Monday, October 2, 2017


     This year my boat went on the disabled list after the usual spring futility of chasing rumors in high winds with limited prospects. Since then, I have been lucky enough to get invited out several times on the boats of others when the action heated up.  Invariably, this has allowed me the opportunity to fish on better boats with more capable skippers than what my own passengers experience.

     On Friday, I got a call from my friend Robert Bruce, the owner of a stupendous 50 foot Mikelson.  He advised that I should skip work on Monday to go chase yellowfin tuna off the coast of San Diego, where these fish had recently been feeding in abundance.

     Robert has made a fortune in the bill collecting business, collecting every imaginable type of bill and marketing them to natural history museums and internationally to Asian herbal stores and Hobby Lobby.  When I got down to the boat with my gear on Sunday night, he was on the phone negotiating a shipment of several railroad cars of Vietnamese duck bills to Brazil, where they would be exchanged for a much smaller container of hornbills and toucan bills, which in turn, would be made into banana split boats for upscale boutique restaurants in France.

     Robert gave me the “just-about-done-with-this-call” nod from beneath the full scale model of a hawksbill turtle that was suspended from the ceiling in the boat’s capacious salon.  “Just make sure that the bill of lading is with the shipment when that container ship leaves Rio.  Gotta go.”

     “Hey Ed.  Glad you could make it.  Let me give you a tour.”  I checked out the beautifully appointed fly bridge, where there was sufficient navigational redundancy to prevent even the US Navy from colliding with his sportfishing machine.

      Robert, whose Scottish heritage technically requires him to be addressed as Robert THE Bruce, is an avid sportsman whose interests include fly-fishing and every kind of hunting.  The Bruce clan left Scotland many generations ago to settle in Texas before it became a state.  They can trace their American lineage to Ethan Bruce, one of the early Texas Rangers and the commander of a regiment in the Texas War of Independence.

      Once aboard, I was reunited with Robert’s son Houston, with whom I have fished on prior occasions.  Houston had just returned from the windswept cliffs of the Orkney Islands, where he had gone for a ceremonial family reunion hunting trip with his native clan.  They hunt at night, with torches and muzzle loading shotguns, for a huge subspecies of rabbit which attains the size of a small kangaroo.  The population of these destructive hares periodically reaches a tipping point and they are driven across the grassy green tops of the plateaus from which they either double back toward the approaching line of armed islanders, or plunge to the crashing waves at the base of the cliffs. But that story is for another day.

     THE Bruce poured me single malt and directed me to help myself from a wicker basket full of fried rabbit, which tastes remarkably like Kentucky Fried Chicken.  It was delicious.

     I was introduced to another father-son set of highlanders, Angus MacDonald and his father Olden.  They are descended from a rival clan to that of THE Bruce and Houston, but have forsworn their ancient blood-oath to go out on this trip, as fellowship at sea is prized above all attributes among the traditions of the seafaring men of this rugged coast.  This is the case even though neither Olden nor Angus had ever actually been fishing on the ocean.

     Olden and Angus run the famous North County Alligator Farm outside Escondido.  Originally it was established to harvest and sell the hides of this remarkably versatile crocodilian, but the business just took off to include exporting meat to various restaurant chains.  Then the place itself became an amusement park where folks pay admission to see the operation and go on a series of funky rides on a tour of the various tanks and habitats throughout the park.  Olden gives priority to the hiring of amputees as park staffers and realizes significant tax and employment benefits, as well as the support of veteran’s organizations, which gives the Escondido Gator farm its famous cache’ as a tourist destination.

     They offered me a heapin’ helpin’ of deep-fried gator chunks from a wicker basket.  It was quite delicious and tasted remarkably like Kentucky Fried chicken.

      The last person to whom I was introduced was the professional skipper hired by THE Bruce to take us to where the fish would be waiting.  His last name is Erikson and he is descended from a line of Vikings that can trace their lineage to the settlement of Greenland.  His family settled several generations ago in Northern Washington, where his dad ran boats across the treacherous bar at Astoria before giving up that dangerous and life shortening vocation for cultivating marijuana in the Bigfoot habitat of the Cascade Mountains.  Hence, Captain Erikson’s first name is actually “Leaf”, instead of the more traditional “Leif” commonly associated with Vikings.  He had no use for the weed and gave up the plantation life to return to his nautical roots, delivering yachts up and down the Pacific coast. Leaf proved himself to be key man to our collective enjoyment and ability to remain lazier than we would have been without his capable guidance.

     After a gator and rabbit induced stupor forced me to my bunk on our pre-fishing sleepover in one the this vessel's comfortable staterooms, Robert and Leaf fired up the 3208 cat diesels and pulled the "Billable Ours" out of the slip.   We proceeded to get 2 ½ scoops of healthy sardines and motored off into the predawn darkness on the way to the lower Nine.

     We were west of the Coronado islands  when it was time to put out the trollers and look for signs of yellowfin tuna, which had recently burst onto the local scene north of the Mexican border.  Leaf was at the helm as THE Bruce was below, making fluffy omelets to order as we woke up to drink latte and squint into the cloudy gray light.

     We marked a few fish along our route, but decided to fish a paddy which telegraphed the tuna that Leaf marked below on the sub-chasing quality sonar that THE Bruce installed on his command center.

     “Let’s get fly-lines out and see if we can bring these fish up.”  Leaf came down to the cockpit with the anglers and started to liberally broadcast sardines from the tank.  Before long we had a hookup and the fish was ably gaffed by Houston.  Leaf continued a steady cadence of tossing sardines into our drift as the paddy on which we had originally stopped became an eroding speck on the horizon.  No other boats approached, as we were taking advantage of one of the virtues of fishing on a Monday.

             Olden's first tuna ably gaffed and displayed by Houston.

     The bite ebbed and flowed, but the fish never completely left us.  We lost surprisingly few of our hooked fish, which were mostly in the 15 to 22 pound range.  These tunas were easily managed on 20 pound line with a relaxing drag setting that allowed us to savor each fight.  Once aboard, the fish were bled as they thumped away and pumped out on the beautiful teak deck.  When the action was at its peak and there were multiple hookups, the cockpit was corral of carnage as the bleeders and anglers slid about the deck until the frenzy subsided to the point where the fish could be loaded into ice filled fish boxes below the deck. 

     The sun had come up. The San Diego shoreline was clearly visible and less than an hour’s run from where we were performing our slaughter.  THE Bruce kept up the encouragement and beverage service to our willing crew, while taking breaks to reel in tuna and yell “YOU MAY TAKE OUR BAIT, BUT YOU’LL NEVER TAKE OUR FREEDOM!”

Leaf gaffs yet another for THE Bruce

Angus displays his own loss of pelagic virginity.

     As we approached the noon hour, we were running low on bait and had 22 fish on ice in the hold.  THE Bruce pointed out that none of us get to spend a significant portion of our lives wired to such piscatorial stimuli, so he plotted a return to San Diego to pick up more bait and have a civilized lunch. THE Bruce took the opportunity of calm inner waters to serve us up a vegan salad, with gator and rabbit chunk side dishes, so we would have something to keep us going and balance out the halftime cocktails we enjoyed on the promenade deck.

     On the way in, Leaf schooled me in demonstrating an efficient and skillful fish cutting technique that I must say is the best blade work that I have ever witnessed in over 45 years of catching and cutting tuna.  We got a good start on butchering our catch after Houston headed and gutted the fish as a preliminary event to Leaf’s purposeful finish carpentry. He brought his own knives, which he revealed to me could be purchased for $6.99 each at the Fart and Smile store. I tried to imitate his methods when I briefly relieved him, but it was like letting a dog mouth-cut your steak at a nice restaurant.  Leaf quickly and mercifully retook his station to make sure the fillets remained sashimi-grade.

After gaffing so many fish for others, Houston strikes a pose.

     After re-stocking our bait supply, we thundered back out toward our spot and noted that there were a few boats in the area.  Leaf spotted a large concentration of common dolphin, which were travelling fast and jumping with purposeful alacrity.

     As we approached the large pod, none of them seemed that interested in coming over to ride our bow wave, as dolphin often do.  These were not “friendlies” Leaf noted, which meant that these mammals were focused on feeding and likely keying on tuna below. 

 People often think that the tuna follow the dolphin, but it is quite the other way around.  The dolphin hang above the tuna, who force the defensive bait balls toward the surface for the benefit of the mammals and birds patrolling above.

     Leaf yelled down to put out the trollers.  I grabbed one with a natural cedar plug and started to pay out line behind the boat as Leaf maneuvered us in front of the oncoming dolphin.  Before I could do anything, a tuna slammed the plug I was spooling out and screamed line off the reel.  I yelled “hookup!” and it was game on.  I got the trolled fish and one more, but then it was time to chase the dolphin to get back into position in classic “run and gun” style of racing to the spearpoint of the pod for the tuna they were screening.

     As soon as we got close, we had a double on the trollers.  We caught more fish on fly-lined bait as the dolphin continued their gallop away from us.  Once again, the engines were gunned and we gave chase, stopping in the path of the dolphin to repeatedly hook up on cast baits without deploying the trollers.

     We picked up 15 more tuna fishing the ponies and it was time to head to the barn, as we had a couple of hours of fish cutting and bagging to get done on a short ride home.  We had to pause outside the harbor in order to get all of the wet work completed as the crew feverishly processed the handiwork of Leaf’s samurai strokes.

     When we reached the slip, everyone was beat and the MacDonald’s indicated that they only wanted a couple of pieces of fish, as they were going out of town.  The other four members of our crew ended up with two dock carts full of beautifully trimmed out tuna loins.

     I was home before midnight and was able to give away a few bags to the kind of friends I could call up late on a Monday night to come over to share the bounty.  I deposited a chock full ice chest of tuna on the front porch for my son to vacuum seal that which was not eaten at the Rosh Hashanah dinner party I would be missing in favor of my five am departure for Chicago Tuesday morning.  I was able to sleep on the plane and dream about fish I had actually caught.

     Perhaps the only unfortunate part of this magical trip was the fact that Angus and Olden are completely ruined for fishing on the ocean in light of this preposterously lucky catch on their very first try.

     Once again, the misfortune of not having access to my own boat proved to be a fantastic stroke of luck, as I was  privileged to get invited on a way better boat with an insanely gracious host, cool companions and a hired captain from whom I learned a great deal.

     When I got back from Chicago at the end of the week, I went to Fart and Smile to buy a couple of the knives to which Leaf had turned me on.  These blades remain safely packaged in plastic and free from any bloodstains in the cabin of my little fishing boat, which is eligible for a PETA sponsorship based on the mercy it has involuntarily provided the aquatic community this season.

     This trip broke my streak of not catching tuna for nearly two years in a barn burner of action.  Such times are worth savoring, as we seldom get to experience this kind of fellowship and angling success with predictable regularity.

     Make it count while you can, because the best part of the season is still upon us, you and your friends are not going to live forever, and….

These Are the Days.