Do It Yourself Tuna

The Midnight Lump is popular and crowded this time of year. There’s a very good reason for that.

Mother Nature’s been good to Louisiana. She saw to it that the liquid-swollen Mississippi River weaved unsteadily across our front yard, staggered through the hall and kitchen, grabbed a hold and steadied itself around the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church, and finally puked its guts out below Venice.

All that staggering and puking gave us our swamps and marshes and the attendant “biodiversity,” as the greenies call it. Even better, most of this biodiversity goes well in a gumbo, courtboullion or po-boy.

They say river deltas create petroleum deposits, and for some reason salt domes often lie near such deposits. So we can thank the river for the superb fishing around what they now call the Midnight Lump, or in the case of the true tuna and wahoo aficionados, simply the Lump. This dome that rises to 200-foot depths from the surrounding 600-foot depths a mere 20 miles from the mouth of the river is simply an undersea salt dome.

And it couldn’t have popped up in a more convenient place. Talk to tuna fishermen from Australia to Hawaii to New Jersey, and they’ll tell you clashing currents and “thermal gradients” is what they look for.

Well, just off the Louisiana coast below Venice we’ve already got northward flowing Caribbean currents clashing with westward-flowing Gulf currents clashing with the outflow from the river itself. All this near an undersea precipice called the continental shelf.

Throw in this lump, or dome, to make the currents even crazier and the temperature contrasts even more drastic, and we’re talking some fabulous fishing my friends. This place packs them in. These rips, both horizontal and vertical, concentrate the baitfish, and hence the big pelagic predators, and hence those that themselves prey on the big pelagic predators. They chum up, hook and finally gaff them. Others subdue them at boatside with deafening blasts from a huge magnum. They whoop and howl like lunatics, emptying every cylinder between the violent recoil, as geysers of blood and water erupt. Finally the immense silver beasts calm down.

This keeps the onboard mess and turmoil to a minimum, not to mention the center console in one piece and your legs unbroken by a 100-pound ball of kinetic power and fury. More importantly, it’s a kick in the slats.

And speaking of aficionados, they don’t come much more fanatical than John Morise. The man is obsessed — utterly eaten up with this place. So I was happy to tag along with a genuine wizard at this easy, clean and relaxing form of fishing.

Never mind being splattered from eyebrow to ankle with pogie guts, bonito blood and tuna slime. Never mind the 5-foot seas battering your coccyx bone like a pile-driver. Never mind staggering around the slime and blood-slickened deck for hours without a single run. This is fun, dammit! And don’t you forget it!

Dr. Fontaine was along too and, for some reason, wearing his sun shades at 4:30 a.m.

“Hey Doc,” Chris called out as we left the doughnut shop. “You wear your sunglasses at night? Hah, remember that song? Hah-Hah! ‘I wear my sunglasses at night….’”

Doc was mum, not a flicker of acknowledgment. He’d been that way since we picked him up — uncharacteristically glum, always turning his head when you tried to make eye contact. But you could see the ghastly shiner poking from under the sun shades. Even looked like he’d applied a bit of make-up to hide it.

But he couldn’t hide the swelling. He almost looked like those goldfish with the huge swollen eyes you see in aquariums and ponds at Chinese restaurants.

“I tripped on the ladder, OK!” he finally blurted at Bob just as we passed the Greater Macedonian Baptist Church. “The thing crashed, and I bashed my face on the gutter, OK!”

“OK, geezum,” Bob looked at Chris and me shrugging, wide-eyed.

“Don’t worry, Bob,” Chris rasped. “We’ll get the REAL story a little later, or maybe tonight when we break out the toddies.”

“WHAT!” Doc turned around in his seat. His lips were compressed in a rage. “WHAT real story, huh?! I JUST TOLD you the real story! Now will you leave me the hell ALONE! I’m looking forward to fishing in peace, OK!”

“Fine,” Chris chuckled. “But did you bring the polo mallet?”

Doc flinched.

“The WHAT?….. um… um….. no. I forgot. It’s OK. That club Johnny’s got is good enough.”

After the last trip, Doc, an avid polo player nowadays, had suggested that one of his mallets might be better to subdue frantic tuna and wahoo than the fish billy Johnny kept on deck, and quieter and less attention-getting than the .357 Pelayo once employed for the task.

Actually we knew damn well what happened to Doc. You can’t keep that sort of stuff quiet too long, not with the wives hearing about it. We’d see that look in their eye when they’re on the phone with each other. The wide eyes, animated faces, the pathetically feigned remarks of concern and sorrow when you knew damn well that inside they were bubbling with glee.

“Sure, sure. Don’t worry; the secret’s safe with me.” Then they finally hang up. “Did ya hear what happened to Doc Fontaine!” They’re quivering with anticipation and excitement. “Missy heard it from a friend of a friend! Her husband said he saw him going ‘upstairs’ at Rick’s Cabaret! Oh my! Missy heard about it last Sunday at polo practice. So she walked over and whacked him in the head with her polo mallet. Oh my!”

We’d all heard it from the wives many times over. They loved it. Missy is Doc’s new trophy wife. You’d think the polo classes, tennis classes and manicures, pedicures and a red Mercedes convertible might keep her happy. But no. She wants it all, as they say. We’d warned Doc she was trouble. And she has a hell of a swing with that racket and mallet now.

But no point in rubbing it in, so we changed the subject. The ride was a quiet one. The boat ride, not as horrible as we imagined. We started bouncing as we egressed through Tiger Pass, and all reached for a handhold. But the chop slowly gave way to swells, which grew with every mile of open water toward WD143, which lies adjacent to the famed Lump.

The ride was semi-pleasant. Johnny’s 27-foot Contender knifed through the swells like my Old Hickory through a redfish, rather than bashing them like Missy’s polo mallet against Doc’s head.

“No need for a GPS to get out here anymore,” Johnny snorted as he idled into position an hour later. “Look at this fleet out here!”

Probably 40 boats were over the Lump today — a weekday no less. Now for the fun part, anchoring.

“You need at least 600 feet of anchor rope out here,” Johnny said as he slowly fed the line off the stern. “And I like to feed it SLOWLY. Throw it all in at once, and it might tangle on the lower unit. I think that’s what’s sunk a couple of boats out here. So I’m careful with that.”

Finally the last coils disappeared into the “tuna-green” water as Johnny calls it.

“You don’t want it too, too clear out here. But you don’t want it silty either. A hazy green is best. Just like today. If it’s too clear, they seem to get leader- and hook-shy. If it’s too silty, they don’t come close enough to the surface and it usually means a horrendous current that makes it hard to keep a bait at the right depth. Today it’s just about perfect.”

Amazingly, the anchor caught on the first try.

“That’s the chain,” Johnny beamed as he looked around triumphantly. Even Doc was smiling, recalling the ghastly hassles of a slipping anchor over a boat-crowded Lump. We’d been through it often enough. But not today.

Chris saw Doc’s face, and looked over with a smirk.

“How’s that polo game Doc?”

“My what?” Fontaine flinched and his smile vanished “……um It’s fine, just fine. Got a match in two weeks.”

“We’ll be there,” Bob laughed. “We wouldn’t wanna miss that. No way.”

“Yup, plenty of chain,” Johnny announced desperate to change the subject. “I think that’s why we usually catch on the first time. I got 20 feet of chain above a 15-pound anchor. I think it makes a big difference. Currents not too bad today, so we caught the first time. Heck, if I see that the river’s jumping too much. I don’t bother to come out here. Always means a horrendous current and dirty water — and slow fishing.

“Alright crew! Let’s get the chum out!”

Chopped pogie started going overboard in great heaps — and the pelicans were on it in no time.

Grabbing the chum is bad enough. Then if it floats too close to the surface, these hideous birds start grabbing the bait!

The bonito were swarming around us in no time.

“One here!”

Doc was smiling again. One had grabbed his pogie chunk almost as it hit the water.

“Here too!” Bob yelled with a grimace. He started pumping furiously and got a better hold on his spinning rig as the line sang out. He had the right idea. This was work, still part of the preparation. The faster we haul in these bonito, the faster we can chop them up into little chunks for the chum line, and into big chunks for tuna bait.

“Gotta be a big chunk of bonito,” Johnny says. “Otherwise these damn bonito will grab that too. They’re ravenous, bloodthirsty, chomping machines. Stick your hand over the side and they’ll rip off a finger. Unreal!”

They were churning the water all around us. Smacking the chunks on the surface. Inhaling everything in sight. Zooming through the water liked little crazed torpedoes. We chopped up about five and baited up.

Johnny likes Penn 30s filled with 50-pound test mono and 100-pound fluorocarbon leaders to top it off.

“Twenty-Eight. Twenty Nine. Thirty. There.”

He was counting off his line pulls. He sets out one pole with 30, one with 20 and another with 10, but with a 2-ounce sinker.

“This way we find out what depths they’re hitting at today,” he said confidently. “You never know. One day they’re smashing the surface, and we can catch them on Hydro-Tiger-Poppers. Next time you have to put on a 16-ounce weight to get it down to them at 40 feet. You never know. This way we cover all the bases and adjust when we catch the first one.”

Like I said folks, this guys eaten up with the stuff.

“OK, all the lines out,” Bob blurted. “Time to sit back and hear Chris’s Hawaii stories.”

“OK, y’all know that in Hawaii they call yellowfin tuna ‘ahi?’” Chris starts. “Ahi means fire and it refers to….”

“Who CARES?!” Bob blurted.

“Yeah, we don’t give a flip about THAT!” Johnny seconds. “How about the hula girls?”

“Yeah!” we all yelled in unison. “The hula girls! Come ON!” Even Doc joined in.

Chris spent his late teens in Hawaii, back in the early ’70s. He says the hula girls were quite affectionate.

“OK, OK, but even better than the hula girls were the dizzy California chicks out there. Lots of those out there….” Chris was starting as we leaned back in the seats. “Very liberated, those California chicks. I’ll never forget one night after a beachfront luau, roast pig, some ahi and plenty, plenty booze. I’d been teaching this California chick how to surf all that day. So she wouldn’t fall off the board while waiting for a wave, I had to hold on to her … and in all the right places.”

We all looked at each other, arched the eyebrows and huddled closer.

“Well that night she shows up at the luau with her MOM! I freaked. And when I say mom, don’t get me wrong. Daughter mighta been 18, the mom …mummm….?” he pursed his lips. “Maybe 38-40. Gorgeous, both of them. This woman was liberated too, let me tell ya….”

“Turn off that goddam radio Johnny!” Bob yelled.

We huddled even closer, cupping our ears now.

“Well they both hit the booze pretty hard that night. Toward midnight, everybody was kinda drifting off in pairs, and here I’m stuck with this chick and her mom — which meant it was my lucky night!”

Doc was grinning widely. The rest of us were rapt.

“So the three of us are on the beach on this thick blanket just kinda gazing up at the stars and sipping on rum-coconut drinks. And Mom starts telling her daughter, k…–Kristy! Yeah that was her name, Kristy. Well she starts telling Kristy, in a woozy voice, how you really have to treat a man…how she’s had so much experience and all…and how she was gonna teach her that very night with a hands-on lesson how it’s done. She couldn’t just watch either. She’d have to participate to make sure she got it right.”

We were quivering like tuning forks. Poor Doc even took off his shades and wiped his eyes.

“Well, we’re pretty much all alone now on the beach, it’s after midnight and….”

WREEEEEENNN-WREEEEENN! A reel starts singing.

“FISH ON!” Johnny yells and leaps for the pole.

“Another one here!” WREEEEENN-WREEEEN! And Bob grabbed that one.

They let out some whoops, rared back on the rods and joined battle.

“It’s a yellowfin!” Johnny screamed. “Gotta BE! And a BIG ONE! Nothing quite runs like a yellowfin when it first grabs that bait!”

It was unreal. The thick rod was bent over like a pretzel, the line singing out, and both Bob and Johnny’s faces were bent into half-grimaces, half-grins of delight.

Johnny’s battle lasted 25 minutes. Bob’s about five. Johnny boated a gorgeous 71-pound yellowfin, Bob a 14-pound blackfin. A half hour later, we nailed another blackfin, and that was it. They’d all hit big chunks of bonito on the weighted line, which hung about 15 feet down.

And Chris’ Hawaii stories got better and better with every brewskie that night.