Tactics for landing the giant bluefin of the 1960s

By Brian Cohen

[Originally published in the January 2021 issue of SKI-BOAT magazine]

IN the November issue of SKI-BOAT we ran Hymie Steyn’s interview of Brian Cohen which covered the giant bluefin tuna fishery which existed briefly in False Bay in the late 1960s. During the time the bluefin visited that area of our coastline Brian managed to catch 42 of the giants. The first article in this series gave a general overview of the fishery and when it first came into being; in this, the second part of the three-part series, Brian discusses some of the detail of how the fish were hooked and fought…

The boats used in the early days were ordinary displacement hulls, all in the 30- to 45 foot range. Most of the boats were slow, averaging eight to 10 knots. Speranza, belonging to the Hare brothers from Kalk Bay, was capable of doing 25 knots which was phenomenal for that time. Volante, which belonged to Bruno Mercorio, was an extremely successful boat as far as bluefin was concerned. Bruno did incredibly well, and he landed the most giant bluefin at that time, followed closely by me.
Some of the major players in the tuna fleet were Kingfisher (Brian Cohen), BlueBird (David Susman), Pea Hawk (Geoff Sonnenberg) and Marlin (John Robertson).
The other boats of note would be The Plettenberg, which belonged to Reggie Vos and Vic Edwards, and Nimbus, which belonged to Jimmy Rawbone-Viljoen from Gordons Bay. Neville Wall on Orca also landed several bluefin. Poketta was also one of the boats in the fleet. And there were several other boats that came there from time to time including The Fisherman belonging to Lennie Payne, and Seabreeze belonging to Charlie Haylett.
As far as the fighting chairs were concerned, initially we had the ordinary fighting chair without the footrest, which was the standard chair used when fishing for longfin and yellowfin tuna off Cape Point. However, those chairs didn’t provide enough leverage for fighting these giant bluefin. David Susman and Mike Stott both had a lot of experience catching giant bluefin off Canada and off Bimini, and they explained that we need to have footrests fitted so that we could fight the fish in a much more favourable position.
Some of the boats had these built in factories in Cape Town and other ones who were more fortunate, like David Susman on Blue Bird, were able to import very sophisticated fighting chairs made by Pompanette, which was the most famous fighting chair for bluefin at that time. In those days they already cost several thousand rand. These were fitted to a few select boats, making them the ultimate from the bluefin fighting point of view. The other boats all made do with local homemade fighting chairs with newly attached footrests.

Vic Cohen, above, fights a tuna using a Penn Senator 12/0 reel.

The tackle used was obviously nearly all 130 lb class. The rods were the normal tuna rods that were used for longfin and yellowfin, and the Senator Penn reels were standard fittings in those days and could be bought from Jack Lemkus Sports in Cape Town. Senator 12/0 was the ideal reel for giant bluefin; it held about 500 yards of Dacron.
There were various makes of Dacron, and some anglers preferred one kind and others preferred another, but they were all in the 130 lb class, which was more or less the ceiling for the bluefin. Multirex Dacron came out towards the latter part of those days; it was 180 lb breaking strain, which was the maximum allowed by IGFA at that time. It was extremely strong and very, very good and proved to be very successful when targeting giant bluefin.
The standard 130 lb class Dacron which was very popular and used by most of us at that time, was Millwood Terraline and it was green. We would fill the Penn Senator 12/0 reels with 500 yards of 120 lb line and we never really went below that. The 9/0 reels were more for yellowfin and longfin off Cape Point and were not man enough to do the job on bluefin.
Of course, we then go to the Rolls Royce of fishing reels, the Gold Finnor which was from America. I was fortunate enough to have a 12/0 Finnor reel, which could hold 600 yards of 130 lb Dacron similar to the 12/0 Penn Senator. The Finnor was normally rigged to fit the Bimini Tycoon rod with Finnor eyes and fittings. Finnor reels were made of durallium, which was the type of metal used in aircraft.
It was a gold colour and it looked magnificent. It had a gear change on the side so one could fight with either a three-to-one reduction or two-to-one reduction, and certain reels were fitted with two gear changes — two-to-one for fighting the tuna when it was all off at a distance, and then when the tuna arrived alongside the boat and one needed to bring the trace up, you could change the gear down to one-to-one. It was extremely expensive — R1 000 to R1 500 for a reel which was a fortune in those days. Jack Lemkus Sports would import them specifically for buyers. The wealthier anglers would use nothing but a Finnor but there weren’t many around because of the exorbitant price, and they certainly were the number one to use.

As far as fighting the giant bluefin was concerned, there were lots of inferior 130 lb class lines, and one that comes to mind was called Green Spot. It was a thinner type of line and was brought out with great enthusiasm, but it turned out to be a complete flop. Many giant bluefin were lost with this Green Spot line which unfortunately snapped on many occasions after long fights.
The number one spot in Fish Hoek Bay to anchor on the buoy was about 100 metres off Sunnycove Station. The water depth there was six and a half fathoms up to seven fathoms, dropping down to five fathoms.
We felt this was the number one spot because when the new incoming bluefin came into Fish Hoek Bay they worked their way around the Sunnycove Station side into the bay and we felt that this was en route to them arriving in the bay, so if one could anchor off Sunnycove Station and begin chumming, then it made sense that the new bluefin, which would be working their way into Fish Hoek Bay for their initial visit, would immediately be attracted to the chum and would not be aware of the fact that the boats were targeting them.
The bluefin were very, very clever and it was a great problem to get them to take the bait with a hook and line in. We had to resort to trying all sorts of different tactics. For instance, I would go to Glencairn swimming pool with several different kinds of seven strand wire and we’d paint them with several different colours of paint to look less obvious in the water. We tried turquoise, copper, green, light blue and dark blue to see which was the least conspicuous to use for these giant bluefin. There were also all sorts of other tricks to consider.
I developed, a wonderful technique for when we anchored and we started chumming. We didn’t initially put the lines into the water, we would just carry on with a chum slick of bait, which was the main method of attracting the bluefin to the boat. When we were on anchor at the buoy and the giant bluefin came up and started eating the chum, we would get them feeding freely over a period of about 15 or 20 minutes without any line or hooks in the water so the bluefin would become totally happy to take everything that hit the water and they didn’t have to be aware of any danger areas which they were certainly very capable of doing.
Then, once the bluefin were relaxed, especially if there were two or three at a time, I would take a baited hook and put that amongst a handful of chum and let it go down. More often than not, because they were so relaxed, the bluefin would take the bait with hook as well as the handful of chum which would sink down with it.
The normal thing when one arrived at the spot was to put the anchor down and then put a buoy at the end of the anchor so we could release that instantly once the tuna was hooked and would be able to give chase and gain line.
Once we were on anchor and the chumming process began, there were normally two sets of bluefin tackle put out — one would have a whole live chokka on it if we could get that, which would be on the end of a wire trace, a seven strand trace which was normally 12 foot long. At the end of the trace we would attach a normal toyshop balloon, which would float the bait and let it go back about 20 or 30 metres into the wake where the line of chum would go past. That bait would be three- to five metres below the surface and would float there while we waited.
The other rod and reel would normally be attached to a live mackerel (if we could get one) which would be hooked through the back. The trace would be attached to an “outrigger” — a long five- to ten metre pole that would be put out from the side of the boat. We attached that to the end of the trace with a peg or a bicycle handle. We had to elevate it to the level where the whole live mackerel would be just in the water, so it would be jumping around and splashing and kicking, but be attached at all times to the outrigger.
This often proved irresistible to the bluefin and it was an unbelievable sight when they came rushing up from the deeper water and jumped out of the water to take the mackerel. The outrigger line would then snap from the peg and the reel would go screaming off.
The outrigger bait would always be on a very tight drag, so when the bluefin hit the bait hard the hook would immediately be sunk into the mouth and the bluefin would take off at great speed.
In contrast, the line off the back of the boat with a balloon would be on virtually no drag — in free spool — and once the bluefin took that bait (normally the squid) which was about three metres below the surface, it would go off quietly for about 30 or 40 metres on free spool before we picked up the rod to strike and then put on the drag after the fish took off on its first run.

When it comes to the fight, I could talk forever about that. These bluefin were giants and we called them express trains and tanks because of their strength. They would take off at great speed on the first run and it was quite common for them to use four or five hundred yards of line on the first run.
If the anchor was not immediately thrown off and was not attached to a buoy then there was no way at all that one could successfully land the fish that took the bait, because before one could even get the boat manoeuvred into place or the engine started, the entire reel would be emptied and the line would obviously part.
The fight was certainly something that had to be done very skilfully.
In the very beginning we learned a lot from our mistakes and many, many giant bluefin were unfortunately lost because of our ignorance.
The main method of going after the bluefin once the fish took the bait and the reel went off screaming for the first run, was for somebody to run to the bow and throw the buoy attached to the anchor line over the front of the boat. With that done, in less than half a minute the engines could be started, and the boat could give chase, which would help the angler recover some line. Many bluefin were lost when they went under the boat or if the crew were not quick enough to throw the buoy.
This was the most dangerous time from our point of view because the bluefin might go under the boat into the props, or the buoy might get hooked into the anchor ropes once it was thrown into the water. This could cause damage to the line which would part.
There was also another problem in that there were often lots of commercial fishing boats in Fish Hoek catching chokka and mackerel, and they were also all at anchor. Often with a long 400 or 500 yard run, our line would go past the various commercial boats, foul their anchors or catch all their chokka lines which would all be fouled up and, more often than not, eventually break. We had to use certain methods to keep tight onto the bluefin to try and them out of the bay into clearer waters.
Bruno Mercorio was especially skilled in fighting the giant bluefin and often managed to get his fish right into the breakers in Fish Hoek Bay after he’d fought them for several hours in the deep water in False Bay.
The boat would sometimes have to chase the giant generally averaging four to ten kilometres from Fish Hoek Bay, from a water depth of about six to seven fathoms, right up to the centre of the bay where the water went up to thirty or forty fathoms. That made things very, very difficult.
Once the bluefin got us out into the middle of the bay or down towards Cape Hangklip into the very deep water, they would go down very deep and one would have to pump and bring them up from great depths. That was a huge task, and often too much for the angler who would, more often than not, have to give up. It was certainly a mammoth task.
I once managed to get a bluefin of 600 pounds to the boat in 30 minutes, but the standard fight would average three hours, with some going up to four or five hours. My biggest giant bluefin took about five-and-a-half hours to bring to the boat, but I can tell many stories of fights on The Plettenberg, The Fisherman, Nimbus and Seabreeze which went on for eight-, ten- or even twelve hours.
Then there’s the giant that Boet du Toit hooked on my boat, Kingfisher. Boet was a one-armed angler who was very famous at that time; he was a very skilled angler despite his disability. We fought that bluefin for 18-and-a-half hours, but Boet had to give up after eleven hours. One couldn’t really blame him that he couldn’t handle it any longer as he was physically exhausted, so Roelf Van der Merwe took over and fought the fish for another four or five hours.
Unfortunately, after fighting it for 18 hours and ending up almost 50km from Fish Hoek Bay between Cape Hangklip and Hermanus, the line parted. We were devastated because we saw it very clearly on numerous occasions and estimated that fish to be well in excess of 1 000 lb. Poor old Boet was in tears and he couldn’t get up for three days after that.

Gaffing the giants was very difficult because that was also a dangerous time. Sometimes after a long fight the giants were belly up when they came to the boat, but that was not the norm. Bluefin would often be quite green when you got them to the boat after three or four hours, and then somebody with special gloves had to take the trace. This was allowed by IGFA as long as they held the wire trace and only for the final couple of metres.
Physically trying to pull the bluefin to within gaffing distance was very, very difficult and the hook would often pull, or the trace would break or the bluefin would suddenly dive under the boat and that would be the end of the story. Many bluefin were lost at this stage.
We used the local gaffs as best we could and relied a lot on the advice given to us by David Susman. He suggested we use a flying gaff — a very big gaff which was designed specifically for bluefin and marlin, and which was pioneered overseas.
These gaffs had a huge hook on the end and were much bigger than the standard yellowfin and longfin gaffs. The end of the hook of the gaff was detachable from the pole used and was attached to a long length of nylon rope; the moment the gaff was sunk into the bluefin the pole would pull free. Once the hook part pulled free of the pole, we would then be able to grab hold of the rope and the bluefin would be more easily brought under control.
The flying gaff which we used was top of the range and was made by Pomponette and could be imported, but we also very successfully started locally producing our own types of flying gaffs. This was very important because without a flying gaff, unless your bluefin came in belly-up, you had no chance of bringing them to the boat.
Once the bluefin was secured to the boat, if it wasn’t over 450 lb (the average for the bluefin we were catching then), then we would attach a rope via a block and tackle pulley type system called a gin pole on the side of the boat and use that to get it onboard.
We would attach a rope around the tail of the giant bluefin which was then attached to the gin pole, and with three or four people pulling it could be manoeuvred and hauled into the boat. This proved to be quite successful for the average size fish, but once the bluefin was bigger than normal there was no way — even with a big, strong block and tackle and pole — that they could be brought into the boat.
My two giant bluefin of over 700- and 800 lb had to be towed back into Simon’s Town and that was a lengthy business.

In the next issue Brian will discuss some of the well known personalities of that era and the likelihood of this type of fishing being seen again.

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