Big Game fishing off the Yorkshire coast

Big game fishing in the North Sea?  Yes, in the 1930's Scarborough was the centre of the pursuit of the blue fin Tuna (Thunnus Thynnus) and a group of wealthy aristocrats and military men - Lieutenant Colonel Henry Stapleton-Cotton, E Horesfall-Turner, Major G S  Rowley, Colonel E T Peel and Mr L Mitchell Henry were associated with the record breaking catches of these large fish.  In 1934, the sport attracted such as Baron Henri de Rothschild in his 1000 ton yacht "Eros". Scarborough also became the headquarters of the British Tunny Club,  a gentlemen's club that has long since closed down when the Tunny departed or were fished out.

Tunny fishing was definitely for those with adequate financial resources and although  the sport on this coast has now passed into history and partial obscurity, Tunny are reported to be on the West Coast of Scotland and there are rumours that they may make a comeback in some way. As such fileybay takes a look at this unique sport through the eyes of another hardy salt water big game fisherman, Fred Taylor. While other participants are recorded by their names, Fred produced an excellent insight into the sport for posterity in his small book Tunny Fishing for Beginners.  The book has been out of print for some time now but it stands testimony to the enthusiasm and commitment Fred and  those early anglers.  Although Fred stayed in Scarborough while he was fishing, some of his family had Filey connections and stayed there for at least a part of the time.

The Tunny is a giant member of the mackerel family, a powerful streamlined fish and a good sized fish would measure six feet in girth,  the primary source of food for the Tunny appears to be herring and mackerel and these fish were hunted using rods and lines to the standard of the day using the herring and mackerel for bait on five inch hooks on wire traces.  The lines  were made from natural fibre and the American Ashaway lines were considered the best for some time. For hunting these large fish there were several excellent rods on the market six foot six inches long made of hickory, lancewood, greenheart and bamboo built in sections.  A combination rod was made in half hickory and half  bamboo with the hickory on the outside of the rod and the bamboo in the underside of the rod.  An example of the heavy duty reels in use can be seen in the picture below of Mr H J Hardy striking into a fish.

The Tunny were often seen beside herring drifters who followed the herring shoals down the coast on their annual migration and also near to steam trawlers when they hauled their nets feeding on the fish that came out of the nets, so one of the requirements of the sport was to hire a boat to get out to the offshore fishing grounds where the commercial fishermen earned their living.  The actual angling was done from a small boat, either a rowing boat or a Yorkshire Coble (which was an open boat of about thirty feet long) usually towed to the grounds behind a motor boat or a larger keel boat.  The hiring of these was expensive and costs could be shared by more than one angler.  Herring drifters fished at night when the herring rose off the seabed and hauled their nets to come to port in the morning while trawlers could fish at all times of the day, weather permitting of course.

The coble Geoffrey used by Fred

Up to 1929 the nearest places where they had been taken by rod and line were Norway and Denmark but in 1929 Henry Stapleton-Cotton and a couple or so others went late in the season to try their luck, but the weather was bad.  Henry Stapleton-Cotton was credited as being the first person to fish for the Tunny and although he hooked two, they both got away.  The real start to the big game fishing started on August 27 in 1930 when Mr Mitchell–Henry made history by landing the first Tunny ever caught on rod and line weighing 560 lb.  He made this catch some fifty miles out to sea and this give an idea of how far the anglers were prepared to go  to find the fish.

The methodology was to find the drifters and trawlers out at sea  and ask if Tunny were about, or to ask when the boat was hauling their nets and to either wait for this to occur or move on to another boat, often a trawler would give the anglers a blast on its whistle to let the anglers know if Tunny were about.  In the case of Fred Taylor, once the fish were there, he would leave the coble and get into the rowing boat which was fitted with a seat and harness for the purpose.  the ideal bait was mackerel, but herring was also used and herrings either whole or cut up were put into the water as a "rubby dubby" to attract the fish.

Once a fish took the bait then all hell broke loose, the fish would “run” up to 300 yards and must  be allowed to do so with a reel that was slightly braked to prevent it over running.  When he considered the fish had run far enough, Fred would tighten the line and “strike” the fish to pull the hook in and then the fight started, which was a gruelling business.  The fish would tow the boat as it was being played and with each rush, he would get as much line back as possible until the fish either “sounded” (went to the bottom stone dead) or came alongside exhausted to be gaffed aboard.  Fighting a Tunny was exhausting and required stamina, in the 1932 season it was recorded that a Mr Harold Hardy of Cloughton Hall fought a Tunny for over seven hours only to lose the fish about 16 feet long at the last moment when his line snapped.

The pictures below give a flavour of the action and show Fred Taylor at work. The seasonable Tunny fishing also gave local fishermen additional employment prospects and from the photographs it is seen that whole crews of vessels could become involved in servicing the sport.

Waiting for the fish to show

Mr H J Hardy striking a fish, note the heavy reel

Harness on, Fred Taylor is battling with a Tunny

In 1931, only one fish was landed by Mr Mitchell-Henry weighing 560 lb (again).   1931 was a bad season and many hours were wasted searching for the elusive fish.  1932 however was a glorious season, England made angling history during the first few weeks as twenty one fish were landed with an average weight of just under 600 lb and Colonel E T Peel landed an excellent fish of 798 lb.  A certain Mrs Sparrow, not to be outdone landed her own fish weighing 469 lb, that showed that ladies could hold their own in what was then a largely male dominated environment, we have only seen one other account of a lady angler in this sport.

Mr Mitchell-Henry with his World Record Tunny of 851 lb Fred Taylor with his "Little 'un"  (707 lb!)

As with all sports, Tunny fishing was very competitive, it was recorded that when one large fish caught by Mr Mitchell Henry was beaten by another by just one pound, he lodged a complaint that the weight of the rope holding the tail of the winning fish was too heavy as it was wet!  Apparently a bitter argument broke out that continued for some time, but Mr Mitchell Henry was beaten - and that was that!

This article has been sourced from Fred Taylor's book and the Webmaster freely acknowledges his copyright to his own work.  This page pays small tribute to a dedicated angler and to a very good handbook on  big game fishing off the Yorkshire Coast.  It is not possible to cover all of Fred's experiences here and my own copy in its faded jacket sits pride of place on my bookshelf.   

Since publishing this article on the website, Mr Ridley Nelson had been in contact with me, Fred Taylor is his grandfather on his mother's side of the family.  He has kindly provided some pictures from his own collection and these are in the gallery on this link.

And now to copyrights:

To Mr L Mitchell-Henry and his publishers, Messers. Rich & Cowan for the photograph of Mr Mitchell-Henry and his World Record Tunny, which has already appeared in his own book titled Tunny Fishing.  To Mr Crobert Mackenzie and the News Chronicle; and to Mr F Stanley Cheer for the photograph of the Yorkshire Coble Geoffrey.

To that which is not in anyone else's copyright, copyright is in the possession of Anthony Green of the Filey Bay Research Group 2009 who asserts his rights

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