Nantucket Sleigh Ride
By Mike Christy
According to the 3:00AM NOAA report, the marine forecast was perfect
for mid summer; one to two foot seas, variable winds, high pressure
sitting over us, until the weekend when it'll blow. It was Wednesday morning August
17th, 5am, it's still dark, I make the run to Shafmaster to buy a tote
of herring. Arriving at the dock I lump the 125lb cooler out of the van and drag it
down the gang plank - ugg my aching back. I then rush to get to work on
time. I'll return after work to add more ice just to be sure the bait
stays cold, fresh.
Now the hard part, to find a mate. I make the calls, "Tom, can
you take a half day tomorrow? The bait's on Shortfin and she's
fueled up, ready to fish". No he cant, way too busy. I ask John at
work, "Can you go?". No, he can't either, it's something about
moving his son to Florida for school. I call Tim, he's buried at work too.
I email Chris, naw, he's always to busy to get away mid week. Last
resort, Darryl, my son, "no dad, I have to work at four".
So, it boils down to having a go at it alone.
It seems there's only so many of us that have the passion for this
type of fishing. Could it be an obsession? We anticipate the forecasts,
the 3am updates, the 10am updates, the 3pm updates. We run all over
Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts searching for bait, many times
days before the scheduled trip. We blatantly call in sick or leave work
at the half day mark, even when high profile projects are behind
schedule. So here I go, heading offshore 15 miles, alone, in my 20"
Mako center console Shortfin, not even considering what might happen, I mean, what are
I drop the hook and begin chumming by 1pm, which isn't bad for
leaving work at eleven. Amazingly the boat swings on the anchor line to
the perfect depth and position according to the GPS. I'm right over the
edge that I want to be. The bottoms drops from 205 to 234 feet within
about 15 yards it seems. My sounder displays 217 feet, perfect. This
rarely ever happens.
Since I'm fishing alone I only brought two rods today, one being my lucky 130
which is mounted on a Penn Sabre bent butt. I say lucky because it has
hooked up and landed 3 significant fish in recent times, including a 12 foot 450lb
blue shark. As luck would have it there is no
one on my spot today. Instead, everyone is over on the Flag, I
count 16 or so boats anchored up, I'm sure highliners Garth, Dick and Ricco are all
tucked in there somewhere. Earlier in the season I marked a herd of fish
where I'm anchored today, I'm not sure how many of those guys know that,
or if they have done the same. I'm in a little bit deeper water than
some guys like to be, and what I have liked in the past, but this subtle
change seems to be working for me, at least for marking fish. The only
other boat I see is the Christian Soldier out of Portsmouth. She is
aptly named for what her crew calls a live herring being sent out on a tuna line. Captain Tim Margil and
the Soldier are about 300 yards away, over relatively higher ground
compared to me.
Surprisingly, time passes quickly when you tuna fish alone as there's
lots to do. Chumming alone can keep you busy. Adjusting the baits,
watching the sounder, checking out the other fishermen; is anyone on,
are there any crooked boats anywhere? You scan the horizon, listen in
the VHF, eat Cheezits, clean the gunnels of chum guts, jig a little bit for bait.
After a while things settle down and I get into a routine, the zone.
Over the afternoon I have a tuna scratch here and there on the sounder
about every 30 minutes or so. It seems to be one fish. I cant tell if
he's actively feeding or just passing though. Since it's so intermittent
I assume he's cruising the edge of the hump, and it takes him that long
to make his rounds. I check the depths of the marks on the machine and
adjust my lines accordingly. Hmm, he seems to be swimming near the 20
The Christian Soldier starts her engine and they weigh anchor. It's
5:00 and he's calling it a day. At a full 10 knots she cruises past me and
we give each other a wave, I secretly think "quitter", but
only jokingly. Tim fishes like I do, for the love of it. But I
can only assume he has had no marks on his fish finder like I have,
otherwise he would not be heading for the barn this early.
As I watch the Christian Solder steam towards shore the
time approaches 5:15. I am now the only one anchored on this ledge, the
closest boat is maybe 5 miles away. The tide is starting to run from
starboard to port across my stern now. The pieces of herring are
drifting out to sea, away from the Isles of Shoals. Mount Agamenticus
looms on the hazy horizon. The current seems a little faster now, it's
the near the end of the tide I think, so I decide to make an adjustment.
I reel the baits in fairly close to the stern. The white balloon is the
closest and is about 10 yards away. It is the deepest of the two
lines. I throw a few pieces of chum up current and imagine them
sinking down around where the baits have settled.
I take another look for the Christian Soldier in the distance, she
is difficult to pick up with the naked eye, but that eye
did now sense movement. At first it was an unconscious realization, of
something out of the ordinary, as when, I suppose, you think you've
seen a ghost. What had registered in my brain was a white streak on my
right side. A white streak out of the corner of my eye, what is that?
A white streak is not right, it did not make sense in this setting. It
now all seems to be in slow motion as I play it back in my mind's eye.
A white balloon does not normally race through the water, or
underwater by itself, without... a TUNA FISH on the other of the
I'm hooked up.
OK quick reel reel reel, get that line tight, ok good he's taking
line, oh no it stopped, damn damn reel reel reel faster, no slack,
there, now the line's hard, the rod's bent, the monofilament line
crackles as comes off the reel, the roller guides on the rod rattle, I
love that sound, he's taking it right up
the bow, perfect, now, Ok quick get the other line in, ok, quick
release the anchor ball, my gloves, where are my gloves? Damn it! Ok now move the rod to the fighting post, out
of the holder and into the fighting post, one smooth motion, 5 steps,
don't screw up, point the rod at the fish, there, it's in the post, and
the fish is taking line like a freight train. Ok, ok, ok, breath Michael, start the
engine, START the ENGINE! Oh damn, the painter from the anchor
ball is wrapped in the skeg, pull, pull, and cut, cut, ok good.
Now get on the rod,
and take a breath... whew, now I'm on and feeling good about it!
The next forty five minutes
seemed to pass in an instant. That
fish took me on a Nantucket Sleigh Ride for almost an
entire nautical mile according to my GPS plotter. During the fight
he'd stop and loop
around every so often, which was fine after I learned how to deal with
it - you have to be a fast learner out there, especially alone. Then
things got interesting when he pulled a real nasty
trick by circling the entire boat. I never anticipated this, and the line
wrapped around the harpoon, my jigging rod, the VHF antenna, the other
tuna rod still in the rod holder, the engine cowling and the console. That
fish knew he did something on that circle, because he did it again
and again, all while I was trying to untangle the line from everything.
The rod was in the fighting post with no one on it, the line was
wrapped around everything, he had the upper hand swimming wherever he
wanted and I had a terrible feeling about loosing him. But, by thinking
clearly, I got the line cleared and free. The cockpit was in total shambles, but
he was still hooked after all and that's what counted. He then tried to circle again but
I had learned like he had learned and I kept it from catching on anything, after
all, he may be the top predator in the ocean, but I am top predator on
The final moments of sticking him with the harpoon were nothing
less than pure adrenaline and brute force on my part. The rod stayed
in the fighting post the entire time, I reeled the line up to the
swivel and moved to the gunwale and began to hand line him in. Then,
as on cue, he'd take line again and Id have to wind up to the
swivel again. Doing the absolute wrong thing, I took a chance and
tweaked the reel drag up a smidgen. I had
the harpoon ready and lying on the edge of the gunwale, he was doing
the death circle, and like every tuna fish does, he was near the surface away
from the boat, and deep near the boat. How do they know to do that?
Amazing. The harpoon will never hit him eight feet under the boat. The only way to do this myself was to hand line him in as
close was I could, hold the leader with one hand, and stick him with
the harpoon like a Zimbabwe warrior.
It worked! Two lines in him but I was still nervous and thinking
no one is ever going to believe me if I loose him now. That thought
haunted me during the entire battle; if I loose this fish no one will believe
me, and why even talk about it if I did loose him. I was not out there
to make up stories. It was a mix of emotions during the entire
ordeal, from total exhilaration and happiness to apprehension and foreboding
doom... what a mix,. What else can invoke those emotions besides
I grabbed a
gaff, then reaching down under the water I hooked his tail. I
pulled him up towards the surface and closer to the boat and somehow tail roped him. I got a saltwater
shower in the
process from his tail going crazy, actually I was soaked from the
chest up, but it was ok, I forgave him.
It was dark by the time I had towed him back to the wharf. The
August full moon was just rising over the sailboats in the mooring
field. The tuna truck backed down the wharf, the red tail and backup
lights illuminating the planks on the deck. We hoisted my 450 lb prize
into the refrigerator truck and covered him with ice. Sadly and
suddenly, just like that, the adventure was over. The sense of
dread of loosing that regal animal had evaporated and was now replaced
with a sense of respect and achievement. I had done it, without really knowing I was going to - I caught a
giant, alone, on the lucky rod. What are
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