August 12th in 1969
The fish were in the Fingers and the Russians were in the Fingers. The Russians were something to see. You could smell them long before you ever saw them. Cabbage, you could smell cabbage and it was a strong smell not a whiff. It could peel paint. There were miles and miles of them and they were strung out one after another from the Carolinas to Canada. One behind the other following behind like lawn mowers running rows. Every inch of the bottom was covered and then they turned around and steamed in the other direction. Amazing to see and yet even with that type of focused effort they did not wipe out the fish stocks like we have since they have left. I am always amazed when I think of that. They were gray and big a few hundred feet most of them and every here and there a factory ship and a few polish trawlers and some Japanese and other iron curtain countries. The Russians were the biggest and operated as a fleet that was connected. The other ships were different and somehow sad. They were covered in rust and every opening was welded tight against the weather. They were like rust colored orange traffic coffins and were small and eastern rigged which is the pilot house was at the back of the boat not the front and they were small and built kind of top heavy compared to all the rest of the fleet. They were 150 feet or so long and you never saw anyone on deck and the wires were towing all the time and the people were hidden.
Never was there ever a face, even at a porthole. It was like they were ghost ships.
They may not have ever taken in their nets for all I know but perhaps once a day or when they were running out of fuel and had to go to a fleet tanker to get supplies.
Who knows the stories that the men on those fishing boats could tell. But you can let your mind wander and imagine and I do not think you would be far off no matter what you could conjure up.
The Japanese were not sad but buoyant with motorcycles strapped to masts and wanting to trade anything they had for American beer and cigarettes.
Their ships were much smaller than the Russians and were painted and bright and kept up and had life and vitality to them. You could tell that they were free men and good fishermen. That energy was very different than the Eastern European block boats and ships.
The Russians would trade too but they only had vodka but they had a lot of it!
They were not sour but were friendly and they were not there because they loved to fish or were going to make any money at it but they were resigned to it and wanted to go home.
They would come to the rails and look at the Americans and wave and shout and yell “Beer Cigarettes! Budweiser was a big hit.
It was kind of an amazing scene lots of rich and I mean very rich American sport fishermen with Big Gold reels and fancy very expensive fishing yachts and the reels and rods were Fin Nor’s in those days not Penn’s and they would be racing around the Russian fleet catching tuna fish and marlin and trading beer and cigarettes and every once in a while on an especially nice and calm day, a Russian would jump off and swim towards one of the sport boats and then the fellow or girl would get saved and the Coast Guard would get involved and often the sport boats would get kind of timid and not pick up the Russian but would stay close and keep talking on the radio to anyone who would listen and talk about how they didn’t know if they should rescue the person as they might be criminals and it might not be a good idea to just pick them up and the Russians might have guns and on and on and they would keep talking and hanging around to make sure the jumper did not drown or get eaten by a shark until a launch from the ship would come and pick up the jumper.
Then they would talk about how they did the right thing for a week and then some one on the radio would finally say,” You should have picked them up.” And then they would say,” Yea, I know. Poor bastard,” and that would be the end of it until the next time.
That was always kind of sad to me when that happened and it happened up and down the coast as you could hear the conversations but there was a quarantine period of thirty days if you picked up someone and always a fear of the unknown and people were prone to ignore heroics if they could.
They were out there to go fishing not to be involved an international incident. I wish we had had a jumper. I think I could have talked Hobie into rescuing him. The radio would have been blazing that day and probably would have burned a hole in the bridge. I would have told him t keep his mouth shut and not tell anybody until we let the guy go so we wouldn’t have to be quarantined. He could not have done it but I might have gotten a few hours of quiet out of him if I scared him enough.
Quite a few of the jumpers were women. I wonder what kind of lives they had aboard those ships.
But the Giant tuna were there in the fingers and so were the Russians and the tuna were following the Russians and feeding on the spillage from their nets when they hauled back.
Tuna fish were not valuable at that time they were selling for three and four cents a pound and because of that there were lots of them and we used to fish for them for the pure adventure and wildness of it. Those were good days and there were still swordfish of real size around. The fingers are located south of Martha’s Vineyard and are a major source of upwelling currents and held large numbers of pelagic fish from time to time and in the summer the gulf stream sends branches of warm water in close to the southern New England shore and often there are vast schools of tuna and dolphin and loose groups of marlin and other warm water fish and the fishing can be incredibly good and in those days it was.
The giants were there and they were feeding and they were big ones and there were lots of them and we could troll for them as they were ranging throughout the fleet and would come up to the sound of a motor and crash a trolled bait.
It was heaven for me.
I loved it and I loved rigging the baits to make them swim and I enjoyed every day out here and I was able to be out there almost every day. We would fish inshore and catch a bunch of bass and blues and them steam offshore and catch school tuna and a marlin or two or six and did it day after day from late June until late September and then at the end of it all we would go to Gloucester to catch Giant Tuna fish for about a month. And boy, did we catch them! What a wonderful time it was.
The fish at the fingers were special. I had rigged several swimming baits and had made up a couple of double hooked Bonefish of about three pounds they were about 22 inches long with a hook in the head facing up and a hook in the vent facing down. They had an egg sinker under the chin and they swam so well that they would throw up a little wake just like a living fish would. It was magical t be able to rig like that and I worked hard at it and could rig anything any way I could imagine and could make it work and loved doing it. I enjoyed it thoroughly. The secret was in having everything perfectly balanced and even and no strain on any single place and you did that with dental tape and by making cradles and webs to take up strain and keep everything in perfect alignment.
I remembered everything I had ever read and studied all the books that had anything at all to show and soon found that there were a few basic principles and if you understood them you could mix it up and push the boundaries and come up with some interesting innovations that would work and after that you could start making decisions on rigging that were based on understanding fish and how to rig to get them to hit and then learning how to rig a big bait so that the gear would stand up to the fight and last for as long as it had to and that some ways of rigging were interesting but impractical for the kind of pressures that came with the fight of a big tough fish like a Giant tuna.
I liked to rig with hard wire and dental tape. I loved hooks and figuring how to rig each one to get the most out of it and how some hooks were just bad and some were good and some didn’t make any sense at all but worked better than anything else and you learned by doing it and seeing the results. It was a great time to be fishing for big fish because we had them to fish for and they would teach you what worked and what didn’t and either you won or you lost and there was no in-between.
************** end of session
Big game fishing is a precise game and in the days when I was a player there were only two people on a boat that were playing it, the captain and the mate. The angler’s thought they were and they were in the sense that they did the hard part of fighting the fish but they were for the most part interchangeable and way down deep they knew it even though they were never told. Even today with all the hoopla of teams and tournaments they still are and they know it but they will never bring it up as to hear it said would be to painful. That is not to say that some anglers were bad and some were good because that is true some were bad and some good but a bad angler would not affect the catching all he had to do was not die in the chair and you would get the fish with the boat. IF he was also a nasty person of which there were several then everyone spirit is off and the day would be sour and a week would be hell and there are boats with those types of owner operators and I felt empathy for those who have to acquiesce to those kinds of fragile ego driven anglers.
I was lucky as there were very seldom those types of fools on our boat and the owner, Hike, was a gentleman and a team player all the way. He was also very good at staying alive in the chair.
I was up in the tower and we were trolling three big baits Two off riggers and one on a flat line. They were all double hooked and there were two split mullet and one bonefish.
They were all rigged to swim and were swimming perfectly. The bonefish was on the 80-pound rig that we used for swordfish and it was on the left rigger. We were fishing Dacron
And the leaders were hard wire 240 lb test, which in those days was pretty standard stuff. The head hook was a 12/0 round eye and the dropper hook was the same but in those days we did not have chaffing gear (little thimbles) for the loops and so we were very careful with our wraps and paid close attention to weak points. Hobie wanted double hook rigs and so that ‘s what we used. They swam beautifully and when you looked down and back at the three of them from the perch of the tower they looked sweet.
We were riding along and it was a beautiful day sun calm air lots of life everywhere there were shearwaters and petrels all over the place and Russians, lots and lots of Russians and always the strong stench of cabbage floating in the air, that smell was so strange and yet so normal and such a part of it. We had been trolling for about 45 minutes when I turned around and looked back at the bonefish on the 80-pound rig . It was swimming nicely and skipping out of the wave and diving back in on the front side of the fourth wake throwing up a tail wiggle wake and it looked absolutely vibrantly alive when, right there in front of my eyes, in slow motion an enormous, gigantic, huge, blue fin tuna decided to sail completely out of the water for its full length and arc through the air for what seemed like a half an hour and slowly twist from upright to sailing on its side and while doing that open its mouth and bulge out and focus its enormous eye right on the spot the bonefish was swimming blissfully along and kaboom the water exploded like a bomb went off and the fish landed right on top of that bonefish and the rigger snapped and the rod slammed down to a complete bend and I was on the deck from the tower and clearing rods and getting Hike strapped into the chair and it happened in ½ a second and that is exactly what it felt like happened. It was glorious and incredible and we did it in those days just because we could.
Hike was good in the chair and he knew what he was doing and he and Hobie had done this before although I had not. I was green but I had good moves and I was totally in my element and I loved it all of it and I still do even though I don’t do it often anymore but in those day when I was young and strong and a bit wild there was no better place for me to be than in the cockpit of a boat with a giant tuna attached to an angler and a good captain at the helm.
I did not know what to expect and the crew was good and I was a part of it and I loved what I was a part of and there was no fear and just a sense of excitement. I have seen in the years since certain boats and captains and anglers that are of a different spirit and have been attached to those energies and they are not pleasant to be around and cause great stress and reflect the peculiarities of the personalities of those who fish for things other than the adventure of it. I think it may be cheaper to pay a psychiatrist a full time salary for couple or three years that to finance a sport boat and fish it for that length of time and it would perhaps do less damage to other good willed people if some folks would do that.
There is a history of this dynamic and battle of ego’s in big game fishing and the wars in this area started almost form the beginning with Zane Gray and Mike Lerner and S. Kip Farrington and others all battling to be top dog and going through captains and singing praises to the latest and greatest and cursing others and Tommy Gifford said it best when he said there are Anglers and there are Muscle heads and he was talking about these very people. Nothing has changed except perhaps there are more of the muscle heads than there were and perhaps more of the anglers too. One thing is for sure there are more people fishing offshore now than when I was out there and I have a feeling it is perhaps more stressful now than it once was and there may be a different spirit dominating it now.
That first tuna fish was incredible. It was the very first time I had been attached one and personally witnessed what they could do on the end of a line. The first thing that I did notice after the fight was complete was the total lack of awareness of time passing. It was all now. There was a beginning, and a middle and an end and it was all right now and intense and full and immediate and at the same time very calm and slow and precise and serious. Fighting big fish is serious and it is tough. I do not want to sit in that chair nor did I ever want to and not out of fear but to me it always seemed like an ordeal to get through but the fishing part I loved. I can never remember the angler’s names but I do remember the boats and the captains and that is the way it actually is tin the business. It is not the anglers who catch the fish to the professionals it is the captains and that is true throughout the business in every area of it from trout to blue marlin.
There are fishermen and sports. Sports sit in the chair.
That first run is a wonder and we were using an 80-pound rig. If Hike had landed it, it would have perhaps been a record but that was not what we were after. I do not know what we were after but we were after it and they ere old men to me and I was young
But even so, I had my place and it was mine and I spoke and it was listen to and that was good and it sobered me and made me if anything more potent as a force on that boat.
The fish screamed off like and Hike was lifted up on his toes and I had to grab him by the back of the harness and pull him back down. The fish was a screamer and fast and wild and he was on an 80-pound rig, which was very light tackle. Hike was in heaven. He had his little gloves and his towel wrapped around his neck and he was doing it! Fighting a fish and that is what this was all about to him and it was his time. His intensity was complete and he had experience and determination an fought that fish as hard as any one ever fought a fish and he was good, a human jackhammer and his legs would move in and out and he would drop and bend his knees and slump into the fish and then hold and reach up with his gloved two hands and grab line and twist it and pull down then switch and hold the gain with one hand and spin the reel and get it on the reel and then reach up again and grab, and with the bending of his knees and straightening out his legs in unison with the reach and his gloved hands would grab a few more feet of line and
get that on the reel . He was like a bull, like a dancing bull and he was full of joy and fire and he knew what he was doing and knew how to do it and loved being able to do it and he was doing it now and he was on fire and he never stopped. If the fish slowed or paused turned he was grabbing and pumping and pulling and grabbing and sweating and drinking water and when the fish was racing and running I was holding his harness and pulling him back down in the seat. He was relentless and he was smart. He was in that fishes face every moment and he was after its spirit and he worried it and worried it and he never let it rest or left it alone and he let it know who he was and that he was after it and the fish knew and that knowing was important. Men who can fight fish that way are different than those who just sit and yank with their muscles Tommy Gifford called them muscle heads and they always fared the worse when they ran into a fish worthy of a fight. Hike was an angler in the sense of fighting fish that old Tommy meant. He was fighting that fish one on one and he was determined to fight it with a fight worthy of the fish. That is all that an angler can do. Honor the fish by fighting it the best you can and not just sitting there and crying about how hard it is. I was fortunate in having Hike show me how it can be done when it is done right.
One of the ways a Giant tuna fish fights is to run straight away from the pull for about 3oo to 4ooyards or 600 to 700 yards and then change directions and turn to the right or left and run just as fast to the left or the right and you don’t know it at all because of the distance between you and the fish because the line is still pealing off straight behind you at a breakneck speed and there may be several hundred yards between you and the fish and the fish is moving at about 35 miles per hour unless he is moving at fifty which they sometimes do and the line is sailing off the reel straight back and the hydraulics of the water keep it locked right behind the boat and all of a sudden it starts to move so fast that it is hard to follow except for the rooster tail that goes up into the air to the height of 10 to 12 feet and it looks like a single ski water skier taking a turn and the water is sliced by the line cutting across the surface so fast and then all of a sudden the line jumps down under and the tuna is in front of the boat and the line is going under the boat and the fish is heading to the right and the rod is facing the left and the fish moves to the left or the right of the bow and it is pretty incredible the fist time you experience it. We got through several of those and remained attached to the fish and Hike just kept up his relentless hammering on the fish for the grabs of line with his legs pumping and his hands reaching and I kept his butt in the seat and then things changed. The fish dove.
A high fish is fast and volatile and you chase them and can trick them and sometimes land them before they know what is happening but a deep fish is different, a tug of war and it puts a peculiar strain on the angler and the tackle and the tension in the atmosphere is great and a silence comes to the boat and the engines rumble and the exhaust makes a peculiar bulub blub sound and for a few minutes there is a rest and then patience comes into play but so do other wily things. The radio will be making noise and with Hobie half the world out there was cheering hike on and for the first time the rest of the world came on board except for Hobie who never left it and would just do what was necessary when you could get his attention off the radio. He was very animated up on the bridge but that mike was always in his hand.
The fish sounded and he kept going down and down and began to run deep and we had to follow he was a hundred feet or more down and was moving fast and we had to keep up and when a fish is doing that it changes the way you have to fight them. There are many ways and I am sure that now a days there are formulas to do it but back them we did not have them as we were the ones who were doing these things sometimes for the first time and sometimes not but we just were doing the best we could with our wits.
Necessity was the mother of invention.
The whole dynamic of the cockpit changed and the end of the rod became the focus of everyone’s attention, The fish was moving away and we were attached and he moved steadily and strongly and the boat began to follow him in reverse and the sound of the exhaust became pronounced and rhymical and the line coming off the reel snapped and crackled and squeaked and the fish kept moving deep below and kept his heading and never slowed or changed direction and Hobie yelled down, ”We‘re Going to see if we can tow him up, ease up on the drag I am going to move away from him and see what happens.”
This was a welcome respite as it was tedious and endless and doing something different was a hopeful and soon we were whizzing away from the fish and the line began to rise as we moved further and further from him and then it really did begin to move. “We are plane-ing him up,” Hobie yelled all excited and sure enough the fish was up and moving and he was panicked and wild and spinning like a kite on a string and it was over.
The fish was gone. Hike was out of the chair and there was no regret or words of disappointment. The fish was just gone and before anyone said anything we were back fishing again and the baits were out and we were trolling and the riggers were out and I had the broken rig in my hand and showed it to Hike and said the fish was on the back hook and the wire broke. I still had the front hook. “That 80 lb rig makes it hard, takes a long time to fight a big fish like that , lot of extra time for something to break, Whew! that would have been something if we’d have got him, I was getting tired.” Hike was over it and didn’t flinch and that was it. It was Hobie’s call as captain and he said, “Well we have to use two hooks cause they grab the tail.” He didn’t want to use cable so I doubled the wire.
That was it for that day as far as fish but the next day was coming and the tuna were still in the fingers. I went up in the tower and stood there enveloped in the silence of the wind and joined the horizon and left the boat far below in another world that was remote and flew home all by myself.