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Bluefin, the long game: can the great big-game fishing at Cat Cay survive the 21st Century?

Almost 100 years ago some of the first modern American big game anglers discovered the bluefin tuna fishery off Cat Cay, the Bahamas. Fifty years ago, the Cat Cay Tuna Tournament--on that small, 2-by-1-mile island 60 miles east of Miami--attracted some of the best big game anglers of the day. They caught the giant, 400- to 1,000-pound bluefin as the fish migrated to their northern feeding grounds--and the sport shaped the tackle, boats and big-game angling that we have today.

Then commercial boats found the fish. By the mid '90s, the Cat Cay sport fishing all but ended. The tournament stopped 23 years ago.

But Miami captain Ray Rosher of the Miss Britt knew about those bluefin, knew they swam north past Miami every spring after breeding in the Gulf of Mexico, and he knew the contours of the ocean off Bimini and Cat Cay pushed them close to the islands on their journey, sometimes up into 30-, 40-foot depths over white sand. He believed that they could be found and fished there again. With the support of Costa Del Mar Sunglasses, the Merritt family of boat builders and a handful of tournament teams, two years ago they held the first Cat Cay Tuna Tournament in 23 years: three days of fishing, six boats, schools of bluefin spotted, none hooked.

Today, I'm on Ray Rosher's Miss Britton the third day of the 2015 Cat Cay Tuna Tournament, held May 27-31. First two days, bluefin schools spotted, no hooked fish.

A lot has changed in 30 years, and a lot hasn't. Bluefin tuna stocks are down, and some researchers will tell you that they're in peril. The giant tuna are still racing north after breeding in the Gulf of Mexico, shoved into tuna alley by the contours of the banks and currents. The Cat Cay tournament today, of course, is all tag and release, and researchers Megan Winton and Jeff Kneebone are here from the Large Pelagics Institute of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, carrying 8 pop-up satellite tags, hoping to tag fish and gain invaluable knowledge about the species. The bluefin tuna fishing at Cat Cay is still difficult--mainly dependent on the right wind conditions--southeast to south winds--to drive the fish up from the depths to ride the current north.


Those who believe the chance to tangle with a giant bluefin is worth the risk, money and time, do so for the knowledge, the experience and the sport. Among the faithful gathered at Cat Cay are Rosher, representatives of Costa, Joe Neber of Contender boats (who devoted boats and crew for support and camera staff), the Merritt family with members here, Mike Kelly, science and policy specialist at The Billfish Foundation, and dedicated big-game anglers like Stephanie Choate of Miami.

On the first day of this year's tournament, schools of bluefin were spotted all day, but wind conditions weren't best. No boat had a shot at getting ahead of the school and throwing back a rigged mackerel. "It's the most demanding, team-oriented sport of any kind of fishing tournament in the world," says Bill Harrison of Miami, who had fished Cat Cay bluefin for years, and recently as well, appearing in the terrific Costa del Mar film production, "Bluefin on the Line," which documents the Cat Cay fishery. It's available on DVD. This year, Harrison is captaining the Merritt boat. "A marlin tournament you could win on auto pilot," he says, "but a bluefin tournament takes everyone on board to act right to win.


"You have to have perfect timing when you approach the school, how you bait the fish and of course how you fight the fish. It's not easy to understand why these fish bite. They're moving fast and making way, and the ones that I've gutted have a lot of mackerel in them. Sometimes, you'll get a looker at the bait, and then another one comes flying in and takes it away, smashes it. Maybe it's a reaction strike, maybe there's competition between them, but you have to put the bait in the right place at the right time to have a chance," Harrison says.

"People would fish all around the world and do well for marlin, yellow-fin and all the other fish, and they would come to Cat Cay and get stumped. They'd struggle," said Roy Merritt Sr., whose Merritt Yachts are known worldwide for their big-game prowess. "This is tougher than big marlin fishing. A marlin will eat a piece of plastic that's trolled by it. A bluefin won't. A bluefin knows the difference. This is the hardest fishing in the world."

At Cat Cay, for the tuna you want wind with some south in it, to get the current angled to the islands. The tuna ride the current on top when it's strong to the north, and when it's not strong, they'll stay deeper in the Gulf Stream, which can run any number of miles off the island, 15 to 20 or more. Ray Rosher, fishing these waters more and more, now knows to take into account not only the wind, but the tides that will help bring the fish closer into the shallows to see them.

On the Miss Britt, Stephanie Choate just hooked up on a kite-trolled mackerel. It's a 'cuda. Rosher's is one of the only boats trolling baits--the others are just looking. Stephanie Choate lives in Miami and fishes all around the world. She's on the board of Wild Oceans, an organization concerned with the future of fishing.

"I came here last year with Alex Adler," she said, of the Islamorada charter captain. "I love tuna, but it's also about the people, the Merritts and Ray, you learn so much, so much in one dockside hour. I love watching the people. Bill Harrison knows more about bluefin tuna than anybody. He's like the godfather of tuna fishing. Everyone's rooting for each other here, and everyone will be happy if someone catches one. We'll all be happy. I've got a thing for tuna and for me, it's almost like a drug. You see one tuna and it stays with you forever. There's a point where if you can close your eyes and see tuna, you know that you have that thing. I call it tuna tunnel. All of us here have it. I just hope this tournament raises awareness about the recreational fishing for these fish--that there's a way to fish for them that helps to study them and lets you love them and is fun."


Rosher is going to figure out how to catch these fish, rig up a fighting chair on the bow of the Miss Brittto be able chase them down, too. The bluefin pass by Miami in the spring, every year, and this spring Rosher documented 20 hookups on bluefin, all of them on sailfish gear and all of them lost. When a school comes through, they'll take every bait. I believe that next season, Rosher will be ready for the bluefin off Miami.

"We just love the connections between Florida, big game fishing, and Cat Cay," says Amanda Sabin, Costa's manager of offshore fishing. "Cat Cay is really where big game fishing got started in our part of the world. When Ray came to me and said he thought the bluefin were coming back and that they could be caught here, I got behind it all the way. I talked to the bosses at Costa and they threw their support behind the idea, too. For us, it's about supporting the tradition, the history and the community of big game fishing. That's what we see as important."

In the Western Atlantic, bluefin stocks may be building, or not. No one can say for certain, because they travel so widely, so constantly, except where they concentrate for weeks to breed or to feed. Recently, after a long and lengthy political process of lobbying from a variety of ocean-conservation organizations, fishery managers approved Amendment 7 of NOAA Fisheries regulations. The amendment closes parcels of Gulf of Mexico bluefin breeding grounds to longline fishing during parts of their breeding season. More good news: In recent years, there's also been a reduction in the take of menhaden off the Northeast U.S. coast, which will significantly increase the forage base for the big bluefin there.

Bluefin are tightly regulated, both recreationally and commercially. The commercial U.S. fishery for bluefin is not going away. It's big business and makes a lot of money for people. The Japanese, and apparently a lot of other people, too, need to eat their bluefin tuna. (Primarily a sushi market. Most people would agree that cooked bluefin is ho-hum.) So how are recreational anglers going to fit into the bluefin puzzle? Many Florida bluewater anglers aren't even aware that bluefin can be caught in the Gulf and in the Atlantic off the southern tip of the state. And many certainly don't know the regulations for keeping them. More might fish for them if they knew.


On the fourth day of fishing, wind conditions were still not good. East wind, a little south to it, but not enough, and not strong enough. In the old days, they wouldn't look for bluefin in those conditions. They'd fish for something else. But tournament boats went out, and they didn't see the bluefin, but the bluefin were there, racing north beneath their hulls.

Later Capt. Bill Harrison said, "We had everything but the right wind. Times could be tough like this even 50 or 60 years ago. One fish could win back then under such tough conditions. You might not see them for days, and then a storm would come up and turn the water around, and suddenly you'd see them coming up over the reef. If you were there you might catch it."

So no tuna were caught or tagged at the 2015 Cat Cay Tuna Tournament. No bluefin tuna were even hooked. The teams and staff at the 2015 Cat Cay Tuna Tournament knew that they had given it the best shot. Personally, I really wanted to catch a glimpse of a giant tuna. We had been beaten, but not defeated, because we were sportsmen. That, at least, was how we were all pretty much feeling when we walked into the final night's dinner where we heard the news that a private angler was right at that moment hooked up to a bluefin right out front, off Cat Cay. The photographers were ready. So were the scientists with their satellite tags. Ray Rosher went to his boat to radio the guys fighting the fish, but he couldn't make contact.

The next morning I learned that our information was slightly off. We were already too late. By five o'clock that prior day, that bluefin had already been caught and killed and taken to Bimini. They say the meat of the bluefin off Cat and Bimini isn't really any good to eat. They are too depleted of richness after breeding and migrating, too worn down by their efforts at life.

From the days, weeks and months that I've looked into trying to understand what people know about bluefin tuna across the entire course of their Atlantic migrations--what researchers know, what anglers know, I can tell you that it's a long game--a very long game. If you look for them for five days, a week, and don't get them at Cat Cay--that's nothing. In that brief time, you might think your experience might tell you something about bluefin--but the truth is, we don't comprehend them. Those people with the heart to pursue the long game for bluefin, whether it's with computers and tags or rods and reels, or all of those tools, will only slowly--over the course of years--add to the understanding that we don't know much about these imperial creatures, except for one thing, and that is that only through wise use of the resources, and care for the stocks of bluefin around the world, will bluefin continue to exist in any appreciable numbers. When you look at it like that, it's not only a matter of saving the bluefin from us, but also a matter of saving us from ourselves.

By David Conway, Managing Editor
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Author:Conway, David
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Aug 1, 2015
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