After I left Clayton’s place in 1971, following my motto of “Retire Early … And Often”, I retired for a while. It was good fun, but as usual, impending hunger eventually called me out of retirement, and I went looking for work. I walked the docks looking for a fishing job. I searched in Bodega Bay and Tomales Bay, and on down the coast. On the commercial fishing docks in Sausalito, in San Franciso Bay, I finally came to a boat called the “Native Sun”. It was what’s called a “bait boat”, fishing for albacore tuna, AKA thunnus alalunga. I’d never fished on an albacore bait boat before. But I’d fished with lampara net for anchovy before, and they badly needed a crewman who could handle the lampara nets they used to catch the bait for the albacore. The previous guy who knew lampara nets had jumped ship for some reason, so they were short-handed.
The skipper’s name was Daryl. He was an Early Asian Immigrant, or as he called himself, an Indian. Hence the name of his boat. As I recall he was from one of the Plains tribes, and both a good seaman and a good man. He took a chance and hired me on, and was a pleasure to work for.
Figure 1. Albacore tuna.
First we finished provisioning the boat, food and fuel. Then, just before leaving for sea, we drove across the bay and set our nets right in the middle of the Oakland Ship Channel. It was a splash and dash operation, you can’t legally fish there because of the ship traffic, but that’s where the anchovies happened to be. Hey, I was just the crewman. We set the nets in the late afternoon after making sure no big ships were coming through. We caught maybe a tonne of anchovies, put as many of them in our “live tank” as it would hold, and released the rest. The live tank has sea water constantly pumped through the tank to keep them alive.
Then we drove out under the Golden Gate Bridge on a late summer afternoon. Fog was streaming in through the Golden Gate as I slid once again underneath that magic structure. I love all of the views of the bridge, from offshore, from on land, from the hills of San Francisco … but my favorite view of the Golden Gate Bridge is from directly underneath, either returning from sea, or as in this case, leaving the City behind. Soon the land behind us vanished in the misty white.
Off of northern California, the albacore stay a long ways from shore, they like warm water. Inshore the water is cold from the upwelling currents, and thick and green with life. Because it is cold, the air above it often condenses, making a dense fog. We drove straight west, over a pea-soup green ocean in an impenetrable, sound-deadening fog. In a fog, your boat moves and moves, but it seems you never go anywhere. The landscape is always the same.
After a day and a half of motoring without moving, one morning we suddenly burst out of the fog bank into a tropical movie. Warm breezes. Blue sky. And best of all, blue, crystal clear ocean. I turned around. I saw a fog bank stretching from horizon to horizon behind me. I laughed out loud, the contrast was so great. That was the first time I’d ever seen that, the sharp dividing line between the cold green water coastal water and the warm blue oceanic water.
Figure 2. Map of the wanderings of a couple of different schools of albacore tuna. SOURCE
The albacore range widely across the Pacific, coming by the California coast usually in the late summer and fall. As the map shows, during the rest of the year the schools of fish travel tens of thousands of miles around the Pacific.To find the fish, we motored over an endless sea, hour after hour. We towed a couple of lures on long poles out each side of the boat, and a couple of lures on short lines straight back. Then it’s just cruise, hour after hour, along the sea temperature the albacore prefer (58°-64°F, or 14.5°-18°C). We followed a temperature line, north or south, until we found the fish. When we found a school of albacore, then the game was on.
The first time (and one of the few times that first trip) that we got into the real fish was an education. The fishing is done with short bamboo poles maybe nine feet (three metres) long. The fishing pole doesn’t have a reel, just a piece of strong line tied to the tip of the pole. The line is a bit shorter than the pole. At the end of the line it has a feathered jig with a stout, broad barbless hook.
First a “stage” was lowered over the side. It’s a long narrow steel mesh platform secured just above the surface of the ocean, with a knee-high rail to brace against. Five of us clambered down with the poles, wearing hip boots to stay dry. I was at the right hand end. Someone starting throwing dip-net-fulls of the live anchovies overboard. The school of albacore came up near the boat, voracious for the anchovies. The game is to flip the hook overhand into the water. A fish hits it instantly. You muscle it up out of the water with the pole and flip it straight over your head onto the deck. As it flies overhead, you shake the pole, the hook drops out of the fish’s mouth, and you whip the lure right back into the water.
At least that was the theory. They say that “The difference between theory and practice is greater in practice than in theory”, and I proved it that day.
I flipped my first cast tentatively into the water. Immediately, and I mean as soon as the feathered lure struck the surface, an albacore hit it. I was unprepared, and the ship was steaming forwards. By the time I got it out of the water, it was halfway down the line of five men.
And it was heavy! They weigh about 30 pounds (14kg), and they hit the line at full speed. Unprepared again, I tried to swing it up and over. I only got it head-high; I know that because it gave the last man in line a salty slap right in the face. He was not happy, but of course the other fishermen found it hilarious. The skipper, Daryl, screamed “Keep the damned hooks in the water.” I was ready for the next one, which came immediately, and flipped it up on deck. From then on, it was just work. It was like shoveling, except we were shoveling fish out of the ocean. We pulled the fish on board, one after the other, for maybe forty-five minutes. It was backbreaking labor. Then, as quickly as they had arrived, the fish were gone. We all climbed back up on the deck from the stage, my arms ached. I’d never fished like that in my life.
We fished there offshore for just under a month. Day after day of endless blue sky and blue water. Everyone got a suntan.
Unfortunately, the suntan was almost all we got, we didn’t find many fish. We came back in to port in Santa Cruz after about a month. We sold the fish to the fish buyers and ran the numbers. On an offshore boat like that, the shares were divided after the food and fuel is deducted. Basically, the operation first has to pay its own way. Then after that, the shares were figured. In this case, the money from the sale of the fish didn’t quite cover food and fuel. Again by the tradition of that time and place, the skipper had to pay that difference, the crew didn’t have to kick in any money.
But we didn’t make any money either, a month’s work and not one thin dime. I was bummed, royally bummed. Oh, well, I figured, I was in Santa Cruz, and my old girlfriend was living there. So I hitchhiked out to Camp Joy Gardens to see her. But she’d left the day before, seems she’d taken up with a good friend of mine and had hit the road. My spirits sank even lower, I’d hoped to see her. The sun went down, the fall wind was chill.
I hitchhiked back to Santa Cruz. I got propositioned on the last ride into town by some gay guy who’d stopped to give me a ride. I said no thanks. He started crying. It was that kind of night, depression on all sides. I got out of his car and I went to a riverfront bar in Santa Cruz and got really, really drunk. I walked back to the Native Sun, somehow negotiated the ladder down from the dock to the boat, poured myself into my bunk, and passed out.
When I woke up, the ship was underway. My head was pounding. My mouth was dry. We ran from Santa Cruz down to Moss Landing, to get fuel for the boat. I felt … well, tolerable when I woke up at sea, and I felt passable, at least, when we came into the harbor and tied up to the fuel dock.
But when we started pumping fuel and I got a big whiff of that diesel, my stomach rebelled. I hurried to the side of the boat and threw up over the rail. The crew, of course, found my lengthy heaves quite hilarious, I was the butt of jokes for days—”That Willis, he’s a hell of a fishermen, but he’s a sensitive kinda guy, wants to get a head start on everyone … so he starts puking while the boat’s still at the dock”.
After I’d finished throwing up far too much slightly-used alcohol, and after we had finished refueling the Native Sun, we left the tall smokestacks of the Moss Landing power plant behind us in the gathering mist and went back out again, driving and driving and finally bursting through the wall of fog into the blue water dream world on the far side of the misty white, back out where every day was clear and warm. I worked on my tan, and learned more and more about the albacore and the ocean. And the fish were more kindly. We spent about a month and a half at sea, and when we came back to land and sold the catch, this time the boat and the crew made a little money. The albacore season was over, I said goodby to the crew, thanked Daryl, and the crew and I all left the boat. I’d built both my biceps and my bankroll up a ways … not a long ways, but it would pay for a bit more of early retirement, so that’s exactly what I did.
My regards to all,
…  collected for Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …