Brian Grobbler catches giant Bluefin Tuna from a ski boat, lands it at Kalk Bay Harbour

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“It was a story that could be told to your grandchildren and their grandchildren. But Brian Grobbler died too young to tell that story to his grandchildren.”

 

I want to tell you about the giant Bluefin Tuna that pioneer skiboat fisherman Brian Grobbler caught from his ski boat in False Bay in the late 1960s.

It happened long ago but I heard the story enough times when I was growing up to tell it.

While we do not have a record of what happened on that day, a blow-by-blow account so to speak, we do have facts.

One is a published photograph of the 226-kg giant Bluefin Tuna, published with Brian standing over it at Kalk Bay Harbour. The caption to the photograph reads, “The author with a 226-kg Bluefin Tuna taken after a three-hour battle from a ski-boat in False Bay. He was one of the pioneers of small boat fishing for giant gamefish at the Cape.”

Unfortunately, it is such a small photograph, published in “Fish Aren’t Fools”, a book written by Brian Grobbler and published by SA Boating Publications with David Eastaugh, that it is difficult to reproduce it.

That’s why I have sketched the small photograph to a larger size so that you can see just how gigantic the fish is. If you want to see the photograph, search the Internet for “Fish Aren’t Fools” and click on “images”.

The exact year that the giant game fish was caught remains unknown. I made enquiries about the records kept by the South African Marlin & Tuna Club, found out that the records were housed by the False Bay Yachting Club but because of negligence the records were destroyed.

The records were kept in boxes and the people there allowed the winter rains to destroy them all. It’s frustrating because this gamefish that Brian caught won the SA Marlin & Tuna Club record in the 1960s. It would have also been interesting to find out about the other bluefin tuna that Brian caught – another prize-winner awarded by the SA Marlin & Tuna Club – and landed at Fish Hoek beach.

Brian’s love of fishing went a long way back in his life. His mother Eileen Grobbler told me that the first word he could say it as a young child was “fish”. He grew up in East London where he did much fishing and hunting. After school, he joined the Daily Dispatch in East London as a reporter and eventually worked on The Star newspaper in Johannesburg.

It must have been difficult for him living in Johannesburg so far away from the sea. But Brian had other talents such as being a jazz musician. He played double-bass and sang in a jazz band at venues in Johannesburg. A producer even cut a record of him singing, which I listened to when he lived at his house in Main Road Kalk Bay. At home he would always be singing and listened to jazz greats such as Al Jolson, Nat King Cole, Dizzie Gilespi and Dave Brubeck. Later when he moved to Cape Town he would often pay at the Rhodesia-By-The Sea Hotel in Simon’s Town.

In about 1960 he bought a ski boat from a boat builder in Durban, Natal, and towed it with an old black Ford motor vehicle to Cape Town.

Brian’s first sighting of a Bluefin Tuna was at Simon’s Town Bay where the local fishermen would put out a “stelnet“, which is a net that you run out into the sea and the fish swim into the net and become tangled. Subsequent to this, the luxury “gin palace” tuna leisure boats from Simon’s Town started catching Bluefin Tuna. There were also sightings of these gamefish on the legendary “Rooikrans” ledges in the Cape Point Nature Reserve, then run by the Cape Divisional Council.

But no one had ever caught a giant Bluefin Tuna from a skiboat.

What we do know about that day on which Brian caught the giant Bluefin Tuna is that it would have been in summer, any day from the last two weeks of December to the first two weeks of January, it was in Fish Hoek Bay and the seawater would have been a purple blue. The colour of the water was important because this was the warm current that came into False Bay right into Fish Hoek in those days. This purple blue water was teeming with live bait including chokka, maasbunkers, mackerel and anchovies.

How do I know this? I know this because when I was about 10 years old I went fishing for Bluefin tuna with Brian on his ski boat in Fish Hoek Bay and saw the colour of the water. I was fortunate enough to see the dark back of a giant Bluefin Tuna swimming past and underneath the boat in that radiant purple-blue, clear water.

We also know that he would have had his large aluminium tank full with live bait and fish oil that he put inside it to flavour the chum or “lokaas” that he would throw overboard to attract the smaller bait fish and in turn the Bluefin Tuna. The chum would leave an oill slick behind the boat.

Another thing that was sure to be there was the long bamboo pole on which the Dacron line would have been tied with a piece of cotton. The reason for this was that when the Bluefin Tuna bit what would happen is that the pole would bend, the cotton would snap and the fight would be on. Then the bouy in the bow would be thrown overboard, the outboard motors started and Brian would be in the fighting chair, harness strapped around his back and the chase following the fish would begin.

We know from “Fish Aren’t Fools”, the book on fishing that Brian Grobbler published, that the fight lasted three (3) hours. He told me that the Bluefin Tuna raced out towards the middle of False Bay.

The fight with this prized giant game-fish was gruelling. Three hours of keeping tension on the line and hoping that the hook was well set in the Bluefin’s mouth and that it would not tear loose. During the fight with the fish, Brian’s left hand side pants leg was born. You can see the torn pants in the sketch and the photograph.

Brian Grobbler on the far right. David Dade on the far left.

When the fight, after much reeling in the line was ended and the fish brought alongside the skiboat, it would have been gaffed by one of the crew members and the giant bluefin tuna would have been towed from deep out in False Bay to Kalk Bay Harbour.

In Kalk Bay harbour the Bluefin Tuna was winched up onto the harbour and taken up to the corner where it was weighed. I don’t know what happened to the Bluefin Tuna but it was probably bought by a fish dealier or “langaaner”.

That giant Bluefin represented a massive new record. It was the first time that a Bluefin Tuna of that size had been caught from a skiboat in Africa. As far as I know, that record has never been surpassed. That record remains for eternity because it is unlikely that Bluefin Tuna will ever be caught again in False Bay.

It must have been amazing to experience catching such a giant game fish right on your doorstep. It was a story that could be told to your grandchildren and their grandchildren. But Brian Grobbler died too young to tell that story to his grandchildren.

Unfortunately, that giant bluefin was the last that Brian would catch in his lifetime. He caught many other tuna, mainly large longfin and yellowfin tuna, but never again did he catch a Bluefin Tuna.

In his book “Fish Aren’t Fools”, he mentions that in the summer of 1974 the Bluefin Tuna had not returned to False Bay. There was much speculation and many theories about why the Bluefin never returned. Even after many decades, Bluefin never made an appearance again False Bay.

One theory was that the South African government and given fishing territorial rights to the Japanese in the 1970s and that they were fished out long before they had a chance to enter False Bay.

Another one, that Brian himself came up with, was that they were long-range weather and current patterns that took place over time and that those conditions had come to False Bay in the 1960s and were over by the early 1970s.

Yet another theory is that the bait fish like pilchards, sardines, squid and anchovy were fished out by the purse seine commercial fishermen and the Bluefin Tuna had no reason to enter False Bay. This is supported by the overfishing by the many purse seine trawlers that plundered False Bay in the 1970s until that fishing stock was wiped out.

It was a moment in history, a brief period when the Bluefin Tuna came to False Bay.

The story that I have told is one that I wish to put together after many years so that Brian’s grandchildren will know about it.

For the past quickly recedes, faster than we realise.

In the words of that great American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald (whom Brian enjoyed), at the end of his novel “The Great Gatsby”, he says, “He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning—— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Few people have ever caught such a large gamefish on rod and reel from a skiboat.

For those uninterested in fishing, it matters little.

For Brian it was the highpoint of his career in his journey as a pioneer of ski boating in South Africa.

For others, others who know fishing well and can appreciate what occurred on that day, they will readily acknowledge that it was one of the greatest game-fishing achievements of all time.

Brian Grobbler with his trophy for catching the largest Bluefin tuna of the year.

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