I was on my first 11-day trip. Leaving from San Diego in December, we were heading for traditional “big-tuna” water in which large yellowfin tuna (YFT) were caught in the past.
Mature YFT are among the most powerful, fastest-swimming fish species that stand-up anglers can realistically hope to catch using a traditional “under the arm” fishing rod and reel. To achieve optimal growth, warm-blooded YFT must swim their body length every second and eat one-quarter of their body weight each day.
On prior trips I’d caught trophy YFT—the moniker used to describe fish which weigh between 100 and 199 pounds. Brute strength alone is insufficient to subdue trophy YFT, which are stronger than one’s fishing equipment. Catching large game fish requires species-specific techniques which evolve over time as technology for finding and fighting them improves the likelihood of a successful hunt.
I was after a cow—a YFT weighing between 200 and 299 pounds. In my neighborhood, nicknamed Tunaville, catching a cow authenticated a long-range stand-up angler. Cows are hard to catch: experienced, powerful and cautious, they are difficult to hook and difficult to land.
It was late afternoon and fish were active—anglers were hooking-up trophies and some cows had been landed. I was at the rail in the bow tending a sardine, hanging with my dear friend and fishing teacher BG, with whom I’ve shared many (never enough) exceptional big-fish safaris.
Suddenly (often the case, when fishing) my bait became more active—my line was vibrating and I sensed lateral movement. As line began streaming off my reel, I said: “Hey BG, I finally got a good bait that will swim!” BG responded: “Hey Planet, maybe you should engage the gear!”
Trust me when I say that I know what “engage the gear” means when fishing for YFT of any size. I’d previously performed this procedure innumerable times. Properly executed the drag lever is gently, slowly, methodically “tapped” incrementally forward, each time engaging the drag system a bit more. Once the line comes taught the fish “hooks itself” as a result of speedily swimming away from (pulling line off of) the reel. When this happens the fish immediately shifts into its maximum speed and energy mode, and the initial “run” begins. As the amount of line remaining on the reel decreases, the drag setting is reduced to prevent breaking the line. Only in the end-game—soon before the tuna is gaffed at the side of the boat, does an angler set reel drag to maximum capacity.
Nevertheless, in the heat of the moment emotional instinct kicked-in. I set maximum drag instantaneously and suddenly felt like I’d hooked a dragster. It was all I could do to hang onto the rod as I was immediately pulled into the rail by the stampeding fish.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (Sir Isaac Newton). Instantly recoiling backwards off the rail I slammed back-end-first into the boat bulkhead (wall)—which was lined with fishing rods.
BG tried to grab me, but it was too late. The YFT was heading away from the boat and aft, so when I ricocheted off the rods I was again immediately slammed back into the rail a few feet aft of my prior position. It was classic “action-reaction” Newtonian physics occurring in high-seas tuna fishing.
In this manner I became a “human sewing machine,” repeatedly ricocheting between rail and bulkhead, “stitching” my way aft in a loud, chaotic, frenzied dance with the rampaging tuna. Anglers in my path ran aft if they were able, or hit the deck otherwise, to avoid entanglement in space and time with true chaos.
Looking forward from the aft starboard rail, Captain Sam noted commotion heading his direction. He saw his long-time friend BG (who is tall) and shrugged his shoulders to indicate: “What’s up?” BG responded: “Incoming!” The Captain nodded: “Got him.”
Anglers scrambled to safety as I barreled aft, faster and faster, as there were fewer and fewer obstacles to bounce off.
Just before I would have slammed into the aft rail, Captain Sam caught and gently decelerated me. Otherwise I’d have been injured and lost my equipment, and the fish, when I hit the rail.
Captain asked if he could hold my rod for a moment. The fish had sounded (gone straight down) beneath the aft center of the boat. It refused to move.
The Captain placed my rod on the rail and said to me: “Planet, you’re gonna go all Rambo on this fish. You’re gonna sit on the rod butt, put your weight on top of the reel, and crank this tuna up like it’s a cod.”
I said: “yes Sir,” and did as I was ordered. It came right up…
Weigh-in occurred moments after the tuna was gaffed. In the photo the yellow rope around the tail is attached to a digital scale. I’m holding the fish steady and hanging straight toward the deck (so the mate can obtain an accurate weight), and watching the digital display of the scale.
My first cow: 203 pounds.
Fish are weighed aboard as soon as practical, for three reasons. First, gaff holes release blood—a heavy liquid. Second, fish are gilled and gutted then immediately placed in refrigerated salt water to keep the sushi-grade meat pristine until taken home or given to professional fish processors at the dock. Third, anglers usually organize a “jackpot” competition whereby the heaviest three game fish caught on a trip are awarded a modest cash prize: settling the competition when there is plenty of time at sea is better than at dock when the fish require refrigeration.
I used the boat satellite phone to call my brother from another mother, Gordo—whom I met on my first long-range trip and fish with whenever possible. He drove 10 hours to meet me when the boat docked.
I couldn’t have accomplished this without learning from many anglers, personal experience across decades of fishing, and a hearty measure of good fortune: I’d rather be good and lucky!
In particular, I have a large space in my heart for two of my most precious, patient, encouraging mentors, BG (seated) and Captain Sam (standing), seen here in the “Southern Wheelhouse.”
Not how I thought it would happen–but even better!
My First Cow
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
February 17, 2021