Cat Cay Tuna Tournament

Chasing Giants and Keeping History Alive

FSF Staff January 9, 2015

With massive streamlined bodies built for speed and long distance migrations, bluefin tuna are one of the ocean’s top predators. Although these magnificent fish don’t roam Tuna Alley along the western edge of The Bahamas in the massive herds they once used to, they are still encountered. Thankfully, these tropical giants have not been forgotten and a dedicated group of anglers are resurrecting their glory to the heydays of the mid 1900s while simultaneously celebrating the evolution of big game sport fishing as we know it today.

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Photo: IGFA Collection

In collaboration with Costa Del Mar, the Cat Cay Tuna Tournament will once again reclaim its rightful place as one of our sport’s most prestigious events. After a 24-year hiatus, the tournament is back on the map and will pay homage to the storied history of the famed waters surrounding Bimini and Cat Cay.

The Cat Cay Tuna Tournament was once upon a time the most sought after sport fishing event in the world, and now we want to bring it back to its rightful place…

During the early 1900s, prosperity came to the islands in the ‘Stream by way of bootleggers running illegal spirits during prohibition, but the focus quickly turned to big game pursuits. Over the years numerous sportsmen, celebrities, foreign notables and philanthropists from around the world visited Bimini and Cat Cay to try their luck along Tuna Alley—an approximate 15-mile stretch of shallows that starts just west of Gun Cay.

Founded in 1939, the Cat Cay Tuna Tournament saw the likes of the who’s who of fishing hall of fame members including Ernest Hemingway, Julio Sanchez, Frank O’Brien, George Matthews, Bill Carpenter, EK Harry, Tommy Gifford, Bill Fagen and Allen and Buddy Merritt. In the preliminary years of chasing giant bluefin, many battles were lost. As innovative anglers experimented with ways to beat determined game fish some of the most noteworthy angling advancements originated. Aluminum outriggers, modern fighting chairs, two speed reels, transom doors and the tuna tower are only some of the innovations that were conceived from the birthplace of modern day sport fishing.

The action along Tuna Alley was highly competitive and crews needed to beat big fish fast. Once hooked, the captains needed to maneuver the boat to prevent the massive fish from fleeing the shallow flats and dropping into the deep abyss where the giant tuna would gain the upper hand. During this time boat builders were in a race to create the most highly advanced and maneuverable platforms anyone’s ever seen, but after years of great action it all slowed. The schools of giant tuna weren’t seen crossing the Bahama Bank in the massive numbers they used to and the Cat Cay Tuna Tournament eventually came to a close.

While the once reliable migration of bluefin through Tuna Alley is history, anglers competing in the 2014 Cat Cay Tuna Tournament saw frenzied action along these famed shallows. This past June six teams stepped up to the plate to compete in the no-limit catch and release event. The biggest challenge with bluefin tuna fishing in Cat Cay is the weather. On really calm days with no current and zero wind the fishing is slow. On the other hand, anglers are afforded ideal conditions when presented with a strong south wind. Sunlight is also crucial to spotting fish cruising just feet below the surface.

Amanda Perryman, Fishing Community Manager at Costa Del Mar, tells us during the filming of their latest documentary—Bluefin on the Line, which follows Allen Merritt, Roy Merritt, Sr. and Roy Merritt Jr. into Tuna Alley alongside Captain Bill Harrison and Captain Ray Rosher—they realized the significance of the Cat Cay Tuna Tournament. “It was rich with history and pioneered so many techniques and products that it had to come back,” noted Perryman.

Giant tuna fishing in The Bahamas is no walk in the park, and it is highly dependent on the prevalent conditions. While the first day of competition saw decent weather conditions, teams visually spotted two bunches of fish with 10 to 15 giant tuna in each school. The weather took a turn for the worse on the second day of competition and as the winds died out teams only spotted a few singles and doubles. Over the course of two days there were a total of about 60 fish spotted, but even though no giant bluefin were hooked, teams remained optimistic.

“Just as luck would have it, a Cat Cay member caught a 700- to 800-pounder the day after the tournament,” reported Amanda Perryman.

Costa has partnered with the Large Pelagics Research Center’s (LPRC) Tag A Tiny program to deploy satellite or conventional tags in all of the fish released during the tournament. The Tag A Tiny program studies the annual migration paths and habitat use of Atlantic bluefin tuna. While anglers were ready with conventional tags supplied by The Billfish Foundation, Costa Del Mar also purchased eight satellite tags to be coordinated with the effort. 

“The Cat Cay Tuna Tournament was once upon a time the most sought after sport fishing event in the world, and now we want to bring it back to its rightful place,” said Al Perkinson, Vice President of Marketing for Costa Del Mar. “We’ll capture the history, the beauty, and the camaraderie of the sport with this new annual event, as well as gather some important scientific data to help protect bluefin tuna for generations to come.”

While anglers at the 2014 event didn’t tag any giant bluefin, they did encounter a few schools of fish. Since there was no winner, the bronze replica of the original event trophy will be held until next year, as will the perpetual award in the form of a 3D model of a bluefin tuna built entirely out of Costa Del Mar sunglass parts, including 1,500 lenses.

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