Between 1930 and 1955, big-game tuna fishing (or ‘tunny’ fishing as it was known at the time) was a sport popular with the wealthy aristocrats and military officers. During the tuna fishing season, they’d head up to Scarborough and fish from small boats, known as cobles. These boats were towed to the fishing grounds a few miles offshore by the larger, commercial fishing boats.
To catch the tuna, the anglers used long rods usually made of hickory or bamboo and impaled mackerel and herring on five-inch hooks to use as bait. Fish of over 700 pounds (320 kg) were regularly being caught and, attracted by tales of these giants of the sea, the rest of society turned its attention to Scarborough.
Sensational stories of these giant catches were published in the magazines of the day, fueled by the fact that celebrities, including John Wayne and Erol Flynn, were keen big game fishermen. During August and September, the town would be transformed with vast crowds of awestruck spectators. Special trains even ran from London carrying people who wanted to see these colossal fish weighed and displayed on the pier.
In 1933, The British Tunny Club, a gentlemen’s club founded, and set up its headquarters in Scarborough (which, with a subtle nod to its origins, is now a Fish and Chip shop).
- In 1929 the steam drifter Ascendent caught a 560-pound (250 kg) tunny, and a Scarborough showman awarded the crew 50 shillings so he could exhibit it as a tourist attraction.
- Big-game fishing effectively started in 1930 when Lorenzo ‘Lawrie’ Mitchell–Henry, when fifty miles offshore, landed the first tunny caught on rod and line weighing 560 pounds (250 kg).
- 1932 saw Harold Hardy of Cloughton Hall battling with a tunny about 16 feet long for over seven hours before his line snapped. His guests onboard described the scene as ‘the greatest fight they had ever seen in their lives’.
The herring and mackerel fishing industry was causing a depletion of the tuna’s food supply, and after World War 2 interrupted fishing, big-game tuna fishing didn’t really recover, the tuna’s presence in large shoals in the North Sea was drawing to an end. Happily there’s been an upturn in tuna numbers in British waters in recent times.