Articles

The maddest 3 days in Fishing

The Acadians can’t figure it out: every year at this time dozens of international millionaires arrive at Wedgeport, N.S., and pay good money for the privilege of doing the local fishermen’s work for them

DAVID MacDONALD September 17 1955
Articles

The maddest 3 days in Fishing

The Acadians can’t figure it out: every year at this time dozens of international millionaires arrive at Wedgeport, N.S., and pay good money for the privilege of doing the local fishermen’s work for them

DAVID MacDONALD September 17 1955

The maddest 3 days in Fishing

The Acadians can’t figure it out: every year at this time dozens of international millionaires arrive at Wedgeport, N.S., and pay good money for the privilege of doing the local fishermen’s work for them

DAVID MacDONALD

BEFORE IT found something that beats working, Wedgeport was just another fishing village—quiet, quaint and poor—straddling a dirt sideroad on Nova Scotia’s tattered southwest coast. Its one thousand Acadian inhabitants earned a hard living from the sea, chiefly from lobsters and herring. In summer the women sold hooked rugs to stray Yankee tourists while their men were out harpooning giant bluefin tuna in Soldier’s Rip, an offshore patch of cussedly rough tidewater.

Mon Dieu! how the men hated those tuna, those horse mackerel! As big as a thousand pounds, they wrecked nets. Speared, they fought for hours. And all the monsters were worth was a mean three cents a pound at canneries along the shore.

Then, twenty years ago, along came a Yankee sport named Mike Lerner with the biggest fishing pole Wedgeport had ever seen, and the maddest idea.

Lerner, whose family owns a chain of women’swear shops in the United States, is a man who roves the world in search of thrills with rod and gun. He was heading home from a deep-sea fishing trip off Cape Breton, in fact, when he stopped at Wedgeport for gas and heard about the whopping bluefins abounding in the rip.

Does a Geiger counter twig to uranium? Lerner’s eyes lit up. He forgot about home and sought out a

çcal fisherman, Evée LeBlanc, with a sporting jroposition: Would LeBlanc rig up a swivel chair in fois lobster boat and take him out to Soldier’s Rip for a spot of angling? “It’ll be fun for me,” said Lernei, “and money for you.” To Cap’n Evée tuna fishing was nothing but hard work, but the money angle intrigued him.

To the other pêcheurs it sounded downright wacky. They laughed when Lerner sat down to fish next day. But by dusk he was back at the Wedgeport tuna dock with his outsize rod and reel, two four-hundred-pound bluefins, and the stirring sight of scores more still in his memory. “What a find!” he announced. “Wow!”

Another wow of a find was made that night. It came at the instant when Lerner turned to his guide, LeBlanc, paid twenty-five for the day’s outing, tipped him another ten dollars and said, “Keep the fish for yourself.”

Voilà! From that moment to this, Wedgeport’s pêcheurs have known that a splendid way to win the rewards of hard work is to sell the work to someone else as good fun.

They’ve had no trouble finding buyers. Ever since Mike Lerner’s visit, which he publicized widely, thousands of big-game anglers have come to Wedgeport each summer from as far away as New Zealand, eager to enjoy what the local fishermen didn’t—the muscle-busting job of hauling in horse mackerel.

Today Wedgeport’s pêcheurs charter their boats and act as guides to millionaires and other solvent sportsmen who count Soldier’s Rip, an underwater canyon, as one of the world’s greatest fishing holes. Among their satisfied customers have been the late President Roosevelt, F. D. R. Jr., Zane Grey and Ernest Hemingway.

The anglers do all the wrestling work of catching the bluefins, and they like it. The pêcheurs get paid forty dollars a day for each of their boats, plus twelve dollars more if they supply the heavy gear needed for tuna. They get tips that go as high as a hundred dollars and -strange to relate-~they also

get the bluefins. The unwritten and unbroken rule at Wedgeport is that the fish belong to the guides, who now get ten cents a pound for them. But should an angler be loath to part with, say, an eight-hundred-pounder that he has come two thousand miles to find, he can always buy his bluefin back, have it upholstered for his trophy room or canned and labeled, “Caught by Aaron P. Zilch, for his Friends.”

Few true anglers notice that, in effect, they’re paying to provide fish for professional fishermen. It’s the sport they crave, the anticipation as they head for the rip at dawn, the minutes—maybe hours—of waiting on the blue water for a strike, the wild sudden scream of an angry line and then the fight with a great unseen fish. Gene Tunney, who once won the world’s heavyweight boxing championship and also landed a six-hundred-pound bluefin in Soldier’s Rip, has called the latter event, “the greatest thrill of my life.”

To Wedgeport’s pêcheurs, it is no less tingling to behold what the once-pesky horse mackerel has done for their village. In a good summer anglers spend about two hundred thousand dollars there for lodgings, supplies and boats. The tuna that others catch has built new houses and spruced up old ones, bought cars, launched boats, sent sons off to college. Whereas most Nova Scotian fishermen make less than two thousand dollars a year from the sea, Wedgeport’s average four thousand. “We have never had it so good before,” says Capt. Israel Pothier.

A small wiry man of fifty, Pothier is manager of the Wedgeport Tuna Guides Association, the fishermen’s booking agency. His job is to find customers for the association’s thirty trim blue motorboats and ninety members (three to a boat), a task that is lightened considerably by the fact that the Nova Scotia government, ever alert to the tourist dollar, spends about fifty thousand a year publicizing Wedgeport and Soldier’s Rip.

Its biggest promotion is the International Tuna Cup Match, angling’s

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The Maddest 3 Days In Fishing

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 27

world series, which is held over three days each September on the rip. This fishing frolic gives Nova Scotia a lot of newspaper ink, thus promoting the tourist industry of the whole province.

When the tournament begins a spirit of high carnival grips Wedgeport. On the tuna dock, aflutter with bunting and the babble of French, Spanish and English, a kilted piper waits to skirl boats in from the sea and red-coated Mounties hold back gay holiday crowds. It is a time of parties, when Acadian fishermen sip Martinis with Brazilian coffee kings, when a Cuban tries hard to teach Mme. Israel Pothier to samba and when Father Adolph LeBlanc is happy, but not surprised, to find a fifty-dollar bill in St. Michael’s poor box.

The tuna tournaments began in 193? when Mike Lerner and another American, Kip Farrington Jr., thought it would be dandy fun if a fishing teair. from the U. S. A., met one from the British Empire on Soldier’s Rip to see who could boat the most tuna in three days. The first match, held on the tail of a hurricane, was won by the Empire. Since then teams from Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Scandinavia, Mexico Venezuela, France and the Netherlands have taken part.

Its directors boast today that the Tuna Cup Match is the biggest game in the sea. "There are tournaments with more contestants,” says Tom Wheeler, of Toronto, organizer of the British Empire squad, "but they’re all so parochial. Any angler would give his eyeteeth to compete at Wedgeport.”

Some very nearly do. Bill Saltmarsh a member of Wheeler’s 1953 team traveled twenty-four thousand miles from and to Pretoria, South Africa where he’s a locomotive engineer, used up three years’ vacation time and spent $2,500, his life savings. He didn’t get a single bite.

Some Sardine, Hey!

Though many anglers spend big money getting to the tournament, while it’s on Nova Scotia’s Department o! Trade and Industry gladly provides their beds, board and boats for free For the tournament attracts attention —and tourists—to Nova Scotia as a whole. For this reason the department also plays host to a press, radio and TV party of about sixty, mostly from the U. S.

Their presence accounts for the fact that the Tuna Cup Match, which gives Canadian bookmakers less action than mahjong, is one of Canada’s best known sports events abroad. Each year at this time many foreign-language newspapers that wouldn’t know Rocket Richard from Varsity Stadium carry daily reports on the doings at Wedge port and pictures showing men beam ing beside dead tuna four times their own weight, captioned:

¡Ole! ¡Que pésca!

Quel poisson !

Was für ein Fisch! or

Some sardine, hey!

Though Wedgeport owes much of its prosperity to the tuna tournaments, the job of conducting them doesn’t fall or the village. All details are handled by £ ten-man board of directors, made uf largely of U. S. sportsmen and header by Wilfred Dauphinee, Nova Scotia’i Minister of Trade and Industry. I' meets each winter in New York t; discuss which countries will be invited Invitations are sent to team organizer*

well-known anglers around the globe.

The Empire’s organizer, Tom Wheeler sa vs, "I try to get men from all over the Commonwealth who are both good sports and good fishermen. Naturally, we want the best.” Several years ago, talking with a perennial member of his team, Major Cyril Frisby VC, an English stockbroker, Wheeler suggested the name of Philip Mountbatten.

"He likes to fish,” said Wheeler, "and just think of the attraction!”

"Quite so,” said Frisby. "But can he fish big bluefins?”

They checked. The Duke apparently wasn’ï a bluefin man. So, attraction or not, he was left out.

The tuna usually arrive off Wedgeport early in July, fresh from the Caribbean, to feed until mid-October on the schools of herring and mackerel that, for some finny reason, abound in Soldier’s Rip. Close behind come the tuna anglers. They fish in fog, wind, rain and scorching sun, in all but the sea’s stormiest moods. Sometimes, if the wallet holds out, they stay all summer, as a Los Angeles couple, Mr. and Mrs. John Manning, did several years ago. They pulled in forty-three tuna—twenty-five thousand pounds of it. As is the local custom, they gave their guides the fish—worth more than one thousand dollars at the cannery— and left another three thousand dollars behind in Wedgeport.

Good customers like the Mannings would probably never hear of Wedgeport but for the Tuna Cup matches. Early each September the village and environs catch tournament fever. Fourteen miles away in the town of Yarmouth, whose old Grand Hotel serves as match headquarters, the tuna is displayed in shop windows, on chinaware, T-shirts, bracelets, beer steins and a hundred welcoming signs.

The fever heightens with the arrival of the first contestants. They come well prepared. One year a Latin-American squad brought several beautiful entertainers to sing to them in the boats. In 1953 an American showed up with fishing tackle worth twenty thousand dollars—he caught nothing. Last year the Mexicans came with their own stock of brandy, plus a religious painting for Father LeBlanc’s church.

After two days of clambakes, dances, cocktail parties and practice trips to Soldier’s Rip, last year’s match opened on a Wednesday morning. Before dawn, after a breakfast of hot porridge and fried kippers, thirty-eight anglers met their guides at the tuna dock in Wedgeport. A Venezuelan came by carrying a huge thermos of coffee in one hand, a bottle of rum in the other. It can be chilly on the water. To a Mexican he said, "The wind, I see, is from the west.”

"That is good,” the Mexican replied. "When it is from the east not even the cows give milk. Good luck.”

The Venezuelans needed some. This was their third match and they’d caught nothing thus far but colds.

It was still grey when thirty boats swung away from the dock, one by one, and headed for open water, each flying the national flag of its angler. High in the bow and low astern, painted blue to match the sky, they dipped their blunt snouts into the waves, rose and fell, shuddering because their propellers were out of the water. Ten miles offshore, just beyond the bald Tusket Islands, lay Soldier’s Rip where swiftrunning tides falling over an ancient chasm keep the water boiling almost constantly. The Acadian skippers, pointing into a six-knot tide, put their engines ahead six knots. The water rushed by and, except for the lift of the waves, the boats stood still, waiting.

Sharp at 7 a.m. the judges’ boat fired a small cannon, forty-two linen lines

reeled out in a singing whine and the match began. Some teams, like the British Empire, had six men on the rip, two men and two lines to a boat. The French, with only three anglers, were also allowed six lines— two apiece from three boats. Scoring was on the basis of a point a pound for the total catch, plus two hundred bonus points for the largest catch each day, for the biggest tuna each day, for the most fish taken in the match and for the largest single tuna of the match.

On the stern of one boat Juan Bautista Arismendi, of Caracas, Vene-

zuela, settled back in a wooden swivel chair for the long wait. A short stocky man with thick horn-rimmed glasses, he had already sat through two complete tournaments without catching anything. From a stout five-foot rod socketed into his chair, Arismendi’s 117-pound test line trailed a string of whole herring—teaser bait—while one of his three guides threw small chunks of fresh herring into the wake, forming a "chum” slick to attract the bluefins.

Then, just as he was about to light a cigar, a guide shouted. Two hundred feet astern the sharp knife of a tuna’s

dorsal fin cut the slick. The tuna was up for breakfast. While the chummer threw over bigger hunks of herring, working up to a whole fish, Arismendi reeled in his line. In place of the teaser bait he put on a large mackerel, with a three-inch steel hook for a keel. He slowly slipped this lethal meal back to the bluefin. It skipped along the surface, as though alive.

Suddenly, Juan’s pole jumped. His reel screamed as the tuna struck. In a heavy leather and rubber vest hooked to his reel, Arismendi was literally harnessed to his fish. Its first rush was

What tempts a tuna? Minced herring and seltzer tablets foxed one onto a hook

a long one—two hundred and fifty yards — and the Acadian skipper was quick to follow, or Arismendi’s line could have melted off in seconds and snapped like a cobweb. He shifted the boat’s position just as Juan would have walked up or down stream with a salmon.

Juan saw nothing of his fish, for the tuna wastes no energy in flashy leaps. He only felt it pulling against his back. "It feels big,” he said. "I think.” At the end of its first run the tuna dived deep, to rest, maybe to think. Teeth gritted, Juan rocked back and forth with his rod, pumping and reeling, gaining ten yards, then losing fifty, trying to pull his fish up again. With one gloved hand he fingered the pulsating line, sensing each twist of the tuna, gauging when to take in line and when to surrender it. In fifteen minutes the glove was worn out and he jammed on another.

Juan’s fingers and the lessening pull against his back told him his fish was coming up. So soon? He kept the line taut, without an inch of belly. Suddenly, the bluefin wheeled off in another direction and a guide, standing beside Arismendi, ducked to his knees as the line swished by. Again the fish went deep and once more Juan began the back-breaking work of pumping and reeling, trying to show it that only by coming up could it escape the nagging pull. The strong, patient angler can exhaust a big fish; the skilful man breaks its spirit, as a cowboy tames a wild horse.

A 400-pounder is Not So Big

At last a fin and tail broke water about thirty yards from Juan’s boat, describing a circle around it. The tuna was resting, seeking strength for another dash but the Venezuelan, himself aching with fatigue, allowed it no peace. Pulling, cranking, he drew the weary bluefin closer to the boat. When it was alongside, two of Arismendi’s guides raised sharp barbed gaffs high and plunged them into the great fish’s sides. It thrashed and the water turned blood red but the gaffs held. With the gaffs and a rope circled through the tuna’s heaving gills, they pulled it over the side with a loud thump and it died. The fish looked unreal, as if cast of rubber. Juan climbed out of his harness, clapping his hands and yelling, "Hey! Hey! Hey!” It had taken him only thirty minutes to boat his first tournament tuna. But then it wasn’t very big—not much over four hundred pounds.

Elsewhere on the rip much bigger fish were being caught. José Fuentes and Mauricio Guerra, of the Mexican team, hauled in 582and 656-pounders. But the biggest, after a fight of seventyfive minutes, belonged to American Joe Gale. It went 783 pounds.

At the end of the day the fleet headed home to Wedgeport where a big crowd lined the tuna dock to see the catch weighed in. All Dr. Carlos Brink, of South Africa, had to show was his two-hundred-dollar rod, snapped at the two-inch-thick base like a matchstick. But Juan Arismendi was all smiles. Beaming broadly, he posed for a picture with his wife, his beautiful daughter and his beautiful bluefin. "Now,” said Señora Arismendi, "maybe he will be fit to live with again.”

The match goes on for three days, the lead changing hands with almost every new fish, right down to the final

gun. Near the end of last year’s meet the U. S. team was nursing a slight edge over Mexico when one of its best men, Gale, hooked into a big one. He fought the bluefin for an hour, got it to within ten feet of his boat—and saw it slip away. Estimated at about 650 pounds, it would have clinched the match for the U. S. As it turned out, José Fuentes shamefacedly came in with a baby 233-pounder, landed fifteen minutes before the contest ended, and tipped the scales in Mexico’s favor.

Apart from such thrilling finishes, tuna tournaments produce some of the oddest moments in sport. In recent years competing anglers have pulled up rubber boots, bones, bottles, lobsters and practically every species of fish. For an hour, one foggy day, Ben Crowninshield, an American yacht designer, fought like the very devil before he found what he had: bottom. Several years ago another U. S. angler, Lou Marron, of New Jersey, hooked the real thing. A few minutes later his boat caught fire. When another drew alongside, Marron hopped in, still fighting his fish. Then the engine of the second boat conked out. Marron finally landed a five-hundred-pound bluefin from a third craft. But it wasn’t worth a point, for the tournament rules oblige an angler to hook and land his fish from the same boat.

Marron lacked what tournament veterans rate as fifty percent of the battle—luck. They court good luck in many ways, from burning holy candles in Wedgeport’s Roman Catholic church to taking nightly bubble baths—as Dr. Guillermo Machado, of Venezuela, does — to throwing money into the sea: a cent for the right wind, silver for the right fish. Most anglers use conventional bait, but others have been known to decorate their herring with chicken feathers, banana skins and dollar bills. The queerest bait was used, successfully, by Frederic Chateaubriand, of Brazil, several years back: minced

herring and seltzer tablets wrapped in a hair net.

A shortage of herring for bait in the 1947 match caused the tournament’s zaniest episode. On the night before the meet opened, Major Cyril Frisby VC quietly went around the town of Yarmouth buying up every tin of sardines he could find. Next day, instead of using herring to form an eye-catching slick in their wakes, the Empire boats trailed sardine tins, punctured to let olive oil seep out.

It was a brilliant stratagem, but the Empire’s anglers lost out—and all because one of them had too much luck. In two tries Murray Holden, of Shelburne, N.S., boated one tuna of 571 pounds and another of 871—the biggest ever taken, before or since, in a tournament. But the trouble was that, in a burst of goodwill, the British had loaned Holden to the Cubans, who were shorthanded, and almost singlehandedly he won the match for them. "We were crazy to let him go,” says Tom Wheeler, the Empire organizer, "but it was the only sporting thing to do.”

Sportsmanship is a sacred law at the tuna tournaments and only once, to official knowledge, has it been violated. An American and a Cuban were both fighting tuna from nearby boats a few years ago, and when the Cuban’s line came near his boat the American cut it. The Cuban didn’t hoist the red protest flag issued to each angler, but when the

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American’s team mates heard of the incident they dropped him from the meet. He hasn’t been invited back.

Only once, in fact, has a protest flag been flown over the rip—by an Empire man, Louis Mowbray, of Bermuda. When the judges saw it they hurried over anxiously: horrors! true sportsmen just don’t squawk.

"I want to complain about these Nova Scotians,” Mowbray shouted across the water.

"Which Nova Scotians?”

"The tuna. They won’t take my •hook.”

Apart from the line-cutting episode, there have been only two other embarrassing "incidents” in the tournament’s history. In 1953 four Philadelphia men, reading that the match was about to begin, hopped a plane, came to Wedgeport and tried to enter as "the PolishAmerican team.” Uninvited, they were turned down. On the opening day of the tournament they were walking along the Yarmouth waterfront when one of them spotted a fin moving around in the harbor. They piled into an old dory and set out with nothing but two pitchforks, two bottles of rye

and some rope. An hour later they brought in a five-hundred-pound shark. The best forty-five big-game anglers did that day was one 158-pound baby tuna.

They’d been put to shame once before. On the eve of the 1951 tournament, with many of the world’s most experienced anglers on hand at Wedgeport, a retired San Francisco banker named Harvey Teller came in from the rip with a 932-pound bluefin, the largest ever taken at Wedgeport and the second-largest landed by rod and reel in the world. When the contestants

crowded around to congratulate him, Teller dumbfounded them further by saying, "Boy! Biggest thing I ever fished for before was a—let’s see now— a salmon!”

Teller’s fish is surpassed only by a 977-pounder that was taken in 1950 by Commander Duncan Hodgson, RCN, of Montreal, a frequent competitor in Tuna Cup matches. Ten feet long, eight feet around the belt line, it hauled Hodgson, his guide and a dory twelve miles in eighty minutes before dying of exhaustion. Wedgeport’s pêcheurs are filled with admiration for the record fish, but it pains them deeply that it was taken in St. Ann Bay, Cape Breton.

French Kisses for the Winners

Their only consolation is that if Wedgeport hasn’t got the biggest bluefin, it has the most beautiful. During last year’s tournament, an ichthyologist from Yale University decided that a 365-pounder taken by Venezuelan Alfred Behrens was the most perfectly proportioned bluefin he’d ever seen. He took a plaster mold of its shape and sent it back to Yale, there to be enshrined in a projected Hall of Fishes as the Marilyn Monroe of tuna.

The prize for the three-day tournament is the Alton B. Sharp trophy, a large silver basin donated by a Boston steamship line owner. It has been won three times by Cuba, twice by the British Empire, the U. S. A. and Mexico and once by Chile. It is formally presented at a big Saturday night banquet in Yarmouth’s Grand Hotel, when the winners fill it to the brim with champagne and pass it around to all competitors.

On occasions such as this the Mexicans wear sombreros made of carnations and the French congratulate the winners by kissing them on both cheeks, while an organist pounds out the anthems of all nations concerned. It is also the time when the contestants pay off on side bets. In the last three years one American has picked up ten thousand dollars this way.

Most of the men and women who come to Wedgeport to battle the bluefins are well-heeled folks who have the time, inclination and money to roam around looking for sport. For instance, one frequent visitor, Alfred Classell Jr., of Texas, spent thirty-five thousand dollars on a fishing trip to New Zealand a few years ago. But Nova Scotia tourist officials stoutly contend that tuna fishing isn’t necessarily a game for the wealthy. Any four people who have fifty-two dollars among them and happen to be in the vicinity of Wedgeport can charter a boat and gear and throw off their cares for an exciting day. Wedgeport’s pêcheurs will be delighted to take them. ★