The water’s seething now. Whooshing wings descend on darting silver movements beneath the foam. From portside around to the stern, bamboo poles rise and fall and slap the water like old-time wheat threshers.
Noises drown each other out: squawking birds, the roars of wind and open sea; curses, grunts, voices. When a frenzy’s on, a tuna-man runs on instinct and adrenaline. He fishes his designated area and has no time for thought.
One snares one coming right at him. In a swift motion, he uses the fish’s forward momentum; he lifts it up, wheels it to the right, and it nosedives down behind the rail. A classic catch, equal to a line-drive by Ted Williams or one of Sammy Baugh’s mile-high punts.
Foul balls and shanked kicks are just as prevalent. At least one of three fish slips the hook, either too early or too late. Tuna bang into the canopy or blast onto the rack, knocking people down or overboard, and sometimes breaking bones.
“A 15- or 20-pound tuna can take a 200-pound man down,” says Arnold Fernandes. “I’ve seen that happen many a time.”
The feeding intensifies. Foam flows across the surface like white lava. Now several tuna attack at once. To an untrained eye, the scene is, at best, sheer chaos; at worst, the very definition of madness.
“The trick,” says Soltesz, “was to get the fish lined up, but they came from all directions. You never knew when they were going to hit.
“Their favorite way was from under the boat, heading straight out. They would grab the lure and just pull your arms out of your sockets.”
Another misery: tuna usually feed with their heads up. Hook one pointing down, and it feels four times as heavy. “You would see that fish just about ready to hit your hook,” says Leonard Ingrande. “If it’s a good-sized fish, you’ve got to be on your way up before it bites, otherwise, he is going to put his head down, and it’ll to be real tough getting him up.
“Once you get precision enough to do this, it becomes automatic. As soon as that fish bites, his head is going to come up, and he’s going to keep flapping his tail. He helps you. He’s kind of swimming upward.”
During a good run, most tuna-men are too engrossed to feel the strain. Hook a tuna with its head down, and the hands go numb and arms and legs screech in pain. Notions of play or sport or money in the bank give way to sudden, stone-dead exhaustion. Yet, somehow, most manage to keep going.
“I never worked harder than on a bait boat,” recalls Julius Zolezzi. “You’re using all your muscles. But hard work never bothered a crew. Get hit by a fish and fall in the rack, you pick yourself up and start fishing again. Crews were incredible workers.”
Because tuna fishermen get paid in shares, says Ingrande, “you’ll break your neck to catch fish... You would just ache from head to toe… You get all this raw skin, and the boat would roll, and that salt water would hit all this raw area, it would be like fire going right straight to your brain.”
A big one took a hook: yellowfin, at least 50 pounds twisting left and right in protest. Too big for one man. Crewmen on each side reach to steady the pole. Still too big. Without saying a word — there’s no time — the man in the middle “hand-lines” the pole, walking his fingers to the tip and pulling it onto the rack. He bends the thick bamboo until a notch snaps.
A big one got away, but they prevented the number-one no-no of tuna fishing: never lose your pole. A man going overboard — aka “shaking hands with the rudder” — doesn’t always bother the fish. But when a pole hits the water and the tuna drags it out to sea, the school either chases after the spinning stick or scatters.
“Two-pole fish!” someone shouts at large yellowfin heading for the hooks. Men break into pairs and grab two-pole rigs from the canopy: shorter poles, larger hooks. Now partners, two lines with one hook connected by a swivel, they fish in tandem.
A big one rises from the depths. They time the strike and arch their backs in unison. Both should pull to their right, but this rogue’s too heavy to swing around. It’s coming on a line-drive. Each man takes one step to the side. The fish powers through the corridor and crash-lands on the alleyway.
There’s blood on the water now. Hooks that don’t catch can rip a tuna’s mouth. Red droplets disperse amid the froth. Sharks come to inspect.
To anchor themselves, men on the racks poke their left toes four or five inches under the rail. Now they must be careful. Sharks tear a bleeding tuna off a hook and carry it away. Some swim up and bump your toes hanging over the side, to see if you’re edible. If they start doing that, bang their snout with your pole!
And keep an eye out for wahoo. That’s a barracuda’s mean older brother. Why, I’ve seen those razor-sharp teeth…
Flash — what!?
Spooked dorsals bullet away. Wings grind upward. Sharks submerge. Ocean swells skim the froth. Within minutes, only blue water remains.
Must have caught ten tons. Though most don’t fish with them, many in the crew now put on gloves. Some use a board and shove tuna forward, up mid-ship, to the refrigerated hold. Leave fish out in the sun for very long, they tan and fry. Other crewmen clean the alleyway of blood and slime.
No one says much. And while their bodies clamor for a good long break — food enough for three and a week of deep sleep — their eyes scan the ocean for the telltale signs of tuna on the move. ■
- Leonard Ingrande: “It took an art to fish by hand like that.”
- Michael Orbach: “The teamwork necessary to the process is so pervasive that if anything goes wrong, it’s hard for the actions of one man to make a significant difference.”
- Seafood database: “Pole-fishing is a highly selective method, which has little or no impact on the marine environment…and little bycatch, and no impact on bottom habitats.”
Part 1: Anatomy of a Tuna Clipper | 3: Lone Wolf hits a royal flush | 4: Beauty goin down