Skipjack tuna
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An Imagined Voyage
The glare on the water teases the eyes. Lazy sunrays glint, warp, and wisp away in the troughs of deep-blue swells. The rolling shimmers lull spotters from their task: find schools of tuna.

We’re off the coast of Mexico, pole-fishing for tuna. It’s June 1947. Our bait boxes are plugged with live sardines and anchovies. In the crow’s nest, the spotter scans the horizon with black binoculars. He adjusts the center-wheel focus on the 7 x 50s for a clearer view.

The ability to read the ocean, to identify different schools of tuna from afar, is a priceless skill. And not just what kind of tuna, but what they’re doing: Are they feeding or on the move? Will a sighting justify the intricate bull work of hauling them in or just waste precious bait?

The spotter doesn’t expect a bulging horde of 20- to 50-pound yellowfin steeple-chasing on the bounding main. The older the yellowfin, the more it prefers smaller groups — pods — deeper down; and even deeper, the higher the sun’s in the sky.

Spotters look for “jumpers,” tuna leaping into the air, and “boilers” and “foamers,” feeding tuna that churn the water. Pole-fishing for boilers has an advantage: the mechanical grind of the engine or the whip-whip of the spinning propeller won’t frighten them. The disadvantage: schools feed for unpredictable lengths of time, from a few minutes to hours. Boilers and foamers may signal the end of a frenzy.

A riot of whitewater is a magnet for birds. Some say, the larger the bird, the bigger the school, and that for every huge, coal-black man-o’-war overhead, at least ten tons of tuna swim below. Even a single man-o’-war — also called “pirate birds” because they rob others of their food — can lure a boat from a mile away.

Here’s where a spotter’s eyes come in. While others might see only a ripple or a zephyr wafting across the surface, a good spotter sees “breezers,” the tips of fins and dorsals.

Like over…there!

No one says a word. As the boat moves toward the target, the chummer, the man with the apron, climbs to his position near the stern. When the boat has the school on its left — portside, the lea side of the wind — he will toss live bait to attract the fish.

Nine fishermen grab bamboo poles from the canopy and take their places on the racks, iron balconies that unfold outside the boat almost at the water line. They’re on the stern and curve around to portside.

On our boat everyone works. The cook and engineer fish from the stern. The three best fishermen work from the “center,” that curve between the stern and portside. The rest go portside, the least experienced farthest up the line.

Pole-fishing demands upper-body strength. But what most landlubbers don’t realize is the toll it takes on the legs, especially the thighs. Like weightlifters, fishermen lift with their lower bodies, all the while trying to maintain balance on a boat rocking from side to side. An old adage: “Waves like to knock you around.”

As they wait, they flex sore knees (knee-pads only help so much) and backs. They close and open fists to get the circulation going. Now Skipper’s got the boat in place. The chummer’s tossing bait at a black spot near the racks, and…

Nothing. Nary a nip.

“You can tell right away if they’re going to bite or not,” says Julius Zolezzi, a tuna captain for 27 years. “I’ve seen large schools right on the surface that wouldn’t. It’ll drive you nuts!”

“Tuna fishing is never a continuous process,” writes H.C. Godsil. “In the log book of a tuna boat will be seen repeatedly the statement: ‘Lots of fish — won’t bite,’ and to one who knows, this terse excerpt tells a tale of an irritated crew in enforced, exasperated idleness, with days and profits slipping by.”

The crew returns to regular duties: scrub the deck, check to see if they’ve packed fish correctly in the refrigerated bins below, resupply deck tanks with live bait.

The boat changes course. Something out there. Crewmen return to the racks. They notice a swarm of black splotches just above the horizon. “Working birds” — birds that loop and dive-bomb — signal feeding fish. Some flap giant wings: pirates!

The water looks like soup boiling over. The boat eases into position. The chummer scoops and tosses live bait, scoops and tosses in a steady rhythm.

Nine poles slap the water, making the baitfish seem like a school.

A skipjack strikes with astonishing speed. The fisherman slides his left foot under the rack for support and loads weight on his right leg, braced behind him. His left hand anchors the pole in a leather pad. He arches his back and heaves upward with his right hand. Tension on the line secures the hook.

The skipjack rises like a launched rocket, the white underbelly squirming to break free, the tail whipping side to side.

At the top of his arc, the man relaxes his grip. The barbless hook releases the fish, which soars up and over a three-foot rail and tumbles onto the wooden alleyway between the rail and the bait box.

Another joins it. Then another thumps onto the deck.

Never once does the fisherman take his eye off the hook. He watches it all the way back and straight back down to the water.

“The worst accident I ever saw in all my years of fishing,” says Julius Zolezzi: “one of the pole-men portside forgot to follow his hook. The wind was up that day. Blew the hook over the canopy and into the eye of a sternman. Fishing stopped. We got him as fast as we could to a hospital. He lost the eye.”

Edward Soltesz, who worked on bait boats for many years, recalled a crewmate who also lost an eye. “He was so afraid of losing the other, he had a mask he wore.”

Part 1: Anatomy of a Tuna Clipper | 3: Lone Wolf hits a royal flush | 4: Beauty goin down

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