FORUM: My Big Yellowtail

I was one of 24 anglers aboard the American Angler on a 10-day long-range fishing trip to Alijos (“Ah-lay-Os”) Rocks, a group of tiny, steep, barren volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean located 190 miles west of the Mexican mainland, and 550 miles south of San Diego.

Charted on Spanish maps since 1598, Alijos Rocks consists of three primary pinnacles: South Rock (112 feet high, 46 feet in diameter); Middle Rock (59 feet high, 33 feet in diameter); and North Rock (72 feet high, 39 feet in diameter). Smaller rocks between these pinnacles are visible among ceaseless high-breaking waves.

Called “the rocks” by anglers, this archipelago rises from depths between 7,800 and 14,800 feet deep. Upwelling currents generate a highly productive vertebrate ecosystem. The pinnacles are a breeding ecosystem for marine bird species including Leach’s storm-petrelred-billed tropicbird, masked booby, sooty tern, and Laysan albatross. Enigmatic frigatebirds are non-breeding winter visitors. Of primary interest to anglers, the rocks attract pelagic fish species including wahoo, yellowtail, and yellowfin tuna.

The morning after we arrived the fishing started early. Action was hot, so most anglers skipped breakfast. Using baited sardines, anglers were hooking, battling, and landing yellowfin in the 35 to 50-pound class, and yellowtail in the 20 to 30-pound class. Action was steady so the mates were unable to rest, even for a moment: chumming the water with baitfish; untangling tangled lines; gaffing, tagging, cleaning, and recording fish; placing prepped fish into the storage tanks and ensuring saltwater therein was just around freezing; cleaning the deck from blood and entrails; helping hooked-up anglers get around the anchor.

Anglers had given up any semblance of sportsmanship: the “tuna shuffle,” whereby anglers form a line and wait their turn to throw bait, was abandoned in favor of socially unconscious tunnel-vision chaos. Elbows flew at bait wells, anglers tripped over people and fish, and there was an absence of any social behavior including speech. Anglers failed to watch their line when casting—to avoid hooking other anglers, and instead myopically stared at the boiling ocean. It was a deck of fishing zombies in a sea of foam and blood.

I despise mayhem and cannot be part of a mob. Instead, I went to the bow and used my electric reel to fish for grouper. I was mostly unsuccessful, but it helped me to pass time until first call for lunch was announced at noon.

Some anglers were nearing limits (15 yellowfin, 15 yellowtail), and everyone had many tagged fish. All were hungry, tired, hot, and thirsty. Fishing generally slows to a crawl at the noon hour, so when the call for lunch came there was a stampede for the galley. Every angler and mate left the fishing deck except for me and my favorite mate Jordan, a member of a family of distinguished sport and commercial anglers, mates, and captains.

I put away my electric reel and rod. Since it was the noon lull, I expected any fish which might still be active to be wary and thus line-shy. I selected my stealthiest equipment: a custom graphite rod rated for 30-pound line, and a two-speed Accurate reel filled with 300 yards of 50-pound solid Jerry Brown braid (spectra) line.

I tied perfect single San Diego knots to connect a six-foot-long 35-pound Blackwater fluorocarbon leader to the end of the spectra, and a #2 “Fly-Liner” (small, light-wire) circle hook to the end of the leader. I straightened the leader by placing the hook in a loop of Kevlar line attached to the bait well, and repetitively running my fingers down the leader from hook toward mainline: this heated the leader and erased “line memory,” causing the leader to lay flat instead of coil. I used a scale to set full drag at 15 pounds—less than half the breaking point of the leader. I was ready to fish.

I took my time at the bait well, examining every sardine. I found my favorite—a green-back that was physically strong and not “spooked.” It had been added to the well just before the call for lunch was made, so it hadn’t been traumatized by the chaos on deck. I wet my hand, carefully scooped the sardine, and held it gently—it didn’t struggle much. I quickly hooked it through its nose and it barely struggled: the hook was brand new, razor sharp, and—since it was a light hook, it had a small cross section.

Having the entire fishing deck to myself, I immediately went to the center of the stern rail and gently underhand-flipped my bait into the water. My reel was set to free spool, so there was no drag on the bait other than the weight of the line in the water. The sardine immediately began swimming away from the boat at high velocity. I thought to myself, “I’ve got a real good swimmer.” Ten seconds later the sardine was still swimming at high velocity, and I thought, “I’ve got an Olympic sprinter on my hook!” Five seconds later the sardine hadn’t slowed down one iota, so I thought, “Maybe I should engage the drag and see if this is a fish?!”

I engaged first gear, tapping the drag lever forward a tiny bit at a time. After a few taps the reel offered greater resistance, the hook penetrated the lip of the fish, and the rod tip began to flex. I tightened the drag until the reel began delivering 15 pounds of force. I held the rod at a 45-degree angle relative to the ocean surface. The fish was swimming near the surface so I couldn’t rest the rod on the rail: I didn’t want to reduce the angle of attack and thereby pop the hook—so I held the rod with its butt against my torso at my waist.

Jordan was standing beside me. Only we were on deck. The fish was running like a torpedo, straight toward the North Rock. As the amount of line on the reel decreases, the pressure on the line increases, so it is imperative to lower the drag to prevent the line from breaking. I was mesmerized by the speed of the run and the force on the rod, so Jordan tapped the drag down.

After a minute of this unrelenting run, I began to worry that I would be spooled: that the fish would take all my line. I looked at Jordan and asked if I should crank up the pressure to try to stop the fish, but he looked me in the eyes, shook his head sideways once, and answered me with a gentle, reassuring smile and a single word: “no.” I trusted Jordan completely, so I watched in terror as my line continued to disappear.

The rate of line departure began to slow, but it seemed that I would still be spooled. I turned to look at Jordan once again. He looked me in the eye, smiled, and quietly shook his head indicating “no” once again. I trusted Jordan completely.

The line was nearly gone, the fish was slowing significantly, but I could see the end of the line on the spool. I looked at Jordan again and he just smiled. That meant “no,” leave the drag alone.

The last wrap of line on the spool was exposed! The fish was barely moving, but it was still taking line! I trusted Jordan. I watched the reel in horror.

Incredibly, with *nine wraps* of line remaining on the spool, the line stopped leaving the reel! I exclaimed: “Wow, it stopped!” Jordan was quiet, watching the reel.

I tried to reel in some line, and I gained about a foot. I said: “I got a foot of line back!” Jordan was quiet, watching the reel.

The fish pulled and I lost six inches of line. It was mortifying. We were both quiet, watching the reel.

I reeled again and I got back another foot. I stopped talking and began working, coaxing the fish toward the boat. The fish was tiring, but I was regaining my strength, even though I was very tired of holding the rod at a 45-degree angle.

Fifteen minutes later I asked Jordan: “Do you think I’ll be able to use the rail?” This jargon means I would kneel on one knee on the fishing deck, place the rod against the rail, and use the rail as the fulcrum of a lever. This reduces stress on one’s arms, and mine were beginning to cramp. Jordan looked at me, smiled, and shook his head sideways once, indicating “no.”

The fish had been hooked for half an hour and I’d gained back around half my line. My arms felt like they were on fire. I continued to battle the fish for another 15 minutes. I looked at Jordan—too tired to speak. He knew I wanted to use the rail. He smiled and that meant “no.”

By this time, anglers who finished lunch began to emerge on deck. Rather than fish—it was still the noon lull, they gathered at the stern rail to watch me, and my rod, reel, and line. Nobody said a word. I knew they were there, but I kept my focus on holding the rod, watching my line, controlling the reel handle, and slightly increasing the drag as the amount of line on the spool increased (this maintained a steady drag force).

Fifteen minutes later the fish stopped pulling so mightily. I cranked line in quickly. When the fish was approximately thirty feet beneath the surface and forty feet from the stern, suddenly there was no more pressure on my line! Winding madly for the next four seconds I wondered if I’d been sharked, or if the hook had pulled, or if the line broke. Then “something” huge came to the surface ten feet off the stern. Many anglers exclaimed: “Woah!” One angler asked: “What is it?!” My fishing teacher BG, who unbeknownst to me was guarding my left side to ensure nobody got in my way (Jordan was guarding my right side) replied: “It’s a submarine.”

I sensed a crowd was around the rail and me, but during the battle, from the time I flipped the bait over the rail—except to glance at Jordan, I kept my eyes on my rod, reel and line. When the fish died so unexpectedly, and came up so quickly, everyone was taken by surprise. Jordan was holding a gaff, standing on the lower rung of the rail. He assessed the situation and immediately lunged for the fish with his gaff. His aim was perfect, and he quickly but evenly (no stopping, no jerking) pulled the dead fish up and lowered it onto the deck.

The leader was half broken—flattened near the hook. The shank of the hook was turned half-way around and was ready to snap, and only the barb was still in the lip of the fish. If I’d squandered another moment when pulling the fish in, or Jordan hesitated for a moment in gaffing the fish, we would have watched the fish slip back into the ocean to be devoured by sharks.

After an hour-long battle I finally got to lower my rod. Exhausted, I sank to my knees, then lay flat on the deck, next to the fish, to catch my breath. The fish was weighed: 78.2 pounds, a monster yellowtail.

Captain Brian posed for a photo with the fish and me. The yellowtail was trying to get to the Pinnacle seen in the photo.

My friend Melanie made a mold of the fish, which Mitch hung on the wall in his restaurant, Mitch’s Seafood Restaurant, in Point Loma—behind which the American Angler is docked. A plaque accompanying the fish mentioned that the yellowtail was caught by Planet—my nickname in the San Diego Long-Range Fishing Fleet.

Years later my brother-from-another-mother Fred visited me in San Diego, and we ate at Mitch’s—which offers the freshest seafood in San Diego. Fred took the photo of the plaque seen above.

After leaving, Fred was hiking in Leadville, Colorado, preparing to climb a fourteen-thousand-foot peak. He spotted another person and noticed he was wearing a shirt advertising Point Loma!

Fred asked if he’d eaten at Mitch’s. The man replied: “Yes, the restaurant with the huge fish mounted on the wall, which was caught by an angler named Planet.” Fred replied that he was just hanging out with Planet in San Diego, and we ate lunch together at Mitch’s.

Incontrovertible evidence that Mitch’s, and my big yellowtail, together helped to shrink the world…

Fish of a lifetime!

My Big Yellowtail

July 7, 2021

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

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