'Tuna Too' - Whakatane by Mark Kitteridge

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I’d just finished a couple of day’s tuna fishing out of Whakatane with my flatmate, David Akeroyd; aboard his Buccaneer Billfisher, El Dorado. Although we’d only caught one fish, the action appeared to be improving by the day and I was reluctant to call it quits. On a hunch, I gave John Smith a buzz and it turned out that he’d been trying to get hold of me too, so we arranged to go out the following day — as early as the tides would allow. (The Whakatane charter fleet has been a victim of a sand build-up on the bar recently, resulting in crossing restrictions for various boats).

I boarded Tuna Too just after 7am. She is an older style of craft with plenty of warmly varnished wood inside and that cozy, lived-in feel that is regrettably absent from most modern launches. The owner, John Smith, is usually deckie to skipper Peter Cavanagh, but as this was a ‘Boy’s Day Out’, he’d decided to take over the controls himself. On board with us was keen angler and regular, Brett Frost, and Greg Smeal, another super-keen fisho better known for his surfcasting exploits.

John had been out the previous day and found little to get excited about in the distant waters east of Whale Island, so decided to check out close-in east of Whale — the same area Dave and I had been prospecting previously.

It was a good decision. Within the first half hour we came across a large school of dolphins and after following them for a while, we watched as the situation kept getting better and better.

Large numbers of birds materialised and patches of water began to sporadically erupt with foaming, feeding sea creatures, but too far away for positive identification. Then, as we closed in on another group of circling gannets, large barrel-shaped bodies began hurling themselves clear of the water in a determined effort to catch their brunch. 'Tuna! Tuna! Yeehaa!'

Despite several minutes crisscrossing and circling the area, our yellow-sickled friends remained elusive but our confidence was high. Over the next half an hour, we were treated to regular sightings, but a mixture of trolling, jigging and livebaiting proved unsuccessful.

Finally Brett had a good idea — why not put the skipper’s favourite lure out. It didn’t look that impressive: a black and purple, chrome-headed jethead. It lasted all of a minute before the rod ripped down and the Duel reel let out a throaty howl. Hook-up! Brett hooted in triumph, whipped the rod out of the holder and harnessed it into his belt and bucket, the line still releasing in a pulsing stream.

John slowed the boat but kept her ticking forward. 400 metres out, the tuna finally ran out of puff and Brett began the fight in earnest. It took about 20 minutes before the fish was brought to the side of the boat and I was given the task of gaffing it aboard. As the 40kg+ tuna slapped onto the deck, it was accompanied by a round of cheers from those on board. All the pressure had gone and now we could really enjoy ourselves!

We’d hardly got underway when the same lure went off again — and so did the same angler. Brett was in his stride now and 15 minutes of pump and wind brought a slightly smaller fish to the gaff. Two for two. Excellent!

As he put the lure out once more, he made the observation that unless I picked up my game, he was going to have sore arms and I would have no fish to take home. 'Aaahhh... Aren’t we having turns on that lure?' I asked nervously. 'I left my own at home to save space in my car.' Brett just laughed.

Fortunately another hook-up was looking almost assured now, despite the rapidly escalating wind. Hundreds of gannets peppered the water all around and dolphins were swarming everywhere, both taking advantage of the constantly forming meatballs. Every now and then their more organised feeding would be ripped apart in watery detonations as small, concentrated packs of yellowfin joined the party, some of the leaping fish appearing to be as big as the dolphins.

Tipped off by the first couple of strikes, we had more black and purple chrome heads out now and again they attracted the attention. This time a 24kg outfit hooked up and I didn’t look at Brett in case he wanted to take it again. 'Yours, Mark' he said as I clipped the outfit in. The line whistled through the guides and didn’t seem to want to stop. At around 500-600 metres the hook simply fell out. That was a big fish.

Ditto for the next strike. I was starting to feel a little jinxed, but with three serious work-ups within 300 metres of one another and the birds, fish and dolphins so thick that they were seemingly pureed together at times, I wasn’t about to get too depressed.

As we reached the edge of another battle zone, a huge, oceanic bronze whaler could be seen in the midst of the solidly packed baitfish, almost motionless except for its mouth, which was opening and closing methodically, dozens of pilchards disappearing with every gulp. As we skirted the carnage, a group of yellowfin materialised and crashed through the terrified baitfish — and two of our outfits began to howl. I took the first and John the second. This left Greg at the wheel for his first ever time. John gave him a crash course in boat handling (not that easy a task when you’re a surf fisherman with a double hook-up of yellowfin in rough seas), and after a few glitches where he kind of ran over my line or manoeuvred our lines across each other so that I was forced to freespool my fish for hundreds of metres to prevent a cut off, he got the hang of it — in spite of three people giving conflicting advice.

John, on 24kg tackle, got his fish first and I followed on the 15kg gear ten minutes later. In the mid-thirty kilo category, both were around the same size. Now we just had to get one for Greg...

As it turned out, despite the huge amount of hungry tuna exploding all around and hooking two more — unfortunately both on 15kg — by the time the fish were eventually lost (the last being fought for a considerable time), we had to admit defeat and head for home. As we cruised away, we watched the carnage continue but without remorse. We’d had a truly wonderful day.

Tuna Too is a comfortable boat to be on. Solidly built and very sea kindly, the 36’ Pelin Stirling is powered by a 150hp Ford turbo, giving her a cruising speed of 10 or 11 knots and a top of 15.

As might be expected of boats working the White Island region, she is completely walk-around, giving anglers the ability to chase active yellowfin, kingfish and marlin around the boat if necessary.

A step-down stern provides anglers and crew with access to the ocean surface for easy gaffing or releasing, and is obviously an advantage for those who wish to do some diving. Tank storage is not a problem.

Owned by a mad-keen fisherman who likes to fish himself, Tuna Too is furnished with top quality tackle: a mixture of Shimano Tiagra and Duel reels, accompanied by custom-built rods made from Kilwell Live Fibre blanks. For sport and bottom fishing there is an assortment of Okuma reels teamed with White Pointer and Multi-strike custom rods.

She has a large fish hold and a huge tuna bag that goes into it. What a neat accessory! It held our four yellowfin without a problem and because it’s packed with ice, the subsequent tuna fillets were in tip-top shape. They’re recommended.

Inside, Tuna Too is socially friendly to her passengers. The open-plan saloon allows plenty of seating and the table will accommodate up to six people without problem. John believes that four people (passengers) are perfect for live-aboard trips or when trolling for gamefish, but Tuna Too can take up to 10 people when line-fishing for the day. Her berths include a double and three singles downstairs and two upstairs. The table also folds out into a big bed if necessary.

Unfortunately, I didn’t meet skipper Peter Cavanagh — but obviously John, as deckhand and second skipper, is able to produce the goods. He’s been in the thick of Whakatane sportfishing for a lot of years now and his family’s name is a common one on the lists of contest winners and in the record books. In the end, it was simple common-sense to sell his farm, buy a boat and start a charter service. The life-style is far more important to him than making lots of money and this shows in the amount of time he’s willing to put in for your money — with 5 am to 11pm days reasonably common.

As I was preparing to leave on Christmas eve, he was organising the boat so that he and his wife (who is every bit as keen as he is) could go out fishing for the next few days. They can’t think of a better way to spend Christmas — and good on them: I hope they caught heaps!

For those interested in fishing with Peter, John and Tuna Too, phone 0-7-308 4168 or 025 284 9611.

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