Jumping Yellowfin

Jumping Yellowfin

Rob Naysmith

The snows have cleared, the air has begun to warm and the Agulhus current has started it’s 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.  And this year has been true to form.  Usually the bigger class of 15 to 30kg Longfin Tuna begin to arrive in the deep grounds of the Canyon, however, they can be unreliable early in the season, very quick to move when conditions and food aren’t yet up to their expectations.


There is another batch of Tuna that arrive simultaneously, and that is the ever exciting, adrenalin pumping, back breaking, Yellowfin Tuna the Cape waters have become world renown 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.


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 is because of the balls of food, predominantly Anchovies, that scatter in all directions when attacked.


It was in the latter part of October that 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, 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 2.5 meters during the day, we left Simonstown 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.   I digress again … getting older is not for sissies.


What I really enjoy about fishing on Corsair is that I no longer have to drive, that’s a big plus.

I can spend time reminiscing with Gavin, sharing the library of fishing adventures we’ve enjoyed over the years, laughing at the things we got up to.  Like the time we thought it was a great idea to handline a Yellowfin on 6 meters of 400lb trace line tied to the back of the boat 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.


After an unsuccessful stab at some Yellowtail around the Point we moved out 8 miles to begin our search for the shoals of jumping Yellowfin that had commandeered the airwaves since they arrived a few weeks prior.  For some bizarre reason, these Yellowfin only start to show themselves around 10am, maybe they also learned the early start to catch a fish theory.  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 Tuna fishing is the most fundamental element to success. Birds are a sign, but which birds and their actions is the secret.  Sea surface condition is a sign, but a current line or a shiny oil slick is the secret.  A frenzy of boiling water with Tuna and tiny bait fish breaking the surface in all directions holds no secret.


With the weather guru’s having wasted their money predicting the lotto, what chance did we have of an accurate forecast, the SW wind was now 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, pandemonium 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 paralyzed 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.


It was as this enormous black backed bucket mouth, followed by a huge yellow sickle fin erupted behind the popper and simply inhaled it, that my life flashed before my eyes.  As much as I tried to avoid setting the hooks I was left no choice, the fish did it for me.  It was at that very moment in time 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 of 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.


Now, 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 5 minutes, but I’ve also spent over 4 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.  Standing there pinned against the gunwale, holding a long rod with a coffee grinder and a fish having it’s way with me. Thinking how, as a boy, standing in the Umgeni river using a coffee grinder to flick bread to shoals of hungry mullet, and now I’m 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 rather 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 meters of braid into the Atlantic, 200 meters that I was going to have to wind back with a very angry fish on the end.  I’ve been asked many times what do 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, probably the worst rod to be holding when attached to a Tuna, .. and I was.  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?  Only one solution, shorten the rod, …  which led to raucous laughter from those who noticed I had taken to riding the rod butt like a horse. With hands wrapped around the first guide I now had a 6 foot rod instead of an 11 foot, and a lot more pulling power for less effort.


One trait of the Yellowfin found in this 100 to 200 meter water, is that they are hugely energetic and regularly visit the surface during a fight.  Unlike those 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 Yellow, deep down one minute and zinging across the surface seconds later, ripping line off the grinder.  Old memories flooded back, memories of that old stale-mate scenario where neither opponent wants to concede. We settled down to the good old cranking and grinding till my arms ached to gain about 20 meters of line, then 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 it’s head, swimming in one direction, to swimming in ever decreasing circles on it’s way to the boat.


After what seemed like an eternity my fish decided to show itself on the surface about 20 meters off the starboard bow, the retrieve turned to one of frenetic cranking on the grinder with a rod pointed above the fish, and it came towards the boat.  Suddenly chaos, gaffs appeared from nowhere, Gavin shouting, “now you have it”, and my body saying thank goodness.  As it turned out, it was just the fish 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 30 to 40 meters 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.


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, 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, and this time it swam a little too close to the boat, the first gaff got it on the side of the gill plate.  With Gavin the gaffman flying past me en-route down the gunwale, 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, motionless on the deck, spent in every way, with bright, radiant colours reflecting in the sunlight.  Since boyhood, as respect to this and all those hard fighting fish gone before, I removed my cap in admiration …. It’s just something I’ve always done.


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 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, that’s the secret to a perfect Tuna steak or fillet.  


Soon we were back on the troll, well they 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 50lb 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 … “not my rod”.  That fish became Jared’s problem.