“So where are we heading?” I asked my friend Nate Bolduc, raising my voice, but not quite yelling so he could hear me over the roar of the diesel engine.
“The Nubble,” he responded without hesitation, then made eye contact with my fiance, Travis, and grinned. I had a feeling they were joshing me but I didn’t really care where we were going. I was more concerned about how long this loud, rough ride would be. Each time the 35-foot Terry Jason lobster boat Cecelia Jean crashed down off a wave, I felt my spine compress and figured I was already an inch shorter.
“How far out is it?” I was yelling now.
“About 12 nautical miles, maybe an hour,” Nate hollered back.
I decided it would be worth losing a couple inches to get rich selling bluefin tuna to Japan for sushi.
Just kidding, I know better.
Though a single bluefin can sell for $70,000 or more, a more common price is $2,000-$8,000. And after boat maintenance, fuel and docking fees, bluefin fishing is not a get-rich-quick endeavor.
“Here we are,” Nate said as he throttled the engine down. I looked around. The Nubble (or wherever we were) looked no different than the rest of the sea. With no land, rocks, or buoys, the endless blue expanse looked desolate and barren, except for four other boats bobbing on anchors.
But the depth finder told a different story: there was a ledge beneath us. We were in 160 feet of water, but nearby the ocean floor dropped down to 350 feet.
Luckily, Nate knew one of the other captains, who half-filled a trash bag with water and live squid and floated it over to us. Usually, we can’t catch bait until dark, when the lights from the boat attract squid, mackerel and herring, so this was a huge help. We could start fishing immediately.
We found a spot on the ledge, dropped anchor, turned off the engine, and put out three lines with squid at various depths. We tied a balloon onto two of the lines, so the wind and tide would take the lines away from the boat to prevent tangling, while still holding the bait at the specified depth.
Clockwise from left: BDN Outdoors contributor Christi Holmes stands at the stern of the Cecelia Jean at sunset; rods wait in the rod holders against a sunset; and the Cecelia Jean. Credit: Courtesy of Travis Elliott and Christi Holmes
Once the lines were in, I knew from my many trips offshore it was time to wait for the bait to school and the bluefin to bite.
There are three species of bluefin tuna: Atlantic, Pacific and southern. Of the Atlantic species, there are two separate stocks, eastern and western. Here in Maine, we fish for western Atlantic bluefin tuna, which are found from Newfoundland to the Gulf of Mexico.
According to a 2020 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, western Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks are not subject to overfishing. However, the population has yet to fully recover, according to National Geographic.
I went below deck to try to nap. My seasickness medication was making me tired, and I figured I might as well take the first sleep shift because no one else was tired yet.
At 10 p.m., just three hours after we arrived, Travis noticed that one of the balloons had disappeared.
“Something’s got a hold of the bait,” he told his brother, Justin, nodding at the line moving across the water. The reel stood stoic; no line was being pulled off. Bluefins are fish torpedoes, built for speed and endurance and when they take the bait the line screams off the reel. Travis reeled up the slack until he felt tension.
“Think it’s a tuna? Should we get off anchor?” Nate asked as he moved toward the steering station.
“It feels heavy but it’s still not taking line. I guess better be safe than sorry and get off anchor,” Travis replied.
Nate started the engine and threw the large buoy connected to the anchor overboard, freeing the boat. I jumped out of bed, knowing from numerous past trips that we only get off anchor and start the engine for one thing — tuna. But unlike previous trips, no one was yelling and the line was not zinging off the reel.
“A shark?” I asked Nate as I emerged on deck.
“I dunno,” he responded.
And then, as if I had asked Neptune himself, line started screaming off the reel.
“I think we got ourselves a tuna!” Travis cheered.
I was immediately wide awake, and Justin and I hastily reeled up the other two rods and got them out of the way. The fish immediately took us into the backing as Nate backed the boat in reverse toward it. Waves splashed over the stern and Travis reeled, slowly gaining on the fish. The excitement was palpable.
In the dark, I watched for lobster traps, our anchor line, and anything else the fish could get tangled in. Travis, Justin and I took turns fighting the fish, switching when our biceps burned. The lights from the other boats anchored on the ledge shone like distant stars.
“Leader!” Justin hollered, when he saw the 18-foot leader line which was connected to the hook.
“I see color,” I pointed toward the light blue shape near the water’s surface. It was our first look at the bluefin, after fighting it for 30 minutes. I strained to size up the fish, was it big enough? It had to be a minimum of 73 inches for us to keep and the refraction of the water can play tricks on eager fishermen.
“Definitely a keeper,” Travis said as the fish took a run, screaming line off the reel and the tug of war struggle continued.
I untangled the rope for the harpoon and handed it to Justin. The next time Travis got the fish near the boat, Justin threw the harpoon and hit the fish behind the gill plate.
I let out a sigh and relaxed. We got it.
Once on deck, I admired the bluefin’s thick, smooth skin. It was gray and midnight blue, but had a beautiful iridescence, reminding me of oil floating on the surface of water when you first start your boat after a long winter.
He measured 104 inches and weighed 538 pounds, gutted. My biggest.
Maybe we would get rich, after all.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the species of tuna that are caught in Maine waters, which are western Atlantic bluefin tuna.