Over the blue‑steel waves off Wedgeport, Nova Scotia, in 1935, the sun rose slowly and then all at once, first overtaking the morning stars, then teasing pink on the clouds, before finally splitting the horizon in two. Michael Lerner, a 44‑year‑old heir to a New York City clothing‑store fortune, sat near the boat’s bow, gazing at the ocean, as his guides Tommy Gifford and Lansdell “Bounce” Anderson chapped their hands on the oars.
For hours already, their boat had bobbed fruitlessly without a single bite on Lerner’s bait. Finally the rod twanged with the hit; it was a brutal, fast snatch. His quarry, at last.
The physics of Lerner’s fight with the giant Atlantic bluefin tuna were simple: the tuna was three hundred pounds of muscle hooked to a line made of fifty-four braided strands of spun linen. That line threaded through a rod held by Lerner, who had been strapped to a boat‑mounted swiveling chair that prevented him from being pulled headfirst into the ocean.
Catching a bluefin tuna on rod and reel required the skill, strength, and endurance of a world‑class fisherman, and every piece of gear had to work—from the bamboo rod to its arched metal hook. And as of that day in Wedgeport, it had never been done before.
Deep underwater, the hooked bluefin followed instinct, kicking its powerful sickled tail as it rocketed away from the dory. Like a speeding car, it ramped up its speed, drawing on the digested caloric power of all the tiny fish it had eaten that week on the marine bank locals had dubbed Soldier’s Rip, a bountiful patch of ocean about fifteen kilometers or so offshore from the village.
That power fed its warm organs and dense red blood, its thick muscles throbbing with lactic acid as it pulled and ran. The fish’s pectoral fins slotted into its sides as it strained against Lerner’s rod, its skin flashing a rainbow of colors in agitation.
The metal mechanism of Lerner’s reel screamed as it spun, letting out line faster than his eyes could follow. Even still, the fish towed the wooden dory across the glittering chop. Lerner fought to keep line on the reel without breaking the tenuous connection. He knew it would be something like this, the world crystallized around his human body in a single second: water, wind, and sun; man and fish.
Anyone capable and canny enough to catch a fish that size, Hemingway wrote with awe, could “enter unabashed into the presence of the very elder gods.”
But this wasn’t a gentle tease from the ocean’s depths. This was a tug‑of‑war with a bear. When Ernest Hemingway, a fishing friend of Lerner’s, first saw a big tuna off the coast of Spain, he was shocked at how the giant fish leapt clear of the water, falling back against it “with a noise like horses jumping off a dock.” Anyone capable and canny enough to catch a fish that size, Hemingway wrote with awe, could “enter unabashed into the presence of the very elder gods.”
After being dragged around the ocean for nearly half an hour, Lerner started to tire. But so, too, had the fish. With a final, deep tug, Lerner pulled the bluefin’s gleaming, torpedo‑shaped body alongside the boat, one smooth side of shimmering skin tipped toward the sky.
A golf‑ball‑sized eye gleamed in its blue‑black head, as its sharp pectoral fin slapped the air fruitlessly. The fish, already close to death, flapped its fins with exhaustion, yet it still took every sickled gaff and ounce of strength the three men had to pull its bulk over the dory’s gunwale.
No sooner had Gifford baited and cast the next hook than another tuna, this one even larger, was on the line. Within another hour, Lerner had landed this fish too, also more than 300 pounds, before they called it a day. The trio headed back to port, Gifford and the mate pulling the boat’s oars with bleeding hands and aching backs.
During an era when commercial fishing and adventure‑seeking tourism started to boom and converge, bluefin tuna transformed Wedgeport’s fortunes. Under its cold waters, giant bluefin tuna schooled at the turbulent waters where two prevailing currents collided. From the surface, the rip appeared as a flat plate of ocean ringed by curling waves that seemed to come out of nowhere, and for decades Nova Scotians had witnessed schools of huge tuna congregating there.
Punctuated by a massive undersea bank that pushed nutrients and animal life upward toward the surface, tuna grew huge on that rip, plump from gorging on schools of herring, mackerel, and squid. Catching fish was easy on the rip, and catching fish was what had brought British and French colonizers to Nova Scotia in the first place.
Only a few days before he arrived in Wedgeport in 1935, Lerner had already given up on his dreams of catching a giant bluefin. The avid sportsman and angler had traveled to the remote southern coast of Nova Scotia to join paid guide Gifford for a week of fishing. But all the money in the world can’t conjure a fish that doesn’t bite, and they hadn’t landed a single noteworthy fish. Frustrated and disappointed, the pair decided to head west by train and catch the next ferry across the Gulf of Maine back home to the United States.
As their steam‑powered train chugged along, Lerner couldn’t bear its painfully slow speed. After long minutes of complaining, the pair lunged off their train car at the train’s next stop, lugging bags, hats, and all, and flagged down a rickety passing car that, to Gifford’s eye, looked like “one of the first automobiles ever made.” They negotiated a fare, loaded their tackle, and bounced off heading west down the winding gravel road.
Driving along past wind‑whipped pines and glacier‑hewn boulders, the men eventually stopped for gas at a tiny, ramshackle stand. Inside, pinned to a plank wall, they spied a photo that beggared belief: a black‑and‑white newspaper clipping of a tuna larger than a boulder. At the bottom of the paper’s curling edges someone had scrawled “1,100 pounds.”
Sensing possibility, the Americans interrogated the man behind the counter. That fish? Sure, he said in the region’s lilting Acadian accent. That fish had been caught in Wedgeport, a fishing town to the southeast named for its triangular wedge of land that hangs into the chilly Atlantic like a lonely, thick icicle. That fish inspired the pair to give bluefin fishing in Nova Scotia one more shot.
Late that afternoon, Lerner and Gifford sputtered into Wedgeport dusty from their journey and headed down a slope into the town’s port, asking around for someone who could help them catch a tuna. In a town where women sold hooked rugs from the side of the road for cash and most men held down more than a few jobs, the money those American anglers threw around gleamed. After their first few queries, Lerner found Evée LeBlanc.
In the 1920s, LeBlanc started harpooning the bluefin tuna alongside two other Wedgeport‑based fishermen. “How the men hated those tuna, those horse mackerel!” David MacDonald wrote in 1955 in Canada’s Maclean’s magazine. “As big as a thousand pounds, they wrecked nets. Speared, they fought for hours. And all the monsters were worth was a mean three cents per pound at canneries along the shore.”
By the early 1930s, LeBlanc had already repeatedly tried to catch giant bluefin on rod and reel, a piece of fishing equipment designed for smaller fish. Instead of a delicate linen line, he rigged his rod with a double steel line tied to piano wire. Before the invention of fiberglass rods, a hard tuna strike could reduce a fisherman’s bamboo rod to shards.
During an era when commercial fishing and adventure‑seeking tourism started to boom and converge, bluefin tuna transformed Wedgeport’s fortunes.
At the time, less sportingly but more lucratively, Wedgeport’s fishermen also corralled bluefin in nets in the open ocean en masse. Once the bluefin were netted, the fisherman pulled them to shore, dragging the ponderous catch behind their boats and eventually aground. Helpless in the shallow water, the fish were killed and sent to either Boston’s fish market or a cannery. In 1932, Nova Scotia netters had landed 204 tonnes of tuna, nearly double the previous year’s catch. It was a fishery for flesh and sustenance, not an activity fit for a gentleman.
Despite having no luck with rod and reel, LeBlanc’s brother Louis and another friend did manage to harpoon the largest bluefin tuna ever landed in Wedgeport in 1934, a 1,100‑pound giant they stretched out at the wharf for gawkers. That was likely the fish Lerner eventually glimpsed in the photo at the gas station—a bluefin that had bumped history off its steady trajectory as a low‑value novelty fish.
That picture set the hook. The circle complete, the two Americans rented LeBlanc’s small wooden fishing boat, or dory, and rigged a swivel to the chair on its front—a big‑fish fighting trick Lerner had picked up in the Caribbean—and hired a third man to pull the boat’s second oar. The next day they left at dawn and returned home with their two giant fish: the first rod‑and‑reel tuna ever landed in the region.
By the time Lerner and Gifford arrived back at the dock, Wedgeport boys were shouting news of the fish on the streets, and the men were passed around for backslaps and handshakes. The next day, the pair headed out for more fishing, only to discover a port packed with boats, each crammed with looky‑loos who wanted to see a bluefin caught by rod and reel for themselves. The flotilla, including one boat with a brass band aboard, headed toward the bank where tuna swam; Lerner caught his next two giant tuna to the melodic notes of horns floating across the waves.
After his Nova Scotia trip ended and he returned to New York, Lerner passed along photos of the massive fish to some sportswriters he knew, who published them in newspapers and magazines. Soon the international wires to Yarmouth were humming with interest. Lerner, who, according to Gifford, “would have severed a leg or arm as readily as he would the line if there was a fish on the other end of it,” returned to Wedgeport within weeks. By the end of his second trip, Lerner had landed twenty-six giant bluefin tuna.
From Kings of Their Own Ocean: Tuna, Obsession, and the Future of Our Seas by Karen Pinchin with permission from Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Karen Pinchin.