Tuna and Salmon and Ilwaco and Family

We spent the better part of another Labor Day Weekend in Ilwaco, just north of the mouth of the Columbia. There, we sat around a campfire meditating upon our Monday trip to chase albacore tuna, aka ocean torpedoes, across the Pacific.

This was my third Labor Day in a row in Ilwaco. As I watched all the families on Long Beach playing and laughting and fishing, I realized that this is about family for me, too. Around the campfire over these three 0years have been sons and sons-in-law and daughters and wives and fiances and men I call brother. Somewhere in there, it struck me that this “family” connection with fishing and Ilwaco has been in place for more than four decades, dating back to when my father – The Old Man – and his sons and grandkids chased salmon here.

In early summer of 1975, eleven of us made our last annual salmon pilgrimage to Ilwaco. We had pretty much grown up on salmon, and we loved these trips. Sadly, The Old Man’s health took a tumble in the following year and I think we just never had a heart for making the pilgrimage without him. At any rate, that was a special trip.

The Old Man always wanted a pool. It would spice up our fishing, he insisted. Ten-year-old Tim had an unusual level of confidence that year, and confided to me that it seemed unfair for us to put money in the pool when we already knew we were going to win. I agreed with him that it was probably unfair, and dropped our three bucks apiece in the hat – one dollar for the family’s first salmon, one for the biggest and one for the most caught.

As it turned out, we caught our limits (two apiece, as I recall) and laughed our way around the big water. Everybody managed to catch at least one salmon. Tim caught the first fish and the largest fish of the day, and I caught the most. Back on the docks, as we counted out our winnings, Tim smiled. “They always have to have a pot… They’re gonna wanna play poker tonite to get even, too, I betcha.” As I recall, Tim and I took those pots, too. It was high family times.

So, here we were on Labor Day, last Monday, climbing aboard the Katie Marie. 3:20 a.m. Captain Rob Gudgell, the tuna whisperer, Deckhand Brian, aka Mongo, and ten fishers. I was joined by son Edward, who flew in from Colorado, buddy Bruce Sievertson, who drove up from California, Boyfriend-in-law (one day, perhaps, a son-in-law) Brian Smith and a couple of his homeys, James and Tom O’Grady. Another family group filled our party of ten.

Captain Rob reviewed safety issues and we settled how the fish – if we caught any – were to be divided among fishers. Then there was his serious reminder. We who’d been on Cap’s Katie Marie before knew what was coming, but the newbies needed to hear it; his 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 said, we headed onto the smoothest Pacific I have seen in decades.

At a spot teeming with gulls and baitfish, Cap began a seminar on how to catch tuna. He baited with an anchovie, dropped it into the water and watched is swim slowly away from the boat. As he explained his counting system, and was about to explain how to coordinate with other fishers around the boat, a large tuna grabbed his bait and headed toward Japan. At that moment, our seminar became OJT – on-the-job training. Organized chaos ensued.

Cap or Mongo would skillfully hook a live anchovy, and it would swim away as the fisher stripped line. As a fisher focused, they repeated coaching: “One… Two… Three… Four… Five… Now drop the drag! Six… Seven… Tighten it! Eight… Nine… Ten! There it is! Don’t lose this one!” Then to the next tuna wrangler, continuing the mission to welcome tuna aboard the Katie Marie.

Cap circulated with live anchovies, cajoling and pleading. “Watch your lines! Follow your fish – wherever it goes, go with it! Go under him! Now go over her! Come on people, pay attention! Talk to each other! No tangles! Don’t let anybody cut your line! Get ‘em on deck, bait up and get back out there! Hey, no slack line! No bird nests! Pay attention guys! Over! Under!” Thus we filled the next 45 minutes in arm-wrenching struggles with 20- to 30-pound ocean torpedoes.

And then it stopped. Over the next hours, Captain Rob found a few small schools of tuna. We picked up a fish or two from each, but it was as if the tuna had left the ocean.

By late afternoon, as the Katie Marie turned toward port, we figured that our ice bins held 21 fish – a bit over two fish per fisher. The boat returning to port ahead of us reported a total catch of two tuna, a story repeated by others returning that day.

Somewhere in that journey home, it was reported that the tuna had gone to 300 feet and were feasting on squid. I could see the wheels turning in Cap’s head. This is they guy who brought tuna success to Ilwaco with live anchovies. He will solve the squid problem, too.

I booked the whole boat for a date on Labor Day Weekend, 2015; for family and fun and fish.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized