Nova Scotia

Chasing Giants North of Nowhere

Capt. Steve Dougherty December 18, 2013

Throughout the worldwide community of big game sport fishing there are certain destinations that are heralded for legendary encounters with the ocean’s most alluring predators. Africa, Mexico, Panama, Australia, Bermuda, St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic and Hawaii are only a few of the big game destinations that pique the interest of die-hard traveling anglers looking to capitalize on a hot bite. And while Canada likely isn’t on anyone’s short list of upcoming travel destinations, the Atlantic maritime province of Nova Scotia is a not so distant locale that should definitely be on your radar.

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Photo: Steve Dougherty/doughertyphotos.com

The most populated of all Atlantic maritime provinces and one of the most unlikely destinations for a big game fishing adventure, Nova Scotia is a relatively unknown recreational angling frontier. Frigid in the winter and welcoming in the summer and fall, Nova Scotia has a longstanding history dating back from early native inhabitants to adventurous European explorers. While Nova Scotia is Latin for New Scotland and the Gaelic roots are indeed strong, the province is an eclectic mix of Acadians of French ancestry, native Mi’kmaw, African Nova Scotians and newer immigrants from around the world.

At the base of Cape George headland is where you will find Ballantyne’s Cove. A painted fishing village common to the region, it is here where local captains make a living off the bounty of the sea.

Although the region’s stunning coastline and highland hills have long been visited by discerning travelers with a penchant for breathtaking panoramas and fresh seafood, it wasn’t until recently the area was even on the map for recreational anglers looking to capitalize on the massive migration of giant bluefin tuna. The area’s bluefin history dates back to Zane Gray and Ernest Hemingway, but since then bluefin populations worldwide have plummeted and as a result the fishery is now highly regulated and closely protected.

Highly migratory pelagic game fish, bluefin are the ocean’s ultimate predators and the largest of all tuna species. However, as mighty as these game fish are, their populations have declined dramatically due to overfishing among many other factors. While NOAA previously declined to grant bluefin tuna protection under the Endangered Species Act, a new stock assessment is currently underway. It’s clear these giant predators have no regard for international borders and jurisdiction as they traverse the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. While Canada is on the forefront of bluefin conservation, many scientists and fishery managers believe bluefin tuna are on the edge of extinction and if something drastic is not done to protect these magnificent fish they may soon be gone forever. However, speak with the captains at Ballantyne’s Cove and they will tell you a different story altogether.

Most associate Nova Scotia with a tidal fluctuation that is in places the highest in the world, but there’s much more to discover in the Canadian maritime. Approximately 100 miles from the capital city of Halifax is Antigonish. Home to the oldest, continuously held highland games outside of Scotland, it’s also where you’ll find St. Francis Xavier University and all the food and amenities you need before heading to the isolation of Cape George. As you make your way to the coast from the population of Antigonish through the rolling hills and fields of wild flowers you’ll soon arrive to complete isolation.

At the base of Cape George headland is where you will find Ballantyne’s Cove. A painted fishing village common to the region, it is here where local captains make a living off the bounty of the sea. Lobster, crabs, herring and tuna are only some of the commercial targets. With rugged terrain, rough seas and icy conditions, it’s a tough living. As you read this editorial winter weather has taken over the region and the 40 slip marina at Ballantyne’s Cove is likely frozen over. However, every fall season the marina comes to life once again and the town will be energized with the hopes of another banner year of catch and release giant tuna fishing.

Bluefin tuna fishing isn’t new for the locals here, as big numbers of giants have been visiting these waters for decades. In fact, the IGFA world record bluefin tuna caught in 1979 was pulled from the waters of the Northumberland Strait and weighed an astonishing 1,496 pounds! In recent years the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans developed catch and release permits available to preexisting commercial tuna permit holders. Recreational tuna fishing is not allowed under any other circumstance, and only a select few commercial fishermen hold the necessary permit to take clients for catch and release fishing. In addition, minimum tackle requirements, the use of barbless circle-hooks, fighting chairs, and maximum fight durations provide for the healthiest interaction between angler and predator.

Locals with bluefin permits are allowed to commercially harvest one giant bluefin tuna a year , which provides a generous portion of their annual income. Yet even with the tight quota, strict regulations and impressive number of fish seen every year, there are those who want to shut down the fishery altogether. However, the recent development of a conservation focused catch and release fishery with responsible practices has brought a new interest to the region. Local captains agree that the northern migration of tuna seems to be healthy, with more fish showing earlier every year.

It should come as no surprise that giant bluefin migrations are highly dictated by the availability of forage, with tuna beginning to show in the Canadian maritime waters in late August when oily herring cloud the water with scales. Massive schools of mackerel also invade the Gulf of St. Lawrence through a narrow inlet between Cape Breton and Newfoundland. Both forage species fill the waters of the Northumberland Strait and bluefin tuna follow hot on their tails. Commercial herring harvesters are also aware of the migrations and where you find herring netters you will very likely find giant bluefin tuna.

With netters harvesting oily herring, the waters are full of life. Dive-bombing northern gannets and seagulls attack from above, while seals, tuna, whales and more hunt from below. When the action is on it is like a scene from National Geographic. What’s interesting about this fishery is the relatively shallow depths where the action takes place. While the bite could blow up anywhere from 2 to 20 miles from Ballantyne’s Cove, the region is relatively shallow and the surrounding waters are no deeper than 200 feet. It is because of this fact that anglers even stand a remote chance of landing these behemoths on rod and reel. Give giant tuna the chance to sound to the depths and it would likely be a one sided battle. In the earlier days of this fishery, anglers had their work cut out for them and experienced all sorts of misfortunes. However through trial and error and refining tackle and technique they’ve been able to increase their catch and release ratio with giants approaching and surpassing grander status.

Even so, it’s not an easy feat to subdue such a giant predator. In addition to heading into battle with heavy 130-wide reels loaded with Dacron and up to 80 pounds of drag, the weather in the area can be a huge factor as well. One moment the sun will be shining and it will feel like summer, then the clouds will converge and it will be cold and wet. Conditions change in a hurry here and you always need to be ready. It’s no surprise Mother Nature doesn’t let you play with giants without a struggle, but with experienced captains, knowledgeable mates and adequate tackle to quickly subdue such brutes there’s no better place to encounter such massive predators—all in the backdrop of one of the most serene settings in the world. It just doesn’t get much better.

While the charter fleet is still in its infancy, you should know this isn’t your typical sport fishing experience, rather a hardcore recreational-commercial fishing adventure. Lobster boats are converted into sport fishing platforms with the addition of livewells and fighting chairs. After a few seasons refining the technique the local captains are dialed in and the area is fast becoming one of the best to visit in hopes of beating a giant tuna. Few fish live up to the their name quite like the giant bluefin tuna, and with a highly regulated fishery it is hopeful these apex predators continue to visit the rich waters of Nova Scotia for years to come.

While the entire maritime region offers a variety of breathtaking panoramas, painted seaside villages, dramatic cliffs and boreal temperate forests, Antigonish, Nova Scotia is home to Ballantyne’s Cove and a successful catch and release giant bluefin tuna fishery. With past seasons seeing action reminiscent of the heydays of the 1900s when Nova Scotia’s bluefin fishery was at its peak, giants have once again invaded area waters and delight anglers willing to look past traditional big game destinations.

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