Monday, October 24, 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front

Upon the fourth straight day of rare perfect weather, we anticipated great things. We were off to a slow start marking tuna here and there but never reeling any in.

In the afternoon, the water turned perfectly still, creating a mirror image of the sky. Large schools of mackerel, visible by the nervous water vibrating above them, surrounded the boat. While waiting for tuna to bust through,  we were visited by a seal bobbing its head up and down like a buoy, and a  curious little mola swam  around one of our floats. Then boom! Giant tuna began shattering through the glassy water in the distance as we reeled in our lines and went after them. It seemed as though they were toying with us for as soon as we arrived on top of them, they would bust again behind us.

Even with no tuna, the sheer calmness and beauty of the day brought amazement to us all.

-Danny Coffey

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Director's Cut

Danny Coffey, Robbie Schallert and George Shillinger

TAG-A-Giant Canada welcomed Dr. George Shillinger, the new director of the TAG-A-Giant Foundation, as well as Daniel Coffey, the new Tuna Research and Conservation Center technician, to the water for the first time. And they chose a good day because the bluefin were snapping...we tagged 4 fish on 7 bites...and had tuna busting all around the boat. All three boats, the F/V Bay Queen IV, F/V Nicole Brandy and F/V Pete's Pair-A-Dice caught at least one fish. 
Pete's Pair-A-Dice hooked up before a transfer
We placed two acoustic tags on two fish made by local Nova Scotian company Vemco. And the other two fish received pop-up satellite archival tags manufactured by Wildlife Computers.

-Robbie Schallert
Bluefin tuna with a Vemco acoustic tag

The Icehouse - Port Hood, Nova Scotia, Canada

Tag-A-Giant Canada, Round Two kicked off on October 15, with the departure of TAG Director, Dr. George Shillinger, and TRCC Technician, Danny Coffey to Port Hood, Nova Scotia.

TAG Canada Headquarters – The Lighthouse Cottages, 
Port Hood, Nova Scotia
(photo by Dr. George Shillinger)

High winds and choppy seas kept the tagging team off the water the following morning, but the commercial fishermen assisting the TAG effort braved the weather to pursue the giants. TAG veteran, Robbie Schallert accompanied Captain Dennis Cameron and his crew on the Bay Queen IV in the hopes of securing samples from any commercial captures. 

The Bay Queen IV returning to the docks at Port Hood
(photo by Dr. George Shillinger)

George and Danny were joined by producer, D’Arcy Marsh of Otter Films, who drove up to Port Hood from Boston, to capture the tagging efforts on film.

The inclement weather provided the TAG team with an opportunity to spend some time in the Icehouse (photo of  Icehouse), where lead fish dresser Duncan Sutherland, practiced his trade in front of the TAG team, demonstrating how commercially captured fish are weighed and dressed for shipment to international buyers.  

The Icehouse in Port Hood, Nova Scotia, Canada.
(photo by Dr. George Shillinger)

The fish dressing process involves a series of steps, beginning with the point of capture, when fish are initially towed behind the boat, and then bled by a quick knife slice behind the pectoral fin.  Upon arrival at the docks, the fish are hoisted from the boat, carried into the Icehouse and placed upon the scales.  

Bluefin tuna captured by commercial fishermen near Port Hood, Nova Scotia.
(photo by Dr. George Shillinger)
Following weigh-in, the fish are dressed; a process involving removal of the pectoral and dorsal fins (to enable the fish to fit in the shipping crate), extraction of the viscera, removal of the caudal fin (tail) below the third finlet, and decapitation. 
Bluefin tuna weigh-in at the Icehouse.
(photo by Dr. George Shillinger)

The dressed fish are re-weighed, given a final rinse, and dumped into an icebath, where they await a trip (usually within 6-12 hours) to foreign and domestic markets, and their final destination on a sushi platter.

-Dr. George Shillinger

Duncan Sutherland rinses a dressed bluefin tuna at the Icehouse.
(photo by Dr. George Shillinger)
Duncan Sutherland places a dressed bluefin tuna in ice at the Icehouse.
(photo by Dr. George Shillinger)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Both Bitter and Sweet

The TAG team headed out last Thursday, October 13th, and Friday, October 14th, scoring marks and tagging giants.  Thursday started out ‘inside’, near shore off the Mabou Highlands, a spot noted the previous day for 3 late afternoon hook-ups by commercial fishers.  The team wasn’t disappointed.  Capt’n Ross Kues’ ‘Neptuna’ hooked up early in the morning with a nice medium-sized Bluefin to start the day off right.  Adorned with its new wave sound tag, the fish swam away none the worse for wear.  The day dragged on between bites, but before the boats pulled their hooks in, two more tuna landed on the board, tallying 3 for the day.  The second was a beautiful big butterball, easily topping the scale at over 850 lbs while the last of the day stretched the tape to 260 cm curved length. 

Waiting For A Bite – Off MacDonald’s Glen, Mabou Highlands, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, October 14th, 2011.

Friday was forecasting a strong blow to pick up after noon, but with a flat morning and a location in the lee of the Mabou Highlands, three Nova Scotian TAG vessels headed out.  The ‘Bay Queen IV’ waited for a bite all morning.  It never came.  With eyes lured offshore to a lone commercial vessel midway to the horizon, Capt’n Dennis Cameron decided to move.  No sooner was the bow pointed away from shore than Aaron Spares spotted a lone Bluefin a mile or more ‘outside’ jumping vertically clear of the water and nose diving back in.  Interest aroused, but no one counting their tuna just yet, the ‘Bay Queen IV’ cruised steadily to the spot to find a fresh oil slick.  Hooks baited and back in, the team once again waited.  A down-bait reeled off soon after.  A fight ensued.  The giant ran twice, and then settled into a tug-of-war at 100-140 feet under the boat.  Robbie Shallert, Craig Cameron and Sheldon Gillis all took turns on the reel, but for every foot gained, the giant took one back.

Risin' Up - Off MacDonald's Glen, Mabou Highlands, Northumberland Strait, Canada

With a hour fight time approaching on the clock, Sheldon Gillis remarked, “It’s time for me to go put the boots to’em!”

The fish must’ve heard him, and took his comment as a challenge, for no sooner had the words left his mouth, then the giant changed tactics and made a heavy haul away from the stern.  The line whirled off the reel, the tip rose, and slack was taken.  A sudden tip down ended with the rod springing straight up.  Online tension ceased.  Colourful comments were exchanged to the sea.  And perhaps the giant of the season swam away.

With a defeat lingering on deck, the wind started to blow.  Waves began to build.  The boat began to rock and roll, but marks on the sounder suggested there may be redemption for those who wait.  At about 2 pm, with white capped water all around, a rod on the ‘Bay Queen IV’ screamed.  The fight was personal this time, but the victory was bittersweet.  A 190 cm tuna came aboard to receive its jewellery and was sent kicking back into the turbulent water.  With Taggers and crew trying to maintain balance on deck, the word to call it a day was given.  The TAG boats broke through crests and troughs, slamming home the message that some of the more memorable days are a bit of both extremes, both bitter and sweet. 

-text and photos by Aaron Spares

A Fleeting Moment - Northumberland Strait tuna fishery off Mabou Highlands

Tuna 1 - TAG 1

We left the wharf knowing that the wind would pick up later that afternoon...we just weren't sure when. The boys from mainland Nova Scotia (Steve McInnis and Bernie Chisolm) met us off Mabou early in the morning. It was flat calm, and after jigging up some mackerel we drifted close to shore hopping to get bit. There was no wind and the tide was running against the drift, so after doing a 360 around our baits we decided to head off shore. Local scientist, Aaron Spares, spotted some fish jumping from the top of the cab, so we set up.

Craigor Cameron battles a bluefin
With the camera rolling, three or four fish splashed 500 yards off the stern and looked like they were headed towards our Huey bait (named after a local fisherman that flat lines a mackerel with a balloon). The boat waited with anticipation, but the fish didn't look like they were going to bite...then...WHAM...the line went tight, the rubber band shattered, and the reel zinged as the Bay Queen IV scrambled into position. We fought the fish for a good 45 minutes and we could tell it was a big fish by the way it behaved and marked on the sounder. We would reel it up to 50 feet and it would dive back to 120. This cat and mouse game ended when the mono chaffed and the line broke. Tuna 1...TAG team 0.
This bluefin is being tagged with an acoustic tag
Dejected but optimistic, the team regrouped and got the lines back in the water. The clouds over Cape Breton gathered and the wind began to puff. Capt. Dennis put his favorite pink balloon on the down bait for good luck...and just as we were thinking it might be time to head home...Zing...we were tight again. This time the tuna couldn't out smart us, and after a short fight the 250 lb bluefin was on board and back in the ocean with a new acoustic tag that will last for 1300 days.

By the time we were done tagging, the sea had turned into a frothy mess and we were all happy to head to shore.

-Robbie Schallert

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Let's Go Fly a Kite!

The Celtic Colors are in full swing here in Cape Breton, along with a cool autumn breeze. The Bay Queen IV headed north up the coast line to the Mabou Coal Mines to meet up with the PEI tag boats. After a quick stop for mackerel, we started to set-up our gear a quarter mile from shore...but before we could get our last bait in the water, the Neptuna crackled over the radio that he had a fish on. After a short, 20 minute fight, Ross Keus and TAG Team 2 were on the board with an acoustically tagged 400 lber.
The SE wind picked up in the morning allowing the boats to fly their kites. The kite allows the boats to fish on the downwind side of the boat, and it keeps the mackerel right on the surface so the tuna can't see the line. I have been staring at the "kite bait" for five years now...and at high noon I was rewarded. The crew was forward in the cab eating lunch and I was about to join them...when SMASH...out of the water...20 feet from the 850 pound bluefin ripped through the surface under the kite. I have pictured this moment in my head a thousand times, especially how I would react when this actually happened...of course, I froze with excitement. Capt. Dennis tried to yell but he was muffled by the hamburger in his mouth...Craig knocked his bag of mini licorice in the air that rained down like confetti...and after what seemed like minutes I finally reached the rod to crank in the slack. The line went tight...and with a triumphant roar...I had finally seen and hooked a Giant off the kite! Sheldon Gillis took over from there and the TAG team readied the equipment. Everyone's adrenaline was soaring...if you haven't seen a kite strike...get up to Port is spectacular!!! After a 31 minute battle, the 800 lb bluefin came aboard and was fitted with a satellite tag along his right dorsal.

We tagged one more fish and saw and two leatherback turtles swimming off the stern. All in all it was a great Cape Breton tuna fishing day!

-Robbie Schallert

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Highs and Lows

Well, as the ol’sayin’ goes, when it rains, it pours...especially in Nova Scotia.  The past 10 days have set records for Nova Scotia and the Tag-A-Giant team fishin’ for Giant Atlantic Bluefin off Port Hood on the Island of Cape Breton.  Intense high and low pressure systems have brought unseasonal weather.  Water temperatures have remained warm, and this past Canada Thanksgiving Weekend set record air temperatures.  Twenty-three oC is very nice for October.  It also blew a gale last Wednesday, gusts up to 118 km/h.
Gannet aboard
The TAG Team tied the record number of tuna tagged in one day in Canada, 9 fish on Monday, October 3rd.  The bite didn’t begin until noon.  But when it started, it didn’t stop.  Tuna after tuna came to the tagging vessel, Bay Queen IV.  According to the fishers, the hooked-up tuna ranged from ‘scrawny little rats’ to ones ‘hard to see swim away’.  A true Nova Scotian, scientist, Aaron Spares, put on the kilt to tag the first fish, and kept it on until setting foot back on the dock at Murphy’s Pond.  The four vessel fleet kept Dr. Steve Wilson, Capt’n Dennis Cameron, Canada’s top wireman Sheldon Gillis and mate Craig Cameron busy as can be.

Pete’s Pair-Of-Dice had a very hockey-like hat-trick, 3 fish in the tagging arena.   The other 3 vessels, Capt’n Steve’s Carrie Anne, Bernie’s Nicole Brandy and the tagging boat, Bay Queen IV topped their hats to two each, which totaled the previous record set here last year.  The low came the next day, Tuesday, October 4th, a shut-out for the tuna.  The fishers never got one on the board.
On alert - Sheldon, Craig and Aaron (kilted)
The winds blew until today, Wednesday, October 12th.  Low temperatures last night had frozen a few puddles by 5 am this morning, but high sun warmed it up enough for a T-shirt and loafers day on the deck.  Tuna streaked the surface, marked the depth sounder, and graced 1 or 2 commercial fishers, but none took the bait for the TAG team consisting of PEI’s ‘North Lake Breeze’, ‘Neptuna’ and the ‘Bay Queen IV’.  Tanned and tuned out, the team trudged up the gangway slightly dejected, but still smiling at the thought of the next day’s potential to break the record.

Depth sounder marking giants

-Aaron Spares

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ophelia? Nine Fish Tagged!

The impending arrival of Hurricane Ophelia in the Canadian maritimes had prevented team member Robbie Schallert from getting back from his brothers wedding in Texas, so longtime reserve liphooker Aaron Spares was called into action on Monday morning. The day started quietly and few fish were marked on the 4 boat fleets’ echo sounders. As noon approached, Captain Dennis Cameron and I discussed the possibility of sending the boats back to port due to a lack of bluefin and marginal weather. A commercial fisherman a few miles inshore of the fleet then radioed Pete Sutherland aboard Pete’s Pair A’Dice to request help. He had lost his steering while fighting a hooked fish. Peter pulled his gear and moved to lend assistance. That turned out to be a turning point for our tagging efforts today. After helping his colleague, Pete noticed a large area of bird activity and busting bluefin. He summoned the fleet and hooked up within seconds of dropping his line in the water. An epic afternoon ensued. We tagged nine fish ranging from 203 to 276 cm in length, a mixture of pre-spawners and true giants. The tagging boat was fighting fish after fish until well after the sun set. Aaron performed flawlessly on the liphook, despite frigid winds nipping at nether regions beneath his kilt. Pete hooked three while the Carrie Anne, Nicole Brandy and Bay Queen each hooked two. Nine fish tagged matches the record number of fish tagged by our team in Canadian waters last year with a fleet twice as large.

-Steve Wilson