There are far worse things than coming back from a tuna fishing trip having been skunked. Certainly having it happen a second consecutive time meets all the criteria for being labeled as such. Even so, novelty cheapens at a slow rate when what is new involves heading 30 miles East of Nantucket on a perfectly calm morning in late June. As a result, I didn’t hesitate for a moment when Spongey asked me to have a third go at getting some big fish. Now, I will say that the whole let’s-get-up-2-hours-before-we-go-to-sleep part is a little bit lost on me because I feel fairly certain that people catch tuna at all times of the day and night, but hey, not my boat, so meet at 3:30am it is cap.
We met out on the west end at Madaket Marine at the turbid tail of hither creek and I swear I came very close to trying to get Jon to call the whole thing off because Striped Bass were flopping all over the place in the pre-dawn dark. When Jon pulled up in his truck and I saw his face there was no way that I could have brought myself to make the case for staying. He was just lit up with excitement, anticipating heading off East to the deep waters. It would have been like talking a small child out of going to the Magic Kingdom when you’re already in the parking lot at Disneyland 30 minutes before closing, so that you could go to the taco truck that you’d seen on the street outside to get some carnitas. You knew full well that no matter how hungry you were, those tacos weren’t going anywhere and if they did, you would probably pass about five more taco trucks on the way home.
We loaded up and cast lines quickly; Jon’s 22′ Maritime skiff glided almost silently through the still-sleeping estuary. When we cleared the no wake buoy he throttled up the 150hp four-stroke that I coveted so much and in seconds we were planing on the surface at a cruising speed of 27kts. Previously we had gone along the south shore of the island and due east of Sankaty, but this time Jon decided to fish different grounds. We rounded Eel Point and made for Great Point across the chord of the bay and beyond, to a marker called the BC buoy where Jon had heard there had been some action recently.
It took about an hour and a half to make it out to the spot. On the way we passed through several climate bands, each one marked by a heavy bank of fog, and each one progressively colder than the last, eerily appearing in the distance like a solid white wall. The speed we moved at made it seem an impenetrable barrier until breached, robbing us of all sense of space and direction. Slowing to 5 kts, I took the wheel while Jon set about getting the lines into the water.
There is quite an art to trolling for tuna. Jon set out four lines, each one set with an array of lures spread out to look as if a small group of squid were swimming together. The two lines set on the outside were attached to outriggers which when extended to port and starboard, spread the array of tackle further apart to prevent tangling. All this created the impression of a large group of squid moving along in an orderly fashion making themselves available for some top predator-type to come on up and have a nice calamari breakfast. Just off the stern no more than 30 feet back, a final teaser was placed in the water; a sort of hookless wooden porpoise whose purpose was to make the tuna believe that other fish were already making a run on the cookie-jar, and without making haste, our Chicken-of-the-Sea could find himself the only fish around without a bellyfull of squid. Now if it seems to you that a highly-evolved, ruthless hunter like the tuna fish, in possession of god-knows-what kind of fine tuned, super-sensory organs, would be unable to discern between a bunch of brightly-colored, plastic squid booby trapped with the odd hook, dragging in far too obvious a fashion, a short distance behind some noisy floating behemoth and the real deal, then you my friend, don’t know shit about fish. Humans have been tricking their greedy asses with some extremely lame methods since before recorded history commenced, and have continued unfettered by the obvious decline and near-extinction of their once plentiful prey.
Light was by now well-broken into the sky–what little of it we could see–and soon a pod of humpback whales appeared so close that you could smell their nasty breath that blew through their holes. Mostly they just broke surface, took a few hits of air before diving deep again, going about whatever early morning business giant mammals have to attend to. But, occasionally one would pop its head up near the boat and take a moment to gaze at us with a strange and intelligent eye. I thought that perhaps they wondered why the slaughter of their kind had ended in these waters, and then realized that none of these whales had been alive during those bloody times when their rendered fat lit and lubricated Europe. Do those mournful songs that we’ve recorded tell the story of those tribulations? Is it remembered the way that the Serbs did the defeat handed them by the Muslims in the 14th century and until they unleashed vengeance in the 20th? If so I’m glad that they were unaware that two months earlier I had eaten the flesh of their brethren in the West Indies. I’m not sure the shame I was feeling now about that meal as a gazed back into the uncanny eye of that leviathan would be easily forgiven.
I had some granola bars and apples which I broke out and shared with Jon. These had the unfortunate effect of making him seasick. Jon had the strange pairing in him of a rabid desire to get out on the sea and go fishing and the tendency to become queasy on a calm, rolling sea, which were the exact conditions that day. Jon begged off the helm, hoping that if he perhaps were to lie down in the space below the wheelhouse and close his eyes, his affliction might subside. He turned the wheel over to me and there I was, alone, deep in the fog, surrounded by giant cetaceans, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for any other craft we might cross paths with, and it was magical. Unless you have been on the water out of the sight of land and felt the world become reduced to the insignificance of tiny bit of flotsam that keeps you from going to sunken Ry’leh and meeting great C’thulu’s terrible embrace and been filled with the sense of being purely alive in that existential moment then it would be hard to put into words for you what it is like…except to say that.
Then a sound broke the damp silence. The best sound a fisherman can hear. The sound that makes my heart leap with excitement every time I hear it. As long as it has that effect I will always be a fisherman–the singular, sweet sound of line running out of a reel after a fish has taken the bait, become hooked, and made a desperate run for freedom. “FISH ON! FISH ON!”, I shouted in capitals with exclamation marks, “FISH ON!” Jon was up on deck in an instant, his head cleared instantly by the flow of adrenaline surging through the both of us. He immediately began clearing the other lines to prevent tangling. He then pulled an angling belt from a locker and held it out to me. In a moment of total selflessness rarely seen in a man who loves to fish, he grinned and said, “you want it?” Moments later, I was strapped in and fighting my first tuna.
I have heard many tales of epic battles with tuna fish that spanned hours. Backs suffering, arms taken to the limit of endurance, knees, thighs all getting in the mix, hernias risked, all before the great creature is finally brought to the coup de grâce, gasping, terrified of our too thin air. My fight was not like that. The fish ran and I cranked against it for about ten minutes and was just getting it near the boat when it made a second deeper run. This as I had heard, would be the pattern: a series of deep runs before finally the fight went out of the exhausted animal and it could be hauled up over the gunwhale and onto the deck. So when I got the fish close the second time, the last thing I expected was the end of the battle. But it was. I drew the fish in close as Jon set the gaff hook into its gills. I figured that it must be a fairly small yellowfin and just hoped that it would be be enough to keep, for I had honestly had longer fights with striped bass. I was a bit surprised when Jon told me to put the rod down and give him a hand with the gaff, and even more so when we pulled and pulled a 250 lb bluefin tuna over that rail.
We whooped, we hollered, we did all the silly things that men do in such circumstances, compelled by an ancient adrenaline fueled so high that it is futile to resist. I felt the shame of the hunter as well. The sadness and self-loathing that is born of knowing that you have just taken the life of a powerful and beautiful a creature, an animal against whom on equal footing you would stand zero chance of survival.
It was only 7:30 am at that point, but as the fish was far too big even for Jon’s Yeti cooler, we turned west toward Nantucket and headed back home. When we reached cell-phone range, Jon got the Souza boys, our friends who own a local fish market, told them of the catch, and asked for some help in butchering. There are few men who can handle a knife like Manny Souza. We reached the dock by 9:00 am and after a couple of quick photos and some praise from the staff of the marina, we loaded up the fish and Jon headed for the Souza’s market. I took a quick detour home to get a video-camera and tell my wife the big news. By the time we reached the market, Manny was already starting to cut into the fish and so I never really got what you would think is the mandatory, “hey look what I caught motherfucker, I am a total he-man” photo.
Manny is quite the artist with the knife and those four loins came off the bone, leaving it almost clean. Almost clean, but for the little finger-sized divot that remains in the valley between each vertebrae, and so I set about liberating many of said chunks of sashimi from the carcass of that fish. Jon gave me half of one of the loins to keep, as he knew I had my big annual clambake approaching and it would be a nice feed for many at the night-before dinner we always had at the house. The rest went to the market to sell and be turned into coin for more gas. I asked what they were going to do with the belly as I noticed that it had been cut off and left to the side as if refuse, and was shocked to be told that they wouldn’t be selling it. Needless to say, I took those four beef brisket-sized pieces of belly home with me.
What followed was one of the most singular days of gluttony that I have ever experienced. In the next 24 hours, me, my wife Dani, daughter Oona, nephew Nick, and boon companion Heath consumed two of those four slabs of bluefin tuna belly raw; a sashimi feast that would cost more in Tokyo than a new car. The remaining two slabs I vacuum-sealed in a food saver until two weeks later, when our clambake rolled around. Our friend Tyler, a former sushi chef now residing in Tokyo, was on island for the event and blew minds at that dinner as he prepared more Toro and Chu-Toro sashimi than our 50+ guests knew what to do with. All the while, his wife Miho had a look on her face that needed no translation. It said, “I want to live here too,” and as a host that is the best look that you can see.