Friday, September 19, 2008

Tagging with the trawlers in the Trench

Pete Saul reports on his back-to-back trip on Cova Rose chasing giant Pacific bluefin tuna off the west coast of New Zealand.

It was a quick turn-around with only a few hours ashore. The charter was three enthusiastic south Australians who wanted to land a fish only if it was a potential world record.

Figure 1: The Cova Rose preparing to depart from the Greymouth docks. (Image: George Shillinger)

With the crew all tired from an exhausting 48 trip in which the weather was testing at times and the fishing hard, it was fortunate that one of the deckies, Grant, was returning to Nelson, and Bryce from the first trip was rejoining the boat. He was able to navigate back out to the grounds while Tony, Norm and myself caught up on some rest.

The forecast lived up to its promise, with the sea calming down beautifully by the time we had found our first trawler, the NZ vessel Rehua, north of the Hokitika Trench. At ten past midnight, on just the second pass, we hooked up with Gavin Solly in the chair. This turned out to be an epic battle of five hours and we did not tag the fish which was brought on board. Gavin was astounded at the power of these fish in his first encounter. Even though we had the trace up after just twenty minutes, the fish simply would not give in. We fished near the Rehua until after dawn with only one further strike which did not hook up.

Figure 2: The Cova Rose as seen from the Cerveza 2; fishing off the bag of the NZ Vessel Rehua. (Image: George Shillinger)

Skipper Tony decided to move away and have a look at one of two Korean joint-venture vessels not far away. We have had absolutely no luck near these boats in the past, but this time the move turned out to be a master stroke. The boat had very promising marks on the sounder alongside it, and the fish proved willing to bite. We soon had our second angler, Troy Nissen, hooked up, and he succeeded in bringing his 260 kg giant to the boat in 90 minutes. A bait cast into the sea immediately after tagging Troy's fish was instantly seized by another tuna. The school had deserted the trawler to stay with their stricken mate, and we made the most of our good fortune. Our third angler, Ray Doody, a three year veteran of the fishery, brought his 230kg fish to the boat in 135 minutes as we drifted and chummed on the spot where Troy's fish was hooked. By late afternoon we had experienced several bites that had escaped the hook, but shortly afterwards hooked a tuna that was brought in by Troy in just 30 minutes.

The anglers were getting the hang of this quite rapidly. We hooked up again just 8 minutes after tagging Troy’s second tuna, with Ray again in the hot seat. This fish, another estimated at 220kg, was tagged in just 27 minutes. In an effort to speed things up we tried handlining some tuna, but after several misadventures the fish went off the bite.

Tony moved to another New Zealand Trawler, the Amaltal Enterprise, which was doing its last tow of a six week trip. We followed the trawler for a couple of hours while the anglers had a bit of a rest. Just before dawn the skipper radioed us to say that he was about to haul his net. The cooperation of the commercial vessels has been absolutely outstanding, with Tony’s long experience in the commercial fishery helping enormously as he knows all the skippers personally. At 0530 Gavin hooked a tuna which proved to be the last of this trip. At an estimated 280kg it was the biggest we encountered this time, but was brought alongside in just 25 minutes. A tough struggle on the trace ensued with the extremely green fish fighting all the way up. It took all three crew to bring the tuna within range of the tag pole for a good shot. Unfortunately while trying to maneuver the fish to the stern for a DNA sample it smashed the trace and headed for the depths at great speed.

Although scheduled to stay out for 48 hours, we headed home into a north-east wind and rain. The bait was all but gone, and the anglers all but exhausted after yet another successful West Coast adventure. After two successive trips, I was also due for a rest. For me it was time to head for home. With four tags left to deploy, Tim will replace me for some more trips with Captain “Chinner” and crew.

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