How Hard Is It To Catch A Tuna? A Fishing Adventure
The gaff slid into the yellowfin tuna’s broad shoulders, the bright pink blood flowing from the wound like oil from a leak. “We got him, Joey!” exclaimed George Meyers, the captain of F.V. Pinwheel, the famed tuna fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. “A nice and thick one, he’ll bring in the dough for sure.” Joe Bianchi, the boat’s first mate, dug a knife into the sturdy wooden board, nailed to the door of the cabin, with a look of satisfaction; “Number twelve today, cap!”
The ice box welcomed the new fish as it fell onto the pile of bodies with a thud, sending cubes of ice in every direction. “Put another scoop on there, will ya?” said George, content with his boat’s performance, “Gotta keep ‘em cold.” The two stood in the cockpit and stared at the glassy afternoon ocean, their bare feet pressing into the blood-stained teak; it was a good day.
“Please, Mommy. I want to go see the fish!” said Billy O’Connor, an eager eight-year-old boy, “We always go on Sundays.” It was a family tradition; every Sunday, to Mrs. O’Connor’s dismay, the family would drive fifteen minutes to the port to see hundreds of tuna laying on the cold concrete, ready to be shipped around the world. And so they went; driving through town to the water’s edge, outriggers and the masts of sailboats lining the horizon as they drove closer. Restless, Billy jumped out of the car as soon as they came to a halt, the light breeze sending the smell of the ocean straight to his nose. “Holy cow! Look, Dad! Look!”
As more boats lined up along the port, the soft thud of tuna hitting the dock turned into an incessant clamor, with fish sliding around in every direction. Eyes wild, Billy’s head was spinning, waiting to see which boat would come in with the next load. “You really want your kid to think this is okay?” asked a man riding by on a bike, “That’s horrible, just horrible.” Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor tried to shake it off; it’s what Billy loved, and they wanted their son to be happy.
“Bring that line in, will ya? Last thing I want is a tangle on a day like today.” A slow day on the water had Captain George on edge, praying for a bite. The soft wind screeched through their taught lines behind the boat, their baits jumping in and out of the wake like a pack of dolphins on the hunt, ready to leap at any moment. A small buzz on their reel sent the crew into chaos, as their neon line began to leave the reel in a screaming instant; it had to be the one. “There he is, we got ‘em! I need this fish, man. My kids need it. We need it. Can’t make mistakes in a game like this; give it to ’em, Joey!”
Gripping the handle of the reel, Joe began to crank. The rod was bent, but it was too steady; it lacked the erratic bounce that signals a tuna, and a payday. He leaned back with the butt of the rod just below his hip, staring directly into the morning sun as he pulled on the braided line with one hand and steadily cranked with the other. “Something’s going on, cap” yelled Joe, “I’m not feeling any head shakes.” The two sat in silence as Joe slowly pulled in dead weight, a loss of hope eating away at their minds.
Their line approached the boat, slicing through the cobalt blue water: it was a blade that seemed to go down forever. Joe looked back at George, hoping to see him ready with the gaff hook; what met his eyes was not the courageous leader he’d known forever, not the man who was supposed to take control. George was looking to the sky, hands clasped in prayer; he needed this fish. “He’s gettin’ closer, here he comes. Twenty more feet.” Their line neared the edge of the boat, and Joe’s hands began to shake; he grabbed the leader and pulled as hard as he could, the thin monofilament slicing his palms like butter. He had the enemy right where he wanted them, and all he needed to do was win the battle.
The first thing they saw was their shiny blue lure dancing in the water; however, it wasn’t situated in the mouth of a muscular yellowfin tuna.
Their lure, among a bird’s nest of line and weeds, was hooked onto a leatherback sea turtle; no tuna, no payday.
Schooling yellowfin tuna
Joe could barely look back to see his captain’s face before George had swiftly cut the line with a switchblade, leaving his lure and line with the ocean. “You can’t just leave the turtle like that,” cried Joe, “there’s no way he makes it!!” George, without looking up from the deck, yelled “I don’t give a damn about that, Joe. That turtle just cost me a whole lot of money. Cost my kids opportunities, cost my wife a date night.”
As they rode back, their boat undulating as the hull climbed up and down the rolling waves, Joe began to feel guilty. “I don’t deserve this,” he thought, feeling that he wasn’t cut out to be the first mate on such a boat. For George, fishing was more than a little Summer job, it was his life; you either catch ‘em or you don’t. Joe’s work wasn’t just a way to make a few extra bucks; he was working for someone else’s life, something he wasn’t ready for.
They idled through the inlet as the sun neared the horizon and an orange blanket was cast over the vessel, giving their silver lures a blinding power. A faint voice could be heard beyond the boat, along with the hum of an old Yamaha motor; the yelling was coming closer, but neither Joe nor George had a clue what was going on. A few minutes had passed when the voice made an appearance right next to the boat; a man, noticing that the two were fishing commercially, had pulled up next to them. “Screw you, killers!” he yelled, “You think it’s fine to kill our ocean for a few bucks? Scumbags like you are the reason the fishery is dying.” George pushed down the throttle, making distance between them and the man. “They don’t get it, Joey.” sighed George, “They just don’t get it.”
“We’re about to pass the port!” said Billy, “We’ve got to see if any fish are coming in!” Billy O’Connor was riding home from lunch with his friend Jack and Jack’s mother, and they happened to take a path along the harbor. Jack, only knowing the port as the home of hundreds of boats, followed the lead of Billy and began to ask his mom to stop, enthralled by Billy’s descriptions of the port’s wonders; hundreds of tuna, explained Billy, live there every day, shining beautifully in the afternoon sun.
Tuna cut in half for processing at Tsukuji fish market
They pulled into the parking lot, the car’s wheels crunching through the fine gravel, and the two boys jumped out. Billy ran, dodging bicycles, runners, and dogs, to the edge of the deck, where he was met by the result of a banner day on the water; over one hundred tuna lined the dock, exciting Billy beyond measure. “Jack, come on!” he cried, “I’ve never seen this many, it’s amazing!”
Billy looked down, eagerly waiting for the two new boats to unload their catch, and turned around, waiting to see the grin on Jack’s face; he was met with no smile, no laughter, and no excitement. Billy saw two tears rolling down his friend’s cheek. Jack had never seen death in such numbers, and was overcome with emotion; how could his friend like this? “Don’t you like the fish, Jack?” asked Billy, “I thought this was so cool.” Jack ran back to the car, tears falling to the rough concrete with every step; Billy just stared at the fish as they lay in the sun.
“I’m sorry, Jack,” said Billy as they rode home, “I thought you would like the fish as much as I do.” They rode in silence along the water, and Billy just stared down into his lap; he wasn’t looking for the next boat to come through the inlet, or for a boat unloading their catch on another dock, but decided to just think. “It’s okay, Billy,” said Jack, “I forgive you. I just don’t get what you could ever like about seeing so many dead fish, just laying there in the sun. We can’t eat all that, Billy, there’s no way. I just feel bad.” Billy looked over to see another tear rolling down his friend’s cheek, drawing a line through the thin layer of dust that covered his face.
“Grab that bow line, and I’ll grab the stern.” said Captain George, as they idled their boat into the slip at Harbor Cove; glistening in the sun lay a pile of plump tuna, adding insult to their already difficult day on the water. Before Joe could comment on the pile of fish George sighed, saying “I don’t even want to look, Joey. Not today.” They spent the next hour cleaning the boat, trying their best to keep focused amongst the laughter and joy of the rest of the fleet; there was no blood to clean off of the deck, just some tangled lines and errant lures.
Sitting down in the fighting chair for a break, Joe leaned back into his sweat-soaked shirt, the smell of fish never seeming so sour; looking up to the street, he noticed two boys. He could see himself in the boys, enthralled by the ocean’s product laying out in front of them in such great numbers; Joe thought about growing up in Gloucester, and living on the water.
Moreover, he thought about his father, who had taken him to the port every Sunday afternoon to see that day’s catch. In addition, he thought about George, who wasn’t lucky enough to be able to see the fish as the unique creatures that they were, but had to see them as his well-being. He looked back up at the two boys; one wore a smile and had an open jaw. The other, he noticed, did not. The boy looked terrified, betrayed, hurt; beginning to cry, the boy ran away.
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Billy, having sat awake in bed for an hour or so, could not help but think about his visit to the port. “Is it wrong to like the fish at the port?” he thought, “Am I a bad person?” It was the first time he had ever seen past the iridescent scales of the fish, past the sickle fins protruding from their broad backs. No, what he saw was death; multitudes of death, death that nobody seemed to care about. He had enjoyed it before, but how? He loved the ocean, but somehow had found peace in seeing it die.
Billy had grown up on the water, in the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
A world-famous fishing town, seeing the commercial fishing business in action was a part of his life, but he had never seen it for what it actually was. Billy couldn’t sleep that night. He tried to count how many times he had been to the port, but couldn’t. The death was innumerable, and it made him sick.
The dark night sky was lined with red, green, and white lights in the distance, seeming to be floating in a sea of nothing. George headed out to the tuna grounds with Joe, on the last day before the commercial tuna season ended.
Three-pole one-line rig catching Bigeye tuna
The water was dark, only illuminated by their dim lights on the bottom of the F.V. Pinwheel’s hull; short gusts of wind blew the salty water into the face of Capt. George, but he didn’t care. He was ready to go. A two-hour trek brought them to the place that could bring their wildest dreams, or their worst nightmare, to reality; they reached the gulf stream, the small sector of tropical water flowing over thousands of miles of ancient canyons and trenches. The two hadn’t said a word as the hum of their engine drowned out the outside world, but Joe knew that his captain was on edge. George made the signal with his hand that they had reached the fishing grounds, and his first mate began to put out the lines, one by one.
He put out the flat lines first, then the two baits on each outrigger; they danced in the wake, and dove in and out of the choppy ocean swells with the boat’s slow trolling pace.
“I gotta tell ya, man, I’m pretty nervous.” said George, “I got a lot riding on today. We’ll catch em, I know we will. I prayed last night, man. I got hope, I got hope. Just a little scared, Joey. I’m just a little scared.” Joe nodded his head in agreement, not knowing what to say; it was a big day for both of them, but George couldn’t afford another bad day on the water.
“You know, Joey, I never wanted to be a commercial fisherman. Could never stand to see death when I was younger, but when my Dad passed down his boat to me and my sister I knew it was the path I should take. Let’s get ‘em today, kid.” They sat in the cockpit for an hour, eyes glued to the six baits froliching in the whitewater; George kept the boat in a path along the Gulf Stream, trying to keep the boat in the magical blue water on its journey along the North American Coast. “Here we go,” said George, “we’ve got some birds up ahead. Keep an eye out, there’ve gotta be some tunas under ‘em.”
The boat cruised past the birds, but the guys saw no sign of life from their lines, until they heard a zip on their left outrigger. “Something’s playing with it,” said Joe, “Take it, buddy. Take it!” Then, they had him; not only did they have him, but also the friends he brought to dinner.
All six lines went off at once, creating a high-pitched acapella on board and sending George and Joe out of their seats in an instant, each tending to as many rods as they could manage. “What do we do?” said Joe, “We’ve got too many!” George couldn’t lose control, not in a moment like this; “Just keep reeling,” he said, “just keep reeling.” The battle was won by the crew of the F.V. Pinwheel as they boated five out of the six fish, all quality yellowfin tuna.
Joe expected a big, wet hug from his captain, but he saw nothing of the sort. George was focused on his prize, as the season was coming to a close; he saw the opportunity, and he took it. George took the boat around one hundred eighty degrees and got back on the fish, instructing Joe to release their lines back into the darkness; in no time, they were back in the thick of it. Again, and again, George led the boat to the fish, giving them another thirty minutes of mayhem each time they reached the spot; they had found the fish, and had them all to themselves.
Maximum reported sizes of tuna species
The two had boated twenty-eight fish, and the sun was just getting up in full force; circle after circle, they gave it their all. Joe’s shirt was covered in blood, but not his own; he felt so satisfied, and happy, but also felt their catch was sufficient. “I know it’s only nine, cap, but I think we should pack it up soon.
We’ve already hammered ‘em, and we can get back to the dock in time to grab some lunch.” George sat hunched over in his seat, applying a bandage to a small cut on his finger. “Listen, Joey. You’re a great kid, and I am so thankful for all you’ve done for me; I gotta tell you though, you just don’t understand. I’ve got a family to feed, kids to send to school, a boat to pay for. I love you, kid, but today I’m gonna kill ‘em until it’s over.”
Bigeye tuna, Thunnus obesus, on ice
And so he did. A boat record, forty-six yellowfin tuna boated, with two bonus amberjacks. Joe felt like he overstayed his welcome, took too much than he deserved; however, he couldn’t help but smile. George joyously whistled the entire boat ride back, interjecting every few miles with “Joey, you’re the man!” Joe felt so welcome, so at home, but also felt betrayed by himself. He couldn’t continue, no way, but he decided that it would be a happy day. Pulling into the harbor, the two saw that the dock lacked its usual liveliness; no boats, no tuna, no smiles. Joe sprayed off the dock and began hurling the tightly packed missiles onto the wooden beams, one after another.
“Billy, it’s the last day of the season!” cried Mr. O’Connor, “We won’t be able to see the fish for months. Come on, let’s head down to the water before the boats pack it up.” Walking into the kitchen, he grabbed his keys, opened the front door, and started toward the car. “Come on, kiddo. What’re you waiting for?” Billy took one step onto the porch, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders; “I think I’m gonna stay home, Dad. Next season will be here before we know it.”
“You boys need some ice?” asked William, the owner of Harbor Cove Co., “Looks like you’ve got quite the catch on your hands.” George nodded, a smile breaking out across his face; he was covered in blood, sweat, and salt, but still found a feeling of happiness inside himself. Happy to have just killed an entire school of tuna? Happy to be able to give his family the life they deserve? Who knows. On their day of success, the port still felt empty. Joe looked around; no boats, no smiles, no laughter. Looking up to the street, Joe felt an unexplainable loneliness; where were the boys?
How Hard Is It To Catch A Tuna? A Fishing Adventure
Written by Thomas Heath