PEI

'The biggest, baddest fish in the ocean': Why people are fascinated by bluefin tuna

As long as Jeff MacNeill can remember, he has posed for photos next to the giant fish that have been hauled aboard a boat in what he calls "the battle."

'It's the biggest, baddest fish in the ocean and they're right on our door step.'

Jeff MacNeill says catching a bluefin tuna is a 'bucket list' item for many of his customers from around the world. (Submitted by Jeff MacNeill)

The love of the bluefin tuna runs deep in Jeff MacNeill.

Captain Jeff, as he's called, is the third generation in his family to fish for the giant bluefin.  

As long as he can remember, he has posed for photos next to the giant fish that have been hauled aboard a boat in what he calls "the battle."

"They're so big, they're so beautiful, they're five times stronger than any other fish in the ocean," said MacNeill. "It's the biggest, baddest fish in the ocean and they're right on our door step."

"It's basically you're hooking on to a Volkswagen is what you're doing."

A young Jeff MacNeill stands with his father (left) and their first tuna of the year. The photo appeared in the Guardian newspaper in the early 1980s. (Submitted by Jeff MacNeill)

'This is a bucket list'

MacNeill recalled one recent guest aboard his boat, who fought a superb battle with a bluefin.

"She wouldn't have been five foot tall and she battled a 900 pound and she got the thing in an hour and one minute to the vessel," said MacNeill.

"The heart of the person on the rod is 99 per cent of the battle."

One of the many tuna Jeff MacNeill has caught over the years. (Submitted by Jeff MacNeill)

But it's not all glory. MacNeill recalled that many years ago when he went out for 28 days in a row without getting a bite.

"I get emotional thinking about it, they're just the greatest fish in the world. They are."

MacNeill's customers come to North Lake, P.E.I. from around the world.

"This is a bucket list. Everybody says, I want to catch a bluefin tuna before I die," said MacNeill.

'It's the sheer battle'

MacNeill has seen grown men weep when they land a tuna, and even more cry when the big fish gets away.

"Some guys fist pump and jump around and other guys will want to touch it out of respect," described MacNeill.

"I've seen grown men fight tuna and literally exhausted, drop on the floor, like they had a heart attack when they're done but yet be so adrenalized."

"It's the battle, it's the sheer battle of them."

A giant bluefin tuna alongside Jeff MacNeill's boat before being released. (Submitted by Jeff MacNeill)

The battle but also the beauty, said MacNeill.  In his opinion, photos don't do justice to the mighty fish.

"I've seen so many people get mesmerized and stop reeling when they have the fish," he said.  "It's just truly beauty when the sun hits him. You can't imagine how pretty it is."

'On our doorstep'

What's unique about eastern P.E.I. is how close the tuna come to shore, compared to other places where fishermen have to travel hundreds of miles in search of the tuna.

Captain Jeff aboard the Wendy RV. (Submitted by Jeff MacNeill)

"I've caught a 1,010 pound bluefin outside the mile marker," recalled MacNeill. "That doesn't happen anywhere else in the world other than the Maritimes."

Ironically, the bluefin tuna was once called "horse mackerel" by the locals and was seen as a nuisance fish. The first tuna was landed in North Lake in 1967 and when word of fish more than a 1,000 pounds being caught spread to the international sport fishing community, a charter fishery was created and North Lake became known as the "Tuna Capital of the World."

A lot of famous people

MacNeill is once again taking part in the annual Canada International Tuna Cup Challenge, which has brought anglers to North Lake since 1972.

 The catch-and-release competition determines a winner based on a point system for categories such as fish size and fight time, and has attracted well-known personalities over the years, including Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Maurice Richard. 

"There's a lot of famous people walking up and down the wharfs different mornings," observed MacNeill, who recalls one client who flew his private jet to Austria to pick up his brother so he could join him tuna fishing. Many of his customers are avid big game hunters and travel around the world for their next big adventure. One client has invited MacNeill to join them on safari.

MacNeill was part of a group of Island fishermen who came up with a catch and release program for tuna 14 years ago. There were six of them then. There are now more than 40 registered on P.E.I. to do catch and release.

"We've been at it all our lives the guys that are up here fishing and we're very fortunate to have such a cool job right?"

One of the next generation of MacNeills out looking for tuna. (Submitted by Jeff MacNeill)