was free.
We had no time to share Neil’s disappointment, Alan quickly replaced him in the fighting chair while Neil took over at the wheel. The runs were short, but the big Fenwick ﬁbreglass game rod slowly tired and mastered the fish. Beads of sweat on Alan’s forehead was an indication that perhaps the ﬁsh was putting a bit of hurt on Alan, but 45 minutes after hook-up, I was able to make out the shape of a southern bluefin tuna deep below the stern of “Samara.”
It was just as well that Toothpick had insisted on preparing a ﬂying gaff as this fish was a lot bigger than we had expected. I leaned out and took hold of the leader, easing the tuna within range of Toothpick who did the honours with the gaff. A tail rope secured the capture and we hauled it onto the boarding platform.
Alan was beside himself, his previous biggest fish was a 5kg salmon. We decided to head back north to Milford Sound where we could officially weigh our capture. I call it our capture as it was definitely a team effort. It was after dark when I brought “Samara” onto her mooring in Deep Water Basin and -after securing her on the ropes we were off to the pub to celebrate Alan’s capture and indulge in his promised shout. It was a night to remember.
Next morning, the fish brought quite a gathering of Milford locals, commercial fishermen and tourists. The Fiordland Game Fishing Club Weighmaster put the weight of the tuna at 90kg (198lb), the largest southern bluefin landed by our Club since its formation in 1972. Incidentally, that bluefin was taken on a blue and green Sevenstrand Kona-head, bringing its amazing tally to seven bluefin tuna.
Throughout my life, I have had a deep interest in natural history, particularly marine biology. I guess it was a foregone conclusion that sooner or later, I would become involved with the marine game fish tagging programme.
As we looked out through the entrance of Nancy Sound towards the Tasman Sea, it was obvious that the northwesterly had built the sea considerably. Despite the big swell and short chop, l decided that we may as well troll a procession of lures as we made our way back south to Thompson Sound. Just as I put the bow of “Samara” out past Entrance Island, the Penn Senator reel on Toothpick’s 10kg rod screamed as a fish took his yellow and green skirted lure. Pete Bell took over at the wheel and I headed out into the cockpit so that I could get some of the other gear in and stowed out of the way.
Bill Routhen started to wind his 24kg gear in when he too had a strike. Pete kept the bow of “Samara” into the steep northwesterly swell and chop. Toothpick was just starting to settle in for a long fight when his line parted with a crack like a riﬂe shot.
Bill sat down in the fighting chair and was soon able to master the big fibreglass Fenwick and Penn International reel. Fighting the fish was made difficult as the rough sea was tossing us about violently.
Bill did a great job of handling the gear and when he managed to get the double line near the surface, I could see that he had a southern bluefin tuna of about 25kg (55lb). From the corner of the tuna’s mouth, I could see my precious Sevenstrand Kona-head lure. This particular lure had accounted for quite a few bluefin tuna and I must admit that I was fast becoming very fond of it. I informed Bill that he would be in big trouble if the line parted.
As Toothpick took hold of the leader, Bill informed us that he wished the tuna to be tagged and released. Bearing in mind that this was his largest fish to date, we all felt proud of his sporting gesture. The tagging gear went into action, I carefully placed a yellow New South Wales State Fisheries tag in the applicator on the end of the tagging pole and inserted it into the shoulder of the tuna. I then leaned over the transom, held my precious Kona and cut through the leader leaving the tuna with only the hook in its mouth. The tuna swam down into the deep blue water, apparently none the worse for wear. This southern bluefin was the first of its species to be tagged and released by a recreational angler in New Zealand waters.
Sadly, a dark cloud hangs over the future of the southern bluefin tuna. Experts in New Zealand and Australia claim that this species is over-fished, especially by seine vessels.
The fish are paying the price of their valued flesh, valued by countries which appear to be unconcerned about the future of another species of ocean inhabitant. This is yet another example of over-exploitation and irresponsible ﬁsheries management with too little being done too late. Never again will we see the schools of these magnificent game fish that we saw in past years. It is obvious that in the last twenty years these schools were smaller and fewer, yet are still being targeted with modern sophistication and efficiency.
Bluefin tuna are obviously a long-lived fish and it makes no sense to target the immature breeding stocks. I fear that in the not too distant future, anglers will not be able to share my experiences of fighting one of the most powerful and fascinating of our pelagic game fish.
Everything you ever wanted to know about White Sharks (three articles).
Introduction of recreational bag limit in the southern bluefin tuna fishery. Dated: