By Darian Schramm
The day before the trip I realized how under gunned I was. We were seeing reports of bluefin tuna in the 100-pound class and I didn’t have a gun to do the job. I called my buddy to borrow his Merlo/Harrenen 74-inch cannon for the day, and he agreed. We’ve had it out a few times in hopes of seeing tuna but never had a chance to use it. Apparently the gun was made by Merlo for a 6-foot, 5-inch Russian from Puerto Rico; the handle was way too big for anyone with normal-sized hands so Harranen fixed one of his on the gun. It’s a beautiful gun and I was stoked my buddy let me borrow it. He even added some special flasher tape of his own design for good luck. Damien and the crew at James & Joseph helped me replace the cable and rig the gun for the next day, I was confident the gun would do the job, and then some.
I met up with Matt at Dana Landing at 4:30AM with the hopes to make it out before winds kicked up, the swells were large that day but the wind wasn’t supposed to pick up till later in the day. We had planned to make it to the 182 or the 43, then head north. With a full 10-gallon gas tank, a six-pack of Ballast Point Barmy, and a five-gallon backup can of gas, we headed straight out in the dark. Knowing the bluefin have been as close as the 9-mile bank, we figured we should probably suit up and get the guns ready as soon as it got light. I’ve missed chances in the past because gear wasn’t in the ready state so we did just that. I hadn’t fired this gun so I wasn’t positive on it’s specifics.
Before jumping in to load, Matt said “might as well clip it to your bungee, just in case.” That was sound advice, as the first band popped the shaft and I watched it disappear into the three-foot green visibility. It wasn’t properly engaged in the mechanism and the pull from one band was enough to fire. I replaced the shaft and got the bands loaded. Matt had his brother’s hand-made tuna gun, so he got it loaded and we were ready to go. We had one float system: 100-f00t Riffe bungee, a Rob Allen hard float, float clutch and a Riffe 3-ATM float all in the ready in the back of the boat in case we had to work quick.
It was a beautiful morning – no wind and large swells – so in my small Whaler we were climbing up and down swell hills all the way. Wind chop was minimal and the water slowly went from a dingy green to a nice blue. We saw a couple of paddies in the murk but decided to keep moving and focus on tuna. We encountered no bird action to speak of all morning until we hit the 182, where the water was a nice blue and there was more and more life; mola molas and some dolphin schools and a whale were all on the ridge. We decided to skip the 43 and head up the ridge to the 181 then, if we found nothing, work the back side and head home. The furthest I’ve taken my skiff was the 182 so we were pushing it a little, I knew it could make it but when the wind picks, up the ride gets bumpy. We were OK on gas; I guessed we could make it on what we had in the main tank and not use the kicker to get back in at that point.
The water cleaned as we hit the 181 and we started getting hopeful, though it was a little tough to see since the swells were large and there were no birds working. Only a few other boats were out and they were mostly moving so at that point I figured we may have just struck out. Enjoying our day on the water, we popped a couple Barmys and angled back toward the 182.
The swells were so big once we got the top it was like sitting on top of a small hill, offering a better vantage to look for pooling or boils. We hit one of these ‘hills’ and there they were, about 80 yards out and moving fast. Matt manned the boat and I got into position, while we moved to get in front of the moving school. They were moving fast but predictably. The first stop we we made, I jumped in and could watch them from the surface coming straight at me. Forty yards, 30 yards, 20 yards. I dove. Nothing.
They must have sunk out. Try again. They were easy to find on the surface, so we got in front of them a second time easily. Same scenario: 40 yards, 30 yards, 20 yards, dive. This time I saw the shapes appear and they came in close. I was vortexed by what I thought were 30- to 50-pound fish. I have to admit at this point I was a little disappointed. I had my hopes for bigger tuna but I wasn’t going to complain; I’d never landed a tuna, so anything would be cause for celebration.
The advice I received from more experienced divers was to pick a side if they are coming straight at you and let one choose you. I instinctively went left and one that I had thought was a 50-pounder seemed to slow down and give me a perfect broadside shot. I aimed for the nose and let her rip. I was looking forward to the fight; I had heard of epic battles where the diver gets pulled for 100 yards while fighting these big fish, pulling under floats and testing the limits of gear. After the shot I watched the tuna go into a death shake and sink.
I immediately grabbed the end of the float and waited for the run. Nothing. Just a consistent pulling and color down deep. Knowing it could wake up at any time, I started working the clutch. Slowly the fish started to take shape and I could see what had happened. I hit him dead center and right into the spine, shutting off his engine. As I pulled up, he got bigger and bigger and bigger until I got my arms around him and realized what I had. It was larger than me, easily. I kicked it back to the boat, still unsure of the real size until Matt yelled, “Hold it up!” I tried kicking under him and pushing up but that wasn’t happening.
I jumped on deck and got the gaff; luckily, my rail is pretty low to the water and with both of us pulling we were able to drag the fish aboard. It was then I realized I had a monster. We estimated the fish to weight 170 pounds. With time wasting, we took a few photos then decided to keep trying.
I knew we were running low on gas but wanted to get Matt a fish so we decided to keep trying until we ran out of gas; the kicker five-gallon would fuel us to port. Another issue was the fish would definitely not fit in the fish bag so we had wet towels for covering but with the hot day it was pushing it to stay out too long.
The winds started kicking up right on schedule so we knew we had to start working in but also we wanted to keep trying. We stayed with the school for another 30 minutes, but every dive they would sink out or would be just far enough away where a shot would be impossible. Frustrated and out of gas, we called it. I filled the tank with the kicker and we headed in. The boat riding low in the water from the weight of us and the fish made the ride in interesting, the prop started slipping about halfway in so we limped back. We killed the rest of the Barmys and made our way to the weigh station at Dana Landing, making sure I called a few friends once we were in range to come see this monster.
We barely made it in on fumes and got the fish on the scale for a weight of 231.3 pounds. At the time, I hadn’t heard of any other speared bluefin this size so I was sure I had the California record. It turned out that a few guys up north killed a few fish over 240 pounds earlier that week. Either way, I knew I had a trophy submission for biggest fish of the year and biggest bluefin of the year with the San Diego Freedivers, so I got a few witnesses and photos for submission and headed home to start the processing.
That evening we invited friends, family and neighbors to come share on the haul. Matt filleted the fish and we bagged up what we could in as many coolers as we could find. For the next few weeks we had so much toro and fresh sashimi we were having trouble giving it away, the rest was vacuum sealed and frozen for a rainy day.
I’d like to thank Matt Berry with putting me on the fish and support through the whole day, James Fisher for helping with cleaning and packaging and my beautiful wife Leslie for her continued support and for putting up with me while I disappear for days at a time hunting these fish.