The fish were there, all right, with the sun just bloodying the coastal mountains, the tuna began hitting—a triple-header on the troll followed by four or five hookups on jigs and baits. Soon the fantail was a tangle of crossed lines, smoking drags and raucous curses. Aggressors galloped the decks screaming, "Hot rail! Hot rail! Gangway!" The hottest railer was Jim Giesecke, a Fenwick rep from Dallas who always fished with a long black smoldering cigar in his teeth on the theory, no doubt, that if his curses didn't clear the decks, then the hot coal of his stogie would. Bill Stinson, a relatively quiet Aggressor from Seattle with a barracuda grin and a strong casting arm, brought the first fish of the trip to gaff: a 15-pound yellowfin. But the Gentlemen were not to be denied. Lloyd F. Riss, a grouse shooter and trout fisherman from Du Bois, Pa., lost one tuna on 20-pound line after a quarter of an hours fight, but then quickly jigged up another. Fighting it quietly, with none of the theatrics of the crass Aggressors, he brought it gently to the gaff and then winced pathetically as the steel sank home. "They do fight harder than a Penna. brown trout!" Riss wrote in the log that night, concluding: "My trip complete the first day."
Not by a long shot. The San Pablo interim was puppy-sized compared to what would come. When the action slowed, Barnes took the Q-105 farther into the bay and bartered for langouste with the natives. In exchange for a few bottles of whiskey, a carton of cigarettes, a box of .22-caliber bullets, some candy bars and a baseball bat, he received enough rock lobster for the evening meal. When one of the Gentlemen, touched by the seeming poverty of the lobster fishermen, threw a $10 bill into their boat, Barnes turned icy: "Don't ever do that; you'll ruin it for the rest of us."
Another day and a night and a day of running, the engine throb meshing with the pulse; more furious tackle building by the Aggressors, more delicate reminiscences from the Gentlemen. By this time a protean character had emerged from the heretofore faceless crew: Simeon Mote, 61, the ship's cook, who looked as though he had just stepped out of a Charles Addams cartoon. Bald, toothless, paunchy and a master of nautical Billingsgate, Si was the ship's alarm clock. Every morning, well before first light, he stalked into the capacious galley, delivered a few vicious karate chops to his pots and pans and then bellowed down the companionway, "All right, you lop-eared, lallygagging sons of a syphilitic sea cook, come and get it before I throw it over the side. Last call for breakfast!" By the time the first fishermen were staggering up the ladder, gummy-eyed and grumpy, their faces as long as a day without breakfast, the bacon and eggs would be frying and the coffee piping hot. From time to time Si would spice up a meal with a little live entertainment. Donning a black wig and stuffing a couple of oranges into his T shirt, he would suddenly appear among the diners to perform a grotesque parody of a cooch dance.
Socorro, when it finally hove into view, bore about as much relationship to the tropical isles of fantasy as Si did to a real live belly dancer. A sullen surf pounded at the black cliffs of its shoreline while scrofulous patches of cactus and mesquite spread like green acne over the crumbling, rust-colored lava of its upper reaches. Its 3,707-foot volcanic eminence, Mount Everman, wore a skullcap of tattered gray rain clouds while ragged skeins of seabirds, black and bent-winged in the early light, rose and fell like windblown trash over the headland of Cape Henslow. A spare, stark setting, fully in harmony (if one can use so gentle a word) for the action that was to follow. Simeon the sea cook looked on as the island drew nearer and the first trolling lines were paid out over the taffrail. "That's the only thing in the world that's meaner and uglier than me," he cackled.
Just so. Within a minute there were multiple wahoo strikes. The wahoo is an outsized mackerel weighing up to 140 pounds, and in common with its smaller cousins it is possessed of mind-boggling speed in its initial run. That run can go in any direction, and usually does. On an earlier cruise, Captain Barnes had warned, a wahoo of about 40 pounds had jumped aboard, clearing two rails and narrowly missing a few wide-eyed fishermen before it crashed like a Stuka on the engine room hatch. Since the wahoo's mouth is full of teeth that are longer and much sharper than a dog's, it makes a mighty impressive spear. These wahoo came aboard only with the greatest of reluctance, but in the meantime they did their best to foul lines, straighten hooks and send the Aggressors into paroxysms of outraged purpose.
For two hours—from shortly after six a.m. to nearly 8:30—the wahoo strike continued, with as many as 15 fish hooked and fighting at once. Never was it necessary to troll for more than five minutes without a hookup, and then casting immediately produced more fish. Live bait, hex heads, chrome jigs, red and yellow or green and yellow hula skirts—the wahoo hit everything.
The psychology of the fishermen changed radically under this first assault, and more radically again when yellowfin tuna began hitting in conjunction with the slimmer, less durable wahoo. What began as bloodthirsty glee among the Aggressors and calm, once-is-enough curiosity among the Gentlemen slowly but irresistibly turned into a nightmare of compulsive exhaustion. There was no end to the fish. And no end to the fisherman's need to hook one. Finally the fish won. The sun was growing hotter as the men grew weaker. No wind. A dead boat. A tangle of lines. Curses slowed and softened and wound down like a record player with terminal emphysema. One by one the anglers slunk away from the fantail, easing into the galley for a rest in the shade and perhaps a " Milwaukee orange juice," as the beer was euphemistically called.
Men who remained on the fantail prayed that their next hookup would be a rainbow runner, one of those small carangids akin to the amberjack but rarely weighing more than 20 pounds. Easily short-stroked and readily tagged for release or bagged for mounting, the rainbow runner provided an honorable excuse for taking it easy. But with the tuna it was different. There is no way to rest on a yellowfin, not now that the sharks had appeared. Those who let their tuna "soak" rather than horsing them in were rewarded with a sudden flurry of scarlet water, a slackened line and a bug-eyed tuna head trailing a few tendrils of red meat when it was finally reeled in. "The more hookups we get, the more sharks we'll attract," said Captain Barnes, leaning laconically on the deckhouse railing. "It's your own damned fault if you're sharked. You can't rest a minute at Socorro. Old Man Shark keeps you honest."
One man who never rested was J. Charles Davis III, better known to the assembled company as Charlie Tuna, or C. Ahi (the Hawaiian equivalent) or Carlos Atun (in Spanish). Davis, 44, is the son of a West Coast outdoors writer and a veteran of the California sport fishery since its beginnings. An avid reader of Zane Grey as a kid, he had dreamed about Socorro for most of his life. In 1970 Davis finally got there and enjoyed a fulfillment of his wishes rarely granted to any angler, waking or sleeping. On that two-week excursion Mr. T. caught more than 60 fish, 35 of them yellowfins (the largest weighing in at 154 pounds) and most of the rest wahoo or yellowtails. "I wasn't in shape for Socorro the first time," Charlie said. "My left arm—the pumping arm—got sore as hell very quickly. This time I spent a couple of months doing exercises before we left. Zane Grey used to work out on a rowing machine, but that was because he was a little guy and always used a fighting chair. I fish standing up, so most of the strain is on the arms. I did curls with barbells, about 100 or more a day, and so far it's paid off."
Shortly before noon Charlie Tuna tied into a big grabber on 44-pound mono. In a matter of seconds it stripped most of the line from his reel and Charlie called for a backup rod. "Tuna!" he gasped as he spliced on the line from the new rig. "Gotta be a big one, the way he's got his head down." With 500 yards of line gone from his first reel, Charlie tossed the rig aside and continued the fight on his backup gear. The fish walked Davis twice around the boat, peeling off at least 200 yards more of line before Mr. Tuna stopped his namesake. Then the weight lifting began to pay its dividend. With sharks plentiful in the vicinity—other men were being sharked constantly during Charlie's hour-long fight—he got the tuna headed in toward the boat and short stroked like a drag-racing engine. It came to the gaff sullenly, green and gold and gigantic. The tuna weighed in, finally, at 100 pounds even. Charlie went on to boat a 70-pound wahoo later in the day, the biggest he had ever taken, though on 80-pound line.