Middle-aged Men and the Sea: Tuna Fishing

Jimmy Maguire, my brother in law, was asking me for several days prior to my arrival in Newport, RI, “Do you wanna go fishing?” The trip he proposed was to the canyons 95 miles due south from Newport and about the same due East from Toms River, NJ. We would leave on Sunday morning August 16 at 5:30 and return sometime Monday, spending the night under the stars and in the elements far out to sea. Just days before, I continued to hem and haw, avoided giving a definitive answer and checked the NOAA marine forecast on the web for New England coastal waters out to the Hudson canyon about 5 times a day. The weather forecast stayed consistent for the days we would be out, 5 to 10 knot southwest winds, seas approximately 2 feet. You see, I’ve done my fair share of time in the northeast Atlantic and have seen what it can throw at you; this weather issue becomes acutely more important for me while contemplating a 95 mile offshore trip on a 25-foot center console, the mighty Isabella, although a good quality Blue Fin boat with twin 150 hp Suzuki engines. Several years ago I was out on that very same boat, as Jim was just figuring out his new boat and the ocean temperament, and we found ourselves at a place called the Dump 60 miles offshore with one engine down due to a clogged gas filter and 4-6 foot seas in 20 knot winds. We obviously managed to get back to port that time but only after 6 hours of getting pounded, taking waves over the bow, and holding on to the hard top supports for dear life, soaked and frozen. So as you can imagine this decision to “go fishing” was no small matter. The weather forecast held up and when finally pushed for a final decision, otherwise Jim would need to find someone else, I said yes yet still with great sense of unease. 

I drank a couple pints of Guinness and watched the hilarious movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” before hitting the sack about 11:30 on Saturday. Jim asked if I was ready to go earlier in the evening and I said, “Sure.” A yellow rubber rain suit, a sweatshirt, aspirin, 6 sandwiches, 6 Gatorades, 4 vitamin waters, a bottle of OJ and some nips of Vodka in case I needed some extra courage at sea. That’s what I packed. 5:00 am came quickly as I woke up a couple times with anxiety during the night. I jumped in the shower and assembled a change of clothes which I forgot to take with me. At 5:29 am we were in the packed car and rolling toward the yacht club on Goat Island in downtown Newport.

We stopped on the way to fill up the remaining 6 of 15 5-gallon gas cans we would need to take on our vessel to supplement the 140-gallon tank on the boat. We would not have enough gas for the trip without the extra cans.

At the dock by 6:00, it took us about 30 minutes to load up the boat with gear and supplies. Among other items, we had about 10 rods, two 40 inch coolers, 200 lbs of ice, 15 5-gallon gas cans, two survival suits, an un-inflated life raft, a full cooler of drinks and food, two 5-gallon buckets of butterfish chunks, a large tackle box, a bean bag, and 2 crazy 40-year-old dudes on the hunt for tuna. Not a lot of wiggle room on the boat.

By 7:00 am we were exiting Newport Harbour on our way to the canyons. I was still quite apprehensive about what I was getting myself into but was comforted by the weather forecast I had checked just before we left home and the fact that I always ready to pull the plug at any time if the seas got rough.

I dreaded the four-hour ride out not only because of the implied distance but four hours with an unchanging landscape just seemed like a long time. Fortunately Isabella has auto-pilot so Jim plugged in the coordinates and let the boat steer itself. Jim suggested I snooze on the bean bag in the narrow walkway along the center console. Wedged in the walkway you are less likely to be thrown around with the bouncing. It was quite acceptable for a couple hours but I did manage to somehow severely whack my ankle against the gaff racks along the boat wall which left me in writhing pain for a couple minutes.

I was up after a couple hours and as we passed the Dump, we saw schools of yellow fin tuna jumping from the water as they fed on the bait fish and gulls swarming around the carnage. It was clear that the tuna were on the small side, I would guess in the 20-40 lb range. Jim did not bat an eye at the small game as we continued our journey south.

It was about that time when one engine started cutting out, sort of like it did the last time we attempted this trip. Time to change the gas filters. This is a typical maintenance issue. Jim was able to change one filter but he could not remove the second one. So he left it unchanged, and we continued on with engines running smoothly but with concerns that the second filter could clog up at any time.

We came across a number of massive whales wallowing on the surface and as we progressed the large groups of dolphins rising above the surface and sometimes offering acrobatics became constant.

By 11:00 we had reach the Atlantis canyon where the water plunges to over 1000 fathoms deep. Outriggers spread open we put 7 trolling lines out and cracked open a beer acknowledging, “We are fishing.” We trolled for about 3 hours with no action and my apprehensions in check as the sea was unbelievably flat and clear. We were in the Gulf Stream with deep visibility and 80 degree ocean temperatures versus the 69 degree temperatures in Newport. I decided to get back on the bean bag for a nap in the bow amid the gear. No sooner did I settle in and Jim exclaimed, “Fish on.” Up and to the stern, I strapped on my harness and Jim handed me the rod. The line was spinning out as the boat continued to advance. I looked up and about 500 yards behind the boat a marlin was performing some extreme acrobatics. Jim reeled up the other lines and to spare the marlin a lot of distress, not to mention to keep my arms from falling off, we wheeled around and went back to where the marlin had settled in. It took me about 15 minutes then to get him to the boat. Jim grabbed his bill and unhooked him as I snapped some photos. You do not take marlin home so we released an unharmed, healthy 200 pound fish back to the deep.

Finally some real excitement! Lines back out, we began trolling again and in a short time the rods started to lighten up in rapid fire, 1-2-3-4. We had at least four fish on momentarily. Jim and I both grabbed a rod after clearing some lines. I got mine to the boat first, a 40 or so pound Albacore tuna. Jim gaffed it and hauled it over the side of the boat. Next Jim got his to the boat, another Albie. We had been listening to the radio chatter in an 80 mile radius from the Dip to the Canyons to the Fishtails and there was a lot of complaining about the fishing activity, that is to say the lack of such activity. We felt good that we put something in our cooler and would not be going home skunked. After cleaning up the tuna blood splattered and pooled in the back of the boat we started trolling again and soon thereafter around 4 pm, wham, “Fish on”. Lines cleared I began reeling. Fifteen minutes later, Jim gaffed another Albie and hauled him over the side, this one being a bit larger perhaps in the range of 60 pounds.

After we dealt with the fish it was time to get trolling again. While the engines were in neutral and the props not spinning, we noticed that one of our lines, the “spreader”, was dangling close to the engines. Jim asked me clear that away which I immediately began to do. Unfortunately Jim put the boat in gear before I managed to clear the engines and in a split second we had heavy gauge fishing wire wrapped around one of our props. Jim turned off the engines and tilted them up. The big problem with getting fishing lines around the prop is that it will break the seal which holds in your engine oils. If the engine oils drains out, you cannot run the engine. Jim climbed out on the port engine with me handing him various tools as he unraveled the line. The port engine was the one with the gas filter which we were able to change. If this one went down, we would be stuck with the engine with the unchangeable gas filter. Fortunately Jim was able to clear the line and wire from the prop with no apparent damage done. Whew, it was a close call but everything appeared to be ok but another thing to worry about which might come back to haunt us.

The bite stopped after that and we noticed a “dragger” working our grounds. The dragger was about 100 feet long and would put out a long net while slowly underway and periodically stop to haul the net in and sort its catch. We noticed live and dead squid, each 18-24 inches long, floating in the dragger zone and assumed it was targeting the squid to sell as frozen bait or perhaps for people food. We thought it would be a good idea to troll through the dragged waters as our target fish may have been getting a free lunch following the dragger. At one point Jim spotted some squid in our path and I started scooping them up as we trolled. Larger than any bait squid you could buy in the store and fresher, they would make good bait later. We attempted to keep a few alive in a bucket but they rapidly die once removed from the ocean waters. So we stalked the dragger for several hours and continued to scoop our evening bait. The sun went below the horizon about 7:30 pm but we had twilight until nearly 8:30 pm at which time we found a fishing spot amid 8 other boats within a 10 mile radius. We shut the engines down. The water did not have even a ripple and there was no distinguishable breeze, a comforting start to the hours of darkness ahead. Jim dropped a submersible light into the water which lit up the water off one side of the boat providing visibility down 30 feet or more in the clear Gulf Stream waters.

Jim baited the first hook with one of our fresh calamari and started to lower the line into the water pulling line out with his hands and counting lengths so as to get to the targeted depth. I think he lowered the line about 8 lengths when he turned to me and almost casually said, “Fish on”. It was said so nonchalantly I wondered if Jim was in the second half of a sentence about catching a fish on a previous trip. I waited for the rest of the story and Jim repeated, “Rob, fish on.” I was rummaging around the bow and by the time I got to the stern Jim had the rod in hand and I said, “You take it.” I strapped Jim’s harness around him and he was off to the races. Awhile later we had our first glimpse of a very nice yellow-fin tuna. Minutes later we were gaffing the fish and hauling it over the side. The fish later weighed at market was about 100 pounds. That was a great way to start the evening. I expected more excitement. We dropped in 3 lines and began throwing chunks of cut butter fish over the side, a technique known as “chunking”, in order to attract our targeted fish: big-eye tuna, yellow-fin tuna and swordfish.

The night sky could not be clearer. With no clouds, smog, buildings, or other obstruction, the grandeur of a starry view that extended from sea level horizon to horizon–north, south, east and west–was awe inspiring. Jim suited up into his rain suit and I did the same to keep the nighttime mist from soaking our clothes. Jim also put on some very dry warm socks and his boots while I looked on enviously with wet crocs on my feet. My, did he look dry, warm and comfy. I must have missed that memo. Indeed all I brought was a baseball hat, sunglasses and the rain suit. No bite for awhile and around 11 pm I decided I had better get a little sleep because eventually Jim would need to do the same and one of us had to be up at all times to man the lines and make sure we were not drifting into any other boats although we were at least a few miles from the nearest vessel.

My feet had been wet since we left port, the bean bag was wet and the pillow was wet. Exhausted, I managed to get comfortable on the bow after several minutes of great discomfort. Just then, Jim yelled, “Rob, come look at this manta ray swimming under the boat.” I remained silent as I attempted to ride a wave of relative comfort in my wet crib and began to drift into a deeply craved sleep. Five seconds later, Jim again yells, “This thing is huge, it’s like 10 feet across, come look.” Without moving a single body part except for my mouth, I said, “Jim, I just got settled in. We see lots of manta rays in Florida. I need to sleep.” Jim appreciated the humour in my complete lack of interest in anything at this point.

I was in a very deep sleep but would wake every now and then to the sound of a line momentarily spinning off a reel but no cry of “fish-on”. Around 2 am, I woke up with severe pain in my back, which felt like a knife in my kidneys. I later realized that was the corner of the hard plastic box containing the emergency life raft. Then the chatter on the marine radio picked up a bit and I heard one captain mention that he just woke up to relieve the ‘first shift’. I surmised I should do the same as Jim must be getting tired and besides that pain in my back was killing me. I called out to Jim who was in the stern, “How’s it going Jim?” He replied, “I need some sleep”. I got up and went to the back of the boat. Before claiming the bean bag Jim explained that he had caught a few live squid, put them on the lines and had hits on them. He suggested I do the same and keep chunking. The last thing he said was that he did lie down every now and then on the cooler. I noticed the life vest he was using as a pillow on top of the cooler. Jim was asleep as soon as he hit the bean bag. I chunked for a few minutes, looked around for squid in the water and then decided to try out the cooler. Minutes later I was lying on the cooler feet on the floor and staring at the big sky. Dolphins could be heard in the darkness all around the boat; their deep powerful breaths and sometimes violent splashing were all that could be heard besides Jim’s snoring.

About ten minutes into my cooler lounging session, I heard a fish seemingly flopping next to the cooler. With little energy to get up and look, I thought, “What the hell is that. We cut the heads off the tuna and put them on ice. They are definitely dead. The squid are dead. I gotta see what this is.” So I rolled to my side still on top of the cooler, flipped on the lamp strapped to my head and looked down. There on the floor was what looked like a 6-inch baby barracuda spitting out bits and pieces of bait fish it had been eating. Apparently this sharp toothed eating machine jumped onto to the boat, perhaps over me, as it pursued its late night meal. I hoped the dolphins would not do that. Borderline delirious, I thought, “It must have been sent from the tuna gods. I need to put him on a hook and drop him in the water”. Done and back to the cooler. At about 3:00 am the line started rapidly spinning off one of the reels and I jumped up yelling fish on. I was certainly in no state to deal with a sea monster in the middle of the night at this point. Jim’s got up, I strapped on the harness and Jim handed me the rod with the line screaming off the reel. We thought perhaps it was the manta ray or it could be a big swordfish or marlin. It started to swim up for a few seconds and I was able to gain a little ground. Then the fish resumed its run. The fish turned the entire boat around; essentially it was pulling the boat. Let me repeat that because it is relevant to the rest of this situation. The fish was pulling the boat. Jim dug out my back harness and began strapping it on me. The back harness is a supportive, padded belt which provides the ability to fully leverage your body weight nearly hands-free when fighting big fishing. Jim got the harness strapped to me and to complete the installation he hooked the harness to the reel on both sides. When I was adjusting the straps on this harness earlier in the day in preparation, I thought, “This is a useful piece of equipment. At least you won’t lose the rod. Makes sense.” Now it was 3 am, dark on the water, we had a fish on the line that was pulling our 4000 pound plus vessel and my brother-in-law just physically bound me to the reel. Although mentally fatigued, I processed the relevant data within a second of Jim connecting me to what had in my mind become “the death stick” and said, “What are you doing? I don’t think I want to be connected to this thing.” Jim unhooked me and also did some calculations. He came to the conclusion that we would need to chase the fish down in the darkness otherwise it would stripped all the line out and he knew I was not up for that. So Jim tightened the drag in an attempt to make a stand. It was a matter of minutes and the fish snapped the 100-pound test line. It was likely a 400 pound plus fish, a swordfish or a marlin. Glad we got rid of that one.

Jim went back to his bean bag and I got back to the cooler. Intensely uncomfortable after awhile I moved to the floor. I would get up every now, observe the distant lightening, pray it would not come toward us and then check the lines and our drift but I was certainly not interested in chunking at this point. In a light sleep about 5:00 am, a reel started buzzing with line being torn off. “Fish on!” Jim was up quickly and given my earlier experience, I said’ “You take it.”Jim fought the fish for awhile and while it was still 30 feet down were able to identify it as a swordfish. Gaffed, up and onto the boat, it was about 100-125 pounds. It thrashed violently around the back of the boat for some time as we attempted to stay clear of it and its long sharp bill. I could only imagine the pandemonium on board if we had landed a much bigger one. By the time we finished with the swordfish, we were in morning twilight and decided to start trolling. We had just put our first trolling line out and ‘bam’–fish on. Another Albie. We had 4 tuna and a swordfish in the coolers so we released this one to leave room for big-eye or yellowfin tuna. We caught and released another 3 Albacore tuna and then decided to fish for Mahi Mahi until 10:00 am before starting our journey back to port. We stopped at a couple lobster pot buoys where the mahi mahi school but had no luck. At the third pot, the mahi mahi were swimming near the surface. We threw some cut squid in the water to start a feeding frenzy and dropped our lines in on the surface. You can literally watch the mahi mahi eat your bait and run. They are runners and jumpers. We hooked a few and lost a few. Finally I hooked up and nearly simultaneously Jim hooked up. I did not realize as quickly as Jim that we caught the same fish. Both reeling, we brought the fish to the side of the boat, but as usual, it bolted and again we reeled it to the side of the boat. Jim gaffed it well and we had our first mahi mahi in the cooler. We hooked up and lost several more but were finally able to add another to the cooler. The weather and seas remained unbelievably calm. I felt it was best not to push our luck on these fronts and head to port. We were about 90 miles out at this point and we were able to run 25 knots per hour most of the way in. Not to make the trip too sweet, the winds and seas kicked up about 40 miles from port. As we neared Newport we were in 3 to 4 foot choppy seas with some spray coming over the bow from time to time. Further concerning me was a noticeable wall of fog over Newport which would present navigational challenges in the rocky inlet. By the time we reached the fog, the seas had calmed but the fog was as thick as soup. The boat is outfitted with a radar/GPS unit which allows for fairly safe navigation with no visibility. I was more concerned about other boats perhaps without radar as our navigation lights on the bow were not working so I forced Jim to sound the horn a few times. As we entered Newport Harbour we passed through the fog wall and had clear sailing to the dock.

We tied up at about 2:30 pm completing our 32 hour fishing expedition. It was a fun experience and we were very lucky to have such calm seas for an extended period. Jim asked if I would do it again to which I answered, “Probably not.” While we had no serious problems with the boat and the seas were great, I would definitely want to do it on a bigger boat with a few more creature comforts. Nonetheless, this one goes down as an experience of a lifetime.

Rob Van Genderen, Class of 1987

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