Catching a dogtooth tuna

SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews / 09 January) – As the world got scared with the pandemic and everyone tried to distance themselves from other people to avoid catching the virus, I was safely secluded in Siargao, an island paradise in Surigao del Norte, fishing with good friends.

Roel and his 55-kilo prize catch. Photo courtesy of JOHN ROD CATOTO

I moved to Siargao four years ago to try my luck in the tourism industry, helping manage small resorts there.

But the crowd in General Luna, the surfing capital where rich foreigners used to flock, got me worried. Even as most of its establishments, the streets and the shores were empty when travel to the island was banned in March last year and quarantines were set in place, I moved out and temporarily settled in the adjacent town to its north, Pilar, known for its rich fishing grounds but with far less people.

It was in Pilar where I started learning the intricacies of fishing, with the help of the humble Siargao legends.

While tirelessly doing it every day, I learned that fishing is a game of the rich but is also the main source of livelihood of one of the poorest sectors of society – the fisherfolk.

With no tourists flocking to the island, I was out of work and had hoped that while distancing myself from the crowd, I could make a living out of fishing.

I was fortunate to be doing it passionately with friends, among them seasoned fishing hobbyists Mike Cancio, Andre Antigua, Luis Banson and Mauro Agustines.

Fishing is dangerous and hard. Anything could happen in the open water. I experienced rough seas. I puked countless times because of the big waves. We were once rescued because our boat’s engine conked out. I survived several squalls. And every time we fish, we endure the scorching heat of the mid-day sun.

I got frustrated several times, the days when my lines were cut after a few minutes of battle with huge underwater creatures. I wondered what kind of fishes these were. They must be big, strong, with sharp teeth.

Before the pandemic, I prepared myself to join the Siargao International Game Fishing Tournament held annually in Pilar every April. But last year’s event, like many sports competitions all over the world, did not push through.

The cancellation was a blessing as it gave me time to sharpen my knowledge on fishing and hone my skills day by day without the pressure of an impending tournament.

I am grateful for the relentless guidance of the local fishing legends – the Gonzales brothers, Clifford and Gresan, and Niel Espinele.

The author battling it out with the dogtooth tuna. Photo taken 29 December 2020 by JOHN ROD CATOTO

Before the New Year, I braved going home to Surigao City to be with my parents, doing some semblance of physical distancing at home.

Late afternoon of December 29, I went out to sea with my brother, John Rod, who has no experience fishing in the open water, and boatman Romelito Rasonabe.

I was lucky I brought home my fishing gear with me – an Ecooda Black Expert for the rod, Ecooda Black Hawk 2 5000 for the reel, and a 250-gram silver zebra lure from Hook Pro Siargao.

We took off from the west coast of Surigao City, from Barangay Mabua, and decided to drop my lure three kilometers from the nearest shore, about 165 meters deep.

It was my first drop, and suddenly I felt a strong tension on my line. What luck! This prompted me to pull my jigging rod as fast as I could, in the hope that I could set the hook on whatever sea creature beneath the waves had grabbed my lure.

Sensing that my hook was set, I shouted “Isdaaa!” (Fish!). The battle ensued between me and the fish. It was something hard and unbelievably heavy. I braced myself solidly on the banca’s floor with both legs spread wide to keep my balance.

I thought I caught a big ruby snapper or amberjack or a sailfish, the kinds of fish we often catch back in the waters of Siargao.

Ensuring my lines are tight enough, I patiently waited for maybe eight minutes as the fish was trying to escape, and gradually tightened the tension dial on my reel to drag the fish up.

But it wasn’t easy battling the fish’s pull. I was worried the line would break as I was using only a 40-pounder. I didn’t expect to catch some big fish on this outing so close to the shore. But this fish, I felt it must be over 130 pounds.

It finally surfaced around 12 minutes after it bit the lure. I was astonished and completely in disbelief with what I saw. “It’s a dogtooth!” I screamed.

For anglers, a dogtooth tuna (Gymnosarda unicolor) is a prize catch because of its rarity and the difficulty to get it.

Roel and his 55-kilo prize catch. Photo courtesy of JOHN ROD CATOTO

The Ocean Blue Fishing website says that “doggies” are “not an easy catch.”

“Catching a doggie is like trying to pass College Honors Abstract Algebra – it is a struggle. And because it is difficult to land, most couldn’t resist having dogtooth on top of their fishing bucket list…. Dogtooth tuna [is] awfully strong so be prepared to hold on tight and hope for the best,” it says.

Another fishing website,, said that the dogtooth, “once hooked … will normally make a high-speed run towards the bottom. No amount of drag will be enough to stop the reel from screaming and, if the fish makes it to the reef structure, your line from being cut.”

My arms and hands were shaking from the bout with this beast about as tall as I am (173cm). Days later, I could still feel the pain on my shoulders from that battle.

I got scared looking at the fish floating in the water, even if it was hardly moving.

“It has 20 sharp canine-shaped teeth per jaw. And once your line hits the teeth, it’s done,” master angler Clifford Gonzales, who manages Hook Pro, told me later.

He said 75 percent of lines will be cut when a dogtooth tuna bites the lure.

So this must be the kind of fish that cut all my lines in our fishing expeditions in Siargao.

Now that the big fish was on the surface, we were in a quandary on how to bring it to shore. I asked the boatman to get his gaff and hook it on the fish’s jaw, then used a nylon rope to strap it to the side of the boat and dragged it, the way Santiago pulled his large marlin to shore in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Where Roel caught his dogtooth tuna off the western coast of Surigao City, based on GPS coordinates embedded in the video taken with an iPhone. Map courtesy of Google

But recalling what happened to the fictional hero’s fish, I was afraid the dogtooth, too, will attract sharks, feast on it, and put our lives in danger.

We decided to just haul it into the boat. Romelito (the boatman) and I helped to bring it up, but the boat nearly flipped because of the weight. I asked my brother, who was taking videos and pictures with his phone, to stop shooting and help by moving away to keep the boat’s balance.

I was afraid to hold the dogtooth by its jaw. Who knows it might still have the strength to snap my hands into pieces. So we held it by its gills, counted to three, and pulled it up with all our might. We confirmed later it weighed 55 kilos.

As I looked at the fallen sea creature by my side, I was amazed at its size. I could not believe I caught this elusive fish. I laid my back against the boat’s bow to ease the pain in my back, sometimes shaking my head to make sure it was not a dream.

I must have glanced at the fish a hundred times on our way to the shore.

I felt sorry for the hapless sea creature. I killed him.

Upon reaching the shore, volunteers came to help haul the dogfoot tuna. Photo taken 29 December 2020 by ROEL N. CATOTO / MindaNews

As we reached the shore, my boatman called out his neighbors for help in unloading the fish. People began gathering, asking questions, curiously looking at how the fish punctured and deformed my 250-gram lead lure.

Camera phones flickered and more people kept coming, unmindful of the need for physical distancing. I asked some gentlemen to help carry the fish to our car before the police might arrive and disperse us for breaking health protocols in this pandemic.

Just like old times, we butchered the fish. I gave out maybe half of the meat to friends and sold what could no longer fit in our ref.

I’m flattered by the congratulatory notes sent by fellow fishing hobbyists.

Clifford Gonzales was among them, and I replied that it was the result of his constant guidance and support.

“You are the new king,” said James O’Donnel, of Dope Trips that offers a fishing and surfing charter in Siargao. But I reminded him I didn’t catch the fish in Siargao. Thus, Andre Antigua remains king of the island after he got a 41-kilogram dogtooth a few months ago off General Luna.

But, what a yearend catch it was for me, my greatest catch ever. (Roel N. Catoto / MindaNews)