Schools of tuna often spread out over a wide area. Chumming can gather them close to the stern, the live bait suggesting a much larger number. When tuna spot the thrashing, they often, though not always, go into a feeding frenzy and will bite at anything that shines in the whitewater, including a hook on a wire leader.
Until around the 1920s, tuna boats chopped up sardines for bait. Chummers used to cover their noses from the monstrous stench of sardine scraps baking in the sun. Many chain-smoked cigarettes for the same purpose. When Japanese fishermen came to the West Coast, they introduced several innovations: one was live bait. The splashing created a more realistic feeding ground.
A pole-fisherman doesn’t cast his line in a rainbow arc. He slaps the pole hard on the surface. Sensing a rich cluster of food created by the sudden pop, hungry tuna charge into the roiling circle.
Many claim that pole-fishing techniques don’t harm the porpoises that often swim with tuna. “They didn’t like the lures,” says Edward Soltesz. “Ours had feathers and catgut wrapped around them, and when they got wet they looked like squid in the water. That apparently was a delicacy for the tuna. The porpoise didn’t care for it. I don’t know what the porpoise ate.”
When the tuna are really biting, it’s slap-pull, slap-pull: pole-pop the water, tug out a fish. The frenzy’s on both sides of the railing.
Poles have changed little in the past 30 years. In 1908, Masaharu Kondo, who taught oceanography at Tokyo Imperial University, toured the world to study how people fished. In 1912, he returned to San Diego and Baja, where he established MK Fisheries. Along with live bait and new refrigeration techniques, Kondo and the other Japanese fishermen introduced the bamboo poles still used by tuna boats in 1946.
Both firm and flexible, the eight- or nine-foot pole brings in tuna without damaging them the way purse seines do. To assure a good grip, the base of the pole is two inches in diameter; the tip’s three-fourths to an inch thick. To protect themselves, fishermen strap a thick leather belt around their waists. A padded socket right below the stomach holds the pole. Many wonder how former anglers survived without one.
Like baseball players’ special bats, fishermen have a personal pole. Wet bamboo is slippery. For secure handholds, each fisherman carries a file in his tackle box to cut indentations in the grip. Some wrap adhesive tape around the base, for the left hand, and a foot or so higher up, for the right. Others use twine. In no time, sweat and the elements turn the grip to coffee-brown.
Using a single pole with a six-foot line, wrote Motosuke Tsuida, captain of the White Cloud, “the Japanese fisherman could catch the fish fast. Our men fished with a certain rhythm, and the fish would come off the hook in mid-air. From a distance, the tuna looked like silver petals falling from a tree.”
For larger tuna — from, say 40 to 80 pounds — two fishermen work in tandem. The heavy cotton lines from their two poles go through a swivel, then join to a single leader and hook. For even bigger fish — as at the Galapagos — three poles, sometimes four, are necessary. The larger the fish, the larger the hook and the smaller the pole.
“When a tuna struck,” writes Edgar E. Crane, “all three men lunged backward simultaneously, catapulting the great fish out of the sea. The teamwork of the men exceeded the trained tactics of any football squad or shell crew that was ever seen.”
The bamboo comes uncut from Japan. Fishermen are careful to shape them as alike as possible, so they’ll work as a matched set. “We had to cut off the knots from the bamboo to make fishing poles,” says Soltesz. “For a limber pole, you cut the bottom off, and for a stiff pole, you would cut off the top part and the bottom would get real big.”
Kondo didn’t invent these techniques, which may have begun with the first Japanese fishing community in San Diego in 1899. But he had a definite influence. In 1922, the Pacific Fisherman journal named him the “Fish Magnate of California.”
In 1886, the naturalist Charles Frederick Holder saw his first school of “leaping tuna” in the Santa Catalina channel: “they came like a cyclone, turning the quiet waters into foam, in and out of which the big fishes darted like animated arrows or torpedoes.” Others in those early days reported seeing schools so large you could walk across the water on their backs.
Tuna have irregular migrating patterns. By the 1920s, they still came from the west, but yellowfin would arrive farther and farther down the Pacific Coast (albacore, which prefer cooler waters, moved farther north before turning toward Japan). The San Diego fleet moved south. In 1926, captain Manuel O. Medina and the Campbell Machine Company of San Diego built the Atlantic, the first “tuna clipper.” It was at least 110 feet long and designed for distant voyages. When such a large boat was under construction, Medina confessed, “people told me I was crazy, and, until the vessel proved herself, I thought maybe they were right.”
In 1929, the wood-hulled Atlantic was the first American tuna boat to cross the equator. In 1930, Medina fished 500 miles off the coast of Equador and made record catches. A pioneer like Kondo, Medina was the first to use sonar and to install refrigeration in the holds.
Around 1900, a fishing trip lasted one or two days, since there was no way to preserve the catch much longer. In 1946, one might take at least two months. The fish are now farther from San Diego, storing techniques are improved, and “tropical tuna” — striped skipjack (the least desired) and yellowfin (the most) — run yearlong. In 1925, a “short ton” of yellowfin paid $80; in 1946, it’s $200 to $280.
Part 2: Let's catch us some tuna | Part 3: The Lone Wolf hits a royal flush | Part 4: Beauty goin' down