Part 1: Remembering the brief giant bluefin tuna fishery of False Bay

By Hymie Steyn and Brian Cohen
[Originally published in the November 2020 issue of SKI-BOAT magazine]

FROM the aerial viewpoint at Cape Point overlooking the rigged cliffs of Rooi Krantz, not more than a few hundred metres out to sea, a number of large silhouettes just below the surface slowly glided in the cold green waters of the entrance into the Cape’s False Bay. This is the spot where the southern might of the Atlantic Ocean is often calmed as it rounds Cape Point. It almost looked as if these fish had arrived from an unknown migration into the bountiful waters of this huge area of protected water during the summer months.
These giant bluefin tuna made their first appearance during the late 1950s and became the target of Cape Town’s top big game fishermen who had the wherewithal in the way of tackle and boats to set about attempting to hook and land these monster fish, the likes of which had never been seen in these Cape waters.
From the jetty in front of the Marlin and Tuna Club of South Africa many anglers watched in total awe as some fortunate anglers proudly posed with these huge tuna after a day’s outing targeting these brutes a stone’s throw from the tiny hamlet of Fish Hoek in its calm baitfish rich waters.
The young Brian Cohen was there, and so was South Africa’s stalwart offshore angling administrator, Hymie Steyn. These two men have now put together a three-part series of articles for SKI-BOAT to record an important part of South Africa’s angling history. These events could easily be lost if not documented by men who personally witnessed this period when huge bluefin tuna visited South Africa’s waters.
Some readers may remember a series of articles written by Johan Smal in 2011 which charted the early history of gamefishing from boats in South Africa. That series covered some of this history of the bluefin tuna but we wanted to get more detail from someone who was there at the time.
Brian Cohen was in the right place at the right time, with the enthusiasm and resources to go down in South Africa’s history as the man who caught the biggest bluefin in our waters — breaking his own All Africa record several times. Bruno Mercorio caught the most bluefin, closely followed by Brian. We as the deep sea angling fraternity of South Africa are fortunate to have Brian tell his story in such a comprehensive series of articles, guided along by Hymie Steyn.

HS: When were bluefin first seen in False Bay and by who? Who first caught them on rod and reel?

BC: The fishermen were seeing them in False Bay in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Several of them were caught in the treknets in Fish Hoek at that time. The boats catching chokka in Fish Hoek Bay all reported having their tackle broken up and the chocka jigs smashed by giant tuna which would come through at that time.
The first bluefin to actually be caught in close proximity to Fish Hoek Bay was caught on 26 January 1963 just outside of Glencairn Quarry which is a few hundred metres from Fish Hoek Bay. It was actually caught on the troll from David Susman’s boat, The Bluebird, by Springbok angler Mike Stott. He was trolling a whole rigged mackerel which David had shown them how to do based on their trips to Bimini and elsewhere overseas. To the best of my knowledge the tuna was brought to the gaff in under an hour and weighed somewhere in the vicinity of 400 pounds.
So from my point of view, that was the first official IGFA catch of a giant bluefin in False Bay. The first recorded actual catch of a bluefin in Fish Hoek Bay at anchor was in fact by my father, Vic, on 27 December 1963, while fishing from his boat, La Morva.
I was there as a young schoolboy with some friends of mine. We went into Fish Hoek Bay to catch chokka and mackerel on a Saturday afternoon with the idea of going up to Smithswinkel Bay at sunset where there was a big run of geelbek (Cape salmon).
We threw our anchor as normal at Sunny Cove Station and started catching mackerel and chokka at about 2pm. We caught a good amount of mackerel and chokka and we were preparing to pull up the anchor. The kids were just cleaning the side of the boat and getting rid of the scraps from the chokka fishing when all of a sudden a giant bluefin appeared out of nowhere under the boat and started picking up the scraps that we were throwing overboard.
There was great excitement and consternation. Everybody started shouting: “Come on Vic!” “Come on, Dad, give it a go! Let’s see if we can catch this one!” It was a huge tuna, the likes of which we had never seen before. My dad ran downstairs to the cabin and came back with a 12/O Penn Senator Reel with a feather attached to the end of the wire trace. We’d used it off Cape Point for catching longfin and yellowfin tuna. He quickly made a knot at the top of the wire trace below the feather, to stop it from sliding down, then simply hooked on a whole mackerel and threw it over the side. He gave it some slack and let out about 20 metres of Dacron line from the reel.
We had no real hope of anything happening, but my dad just thought he’d give it a try. Within a few minutes there was a terrific swirl and the reel began screaming! The giant bluefin had actually come and taken the whole mackerel and my dad had him on the rod. A huge fight ensued and my dad told us to urgently rush up to the bow and pull up the anchor because at that time we weren’t on a buoy or anything.
Us two kids and a chap by the name of Norman Foster who’d never fished before, plus one other guy, helped pull the anchor in at great speed with my dad holding on for dear life at the back as the giant bluefin made his initial run. By some miracle we were able to get the anchor up and my dad immediately called for us to help him steer the boat.
We didn’t have much idea about that at all, and we went the wrong way — then the steering cable snapped! My dad was still holding on to the bluefin, but out of sheer desperation he told us to take hold of the rod while he rushed inside and managed to use the engines to turn the boat. We needed to follow the giant bluefin and regain some line which was virtually all off the reel by that stage.
We managed to retrieve quite a lot of line and for the next couple of hours my dad would run from the steering back to the reel and fight the bluefin again for 10 or 15 minutes, then rush back and again try to manoeuvre the boat. Using this method and a jury-rigged tiller at the back of the boat, which he was able to put in place within a few minutes, the fight progressed. After about two-and-a-half or three hours, a miracle happened. We were all holding on for dear life and everybody was yelling and shouting at each other when suddenly this enormous tuna bobbed out of the water about 50 metres from the boat, completely stone dead — it had drowned.
We manoeuvred the boat within a reasonable distance of it, grabbed hold of the wire trace and pulled the bluefin alongside. We had no gaffs of that size that could really go into the fish, so we put three or four small gaffs into it.
When our steering cable broke, my dad had asked us to radio Speranza which was also already in Kalk Bay with some of the Hare brothers on board, and ask them to come and assist us in terms of standing by, which they duly did. They stood by during the whole fight and were thrilled when we were able to bring the fish to the surface, and they came alongside and helped us secure it with ropes. We then managed to limp back into Kalk Bay at about three or four knots towing this giant Bluefin.
That became the first official catch of a giant bluefin on bait from a boat anchored in Fish Hoek Bay, but it was not an official IGFA record because a number of people handled the rod and reel. It weighed a magnificent 702 lb.
The Hare brothers then went out back into Fish Hoek and, using the Mike Stott method of trolling a mackerel, they were fortunate enough to get a strike there and land another bluefin of about 420 lb the same day. That was an epic day which began the whole bluefin saga in that area.

ABOVE: Brian Cohen caught these two giant bluefin tuna on 12 january 1973. The 845 lb fish was an All Africa record.

ABOVE: Bruno Mercorio with a 276kg bluefin tuna caught from his boat Volante off Fish Hoek in the 1964-65 season.

HS: In hindsight what was presumed to be the reason for the bluefin coming into False Bay?

BC: There are several reasons for this. First of all, one must stress that they had been coming into False Bay for many, many years, right through the late 1940s and the early ’50s. They had been caught by trek nets in Fish Hoek as well as off Simon’s Town, and they had been spotted on numerous occasions by the spinner fishermen at Rooi Krantz at Cape Point, right through to the early 60s. The reason they eventually came into False Bay, in my opinion, was pretty obvious — they were after the huge shoals of mackerel and pilchards that frequented the bay.
Every afternoon one could see these huge shoals and the birds on the surface all over False Bay. It was no problem whatsoever to go out for an afternoon of bait fishing and come back with 400- or 500 lb of chokka and mackerel. Anchovies were also very prolific. These, of course, were the staple food of the bluefin. Eventually Fish Hoek Bay became the prime spot to catch bait, and while we were anchored there numerous giant bluefin could be seen jumping out of the water and chasing squid into the air! At the time we lived in a house in Sunny Cove, which was just overlooking the bay and right near where the giant bluefin was hooked. At sunset we would often sit out on the balcony and watch them make an almighty splash, like a bomb going off several times within an hour or two.

HS: Those big fish stopped coming into False Bay in the early 1970s and haven’t been seen there since. Why is it felt the migration into False Bay stopped? What’s your view?

BC: The reason that they stopped coming, in my opinion, was that there was at that time a huge fleet of commercial purse seine fishing boats which came into the bay every night illegally. They harvested thousands of tonnes of these pelagic baitfish, and of course that did irreparable damage to the bait stocks so that eventually there was nothing left for these giants to feed on.
In April 1966 Major Duggie van Riet, Harbourmaster at Gordons Bay, reported the presence of 62 trawlers one evening in the Seal Island area in False Bay, all scooping up anchovies and sards. I think that was probably one of the main reasons that the shoals of giant tuna stopped coming into Fish Hoek Bay.
There were a lot of people who said that maybe what we had done (catching the giants) damaged the stock and it was only one really big shoal that came into False Bay. I do not think that is the reason. The entire catch of bluefin for the whole period of 10 or 12 years was about 180, so I think it is most unlikely. I think they moved off in search of food elsewhere.
It’s interesting to note that they obviously migrated all over the world. I personally landed a bluefin with a fish hook in it which we later discovered had been hooked the year before off Prince Edward Island, Canada. I had a letter from Prince Edward Island and they had a tag number on the hook, so we were able to trace it back.

HS: The South African Marlin and Tuna Club was the first official big gamefishing club in the Cape. Can you tell us a bit about its history?

BC: The SAMTC was established in 1956, and the founding members were Charles Horne, Sonny Taylor, Mike Stott, David Susman, Hank Newman, Wolf Lemkus and Sonny Derman. The club grew from small beginnings to become the most prominent and well-known big game fishing club in the whole of Africa and certainly in South Africa. It ended up having a strong fleet of beautiful gamefishing boats these included Volante (Bruno Mercorio), Speranza (Hare brothers), Pocketta (Hymie Policanski), Amberjack (Tank Anziska), Kingfisher (Brian Cohen), Lady Wendy (John Gardener), Maud Mary (Sonny Gracie), Moonraker (Roy Beamish), Cheetah (Brian Cohen), Shaka (David Susman), Tassie (Anthony Sedgewick), Bluebird, Sea Hawk, Hardie (Geoff Sonnenberg), Plettenberg (Reg Vos and Vic Edwards), Nimbus (Jimmy Rawbone-Viljoen), Estrellita (Clifford Harris Builders, but only skippered by Donald Grey), Baby Grand (Jack Gerber), Marauder (Ovenstone brothers), Marlin (John Robertson), Fisherman (Len Payne) and Lady Ella (Gerry von Bonde)
That was basically the backbone of the wonderful fishing fleet for members of the SAMTC. Over the years the chairmen of the club were quite well-known businessmen and big game anglers. I think immediately of the late David Susman, who was not only a Springbok angler, but also a very prominent businessman and the chairman of Woolworths. Geoff Sonnenberg, another chairman of the club was also from Woolworths; he was also a very able and well-liked, big game fisherman and Springbok.
Harry Hirschon was responsible for the establishment of the new clubhouse in Simon’s town on Jubilee Square. Commander Nick Pretorius, who was from the South African Navy, was a very active chairman. He was followed by Roland Brice, a very well-known personality who did a fine job. Then there was Jack Warener and, of course, Bob Tresfon, who was there for many years and served in various capacities. And then yours truly — I was chairman of the club for nine years and played a very active role.
We had a very able control system whereby we had radiotelephonic control at all times with our entire fleet. This was very carefully looked after and run by the late Bob Murdoch. Club finances were always very strong and very well looked after by the likes of Wally Tyler and David Susman.
The club also ran a very strong ferry service between all of the boats which proved to be very useful. The life presidents of the club were Vice Admiral H.H. Biermann from the South African Navy, followed by the South African Foreign Minister of the time and a close friend of mine, the late Pik Botha. We also had a very able secretary at that time, Nick Pretorius, who did a very good job. He was followed by Dudley Caine and then the late Eric Leitchfield.
To start with the Marlin and Tuna Club was run from offices in Cape Town and it was only in the 1960s that the clubhouse was built in Simon’s Town above the jetty. That project was pioneered by the late Dr. Harry Hirschon, who became the first official chairman of the club in Simon’s Town. From then on the club went from strength to strength.

In the next issue of SKI-BOAT we’ll get more detail from Brian on the type of boats and tackle they used in those days, the tactics that worked and the fight that ensued.

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