Every sport or occupation has a dream scenario: score the winning goal; close the impossible sale. For old-time tuna “bait boats,” it was the Big Catch, a mammoth haul with bamboo poles and lines. In August 1953, Julius Zolezzi and his crew lived the dream. “The Lone Wolf hit a royal flush”: a run of albacore that never seemed to end.
A captain for 27 years and former president of the American Tuna Boat Association, Zolezzi is a third-generation fisherman. His grandfather Julius emigrated from Genoa, Italy, moved to San Diego in 1906, and fished for rock cod. “He made a very good living during the Depression. He’d go outside Point Loma, catch maybe a ton of rock cod, and sell it at the Embarcadero for about 1.5 cents a pound. Nobody could afford meat in those days, so they lined up to buy the fish.”
Everyone called Julius the “Rock Cod King.” Zolezzi’s father, John B., earned the nickname “Rock Cod Johnny” for his connection with the “king.”
Though he’d worked on tuna boats since age 9, this was only the 23-year-old Julius Zolezzi’s third time as captain. Like his father and grandfather, Zolezzi followed what he half jokingly calls rule number one of the skippers’ code: “Make sure you’ve got a good cook. On a bait boat, quarters are tight. Men fish elbow to elbow. The galley’s the one central place where the crew gathers.” They usually play cribbage or cutthroat pinochle. “And they talk. So keep the stomachs full with good food. When a bad cook rings the bell, you could have more than just a bad meal.”
Zolezzi stocked the 65-foot-long boat with enough food and fuel for 40 days at sea. “These weren’t high-speed engines,” he says. “We could do about eight knots.” Since they packed the fish in ice, “your time was limited. You had to make sure the ice stayed firm. Stay out too long, you lose it.”
In the early 1950s, it was said that the two hardest jobs in America were coal mining and bait boats. And one of the hardest parts of fishing was catching bait, since crews pulled in the nets and brailed the catch by hand, day and night.
Before heading south, the Lone Wolf anchored off Coronado’s Silver Strand. The crew lowered three small boats into the water: a speedboat, a skiff, and a smaller “bait-receiver” craft. The speedboat towed the others to a spot where anchovies crackled on the surface like frying bacon. The skiff had a small, circular net (a “purse seine”) astern. The speedboat pulled the net off the skiff and circled the anchovies with a ring of corks.
Crewmen drew up the bottom of the net, creating a pouch, and scooped hundreds of flopping anchovies onto the bait skiff. When full, the speedboat towed it back to the Lone Wolf. Using hand nets, or “brails,” crewmembers scooped the catch into bait boxes astern. The chummer kept the anchovies alive by pouring fresh seawater into the tank. After several sets, the Lone Wolf headed for Ensenada plugged with anchovies and a crew of six.
Most tuna boats from San Diego had local crews, often members of the same extended Italian or Portuguese family. As his father had done, Julius picked up three Mexican crewmen at Ensenada. “Top seamen,” he says. “Hard workers, and great spotters. We used them all the time.” Now with a crew of nine, the boat headed west, to San Martin Island and beyond.
“Rock Cod Johnny” had built the Lone Wolf in 1937 at the shipyards on the Embarcadero. The wooden-hulled vessel could store 65 tons of tuna. When not in school, young Julius worked on the boat. In the middle of World War II, he learned that his father did more than fish for tuna.
In 1943, the Lone Wolf anchored in a cove at San Martin Island, six miles west of Baja. At least 60 tons of tuna lay iced in the hold. “Time to go home and see Mama,” his father told Julius. Then he decided to stay out one more day.
That night, a stick caught in the check valve, which backed up the outward flow of water. Soon a green spillway covered the floorboards of the engine room. The engine died. As the ocean poured in, John B. shouted, “Get in the skiff!”
The crew didn’t panic. As they rowed away, the Lone Wolf went under. Only debris popping to the surface and lazy whitecaps marked its passing.
“We were all together,” Zolezzi remembers. “That’s the main thing. You can always build a new boat. But we lost our fish.”
John B. radioed the Navy. The next day a destroyer arrived from San Diego. It lowered 18-foot orange pontoons into the shallow water. Divers roped them to the hull, and the Lone Wolf rose in a burst of bubbles, broke the surface, and rocked back and forth. As it righted itself, water spilled down all sides.
“We thanked them,” says Zolezzi. “They turned around and went back to San Diego. Wouldn’t tow us. We had to hire a tugboat to take us back.”
But why would a Navy destroyer sail 140 miles, during wartime, to salvage a tuna boat? That day, Zolezzi learned that his father was working for government intelligence. He did surveillance along the coast, looking for submarines, planes, minefields, anything suspicious. “He never talked about it, then or after. None of us knew a word. But the Navy sure came quick.”
In 1953, when the Lone Wolf sailed by San Martin Island, Zolezzi had no thoughts of the past. He was heading west, toward Guadalupe Island, and thinking of albacore. “It’s a really pretty fish,” he says, “blue on top, silver on the bottom, long pectoral fins on the sides, almost like wings. And it’s beautifully round.”
Unlike tuna, which thrive in 80-degree water, albacore prefer 60–67 degrees Fahrenheit. They reach the West Coast between June and October, and some years not at all. “When caught,” says Zolezzi, “they don’t fight like yellowfin. They kick a little but then give up. Don’t know why. And when they hit, you have to be very careful bringing them in, since they have tender mouths.”
Part 1: Anatomy of a Tuna Clipper | 2: Let's catch us some tuna! | 4: Beauty goin down