Posted by: 1000fish | July 18, 2021

Nori the Tuna Dog

DATELINE: OCTOBER 10, 2020 – MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA

There is a special spot in my psyche for gamefish, especially ones found just a few hours from my house. Bluefin tuna are in that special spot, lodged on the list between more distant targets like spearfish and dogtooth. I have hooked one, back in the mid-1990s on a San Diego long-range boat. The seas were miserable, and the yellowfin bite so-so, but when the first bluefin showed up, the place got serious. I hooked one that spooled my overmatched Penn 113, but then got to fight one to the gaff when another angler, who I thought of as old but was probably younger than I am now, gave up and handed it off to me. I have never forgotten how hard that fish pulled. 

Bluefin tuna are a reasonable possibility in San Diego, but they are a Northern California unicorn. They show up here for a couple of days at a time, not following any sort of predictable pattern, and by the time anyone knows they are here, they are gone. When they are present, conditions need to be almost flat to see and cast to them, and the area is not known for calm seas. The fish are big – usually well over 100 pounds, and are among the strongest gamefish, so a hookup guarantees nothing. Tuna have a way of exposing any weakness in your gear, which needs to be heavy, high end, and well-maintained. There are hundreds of boats on the central coast rigged for tuna, thousands of fishermen going for them, and perhaps a few dozen fish caught each season. The odds are not in your favor. 

To have a chance at these fish, you really need to live within a couple of hours of the harbor and have a connection in the fleet – someone who is going out often, is willing to tell you when the tuna are there, and will take you out the next day. I have such a connection. She is a dog, specifically, a Corgi belonging to good friend Daniel Gross, although I suppose his girlfriend Alyssa is the actual owner, so for God’s sake, dude, marry her.

The impossibly young and good-looking couple.

More importantly, this is Nori the Tuna Dog.

Nori loves boats, although her paws get a bit icky when she sleeps on the bait board.

Nori guides us into the slip.             

Daniel is a deckhand on a top boat in Monterey, and when he isn’t working, he’s out fishing on his own. Nori is with him almost every time he goes, and the dog is far more excited about fishing than most humans are. More importantly, Nori seems to attract bluefin tuna. There had been three bluefin landed on boats Daniel crewed on in 2020, and in all cases, Nori was present. Fishermen are superstitious, and this kind of totemic juju is worth its weight in tuna steaks. 

The more experienced 1000fish readers may remember Daniel from the “Bones and Butterflies” episode. He’s a passionate and skilled angler, and holds IGFA world records for the thornback ray and the black surfperch. 

He broke my record on the black surfperch, and don’t think for a minute I’m thrilled about that.

And so, on a random Friday afternoon, I was in the garage, sorting out live bait gear for an upcoming San Francisco Bay trip. My phone rang. It was Daniel. The conversation was quick – “Dude – the tuna are here. Can you be at the dock 5am tomorrow morning?” “Oh hell yes.” “See you then.” I shifted to putting together heavy tuna stuff – 80 pound gear. One of the few advantages of having a garage stuffed with fishing equipment is that I can find a few of these easily. I only needed to replace the line on one of them, but I stayed up late winding on 80 pound leaders and finding my heaviest live bait hooks.

One of the fish they got on Friday. I would trade my grandmother (the Polish one) for a tuna half this size.

With a different trip planned for Sunday, I knew I was signing up for a sleepless weekend. This was a way of life in college, but it gets problematic for senior citizens. Marta loves to remind me I am AARP eligible, but I have been getting AARP ads since I was 23.

It was an easy drive to Monterey with no traffic, and I was at the dock early. The boat was “Pacifica,” owned by J&M Sportfishing, which is without a doubt the top operation in Monterey. This was not a charter, just a private trip with the owners, so we had a small but eclectic crew. (Although they will charter for bluefin, both in Monterey but especially on the new boat they will be running out of San Diego.) There were the two owners, John Mayer and Matt Arcoleo, deckhands Andrew and the aforementioned Daniel, Matt’s kids Corey and Brooke, me, and Nori the Tuna Dog. With a 55-foot boat, there was plenty of room. It’s more of a whale-watching setup, so accommodations are very comfortable, but despite the padded seats and benches, Nori insisted on napping right in the middle of the main cabin doorway.

She is Nori the Tuna Dog, so she can sleep wherever she wants. 

We eased out of the harbor in the dark, and moved to some reefs in front of town to look for bait; either sardines or squid. Sardines were nowhere to be found, but we got a load of live squid, which went right in the tank. I had never really thought of these as a tuna bait, but the guys swore by them. 

The fish had been to the south the day before, so, knowing that they would either be there, or possibly somewhere else, we steamed around the corner toward Pacific Grove and worked our way down. Conditions were perfect – almost windless – and we positioned ourselves on the rail to look for the boils and splashes that would reveal our target fish. I wanted to catch one BAD. Not only are they one of the requirements for the IGFA Royal Slam on tuna, but I love to have pictures of big fish handy when some snot says “Oh, looks like you go around catching a bunch of tiny fish.” Thoughts like this sustained me for the next few hours as we searched. I didn’t expect we would find them right away, and we didn’t, but we kept our eyes peeled and our hopes up. 

Nori the Tuna Dog keeps an eye on things.

Much of the day went by like this. Once in a while, we would see porpoises, or a whale, or a sea lion, and our hearts would stop. But no tuna – yet. But I knew that if we found them, we had a great chance to hook up. Daniel stays awake at night dreaming of getting one on a lure, but as many tuna lures as I have in my garage, I was going to put bait out for the first one at least.

As we cruised around on what was becoming a very long, if pleasant, boat ride, we kept seeing ocean sunfish lolling around on the surface. Daniel knows I want to catch one, and I looked at him longingly, but he refused to make eye contact. We cruised around for another hour or so, heading back north and further west.

This is the face Nori makes when you have food and are not giving her any of that food.

It wasn’t looking good for tuna, and I decided to ask about casting to a mola. John stared at me, half wondering if I was pulling his leg. Daniel earnestly told him I was not kidding. (Not in the “Do the guy a solid” kind of way, though. More like “He’s crazy. I have nothing to do with this.”) And so we ended up with a 55 foot boat maneuvering around a bewildered small mola while I cast to it. I must say John handled the boat well, so if you ever set up a mola charter, he’s your man. Perhaps 30 minutes later, while everyone was staring at me awkwardly, the mola unexpectedly hit. It was not a big fish – maybe 15 pounds – put it still put up a solid fight on a striper rod. As it came boatside, Daniel reached over the edge and landed it, and I had an extraordinary species for number 1964.

One of the strangest fish in the ocean. Note that I was Nori-bombed.

There was some celebrating, mostly by me, and some bemused high fives, and then, in a random moment of silence, Daniel heard a splash. “Listen!” he said. “A splash!” We all stopped talking. There was another big splash – like a drunk German tourist bellyflopping off the high dive in Marbella. Then another. And another. Somewhere very close by, the tuna were there, and I shamelessly point out we wouldn’t have found them if we didn’t stop for my sunfish. The group sprung into action – we all had our rigs pre-tied and we raced to put on live bait as John positioned the boat to drift into the tuna. We kept hearing them, and finally, through a patch of fog, we saw the boils. These were HUGE fish – all at least 100 pounds. 

We got our squid into the water and drifted them back. Nori barked happily as we got baits wet – for some reason, watching people cast is the single most exciting thing in her life. Bluefin are notoriously boat shy, so count on getting the bait at least 200 yards back, and fluorocarbon is also a must. We were sliding slowly towards the school, and Daniel was standing by, hoping to cast a lure. Matt hooked up first, from the back of the boat. I heard everyone yelling about a fish on. but I could also hear the drag pulling. And pulling. And pulling. And then speeding up when I didn’t think it could go any faster. He had a conventional with a lot of line on it, but John did a good job of positioning the boat to slowly chase the fish so there was no risk of spooling. Given his mola expertise, I wasn’t surprised by this. Quickly, the fish settled into classic tuna pattern, sounding deep, swimming in a powerful circle, and not giving back an inch of line. 

Matt battles the tuna.

Fingers crossed, the rest of us kept fishing. 45 minutes later, Corey’s bait got crushed. I was glad to see the kid fighting a big fish, but now John had two angles to consider. Luckily, the fish didn’t work together – the second one also settled into hard, deep circles, barely budging and occasionally taking a short but violent run. I kept fishing, changing my squid for a fresher one now and then. I was using a big spinning reel and my trusty Singapore-bought Galahad jigging rod, and was praying to redeem myself and finally catch a gamefish on this high end setup. (I had previously caught two fish on the rig, both world record eels, and Davy Ong still hasn’t forgiven me.)

Matt was slowly, slowly gaining on his fish as he passed the hour mark. Corey’s fish was still deep and angry, but Matt’s spool was getting noticeably bigger, and the fish had started coming to the surface. At an hour and a half, we could see color – a giant, flashing flank about 80 yards off the stern. Matt was gaining line steadily now, reeling and pumping smoothly, but moments later, the Fish Gods reminded us who was in charge.

The hook pulled out.

Matt didn’t do anything wrong – it just happens. The tuna couldn’t have been 60 yards out when he lost it, and I have never seen someone look more heartsick. We are talking death in the family multiplied by being left at the altar by Giselle Bundchen multiplied by her taking your Super Bowl tickets and giving them away to one of Tom Brady’s distant cousins. Matt took a moment to compose himself, and moved on to encourage Corey with his fish, but we all knew he was a broken man and would never know joy again. 

Nori the Tuna Dog remained upbeat.

Corey was now closing out the first hour of his fight, and, thus far, the tuna was winning. He’s a tough kid, but the tuna had higher stakes, and it was going to be a while. About 10 minutes later, just as I got a fresh squid out 200 yards, a tuna snatched the slack line from between my fingers and made a supercharged run. My heart, and several other organs, jumped into my throat. I counted to five, in English and Spanish, closed the bail, and held on for dear life. The Stella 20000, which had never given up an inch of line, was screaming, and I wondered if 500 yards of line was going to be enough. John gently adjusted the boat to give me a clean line to the fish, but our main focus was trying to get Corey’s tuna on board.

My bluefin’s first run was a blazing 200 yards on the surface against plenty of drag. As it slowed down, I expected it to start sounding and settle into a deep standoff. It didn’t do that. It stayed on the surface, so far up in the water column that we saw it splash off in the distance a couple of times. This made me wonder if I had a bluefin, but I couldn’t imagine anything else that would be that heavy and fast, except maybe a mako, which would probably have broken me off by this stage. John kept easing us toward my fish, and Corey’s stayed deep and drifted along with us. 

About an hour and 15 minutes into his battle, Corey started gaining ground, sometimes just a few inches at a time, but he was getting the fish toward the surface. At 90 minutes, he was clearly making progress, and the crew started getting ready with gaffs and prayers. They saw deep color a few minutes later. By this stage, I was in the bow, approaching the first hour of my fight, and my fish was still on the surface, around 350 yards away. Corey stayed on his fish, suffering with each crank, and a few minutes later, I saw Daniel and Andrew struggling with the leader. They got one gaff in, then two, and with a Herculean effort, they dragged the beast over the gate and into the boat. The group exploded with joy, except Matt, who was pleased for his son but still had a broken soul and would never know happiness again no matter how long he lived. The fish was magnificent – at least 150 pounds and more than five feet long. It had taken him an hour and 45 minutes.

Corey and family celebrate the beast. Matt is bravely trying to smile despite his crushed soul.

Guessing it weighs more than he does. And those are not gang signs, it’s a Hawaiian thing. Lighten up.

I knew Corey had heavier gear than I was using, and his fish fought like a normal tuna. I was in for a long afternoon. The bow was a lonely place for the next two hours. Daniel brought me the occasional Red Bull, but no one wanted to hex me, lest I end up a shattered shell of a man like Matt.

Note how flat the water was.

I knew that every passing minute put the odds more in favor of the fish. I questioned my drag setting, my braid, my leader connection, my knot, my hook, and why Marta would stay with me all these years. The fish stayed on the surface, and John eased the boat forward to get some line back. My arms, hamstrings, and lower back throbbed with pain that would last for days. For the final hour, the fish was no more than 100 yards out, and we fought over the same few yards of line, which got concerningly frayed. Daniel couldn’t help but point that out – “Dude, your line is concerningly frayed.” I eased my drag just the tiniest bit. At two and a half hours, my fish gave up on the flat swimming and made a short but determined dive, maybe 60 yards out. I gained two yards a minute from that stage, a few inches at a time, and when the creature finally surfaced next to the boat, it was magnificent. Daniel and the crew handled the leader expertly, and lapsed Catholic that I am, I have never prayed harder than in that long minute between grabbing the leader and that massive thump on the deck.

I couldn’t believe it was on board.

My bluefin tuna, species number 1965.

I had my bluefin, about the same size at Corey’s. I had finally caught a gamefish on my Stella 20000, so Davy can forgive me, and most importantly, I would not have to experience Matt’s permanent emotional anguish, which will haunt him late at night and take away the fun of anything he ever loved. Nori barked at my tuna, just to let me know she was there. We were done for the day.

Steve, Matt, and John, with Matt bravely trying to smile through his pain. And no, those are not gang signs. It’s a Hawaiian thing.

It was short run into harbor, but it was already well into the evening. I had to grab a cooler full of fillets and leave, as I had another early day coming up quickly.

Group photo, failed version. I hope Daniel was wearing a cup.

Official group photo from the great tuna quest of 2020. From left to right, Brooke, Matt, Daniel, Corey, me, John, and Andrew. Matt’s soul is just off camera to the left.

I had made several new friends and gotten closer to some old ones, and I can’t thank everyone at J&M enough for including me in their trip, especially John and Matt, and it just hit me that’s why they call it J&M Sportfishing. John and Matt. Now I get it. 

Steve

Postscript – Just a month before publication, Matt, who had lived the last nine months of his life in a fog of spiraling misery, took Corey on a long range boat out of San Diego. Well into a three-day trip, Matt got hit by a monster bluefin – bigger than any of ours from this trip – and battled it for several hours. At the end of the fight, just when it looked like everything could actually go right, things actually went right, and he landed his fish. So his entire psyche is now fixed and you can disregard all the stuff above.

This saved him years of therapy. Nice work, Matt!

And Puppy-script – Nori is now the proud mother of five puppies. We are hopeful she will resume her fishing career after maternity leave. 


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