Chasing Torpedoes with the Tuna Whisperer

Sometimes great fun is hard work.

At 3:25 a.m. last Sunday, ten fishermen, two deckhands (Brian and Tyler), and Captain Rob Gudgell were having a briefing aboard the Katie Marie.  Mostly it was safety stuff and reaching an agreement about how the fish—should we catch any—would be divided among the fishers.  Then there was the reminder.  Those of us who’d fished with Captain Rob already knew what was coming, but the newbies needed to hear it; it was Cap’s admission of passion for finding and catching fish, and an admonition to not take personally anything he might say in the midst of fishing chaos.  That settled, we left the Ilwaco Harbor and headed into the Pacific.

Of the ten fishers on the boat, seven were Homeys of one stripe or another; Kirk Johnson and I traveled from Paradise.  Kirk’s son-in-law Ben, my boyfriend-in-law (one day a son-in-law) Brian, and his buddy James gathered from the Puget Sound area.  My son Edward and son-in-law Chris flew in from Denver.  It was a much-anticipated day.

We hadn’t anticipated such a slow start, however.  The 14 to 40 pound albacore race around the ocean searching for giant spherical schools of small fish (“bait balls” they are often called) at up to 50 miles an hour.  On our morning, these schools of a few dozen to several hundred tuna were racing in some other part of the ocean.  Finding—and catching—was slow, slow, slow.

Finally, at some point, someone yelled “Tuna!” and the chaos began.  …And ended.  We had one fish on the hand line, I brought in the first fish of the day on a rod, and that was that.  After another couple hours, Cap found another school, and four or five more fish came aboard.  Then, we spent more hours searching the ocean for any sign of feeding frenzies—flocks of seagulls, small fish leaping out of the water, whatever.

The water was pretty quiet, the air was perfect and the skies were off and on clear.  And, by 1:30 in the afternoon, the ten of us had managed to bring fewer than a dozen tuna on board.  They were beautiful big tuna, for sure, but few in numbers.

Captain Rob is a life-long fisherman and boat nut.  He was a deckhand as a kid, fully licensed in 1981, and is a full-time captain since 1998.  In 2002, he brought the use of live anchovies for tuna fishing to Ilwaco, supplementing the use of jigs.  He is known for his intensity in coaching his fishers to success.  He has good juju.

Anyhow, just about 1:30, Deckhand Brian’s eye and Captain Rob’s skill, experience and magic kicked in.  We were suddenly up to our aching muscles in a very big school of good-sized tuna.  The chaos began in earnest, rising to a crescendo, in a great joyful and wild dance.

Cap circulated with live anchovies, cajoling and pleading, “Watch your lines!  Jim, follow your fish—if it goes that way, go with it!  Go under Brian…  Scott over that guy and under her!  Come on people, pay attention!  No tangles!  Don’t let anybody cut your line!  Get them on board, bait up and get back out there!  Hey!  No slack line—no bird nests on your reel!  Pay attention guys!  Keep your footing!  Over!  Under!”  …And so it went for a couple hours of arm-wrenching struggles with big tough fish.

Somewhere in there a homey observed that Captain Rob was a kind of tuna missionary, unwavering in his determination to talk albacore tuna onto the boat.  Hard to argue with such logic, but I liked Boyfriend-in-law Brian’s take on it more.  “Think about it a moment, Jim,” Brian smiled at me, “the guy is a ‘Tuna Whisperer…”

He was right, of course.  Cap would skillfully hook a live anchovy, and it would quickly hit the ocean as the fisher stripped line.  As the fisher focused, Cap was almost whispering instructions.  “One… Two… Three… Four… Five… Now drop the drag… Six… Seven… Tighten it slowly… Eight… Nine… Ten!  There he is!  Now don’t lose this one!”  With that, he was on to the next tuna wrangler, continuing his mission to get tuna on board the Katie Marie.

At one point, Cap was helping me replace gear I had just lost to a nice fish.  “You suck at this,” he said.  When I quickly reminded him I had caught a couple tuna, and whined that others’ lines had crossed and cut my line and that was why I had just lost a 20 minute battle with the biggest albacore in the ocean, he half-smiled.  “Well, they suck at this, too…  Now don’t lose that one running with your bait.”  And off he went on his endless mission, leaving me to a new battle.

Near the end of our tuna fishing frenzy, after a half-hour battle, I brought in the biggest tuna I have yet caught; a flashy 30.4 pounds.  Others in that size range were aboard, too.

At 4:00, we had to quit and head back.  By then, we had about 50 tuna aboard—all big tough Pacific torpedoes.  Everyone had aching arms and big smiles.

Hard work, but the day became exactly the day we had all anticipated.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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