Among my favorite fish tales is a memorable voyage that resulted in perhaps the finest single wahoo bite that I’ve ever witnessed. The unbelievable action during this crazy stop was certainly a highlight for the 16 anglers that joined us on the 10-day voyage back in November of 1993.
The crew experienced a different victory. One that was forged from difficult, challenging conditions that became a lesson, actually validation, of the one constant tactic in fishing that has always produced consistent results: Whatever you do, never quit — especially in the face of difficult circumstances.
Jim Wood, a veteran crewman at the time, summed it up perfectly. No stranger to tough situations, Jim was quick to reference an old saying in such circumstances to focus the drive and motivation necessary to advance in the face of glaring futility.
“When the going gets tough, the tough double down.”
That was what Jim started saying on day two of the voyage, and was still saying, albeit with admitted desperation, on day eight — the last day and final chance at saving a completely doomed long-range fishing adventure.
The fishing had been extraordinarily slow. The ridge was desolate, Alijos rocks were barren, the lower banks were a graveyard, and the islands above were worse. No fish anywhere.
Our only hope was far offshore in the form of something floating — kelp, a log, a ball of old fishing gear or rope. Any of these items found in the correct water would produce good catches of big dorado and maybe the ultimate jackpot of wahoo. The trouble was finding such a pot of gold.
To call the flotsam “sparse” is being generous. Five guys burned up 12 hours in the glasses from sun up through sundown and found nothing — not even a blade of sea grass. It was so dead that mustering the motivation to continue after five days took an almost inhuman effort. The occasional motherlode of dorado reported by a couple of our colleagues during the prior week was enough to stoke the competitive fire and buttress the certainty of something good being out there.
Toward the end of our full fifth day of searching we found an enormous kelp paddy in the exact water that had produced a big hit the previous day.
This was it.
As we approached we saw a wahoo jump as well as four or five dorado. The crew put on rain gear and loaded staple guns as the merciful announcement of the find was made. Finally, after five days of nothing, justice was to be done. Unfortunately the fish gods had other designs.
Awaiting a big sonar signature as we approached, the unmistakable, crisp audio resonance indicating the desired target density below, I was almost in a state of disbelief as nothing significant occurred. There were a few small pops, and a few fleeting targets, but the real goods were nowhere to be found.
After scanning the area for miles and fishing in the near vicinity of our prized find through sundown, we scratched up six or seven wahoo and a couple handfuls of dorado — a measly pittance in light of what could have or should have been.
The disappointment was so profound, so crushing, that we were done — headed for the beach — Morgan Bank to be exact, to stop the boat, drop the anchor, and fish for nothing other than the sake of fishing. It didn’t matter if we caught nothing. It was time.
With perhaps 40 or 50 fish in the hatch after seven full days the result of our efforts were pathetic. And while our group of anglers was sympathetic — they full well knew the extent of our efforts — the air was thick with disappointment. Even the veterans were over it, over the whole thing, disgusted with the ill fate Mother Nature had assigned them.
Day eight dawned on Morgan Bank and the setting was grim — greenish water with little or no current. Pathetic fishing conditions. A few ugly bottom dwellers and about six hours later we landed a 30-pound yellowfin tuna. It was big news and a backslapping accomplishment for the fortunate angler. But that was it. A few more small fish crashing around and a couple more fruitless hours did it for me.
“When the going gets tough, the tough double down.”
When I announced that we were heading back offshore in an attempt to find something, the look on my crewmembers faces, not to mention the 16 anglers told the story. It was one of the few times in my career that I perceived actual animosity toward me as captain. There were grumblings and outright calls to stay put as at least here we were offered a chance.
I was 25 at the time and in my second season as captain of Royal Star. The veteran long-rangers onboard were none too pleased with my youthful vigor to move on. After the previous five days, and now this decision, their confidence in my ability and rationale was gone. The one certainty, at least in my thinking, was that we weren’t going to do anything good, or even have half a chance of saving what was the most difficult voyage I had ever piloted at the time, where we were. I was convinced that we needed to move on.
Shouldering the grief from below, and mustering the fighting spirit of my boys, offshore we went in the direction of boom or bust. The one guy who was into it, who was fired up for the challenge, was Jimmy Wood. He and I led the charge with Jimmy on the mast burning in the glasses like his life depended on it.
We were heading west/northwest into the afternoon sun in perfect sea conditions — light breeze, near zero swell, and just enough texture on the surface to provide perfect contrast. A contrast that soon became ideal as we punched into amazingly rich, cobalt-blue water.
From where it came I do not know but all of a sudden we were in the right place at the right time. I knew it — and so did Jimmy Wood.
On the intercom with Jimmy up top I was sharing the news of the favorable condition change and expressing my sentiments of pending success. We had just hit a small kelp that produced a couple of wahoo as well as a few dorado. It was the exact sign we were looking for. I was in the process of telling Jimmy that all we had to do was find a decent kelp and we were in ‘em, when he simultaneously called it out: “I GOT IT!”
Never was a sweeter discovery revealed in a greater time of need. We were beyond desperation, we were invested at a level of seriousness that can only be described as life itself — a defining moment.
As the mile and a half between us and the target kelp closed, time became a cinching noose. The sun was reddening as it approached its evening berth. The anxiety during those last few minutes was crushing — there was no surface sign, no jumpers, no bait… nothing. A few loose birds in the area indicated that there was more than meets the eye, but no obvious signals announced what was to come.
At perhaps a quarter mile from the modest-size “bush” the sonar began lighting up and scratching across a scattered school of what I thought could only be tuna — way too much fish to be anything else and the density of the targets definitely favored larger models. I fumbled and bumbled with the P.A. microphone trying to maintain my composure as I called for the crewman manning the tank to begin throwing bait over the side.
Needless to say, after seven days of finding virtually nothing, we were loaded with bait, and didn’t see any reason to spare it now. As hundreds of sardines poured over the side I began to hear outrageous screams of delight and incredible exclamations featuring the salty language of seven days of pent up frustration. By the sonar alone I knew it was good, but nothing prepared me for what I found.
Hundreds, and I mean literally hundreds of wahoo were skyrocketing from the water. Everyone at the rail had one on and the several thousand wahoo in the area were going beyond berserk, chasing the sardines and mackerel we were throwing. We were still a few hundred yards from the kelp and there was no need to go farther.
By the time the boat was fully stopped I was up on the tank pitching handfuls of sardines and mackerel over the side. This however was short lived as I observed no less than a dozen or more wahoo fly from the water within inches of the rail, way above my perch on the tank at least 10 feet above the water.
To say it was dangerous is the understatement of the year — it was madness, as wahoo were flying from the water everywhere in the near vicinity of Royal Star. There were so many in the air at once it was surreal. The fish resembled frantic birds flying around the boat, low dipping and swooping on fleeing baits.
It was insanity, all out mayhem but for marginal organization maintained by the crew. As much as anyone would prefer to paint their crewmen as professionals, veterans, the best of the best cannot overcome the complete chaos of wide-open wahoo fishing. Fifteen to twenty 30- to 60-pound bullets tethered, and racing 60 mph in every direction with desperate angler’s and crew sadly ineffective in their attempts to out run the impossible.
This was what we came for. Actually this was far more then what we we came for, this was the best I had ever seen by a wide margin, and it was destined to get even better.
Dutch Mapes, an old timer (who has since passed) for whom I had real affection because of his affable, genuine nature was round 82 at the time and a little overwhelmed by the pace of the beyond-wide-open wahoo action. There was simply no way he could keep up with the blistering speed of the strikes.
A little frustrated after missing on about 20 chances, Dutch pulled me aside to request a hand. For a while I had been watching wahoo rise to the surface like big carp sucking down chunks of meat and pieces of bait being washed out the scuppers. Seeing a trolling rod close at hand with a Marauder still attached gave me an idea.
I grabbed the rig, handed it to Dutch and instructed him to keep the PENN International 50-wide reel in gear, toss the trolling lure over the side, and be ready. Sure enough within two seconds he had one on. No trolling, no movement, no action necessary.
That rig, complete with 130-pound monofilament and 400-pound wire, slayed a dozen fine wahoo for old Dutch after his initial challenges.
Between anglers and crew we were in straight grudge-fishing mode. After a week of suffering, we were exercising no restraint — no mercy. Despite the typical ruinous losses inherent in wahoo fishing we were stacking them like cordwood on the deck.
In almost no time we filled one hatch and had no chance to swing over another. We piled the big wahoo high on the deck, in and on the bait tank, and everywhere else they would safely stow. Time was running out as the sun dipped below the horizon and the speedsters were finally showing signs of slowing down. Then, to serve up the ultimate icing on the cake, the big yellowfin arrived.
I suppose it was all the noise and commotion. Whatever the case may be, we began to observe some big fish crashing around and a few anglers targeting wahoo with live bait got smoked using the smaller gear. Obviously some newcomers had arrived and it would require a redirected effort to beat the odds.
Fortunately we didn’t lose every hook to the wahoo’s razorblade like teeth. They still dished out grief, and we were still catching them steady, but enough of the tuna anglers were able to best the gauntlet and present live baits to the bigger tuna cruising the outside. Five or six of the bigger fish were hooked, and we pulled on them until well after sundown landing four that weighed from 130 to 175 pounds.
With 162 wahoo from 30 to 70 pounds, and a near handful of beautiful, 150-pound class tuna for the stop, no one was complaining. The atmosphere of triumph, the jubilation such intense reward generates, was like none other. Following the total mayhem, it took several hours for us to get the deck squared away while steaming toward home.
That was it — trip finished with two days of travel up the line to marvel at a fortune incredibly grandiose.
And while the achievements such as this over my career are too numerous to share, this story stands out among them. In the realm of satisfaction, of reward and accomplishment, this experience served to cement a philosophy already deep instilled by my own nature, and by the lessons of my respected mentors.
“When the going gets tough, the tough double down.”
Anyone who has shared the deck with me over the past 25 years recognizes this ideal as my philosophical, personal and professional foundation. So many times have I heard “doesn’t that guy ever give up?”
No, I don’t. We don’t — ever. Such resolve serves anglers well, and produces some of the greatest memories in fishing.