Johnny Greene has been a captain on charter boats in the Gulf of Mexico for the past 33 years and has landed his share of the Gulf’s bounty. But recently something happened on his boat, the Intimidator, that had never happened before. Greene and crew unloaded a 600-pound-plus bluefin tuna at the Orange Beach Marina dock.
“At several times in my life, we have been fishing in the April-May time frame and have run across bluefin tuna,” Greene said. “But we have never been able to even slow one down. I remember on my old boat, I think it was the Memorial Day tournament, we ran through a school of them. We hooked six and they dumped every bit of line we had. It happened so fast, there was nothing we could do. I got my heart broke on that trip. I’ve hooked a couple of others throughout my career. My wife fought one for a while, and the fish ended up pulling the hook.
“Last year we hooked one about noon and fought that fish four or five hours. We had 10 people on that charter, and they ended up changing the rod between anglers probably 20 or 25 times. We ended up breaking a rod after fighting him that long. We were so close, so that one was really a heartbreaker.”
Greene said everything must go right, and the right group of anglers and deck hands have to be on the boat to actually land one of the massive bluefins.
On the momentous three-day trip into the far reaches of the Gulf of Mexico, Greene’s clients from Georgia caught plenty of bottom fish, like grouper and triggerfish, on the first day. The anglers then wanted to find something “big” to catch, but they probably didn’t expect what came next.
“About 6 o’clock that second day, we got the big bite,” Greene said. “That fish took out on top, and I guess we chased that fish for 2 miles. I didn’t see the bite well enough to see if it was a bluefin, a big yellowfin or a blue marlin. But I knew it was a big fish. We were backing up and got to within 100 feet of the leader. Then the fish made the dive like they often do. They’re warm-blooded creatures, and if they make a run on the surface, they have to dive down to cool off.
“We were fortunate enough to stop the fish on his dive on a Shimano 50-wide and a stand-up harness. The anglers did a good job, and then we started the process of working him back up.”
After about four hours, Greene said it was obvious the tuna had expired, and the task was then to winch the dead fish back from the depths with 80-pound-test Ande monofilament line.
“When you have to pull a 600-pound animal up, it’s not the easiest thing to do,” he said. “It requires communication between the angler, everybody in the cockpit and the wheelhouse. It’s basically a momentum game. You’ve got to get the fish coming up, and you have to keep him coming. If you take a break, the fish is going to start sinking again. It’s tricky.”
For the last hour of the fight, senior deck hand Grady Gunn donned gloves and started feeding line into the reel as the angler cranked the handle to make sure that momentum was not lost.
“I slowly started to feed the line,” Gunn said. “It was like trying to catch a 10-pound bass on 2-pound line.”
After about six hours, the big bluefin was finally beside the boat and the real work began. Deck hand Jake Rezner harpooned the tuna as soon as possible. Two gaffs followed before a tail line was tied.
Gunn said when the tuna was finally subdued, he was overcome with emotion.
“That’s one of those things you think about your whole life that may never happen,” Gunn said. “It may never happen again, but it happened this time. I couldn’t ask for a better crew or captain. If we didn’t have Jake or Jacob (Harris, deck hand), it probably wouldn’t have happened. With a fish like this, it only takes one thing to go wrong. It may happen again, or maybe it won’t, but I’ll remember this one for the rest of my life.”
With the fish secure beside the boat, Greene said everybody was celebrating until they realized they had to get the giant tuna into the boat.
“With a fish that big and the seas not calm, you have to think about every move with that much weight,” Greene said. “It was a battle.”
A come-along was employed to raise the fish out of the water to be able to clear the gunwales of the boat.
“Everybody in Alabama who has ever been stuck in the mud knows how to operate a come-along,” Greene said. “I think everybody should have a come-along and a ratchet strap. You never know when you need to get a fish or a person over the side of the boat.
“Once we got the fish barely high enough, we got hold of his head, and then I had to wait on the right wave. When that happened, we flipped him in the boat.”
Although it was a giant fish, Greene knew it wasn’t near the state record, an 829-pound fish caught in 2006. The decision was made to gut the fish and do all they could to preserve the quality of the meat. The fish’s gut cavity was packed with ice before it was wrapped in an insulated billfish bag, which was filled with ice for the long trip back to the dock.
When the boat got close enough to shore, Greene called the National Marine Fisheries Service to report the catch. Anglers in the Gulf of Mexico are allowed a very small incidental bluefin catch of about five fish annually. With the catch, the Intimidator reached its bluefin allowance for the year. The fish weighed 579 pounds gutted with an estimated whole weight of 625 pounds.
“That allowance is just for a situation like we had,” Greene said. “The fish was dead, and it was a way not to waste that fish.”
On a trip the week before, Greene said a blue marlin was hooked and eventually died before it could be released.
“That marlin immediately went ballistic,” he said. “He jumped and cartwheeled. He spent more time out of the water the first minute or two than he did in the water. We fought that fish for four hours. We finally got him up using the techniques we used on the bluefin tuna.
Unfortunately, the marlin got tail-wrapped and died.
“The charter was a bunch of guys from Birmingham who owned a bunch of restaurants and traveled the world on mission trips and had eaten blue marlin before. These guys took the fish home and prepared it a plethora of different ways. They smoked it, fried it, grilled it, blackened it. They cooked it every way they could. They also donated some to the Hope for Autumn Foundation for sick kids. The consensus was smoking it was the best way to prepare it, and they had thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it.”
Greene loves to take his clients on the three-day trips far into the Gulf because of the amount of time available for fishing and the variety of fish anglers can catch.
“A three-day trip is a really relaxing trip because we have so much time,” he said. “We start by catching bait before we cook breakfast. Then we’ll start bottom fishing for triggerfish, beeliners, snapper, whatever is in season. Then we’ll cook lunch and work our way offshore. We’ll catch some more snapper or grouper fish. Once we get to the deepwater rigs, we’ll stay there and jig some at night. We’ll troll and try to catch some tuna or wahoo. Then we’ll head farther offshore and do some jigging in the morning. After the morning bite is over, we’ll start fishing for the bigger fish and see if we can raise a blue marlin or big yellowfin. It could be trolling. It could be flying a kite. It could be live-bait fishing. I like big hardtails or a bonita for live-bait fishing, but we’ve had as much trolling this year as anything.”
The big bluefin swallowed a live hardtail (blue runner) that the anglers had hooked on a diamond jig while they were trying to catch blackfin tuna.
“I like a big hardtail because they’re hardy and live a long time,” Greene said. “There’s been a lot of sargassum grass offshore. Hardtails are tough, so you can reel the bait to get clear of the grass. The grass really hampers your method of fishing. But you just have to do what you need to do with the conditions you have. On that particular day, when we caught the bluefin, the current was running back into the wind. I really had to concentrate to keep the boat ahead of the bait.
“In fishing, some days are better than others, and there are some things that are meant to be. This was one of those situations where absolutely everything went perfect. It’s a big deal. There are so many things, like the wrong time, the wrong step, anything, and it wouldn’t have happened.”
Bluefin tuna mostly spawn in two places in the world, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean Sea. Greene said the spawning in the Gulf occurs in mid to late spring, and the vast majority of the bluefin then leave on wide-ranging journeys.
“They have to swim at least 6 miles per hour to force enough water through their gills to breathe,” he said. “They never stop swimming. They are just eating machines. They eat and make little baby tunas. That’s all they do.”
– DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources