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Hardtail Tuna
Put the plastics away and drag the real thing
for a tuna bite that'll blow your mind.

By TODD MASSON

Before his trip last month with Marvel, Josh Lincoln (left) had never even eaten tuna, much less caught one.
Before his trip last month with Marvel, Josh Lincoln (left) had never even eaten tuna, much less caught one.

Josh Lincoln calls the time he spent in Navy boot camp “the worst two months of my life.”

As luck would have it, he drew a woman for a petty officer who had a reputation as the harshest task-master in all of Illinois, where Lincoln was stationed.

One night, the petty officer discovered an open coat hanger stuck in the base Coke machine. The machine was there for superior officers only; drinking any soft drinks was forbidden for boot-campers. Attempting to steal one was worse than forbidden.

At 10 o’clock on the evening she discovered the coat hanger, Lincoln’s petty officer burst into the barracks and told the boot-campers to each get $2 and meet her at the Coke machine.

The new recruits, unaware of the attempted theft incident, were hopeful that the officer had softened and was going to allow them each to buy a few Cokes.

When the men assembled at the machine, their leader instructed them to each purchase four Cokes. After they all had, she told them to have a seat and each pop the top on one of their Cokes. Their mouths were watering in anticipation of the first soft drink any of them had had in several weeks.

The petty officer then told them they had 30 seconds to drink the entire Coke. Each of them accomplished the task fairly easily.

When the time was up, she told them they had 30 seconds to slam the next one.

And so it went until each of the recruits had drunk four Cokes in two minutes.

Immediately, the sergeant ordered the men to rise to their feet and run in place while she screamed insults at them. Then she told them to drop and do 50 push-ups, then 50 sit-ups.

Most of the men vomited while running in place; the rest tossed their Cokes while doing the push-ups.

The petty officer forced the boot-campers to do push-ups and sit-ups in their own vomit until 4 o’clock the next morning. She then gave them a half-hour to get ready to start the day.

Josh Lincoln emerged from boot camp with the self-discipline of Gandhi and the chiseled body of Adonis, but he never allowed his drill sergeant to break his spirit.

After boating his first-ever tuna, Lincoln was initiated with its blood.
After boating his first-ever tuna, Lincoln was initiated with its blood.

The Navy ought to change tactics and force new recruits to fight tuna.

On an early July trip, Lincoln sat on a bean bag chair near the transom of Capt. Peace Marvel’s Glacier Bay catamaran while twin Yamaha 150s pushed the boat toward an unseen rig through a part of the world as foreign to Lincoln as Jupiter.

The flat-calm Gulf melted from table-top brown to oak-leaf green to Jell-o blue in less than 10 miles’ distance. It was the prettiest water Lincoln had ever seen.

Groups of flying fish shot out of the boat’s wake, attempting to flee the invader in their otherwise docile domain. It was only a boat, but how were they to know?

Lincoln was regaled by stories of flying fish landing on the deck of the boat during past trips, and he silently hoped that would happen today.

But the stories that really got Lincoln fired up were those about the power of yellowfin tuna, a fish he had never even eaten.

“It’s torture. Sheer torture,” one of the crewmates said.

“You can’t even believe how hard these fish can pull,” another said.

Lincoln was ready to find out. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, he was confident he could handle whatever these fish could throw at him. Sure the other people on board had trouble getting tuna to the boat, but they had never been through Navy boot camp.

After a seemingly eternal three-hour run, Marvel pulled back on the throttles, and the roar from the Yamahas dulled to a whisper. The crew looked up at a massive floating platform that was Marvel’s artificial reef choice for the day.

Deck-hand Rimmer Covington stuck his hand in the bait-well, and pulled out a frisky hardtail. The mate pressed the baitfish against his torso to secure it as he pushed a Mustad circle hook through its bony back. The hardtail protested with rhythmic slaps of its forked tail against Covington’s belly.

But the task was done, and the deck-hand hung the fish over his back while he stripped line from the free-spooled level-wind reels.

When he had an adequate amount lying in curly-cued loops at his feet, Covington pulled the fish off his back and gave it a mighty heave out into the Gulf.

“Burst!” he shouted, and Marvel pushed forward on the throttles for a split second to force the baitfish to run even farther behind the boat.

When it was in place, Marvel continued to bump the motors in and out of gear while Covington prepared another hardtail to fulfill its destiny.

Lincoln found the fight of a yellowfin tuna to be excruciating.
Lincoln found the fight of a yellowfin tuna to be excruciating.

The pony-tailed captain looked at his sounder.

“There are a bunch of yellowfin at 80 feet,” he said as Covington tossed the second offering into the salty sea. “These baits aren’t going to last long.”

Marvel’s electronics made him a prophet.

The starboard-side reel screamed as line was ripped from its spool. But as quickly as it had started, the noise stopped.

Covington darted over to the end of the rod and pulled line off with his hands to give the still unseen fish another chance at the nearly helpless bait.

The hardtail rose to the surface, seeking shelter in the only place it could — the air. But, alas, it could only swim, not fly.

Anticipation is the sweetest element of any enjoyable event, and all 12 eyes on board the 26-foot cat were filled with it, staring out at the struggling baitfish.

So all got to see as a monstrous boil arose under the hardtail, and the starboard reel began again its wonderful melody.

“Hit him! Hit him!” Marvel instructed, and Covington shoved the reel’s arm forward, engaging it.

The rod bucked as it bowed in deference to the force that was yanking line through its guides.

“C’mon, Josh! This is you! This is your fish!” Marvel shouted.

“Bring it on,” Lincoln responded.

Oh, the poor virgins never know what they’re getting into.

Lincoln rammed the rod into the gimmal of the fighting belt, and placed his right hand on the giant crank.

With true Navy grit, he cranked the reel like a madman — for about three minutes.

The yellowfin was unimpressed. It sounded to join its school mates, and wasn’t budging an inch.

Lincoln heard Marvel coaching.

“Pull the fish up when he lets you, and then crank as you lower the rod,” the captain calmly instructed. “Keep your knees bent, and lean back.”

But the words were apparently going in one ear and right out the other.

Lincoln stood slumped over, the rod angling toward the water. He was physically unable to follow Marvel’s commands. He was spent. Exhausted. Wiped-out.

He looked like a 120-pound man trying to carry a sofa into a third-story apartment by himself. It was hopeless.

But the crew wasn’t cutting him any slack.

“Bring it on!” one said, reminding Lincoln of his words uttered only moments earlier.

“C’mon son, I said to crank this fish up. Now!” Marvel screamed in Lincoln’s face, feigning a drill sergeant.

“That’s probably a good 15-pounder,” someone else said.

Marvel used a sabiki rig to quickly catch his bait — live hardtails — at a shallow-water platform.
Marvel used a sabiki rig to quickly catch his bait — live hardtails — at a shallow-water platform.

Lincoln couldn’t laugh. He could only grimace. The fish was eating his lunch, and all he could do was watch.

But he wasn’t offering to give the rod up, and no one was offering to take it.

Lincoln’s pride kicked in, and though his form was horrible, he cranked intermittently as the now-visible tuna swam in giant circles 60, 50, 40 feet under the boat.

Though painstakingly slow, Lincoln had the fish moving in the right direction. After what seemed like an hour to everyone else on board — three hours to Lincoln — the fish was within gaff range, and Covington delivered the stick. He pulled the 80-pound yellowfin over the gunnel.

The fight was over, but the grimace was permanently painted on Lincoln’s face. He dropped the rod, staggered to the front of the boat and collapsed in a bean-bag chair. The crew was cheering and high-fiving, but Lincoln wanted no part of it.

Fifteen minutes later, two new baits were in the water, and their appointments with Mr. Yellowfin were pending.

“Can somebody please open my Gatorade?”

It was Lincoln. Everyone had forgotten about him on the bow. But there he sat with the same grimace on his face and an unopened bottle of Gatorade in his hands.

The crew fell out in hysterics. Lincoln only whimpered.

That’s what a yellowfin will do to a grown man. Satan at this very moment likely has the residents of hell with tuna sticks in their hands engaged in unending fights with monster yellowfin.

But if that’s the case, Peace Marvel must be an angel on earth, assigned to give mortals a taste of the underworld while they still have time to decide they don’t want to go there.

And right now, Marvel’s chosen tactic for carrying out his mission is an innovative technique of slow-trolling live hardtails. As effective as it is, Satan himself probably dreamed this one up.

“In the summertime, you can’t beat live bait,” Marvel said. “It’s an effective way to fish year-round, but during the rest of the year, you can catch tuna by dragging (artificial) baits. In the summer, live-baiting is a much more productive way to fish.”

For instance, on Lincoln’s July trip, the four-member crew went back to the dock with eight yellowfin ranging in size from 60 to 122 pounds and two 25-plus-pound blackfins.

Marvel estimated the day’s take would have been 75 percent less using standard techniques.

“If we had drug (artificial) baits today, we might have caught one or two,” he said.

Marvel starts his summer tuna excursions by stopping at a close-in rig to catch bait. On the July trip, he pulled up to one of the 12-mile rigs out of Southeast Pass.

He and multi-world-record-holder Susan Gros dropped weighted sabiki rigs over the side, and caught hardtails two, three, four at a time within seconds of each drop.

Marvel’s goal was two dozen hardtails in the 8-inch range. The crew left with 28 between 6 and 12 inches.

After that, it was off to the tuna-holding floater in Mississippi Canyon 211, the only stop of the day. The platform, which was tied to the bottom 6,400 feet below, was positioned 54 miles out of Southeast Pass.

Early on in a trip on which he’s trolling live bait, Marvel will throw out a handful of the hardtails, giving the fish “free ones,” he calls it.

“The free-ones will start relating to the boat, and they’ll follow you around all day while you troll. The tuna look up, and they see a bunch of bait around the boat, and they want to come up and check it out,” he said. “Tuna are warm-blooded, and in the summer, the surface is real hot. They don’t want to come up. They want to stay down where it’s comfortable. You have to give them a reason to come up.”

Though the tuna are most often 80 to 150 feet down, they can easily see the silhouettes of baitfish on the surface, Marvel said.

After arriving at a platform, Marvel will pull the throttles back to idle so he can ascertain in which direction the current’s moving. That’ll tell him how quickly or slowly he wants to troll in any given direction.

While he’s making that drift with the current, he’ll study his depth-sounder.

“I have a Raytheon L-760, and I’ve never had a sounder I’ve been this happy with,” he said. “It’s a vital tool in the summer when the fish aren’t coming up and slapping bait on the surface.”

When he’s fishing the Mississippi Canyon area, he always looks for tuna on a particular side of the rig.

“I don’t know why it is, but the fish in this area seem to always hold off the northwest — sometimes due west — corner of the rig, no matter what the current’s doing,” he said.

After he determines the direction of the current and sees on his sounder where the fish are holding in relation to the rig, he’ll drop the baits back.

He trolls very slowly, frequently bumping the boat in and out of gear.

“It’s almost like you’re drifting. You’re just using the motor to keep the (trolled) baits away from the boat,” he said.

The baits skitter back and forth, always within 10 feet of the surface, and get very nervous — often ripping drag from the reels — whenever a tuna gets close.

While they’re trolling, Marvel and crew set the drags only heavy enough to hold the hardtails in place. They want the tuna to feel no resistance when they strike.

When a fish hits, Marvel or his deck-hand will feed out line until they determine the tuna has the baitfish securely in its mouth. Then the drag is cranked up, the circle hook slides into the corner of the fish’s mouth, and the fight is on.

The cerebral Marvel is extremely particular about the gear he uses to troll live bait for tuna. Every item in his outfits has a very specific purpose.

Depending on the size fish he’s targeting, he uses either a Shimano Tiagra 80W reel teamed with a 5-foot, bent-butt Cape Fear 80-130 or a Tiagra 50W mounted on a 5-foot, bent-butt Cape Fear 50-80.

Spooled on the Tiagra 80 is 1,250 yards of 130-pound hollow-core Marvel Spectra backing, while the Tiagra 50 holds 625 yards of the same line.

On the terminal end of the 80 outfit is 20 feet of 200-pound fluorocarbon leader, which has the same refractionary qualities as water and is virtually invisible when submerged.

Marvel attaches the leader to the main line by threading it with a long needle through the middle of the hollow-core Spectra. The leader slides in easily, but cannot come out because of the “Chinese finger trap” principle.

The way it looks, even a small yellowfin would be able to yank the leader out of the main line, but Marvel said it’s impossible.

“That leader will come out of that backing as soon as the laws of physics change,” he said.

Onto the leader, Marvel snells an 8/0 or 9/0 Mustad 39950BL Ultra Point.

On the 50 outfit, Marvel opts for a 100-foot length of 130-pound fluorocarbon to act as the leader. He attaches it to the main line with a 100-pound Sampo swivel, which easily cranks through the eyes of the rod.

He’ll drop his leader weight all the way to 40 pounds if fish are rolling on the baits but are reluctant to take them.

“If we were using 40-pound leaders today, we’d get hits every couple of minutes, but it’d take us so long to get each fish in, and we probably wouldn’t get any 150-plus-pounders to the boat,” he said during the July trip. “We’re fishing for big fish today, so I’m using the heavier leaders. It’s costing us bites, but the fish that do bite aren’t breaking off.”

If Marvel has very experienced fishermen on board, he’ll use two Tiagra 50 outfits and lighter leaders, but on the July trip, he opted for one 50 and one 80.

“It makes a big difference when you can fight a big fish on an 80 as opposed to a 50,” he said.

Lincoln had the 80 in his hands when he fought the 80-pound tuna and, later, a 122-pounder. And Marvel must be right. It must be much easier to fight a big fish with an 80.

That’s probably why Lincoln spent the entire boat ride in talking about his battles with the beasts. He couldn’t wait to do it again.

Tuna anglers hate these fish while they’re fighting them, but revel in the pain when the fight is over. Tuna anglers then spend the next several weeks reminiscing about the sweet agony, and dreaming of the next trip.

Josh Lincoln is now a tuna angler.

Capt. Peace Marvel can be reached at (985) 534-2278.