By Brian Cohen and Hymie Steyn[Originally published in the March 2021 issue of SKI-BOAT magazine]
WHEN it comes to discussing my involvement from day one in big game fishing in False Bay in Cape Town, I suppose it starts with me being born in Simon’s Town in 1948. I spent my entire school career there going into Simon’s Town school in Sub A. I was one of the first few pupils in the new school going right through from Sub A to eventually matriculate at that same school in 1965.
Throughout my school career I spent a lot of my spare time fishing with my dad, the late Vic Cohen, on his boat, Lamorva, and he was a very keen pioneer fisherman for the Cape. I was fortunate to have him as my mentor, and spent all my spare time after school — perhaps when I should have been doing homework — chasing tuna and fishing in and around False Bay on Lamorva.
When I matriculated my dad was able to help me acquire a brand new Renate Lévy 36 footer, which became legendary in fishing in the fishing circles in Cape Town, especially catching tuna. Named Kingfisher, she was a high speed, fast, big game fishing boat, which he insisted on me having built in Knysna by Theesens.
After school I started studying law and doing my naval training. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — I never completed the university degree and I went into fishing full time a year after finishing my naval training. From 1966 I became really involved in Fishhoek Bay tackling these giants on a full time basis, and that went right through to the catching of the final two bluefin in 1972.
I was very fortunate that in my time I was able to land 42 giant bluefin tuna, the smallest of which came in at 401 lb. Among those was the biggest bluefin of them all — the giant — which came in officially on the record books at 845 lb and is, to this day in 2020, the largest tuna ever caught in Africa on rod and reel according to IGFA rules. It took me nearly five-and-a-half hours to land that fish which was subsequently weighed on the Simon’s Town jetty scale.
The catch was the subject of much controversy at that time because once the tuna had been seen by all and weighed, it was estimated to be well in excess of 845 lb and it was recommended that the scales should be calibrated. The following morning when the bluefin was in the cold storage ready for transport to Cape Town, well-known international anglers David Susman and Jeff Sonnenberg came down to look at this monster fish and said there was no question in their minds that it was in excess of 1 000 lb. David insisted that the tuna be taken through to Cape Town and be weighed on a properly assized scale, where it came in at 1 047 lb to be exact. It is worth noting that some time later the scale on the jetty was found to be faulty, only weighing correctly up to 600 lb.
Unfortunately, because of the discrepancy and the fact that it had been weighed initially in the presence of the Chairman of SAGFA, Bob Tresfon, the official weight stands at 845 lb in the record books.
Be that as it may, it was the biggest tuna ever caught in South Africa to this day, and something which I consider my greatest achievement in my career even though I had a few other records. I must mention that during all my bluefin exploits I had the fantastic assistance of the skipper of Kingfisher, Gabby Orgill, as well as Kuba and Hima Jaffer who were with me throughout.
I actually was able to achieve the first junior record in 1964 when I boated a bluefin of 604 lb. This became known as the first junior record and really put me on the map as far as bluefin were concerned. The first major senior record I was able to achieve was in 1968 when I landed the giant of 797 lb.
Hennie Van Geems, fishing on Plettenberg, also caught a giant of 720 lb, not forgetting my father’s initial bluefin tuna, the first one officially caught in False Bay which weighed 702 lb. Unfortunately he couldn’t claim that as a record because he’d handed over the rod at one stage and received assistance in manoeuvring.
I was very fortunate to carry on my angling career and for my achievements with the bluefin, and in 1972 and 1973 I received the highest award available at that time — the official State President’s Award — presented to me by the state president, Jim Fouche. I was also awarded my Springbok colours on several occasions. In addition to my bluefin record I held the official world record for a 72 lb albacore (longfin tuna) I caught in 1971. Obviously that paled into insignificance when compared to the giant bluefin.
Neville Wall, above, with a giant bluefin caught off Fishhoek in the late 1960s.
The last giant bluefin of False Bay was caught by me in 1972 and officially weighed 555 lb. Once again there was some discrepancy about the weight but it went in the box at 555 lb — not a record at that time, but a very significant tuna, because it was the final bluefin ever caught in False Bay in the Cape.
Catching these bluefin was a very difficult task because of the huge effort and time required; the several hours of angling meant one had to be extremely fit. One also had to be very astute in terms of angling skills. So although many people wanted to catch these giants there weren’t very many prominent people who were able to achieve this goal. However, one of them was Dr. Hendrik Verwoed, who went out on the Speranza in 1964 and landed a giant of 400- or 420 lb after a four- or five hour fight. That was quite an achievement for the then elderly prime minister.
HEART SURGEON ON BOARD
The renowned heart surgeon Professor Chris Barnard went out on my boat on several occasions chasing giant bluefin. After several attempts in Fishhoek Bay he eventually hooked into a very big bluefin in excess of 500 lb. Chris got into the fighting chair to tackle this giant, but it was a very difficult task for him.
Although Chris was a reasonably accomplished angler who had caught many smaller fish, he found this giant a momentous challenge and had great difficulty trying to subdue it. Three-and-a-half hours into the fight Chris became concerned that his hands would be damaged and obviously they were vitally important for performing heart operations. He felt it was prudent to hand the rod over to somebody else. Eventually we boated the tuna which Chris had given up on.
Many other well known personalities who tried to catch one of these big bluefin unfortunately didn’t succeed, but as I said, it was really a difficult achievement for somebody who was not in the top echelons of anglers.
As I sit today in 2021, looking over Fishhoek Bay and thinking about all those wonderful angling achievements and events that took place in this small bay of maybe ten square kilometres, it’s hard to imagine. Many, many people come to me to look at the photographs and hear the stories, and think it’s quite impossible that this happened. The younger generation in particular find it difficult to believe that these giants were ever caught within 100m of the bathers in Fishhoek and maybe 50m of the Sunny Cove station.
It’s also something they discuss often now because a lot of people watch the Wicked Tuna program on TV. Although not comparable to fishing according to IGFA regulations, the program still brings the giant bluefin from overseas to the attention of all the local anglers. Numerous South African anglers have spent a fortune going to the Bahamas, Bimini, Canada, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island to try and catch giant bluefin and many of them have been successful. However, when it comes to the South African situation, I feel the achievement was even more significant because these were “our” bluefin. They came into Fishhoek Bay in the Cape and they were caught here in South Africa.
These catches will go down in angling history as wonderful achievements with stories that I don’t think will ever be repeated and which will be remembered by everybody who was fortunate enough to be there at that time.
Let me share some of these stories…
One day I was in Fishhoek Bay where I’d been fighting a giant bluefin for about an hour and a half when I moved the boat towards SunnyCove Station. At one stage we were only 25- to 30m from the rocks and hence the railway station. Along came a train, and the train driver saw what was going on. At that stage the bluefin were getting a lot of publicity in the Cape Times and other newspapers, so everybody knew about them. The train driver saw so that I was battling the fish within 100m of where they were, so it stopped at the station. Instead of moving off, it went forward maybe 100m and stopped again. All the passengers in the various coaches started cheering and shouting for me to carry on with a good fight. They stayed there for at least a half an hour waiting to see the final result.
Fortunately the tuna came close to the boat and I was able to get it gaffed right there within a few hundred metres of the train station. As the gaffs went in and we managed to secure that giant bluefin with ropes, an almighty cheer went up from all the train passengers and I will always remember that. The next morning the Cape Times ran an article on the parked passenger train and me fighting the bluefin.
Eddie van Wyk, above, on Simon’s Town jetty with his bluefin tuna.
Another interesting little tale involved a fellow by the name of Robin Pittard, a local guy who fished several times with us. It was his life’s ambition to catch a bluefin, so we put out a bait for him, and lo and behold, he was in! He got all saddled up and harnessed into the chair, and the first run of the bluefin was so terrific that it pulled poor old Robin clean out of the chair and overboard he went! Fortunately he had the presence of mind to unhook the harness from the rod and reel when he was halfway under the water. We had two other guys on board dive into the water at the same time and they were able to to get him up to the surface. One of the guys managed to get hold of the rod and put it into free spool so they could pass it up to the crew on the boat. We carried on with the battle and poor old Robin came in soaking wet. Unfortunately, after an hour-and-a-half the line parted. Robin Pittard never forgot the day he nearly lost the fish and his life all in one go.
On another memorable day I was fortunate to catch a nice 526 lb bluefin tuna before 10 o’clock, after a fight of just over an hour, and that afternoon, I was able to get a 655 lb fish just before 5pm before heading back to Simon’s Town.
There were also some incredibly clever bluefin tuna around at the time. One of them we got to know very well because he fed under the boat on the chum every day for several years. He was very easily recognisable because he had a terrific scar across the top of his head and down the side towards his gills. Don’t forget that these giants were almost hand fed by us; they came into the chum on the surface that we were throwing from the stern of the boat so we could recognise them very easily.
Scarback went from boat to boat eating the chum, but being very careful never to swallow the hook with the bait in it. This particular fish was very big and we all estimated it to be over 1 000 lb and everybody was keen to hook him. Although I can’t prove it, I believe that the giant bluefin that one-armed Boet du Toit fought for so many hours was in fact Scarback. During the fight we saw the bluefin on several occasions, but a long way from the boat and it was difficult to identify, but that fish was also certainly over 1 000 lb. And after that epic fight, Scarback was never again seen in Fishhoek Bay.
The final little story which I must tell involved a well known Cape Angler by the name of Major Bert Gandy, who had a boat years ago called Elegance. He was very keen to catch a bluefin using a bow and arrow, but we all told him that was ridiculous and it didn’t comply with IGFA standards, but that didn’t deter Bert. He was an ex-major from the British army and he was very determined to go ahead with this project.
He attached an arrow to the line on the rod and reel, and then used a bow to shoot the arrow towards the bluefin. As I said earlier, it was simple to get right up to the bluefin because they stayed just behind the boat, and Bert fired several arrows into several bluefin. Needless to say, the bluefin immediately took off after being hit, and within five minutes the line would snap or the arrow would pull out. Poor old Bert was never able to achieve his goal of landing a giant bluefin with a bow and arrow.
Just to be clear, we were all against this plan and the club actually reprimanded him and told him not to do it, but he was a very determined fellow …
WILL IT HAPPEN AGAIN?
Unfortunately, this generation is all but gone. Bruno Mercorio passed away in early 2020, I think. He had great success with bluefin in Fishhoek on his boat Volante and caught some very, very commendable bluefin, including three in one day. I stand to be corrected, but I think I might be the last surviving angler of that era, with the exception of Simon Susman — David’s son — a past Chairman of Woolworths, who also landed several large bluefin. I don’t think there are very many of us left today to tell these marvellous stories which should be told and should be preserved for posterity.
In my mind there’s absolutely no doubt that these giant bluefin came into the bay to feed on the vast hordes of baitfish there at the time.
There were theories that they came to spawn, but I very much doubt that. And then there were other theories that maintained too many were caught and we damaged the one group that returned every year, but I also don’t think that is valid. In total less than 250 giant bluefin tuna were caught over the period of about nine or ten years, so I very much doubt that could have been the reason they gradually stopped coming into the bay.
I think that the damage was done by the purse seiners that depleted the bay of thousands and thousands of tonnes of mackerel, anchovies and squid over a period of ten- to 15 years, leaving the bay virtually without any baitfish today.
There is also another theory which has merit — that internationally these giants have migrated from country to country. We proved that with the one I caught that came from Canada the previous year. The bluefin stocks have been abused worldwide by the Japanese longline fishermen and Chinese fishermen, so this could also have an adverse effect on the fish stocks that came here.
They say “Never say never”, and that’s a good saying, but I don’t personally believe we will ever again see these giant bluefin in False Bay or anywhere near our waters here in the Cape.