Bring 'em back alive

Fresh isn't good enough aboard the MervaW

By Abner Kingman

Pence Mackimmie is gasping for air. Enveloped in a haze of diesel exhaust, he is desperately trying to maneuver an 18-foot aluminum skiff. Pulling on a line tied to the MervaW, his job is to keep the 60-foot purse seiner from drifting over her net in a strong current.

Under normal circumstances it's not the most difficult job in the world, but the exhaust pouring out of a broken muffler at his feet is filling the little tub of a boat with suffocating smoke that will not dissipate. Mackimmie is leaning as far outboard as he can in an attempt to reach clear air, while at the same time gunning the throttle and spinning the wheel.

Aboard the MervaW the other four crew members are laughing hysterically. Mackimmie's contorted posture and facial expression are reminiscent of an old Jerry Lewis movie, but starring a redhead wearing orange oilskins. Mackimmie, however, fails to see the humor, for between peals of laughter the others are shouting at him to do his job.

The greenhorn never gets any sympathy, and aboard the MervaW Mackimmie is clearly the greenhorn. The butt of all jokes and tasked with the most menial of chores, he is 20 years old and in his second year of fishing full time. On some boats where new crew come and go as often as the seasons, a two-year veteran would have long graduated from being a greenhorn, but aboard the MervaW his fellow crew members have a combined fishing experience of more than 100 years.

Mike McHenry, the captain and owner, is 65 and has been fishing since he began taking his father's boat out of Half Moon Bay, Calif., by himself at age 15. John Tarantino is 61 and has been fishing since he began playing hooky from school at 14 to sneak out in his father's boat and catch striped bass that he carried around in a basket selling in the gambling halls and sewing sweatshops of San Francisco's Chinatown. The two met when McHenry was 21 and Tarantino was 17, and they have been close friends ever since.

They are now joined by McHenry's 26-year-old son, Porter McHenry, who has grown up on the MervaW and exhibits an obvious familiarity with the boat and the gear, while showing a physical confidence that makes all the work look easy. Also aboard is Tarantino's 26-year-old grandson Justin Tarantino, another fishing family kid who grew up fishing.

Right now the combined fishing experience of the McHenrys and Tarantinos is the bane of Pence Mackimmie's existence. He can hardly breathe and they expect him handle the skiff as if it were the easiest thing in the world. After the net is pursed, Mackimmie stumbles back onto the MervaW under a shower of good natured abuse, but he fails to see the humor. He feels persecuted. Why are you guys on my case like this?

To an outsider it is clear his adolescent metabolism has hit a low point. The three Cokes he drank earlier in the day are wearing off and he has hit a caffeine and sugar low. But Mackimmie doesn't realize this. He looks as though he might be considering a career change. The others finally leave him alone.

They all look over the side to inspect the catch, but there are hardly any anchovies in the net. John Tarantino is on it right away. "What's the matter Henry, lost your touch?"

The legendary Mike McHenry has just made a water haul. "I told you I'm blind without the scanning sonar," he says. This is his first trip since he broke the sonar, a tool he has used consistently for 22 years.

They spool up the net and everyone returns to the wheelhouse while they continue their search for a decent school of anchovies. Porter McHenry and Justin Tarantino put on their earphones, listen to music and surf the net on their iPhones. Mackimmie serves himself a heaping bowl of shrimp-flavored ramen noodles from the microwave and sits between the older McHenry and Tarantino on the bench at the helm.

Tarantino says, "Now what are you going to do, Henry? Where are you going to find the fish?" McHenry replies, "It's your bay. Tell me your secret spot." Together McHenry and Tarantino are like Lucille Ball and Ricky Ricardo. They are constantly bickering and ribbing each other, laughing all the while. Tarantino says, "We're like an old married couple. No, we're worse than that. It's not fair to my wife comparing her to this guy."

Mackimmie is regaining some of the energy and curiosity that will one day make him a good skipper. He no longer looks sullen. In truth he is an incurable wharf rat who lives and breathes fish. Blood sugar lows aside, he is addicted to fishing, even spending his hard earned money taking fishing vacations.

Now that he is back to his normal self, McHenry and Tarantino start giving him a hard time about the muffler he was supposed to order for the skiff. Inevitably Mackimmie says something that provokes Tarantino to give him a noogie, and the three of them laugh loudly. "I need some soap and water," says McHenry. "Everybody's laughing so hard the windows are fogging up."

Soon McHenry follows some diving birds to a school of anchovies, which he confirms by steaming over and examining them on his fish finder, an inferior backup to the scanning sonar. He sends Mackimmie back to the skiff, maneuvers the MervaW into position to start the set, and calls out, "Mola!" which is Sicilian for "let 'er go!"

They begin spooling out the net, which is 200 fathoms long, and encircle the school. When the sonar is working, McHenry can see if the fish start to run and will adjust his set accordingly, but now he is effectively blind and must set it by intuition. The 11/16-inch mesh net measures 24 fathoms vertically, from float line to leadline, but only has an effective fishing depth of 12 to 14 fathoms because it never sits still enough to hang straight down.

Setting the purse seine well requires a delicate balance. Trying to close it too quickly will only pull the net higher in the water, allowing the fish to swim out the bottom. Close it too slowly and the fish swim around the end of the net before McHenry has made a complete circle.

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