Ahi by hand
Hawaii's tuna hunters are masters of gear
By Willy Goldsmith
"Well, this is sort of an awkward time to be getting here," murmurs skipper Kenton Geer as he steers the 43-foot Vicious Cycle toward the next small cluster of diving birds. "The bite can go dead here in the afternoon, but any one of these bird piles can hold the pile — the tunas attack the same little squid and sardines from below," he explains, diverting his gaze from the sounder to note the time on the plotter: 2:02 p.m., Monday, April 11. We arrived at the Cross Seamount — the Mountain, to locals — an hour ago, and aside from a stray mahi mahi that snapped up one of the four trolled jetheads, the five fish boxes remain empty. Several red Victorinox paring knives lie ready, scattered across the top of the boxes along with slap gaffs, 3-foot stick gaffs, and a handful of Little League bats.
Suddenly, it happens. "There's the pile. Palu, palu: one, one, one," Geer yells through the cabin door. Deckhand Gus Johnson, 24, snaps from his perch on the gunwale and rips open a cardboard box of anchovies, tossing them over one at a time in a deliberate rhythm. Meanwhile, what began as a nondescript cluster of green and orange dots at 40 fathoms now reverse-funnels from 80 fathoms up to the surface in a solid red mass on the sounder.
"We've got mice," Johnson yells back to Geer, watching 3- to 10-pound baby bigeye tuna devour the anchovies. Within seconds, the pack of tinker tunas swells into the hundreds, each brown form rigidly extending its pectoral fins outward in what looks like a swarm of model airplanes. They shadow the stern, easily keeping pace as she chugs along at 3.5 knots. A few attack the 12-inch Moldcraft soft squids dangling from the 6-foot-long stainless steel bars that extend over the gunwale at a 90-degree angle.
With three bars, each sporting a pair of squids, hanging over each side, "dangle" fishing can quickly put a few thousand pounds of fish in the boat. For now, Johnson lifts the small ones in, removes the oversized double hooks and throws them back. "The legal size is only 3 pounds, but we generally don't keep anything under 10 pounds — ideally, nothing under 20 until the end of the trip," Geer explains. The goal is to squeeze every cent out of his 12,000-pound hold.
"The big ones might as well be a separate species," says Geer as he punches through a 5-foot chop. "You never know if a pile will hold big ones, and if it does there's no telling whether they'll come up and bite." With an estimated 80 metric tons of tuna biomass beneath us, we remain optimistic.
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