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September 19, 2012

Big Bigeye Bite



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(click for larger version)
By Kitty Merrill

"Catching a bigeye is so rare, it's better than an orgasm for a guy, believe me," said Carl Darenberg, Jr. When he confessed he'd never had one himself, we're pretty sure the long time marina owner meant the fish.

The last two weeks have seen a bite so thick, it was "unreal," Darenberg reported. "It's a kind of phenomena you'll never see again."

Distinguished by black edged finlets and (what are the chances?) bigger eyes than other species of tuna, the bigeye tuna can grow up to five and a half feet long, weigh nearly 400 pounds and live almost a decade. According to the International Game Fish Association, the world record bigeye was caught in 1996 off the coast of Spain. It weighed 392 pounds, 6 ounces.

Bigeye tuna tend to run in deeper water than bluefin or yellowfin tuna, who will occasionally swim at the surface of the water, particularly when it's warm. They're highly migratory and often swim in schools.

And it looks like they've decided to migrate to, and through, a popular offshore fishing site known as the Hudson Canyon.

John Hart and his son Roger, aboard the Wrecking Crew docked at the Montauk Marine Basin, landed a pretty big bigeye last Thursday. It topped the scales at 248 pounds. The pair went out for a two-day trip, steaming to the site located about 100 miles south of Montauk Point.

On Sunday, John Hart admitted his arms hurt from reeling in the big bigeye. But the pain was easy to discount, given the prize.

While bigeyes are hard to find, and hard to catch, they're "so easy to lose," Hart informed. Getting a huge fish into the boat is a challenge. The Hart duo used a block and tackle to hoist their catch, but, Hart said he almost called a friend on another boat for extra manpower. There were so many vessels on the hunt at The Canyon, "It was mobbed out there," he said.

That wasn't always the case in The Canyon, Rich Etzel, president of Montauk Boatmen Inc. offered. He recalled fishing The Canyon as a kid in the 1970s. "You didn't see anybody there."

Back then, he said, "Nobody knew what a bigeye was, we thought it was bluefin tuna." By the late 70s, the rare breed became popular and the price climbed.

According to Darenberg, bigeye is popular with restaurants because it's not as large as other tuna, making it less expensive to buy. When they sell a giant tuna, he said, all the value is in the belly. "But you have to buy a 500 plus pound fish to get to it." The bigeye's comparative smaller size makes it easier to access prime cuts, especially for sushi . . .

But you have to get to the fish first.

While the current big bite may be a bit unprecedented, getting there may be more than half the battle. A charter boat captain, Etzel pointed out The Canyon is "too far for most of us to get to." Private boaters and local marinas are most likely to be benefitting from the bigeye bonanza.

The Canyon can be home to an array of different fish "if the weather is good and the fishing is good," he said. Bigeye bite best at first and last light, so an overnight trip to The Canyon is probably prescribed.

Hart said that, with federal fishing regulations changing so frequently, he's in the habit of making a call right before he leaves the dock. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fishwatch website, "The Atlantic bigeye is currently being harvested at sustainable levels." So far no number or size restrictions have been enacted for the species, which is described as "near its targeted population level."

kmerrill@indyeastend.com

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