A Chance at Tuna Greatness in Cat Cay

The newly revived Cat Cay Tuna Tournament provides anglers with a shot at a truly epic and historic fishery

Historic Cat Cay Tuna Fishing
Teams race toward Tuna Alley, a hot spot in the Bahamas where giant bluefin could be seen over the shallow white sand, during the 1958 Cat Cay Tuna Tournament.Courtesy IGFA / igfa.org

There must be something inherently special about a tournament in which the participants fail to catch any fish two years in a row, yet everyone still has a great time and can’t wait to get back the next year. Such is the case with the Cat Cay Tuna Tournament. The team from Costa Sunglasses revived this extraordinary event several years ago after a 23-year hiatus, and those who remember the heyday of bluefin tuna fishing in this quiet corner of the Bahamas couldn’t wait to give it another try. This was the 50th Cat Cay Tuna Tournament, the second one held since its rebirth.

Caliban Tuna Fishing Cat Cay
The days of hanging bluefin at the dock in Cat Cay are long gone, but veteran boats like the 37-foot Merritt Caliban participated in the all‑release event.Courtesy IGFA / igfa.org

The original fishery was the stuff of legends. The inaugural tournament debuted in 1939 and quickly became one of the most prestigious tournaments in the world. The unique bottom structure just off the beach at Cat Cay made this possible: A shallow white strip of sandy bottom runs parallel to the drop-off in a north and south direction for miles. When certain weather conditions occurred — particularly a stiff breeze from the southwest — giant tuna migrating from the Gulf of Mexico popped up onto the sand from the adjacent deep blue water.

Roy Merritt Sr. fishing
Tuna fishing is a family affair for the Merritts: Roy Sr., his father, Allen, and son, Roy Jr., were all at the event, once again trying their luck at catching a ­bluefin tuna.Courtesy Costa

Living History

Crews in boats equipped with tuna towers — the term was coined here — motored slowly up and down the sand strip, which came to be known as Tuna Alley. From their perches high above the water’s surface, sharp-eyed crews could spot the cruising fish and maneuver their boats in front of the school in the hope of enticing a strike by dragging a swimming mullet or mackerel in front of them.

A crucial game of expert boat driving came into play after the crew hooked the fish, and it was in Cat Cay that the early 37- and 43-foot Merritts and 36-foot Rybovich boats earned their place in sport-fishing history. These highly maneuverable boats, driven by some of the best captains in the business, were used to herd hooked fish into the shallows in an attempt to prevent them from diving back over the edge into the deep blue water. If the fish made it over the edge, they were usually lost to waiting sharks; if you kept the bluefin on the sand, you had a good chance of landing it.

Caliban Bluefin Tuna Cat Cay
Caliban caught this giant bluefin tuna in 2013. The catch set in motion the revitalized Cat Cay Tourney, attracting top names in sport fishing who hope to catch one again.Courtesy Costa

Many great captains and anglers came to Cat Cay over the years, including captains Bill and George Staros. Bill Harrison, John Sabonis and Roy Merritt Jr. also spent many years chasing giants off Cat Cay, and they all attended this past year’s event. Legendary anglers from years past include Buddy and Allen Merritt, Jo Jo Del Guercio, Elwood Harry and Bill Carpenter, who once fought 15 giants in one day along Tuna Alley.

Capt. Bill Harrison Fishing
Capt. Bill Harrison keeps his eyes forward from the bridge looking for a school of bluefin tuna.Courtesy Costa

Mission: Deploy Tags

Tournament director Amanda Sabin, Costa’s offshore community manager, remains passionate about the event. “We had six boats fishing the 2015 tournament with around 35 participants,” says Sabin. “The goal of the tournament was to successfully tag bluefin tuna with pop-up satellite archival tags in an effort to learn more about the giants swimming through Tuna Alley,” she says. “Although we were unable to tag fish in Cat Cay, we did deploy the eight tags purchased by Costa in Nova Scotia this year. We worked together with the Large Pelagic Research Center and Capt. Anthony Mendillo to deploy the tags. This will help provide substantial data that is important in bluefin conservation efforts and policy decisions.”

We want to celebrate the sport we all love so much while working to preserve the fishery for generations to come.

- — Amanda Sabin

Cat Cay Tuna Trophy
Fishing for nothing more than bragging rights and a trophy, teams composed of bluefin-chasing veterans and anglers hoping for their first shot fished Costa's Cat Cay event (cat​caytuna.com). Rather than kill and weigh the bluefin, tournament teams aimed to satellite tag them for science.Courtesy Costa

Sabin says the tournament will go on in 2016 as well. “Once again, we plan to tag some giants in Cat Cay,” she says. “No fish were caught last year, but we did see a few before the winds died out. The fishery in Cat Cay represents the birth of big-game fishing on the East Coast. We felt it was important to carry on the roots and the legacy of big-game fishing by bringing back the tournament. We have tried to keep the traditions of the tournament alive as much as possible. Unlike most tournaments these days, there is no prize money. It’s a gentlemen’s event where bragging rights and a trophy are awarded to each year’s top dog.”

Ray Rosher Fishing
Capt. Ray Rosher brought his Miss Britt over from Miami and fished the event for the second year in a row after being the wire man on this bluefin tuna caught in 2013.Courtesy Costa

“Lavish parties and ­camaraderie are more important than fierce competition,” Sabin continues. “We want to celebrate the sport we all love so much while working to preserve the fishery for generations to come. We don’t see the numbers of fish we used to, and that’s a problem. We know they are still swimming through those waters, so they are certainly still worth fighting for. Without sound scientific data, we have no hope in bringing back the stock numbers that once made these waters some of the ­richest on the planet.”

Jackpot 43 Merritt Fishing Boat
Jackpot, a 43-foot Merritt, and the rest of the tournament fleet fished hard during the three-day ­tournament. No fish were released, but hopes are high for 2016.John Brownlee

Hopeful For Another Chance

Calm seas and light winds likely prevented us from seeing the fish as we had hoped, but a bluefin was caught on the last day of the event by a boat trolling ballyhoo for blue marlin off Cat Cay. The fish are there, albeit not in the numbers experienced by those fortunate enough to have fished there in the best years. But it’s still worth doing. Just anticipating the possibility of catching a giant bluefin in these beautiful waters makes the hours of waiting worthwhile. Like everyone else at the 2015 event, the anticipation to get back this spring is high.

After fishing both tuna tournaments, I can positively say Amanda and the Costa team made this the best tournament I’ve fished in a long time.

- — Capt. Bill Harrison

“All the captains and anglers fishing this tournament understand the task before them is not an easy one,” says Sabin. “To successfully bait, hook, fight, leader and tag a bluefin in Cat Cay is a feat. Without proper weather to alleviate conditions, that task becomes much more unattainable. Many anglers have put in days, weeks — even years trying for that one fish. I’m here to tell you though, having seen everything come together in perfect harmony, it’s the sweetest thing in the world when you do finally catch that fish. You can almost sense the ghosts of the anglers who pioneered our sport in those crystal-clear waters and can get caught up in the romanticism of a bygone era. Being part of it is truly magical.”