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In pursuit of the elusive yellowfin
  |  First Published: July 2004



WINTER in Narooma – the mornings are typically a little brisk and your hands are still a little numb from preparing the boat and handling the frozen berley and bait.

However, the air is still and you can see the ripples on the bait grounds that indicate the yakkas and slimies are in the mood for breakfast.

As the sun rises and evaporates the mists rising from the water, you start to pull in these feisty little baitfish, visualising each converting into a much larger adversary. Some of the less experienced punters feel frustrated as some of the larger ‘horse’ slimies bust off the fine handlines as they attempt to skull-drag them in.

Patiently, you explain how all fish, regardless of size, need to be assessed according to the gear in hand and their fighting ability. After all, if you can't bring in a 1kg mackerel on a 2kg handline, how do you think you'll go with a 90kg tuna on a 50kg line?

They start to get the hang of it and before you know it you are all there together, totally absorbed in the challenge of landing large slimy mackerel on little handlines. Pound for pound , I reckon the slimy is one of the gutsiest fighters in the ocean.

The sun is a little higher and, before you know it, the locals (and those from cooler climes like the ACT and Melbourne ) are down to T-shirts and we head out to Montague Island.

We drop in a few lures. The selection changes from year to year. Sometimes nothing beats the little tinsel Christmas trees, or perhaps anything in pink. This year we have nailed all our best kingfish and bonito on blue Rapalas and deep divers plus anything that vaguely resembles a saurie.

Having had a little fun with these delightful fish (anyone who tells you bonito are no good to eat probably doesn't know how to cook fish or just wants to save money on bait and anyone who tells you Kingfish taste like crap has probably only eaten parasite riddled tropical species), we decide to head out to the shelf.

Typically, on the way we pick up a few skipjack, or striped, tuna. These fellas are always there and you can depend on them to fill up your bait freezer with salted fillets every Autumn.

As we progress further out to the shelf, we pass through a school of albacore, a medium-sized tuna that may not have the fighting prowess of its bigger kin but, to my taste, is by far the best eating of all the tuna. No wonder it’s called the Chicken of the Sea.

A couple of double hook-ups on albacore have gone before we realise that all this fun has distracted us from our goal, the mighty yellowfin.

Time to get serious. We look for signs of tuna as we troll a variety of skirts, including one big shotgun for the very likely marlin strike. The marlin still often seem to hit the smaller tuna lures in close to the boat first.

“Birds working over there,” someone says.

“Thought I saw a sickle over there,” says someone else.

I see a big school of baitfish on the sounder. We do a couple of laps and the bait is rising – something is chasing it up.

CUBES, SLIMIES

We bring in the lures and throw in some berley, a handful of cubed pilchards and a few stunned slimies. We throw in some hooks with cubes and live slimies and wait ... and throw in a few more cubes, chop up some more berley and then ... wait. Some more cubes, berley, perhaps a little tuna oil and then … wait.

Then there are silver rainbows of panicking sauries, thousands of little silver torpedos jumping in arches before some hungry predator. Pray you never come back into this world as a saurie, they seem to spend their whole lives running from every beast in the ocean.

They are 200 meters away and heading straight for our berley trail, and then we see the magnificent sight we have all been waiting for, the streaming golden fins of the yellowfin tuna slicing through the water in hot pursuit.

They are chasing the sauries right across the berley trail. I say, "Well, they probably won't look twice at our meagre little offerings when they have several tonnes of lively little delectables to chase."

But I can't shake that shared feeling of anticipation. It’s one of the best parts of fishing, after all. If you are not an optimist, don't bother.

Suddenly, just as they cross the trail, everything dives and it all goes quiet. You wouldn't know there was a living thing anywhere in the ocean. We wait. A few more cubes...

I'm about to say, “Oh, well,” when two reels scream and, as we leap into action, another screeches .

This is why people travel great distances and poor much-needed capital into our little town in Autumn.

But, sadly, I believe it has become a thing of the past.

The past seven years have shown a rapid decline in the tuna population. Not just the coveted yellowfin, but the albacore and even the tenacious stripey. What used to be a hectic six-week season has now become  a few diehards hoping to get in on the few we do catch in a barely two-week season. Why?

Many have offered all sorts of explanations but greed, poor management, lack of international controls are, I believe, the dominant factors.

There is also the cultural and economic problem of wealthy countries that have the latest technology, enabling them to seek, find and destroy fish stocks. Countries like that place their traditional cultural tastes or profit motives above the sustainability of their practices. The Japanese and Americans lead a field as diverse as humanity itself. Just locally in our little town some of the local Kooris are fighting for the right to take as many undersize abalone as they like in the name of traditional practice. They don't seem to understand, or want to understand, that when a harvesting/hunting practice becomes unsustainable, it must inevitably cease to be traditional.

More than 6 million longline hooks are placed in the Pacific ocean every day, 365 days a year, targeting tuna and capturing all manner of other species, most of which are discarded dead.

Great fleets of trawlers track the schools by satellite and hound them relentlessly, not permitting them any safe refuge to breed and replenish their numbers. And the Australian public delights in the increasing choice of little tuna tins at supermarkets that we happily pay $30 a kilo for.

It's no longer just the Japanese that pay the pay the big money that sustains these big fleets through rapidly declining catch rates. Although it will probably be someone from around that part of the planet who will happily pay $1 million a kilo for the privilege of eating the last yellowfin.

Where do I go from here? Well, try this. When harvesting/hunting from Nature, do it with respect and take only what you need – don't get so much that you can give it away.

If you do it commercially, take only what you need to make a living that your grandchildren can carry on. Fight for time out for the species your livelihood depends on and positively support farming practices.

Be aware of the changing seasons and the factors that affect stock numbers in natural cycles and adjust your practices to accommodate them.

But, above all, remember we are only on this planet for a short time and it is a nice thought to think of our great grandchildren thanking us for getting it right just in time so that they, too, can enjoy the marvels of nature that are left on this little speck of stardust floating in space.

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