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.

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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