Hunting Big Tuna with the Pacific Tuna Whisperer

Last weekend was the family’s sixth Labor Day Tuna Adventure in Ilwaco. We have a fine habit; every year we chase tuna with Captain Rob Gudgell on the Katie Marie (named after his daughter). In February 2012, I met Milt and Sarah Gudgell (Rob’s folks) at their Pacific Salmon Charters booth at the Central Washington Sportsman Show in Yakima. How do you explain that instant sense of meeting an old friend for the first time? I don’t know, either, but we were immediately into tuna talk, and within a few minutes, I’d signed on for several family albacore tuna fishing spots aboard the Katie Marie. That first year was so much fun, that I have reserved the whole boat (ten fishers) on each Labor Day Sunday since.

Every year is different. That first year, we brought 88 tuna aboard, filling the boat. The next year, we ran out of time at 50 fish – but all bigger than the first year. The following year, we worked to get nearly three fish apiece. In year four (2015) family and friends descended on Ilwaco from as far away as Los Angeles and Denver, but exceptionally stormy weather kept us from reaching the tuna schools – we turned back about 12 miserable miles out. Last year was rainy, but manageable, and 70 25- to 33-pounders filled the boat. This year looked like a shipwreck, for a little while.

Each year, we have filled the Katie Marie with family and close friends/homeys. This year, a week before our big Labor Day weekend trip, there were only six of us. By Thursday, we were down to five. In a couple cases, a father or other family member was very ill. In another, end-of-career work tasks took precedence. For another, some sort of ethical dilemma arose.

Last-of-the-Hucklings Edward drove up from LA a couple days early, picked up brother Jonathan at the Portland airport and they started up Mount Hood for a night on the ground before our fishing. Just as they started up Thursday evening, Ed got a text from his stunt coordinator (he is a stunt double for characters on Fox’s “The Mick”). They came off the mountain, Ed caught a flight back to LA, worked the 12-hour stunt gig until about Midnight Friday, got back on a plane to Portland, Jonny picked him up, and they were waiting at the Ilwaco campground when we arrived Saturday afternoon.

Turned out others were eager to join our trip with the Tuna Whisperer of the Pacific. When all was said and done, five of us aboard would be family and five would be other cool people.

We assembled at 3 a.m. Sunday morning and filed aboard the Katie Marie. About 20 miles out onto the Pacific, Cap explained that the wind and chop were getting worse by the moment; even if we could get to the tuna schools, which he doubted, it would be too rough to fish. Amidst a fair amount of angst, mixed with gratitude for knowing that Captain Rob would keep us upright, we headed back to the Ilwaco Marina. We reached port at 7:30, with a second chance; we could get back on the boat Monday morning for another run at the ocean torpedoes. After long debate and discussion, son-in-law Brian opted to stick with our normal Monday return for work.

Thus, Monday morning at 3:15 a.m. Edward, Jonathan, Cousin Dave Yount and I joined four other second-chanchers and headed west under full power. Cap, Deckhand Nathan and Co-Captain Loyal ran through the normal safety drill, reminded us about how to catch tuna with live anchovies, and joined us in a silent prayer for a calm, smooth day and plenty of tuna.

It turned out to be as perfect a day as I have ever experienced on the Pacific: light winds and off and on sun, with just enough chop to remind us that we were on a rocking (and sometimes lurching) boat.

The tuna hunt was a challenge, but this was not Captain Rob’s first rodeo. He did, after all, introduce live anchovy bait fishing for tuna in 2002, changing the tuna charter culture in Ilwaco. He has an intensity and determination (and an eye for swarming birds over leaping baitfish) that leads him to schools of big tuna no matter how scattered they are. He is the tuna whisperer.

About 8:30, someone finally yelled, “Tuna!” In moments, Cap had everyone at rods. He circulated with live anchovies, cajoling and pleading, “Watch your lines! Edward, follow your fish – if it goes that way, go with it! Go under Dwayne… Dave! Go over Jonny and duck under Jim! Come on people, pay attention! No tangles! Don’t cross lines – don’t let anybody cut your line! Don’t lose a fish! Nathan, get the net forward! Come on, get that fish on board, then 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! Follow that fish! Square up with your line!” …And, thus, we lived in organized chaos for a time as we drifted with school of tuna. They were beautiful, large, strong fish, too, from 25 to 35 pounds. That school disappeared.

We watched for baitfish and sea birds, and an hour or so later, we did it again. Then again. While we never hit the big school, we headed in with 33 very nice albacore tuna.

It took two tries to hit this year’s near-perfect day of tuna fishing. A bit convoluted, a bit incomplete without the whole family gang, a lot of patience and faith.


[Huckabay with the smallest of the day’s tuna…]

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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