Gino perked up at the wheel as he sighted a flock of seagulls slowly circling the ocean dead ahead. Birds might mean bait, and bait might mean a school. Unconsciously he fingered the small gold cross that hung about his neck on a corroded Navy dog-tag chain.
“Keep your eyes on those birds,” he ordered his brother. “If you spot anything, yell.” He’d make a fisherman of little Nino yet. In one trip the midget had already developed into a lively bait passer and had even began to help Gino chum.
A piercing “Ai-ai-ai” from the bait tanks suddenly threw the crew into action. Gino swung the wheel completely to the left so the Stella would slowly circle back to the same position. In almost the same moment he pulled his rubber boots up halfway and swapped his gray cap for a helmet liner. Little Nino followed closely as the fisherman ran and leaped from the wheelhouse, across a wooden plank to the bait box.
Marco, Jasper, and Tits had already lowered the rusty iron racks on the stern and were standing in them, water up to their calves, while they thrashed the water methodically with squid lines. Benny was barely pulling his pole from the rack.
“Get your ass moving!” Gino yelled at the Mexican. He stood watching as Peter the Rat quickly pulled in the taut jig line. Three other lines tied to beams were still slack.
“What you see?” Gino asked.
The Rat squinted into the water and began skimming the surface as Peter pulled the line closer.
Gino spit over the side. “Wouldn’t you know it! First strike all day and it’s a stinking yellowtail.” He called to the men in the racks. “False alarm, but leave the racks down and keep your eyes peeled. We’re heading for those birds.” He pointed to the circling gulls.
Benny shaded his eyes and stared. “Gino! Is lots of seaweed too.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Gino snorted in disgust and tugged at the leather fish pad about Benny’s waist as the Mexican climbed onto the bait tank. “Loosen that snatchbox. It’s too high. Get a fish and it’d tear it right off you. Balls and all. Then you know what? No more bambini, no more nothing!”
Benny grinned as he unbuckled the pad built with a deep slot to support his fishing pole. Gino delighted in ribbing the Mexican about his family. His sleepy, equally thin-boned wife had already borne him six scrawny sons, and another baby was on its way. The Mexican was lazy and out-ate everyone, including big Tits. But as a spotter Benny couldn’t be beat. His drooping, heavy eyes somehow quickened and darted with new life when he stood atop the swaying mast in the crow’s nest. Many a time the Mexican’s uncanny ability to spot a school had helped Gino maintain his envied position among the local fisherman of San Diego.
The skipper waited until Peter the Rat had unhooked the limp yellowtail and tossed it back into the water before he returned to the wheel. False strikes were a common, expected part of the fishing game. Porpoise sometimes bit the feathered, double-pronged jigs. More often yellowtail. Some days 20 and more strikes might be made before a tuna would bite. If fishing had been slow and a school of yellowtail were about, Gino would have gone after the fish. But this September the albacore were still having a late run; it might end any day. While bigger and better fish remained to be caught, the yellowtail could wait. It was bad enough that they brought a low price on the market. It was even worse having to handle the long, slimy bodies covered with the watery feces they exuded continually, even after they were dead.
Gino checked the compass and again turned the wheel toward the seaweed. He could hear the gulls screeching now. There was something there, all right. Maybe albacore. Maybe only yellowtail, the school of the one that they had caught.
This time when Peter the Rat, yelled Gino was waiting. Even before he reached the crew, Marco was shouting happily. “They’re breaking! They’re breaking!” Directly to port the calm, smooth ocean took on life as albacore broke the water’s crest and dived below.
The Rat pulled in his line, deftly unhooked a silvery and gold-scaled albacore, and slid it over the side onto the deck. All the lines were now taut. As he went from one jig line to the other and dragged in the fish, the crew rooted and cheered wildly. This was what they had been waiting for! The more noise the better. It sparked them and turned their grueling work into sport. The men trashed their lines furiously and beat the squids over the water. The albacore had to be coaxed to bite.
Nino dipped a long-handled scoop into a bait tank and stood ready for a call from the men in the racks. With wide outward sweeps Gino reached into a scoop he held in his hand and chummed, flinging the wiggling sardines ever closer to the stern, luring the albacore closer to the Stella.
As the breaks came nearer he shouted down. “Marco! Jazzy! Get your live-bait poles. No, not you, Benny! Dammit, keep beating that water!”
As Marco and Jazzy turned toward the canopied deck, Nino passed them his long scoop. Into the small metal boxes on the railing the men dumped the sardines, then reached in to seize the fish and slip them onto their barbless hooks.
Albacore were now breaking all about the stern, but not one had yet bitten. Gino lifted a sardine from his scoop. With a quick flick he popped an eye out and tossed the fish into the water. The sardine swam crazily in small circles, half out of the water. Round and round it spun, guided only by its one eye. With a graceful thrust of its head an albacore gulped the bait and disappeared. Gino looked down. The clear water was swarming with slow-moving bodies.