Away back in the early summer this year, Kevin, Michael and myself had come to a decision: we needed help from a really well-seasoned rod-and-line tuna fisherman. We weren't so much worried over how to fight a big fish - I myself, for instance, had spent half my life chasing big saltwater fish, the marlin species mainly, all over the world, courtesy of 'Sports Illustrated' the US magazine I worked for for more than 25 years. Oddly, though, I'd never gone after giant bluefins, and the reason for this was pure prejudice - on the part of my boss, the editor. He was a saltwater game fish specialist himself, and very much the purist. He rated billfish the supreme species because, wait for it, they jumped. And giant bluefins didn't do that, well, certainly not when hooked. So when (as I did from time to time) I asked for a bluefin assignment he turned me down. He'd sent me to Siberia for taimen, to live with the Inuit in Baffin land and catch the world's biggest Arctic char, but not to North Carolina - just down the road - to try for giants.
OK - so we needed experienced help, and to gain that I wrote to an old friend, Barry Gibson, the editor of 'Saltwater Sportsman', in Boston, and he ran a letter in the magazine from me asking if there was an experienced bluefin fisherman out there who would come over to Ireland and give us a hand. I ended with my email address.
Replies came like a tidal wave - over three hundred of them, out of which, with a little trepidation, I picked out the name of Dan Shannon, a Massachusetts professional tuna hunter who skippered the FV 'Sorry, Charlie' - 'Charlie' being what Cape Cod tuna fishermen like Dan call their quarry.
I needn't have worried. Immediately Dan got in touch with Michael, telling him he'd supply all the tackle - the 16/0 reels in particular - and also the massively reinforced rod holders we'd need. This was a big plus: I'd written to the UK branch of the biggest US manufacturer of big game tackle for the loan of a couple of 16/0's without success.
Meantime, Michael heard from the Cork boatyard that 'Rosguill' was ready and he headed down south to pick it up: the voyage home to Donegal with her in rough Atlantic seas took 2 days. There were final consultations and the 13th of October was settled on for our start. That was a full month after we'd intended - and when we looked at the calendar we discovered it was - Friday the 13th. No wonder then, that everything had gone wrong so far.
And fate, indeed, had one more blow for us. Three weeks before our planned start - on September 24th - news came that Alan Glanville from Co Waterford (an Englishman though he'd lived in Ireland for 40 years) fishing out of Killybegs, Co Donegal had taken a 352 lb bluefin on rod and line - the first ever Irish rod caught tuna. And the following day he'd gone out and taken a 528-pounder.
We weren't devastated: after all, this had proved the point we were trying to make, that bluefin were out there in Irish waters to be caught. But we were a bit put down - I remember saying to Kevin that now I knew how Captain Scott felt when he heard the news that the Norwegian explorer Amudsen had got to the South Pole ahead of him.
And so, on Friday the 13th, Rosguill headed out from the little pier at Downings, trolling a squid board. That's a team of 15 plastic squid set up in a triangle formation, with only the last lure armed with a hook - this one was called the 'stinger', naturally. This was the successful method used by Alan Glanville - but, that first day, it certainly didn't work for us. No hits.
That evening, in Downings, the team mulled things over, and finally Dan came up with a suggestion. He was 36, a big, quiet-spoken man from Marshfield, just south of Boston, who'd been fishing tuna commercially on rod-and-line since he was 18.
What he said, basically, was that the water might have cooled a little since Glanville's catch - and he also pointed out that the sounder had been showing up bait fish - mackerel probably - very close to the bottom. That, he reckoned, was where we should be fishing
And so it was that, next morning, we feathered out some live bait fast, then set two of them to drift, one close to the bottom, the other five fathoms off it, both on balloon rigs. And we were all of four miles (and a hellfire) out of harbour when a balloon popped like a rifle shot and McVeigh was into a fish.
For a moment we all feared the worst : a shark. But no shark could pull like this fish was pulling, against a reel drag setting of 35 lbs.
Kevin and I could only look on, of course. As he said, we amounted between us to only one angler. Dan took the wheel meantime, keeping the fish astern and the line away from the twin props. It was 40 minutes before we had a sight of the fish and 90 minutes before the swivel on the leader showed up and the fish was up in the water beaten. And then it was time for the triumphal return to Downings pier at a steady four knots with the fish in tow. 344 lbs it went. Mission accomplished!
There's a footnote to all this: after word got out of our catch, I heard from Alan Glanville who sent his congratulations in the most courteous way - and he'd attached a newspaper clip to his letter, which, he wrote, had 'particularly encouraged' him. It was from the Daily Express, and the writer was - myself. What was really interesting, though, was the date on the cutting - March, 1973 ! That was around the time when Kevin and I first discussed the possibility of catching a giant tuna in Irish waters, and I had written that one day a giant would come from Irish waters. "I am glad to have made your prediction come true"‚ he wrote.
Since then I've talked with Alan on the phone. Now we have a new target - the first 1000-lb bluefin.
And this time I hope there'll be a role reversal - and he ends up as Captain Scott!
In 2001, Michael McVeigh will be running regular bluefin tuna charters out of Downing. He can be contacted at (00353) 74 55080 (fax 55090) or on www.Rosguill.com.