Mark was always nice enough to drive. We all seemed to fit so well in his big diesel truck. All the equipment in the back and the inside just filled with non stop verbiage that had all of us so excited that even the mere thought of another coffee made me nauseous. As if tuna fishing is not exciting enough. We did not need to recall all of our previous exploits and all the graphic details of a tuna stand up struggle. But every time we went on one of these long range tuna safaris we would gab away….., all the way up there…. as if we NEEDED to be more psyched up.
I could feel the strong 25-knot winds when we pulled off the Chatham exit. The Helen H is a big 110 ft …solid..vessal…But high winds and huge seas can dwarf any boat. The big head boat rocked in its docking area….I knew this long boat ride would be even longer under these conditions. I was glad that I did not opt for that extra coffee…. I had been on high seas many times before…..the less in the stomach.....the better.....Until my sea legs set back in.
Approaching the boat with our top shelf gear I noticed, how could I not!!!!, a very loud…very visible..very drunk guy. Drunken guys are NOT welcome on fishing boats...Especially ones that anticipate a long voyage with hard fighting fish at the destination. To this day..I am not sure how he pulled it off…..But he did. In fact, he almost nudged two guys off the plank on to the boat while hauling his gear on board. I did not like the guy right off the bat.!!
Any size boat can give that small feeling. There is no hiding from anyone. You will be close to and eventually interact with. nearly all of them. In addition…guys that are drunk…stay drunk…for number of hours. This pain in the ass was here and loud for the next few hours until hopefully he passes out. This guy was a hard drunk…5 hours into the ride…he was still as lit up as a hard fought sailfish, boatside. I was going to be on this boat for almost 3 days with this wild man…I figured I would go through the intros…..ASAP.
As I approached this staggering loud mouth, he switched the fifth of old crow; he had into his left hand and stuck out a grimy right hand that was accompanied by a big smile .Hey buddy…. My name is Kentucky Joe…..They call me that…cause I’m from Kentucky. And I am here to catch the biggest fish of my life. "Well unless you have caught some monsters in your life…you have a good chance of doing it on this boat. These tunas should fall in the 30 – 100 LB ranges… Ever get a fish that big???…I asked. "You must be drinking what I am drinking…..Dam my biggest fish was a 22 inch trout I caught out of one of my ol fishin holes down near the coal mines…The townies even said it was a beauty. It weighed almost 4 lbs.…! So if I get me one of those tunas…I reckon it will be my biggest.!! I agreed….and slowly slipped back toward my buddies to avoid any more of his raucous nature. It never bothered him…He was singing the 20th rendition of Davy Crockett… and was perfectly content doing so. Yes Kentucky Joe was sloshed…..But he was happy…and when you have 20 men on a boat for 3 days…you do NOT want any agitators. The rough seas would surely send him to the bunk…so I snuggled in mine and let the purr of the diesels lull me to sleep with visions of tuna fishing dancing in my head.
I woke up a bout 5 hrs later to make a quick stop at the men's room. I maneuvered slowly as the high seas made it a "Railing to railing"…kind of walk…if you don’t hold on to something…you will be hurled to the deck. It was those kinda seas!! To my amazement…5 hrs later..there was Kentucky Joe….still standing and drinking the last backwash from his fifth of Old Crow!!! Incredible!! Add to the fact that he was still laughing and not at all causing any trouble. The truth was. that his southern accent ..Hillbilly nature and novice angling skills made him quite a character. After all., he did drive all the way up from Kentucky to wrestle one of these ocean rockets. He was determined to have the time of his life……and he appeared to be right on track.
We always hear the engines slow down…..THAT MEANS FISHING. The night was over and I was glad I had taken time to get a good nights sleep. I sort of snickered at how the day would be for ol Joe… But you know the saying…you wanna play…your gonna pay. This would be a long day for that inlander. I was completely rigged and ready before it even took hold of its anchor. Joe was not in sight….but that was to be expected.
Just like the sun rising……his timing was impeccable. Son of a gun….there he was…groggy but awake and mobile. He had the rod and reel..and apparently the energy to use it…..That coal miner was a tough bastard.
The conditions were sunny and bright but the seas still rocked and rolled as the winds howl never let up. Lots of guys were sick…and the fishing was slow. I glanced over at ol Joe. He never left the rail…..This man was gonna get the biggest fish of his life. Nearby the bite was suddenly on and two rods went off. As usual..the action came and went…but not before our "Davy Crockett"….hooked up. Pull tug…yank…reel….more tugs and pulls……..and low and behold a sharp gaff left a bleeding 40 lber at his feet. Golly………..Now that is a fish!!!!…He let out some coal miner holler and the whole boat gave our new tuna man. a big round of applause.
Gaffed tunas flutter like butterfly and pound the deck like a bass drum…They also spew blood. everywhere. None the less….Kentucky Joe knelt in the blood…..grabbed the lurching yellow fin with both arms and while hugging this quarry like he was holding a baby.....He kissed it on the mouth.! Kentucky Joe was one character. If Kentucky had a lot of guys like this…I may steer clear of the state for awhile.!! A couple of camera flashes were noticed and Kentucky Joe had proof of HIS BIGGEST FISH EVER. The sheer joy of his experience was getting to be contagious…and he became; like the boat mascot. A genuine nice guy.
Day weaned into night. Like many of us, Ol Joe took a little nap and was prepped for the night’s dinner and personal renditions of how each of us reeled in those tunas. As imagined, Kentucky Joe’s saga (even though we all watched it), seemed to go on forever…he was determined to make the fish and the story…..BIG. What was even more amazing was that Old Crow made a fresh appearance. He had taken out .."the stash". Half the pint was gone in no time and his volume jumped 5 notches in a heartbeat. Still nice…..but still LOUD…. Our boy Kentucky Joe!
Ol Joe became the evening’s entertainment. He went from story to story, using Kentucky lingo that was new to us. We were in stitches. In between stories, he would say……".and I caught me a BIG fish….."a tuna!!….and the veterans would say…. Kentucky Joe…….yes you did. You caught yourself a big fish. To seasoned yellow fin Man. 40 lber is not big…but to Joe .it was, and after all....isn't that what counts?
After the one man comedy act by our southern friend, a bunch of the guys wandered back outside to try the historically effective NITE bite. Even in the canyons ..Nothing is a guarantee……what we expected to be non stop action…was nothing!.. No bites…. No fish on the fish finder………no bait………..No tuna. The bareness bored the palookas and most of them went to bed. Joe..myself and a few more hardy guys……stayed out and talked while sucking in the rawness of the ocean winds.
Just to keep busy so as not to fall asleep, I began to tidy up around the back deck…Hosed off everything…threw the scraps of bait and fish over the back transom and sort of put things in order. Finally I wiped down the transom and rinsed the brush I was using.
Deck Lights are good for seeing what is in front of you…but not beyond that. Even with the brightness of the lights not illuminating the water below us…it still offered low levels of light that were enough for me to notice a visitor to our deck scraps. A gorgeous big…blue shark. At least 250 lbs.!!!
Blue sharks are the most common of ocean going sharks. They readily bite when finding the bait and sometimes …. note I said, sometimes, they will not fight as hard as expected, seemingly because they just do not feel like it. In the fall,.it can be a very different story. A big male blue shark in the fall……. Mating season…..will fight until you beg to have the line cut. They are grueling, relentless, adversaries, that will strain you to your limits with their strength and endurance. It was fall…. That was a male…and I knew what would happen if we messed with it. No one else knew it was there…No one was fishing…He would go unnoticed if I chose to keep it to myself……………. I chose not to.!!!
"Hey Joe…wanna see a REAL big fish??……..Well striper Mike…a lot of the other tuna were bigger than mine…but mine was good enough for me. I was not talking about the tuna Joe.!!!!! With that , I took a handful of butterfish …took Joe by the arm…and lead him to the side where the water was rolling licorice. "I can’t see anything but black…I see that a lot in the coal mines". Tossing a butterfish in the caused him to open his droopy eyes alittle more. "Just watch that butterfish Joe." As it sank like a maple leaf in October, the massive predator came up and snatched it with the ease we use to snitch a French frie from a Macdonald’s bag. THAT WAS A SHARK…he said. Yes it is my friend…. A blue shark……!
Blue sharks, as mentioned, are common place in the deep blue sea…..but to an inlander like him……. It was incredibly alluring. Do it again. He said… I wanna see the shark again. His hopes were fulfilled………The big boy came up in clear view for his second French frie. Wow……NOW THAT IS A BIG FISH!!! Its too big to catch right??……. "For most men, it is too big to catch…. But for some like me, it is a challenge I have taken up countless times in my life." The ol tough bastard was right on key with his next predictable statement/question. "You think I could catch it?"…I explained……Joe ..I can rig up your senator and tuna rod with steel leader and a nice haywire twist to get you a hook up. What happens after that is up to you………………..!And the shark.! Once you are attached……..It may be more than you bargained for.
For the first time since I met him……..He made serious eye contact with me…." I came up here to catch a giant fish. The tuna was a beauty, but I was hoping that I would catch a fish bigger than me. Joe?…How much do you weigh?..Alittle over 200 lbs he said. Well that shark is bigger than you are. ‘I would be forever thankful if you could get my gear ready for this…I wanna tussle with that big boy. YOU SURE JOE?……. "I’m sure Striper Mike."
New tuna hook…. Professional haywire twist with some steel I had, a dorsal hooked butterfish and it would not take long. I had kept up the tease with tidbits of bait and the big male stayed put. Joe?…I want you to take a deep breath and prepare for some tough times. He actually took five deep breaths. The exhales smelled of old crow…. but he appeared ready. In an almost mean fashion I turned the senators star drag up a bit to about 50 lbs of drag……….that’s alottttt. This would test the country boy. Seconds after the bait hit the water. the big blue inhaled it. "Reel down on it and set the hook as hard as you can Joe…the rest of it is you and him…. No tips."
The initial contact slid him through the deck slime and crashed his knees into the back transom. GOLLLLLLY he spouted with that Kentucky twang. I got me a reallll big fish this time…. My comment in return was……. Are you sure Joe….or does he have you? Kentucky Joe had a half-rotted old gimbal belt that was more for cod than tackle busters like these. But his effort was all out. Ten minutes into the battle he snapped the gimbal belt…. The rod went under his arm and I knew, without the gimbal, he would not use his legs…..A 250 LB shark will melt your arms if that’s all you use to subdue it. The miner was tough. He had good arms and Good heart…We would see if they held up.
Twenty minutes into it …..And at best..it was a draw. The sweat poured down his face and he took on the Grey white tint of exhaustion. He tried to reposition the rod on his leg. The shark lunged to the right and he fell to the deck. By now ..his hollering had woken up most of the anglers and they were gathering to watch this ordeal. This shark was a bear and it was agonizing to watch it. He got back to his feet…and the screaming drag showed no end to this.
Thirty minutes into it…Kentucky Joe was losing. I whispered in his ear. "Joe if you do not lift the rod and put pressure on that shark……you will lose in front of all these guys. You need to use all your might…….hold him off and take line when he gives it to you………. You have to break his spirit or he will drain your power………to defeat. This is a fight…not a reel it in session………….NOW FIGHT!". Fight he did…. grunting and groaning…..Down to his knees and back up again………pulling with both hands and then grasping for the reel to gather the given line. Hi style was lousy……but as mentioned…He was a tough bastard.
Forty minutes…………He was consistently gaining line now and the leader came into view. Joe…. do not reel past the swivel…it appears to be a legal catch…..You landed him!!!!! The other anglers ran over and patted him on the back…but ol Joe was not done. Bring it in the boat Mike. Out of the question Joe…that is suicide…its not going to happen. But that’s my giant fish. I want him…Its not gonna happen Joe. I was steadfast on such a bonehead suggestion. Well I’m going to touch my fish!!…With that he started to lean over the high transom and while having a buddy hold the rod was determined to touch it. Insanity ensued and two guys held his leg…..He leaned over. patted the tired predator on the back…and kissed his sandpaper hide. When they yanked him back up…he had a smile that I can see right now. A rogue wave had soaked him from leaning over…his hair was matted…his hands were bleeding…. His pants were ripped from the deck, but with the booming voice, we had all grown to like. He bellowed…NOW THAT’S WHY I CAME UP HERE.
The whispered comments from the tuna men were along the lines of…"geez it was only a blue shark"…. But you know what????……..That was His blue shark…His time…His moments…. His memories…. and I am glad that I went past my initial impression and helped him capture time forever.
……. As we get older….we realize the inevitableness of death….that awareness should make us celebrate each day…each moment within that day..... Learn from enthusiasm…Learn from Kentucky Joe’s…….Don’t laugh at them and rob yourself of thrills that were once as captivating to you as they were to JOE……. Keep things new……….It is then that we are most alive