OK, so this week’s tuna fishing expedition wasn’t nearly the Freddy Kreuger-style bloodbath I feared. In fact, it was kinda glorious. Turns out that the Wilderness and I are best buds if it improves the quality of my grub… and tuna “loins”* are about as improving as grub gets.
The Resident Carpenter and I set out for Depoe Bay, Oregon on Monday night, arriving at our tumbledown (to put it charitably) motor inn and hitting the sack early. We had to be at the boat at 5:30 the next day.
That’s 5:30 AM. In the morning. Really early. It’s still dark out and everything.
Not my world, folks.
Naturally, Nathan was up, all packed for tuna, and bouncing around impatiently, waiting for me to drag my head off the pillow. We donned tuna fishing gear–something called FroggToggs, i.e., rubberized pants and jackets that looked like poorly conceived, oversized Tyvek envelopes but were amazingly cheap and slipped over our clothes. We struggled into heavy black rubber boots; if I really did slip in the blood and fall overboard as Mom predicted, the sharks would choke on my boots first and decide I was too tough to unwrap (well, that was the plan, anyway).
Our look was less fashion-forward and more Michelin-Man-Ate-the-Pillsbury-DoughBoy, but we didn’t care. We’d been warned about decks awash with stinky, never-get-it-out tuna blood, so we armored up like a Tiger tank to prevent it.
Here’s how tuna fishing works: The captain gathers his crew, invites a dozen hungry tuna lovers onboard before they’re half-awake, and heads for the fishing grounds. Three hours later, we toss out lures attached to heavy trolling poles, designed to entice the (hopefully) starving tuna. The captain revvs up the engines and takes off, dragging the lures behind.
This is pretty much the tunafish equivalent of ringing the dinner bell. They flash up from as far down as 1,100-1,200 feet, peer nearsightedly at the lures and decide they’re mackerel, then take big, juicy bites of plastic.
Clearly, tuna are pretty stupid.
Fortunately, the waiting fisherman don’t need to be much smarter. Our job is to carefully watch the trolling poles, waiting for the tip of a pole to bobble, or perhaps for a tuna to flash iridescently above the waves as it bites the lure.
Now we scream, “Fish ON!!!” The captain stops the boat. We grab the brrrrzipping fishing pole(s), and begin to reel in the hapless tuna.
The rest reel in the trolling poles and cast out “hand poles,” lighter rods intended to increase the fun of fighting the fish. We drop lures in the water, and start reeling and dropping and jerking those lures like mad, trying to catch a fish.
The crew “chums” the water with dead herring, keeping the tuna too excited to notice the hooks, while excited fisherpeople pull in fish after fish.
The handpoles don’t really achieve much, because they still have fake fish as lures instead of bait. Not even tuna are stupid enough to eat plastic when there’s genuine edible fish a few feet away.
Eventually, though, the tuna get bored (or full) (or dead) and move back down into the sea.
The captain starts the boat engines and now we do everything in reverse; reel IN the hand poles and reel OUT the trolling poles to start the sequence all over.
Like most fishing expeditions, tuna fishing resolves to six hours of short, exciting intervals of furious fishcatching, punctuated by much longer periods of pole-watching.
The caught tuna are humanely killed and allowed to bleed out on the deck, keeping their meat usable. They’re packed into huge coolers with ice and seawater. And yep, there was blood. Lots of it, swilling across the deck, spattering our arms and legs.
If that sounds like a page from Le Grand-Guignol, well…it was. OTOH, to borrow from Michael Pollan, I was eliminating those prissy, conscience-sanitizing food chain middlemen for a first-hand glimpse of where my tuna sandwich came from.
What better way to experience food gathering first-hand than to jam a Phillips screwdriver into a big, fat fish cortex and get the deck all bloody? Emotionally speaking, however, it would have been MUCH easier to just grab a can of tuna off the store shelf, and remain ignorant.
Morally, if you’re gonna be eating a living critter, it seems only fair that you understand exactly how it got to your table. If you can’t live with it, then I guess you become a vegetarian.
My appetite, unfortunately, is anti-vegetarian. And despite my angst (and, let’s face it, crushing guilt that I offed a perfectly happy fish, probably with a wife and kids, a philanthropic pillar of the tuna community) it is strangely beautiful and calming to be riding the sea, catching your dinner. The weather was absolutely perfect, the sea was glassy-smooth, and we met up with schools of moon jellies, mackerel playing in the swells, and assorted kelp, sea critters, and birds.
I saw my first blue shark (well, my first when I was ON the water, not IN the water with the shark). I learned that once the sharks come in, tunafisherpeople go elsewhere. Sharks make short work of whatever fish are being reeled in, and they eat all the chum. We weren’t about to argue with sharks, which tells you who’s really the apex predator around here, right?
BTW, 73 pounds may be the average size of an albacore tuna, but off Depoe Bay you’re more likely to find 25-30 pound tuna, so we kissed goodbye to the notion of hauling home hundreds of pounds of fresh fish. Besides, having now hauled a 24-pound tuna straight UP for a couple hundred yards to get it into the boat–and nearly collapsing from exhaustion in the process–I can’t imagine how I’d catch a 73-pounder.
I can’t really say I “caught” tuna on this trip, not without blushing. When my dad and I fished, we did all the work. I was expected to put my bait on the hook, cast around and do my damnedest to outwit a fish, then get it to the boat, remove the hook, and clean and stash it.
This is NOT what you do on a tuna boat.
The tuna boat captain wants everyone to (a) have a good time and (b) come home with as much tuna meat as possible–his continued livelihood depends on it. He achieves his goals by doing as much of the work as possible for the customer; he can’t depend on fumbling amateurs to actually hook tuna.
How fumbling are the amateurs? Let’s just say that, for once, I wasn’t the worst in the group. In fact, I was probably somewhere in the middle. (Exclude The Resident Carpenter, who not surprisingly turned out to be the opposite of a fumbling amateur and could probably make a fair living as a professional tuna guy. I’m still waiting to find something Nathan ISN’T good at.)
Didn’t matter. Either the boat caught the fish on the trolling poles, or the crew hooked them with live bait on the hand poles, then turned them over to us to get them to the boat. Our part finished, the gaffer (not the glassblowing kind but the kind that holds the fishyhookypoley thing) grabbed the fish by the gills and brought it onboard, where another crew member did the jabby-stabby screwdriver thing to bleed out the fish, then iced it down in storage.
It felt a bit like cheating. Or maybe stabbing fish in a barrel.
Nathan, who has spent much of his life creating his own food by hunting, fishing, farming, woods-gathering, and animal husbandrying, doesn’t share my feelings on this point. In his world, when you’re hungry, and delicious food is walking around in an available kinda way, you grab it. You can worry about the moral issues later, when you have enough money to visit the grocery store.
My profound moral dilemma, however, didn’t prevent enjoying the fruits of the crew’s labor: We caught 22 tuna, and I eagerly lined up for my share.
The nice thing about the crew-labor arrangement is that the catch is divided evenly among the customers, no matter who caught which. Each of us wound up with about 1.75 tuna, or approximately 45 pounds each before cleaning. The RC and I took home 14 tuna tenderloins, or roughly 50 pounds of delicious fishmeat suitable for sushi-making, searing, or just smoking and grilling.
Or maybe canning. We haven’t decided.
The nice folk on the shore smiled and cleaned and trimmed our fish, then vacuum-packed it. I was delighted; the RC was slightly less delighted. “Not exactly 438 pounds of fish,” he grumbled, eyeing me disapprovingly.
“Oh well,” I said lightly, “There’s still plenty to share with our friends. You want to take a loin to our neighbor, Kim?”
And THAT, friends, is how you turn a Resident Carpenter into an angry wolf: Suggest giving away his tuna. “Do what ever you want with YOUR share…” he growled.
Since I prefer to keep all ten of my digits, this blogpost is likely the closest you’re going to get to our tuna. The RC doesn’t growl often, but when he does, he means it. The tuna stays in the freezer.
Time to get out the BBQ grill and get cooking…
*OK, they CALL them tuna loins, or tenderloins, but they’re really thick, meaty filets from either side of the fish. They closely resemble beef tenderloin before it’s cut into filet mignon, though, hence the name. If you’ve ever had great seared tuna, or toro/maguro sashimi, you’ll know it tastes a lot like that, too.