By Rob Naysmith
THE snows have cleared, the air has begun to warm and the Agulhus current has started its summer push around Cape Point and into the Atlantic Ocean. Since May the Atlantic Ocean has been dominated by the cool Benguela current drifting up from the icy polar region of the Southern Atlantic, and thankfully so. It brings with it the nutrients to begin the food chain — plankton blooms that encourage our pilchards, anchovies, mackerel, and many other similar species, to breed. With an abundance of food comes an abundance of spawn, and so it filters its way up the food chain … right up to the yellowfin tuna.
Every year, soon after the first full moon in October, the tuna start to make their appearance. Despite all the other chaos we’ve endured, in this respect 2020 was true to form. Usually the bigger class of 15- to 30kg longfin tuna begin to arrive in the deep grounds of the Canyon around this time, however, they can be unreliable early in the season, and are very quick to move on when conditions and food aren’t yet up to their expectations.
Another batch of tuna arrive at the same time as the longfin tuna — the ever exciting, adrenalin pumping, back breaking yellowfin tuna the Cape waters have become world renowned for. These tuna are attracted by the huge shoals of anchovies that mass off Cape Point at this time of year, and are found in an area which we now call the “Dumping Ground” starting 8- to 10 miles off the Point. This area got its name from the ammunition dumping area marked as a big red circle on the navigation charts; such features make for excellent points of reference when landmarks are hard to see.
Rob Naysmith and Gavin Zurnamer show off Rob’s 47kg yellowfin tuna and the tackle that landed it.
FISH WITH ATTITUDE
The early fish are generally in the smaller 25- to 50kg class, and although I have caught a few that reach the 100kg mark, they are more of a rarity. Now don’t be disillusioned by their size, these fish arrive with a different attitude to those we catch out in the deeper waters where the trawlers and long-line boats operate. These fish jump! In fact, if they don’t jump, they’re usually not there. And when they’re jumping, they are high-powered and as cheeky as sin, but they can also be the most difficult tuna to catch.
Why do they jump you ask? It’s because of the balls of food, predominantly anchovies, that scatter in all directions when attacked.
In the latter part of October 2020 I got an invite to chase these yellowfin on a classic Cape Town tuna sportfisher — Corsair. Owned by my friend Gavin Zurnamer, Corsair is not only one of the most beautiful boats I’ve ever seen, but she also has a remarkable history of being a great fish attractor. I had the privilege of skippering her for a few years and I cannot remember a trip where we returned without a fish; she is phenomenal. But I digress … I guess that’s what happens when a head filled with so many old memories is allowed to wander.
With a weather forecast of light winds all day and a swell dropping from 3 to 2.5m during the day, we left Simons Town harbour at 7am for our run down the False Bay coast, past Millers Point, towards Cape Point. I know many readers will frown on our late start, but here’s the thing — life is about choices. You can choose to get up before the birds and race out there to catch a fish, or you can get good at fishing, wake up later, take a comfortable ride out and catch lots of fish.
What I really enjoy about fishing on Corsair is that I no longer have to drive; that’s a big plus. I can spend my time reminiscing with Gavin, sharing the library of fishing adventures we’ve enjoyed over the years, and laughing at the things we got up to. Like the time we thought it was a great idea to handline a yellowfin on 6m of 400 lb trace line tied to the back of Jabulani. It was the first time we’d seen a really angry tuna jumping and snarling — until the 14/0 circle hook straightened like a needle. Oh yes, on Corsair I also get to work the back deck for a change — that’s my home.
READING THE SIGNS
Back to our October trip … After an unsuccessful stab at some yellowtail around the Point we moved out eight miles to begin our search for the shoals of jumping yellowfin that had commandeered the airwaves since they arrived a few weeks before. For some bizarre reason, these yellowfin only start to show themselves around 10am; maybe they also learned the “early start to catch a fish” principle. My theory is that they wait for the angle of the light to silhouette the anchovy shoals.
With a troll spread of six outfits out the back of the boat, we scanned the ocean for signs. Knowing what signs to look for when you’re tuna fishing is the most fundamental element to success. Spotting birds is a sign, but which birds and their actions is the secret. Sea surface condition is another sign, but spotting a current line or a shiny oil slick is the secret. A frenzy of boiling water with tuna and tiny baitfish breaking the surface in all directions holds no hidden secrets.
With the weather gurus having wasted their money predicting the Lotto, what chance did we have of an accurate forecast? The south-westerly wind was whipping up a few whitecaps and deep troughs, making for an uncomfortable sea state. The best place to be in such a situation is in the saloon, drinking coffee and tucking into the lunchbox … which invariably leads to an eventual doze. And so it came to be — until all hell broke loose. Feet banging on the cabin roof, yelling from the bridge and the clattering of rods akin to a bout of fencing indicated pandemonium had struck. A massive shoal of wild yellowfin harassing a quiet neighborhood of anchovies had popped up within casting distance of the boat.
Over a 60-something year lifespan of fishing, one develops an instinct — a natural, unsolicited reaction, almost something from deep in the DNA that possesses your body. It was a blur from the couch to watching a popping plug flying through the air towards the boiling mass. I know I didn’t do it on purpose; I wouldn’t be that insane.
That “Oh no!” feeling paralysed me; that feeling where you just know things are not going to end well. The popper landed on the far side of the shoal, leaving me only one direction home — through the minefield. At that point it is of no concern whether one retrieves fast or slow, something is going to try to break that popper … there’s no sneaking home through the back door.
Jared Zurnamer was thrilled with his beaut of a yellowfin.
TROUBLE ON THE HORIZON
An enormous black-backed bucketmouth, followed by a huge yellow sickle fin erupted behind the popper and simply inhaled it; my life flashed before my eyes. As much as I tried to avoid setting the hooks, the fish did it for me. It was at that very moment that I remembered exactly why I had chosen to stop catching these fish years ago.
Gavin hooked up at the same time, so with a quick one-two, we sorted out our lines and separated the fish. Still in disbelief at what I had just done, I allowed my fish to get clear of the boat and troll lines we still had out the back. In tuna fishing you never willingly give a fish its head, you hang on and stop that fish as soon as possible; you make the fish fight for every inch of line.
In my youth hunting yellowfin was a passion, just like the new and younger anglers of today. I used techniques that landed many fish over 90kg in under five minutes, but I’ve also spent over four hours of absolute pain and misery at the fins of a few. Funny how we remember the worst experiences in a time of crisis, and I was in crisis mode. I stood there pinned against the gunwale, holding a long rod with a coffee grinder reel; the fish was having its way with me. I thought back to my years as a boy, standing in the Umgeni River using a coffee grinder to flick bread to shoals of hungry mullet … and now I was connected to the brute of the sea with one; that’s just wrong. And using a long rod on a fish that fights up and down — that’s just as crazy.
Gavin’s 46kg yellowfin was in the boat within minutes, having smoked his popper like a fat cigar, and choosing defeat over a complete system flush each time it tried to run anywhere. I, in the meantime, had managed to dump a comfortable 200 metres of braid into the Atlantic — 200 metres that I was going to have to wind back with a very angry fish on the end.
I’ve been asked many times what I think about during a fight — what gives me the staying power and determination to hang on to a big fish for what may seem like an eternity? Let the truth be told: I just want my lure back.
In typical tuna fashion, my fish sounded and the fight quickly turned from one of long surface retrieves to short, quick strokes with the rod fully bent at all times. This technique keeps the fish facing you, not allowing it to turn and take line; it has to swim towards you. Long rods are designed for casting and softer, more forgiving retrieves on a fish, so they’re probably the worst rods to be holding when you’re attached to a tuna — and I was.
MAKING THE TACKLE WORK
Now I’m one of those anglers who prefers to allow the tackle to do the work. Why own a dog and still do the barking yourself? There was only one solution — shorten the rod. That led to raucous laughter from those who noticed I had taken to riding the rod butt like a horse. With my hands wrapped around the first guide, I now had a six foot rod instead of an 11 foot rod, and a lot more pulling power for less effort.
One trait of the yellowfin found in this 100- to 200m water, is that they are hugely energetic and regularly visit the surface during a fight. This is unlike the fight of those tuna found out in the Canyon around the hake longline boats and trawlers; those fish sound immediately on hook-up, fight more doggedly and stay down for the duration of the fight. My personal preference is for a tuna to stay down where I can exert maximum and sustained pressure on it.
The tuna on the end of my line was a classic zippy, in-shore yellowfin — deep down one minute and zinging across the surface seconds later, ripping line off the grinder. Old memories flooded back — memories of that old stalemate scenario where neither opponent wants to concede defeat.
We settled down to the good old cranking and grinding till my arms ached, just to gain about 20m of line, then I had to stand and watch the fish take it all back plus interest, as if I didn’t exist. Yup, that’s the hardest part with tuna fishing — just when you think you’re winning, you’re not.
And here’s a heads-up to anyone about to do their first battle with a big yellowfin: hang in there, even when your brain starts to tell you that the fish is going to beat you, hang in there. They do eventually give up, and very often quite dramatically too. From a heavy fish down deep, thudding its head, swimming in one direction, it will change to swimming in ever decreasing circles on its way to the boat.
After what seemed like an eternity, my fish decided to show itself on the surface about 20m off the starboard bow. The retrieve turned to one of frenetic cranking on the grinder with the rod pointed above the fish, and it slowly came towards the boat. Suddenly there was chaos, and gaffs appeared from nowhere, with Gavin shouting, “Now you have it!” and my body saying, “Thank goodness!”
As it turned out, the fish was just coming to have a look at what was annoying it so much. I swear I saw it smile as it cruised effortlessly past, out of gaff range, still looking quite healthy, and proceeded to tear another 30- to 40m of line off the grinder. I’ve caught hundreds of big yellowfin over the years and it’s still a total mind-bend when they do that; it’s really not sporting!
NOW YOU HAVE IT … OR NOT
This scenario repeated itself another four times, with Gavin saying each time, “Now you have it!” I eventually had to ask him politely to please stop saying that, because the fish could hear him.
Then the opportunity came again in similar style — fish on the surface, crank like a demon and put maximum pressure … This time it swam a little too close to the boat, and the first gaff got it on the side of the gill plate. Gavin the gaffman flew past me en-route down the gunwale, so his son, Jared, braced against the transom, had no option but to just stick his gaff into a boiling cauldron of white water, thrashing fins and a barrage of instructions that could definitely have been delivered with more finesse — and hope something stuck.
And there it was, all 47kg of my tuna motionless on the deck, spent in every way, with bright, radiant colours reflecting in the sunlight. As I’ve done since boyhood, as a sign of respect to this and all those hard fighting fish gone before, I removed my cap in admiration.
Once a tuna is on the deck you need to take care of it. Dispatch it as quickly and humanely as possible; bleeding is secondary, with the heart still pumping. Get as much blood and adrenaline out of the fish as possible, remove the innards and get its core body temperature down fast. As callous as this may sound, it’s the right thing to do if you are going to kill a fish. Flaked ice in the body cavity and chilled water slurry all over its body is the secret to a perfect tuna steak or fillet.
Soon we were back on the troll — well the others were anyway; I had a couch that needed comforting. Through the drone of the diesel engines came that all too familiar sound of a screaming 50 lb reel. Again instinct took over and I quickly found myself skidding across the deck towards a fully bent rod with line melting off the reel. Then reality hit home. I casually turned around and walked back into the cabin saying, “Not my rod.” That fish became Jared’s problem.