Here’s to tuna

I must be living right. That’s the only possible explanation for finding this, from a complete stranger named Jon, in my  e-mail one morning a few weeks back:

Hello Tamar,

I have been reading your blog now for about a year with great interest and amusement. I do not know how I ran across the blog. Maybe it was when I was doing some research on raising chickens on Cape (no chickens yet). I was hooked and I started following Kevin and your progress on various activities. I enjoy how you approach each new challenge and the humor you interject into your articles. I have followed Kevin and your steady forward progress with fishing and boats. I have not read any Blue Fin Tuna activity yet. Therefore, I would like to invite Kevin and you to join my wife Susan and me out on my boat for some tuna fishing.

A complete stranger invited us tuna fishing. Tuna fishing!

If you’re unfamiliar with what goes into tuna fishing, this might not seem like such a big deal, so let me bring you up to speed.

Tuna are very big, they swim very fast, and they seldom make an appearance in waters that are navigable by small boats. If you want to fish for tuna, you need to begin with a boat that can go offshore. Our boat, a nineteen-foot Eastern with a 70-horse Johnson, is not such a boat. Jon’s boat, a twenty-five foot Grady White with twin Yamaha 115s, is such a boat.

But the boat is just the beginning. Tuna-fishing gear is heavy, large, and expensive, and rigging a boat costs thousands of dollars. And having the gear is necessary but not sufficient; you have to know what to do with it. Tuna are wily and elusive, and it takes serious study to figure out where to go, when to go there, and what to do once you arrive.

Alternatively, you can just wait until someone with a rigged boat and several years’ experience e-mails you and invites you to come along.

This past Saturday, we set the alarm for 3:45 AM so we could meet at Jon’s house in Harwich Port at 5:00.

I very much wanted to make a good impression, but being short on sleep and imperfectly caffeinated has a way of impairing your judgment and I began by talking way too loudly in a house where people were sleeping. Fortunately, we didn’t stay long. The boat was ready to go, and we followed Jon to Saquatucket Harbor, where we put in.

There were six of us aboard. Kevin and me, Jon and his wife Susan, Susan’s brother Doug, and Doug’s wife Linda. It became clear early on that Jon and Doug were the serious fishermen. Susan and Linda were there to make sure the boat’s Cheerfulness Quotient never dipped. They both started the day laughing and smiling – no small feat in the pre-dawn hours – and they never stopped.

We came out of the harbor and headed south. The plan was to go around the tip of Monomoy Island, a long, skinny beach runs from the elbow of Cape Cod about ten miles south, and then head north to where tuna had been spotted, and caught, off Chatham.

Jon’s boat makes our boat seem like the kind you wind up with a rubber band and let loose in the bathtub, and it was a pleasure to be cutting through the ocean, on the way to tuna fishing, as the sky began to light up over Monomoy.

The sun was just barely over the horizon as we got to the area where tuna had been sighted. “Look for activity,” Doug told us. “Birds. Whales.”

Whales? I’d read that whales frequented the waters east of the Cape, but it seemed like such a far-fetched idea that we’d actually see them. But not five minutes after he’d mentioned them, Doug pointed to the horizon. “There! That was a spout.”

I missed it, of course. I always miss it.

We headed in the direction Doug indicated. As we got closer to where he’d seen the spout, we saw a dense cloud of birds. Closer still, and we could see the whales under the birds. Whales. Many whales. They were breaching, and feeding, and generally making a ruckus. It was astonishing.

And it was time. Time to put in the gear and start trolling for tuna.

Doug went below and came up with the four tuna rigs and two outriggers. Two of the reels were smaller, and we put them in rod holders on the transom, set to troll directly out back. The two larger reels we put in the holders in the gunwales, about six feet from the transom. We hooked them to outriggers, which are long poles that extend out and pull the lures away from the boat. If you have them, you can troll four lines without entangling them (most of the time).

As I tried to help Doug hook the lines to the outriggers, I felt the first small wave of seasickness. I handed the line off to Kevin, and looked out at the horizon. When the nausea subsided, I went back to the job, but it didn’t work. As soon as I focused on something in the boat, I started to feel sick.

Setting up tuna lures is a big job. Each lure is really many lures, to mimic a school. So you’ll have ten separate squid, with metal bars to keep them apart, and a big hook in the rearmost squid to catch the fish. Our set-up had four lures, and they have to be let out so they don’t get all tangled up, and spaced so they look realistic from below. There is an art to picking lure species and color, and spacing them effectively, and Doug would look at what we were trolling and let one out a little or pull one in a little until he liked how they looked.

I wanted to help. I really wanted to help. But I was getting sicker by the minute.

Doug, who is the most energetic fisherman I’ve ever seen, clearly could have handled the whole job by himself, but Kevin helped him anyway, and I tried to pay attention.

Doug and Kevin got the lures in, and Jon maneuvered the boat to stay alongside the whales and birds. The tuna are often where the whales and birds are, and there were a good half-dozen boats in the area, doing the same thing we were. But nobody seemed to be hooking up, which we knew because all the boats were talking to each other over the radio.

Hopes were high, though, because there was so much activity. The pod of whales we saw was one of many. There were literally hundreds of humpbacks out there, circling and feeding and circling again.

We navigated among the whale boils, trolling for tuna. I had the camera out, but without much hope. In my callow youth, I used to dismiss the existence of the Loch Ness monster based on the fact that all the photos were blurry. Now, with a camera full of pictures of frothy water where whales used to be, I’m a believer.

Nothing’s easy when you’re seasick, but looking at a viewfinder is one of those things you just don’t want to be doing. It put me over the edge, and I found myself in the ignominious position of retching over the side of a boat full of people I really, really wanted to like me.

Not only that, when I wasn’t actively vomiting, I was doggedly staring at the horizon, trying to anticipate the movement of the boat so my brain and stomach would be on the same page. I was just a pleasure to be around.

And that’s how it went for a couple of hours. Troll, retch, repeat.

Only a few boats caught tuna. As the whale activity gradually subsided, some of the boats left for greener pastures eastward, but Jon and Doug weren’t ready to give up. We started to troll south, back toward Monomoy, and there was talk of stopping for some striper action if we didn’t get a tuna.

Doug, who’d been monitoring and adjusting our lure set-up, switched out one of the lures to see if the tuna were interested in something other than squid, and we started motoring slowly southward.

The wind was out of the north, so a southward troll was the least choppy. I discovered that, if I sat in the bow, looking forward, I could keep the nausea in check, so that’s where I went. The sun was out, and I started to feel a bit better. I even dozed off.

I woke to the sound of “FISH ON!”

I scrambled back to the stern as Kevin, Doug, and Linda were reeling in the three lines that didn’t have fish on them. The last one, the one with the fish, Doug handed to me.

The fish wasn’t taking a lot of line, and everyone aboard thought there was a good chance it was a striper or a bluefish, and not a tuna. I started reeling, and the line came in easily.

I didn’t last, though. As you reel in, you have to move the line back and forth across the spool, and that meant looking down. I looked down, felt that nasty glugging in my gut, and asked Kevin to be my proxy.

He took the reel. At first, the line was barely tight. Striper. Bluefish. But then, it tightened. The fish pulled. The fish surfaced. TUNA!

Kevin didn’t have to fight the fish long. He was using gear that can handle a fish that weighs several hundred pounds, and this tuna was no match for it. Still, though, it fought. Kevin brought it up to the boat, and it got stronger all of a sudden. It took some line, and went deep.

Kevin, coached by Jon and Doug, let it go for a while, and then started to muscle it up. He pulled the rod, and then reeled up the slack. Pulled and reeled. And there it was. Doug took the gaff, and pulled it into the boat.

I’d never been face to face with a tuna before. It is a lean, mean, swimming machine. It’s sleek and hydrodynamic, with retractable fins. Everything about it is pointy. Pointy head, pointy fins, pointy tail. A tuna is sharp.

Doug and Kevin got a line on the tail, and held the fish over the side to rake the gills to bleed it. In all probability, it was dead by then, but they put it in the water and towed it backward for a while, both to make sure the job was done (I’m told a fish drowns when you do that) and to wash off some of the blood.

When we pulled it back in the boat, Kevin gutted it, and he pulled out the stomach so we could see what it was eating. The contents – sand eels – shed some light on why we caught a fish.

For most of the day, we’d been pulling lures of squid but, as we started to troll southward, Doug put out one with white Sluggos, wormy things that look like eels. That’s what our tuna bit on. You catch fish with lures that resemble what the fish is eating.

By tuna standards, ours was small. By ordinary fish standards, it was enormous. When you’re used to thinking a fifteen-pound bluefish or a thirty-pound striper is a trophy, a 65-pound tuna is a miracle.

Jon got out a giant insulated bag, like the kind you put your frozen groceries in, only tuna-sized. We slid the fish in, filled the bag with ice, and stowed it below.

The lures went back in, but that was all the action we were to have. From my seasick seat in the bow, I heard the occasional whoop, but it wasn’t a new fish. It was Doug, unable to contain his enthusiasm for the fish we’d already caught. We reached the end of the tuna grounds, and pulled in the lures. When we picked up speed, my stomach settled and I was human again for the ride home.

Jon, Susan, Doug, and Linda are part of an extended family that shares a summer compound. When we parked the boat in the driveway and started to unload, members of several generations came out to look at our tuna.

It was a beautiful tuna.

We took it out of its body bag and put it on the table Doug keeps there for the purpose, and he showed us how to filet the fish into quarters.

Jon and Doug gave us a whole half of that fish – some fifteen pounds of tuna – to take home. When I protested that they had many more mouths to feed than we did, Doug told us that his family wasn’t really crazy about tuna. Okay, twist my arm.

Since Kevin and I moved to Cape Cod and began this enterprise, we’ve found generosity and goodwill everywhere we’ve gone. Linda taught me to clam and Dan helped us fix more machines than I like to think about. Christl and Al continue to help us with our garden. We have a viable hive of bees because of Claire and Paul, Andy and Brian. We’ve learned local waters for fish and lobster with Bob and Suzie.

When the only thing I knew about Jon was that he was willing to invite us tuna fishing, sight unseen, I assumed he was nice. You have to be nice to do that. But I had no way of knowing that he was introducing us to a family of people who are smart and funny and cheerful and interesting. Nice is just the tip of the iceberg.

Besides, you gotta love anyone who’ll pee in a bucket in front of a stranger, which Linda did without losing the thread of the conversation.

After the fish was processed and iced, Jon took us for a tour of the property, which includes thirty acres of overgrown cranberry bogs, separated by berms that Jon and Doug keep clear of brush. The berms make wide, open trails, and the family allows anyone who likes to come walk there.

Last stop was the vegetable garden, which had several vines loaded with a strange kind of yellow cucumber. Linda told me the family wouldn’t eat them because they were strange and yellow.

I offered to take them home, process them, and bring back pickles. Susan got a couple of compound buckets, and we picked them and put them in our truck.

I’m glad to have pickles. I am. But all I really wanted was a reason to go back.

18 people are having a conversation about “Here’s to tuna

  1. That sounds like such a fantastic day! I read the post the other day about the fresh fish, and by the end of the post I swear I could taste the damn thing. The kindness of strangers can be amazing. But I think the things you see in them are the things that your readers “see” in you and Kevin. Amazing post… it totally made me smile this morning!

  2. How lovely! (Except for the seasickness.) And how awesome! Great story. I don’t miss fish very often. But there are just a few fish and their specific preparations that give me pangs. Toro maki is one of those. (Hot smoked salmon and sole meuniere being the others, fwiw.) Local food diets have their sacrifices. Lucky you to have such treasures on your doorstep, so to speak!

  3. Nice fish!

    I went deep-sea fishing once.

    Once we got away from the coast, I started vomiting over the side. Everyone else fished for 3 hours, I vomited for 3 hours. I vomited so much, I reckon I’m probably missing a few of them internal organ thingies.

    never again!

  4. Sorry about the seasickness, but I’m glad you got one. Steve’s sister goes in on a tuna with a buddy of hers that they buy directly from the wharf in Newport, Oregon, and then they spend the rest of the day canning it up. I think it involves just cutting the tuna in chunks, putting it in clean canning jars with lids and rings, and then pressure canning it, because it’s just a chunk of cooked tuna in a canning jar when it’s done. I haven’t been able to get her to invite me along so that I can learn how to do it, but I have to tell you it’s way better than commercial tuna.

  5. How fabulous! I am envious, well except for the sea sickness (dramamine next time or a few slices od fresh ginger the fragrance when inhaled can give you relief). Thanks to Jon for your generosity and for inspiring Tamar to share this with us.

  6. Tamar;
    I don’t often go fishing at home – south central Saskatchewan. We have good fishing in the province, but it’s all up north. Your tuna story would be causing some serious envy, but yesterday I bought four coho salmon right off the boat in BC (visiting family on Vancouver Island) and brought it back, along with a pound of scallops. So I’m doing well in the fish department, even if I didn’t catch it myself!

  7. I’m very glad to read enthusiasm in the comments. Sometimes I’m afraid that things that are really fun when you’re doing them — like fishing — are kind of a drag for people to read about if they don’t do them. And it’s definitely a testament to how great a day we had that I’m ready to say it was one of the best experiences we’ve had on the Cape even though I was seasick most of the day.

    Brooke – You always say the nicest things!

    Kate, if you’re ever within shouting distance of Cape Cod, come see us and we will feed you with a fish that you miss. We don’t have salmon or sole, but I think fluke meuniere could work beautifully.

    Dina — Thanks! That about sums up my feelings about it.

    Brooke — You shoulda been there! The written version pales, I’m afraid.

    Kingsley, maybe that explains your dialysis.

    Paula — We went with freezing for our leftovers. I’d love to do a comparison of the two methods.

    Rick — Next time, I’ll definitely take preventive measures. Jon suggested it, but I thought I was just too big and bad. Hah!

    KB – Most people don’t have much chance to fish for themselves most of the time, and buying it off the dock is definitely the next best thing. That’s what we do when we can’t go out ourselves.

  8. This was so fun to read. Susan and Doug are my cousins. Now you know why I don’t go out fishing with them! Thank you for your kind words about my family. Yes, we are very lucky. I have a lifetime of fun memories with them all…and some were just memorable, but not so fun! I look forward to meeting you next summer. Cheers, Cousin Liz

  9. of the social benefits of blogging! Reminds me of being a kid and tuna fishing for bluefin with my uncle..those suckers are 1000lbs and you need to cut thier heads off with a chainsaw..which is very shocking for a 9 year old. great read!..and being sea-sick is one of the worst feelings in the world…nowhere to hide from it!

  10. It does my heart good to hear that these types of conversations on blogs can blossom forth into real life. These interconnections between people will be invaluable in times to come, methinks.

    Sounds like a great adventure!

  11. Elizabeth — I’m glad you liked it, even though I have to take that with a grain of salt because you’re related to the protagonists. I hope I get to put a face to your name some time soon!

    EGB — 1000 pounds?? That’s a big tuna. Maybe someday …

    Matt — Methinks, too. Sometimes I worry that I gush a little too much about how much it warms my heart when people reach out to us with friendship and goodwill. The truth is, though, that I find it very moving. Civilization is based on how we treat each other, and when people we don’t know go out of their way for us, it makes me feel better about all mankind. But I have to say it here in the comments where I don’t imagine many people will read it, because it’s too maudlin for words.

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