Bringin’ in the Big Ones on “Fighting Tuna”
By: Devin Pratt
Do you know what it’s like to battle one of the most powerful fish in the world? These tuna-obsessed sea captains do. We sat down with Anthony and Carmine from Fighting Tuna to get their thoughts on reeling in massive Bluefin tuna, the dangers of the sea, and an unusual rite of passage that’s reserved for diehard fisherman.
The other two captains, Paulie and Donnie, on Fighting Tuna are seasoned veterans of the sea. How did you two get into fishing?
Anthony: My earliest memory is standing on a dock, catching snappers with one of my uncles. When I was 5 or 6 years old, another uncle of mine bought a little cottage on the bay out in eastern Long Island. He had a little boat that he would anchor right in front of the house and we would fish from the boat. My love of fishing just progressed from there.
Carmine: It was something I started out doing as a little kid with my dad, fishing off the pier. I never fathomed having a big boat and being successful like I am. I started on a pier and then a lake with a jon boat and then started getting into saltwater fishing. I finally bought a big enough boat for offshore fishing. It’s been nothing but great.
When did you get your first boat?
Anthony: I got my first boat when I was 13 and I started shark fishing and tuna fishing then. I really pushed the limits with that little boat. At that age I wasn’t supposed to be going past the bridge near this body of water where we lived, but of course I would sneak past the bridge. Then when I was older I wasn’t supposed to go out into the ocean but, of course, I did. You have to keep pushing the limits.
On Fighting Tuna, you’re the youngest captain, Anthony. How did the older guys treat you?
Anthony: Usually when people see me on the dock or on the boat they don’t think I’m the captain. Their mindset changes quickly when they get to know me though because I’m very particular and I pay a lot of attention to detail. You can’t learn this stuff by reading a book. There’s also jealousy when I’m out there catching these big fish and other people aren’t able to do it. The fishing world is very competitive, so there’s animosity when a younger guy is able to do that. That’s my least favorite part.
Carmine, you consider yourself a sport fisherman since you don’t fish for a living like the other captains on Fighting Tuna. Did they view you as an equal?
Carmine: Not at all. There was tons of animosity. They think they’re pirates and they own the ocean, but there’s no deed to the ocean. You can’t own water. Us sporties do it for the love of fishing, but commercial guys don’t want guys like me out there because they feel I’m taking food out of their mouths whenever I catch a fish. That’s the best feeling though—going out there and pulling fish out of their mouths. I’ll never stop taking fish from them.
The average person probably doesn’t know what it’s like to hook one of these massive fish. Can you describe what it feels like to reel in one?
Carmine: Catching a giant Bluefin is the ultimate goal. They are one of the biggest and strongest fish in the ocean. When you sit and wait and finally get a bit from one of those big fish it’s nothing but rewarding—it’s phenomenal. The adrenaline rush you get is unexplainable. There’s nothing in life I love more.
Anthony: It’s an adrenaline rush for sure. Absolutely. The smallest fish that we’re allowed to keep when we’re commercially fishing for giant Bluefin tuna is 73 inches—and that’s to the short part of the fork in the tail. That’s approximately 240 pounds. That’s the smallest one we’re allowed to keep. They get over 1,000 pounds though and it’s all muscle with these fish. They’re designed to swim fast and to do it all day every day.
How strong do you have to be to reel in a massive tuna?
Anthony: Some people can reel them in better than others, but it doesn’t depend on how strong you are. I’ve had professional athletes try to reel in these fish and they get burnt out real quick. They’re trying to force them in using muscle, as opposed to using everything around them, including the rocking of the boat, the rod, and just timing things. It’s all about using the proper technique.
Carmine: Bluefins are very strong. The rods and reels we use for these fish are the heaviest they make. Our gear is designed for these types of fish because they are the biggest and strongest in the ocean. Period.
How much of a fight do they put up?
Carmine: You can fight these fish anywhere from a half hour to three hours. It all depends on the size of the fish and the depth of the water. The average time is 45 minutes to an hour.
What’s the largest Bluefin you’ve caught?
Carmine: I brought in one that was 780 pounds. I won’t stop until I get one that’s over a thousand pounds. That’s my goal. It’s rare but they are out there. A couple have been caught this year.
Anthony: I haven’t caught one over 1,000 pounds yet. We don’t weigh them whole weight with their guts in them. The first thing we do when we catch them is bleed them out, take out all the guts, chill them down, and bring them back to the dock after they’re dressed. I’ve caught some in the 800- to 900-pound range, but a lot are in the 500- to 600-pound range. That’s the common size that we catch. Catching them over 1,000 pounds depends on where you’re fishing and the time of year you’re fishing. I’ve caught monstrous marlin and sharks that were over 1,000 pounds, but I haven’t caught a Bluefin of that size yet. Not that many people in the world ever catch a fish over 1,000 pounds.
How dangerous is tuna fishing?
Anthony: I can think of several situations over the years where people died in my vicinity while we were doing this kind of fishing. One happened while we were working with researchers that were studying Bluefin tuna. One of the researchers had a heart attack while he was reeling in a Bluefin. The crazy exhilaration and adrenaline rush is just so intense. You’re out in the middle of the ocean with huge waves and these massive fish and the line’s peeling off the reel. It can be so physically demanding.
So most of the danger comes from the physical exertion?
Anthony: That’s not the only factor. Another time, a gentleman went out on his own because his mate didn’t show up. He ended up hooking a fish. One of the ways we subdue the fish when it gets close enough to the boat is by using a harpoon attached to a rope. Once we stick the fish with the harpoon we’re able to pull it the rest of the way in with the rope. That rope got wrapped around his leg. He stuck the fish with the harpoon and the fish took off, pulling him overboard by his leg. We’re fishing in cold water that’s generally around 50 degrees. These fish go down and deep, as opposed to some other fish that stay around the surface. It just pulled him right under and he didn’t have a chance, especially since he was out there by himself.
What are some of the other dangers that you’ve experienced out at sea?
Carmine: A fire in my boat in the middle of the night while I was 90 miles off shore was one of the worst situations.
Anthony: I helped out Carmine when that happened. He radioed in and I was able to get to him within minutes. He was so upset but so grateful. He had his life raft inflated and all the guys on the boat had on their life jackets. Luckily they were able to put out the fire and get everything under control. That’s a perfect example of how anything can happen out there.
Did you ever think you wouldn’t make it back?
Carmine: I don’t think of it at that point because I’m taking care of the situation. I never think I’m not going to make it back. You just can’t think like that under those extreme circumstances.
Are fishermen superstitious? Are there any rituals or traditions that you follow?
Carmine: There’s a tradition where some fishermen eat the heart of the first Bluefin tuna they catch. I caught my first tuna when I was 21 and I’ve fished with many guys, but none of us have eaten the heart. I wouldn’t do that. I know it don’t taste like chicken.
Anthony: I did a long time ago when I caught my first Bluefin. I don’t know if it’s a tradition in all parts of the world but it is in New England and down here around Long Island. It’s kind of like a rite of passage when you catch your first tuna. You don’t actually eat the whole heart. You just take a bite. It’s good luck.