The Bailey Island Fishing Tournament: Monster Tuna, Maine Tradition

For 82 years, the sportfishing competition has been luring fishermen to Harpswell in search of Casco Bay’s big prize.

Mainers with a bluefin, circa 1935, from a Portland Press Herald glass negative.
Mainers with a bluefin, circa 1935, from a Portland Press Herald glass negative.
By Edgar Allen Beem
From our June 2021 issue

The late Elroy “Snoody” Johnson, of Harpswell’s Bailey Island, was something of a Maine fishing dignitary. A regular presence at the Maine State House, lobbying legislators on behalf of fishermen, he was also the model for sculptor Victor Kahill’s Maine Lobsterman statue, which represented the state at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, copies of which now stand at Land’s End, on Bailey Island; in downtown Portland; and on the bank of the Potomac River, in Washington, DC.

Another of Johnson’s achievements, also in 1939: cofounding the Bailey Island Tuna Tournament, known today as the Bailey Island Fishing Tournament, the longest-running tourney of its kind on the Atlantic coast. The venerable deep-sea derby was originally designed to promote sportfishing for Atlantic bluefin tuna, the mammoth, migratory fish that haunt the Gulf of Maine in the summer and fall. Bluefin can reach the size of a thoroughbred racehorse, and tournament participants mostly take them with a rod and reel. This is a feat. The state’s record tuna caught with a rod and reel, in 1977, weighed 819 pounds.

In the early days of the tournament, there was no market for bluefin tuna, so part of the catch often wound up at the local dump — unthinkable these days, not least because of a Japanese market for sushi tuna offering high prices for nice fat fish. The abundance of bluefin tuna ebbs and flows, based largely on the availability of prey species such as herring and menhaden, says Walter Golet, a research scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The tournament has seen years when participants brought in only a handful of tuna. Also bumper years: in 1941, the painter Henry Strater, a sparring partner and fishing buddy of Ernest Hemingway’s, came up from Ogunquit to win the tournament, landing nine tuna on his own, collectively weighing 4,955 pounds, over the event’s four days. In recent years, Bailey Island competitors have hauled in 20 or more fish each year, averaging between 400 and 500 pounds.

“There’s been an uptick in the number of fish in the water,” Golet says. “There are now as many or more as we have seen in 20 years.”

COVID, a damaged wharf, and some proposed federal changes to bluefun-fishery regulations prompted the cancellation of both last year’s and this year’s tournaments. But Casco Bay Tuna Club president Monique Coombs, who became club president last year, says she intends to see the tradition carried on. She hopes to “bring the tournament into this century,” Coombs says, with more of an online presence and an environmental education program for kids, focusing on care for the oceans and marine careers. But she doesn’t anticipate fundamental changes in the tradition’s ninth decade. “This tournament is scrappy and gritty,” she says. “That’s what keeps it going.”

This article has been changed from the June 2021 print edition, to reflect the 2021 tournament’s cancellation. Follow Casco Bay Tuna Club on Facebook for updates about the 2022 tournament.


Down East magazine, June 2021