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.
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.”
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.”
- Felando, August J., “California’s Tuna Clipper Fleet: 1918–1963,” Mains’l Haul, 1996, 1997, vols. 32 and 33, numbers 4, 1, and 3.
- Felando and Medina, Harold, The Tuna/Porpoise Controversy, San Diego, 2011.
- Fernandes, Arnold, interview.
- Godsil, H.C., “The High Seas Tuna Fishery of California,” Division of Fish and Game of California Bureau of Marine Fisheries, Fish Bulletin No. 51.
- Ingrande, Leonard, “An Interview with Leonard Ingrande,” San Diego History Center Oral History Program, May 7, 1988.
- Orbach, Michael K., Hunters, Seamen, and Entrepreneurs: The Tuna Seinermen of San Diego, Berkeley, 1977.
- Soltesz, Edward S., “Pole Fishing for Tuna, 1937–1941: An Interview with Edward S. Soltesz," Journal of San Diego History, Summer 1991, vol. 37, number 3.
- Zolezzi, Julius H., and Bradley, Lawrence D., Jr., “The Story of the San Diego Tuna Fleet,” Mains’l Haul, Winter/Spring, 2008, vol. 44, numbers 1 and 2; Zolezzi, interview.
Next time: The Lone Wolf Hits a Royal Flush