I was absolutely thrilled when I heard the news from Kevin Lavis earlier this year, that he, and the boat he skippers, Crusader Charters, had been accepted into the 2021 CHART programme, for the catch, tag and release of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. I know what a hard working skipper he is and it was fully deserved, plus from a selfish point of view, the boat is based in Plymouth, which is not too much travelling for me! 

A few weeks back, Kevin put up a social media post in light of a cancelation on one of the scheduled sailing days under the CHART programme. The weather at this point looked sketchy for the trip to go ahead, but it just so happened to fall on a day I could make myself free from other commitments. The temptation was too much and the booking was confirmed mere minutes later. 

The only question now was who would accompany me… 

Like a gannet spotting a mackerel from a mile away, I homed straight in on a late cancelation opportunity

It unfortunately happened that my Dad, who I would have really liked to experience this trip with me, was due to be in Norway… Needless to say a bit of humour ensued when I told him we’d be having a rather open bordered biggest fish challenge for the week, ceding his advantage in Norway. He caught on to my plans pretty quick, and before a friendly wager could be laid on it… those halibut records would need to tumble! 

Another regular angling companion for some of my most notable fishing memories was the first to get the call. Whilst on a shark trip out of Falmouth, I’d discussed with my good friend Dave Lovelock about the opportunity to grab a tuna trip if a cancelation arose, though I hadn’t actually expected one to crop up so soon. Once he knew why I was asking if he’d be free on this given day, Dave assured me he would make himself free regardless! 

Dave Lovelock took little tempting...

Two down. On these trips you can have up to 4 anglers, though I rather enjoy a bit of space on a charter and always go under the maximum when booking out a boat. Crusader certainly doesn’t lack the space for 4, or indeed a lot more on a more ordinary trip, but when the strike is being rotated, fishing less certainly gave us a better individual chance of success. 

For the third spot, I was keen to get Ben Carter out with us. Not least because it gave him a chance to add to his big fish series he has written for Hookpoint, all featuring species over 100lb in weight caught from British Isles waters, which now includes: Flapper skate, blue shark, probables, threshers, 6 gill shark and blue fin tuna. Ben’s problem was that he was due to be at the start of a family holiday in Cornwall! Thanks to a very accommodating family, that minor issue was overcome though, and at least he was in the right part of the country!

It was invaluable to have Ben along for his experience alone

I was watching the weather like a hawk for the next few days as the trip approached. With 48 and then just 24 hours to go, the outlook wasn’t fantastic, but with variable reports I took confidence in whichever gave the best current outlook! Dave, Ben and Kevin were all closely watching the weather too… Messages of ‘doesn’t look great’ to ‘this one looks good’ flew around, but with a couple of tuna to the boat already on the day prior to our trip, Kevin finally gave the nod that if we were up for some trying conditions, we’d give it a go. 

I trusted that Kevin wouldn’t go out if he wasn’t certain of safety, a message he repeated to us in the morning and once more when we left the shelter of the headlands heading to open ocean. It was really down to our call as anglers then, and even several miles out, Kevin gave us the option of a refund if we felt unable to enjoy the day in the conditions. Fortunately, none of us typically experience any sea sickness issues, so we were all more than happy to press on!

Ben discusses tactics with Tony - the camera really flattens the sea, this was bumpy!

It felt weird boarding a boat with nothing but a set of waterproofs and some food for the day. The whole drive down I had the feeling I’d forgotten something and just couldn’t shake the doubt. I guess it’s like when a smoker finally quits and they pick up their keys and phone to leave the house and still have that nagging feeling they are without something. That was me without the usual 5 rods, 10 reels and multiple tackle boxes (most of which usually ends up unused). 

Introductions, including to the crewman Tony, general safety briefings, plus an introduction to CHART were all undertaken (see the prior feature for more on CHART) before we left the calmness of Mount Batten for the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. It didn’t take long for us to witness an incredible full breach by a massive blue fin tuna right in front of the boat. My only regret was that it had happened with no prior warning and as such, I was unable to capture this impressive sight on camera. It was, however, a fantastic introduction to the size and scale of these fish, which from photos alone are impossible to properly comprehend. 

All the gear being provided really made me feel I'd forgotten something...

The trolling would soon commence, with the conditions dictating that we set 3 of 4 rods, with the trolling of spreader bars the technique opted for this day. As Ben’s feature in this issue identifies, this method allowed us to cover a lot of ground to track down the tuna. The key was to follow the birds, and with very little happening on the sounder as we set out, but a lot of small flocks of birds all heading in a similar direction, the call was made to bring the rods in and see exactly where these gannets and gulls were heading. 

It soon became very apparent where they were heading! We approached an area alive with activity. Dolphins were shooting everywhere, clearly in a hunting mood. Gannets dived in to the seas below one after another, in a relentless feeding frenzy. The sounder meanwhile had lit up, both with bait fish and some notable and plentiful bigger soundings below. This looked promising!

Hunting gannets... a great sign!

Harnesses had been sized up well before the first rods had been put out. We all knew the routine, and we’d also decided on an order. I was just as keen to capture these fish on cameras as on rod and line, so I’d told Dave he’d be up first… what with wear the old ones out first and all! Within minutes of setting the rods amongst this incredible burst of activity beneath us, one of the reels began to scream a merry tune! 

Dave had experienced a change of heart, unsure of maintaining stability in these conditions to fight the fish and preferring to see someone else do it first. I think I was into my harness before these words had finished leaving his mouth! I was ready to enter battle, wondering if an application of war paint would have been suitable on such occasions. 

I didn't need much encuragement into the harness for the first fish

Kevin and Tony were quickly into gear, doing all of the necessary preparations whilst the tuna made its first bolting, seemingly never ending run. There’s plenty of time afforded here to harness up and ensure everything is prepped for a safe fight and the recovery and tagging process that follows. The first job, is to get the other gear in, which Tony and Ben were upon the second the sound of the screaming reel had rang through the boat. 

Harnessed up, braced in position, Kevin took the rod from the holder and I clipped my harness to the reel and entered one of the biggest battles against a fish I had ever experienced. Gear considered, I had never encountered a fish with this power. All the while, this fish was also towing along the full resistance of a spreader bar full of countless large squid like lures. Just retrieving these alone can be hard work! 

Taking my time on my very first BFT

I was making a reasonable recovery of line without ‘chasing’ the fish. The skipper’s main boat movements were to ensure the fight with the fish stayed on one side of the boat. You don’t want to be moving all over the place following the fish around the boat, especially in these waters, so the expert skippering at this point is pivotal to safety. Tony and Kevin routinely reminded me I had plenty of time… 45 minutes in fact, being the time at which they then have to judge whether to pass the rod on. I had no intention of not seeing this through to the end, but I also had no idea how my energy would wane if I went at it too hard too soon.

In my younger years, I ran half marathons, and I viewed this much the same way… set a good pace, but don’t destroy myself at the outset! 

This fish had gone on an incredible first run, so to see the braid turn to fluorocarbon was a big relief, or at least it was until Tony pointed out there was a little over 100m of fluorocarbon and that was not withstanding a further run from the fish that could strip everything I had gained! Ah… great. 

There are spells where holding on is all you can do

The funny thing I found with these large 50-80 size reels is that the torque doesn’t match the drag, regardless of whether the are placed in low or high gear. There’s many technical reasons why this is the case in such a design that I won’t bore you with now, but what it means is that despite not being able to run against the set drag at points, turning the reel is still going to do absolutely nothing to retrieve line unless the fish is running towards you. The weight of these fish and the resistance there pose in the water is simply too much to just crank them in. There are, of course, a number of ways around this, else you’d never get the fish in!

First of all is the obvious… use the rod. Pump, then wind as you bring the rod back down. In the large swell conditions we experienced, doing this was disrupting my balance, so I opted for the other method, which is to use the left hand to pull line in, whilst winding with the right. This is easily done with the rod supported in the harness, but a glove is critical, both for protection from the braid and thereafter purchase on wet fluorocarbon. 

Pulling the line back to the reel is critical to keep quick recovery and momentum

I felt myself fairly fortunate that this fish had not wanted to go on any more barnstorming runs. There were a few small ones, but it certainly felt like it had gassed itself considerably with that first run, perhaps a blessing in disguise for myself. Eventually, I bought the fish to the side of the boat, and as it was restrained, erupted with sheer elation, with all the energy I had left… which, was not a lot, and my right arm struggled to stay raised long enough for a quick high five celebration! 

The whole process of recovery ensured. The focus is always the recovery. Once satisfied, the tagging and measuring could commence, and the conversion from the measurement took it to an incredible 430lb! 

I was in awe of the fish and commenced my own recovery, but not before grabbing the camera and getting a few photos of this stunning predator. The colours cannot be done justice by any camera, nearly always muted by the water washing over them. The blues, particularly in one part, are like a pulsating fork of lightning, growing in vibrance as the fish recovers. There’s a metallic nature to the shimmering skin of the fish, that is almost mirror like in the silver colouration down the flanks. They truly are a sight to behold, and it is a privilege to be able to witness one recover and see it swim off strongly. 

Kev's hand adds some scale!

We always talk of ‘fighting’ a fish, but there’s an intelligence there, looking into the eye of this species. It does not feel like a fight has been won. It does not strike me that this fish is coming to the boat unless it itself chooses to. It is less a fight, more a taming of a wild beast, breaking it in like a cowboy does a Mustang. 

Having watched the fish swim off, we’d also noted that the bird and fish activity had waned, thus we started our hunt for the birds again. The energy having drained completely from me, I took some fluids on, perhaps a bit too quickly as the feeling of sea sickness came over me like it never had before. Thankfully, I managed to stem it off by gathering enough fresh air on deck, but I believe it was more a sign of what the fish had taken out of me than the reaction to a sea state that had never affected me previously. 

When you look into that eye, you see intelligence like no other fish

It didn’t take too long to find the birds again, along with the desired activity below the surface. This time, Dave was ready and raring to go. Having seen my efforts, he wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to experience it himself. The reel had once again sang it’s sweet song, the other lines were recovered and Dave was in place, awaiting the rod from Kevin… The taming could commence once more. 

Some big surging mid-run fights had us all convinced this was a good fish. Interestingly, where mine had stayed deep, this fish was keen to pursue most of it’s fight very near the surface. Several times, Dave had got to the fluorocarbon, only for 100 yards or more of braid to be ripped back from the reel in mere seconds. The speed these fish empty line is mind boggling, against 30-40lb of drag. 

There was no stopping Dave by the time fish number two came along

It was no surprise with these persistent mid-fight runs, that the fight time was approaching that point where decisions would have to be made. Fortunately, as 45 minutes approached, Dave had made good headway on the fish, with the majority of fluorocarbon back on the reel. As we hit 45 minutes, we saw the fish and it was clear it was nearly done, thus Dave was able to keep the rod as the fish was secured just a couple of minutes later. 

If the fight had made it apparent this fish was a good one, the sight of it beside the boat just blew my mind. We only ever hear the length of these fish, which is the sole metric used for the weight conversions, but the girth is just unreal. It’s as if someone picked up a barrel, took it to a Formula 1 team and asked them to make it as aerodynamic as possible without trimming the girth. It went an impressive 500lb, though I wouldn’t be surprised if this conversion was understated.

What a fish! the size blew me away

Dave had managed the fight very well, and whilst clearly taking a lot out of him, he agreed with me that once connected to the fish, it was easier to maintain balance than any other time on the boat! Having something to pull down seemed to help rather than hinder. The most difficult times were when the fish would make a large run towards us and quick line recovery had to be made. 

This was now two strikes, two hook ups and two fish bought to the boat! If we could now get Ben his fish, we really couldn’t ask for more. Unfortunately the birds had thinned out in the near vicinity, but with regular dolphin activity it still felt worth keeping a troll going whilst scanning the horizon for anything more promising. A decent pair of binoculars is of great benefit, or the telephoto lens on my camera also acted as a decent substitute to check in on what a few birds were doing and whether they were feeding or just milling about waiting for something to happen themselves. 

Spotting birds from a distance was critical

The joy of trolling is the ground that is covered. Eventually we saw more signs of life and this time, there were tuna clearly visible darting across the surface, fins poking out giving a great indication of how quickly they can pivot left and right. Despite the increase visibility of the tuna, a strike took a little longer in coming, but it did eventually occur and Ben was into his harness in a flash, the spare rods retrieved and one could imagine the ringside bell ringing to signal commencement of round 3. 

Ben lacks no experience with big fish, or indeed tuna outside of UK waters. He is also a member of the English big game fishing squad. Thus, it was interesting to watch how he played the fish. He put more bend into that rod in the first minute than I had managed at any stage, which soon showed in a tuna that was struggling to make any additional runs. In not much more than 10 minutes, Ben had bought the fish to the boat, though it was in a very ‘green’ state. It probably, on reflection, pays to allow these fish to tire themselves out a bit first, though knowing they can take hundreds of yards of line at a moments notice, once you’re on top of the fish it’s pretty hard to relent and give it any more leeway. 

Ben's experience on the bigger fish showed in the fight

One thing was for sure, this fish was having no problem recovering! A measurement had put it at 270lb, comfortably entering Ben’s list of 100lb + species in the waters of the British Isles. Everyone on the boat was ecstatic to have achieved a 100% strike, hook and boat rate on 3 fish, which equalled the most Crusader had bought to the boat since the CHART programme began. With a couple of hours left, the challenge was now to beat this record. 

The hunt for a feeding frenzy once again began, with no difficulty in finding them. We found birds, dolphin and witnessed Tuna feeding for the next couple of hours, yet could not entice a single strike. Were we destined to finish on 3? We could not complain if we did. One apiece is more than enough when it comes to bluefin tuna! We were rapidly approaching the time when we would have to set sail back to Mount Batten to bring a close to this most fantastic of days. 

Ben's fish came up in great time, but very green!

We’d decided to divide the three rods amongst us, having caught one each, to determine who would take the final fish, if we were so fortunate as to find one. With one rod assigned to each of us, it would be a lottery who would enter into the fray for a second time. All of a sudden, tuna were busting all around us, and unlike the last few occasions of this occurring, a reel sounded off to signify round 4! My luck was in, as it was the rod assigned to myself. I’d also had the most chance to recover having taken the first fish, so perhaps this was meant to be. 

Having now experienced the first fish and a bit inspired by Ben’s efforts in bringing his fish in so quickly, as well as knowing I could give it my all without needing to reserve energy for later in the day… I hit in hard, and relentlessly! I’d also decided I’d try something a little different to see if I could make the most of the conditions…

I was going for it with my second fish!

Rather than pumping the rod, I decided to use the swell, which was at the worst it had been all day, to my advantage. As we rode up a wave, I would lock the spool to prevent any slippage of line against the drag, ultimately using the swell to bring the fish up closer in the water… As soon as we rode back down the wave, I’d furiously recover line. It was working, whether more through luck than judgement I won’t say! I was making continuous and rapid recovery of line this time round. I was back to the fluorocarbon in minutes, and within just 6 minutes I had the swivel out of the water and the crewman went to retrieve the fish… 

That’s when the fish reminded me that they don’t come to the boat till they are ready to come to the boat! I considered it a minor victory when a few seconds later I managed to arrest the run of the fish just before I was back to braid… so only 100m in a few seconds of running! This time though, getting from this stage to the fish besides the boat was not so rapid! A few more short bursts arrested by progress, though overall, I was on top of the fish and still making good time. 

After retreating at the first sight of the boat, the tuna eventually complied

It was a spirited fish, perhaps also still ‘green’ when we got it to the boat. A few attempts had to be made to finally bring it under control, but I certainly felt I’d learnt from the first and delivered a quicker more efficient taming of my second tuna of the day. Just like Ben’s, this one again converted to a chunky 270lb. It won’t be often I land two fish for a combined 700lb in weight! 

The release of this fish signalled a great high note to draw the day to a close and make our way back to port. We’d realised a quite improbable 100% strike, hook and boat rate to deliver a Crusader record of 4 tuna to the boat in one day! It felt just as good to achieve this for Kevin and Tony as it did for ourselves. They worked relentlessly for us throughout the day and it’s certainly worth every last penny that the trips cost. I can’t think of another type of charter trip that requires such work from the crew. 

It was incredible to land my second of the day!

With thanks and farewells said on disembarking the boat, and wondering if our legs would still operate on dry land, Dave and I set off on the drive home recounting the experiences of the day. I wondered whether Dave would consider that as one ticked off the list and happy to call it a day at that, but just like me, he’s keen to get straight back out on them next year! 

The hunt of big fish is typically fuelled by an anglers desire for an adrenaline rush, and there’s quite simply nothing like hooking into one of these giants for a massive release of adrenaline. If you can, get a trip booked up for next year.

Trips seem to run at around £700 – £800 a boat, split up to 4 ways, but you absolutely will not regret the experience. There are 15 boats to book on, details of which you can see on the CHART feature earlier in this issue. If you’ve not written your Christmas list yet, you may just want to tell Santa that all you want for Christmas is a bluefin or two! 

Thank you once again to Kevin and Tony, for delivering an absolute experience of a lifetime. Thank you to all the work done by Steve Murphy and Bluefin Tuna UK for making it possible and thank you to Ben Carter and Dave Lovelock for sharing such an incredible day with myself. 

I just can't wait to do it again!
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