Every sport or occupation has a dream scenario: score the winning goal; close the impossible sale. For old-time tuna “bait boats,” it was the Big Catch, a mammoth haul with bamboo poles and lines. In August 1953, Julius Zolezzi and his crew lived the dream. “The Lone Wolf hit a royal flush”: a run of albacore that never seemed to end.
A captain for 27 years and former president of the American Tuna Boat Association, Zolezzi is a third-generation fisherman. His grandfather Julius emigrated from Genoa, Italy, moved to San Diego in 1906, and fished for rock cod. “He made a very good living during the Depression. He’d go outside Point Loma, catch maybe a ton of rock cod, and sell it at the Embarcadero for about 1.5 cents a pound. Nobody could afford meat in those days, so they lined up to buy the fish.”
Everyone called Julius the “Rock Cod King.” Zolezzi’s father, John B., earned the nickname “Rock Cod Johnny” for his connection with the “king.”
Though he’d worked on tuna boats since age 9, this was only the 23-year-old Julius Zolezzi’s third time as captain. Like his father and grandfather, Zolezzi followed what he half jokingly calls rule number one of the skippers’ code: “Make sure you’ve got a good cook. On a bait boat, quarters are tight. Men fish elbow to elbow. The galley’s the one central place where the crew gathers.” They usually play cribbage or cutthroat pinochle. “And they talk. So keep the stomachs full with good food. When a bad cook rings the bell, you could have more than just a bad meal.”
Zolezzi stocked the 65-foot-long boat with enough food and fuel for 40 days at sea. “These weren’t high-speed engines,” he says. “We could do about eight knots.” Since they packed the fish in ice, “your time was limited. You had to make sure the ice stayed firm. Stay out too long, you lose it.”
In the early 1950s, it was said that the two hardest jobs in America were coal mining and bait boats. And one of the hardest parts of fishing was catching bait, since crews pulled in the nets and brailed the catch by hand, day and night.
Before heading south, the Lone Wolf anchored off Coronado’s Silver Strand. The crew lowered three small boats into the water: a speedboat, a skiff, and a smaller “bait-receiver” craft. The speedboat towed the others to a spot where anchovies crackled on the surface like frying bacon. The skiff had a small, circular net (a “purse seine”) astern. The speedboat pulled the net off the skiff and circled the anchovies with a ring of corks.
Crewmen drew up the bottom of the net, creating a pouch, and scooped hundreds of flopping anchovies onto the bait skiff. When full, the speedboat towed it back to the Lone Wolf. Using hand nets, or “brails,” crewmembers scooped the catch into bait boxes astern. The chummer kept the anchovies alive by pouring fresh seawater into the tank. After several sets, the Lone Wolf headed for Ensenada plugged with anchovies and a crew of six.
Most tuna boats from San Diego had local crews, often members of the same extended Italian or Portuguese family. As his father had done, Julius picked up three Mexican crewmen at Ensenada. “Top seamen,” he says. “Hard workers, and great spotters. We used them all the time.” Now with a crew of nine, the boat headed west, to San Martin Island and beyond.
“Rock Cod Johnny” had built the Lone Wolf in 1937 at the shipyards on the Embarcadero. The wooden-hulled vessel could store 65 tons of tuna. When not in school, young Julius worked on the boat. In the middle of World War II, he learned that his father did more than fish for tuna.
In 1943, the Lone Wolf anchored in a cove at San Martin Island, six miles west of Baja. At least 60 tons of tuna lay iced in the hold. “Time to go home and see Mama,” his father told Julius. Then he decided to stay out one more day.
That night, a stick caught in the check valve, which backed up the outward flow of water. Soon a green spillway covered the floorboards of the engine room. The engine died. As the ocean poured in, John B. shouted, “Get in the skiff!”
The crew didn’t panic. As they rowed away, the Lone Wolf went under. Only debris popping to the surface and lazy whitecaps marked its passing.
“We were all together,” Zolezzi remembers. “That’s the main thing. You can always build a new boat. But we lost our fish.”
John B. radioed the Navy. The next day a destroyer arrived from San Diego. It lowered 18-foot orange pontoons into the shallow water. Divers roped them to the hull, and the Lone Wolf rose in a burst of bubbles, broke the surface, and rocked back and forth. As it righted itself, water spilled down all sides.
“We thanked them,” says Zolezzi. “They turned around and went back to San Diego. Wouldn’t tow us. We had to hire a tugboat to take us back.”
But why would a Navy destroyer sail 140 miles, during wartime, to salvage a tuna boat? That day, Zolezzi learned that his father was working for government intelligence. He did surveillance along the coast, looking for submarines, planes, minefields, anything suspicious. “He never talked about it, then or after. None of us knew a word. But the Navy sure came quick.”
In 1953, when the Lone Wolf sailed by San Martin Island, Zolezzi had no thoughts of the past. He was heading west, toward Guadalupe Island, and thinking of albacore. “It’s a really pretty fish,” he says, “blue on top, silver on the bottom, long pectoral fins on the sides, almost like wings. And it’s beautifully round.”
Unlike tuna, which thrive in 80-degree water, albacore prefer 60–67 degrees Fahrenheit. They reach the West Coast between June and October, and some years not at all. “When caught,” says Zolezzi, “they don’t fight like yellowfin. They kick a little but then give up. Don’t know why. And when they hit, you have to be very careful bringing them in, since they have tender mouths.”
Albacore run in schools. If a spotter sees a “jumper” arcing through the air, “who knows how many others could be below?” Miss a jumper, miss a school.
Located 200 miles west of Baja, remote Guadalupe Island is renowned for elephant seals and great white sharks. Since it’s on a direct line with the California current, the south-flowing waters are cooler than near the coast.
As it neared Guadalupe, the Lone Wolf trawled jigs — 10–15-fathom lines with red-eyed, fishlike chrome lures — behind the boat. If just one albacore strikes a jig, an entire school might follow.
As sunlight bounced off the rolling swells, an albacore rocketed out of the water, made a majestic, twisting arc, and dove down: a jumper.
Get on it!
Zolezzi was at the helm. The spotter gave him a nod. “The look he sends — you know it’s a good one, but might not mean a thing.” Unlike the giant purse seines commercial boats use today, which surround and snatch everything within reach, “with pole-fishing, you had to get the fish to bite. You’d see these schools, and you’d chum on them, and they wouldn’t bite. And there you were…”
Zolezzi guided the boat portside of a promising dark spot and cut the engine. Crewmen pulled in the jigs. As the chummer tossed live bait, the spot grew. From the skipper’s chair, Zolezzi gazed down on a fisherman’s dream: “10 to 20 fathoms below us, a whole school of albacore, and it’s all black: a big black mass!”
On the racks, nine fishermen popped the water with the tips of bamboo poles. The first fish struck with such fury, it could have been as much from anger as hunger.
The strike made a white boil rip across the surface. A twofold message: to the school below, it’s feeding time; to the crew, these might be hungry albacore. The poles whacked the water — to create more boils — and “The whole bottom came up! They started hitting from all angles. Everywhere, wide-open mouths. A real frenzy. They went nuts!”
Seen from above, the water looked like an intersection without stoplights. Frantic fish shot top speed in all directions. Tails powered from side to side; fins darted and veered.
The poles rose and fell in an automatic rhythm. Slap, pull up to the right, release the fish mid-air. Back down. Slap again. One albacore after another soared over the rail, glinted briefly in the sun, and tumbled onto the alleyway behind the racks.
“It was raining fish!” says Zolezzi.
As a test to see if he could save bait, the chummer stopped tossing anchovies. No difference. If anything, the commotion intensified.
At this point, no one knew they’d hit the mother lode. They were too busy. Plus, an entire school can spook, break away, and vanish in seconds. The crew kept the down-up-back-down motion going, like pistons, one fish at a time. They could sense that the black, cloud-like mass swirling beneath them was expanding. They were elated. In 1953, albacore went for $700 per ton.
Some fish attacked a hook in the air. “They were biting so well,” says Zolezzi, “the alleyway’d fill up, and they’d spill over into the ocean.”
When that happened, the crew set their poles aside. At least knee-deep in flapping and twitching albacore, they herded the catch forward to midship with boards, to make room for more. They hosed down the fish and the alleyway, cleansing both of blood and gurry. Then they turned the hose on each other and returned to the racks.
An albacore can weigh up to 20 pounds and be three feet long. Tuna over 50 pounds required two poles. When the fish are biting, a crew doesn’t stop for anything, not rest, not food, not even a stretching of tired limbs. An albacore is a one-pole fish. But tugging one 18- to 20-pounder after another out of a roiling ocean on a rocking boat for hours and hours can take its toll, even if dollar signs gleam at the end of every hook.
Suddenly, just blue water. The frenzy stopped. A good thing, in a way, because the crew was exhausted, hands numb, shoulders, knees, and thighs aching. Backs throbbed where they banged repeatedly against the rail.
“Coffee,” shouted Zolezzi. As if waking from a coma, the crew filed down to the galley where the cook, named Schroeder, brewed an excellent cup of joe. Then Zolezzi noticed something strange. The school had stopped feeding but didn’t budge. “Still there,” he says. “In fact, there looked like more coming in.”
Thirty minutes later, everyone went back to the racks. At the stern, the chummer tossed “a couple baits” to see if anything would bite.
Tiny anchovies disappeared in an explosion of foam and brine. Nine poles hit the water. Nine albacore burst up from the suds. Far from being over, the frenzy had just begun.
For the next four days, says Zolezzi, “we never moved the boat.”
The pattern continued: Fish bit in flurries. Stopped cold. Coffee break. Back to work. Chummer tosses a handful of bait. “All hell breaks loose again.”
Says Zolezzi: “For four days, the only thing that moved was the boat, drifting with the current. That school under us kept picking up more schools. You probably heard this before, and probably scoffed, but there were so many, you could almost walk on the fish.”
Zolezzi’s still not sure why the school remained in one place for so long. Many fish gather beneath logs and other floating objects. Also, “Once live bait hits the water they head straight under the boat for safety. They stay real close. But who knows?”
Each day they fished from sunrise to sundown, then worked long into the night. The Lone Wolf stored its catch in the hold. Crewmen didn’t just avalanche mounds of albacore down to the bins. Each fish had to be preserved intact, on ice, or it was worthless.
After sundown, the crew washed slimy clothes and hung them to drip out the saltwater (just squeezing them didn’t do the trick). Then they dressed for winter in woolen long johns, heavy coats or rain gear, and thick rubber boots.
They spread chopped ice across the floor of a bin. The men on deck carefully lowered albacore — largest ones first — down a wooden chute. Men below, working on hands and knees, nestled each into the ice. When a tier was complete, they shoveled a layer of ice over it. Then more fish, one at a time, and more ice.
The crew was careful to alternate between the port and starboard bins. Too much weight on one could tilt the boat at a dangerous angle. The process, layering and icing tons of fish, took hours.
“When fish are running, you get very little sleep,” says Zolezzi. “The crew’d be so exhausted they’d hit the bunk with their clothes on and conk out. During the run, they averaged three, at most four, hours’ sleep.”
At 5:00 a.m., they’d wake up, dip their hands in water to wake them up, and be back on the racks.
H.C. Godsil, an expert on the tuna industry, wrote that “Spirits rise in proportion to the catch.” But very few runs last more than a day, even fewer up to three. On the fourth day, the crews’ spirits were willing, but their bodies felt as if they’d just played three football games in a row, without pads. They dragged themselves to the racks at 5:00 a.m. As if on cue, the silver horde amassed below.
Each man tugged a pole, raised yet another fish, and flung it over his right shoulder, now more on instinct than conscious intent. Within hours, the hold was full: 65 tons of albacore, over 1300 fish.
“That’s it,” Zolezzi shouted. “Time to head home.”
No one said a word. “They just climbed up to the rail and smiled, gave each other a good grin.”
But the school beneath the Lone Wolf didn’t move.
“We called another boat,” says Zolezzi. “Said, ‘Come here, take it!’ And guess what? They filled up, too!”
Back in San Diego, Zolezzi unloaded the catch at the High Seas Cannery at Point Loma. As the crew cleaned the boat, he put in orders for provisions, ice, and fuel. The Lone Wolf cleared Point Loma “asap — fish’ll only run for so long.”
Looking back 59 years, Zolezzi says, “It was the trip of a lifetime. I’m sure it happened to other guys, but only once to me. Later on, we tried some things that worked that time” — Zolezzi laughs loud and long — “and nothing happened!”
- 1. Michael K. Orbach: “Almost everything about tuna fishing is dangerous.”
- 2. H.C. Godsil: “Tuna fishing is not as a rule continuous. It occurs in spurts of relatively short duration."
- 3. Leonard Ingrande: “You could come across a real large school of fish, and they might bite from sunrise to sunset.”
- Godsil, H.C., “The High Seas Tuna Fishery of California,” Division of Fish and Game of California, Bureau of Marine Fisheries, Fish Bulletin No. 51.
- Ladwig, Kit, “The Invisible Fleet,” San Diego Executive, June 1993.
- Orbach, Michael, Hunters, Seamen, and Entrepreneurs: The Tuna Seinermen of San Diego, Berkeley, 1977.
- Zolezzi, Julius H., and Bradley, Lawrence D., Jr., “The Story of the San Diego Tuna Fleet,” Mains’l Haul, Winter/Spring 2008, vol. 44, numbers 1 and 2; Zolezzi, interview.
Next time: Beauty Goin’ Down
Part 1: Anatomy of a Tuna Clipper | 2: Let's catch us some tuna! | 4: Beauty goin down