As the boat pitched forward into the early morning darkness of the Mid-Atlantic, I lay on the wet deck staring at the inky, black sky doing my best to keep down the late night snack I ate en route to Cape May. All the while, I periodically closed my eyes trying to get some sleep before a long day of tuna fishing. Seasickness is a new sensation for me. My earliest memory of being on a boat was my Dad’s old 13 foot Boston Whaler that he sold while I was probably still in diapers. Until recent years, I’ve spent a good part of my life on boats but have become an unwilling landlubber. The end result of a lack of sea legs, a pitching boat in nearly total darkness, and a too-late dose of Dramamine ultimately led to a short but effective bout of sea sickness. After that, the nausea passed and I slept fitfully on the wet deck. I had chosen the deck over a dry bench in the cabin so I could soak up the fresh sea air. The goal was partially to help with the sea sicknesses but also to remember the thrill of the wide open sea and the salty air. I had been away too long.
I have fished up and down the east coast for a multitude of saltwater species. While I don’t go as often as I used to, I usually manage to dangle a hook or two in the water for something every year. Every year I swear I’m going to take the plunge and head offshore for tuna. I’ve spent many winter nights studying fishing channels on YouTube as they gaff yellowfin, bluefin, and bigeye tuna. I’ve researched the when, where, how and who to go with bet never pulled the trigger always veering away at the last moment. I often tell myself the price is too steep but in my heart I know that isn’t the real reason. But, as I’ve recently learned, years pass quickly and if you don’t act when the time is right, it will be too late. So back in May, right after a successful black drum fishing trip with Capt. Tom Daffin of the Fishin’ Fever, I messaged him to book me a date for tuna. Done deal. Now to find a crew.
Collecting a crew of fisherman for a charter used to be easy. Years ago, each summer I pre-booked a fishing charter out of Fortescue with an old Philippine immigrant who could find fish in a mud puddle if given the chance. He had a 40′ wooden, single engine boat as seaworthy as he was and I’d book one day a month from May through October. I had to turn people away each month. These days, getting commitment to a charter is harder than an act of Congress. Everyone nods their heads and says they want to go right until you have a firm date and firm price. “Kids have swimming that day”. “Wife gets her hair done and I have to drive her.” “My dandruff usually acts up that week of the month.” The reasons are varied but it seems nobody can chop a day out of their schedule to drown a worm with friends. I knew that going in, but felt confident I could find five other crazy friends willing to clamber about a boat in Cape May for a 1:30a.m. departure to make the long run to the offshore canyons. It took a bit of work but it didn’t long to find my 5 crazies and the trip was on.
Of course, to run 70 miles off the coast in a small boat one must have cooperative weather. Naturally, the week before the trip, Tropical Storm Elsa lined up her sights to arrive off the coast of New Jersey just about the same time as our trip. Things were looking iffy. But Elsa passed by harmlessly and quickly the day prior with little more than a lot of rain and left no harsh seas in her wake. The forecast called for good conditions. After exchanging a few confirmatory texts, the crew was lined up and excited to converge on the boat and go after some tuna!
The chilly morning air on my wet shirt woke me from my post-nausea sleep. The sky was getting light and, as I stood I could see the horizon. Aside from shivering because of wet clothing, I felt fine. The visible, steady horizon kept my head and stomach straight the rest of the day. I grabbed a dry shirt from my pack and greeted my fishing companions.
We had an interesting mix. Along with myself was my young hunting and fishing friend Andrew, and his buddy Eric. Our three remaining crew were a family affair. Melissa, her sister Alison, and Melissa’s son Tom, a very avid young fisherman and EMT. I had not seen Melissa or Alison in years. We met while working together at summer jobs in Cape May Point and have reconnected through social media.
It was not long after I got up that Captain Tom’s alarm went off indicating we were approaching his “numbers” and needed to get fishing gear in the water. Tom and Bruce set to work carrying stout rods with big Shimano Tiagra 50-wides on deck followed by a whole bunch of spreader bars and various green plastic squid-looking baits. Some frozen ballyhoo appeared as well. In short order, the Fishin’ Fever IV had 10 lines set on the troll for Charlie Tuna. Now all we needed was a bite.
I think we all had the idea in our head that tuna would begin leaping at the baits the moment they touched the water. We all sat on the edge of our seats watching the rods, watching the baits dancing across the water, clutching our fishing belts, waiting for the sound of screaming drags. And we waited. Time passed and we began to relax. As daylight grew and the seas slowly calmed, I realized I was hungry and popped the top on an iced coffee and gobbled down a granola bar. I splashed a bit of the coffee into the sea in case the tuna might need a little wake-up. Still no bites. About two hours into the morning, I stepped inside to talk to Captain Tom and as we chatted I looked over his shoulder and saw a rod double over. Fish on! Instantly another rod went. Young Tom and Andy threw on their belts, and took the rods as the mate, Bruce, handed them off. Bruce and Captain Tom frantically cleared lines to allow clear fighting room for the two fish. Tuna are strong, fast swimmers and can tangle lines in a hurry. This initial double was a little deceiving. The fish fought hard but Andy and Tom had little trouble subduing them and they were quickly brought on board. Both were the smallest tuna we would catch that day but just legal so they went in the box. It’s a shame they didn’t bite later because we’d probably have let them go, but when the box is empty you don’t want to go snubbing the fish gods because that might be all you’re getting. Before putting them on ice Bruce cut the gills to humanely kill them and bleed them out for better table fare. Knowing what was about to happen I was going to comment that “If you have a weak stomach maybe don’t watch” but then I realized that, aside from Andy and Eric who would have already done this, I was standing next to two nurses, and an EMT. No worries on the weak stomachs.
Tuna fishing has often been described as hours of boredom followed by moments of chaos. After this trip, I can vouch for that. Except we were never really bored. There were times the fish weren’t biting and Tom steered the slowly-trolled lures around the vast depths of the Wilmington Canyon. There was no land, few other boats, and no point of reference aside from dozens of dolphin also out looking for their own fishy dinner. The day was beautiful with gently rolling seas, mostly clear skies, and cool temperatures. We spent time between bites sharing stories and enjoying one another’s company. Well, except poor Eric. He didn’t quite recover from his more severe sea sickness as quickly as Alison and I did. But he held his own.
ZZZZZZZZZZZZ! A drag screamed and a pole bent. Then another. And another. Melissa took a rod from Bruce and Alison from Tom. The powerful tuna sped into the sea ripping drag as they went. I grabbed the 3rd rod from its holder. It was a jigging rod with a smaller reel, substituted in for a failed 50-wide. Jigging rods look diminutive but pack a powerful punch. I worked my fish on the light rod and reel and feel like I had a bit of an advantage over not having to horse the bigger rod and winch. It was also not rigged with a spreader but a single hook meaning I was only fighting the fish and not the drag of the spreader and all those plastic squid. The dangerous part was that the little jigging rod was rigged with braided line and the others had monofilament. If braid meets mono, it will win every time and cut right through the mono freeing the tuna and rig.
Neither Alison nor Melissa had experience with big fish. In fact, I wasn’t prepared for just how hard a tuna fights or how unwilling they are to give up. But I have fought big fish and know the proper techniques. It wasn’t long before Alison found she couldn’t turn the reel anymore and gave up the rod to Eric. Meanwhile Melissa was struggling as well but her son Tom stepped in to help lift the rod. Fighting three strong tuna at once requires a bit of a dance. The fish go where they want to and it is up to the anglers and crew to keep lines from tangling, especially when one is fishing braid. To reel a strong fish, the angler waits for the fish to stop its run, then reels to keep the line tight. At some point, you can wind no more. At that point, you lean back, lift the rod and reel down. You might only get a turn or so each lift, but you slowly and gradually work the fish your way. That is until the fish gets its second (or third, or fourth) wind and takes another powerful, diving run taking back all the line you just worked to reel in. Meanwhile, the dance on deck continues. Walk to the right and dosey doe. Under your partner and round we go. This goes on as the fight continues. As each fish gets near and you can see “color” the captain or mate arrive ready with a gaff to hook the fish and haul it in.
You don’t realize how clean and clear the ocean still is until you see your tuna coming up from the depths. Thirty feet down you suddenly see the green of the plastic squids on the spreader followed by the silver, blue, and yellow hues of a tuna. At first it is just a blur of color but as you lift and crank, the colors form into a fish. Suddenly, a flash of silver steel and the fish is lifted from the water and dropped to the deck. But even then tuna don’t give up. They immediately begin a steady, thrashing staccato drumbeat of tail and body on the deck, flapping furiously until the mate humanely slices the gills. Death comes quickly then as the life blood stains the deck rendering the meat not only edible but extremely delicious.
This second round of fish were bigger. The Alison/Eric fish was the biggest of the the three and Alison felt immediately better for having given way once she saw the size. These were the kind of tuna we came for.
We were all awake now. Everyone had felt the surging throb of the rod as tuna fought for their lives. The tuna were stowed away in a slurry of ice and saltwater in the boat’s hold. The anglers grabbed drinks and resumed the watch as Bruce and Capt. Tom reset the lines. If we caught no more fish, the day was already a success. We talked and watched the baits flutter on the surface. I had hoped to see a strike. It seemed impossible not to. Nearly all the baits were clearly visible from deck as the plastic squid danced along.
The “boredom” had resumed though I can’t really call it that. The most silent moment without a bite on the boat was more exciting and thrilling than my normal days. The minutes and hours wore on. Just when we’d start to think we were done for the day, down would go a rod. Sometimes it was a false alarm. Once we got a hit from a white marlin. It destroyed one of the ballyhoo. Marlin stun their prey with their bill and then leisurely eat the hapless victim. But they are cagey and, because they are expecting to eat stunned or dead prey, any tension they feel from a line sends them fleeing. Drags are set much lighter when expecting marlin. Tuna chase and eat live prey and slam it with reckless abandon. They are hooked before they know it so drags can be set tighter.
It is a thrilling moment when anglers are nodding off or nibbling a sandwich and the bite happens. ZZZZZZZZZ goes the drag! One line . . two lines . . three lines . . . four lines! Wolfpack! Bodies move, the dance begins! Fisherman and women grab lines thrust at them by the crew. “Don’t start reeling until he stops running”. I found myself with a rod rigged with a 50-wide with line departing the spool at an alarming rate. I watched as the reel sizzled and the spool of line shrunk with each second. The seconds ticked by. Finally, the fish slowed and stopped and I reeled tight. The line stretched out for hundreds of yards and the fish fought hard. I began the task of pulling the unwilling bit of sushi toward the boat. He wasn’t interested. Lift up, reel down. Lift up, reel down. To make matters worse, I had forgotten to readjust my belt after I removed my jacket so it was hanging uselessly low. Eric or Tom or someone who wasn’t fighting a fish stepped in to help by pinching the belt and holding it tight while I fought. The fish protested and ran again. He stopped and I began cranking him slowly, unwillingly, back toward the boat. “Listen fish. I’m a marathoner, and Ironman. You aren’t going to wear me down.” I secretly wondered though. This fish had game. The battle teetered back and forth. Finally, the fish was brought to gaff. I expected the biggest tuna of the day and while it was a fair sized fish, it was not the sea monster I expected given the fight he put up. Until that moment, I thought that I’d love to catch a 100 lb. bigeye tuna. (Big brother of the yellowfin.) Suddenly, I was having second thoughts about that idea.
Ultimately, 3 of the 4 fish were put on deck. I had wanted Alison to have the fish I reeled but she was getting her belt on when the fourth rod went and Tom yelled for someone to take the one he had. I figured Alison would get the 4th fish but it apparently let go.
We shifted gears again back toward the idle times. Chatter on the radio from other boats indicated we were doing very well given the day. Most boats were just having a long boat ride. Despite the calming seas and adrenaline boost from fish, Eric was not getting over his seasickness and looked a bit green around the gills. A good dose of seasickness medication finally got him over the hump.
The scene repeated itself several more times throughout the day. As it was getting close to 2:00, about the time we would turn the bow to the west and head home, I was sitting on the bench idly watching the closest bait skip across the water when it suddenly disappeared in an explosion of frothy salt water. The explosion corresponded with the center rod bending into a parabola while line ripped off the reel and disappeared into the blue. Immediately, the next closest line began shrieking off the reel. Double on! Somehow Andy and I wound up on both rods. I’m not sure whose turn it was but this became the crescendo of the performance. These two fish were beasts and battle royale ensued. My fish ran clear to Portugal before it finally stopped and ripped off 50 or more yards of line any time it wanted to. I leaned back hard and could only turn the handle of the big 50-wide a turn or so with each pull. The battle went back and forth for quite a while. I don’t know how much clock time, but I was starting to sweat profusely. I was almost ready to hand the rod off and suddenly Capt. Tom said “I have color”. The fish was close. Tom grabbed the leader and began to lift. The fish didn’t like that and ripped off 20 yards of monofilament seeking safety. It led me around the corner to the stern where we started. Again there was color. Bruce moved closer. A little too close as it turned out because his elbow bumped the drag lever of the Tiagra and put the reel in free spool. The fish quickly took advantage and plunged a hundred yards in seconds. Tom fixed the drag and said “You gotta work him all over again.” “Great.” Again we fought. The fish with renewed vigor and me with renewed hand cramps. Capt. Tom offered encouragement “Keep reeling.” Easier said than done. I forced my hand around the crank. “Pull him in.” I was trying. Finally, I summoned all my energy, lifted and reeled. The fish relented, Bruce bent over and stuck the gaff lifting the 50 lb. tuna over the rail. Phew. Andy’s fish came on board and was also a 50 lb. class fish.
I leaned on the cooler box and announced that I didn’t need to do that again today. Captain Tom made the call. The twin 50 pounders was the high note he was looking to end on and he said “Time to head west”. The anglers were sated, and the fish box was full. We were good with this but it seems the tuna weren’t done. All but one line had been cleared during the duel with the 50 pounders. Bruce lifted the rod from the port rod holder, snapped the line from the outrigger clip, and at that moment a tuna practically ripped it from his hands. “Here we go!” he yelled. Tom quickly snapped on a belt and jumped on the rod. The battle looked eerily similar to the ones Andy and I just fought. Another beast of a fish. Melissa whipped out her phone and got some footage as Tom fought solo at the stern. The battle raged on with the fish eventually flopping on deck. No more lines in the water now. It was time to head west and end our adventure.
It’s a long ride in from the canyons. Anglers and crew settled in to seats, bean bags, and various places of comfort to rest or sleep for the 3+ hour ride back to the dock. Back at the dock, we watched as Tom and Bruce efficiently carved up those beautiful tuna into delicious-looking chunks of meat. We had ultimately landed 14 fish. 14 fish makes for a lot of tuna meat. The meat went into bags that were split up among six coolers with ice. It was time to say goodbye. Some of us had just met each other the night prior. Some of us had known each other for years despite the distance and time. The camaraderie of such days forms a tight bond of friendship for all when the chemistry is right and it had been good. It seemed we were mostly birds of a feather and we said “Let’s do it again next year!”. Reluctantly, I packed my cooler full of tuna and pointed my car to the north, looking forward to some awesome meals and ready to go again.