In the quiet serene of the early morning, long before the sun comes and most people are still soundly sleeping, the day of a tuna fisherman is underway. The welcome sound of water rippling across the boats hull and the low rumble of the motors piercing the darkness is music to our ears as we gently make our way out of the harbor. The intent for two of my buddies is to be on the tuna grounds at the break of daylight to get into some early morning fishing action.
Preparation began the night before as my crew rolled into the Oregon coastal town of Garibaldi and over dinner with my crew members, we discussed the boats leaving the dock before daylight and head out to sea. My crew and I easily made the decision to allow our buddies to leave before us. After all this was not a tournament day and with my years of experience while chasing albacore I knew we would be fine sleeping in and casually leaving port whenever it suited us, this morning it was 8:30 am. Yes I know, very few hardcore tuna guys would never be caught leaving at such an outrageous or late time.
The Bad to the Bone crew and myself had just come off a second place finish at the Ilwaco leg of the Oregon Tuna Classic the week before, and we were hungry for another shot at the top spot going into the next tournament. There is nothing wrong with second place, but we strived for the bragging rights that accompany being number one.
The upcoming tournament would not have live bait available, so this trip was all about honing our skills working the iron and functioning in harmony as a team. When you watch successful tournament teams, each crewmember has a designated job to do and they do it well. Today we are going to define each crewmember’s position and fine-tune it to perfection. Our mission was simple – find the fish, get the bite wide open and work it like a well-oiled machine.
Getting the bite wide open, is one of those mystic feats most tuna fisherman long to experience and once achieved, it is the ultimate accomplishment. Learning how to do it consistently requires paying close attention to details then perfecting your techniques every time you are on the water. Once achieving this feat a couple times, it could be compared to running a marathon. Every one has the ability to achieve this success but only those who try will experience it, few will master it.
The fog had lifted long before we slow poked out of the harbor. Passing through the no wake zone the big Hydra Sport leaped up out of the water as the throttles found their way to the stops. A quick hour and fifteen minutes later the boat settled to its destination 60 miles southwest of Garibaldi. Tuna Town, Cross Hairs, all monikers for the “Promised Land” for tuna fishing, or better known as 125 x 45. We stopped a few miles short of where the others said they’d be so this was a good starting point. Tuna Town is not just one spot, but an area and well known for producing good numbers of fish. The currents and upwelling’s from the sea mounds and canyons below offer a rich environment for food and warm water most of the summer. It’s an easy run from Newport or Depoe Bay, but the trek from Garibaldi will require a little more fuel and can beat you up going home if the north wind picks up. Today it was a pond with no wind, no swell and not a boat in sight.
My crew quickly deployed 4 rods and we started to troll while I called one of our buddy boats to see if they were still in the area, we were fishing. It was 9:45am as the return call informed us that they were about 5 miles from us but not having much luck and had only just landed their first fish of the morning. We agreed to stay in touch and as I hung up the microphone the corner rod began to sing – fish on!
I immediately pulled the throttles back into neutral then back into reverse. I wanted to stay close to the hooked fish. At the same moment the crew was going into our orchestrated Chinese fire drill. One person was throwing chum while the others were pitching all the available swimbait rods in the direction of the hooked fish. Once the swimbait rods were out they went into rod holders and the crew was now grabbing the iron rods and proceeded to vertical jigging. My job, as the skipper is to stop the forward momentum of the boat and back up a little just to stay close to the hooked fish. You have to be careful not to back up too far passing over the fish or worse yet, creating a mess with the still deployed trolling gear. If I can keep the boat positioned within 20-30 feet we will be in perfect position. One of the keys to this whole scenario is advanced planning of what you’re going to do when you find the fish. Questions arise; do you keep trolling to try and hook up all the rods or are you going to try to get a wide-open bite and work the fish from dead in the water? Some boats keep trolling too long and have a hard time doing both. Early in the season it may not make as much difference but once you get into August, it’s critical to stop immediately if you have any hopes of getting things going.
As the action continued, in less than 30 seconds the swim bait rods were going bend’oh, jig rods were hooking up and the bite was now wide open. My job was to be the deck hand as I scrambled to clear troll gear and get the troll caught fish into the boat. For the next hour and 15 minutes I rotated jobs with the various crew as they would fish and then run the deck continually switching positions.
In order to keep the bite wide open someone has to run the deck. That encompasses – tossing a handful of chum about every 5 minutes or so, gaffing fish, cutting the gills, placing them in the bleed bucket and eventually getting them onto the ice in the fish box. At the same time they may have to replace a torn Fish Trap (swim bait) once in awhile or possibly a mangled assist hook when needed. Our crew is five people but it can be done with 2 or 3 as long as someone is running the deck while others are fishing. When a fish trap is replaced, the deck hand can pitch it back out and put it in a rod holder and now it’s fishing again. One of the nice things about albacore fishing is you can fish as many rods as you can handle. There is no limit other than your ability to manage what’s out. When I’m fishing with a crew of five people, I could have as many as 7-12 rods in the water at any given time that equals four people fishing and one deck hand.
Fish Traps (swim baits) with the rods in the rod holders works well while vertically jigging because they will typically drift fish out away from the boat and not fall very deep even when there’s very little wind drift. You normally won’t have to worry about them getting tangled with the people working the iron. If you have live bait available, that will add another dimension to the game. If live bait is not available but you have access to frozen or dead bait that also works well for chum and can also be fished on a live bait hook pitching it out to drift fish just like you would a Fish Trap. A word of warning: When the bite is wide open albacore will hit just about anything bobbing around so make sure the bail is set, or you could have a mess on your hands.
It won’t take long before you’ll be looking at each other, arms aching, blood everywhere (including all over you), the tuna will be darting everywhere under the boat and it looks like a giant aquarium at feeding time. The frantic workout that goes along with a wide open bite will soon have you shedding clothes down to your tee shirts, tank tops and even skivvies so dress in layers otherwise you’ll over heat and possibly lose a few pounds during the aerobic tuna dance. You only had to look around a little to see clothes piled everywhere this day. It’s enough to make one wonder if the phrase “Fish Naked” came from a wide-open bite.
It’s blood, guts and glory paired with pandemonium and soon you’re wondering when it’s going to stop and it may not stop for hours. In our case we usually discuss how many fish we want to keep before we even leave the dock. This was not a normal morning for us as we slept in, stopped for lattes and casually left long after the sunrise. The excitement of the Chinese fire drill was now worn off by the time we realized we hadn’t had this particular conversation. Amidst all the pandemonium I raised the question and in sequence almost immediately everyone stopped dead in their tracks. In that moment everyone froze, looking at me with one of those blank “Oh crap” stares. We quickly did our tally, how many fish for you and you and on down the line. The count for how many we had hoped to keep was far less than was already in the box. Not quite the problem you hear people complain about and no grumbling was heard as we landed what was now on the hook and immediately retrieved the other rods before they could hook up again. It’s hard to stop in the middle of a feeding frenzy, but that’s exactly what we did. Our day was done and it wasn’t even noon yet. Our first stop with just over an hour of fishing there was over 32 fish in the box.
A few high fives, a quick drink and we began the cleaning up of the bloody carnage that was the crew and the boat. Another critical thing to remember is, do not rinse the boat until you’re done fishing or you may lose your bite and will have to move to find another school of fish. It won’t take long for the sharks to show up during a wide open bite but rinsing the boat while dead in the water whacking’em will speed up their arrival and too much blood in the water can also turn them into feeding machines sometimes leaving you with only a tuna head to reel in.
In our case we set down and took a break to cool off before cleaning things up. If you’re not the type of person that wants to stop at a mere 30 plus fish or if you just wanted more, you could easily keep going.
In many cases people lose the bite and decide to go find more fish. That is certainly one option but I would suggest you stay put, take a break and have something to drink to cool off or maybe just have a snack. What’s wrong with taking a break, the fish did and if you work it right they’ll be back and probably before your rested. If you have live bait, put out a couple rods leaving the clicker on with the bail open. They’ll let you know when their back and you’ll soon be back at it going wide open again. No live bait, don’t worry, use dead bait or a swimbait. Whatever you do, don’t rinse the boat out or you’ll have to move to another location and start over.
One of the biggest things about tuna fishing is finding the fish. So there you are working them over and all of a sudden you lose your bite. They may not have gone anywhere but down, so use your iron and go after them and bring them back up. It’s not as hard as you think, and always worth a try. If you have a lot of drift, you may have drifted out of the area that was holding fish and might just need to move back up to the original spot and get them going again. If you’re chumming and have the bite wide open they’ll follow you a long time.
Be aggressive go after them and work’em over. It will show you a whole different side of the sport that’s fun, exhilarating and a serious rush for all you adrenaline junkies. The “dark side” as we call it will get even darker and the addiction stronger.