Saturday, August 29, 2009

Caramel Nut Blast

First off, the title of the story has to do with a candy bar. But to be honest and consistent it also might refer to Joel’s enthusiasm when it comes to planning a tuna trip with Jeff Smith. Chip Cornell, Joel, and I planned this trip back in February. Joel got a taste of hooking some feisty 130-pounders last summer with me and Jeff and immediately began a regimen of core strengthening exercises in anticipation of the 2009 season. On Tuesday we were hoping to see his strength tested. This is what happened:

On Monday Chip, already out in Wellfleet, eagerly awaited our arrival. At 4:30 Joel sped up my driveway while I feverishly worked to wrap up my oyster deliveries. I was stressed for time and hadn’t showered in a couple of days, which always makes matters worse. So I finished up the oysters, showered off, and soon we were driving down Routes 3 and 6. And finally I was able to relax and suddenly realized that I was on a fishing trip (an out of town one). The first omen Joel identified was the Jeep Cherokee in front of us in Harwich that had a rubber squid placed on the rear wiper blade. “Oh dude, this is a good sign. We’re going to hook into some massive bluefin tomorrow.” His foot pressed further on the accelerator as he continued to describe his pescatorous visions of screaming reels and bloody bibs.

We arrived in Wellfleet (at Chip’s family house) and Chip immediately poured a few vodka tonics before putting the steaks on the grill. My sister, Priscilla, made garden-grown beats, salad, and a killer summer tomato salad (with mozzarella, basil, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar). At dinner, over red wine, we discussed the tuna, how it lives, where it lives, and why we fish for it. Despite our knowledge of the pressures imposed by international fishing fleets, we agreed that we were a mere fraction that might eventually over harvest this amazing fish. “Just one more year,” we mutually agreed, knowing well that as long as there was a season and a slot, we’d give it a try….as long as our backs held out.

Jeff Smith is an excellent tuna guide. The forty-something native Arizonan is based in Wellfleet though he’ll launch anywhere between Truro and Chatham to find the shortest cut to the fish. He has an amazing center console boat that is absolutely perfect for chasing schools of tuna, bass, blues, or anything. Jeff instructed us to meet him at 6:00 on Tuesday morning. On the way to the boat we stopped at a convenience store and added to our cooler of sandwiches that Chip prepared the night before (wrapped in wax paper and cellophane – wax paper?). Some coffee, waters, and energy bars were thrown into the heavy cooler and off we were to the boat. The boat ramp was busy – commercial bass season was upon us and this added to the daily traffic of recreational and guided fishing. A few handshakes and mischievous verbal jabs were exchanged as we boarded the Carla Noelle and made our way out to what would be a twelve-hour trip.

The weather was misty, then foggy, then really foggy. The GPS and radar provided the guidance we needed to make it out to our destinations. Despite the fog, Joel spasmodically applied sunscreen and this provided some laughter (see photos). Then I showed Joel the wrapper from the energy bar that had for breakfast: Caramel Nut Blast. This crippled Joel and puzzled the others. “Dude, we need to order a t-shirt from this company,” he blurted out between snorts of giggles. It was actually funny.

Oh yeah, the fishing. Well, it went like this: first location, no fish. The second spot (crowded…um, the SW corner) was more productive. Joel decided to warm up his day with about 10 wily dogfish which brought upon a wrath of deprecating jokes which did not bounce well off his skin (his humility lasted longer than mine would have). Chip landed a dogfish too. The skunk was almost gone. Then I, the lucky one I suppose, landed a couple of fat stripers that would have been great to keep, but being out on the bank, a sanctuary for striped bass, they had to be released. But I swear, my first strike, which didn’t hook, felt like a tuna.

As slack tide approached Jeff decided to move onto another area several miles away. The trip took a while and when we arrived it was hot, calm, and sunny. No fish to be seen. But this was the plan: wait until the tide would move again which would likely turn the fishing on. In the meantime, on a hint, we took a short trip to a nearshore area to seek some breaking bass. By the time we arrived the bass had been replaced by blues – big ones. But this was fun. We wasted a shitload of Jeff’s expensive plastics before we realized that the schools were all blues, however we managed to hook and land several, kept one for Chip’s grill, and then moved back to tuna waters.

We were into our tenth hour on the water and hadn’t yet found any tuna on the surface. Plenty of food and water was at hand and this was consumed while we searched and searched. Moods were good, but it is typical that after so much time on a small vessel, one gets dazed and confused, and retreats into inner thoughts. I thought about how much I loved being on the water, especially with this group. I also thought about the sun and how glad I was to have ample sunscreen (applied hourly). I also realized that the summer was waning and that I’d better get my act together and fish as much as possible over the next couple of months. Finally, I thought about the piece of clamshell that was likely embedded deeply into one of my fingers – from about three weeks ago; it hadn’t surfaced yet, but I knew it was there.

The boredom was finally interrupted when I spotted a break on the surface. “Yo! There’s a fish – on the top at three o’clock!” The others slowly realized what I said and looked into the sun’s glare for more corroborating evidence. Nothing else happened. So, feeling that I might be hallucinating, I began to discount my sighting and brush it off as wake or whitecap. I continued to scan the water and of course, in five minutes Joel and I simultaneously spotted a school of tuna just inches below the surface. Their tails were in the air and they were calmly swimming in unison in circles. Chip put his phone away and Jeff honed into the sighting and carefully guided Carla Noelle into position. In a few minutes we had our shot. Joel fired off a pencil popper and I delivered a large jumping bait. Chip, in midship, also got his pencil popper out to the school. But nothing happened and eventually they dove. “Fuck!” Exclaimed Joel, as his energy level rapidly increased. We were now recharged and ready to go.

The school came back and as Jeff closed us in on them I noticed another larger school just a hundred meters away. I also noticed that some other fishermen in the area were catching on to our sudden series of sneaky maneuvers (that’s the problem with good weather/visibility). We honed in on the school. Joel and I tossed out two perfect casts and retrieved the undeniably most attractive lures around in front of their noses. I tensed up, “Get ready, here we go..” Then, oddly, the lures arrived at the side of Carla Noelle without a notice. They weren’t biting.

This went on for at least an hour. We’d spot a school of daisy-chaining tuna, creep up to them, cast in front of them, then skunk. They were nice fish too. Probably 150 to 200 pounds each. They wouldn’t hit.

Good for them.

The sun, after baking us all day, was sinking fast to the west. It was time to throw in the towel.

Tired and bleached, we managed to swig down a couple of Red Stripes at the Wellfleet house. I wanted to stay the night but there was too much work to do at home. Somewhat dejected, we departed by sunset to Routes 6 and 3 where more stories were told and future fishing plans made. We all decided, on the boat, that Columbus Day weekend would be our next trip with Jeff (last year was amazing!). On that trip I hope to hear Joel yell out “Holy nutblast!” as a 200-pounder nearly spools his reel in the fall air.

PS: more (better) photos coming soon.

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