Albacore run in schools. If a spotter sees a “jumper” arcing through the air, “who knows how many others could be below?” Miss a jumper, miss a school.
Located 200 miles west of Baja, remote Guadalupe Island is renowned for elephant seals and great white sharks. Since it’s on a direct line with the California current, the south-flowing waters are cooler than near the coast.
As it neared Guadalupe, the Lone Wolf trawled jigs — 10–15-fathom lines with red-eyed, fishlike chrome lures — behind the boat. If just one albacore strikes a jig, an entire school might follow.
As sunlight bounced off the rolling swells, an albacore rocketed out of the water, made a majestic, twisting arc, and dove down: a jumper.
Get on it!
Zolezzi was at the helm. The spotter gave him a nod. “The look he sends — you know it’s a good one, but might not mean a thing.” Unlike the giant purse seines commercial boats use today, which surround and snatch everything within reach, “with pole-fishing, you had to get the fish to bite. You’d see these schools, and you’d chum on them, and they wouldn’t bite. And there you were…”
Zolezzi guided the boat portside of a promising dark spot and cut the engine. Crewmen pulled in the jigs. As the chummer tossed live bait, the spot grew. From the skipper’s chair, Zolezzi gazed down on a fisherman’s dream: “10 to 20 fathoms below us, a whole school of albacore, and it’s all black: a big black mass!”
On the racks, nine fishermen popped the water with the tips of bamboo poles. The first fish struck with such fury, it could have been as much from anger as hunger.
The strike made a white boil rip across the surface. A twofold message: to the school below, it’s feeding time; to the crew, these might be hungry albacore. The poles whacked the water — to create more boils — and “The whole bottom came up! They started hitting from all angles. Everywhere, wide-open mouths. A real frenzy. They went nuts!”
Seen from above, the water looked like an intersection without stoplights. Frantic fish shot top speed in all directions. Tails powered from side to side; fins darted and veered.
The poles rose and fell in an automatic rhythm. Slap, pull up to the right, release the fish mid-air. Back down. Slap again. One albacore after another soared over the rail, glinted briefly in the sun, and tumbled onto the alleyway behind the racks.
“It was raining fish!” says Zolezzi.
As a test to see if he could save bait, the chummer stopped tossing anchovies. No difference. If anything, the commotion intensified.
At this point, no one knew they’d hit the mother lode. They were too busy. Plus, an entire school can spook, break away, and vanish in seconds. The crew kept the down-up-back-down motion going, like pistons, one fish at a time. They could sense that the black, cloud-like mass swirling beneath them was expanding. They were elated. In 1953, albacore went for $700 per ton.
Some fish attacked a hook in the air. “They were biting so well,” says Zolezzi, “the alleyway’d fill up, and they’d spill over into the ocean.”
When that happened, the crew set their poles aside. At least knee-deep in flapping and twitching albacore, they herded the catch forward to midship with boards, to make room for more. They hosed down the fish and the alleyway, cleansing both of blood and gurry. Then they turned the hose on each other and returned to the racks.
An albacore can weigh up to 20 pounds and be three feet long. Tuna over 50 pounds required two poles. When the fish are biting, a crew doesn’t stop for anything, not rest, not food, not even a stretching of tired limbs. An albacore is a one-pole fish. But tugging one 18- to 20-pounder after another out of a roiling ocean on a rocking boat for hours and hours can take its toll, even if dollar signs gleam at the end of every hook.
Suddenly, just blue water. The frenzy stopped. A good thing, in a way, because the crew was exhausted, hands numb, shoulders, knees, and thighs aching. Backs throbbed where they banged repeatedly against the rail.
“Coffee,” shouted Zolezzi. As if waking from a coma, the crew filed down to the galley where the cook, named Schroeder, brewed an excellent cup of joe. Then Zolezzi noticed something strange. The school had stopped feeding but didn’t budge. “Still there,” he says. “In fact, there looked like more coming in.”
Thirty minutes later, everyone went back to the racks. At the stern, the chummer tossed “a couple baits” to see if anything would bite.
Tiny anchovies disappeared in an explosion of foam and brine. Nine poles hit the water. Nine albacore burst up from the suds. Far from being over, the frenzy had just begun.
For the next four days, says Zolezzi, “we never moved the boat.”
The pattern continued: Fish bit in flurries. Stopped cold. Coffee break. Back to work. Chummer tosses a handful of bait. “All hell breaks loose again.”
Says Zolezzi: “For four days, the only thing that moved was the boat, drifting with the current. That school under us kept picking up more schools. You probably heard this before, and probably scoffed, but there were so many, you could almost walk on the fish.”
Zolezzi’s still not sure why the school remained in one place for so long. Many fish gather beneath logs and other floating objects. Also, “Once live bait hits the water they head straight under the boat for safety. They stay real close. But who knows?”
Each day they fished from sunrise to sundown, then worked long into the night. The Lone Wolf stored its catch in the hold. Crewmen didn’t just avalanche mounds of albacore down to the bins. Each fish had to be preserved intact, on ice, or it was worthless.
After sundown, the crew washed slimy clothes and hung them to drip out the saltwater (just squeezing them didn’t do the trick). Then they dressed for winter in woolen long johns, heavy coats or rain gear, and thick rubber boots.
Part 1: Anatomy of a Tuna Clipper | 2: Let's catch us some tuna! | 4: Beauty goin down