I have no idea if this topic holds any interest for the Rock M Nation community, but I thought I'd throw it against the wall just in case. And since SBN has yet to launch Pelagic Fish M Nation, this seems as good a venue as any..
(Blackfin tuna to the left of the stairs, yellowfin tuna to the right)
Back in December I traveled up to Springfield to attend to family business, and I stayed with a very dear friend—we’ll call him Horace. Somehow the conversation turned from Ronnie Wood’s contribution to The Rolling Stones to saltwater fishing (I think it was the IPA), and he made this proclamation: "blackfin" said Horace, "One day I’m going to do it. I’m going to block out some time and drive down to your house in DFW and take one of these trips with you. I want to get it like you get it." I thought that was an interesting way to put it. It hadn’t occurred to me that almost no one—even people who enjoy fishing— "get it" per se. And by it I mean the reason why deep-sea fishing specifically has captured my passion to the exclusion of everything else. Well, if you don’t count faith, family, friends, career, Mizzou football, Rock M Nation and ridiculously bad-for-you foods. I guess the point of this two-part FanPost is to start at the beginning (for those of you landlocked in Lamar) and try and answer that question: Why deep-sea fishing, and why tuna fishing most of all? In this installment I will try to cover the generalities involved in these trips, and then I will follow up with a report from an actual trip in March—God willing and the [Gulf] don’t rise—as I suspect CountryCal might say.
The simplest answer to why? for me, is this: There is an overall savageness to the whole thing that I find very addicting. My dad first took me barracuda fishing in SoCal when I was twelve or thirteen, and that feeling has never left me. I love being out there where nothing is and nothing goes on forever. To be clear, I love all kinds of fishing. However, when you pull any fish from the ocean, you know you are holding something that was born wild. IS wild. This is no pampered largemouth, manufactured first in a hatchery and then released into an Eden crafted by housing-tract engineers and a backhoe; this beast has fought for its continued existence each and every day, from the egg until that moment. I have tremendous respect for this. I have personally seen hooked tuna eaten alive by barracuda before we could gaff them. They are not smooth and polished; they are haggard, scarred, toothy, slimy. Fierce.
I should start by saying that I never encourage anyone to go tuna fishing with me. Oh, I might say you should come with me sometime, but I don't really mean it. Shorter trips for redfish or snapper are different—I'll drag anyone out there for that. But tuna.. You have to want to do this so badly that no one can talk you out of it. You have to be willing to endure hours upon hours of ridiculous discomfort to make it happen. This involves very close quarters with 50 smelly strangers and all their gear, for one thing. It’s cost prohibitive, for another (more on that later). But it’s the ride itself that must be carefully considered. Once the ropes are free, you will endure--like it or not.
I have another friend locally (we’ll call him Wisconsin) who is a fine angler in his own right. Three years ago I told him when I was going, and the next thing I knew, he called the booking office and got a rail position right next to mine! I asked him if he was sure about this, and he assured me that he was. Since he had never been seasick a day in his life, Wisconsin elected not to get an Rx patch (big mistake) or even pack Dramamine just in case. For a 30-hr trip, I generally start doping up against motion sickness 24 hours before I even see the water. But Wisconsin knew better...for the first 90 minutes. Here is an actual picture of him two hours into our voyage. Spewing violently over the rail began 30 minutes later. He will never return.
Notice the True Salt across the way? She’s managing to knock out Dostoevsky during 7' seas! Patch vs. no patch.
The dock is 5 hours from my driveway. I usually sleep from Friday evening until about 11:30 PM and then drive down overnight. Sometimes we go through all of this prep and rigmarole only to have the boat cancel at 7:00 AM. It sucks! But if this happens, fight off the disappointment and count it all joy. Go home and hug your family. The company wants your fare, obviously. If they have decided the seas are too rough to fish, and they are handing back your coin NOT to risk it—trust them. Thank them, even. Because I have seen what they are willing to risk.
The ride out can be Discovery Channel awful. The boat doesn’t just go up and down, as you may suppose; it goes every direction possible. For hours. Imagine a boxcar in a washing machine. When Wisconsin came with me, it was that way for 5 hours straight before we made our first stop. He was ready to fake chest pains to make the boat turn around—not kidding. Told me his wife absolutely would have done so (that would not have turned out well for Wisconsin, incidentally. Most tuna fishermen are way more serious about it than I am). By the time we got to the tuna grounds, he had decided just to sleep through the night and forget the whole thing (as many others always do). I did coax him out long enough for him to bag one nice blackfin; then it was back to his sensory-deprivation sleeping bag. Too bad. Great fishing that night.
Full disclosure: I don’t do this anywhere near as often as I may have implied unintentionally. I consider myself blessed indeed if I actually get to make this trip once in a year. FinJR and I take several 12, 8, and/or 4 hour trips during the summer, but the 30-hour trip is really too rich for my blood. To board the boat is $300, and I easily spend another $200 in ancillary costs—Motel 6, gas, bait, tackle, food, fish cleaning, tips for deckhands…none of it is cheap. I don’t have anything remotely like that laying around just for me, so I pool all the me money I can over the year to get this one chance. Birthdays, Christmas, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, friends, family, staff—everyone knows where the nickels, dimes, and gift dollars eventually end up. Then my wife mercifully okays whatever shortfall remains because she knows what it means to me. And this is actually the cheapest tuna fishing I have seen anywhere. Private charters start at $1,200 PLUS fuel.
How it Works
This is party boat fishing, as opposed to charter fishing. You buy your ticket, join whoever else did the same, and off you go. This particular boat is an 85’ Catamaran. Around the boat, in the full 360 degrees, are numbers from 1-100. (Because of the length of this trip, only 49 slots are sold. But during red snapper season every boat has a full 100 guests. Every day. These companies make their bones during this a small window of the year, so they pile you in elbow-to-elbow.) Your ticket will have a number, and that is your rail position. Example: Your ticket says 79; you find 79 somewhere around the outside of the vessel, and that is your spot; you fish from there and only from there. There are maybe 20 stern (back) spots available, and these are by far the best assignments. They are booked weeks/months in advance. Your fish are also bagged according to this same number. DO NOT lose your ticket, if you'd like to eventually claim your catch. But your ticket only applies to the actual fishing portion of the trip. Inside the boat is a free for all (cue Ted Nugent)..
NEVER think a 30-hour trip means 30 hours of fishing—that’s the length of the round-trip voyage. For any offshore trip, figure 1/3 out, 1/3 fishing, 1/3 back. In this case, 20 hours of your trip will be spent riding and waiting. Finding a good spot to endure this is essential. There are padded booths inside, and they are pretty comfortable. But you better grab a plum spot before they're gone—otherwise you’ll be making do balancing on the edge of a bench somewhere or sitting outside catching sea spray in the face. Veterans know this (I also know which two booths have access to power). The line to board begins forming at midnight, and they let us on at 6:00 AM. We head out at 7:00 AM Saturday morning.
Tuna fishing in the Gulf happens from dark to dawn--the less moon, the better. The reason these trips are so expensive and so long in duration is tuna are far from shore (at least 100 miles) and boats are slow. The plan is to ride all day in hopes of reaching the tuna grounds by dark. But how boring is that?! To make it more interesting, and to ensure that everyone takes home fish (not at all a guarantee), the captain makes several stops throughout the day. We stop over reefs and shipwrecks looking mostly for varieties of snapper and grouper. We'll catch a ton of red snapper, but they are out of season. Vent, release, repeat. This is both tiring and frustrating. But the smaller vermilion snapper are just as tasty and are very plentiful. I think you can literally keep 40, if you want them. I’m good after 10 or 12.
(Vermilion snapper and assorted reef fish)
(Trash can full of freshly-caught bonito to be used as cut bait overnight. Ridiculously fast, hard-fighting fish.)
The biggest "problem" with these day stops is they wear you out long before you reach your real destination. Seriously. I'm already low on sleep by the time I board. Dramamine and 5HE are locked in apocalypse for control of my consciousness, I’ve waited a year at minimum, and I didn’t go through all of this for a bunch of dumb vermilion snapper! I have to make myself sleep during the day as much as possible, even if that means passing up on several good day stops. Many will not heed this advice and will end up sleeping right through the tuna. Even I have been so dead on my feet (when the early AM bite hits a lull) that I consider throwing in the towel with several hours yet to go. Not this year! I will be a fresh daisy when darkness falls this time.
By the way, if any of this sounds crazy to your ears, it does get worse. I humbly submit to you this little story from last year's trip. I wish I had a better picture than this, but I will try to explain as best I can.
To the right of this fireball you can just barely make out the Nasen Spar Production Platform. Prime tuna grounds. Anyway, that fire could be seen for more than a hour before we got there. On the heels of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, we were all quietly apprehensive as we made the approach. Raging fire on the open ocean is not an altogether common sight. Makes an impression. As it turns out, this is normal for the industry. They were burning off excessive gas in the lines to relieve pressure (at least I think that was the explanation), and sometimes a burn can last several days. You cannot tell from this picture, but the fire was actually about 100' off the surface of the water. It shot out in a horizontal plume for a very long way; I won't even try to estimate how far. That's not the point. The point is, when we got closer, we could see them: At least four boats, much smaller than ours, had positioned themselves directly under the blaze! We didn't come within 300 yards, and we could feel the heat; I can't imagine what it must have been like to look up and see active napalm spewing overhead. Even to us, that seemed a stupid thing to do in pursuit of some smelly old fish. We're sensible guys, after all.
At dawn we all head inside, thoroughly spent. A strange quiet settles in. Most sleep, some read or watch DVDs, some just stair blankly ahead. Almost no words are heard until at least noon. It's seven hours back to dock, but (compared to the trip heading out) conditions are like glass. About 3:00 PM Sunday afternoon we offload and separate the catch. Then we wait in line for the cleaners, which can take a very long time on dead sea legs (I would do it myself, but these guys are artists--they give you a much better yield). Around 5:00 PM Sunday evening, it's finally over. By this time I have not had decent sleep since 11:30 Friday night--and the bouncing seas and heavy winding take their own toll. Not to mention I have had Rx AND over-the-counter seasickness meds AND tons of coffee AND Amp AND 5HE. Things start looking a bit drippy. No safe option remains but to head straight to Motel 6 and die to the world for at least 12 uninterrupted hours. It's glorious, I tell you!
Oh, and there are always dolphin. Sometimes they come in pods, sometimes they are solitary, but they do come. Our wake is littered with fish that are released but simply don't make it, for whatever reason, and they are easy pickings for dolphin. Spend your money watching them in captivity dancing to laser lights and Rock You Like a Hurricane if you like; I'd much rather see them playing in the open sea. Good eating too, dolphin. Kidding, kidding!
Alright, that was 2,000 words too many. See you in March, if the seas allow it.