Anatomy of a tuna clipper

1940s tuna boat.
Photo from the American Tuna Boat Association, Zolezzi Photographic Collection, MMSD
  • 1940s tuna boat.
    Photo from the American Tuna Boat Association, Zolezzi Photographic Collection, MMSD

An Imaginary Voyage

The horn just blew three times. Our vessel’s about to sail south in search of skipjack and yellowfin. It’s June 1946, and the 11-man crew’s eager to do work that, one boasts, will be “heavier and longer than most men can bear.”

What William McCloskey once wrote of salmon fishermen applies to tuna men as well. They “lead lives closer to death than most Americans. Compared to them, the sailors on modern tankers and freighters, and the Navy salts of the great electronic warships, are clock-punchers who live in luxury.”

The 130-ton, 100-foot-long vessel — we’ll call her the Margie L — will continue until it finds fish, to the stormy Gulf of Tehuantepec, or Isla del Coco off Costa Rica, or the Galapagos, 3000 miles from home, if necessary. The goal is to “make the trip”: plug the hold with tuna.

Newcomers learn rules fast: if you’re in the crow’s nest, and other boats are in the area, don’t point out a potential school: you give away the position.

Wear rubber knee- or hip-boots, but never all the way up. Go overboard in full-length boots and water seeping will tug you down. Keep the top open, rolled over like a movie pirate or with slits cut down the sides. Then you can kick them off fast.

Some boots come with holes punched around the ankles to help them drain.

Most boats have superstitions: don’t wear green (bad luck), don’t grow a beard (the voyage will be long), don’t bring dirt on board (symbolizes a shipwreck). Ours has only one: don’t whistle. Why? Whistling attracts breezes.

A local captain will tell you there’s “no bad luck, just bad seamanship.” Then he’ll head out to sea with a sprig of garlic on the bow.

Most important: don’t be a hero. Always keep “one hand for the seaman.” For long stretches of time, you will work in cramped quarters. You will work on surfaces slippery as ice — not just the wild ocean salt stinging your eyes and drenching everything, but tuna slime and gurry on the decks and alleyways. And when the fish start flying on board, work your pole, but know that a four-inch, galvanized hook can crack a skull.

Tuna fishing’s a team competition. The score gets tallied in tons. Ships battle for the biggest catches: for the money (every time a long-finned albacore or 200-pound yellowfin pops out of the soup, the crew hears a chorus of cash registers); and for bragging rights — even for the cleanest boat — and license to spin yarns that stretch the truth from Point A to Point Loma.

Like captain Guy Silva’s. In 1929, Silva was the first to install a shortwave radio on a tuna boat, the Emma R.S. He also claims that, a year or so later, off Cabo San Lucas, an enormous leopard shark surfaced alongside. Silva swears that he jumped onto the shark, stood up like a surfer, and ran down its back. When he climbed onboard, he grinned as wide as Magdalena Bay.

But here again, there’s a time to boast and a time to clam up. Rather than broadcast success, a captain will pinch the truth. He’ll use what Michael Orbach calls “partial honesty.” A boat riding low’s a dead giveaway; it’s “made the trip.” Other than that, captains will downplay good fortune.

Competition’s so fierce, radio operators use codes. They only tell a small alliance — a “code group” — where fish have been spotted, where not, and where the more successful ships are headed. Edward Soltesz, an operator from 1937 to 1941, learned to decipher Morse code messages. Soltesz admits that, except for allies, “we lied to each other, because we wouldn’t tell them where we were!

“We gathered more and more information that would be fed back to the skipper: ‘no bait in this bay…such and such a boat is catching some in Costa Rica.’ That would save weeks and weeks of time.”

Some skippers swear that coding mumbo-jumbo’s a waste of time. What counts is “fish sense.” That said, they’ll keep an ear for information as sharp as their squinting eyes will scan the rolling sea.

Ours is a “bait boat.” The first order of business: fill tanks on the stern with live anchovies and sardines. A net-tender skiff uses a purse seine. The net has buoyant corks on top and metal leads beneath. When skiffers spot bait fish, they circle the net around them, pull in the sides and the bottom, and bring the contents onboard.

“Bait came first,” says Julius Zolezzi, who captained a tuna boat for 27 years. “Getting it was hard work. You had bait watch. Leave a single light on all night. Sometimes, at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, a voice’d say, ‘Time to get bait.’ And you hop to it.”

Some of the most favored bait spots in 1946 are Turtle Bay and Magdalena Bay, off Baja, and Banderas Bay, off Puerto Vallarta.

The fishermen work by hand. In the 1940s, most tuna boats use poles. Nets required favorable conditions and the process often damaged the fish. More than anything else, manually hauling in heavy, ocean-soaked nets, set after set, was a back-breaker.

(In 1953, Mario Puratić patented his power block. The mechanized winch — it resembles a giant set of headphones — hangs from a boom and pulls the nets aboard the stern. It requires far fewer men to do the job. By the late 1950s, the power block and nylon nets, introduced in 1956, had revolutionized the fishing industry.)

Once in the wooden box, bait fish become “chum.” To keep them alive, the chummer regularly ladles fresh brine over them. He stands under a permanent canopy, of plywood or pine, to protect him from airborne hooks or 100-pound fish, whose flapping tails alone could break a rib. When the ship reaches a school of tuna, the chummer scoops bait over the stern. Think Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws, but without the trail of blood. The point is to host a banquet.

Schools of tuna often spread out over a wide area. Chumming can gather them close to the stern, the live bait suggesting a much larger number. When tuna spot the thrashing, they often, though not always, go into a feeding frenzy and will bite at anything that shines in the whitewater, including a hook on a wire leader.

Until around the 1920s, tuna boats chopped up sardines for bait. Chummers used to cover their noses from the monstrous stench of sardine scraps baking in the sun. Many chain-smoked cigarettes for the same purpose. When Japanese fishermen came to the West Coast, they introduced several innovations: one was live bait. The splashing created a more realistic feeding ground.

A pole-fisherman doesn’t cast his line in a rainbow arc. He slaps the pole hard on the surface. Sensing a rich cluster of food created by the sudden pop, hungry tuna charge into the roiling circle.

Many claim that pole-fishing techniques don’t harm the porpoises that often swim with tuna. “They didn’t like the lures,” says Edward Soltesz. “Ours had feathers and catgut wrapped around them, and when they got wet they looked like squid in the water. That apparently was a delicacy for the tuna. The porpoise didn’t care for it. I don’t know what the porpoise ate.”

When the tuna are really biting, it’s slap-pull, slap-pull: pole-pop the water, tug out a fish. The frenzy’s on both sides of the railing.

Poles have changed little in the past 30 years. In 1908, Masaharu Kondo, who taught oceanography at Tokyo Imperial University, toured the world to study how people fished. In 1912, he returned to San Diego and Baja, where he established MK Fisheries. Along with live bait and new refrigeration techniques, Kondo and the other Japanese fishermen introduced the bamboo poles still used by tuna boats in 1946.

Both firm and flexible, the eight- or nine-foot pole brings in tuna without damaging them the way purse seines do. To assure a good grip, the base of the pole is two inches in diameter; the tip’s three-fourths to an inch thick. To protect themselves, fishermen strap a thick leather belt around their waists. A padded socket right below the stomach holds the pole. Many wonder how former anglers survived without one.

Like baseball players’ special bats, fishermen have a personal pole. Wet bamboo is slippery. For secure handholds, each fisherman carries a file in his tackle box to cut indentations in the grip. Some wrap adhesive tape around the base, for the left hand, and a foot or so higher up, for the right. Others use twine. In no time, sweat and the elements turn the grip to coffee-brown.

Using a single pole with a six-foot line, wrote Motosuke Tsuida, captain of the White Cloud, “the Japanese fisherman could catch the fish fast. Our men fished with a certain rhythm, and the fish would come off the hook in mid-air. From a distance, the tuna looked like silver petals falling from a tree.”

For larger tuna — from, say 40 to 80 pounds — two fishermen work in tandem. The heavy cotton lines from their two poles go through a swivel, then join to a single leader and hook. For even bigger fish — as at the Galapagos — three poles, sometimes four, are necessary. The larger the fish, the larger the hook and the smaller the pole.

“When a tuna struck,” writes Edgar E. Crane, “all three men lunged backward simultaneously, catapulting the great fish out of the sea. The teamwork of the men exceeded the trained tactics of any football squad or shell crew that was ever seen.”

The bamboo comes uncut from Japan. Fishermen are careful to shape them as alike as possible, so they’ll work as a matched set. “We had to cut off the knots from the bamboo to make fishing poles,” says Soltesz. “For a limber pole, you cut the bottom off, and for a stiff pole, you would cut off the top part and the bottom would get real big.”

Kondo didn’t invent these techniques, which may have begun with the first Japanese fishing community in San Diego in 1899. But he had a definite influence. In 1922, the Pacific Fisherman journal named him the “Fish Magnate of California.”

In 1886, the naturalist Charles Frederick Holder saw his first school of “leaping tuna” in the Santa Catalina channel: “they came like a cyclone, turning the quiet waters into foam, in and out of which the big fishes darted like animated arrows or torpedoes.” Others in those early days reported seeing schools so large you could walk across the water on their backs.

Tuna have irregular migrating patterns. By the 1920s, they still came from the west, but yellowfin would arrive farther and farther down the Pacific Coast (albacore, which prefer cooler waters, moved farther north before turning toward Japan). The San Diego fleet moved south. In 1926, captain Manuel O. Medina and the Campbell Machine Company of San Diego built the Atlantic, the first “tuna clipper.” It was at least 110 feet long and designed for distant voyages. When such a large boat was under construction, Medina confessed, “people told me I was crazy, and, until the vessel proved herself, I thought maybe they were right.”

In 1929, the wood-hulled Atlantic was the first American tuna boat to cross the equator. In 1930, Medina fished 500 miles off the coast of Equador and made record catches. A pioneer like Kondo, Medina was the first to use sonar and to install refrigeration in the holds.

Around 1900, a fishing trip lasted one or two days, since there was no way to preserve the catch much longer. In 1946, one might take at least two months. The fish are now farther from San Diego, storing techniques are improved, and “tropical tuna” — striped skipjack (the least desired) and yellowfin (the most) — run yearlong. In 1925, a “short ton” of yellowfin paid $80; in 1946, it’s $200 to $280.

“January 1, 1946,” writes August J. Felando, “can be considered a starting date for the final era of the tuna clipper fleet. The foreseeable future excited fishermen, war veterans, shipyards, and investors with promises of economic growth, security, and new wealth.”

Where, specifically? Well, as the saying goes, “fish got tails.” Quirky and unpredictable, tuna go where they go like stampeding broncos. They bite from dawn to sundown. A tuna boat works those hours, often nonstop, and more.

Most San Diego tuna clippers are owned and operated by Portuguese or Italian families. No one works for a wage. Each receives a share of the catch, which makes the effort doubly personal and justifies the toil and danger.

Newcomers learn early that tuna fishing is not an MGM pirate movie. Errol Flynn won’t swoop down from the yardarm, teeth agleam, to rescue someone swept overboard. French horns or frantic violins won’t endorse your every move. And little will fall neatly into place. No two trips are alike. You’re a speck in a seemingly infinite, endlessly unpredictable ocean. But, some say with teeth slightly agleam, that’s the adventure. ■

Next time: Let’s Catch Us Some Tuna!


  • 1. Don Estes: “Kondo [Masaharu] was the catalyst who brought the men and their personal skills together at the right place and time to set in motion…a whole new industry.”
  • 2. Edward Soltesz: “People would get hurt…the only time anyone could take pictures was when they were hurt and couldn’t perform in the rack.”
  • 3. August J. Felando: “Though its economic crisis was not foreseen by the California tuna industry in 1946, the government had already introduced policies that would cause future tuna trade problems for the entire industry.”


  • Crane, Edgar E., West Coast Fisheries, 1931.
  • Estes, Don, “Kondo Masaharu and the Best of All Fishermen,” Journal of San Diego History, Summer 1977, vol. 23, number 3.
  • Felando, August, and Harold Medina, “The Origins of California’s High-Seas Tuna Fleet,” Journal of San Diego History, Winter/Spring 2012, vol. 28, numbers 1 and 2; Felando, “California’s Tuna Clipper Fleet: 1918–1963,” Mains’l Haul, 1996, 1997, vols. 32 and 33, numbers 4, 1, and 3.
  • McCloskey, Jr., William B., Highliners, New York, 1979.
  • Orbach, Michael K., Hunters, Seamen, and Entrepreneurs: The Tuna Seinermen of San Diego, Berkeley, 1977.
  • Smith, Andrew F., American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food, Berkeley, 2012.
  • Soltesz, Edward S., “Pole Fishing for Tuna, 1937–1941: An Interview with Edward S. Soltesz,” Journal of San Diego History, Summer 1991, vol. 37, number 3.
  • Zolezzi, Julius H., and Lawrence D. Bradley, Jr., “The Story of the San Diego Tuna Fleet,” Mains’l Haul, Winter/Spring 2008, vol. 44, numbers 1 and 2; interview.

Part 2: Let's catch us some tuna | Part 3: The Lone Wolf hits a royal flush | Part 4: Beauty goin' down

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My first trip to San Diego was in 1957. I was in college. The fishermen down on the quay had biceps like thighs. If pole fishing were still the way to fish, there'd be more fish and more real men who actually work for a living rather than swindle.

We've let real living slip out of our hands, our birthright for a mess of pottage. We should all be living lives that are full--doing things for people rather than to people.

When I was a young boy in Texas, I once asked a cowboy if he was religious. "Can't hurt."

Some fish that are terrible cooked are delicious raw.

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