Tuna frenzies are one of the ocean’s most incredible spectacles. There is nothing on land that replicates their chaos.
This is my favorite fishing story. With the many types of story and the many variations of emotion they derive, it can be hard to choose a singular favorite. But here is mine.
It was July 2010 and I had the good fortune to be fishing with my good friend Captain Wade Richardson and his crew, Jonathan and Herbie. We were in the Pearl Islands of Panama on a wonderful boat called the Hooker.
In certain circles the Hooker is famous in her own right. Beyond having a great name (she was the original) she has more than 90 world records to her credit and was the setting for one of sportfishing’s influential early traveling operations in the 1980s.
The boat was built by G & S, a custom outfit out of the panhandle of Florida. She was 48’ long and had a white hull. A number of my other favorite fishing stories took place fishing with Wade on this boat. On this particular trip I was playing host.
The Billfish Foundation
At the time I was working as a Science and Policy Specialist for The Billfish Foundation (TBF). We had recently fashioned a sponsorship agreement with Pelagic Gear. The agreement involved Pelagic making some co-branded apparel and providing some cash to support the foundation’s conservation work.
To celebrate the occasion (or perhaps to entice them into agreeing to it in the first place), The Billfish Foundation included four days of fishing on the Hooker.
Wade’s father, John, was on the board of TBF and donated a number of days on the boat each year. We could sell at auction them at auction, include them as enticements to form partnerships or otherwise help would-be donors to break out their checkbooks for conservation. When it comes to fundraising, boat time is a hell of a tool to have in the quiver.
And so it was that I found myself fishing with Ron Kawaja, the founder of Pelagic Gear, Captain Tony Berkowitz, and a great underwater photographer. The plan was to catch a bunch of fish, film the whole deal and come away not only satisfied with our new partnership but with enough photography and video to make some marketing collateral.
Ron Kawaja is from Newport Beach, California. He started Pelagic Gear with the vision of making a fishing version of one of the iconic surf clothing lines. Through the combination of hard work, vision and an acute skill for marketing, he created something of a behemoth.
These days there are quite a few followers in the market that have copied Pelagic’s model (perhaps none quite so well), but they were the first of their kind. Their clothing was cool and useful… and it still is.
Tony Berkowitz grew up in Texas but by this time had been living in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico for more than 20 years. A man of keen intellect, Berkie loves fishing and most everything about it.
He is passionate about his friends, optimistic to a fault and a hell of a captain. He has won the Bisbee’s (the biggest marlin tournament in Cabo San Lucas—with payouts north of a million most years) and has fished all over the world. This was my first time meeting him. We’ve gone on to become close friends.
The first three days of fishing had been slow. There were a bunch of tuna around and we had caught a few here and there. If I recall, we had seen a marlin or two and caught a sailfish and a bunch of dolphin.
It was fun, but hadn’t produced the action we had hoped. To this point the highlight of the trip had been Ron catching a 50 pound cubera snapper off of the mothership that we visited for dinner one night. I gaffed it in the head and at the time I was so excited that I might well have been Tarzan.
Our point of departure each morning was Isla San Jose. It is a large, privately owned island that is home to an airstrip and the Hacienda del Mar—a wonderful little resort where guests stay in casitas that overlook the ocean.
It features an open air dining room within which toucans will rob fruit from the plates of unsuspecting gringos. The Pelagic guys stayed here.
The Mama Nido
I wash crashing on the flip and fuck (Texan for sleeper sofa) in the salon of the Richardsons’ mothership, the Mama Nido. John Richardson, Wade’s old man, was fishing on his boat with a couple of buddies who were also staying on the mothership.
A wonderfully nice man, John is better with a story than Louis L’Mour and more hospitable than Martha Stewart (the cooking show, decorator Martha Stewart, rather than the insider trading/ jailhouse Martha).
During the nightly dinner and drinks on the Mama Nido’s back deck, you could cut the shit talk with a knife and it is likely that satellites in space picked up the laughter. The whole thing was wonderful.
The Richardsons were very kind and more than generous with their invitations to fish. I was down here quite a bit.
It was one of the best times in my life and I learned a shit load… about fishing and life and all kinds of other really important things.
Each morning we’d board the Hooker and run over and pick up Ron, Berkie and Tony who would be brought from the beach via panga. With a set up like this, it was hard not to be excited about life.
The Pearl Islands
The fourth and final day of fishing started out much like the first three. The weather was perfect. We were fishing around the Pearl Islands off of the Pacific Coast of Panama.
The islands lie within the Gulf of Panama, a body of water that is protected on three sides. In the summer months it is mostly a very calm fishery—and it had been for us.
There were tuna around. Sometime a bit after noon we raised a black marlin on one of the teasers. About the same time, one of the reels went off.
We thought we were in business until we realized that it wasn’t the marlin we hooked, but a tuna.
About 2:00 Wade motioned to Herbie and Jonathan to bring in the spread. We were going to make a move. Brian Grange, the mover and shaker behind an up and coming charter operation in the area (and our host the night Ron caught the big cubera) radioed to report something of interest.
The tuna were up top. His boats found a tuna frenzy.
Tuna frenzies are perhaps one of nature’s most incredible spectacles. There is perhaps nothing on land that comes even close to their chaos. Perhaps the closest thing might be when the crocodiles in Africa powerhouse the herds of Wildebeest and Zebra as they cross rivers.
On land, you don’t often see predation events. When you do, whatever is doing the attacking generally doesn’t do so in mass or consume its victims instantaneously or in their entirety.
Let the Adventure Begin
Frenzies occur when schools of tuna stack bait on the surface. With no place to run, the bait—in this case kujinuas (the Panamanian word for blue runner—a small member of the jack family)—pack themselves as tightly as possible into balls.
Though the balls are composed of thousands of individual fish, during times of panic they pack into a single, writhing entity—packed so tightly that they appear to be the density of raw ground beef.
With the bait stacked up on top in a giant mass, the tuna put the feed bags on. While there may exist some form of coordination to their attacks, it appears to be nothing short of carnage. Tuna crash through the balls from every direction.
Some of the attacks break the surface of the water, others result in 100 pound fish flying out of the ocean completely. There is white water created by the crashing tuna and it is not uncommon to see bait fish slung five or six feet into the air as they are knocked from the water.
In their attacks—and the speed with which they move, the tuna show as little concern for what is happening around them as do herds of looters in a riot. The only thing that matters is consuming as many of the baits as they can, as rapidly as possible.
Tuna frenzies are bedlam and as the Hooker ran to this one, we could see it ahead of us.
Before us was perhaps two acres of white water. The epicenters of the chaos were two three or four balls of kujinua. Stacked on the surface, these helpless little creatures were fucked.
A couple of the groups of runners clung to floating logs for shelter (During the rainy season, rivers wash entire trees into the ocean. Once floating for a while, they become a magnet for life).
In an effort to escape certain death at the jaws of the tuna, runners would stack themselves completely out of the water—literally laying themselves flat on top of the logs.
As we approached the scene, there could be heard exclamations and curse words of every ilk. Extended pointer fingers and, “Wow! Holy Shit! Look at that!” were about as close as our brains could come to processing the spectacle. There were many levels to the excitement.
From a purely naturalist perspective, tuna frenzies are incredible spectacles. Even the dirtiest, most vegan of whale watchers would appreciate the opportunity to view one.
Into the Blue
Ron and Tony Berkowitz had fished all over the world. The scene unfolding before us was incredible enough to excite even the saltiest of fishermen. They were stoked about seeing it and the crazy marketing footage (crispy footage, bro!) that could result.
Ron was putting on his mask and snorkel and getting his Go Pro on a stick ready. Berkie was captivated, cursing exclamations as the fish crashed in every direction.
As for me, I was fired up. Excited to catch some tuna and perhaps just generally happy about the whole thing. Wade and his crew were excited too. They had seen tuna frenzies before, but none of us had ever seen anything like what was about to happen.
Wade backed the boat up to within 15 or so feet of one of the bait balls. Tuna were crashing all over the place. Looking over the transom, you could see hundreds of them streaking beneath the water.
They looked like dark blue bullets with yellow flashes. Most of them were in the range of 60 to 80 pounds, but every once in a while a bruiser of 200 or more would crash through the bait ball.
It was a tuna frenzy… an epic one.
Captain Wade put the boat in neutral and signaled the okay for the photographer. Next thing you know, he bails over the side with his underwater camera with dome shaped housing.
Next into the water was Ron. He had his Go Pro and was wearing Pelagic board shorts. Thirty seconds or so later, Tony Berkowitz could no longer resist. He was next to jump in.
With the Ron and Berkie in the water, I headed for the fighting chair. Holding a Penn 50-wide outfit, I put the rod butt in the gimbal of the fighting chair.
Herbie put a runner on the hook and tossed it into the scene unfolding directly behind and under the boat. With the reel in free spool, as soon as the bait hit the water it was instant hook up.
Engaging the drag, I’d then palm the spool and put quite a bit of pressure on the fish, trying to get it to the boat as quickly as possible. Herbie stood ready to grab the leader and Jonathan would gaff the fish.
We caught the first one—a 60 or 70 pound yellowfin, in twenty seconds or so. As soon as we unhooked the first one, Herbie hooked up another runner and process repeated.
At some point Ron swam back to the boat. Awed by the experience, Ron now had his Go Pro running, capturing the tuna frenzy from this side of the ocean’s surface.
Yes, this really happened
Sitting in the fighting chair, hooked up to another tuna, I heard an audible thumping sound coming from the bridge above.
It was Captain Wade. He was stomping his feet and laughing his ass off. I looked up to see Wade pointing behind the boat. His laugh wasn’t the normal “hahaha…” type laugh.
Each burst of laughter was its own singular expression. “HA! HA! HAAaaaa!!!!” It may have been a combination of incredulousness as to what was actually happening in the water and the fact what was going on was really, really funny.
It was Berkie. He was 20 yards behind the boat, waving for help on the ocean’s surface.
He was hollering a bit and had his arms extended. The bait that had been clinging to a log for survival had swam away from the floating tree and started hanging on to him instead.
As runners swam into the recesses of his armpits and clung to his shoulders, the tuna kept chasing them.
His arms extended in the air, Berkie would jolt to the left. Next thing you know, he jolted back right.
Tuna crashed into him as they consumed the bait using his body to hide! They were knocking him back and forth.
This was really, really great. I was laughing so hard that for a second I was worried about my ability to keep a hold of the rod in my hand—now attached to another tuna.
No, these are not photoshopped
We caught four yellowfin in maybe seven minutes—but that is really just a footnote.
Wade backed the Hooker up to get Berkie. When we had roughly halved the distance, Berkie made a swim for it.
Just as he did so, a 100 pound picked off a bait might well have been hiding in the hair on his head. As his body proned itself into a freestyle swim, an 80 pound literally jumped over him to consume a bait that was off of his back.
As he climbed into the boat he had yellowfin tuna teeth marks on his back. One of them had hit him in the face and he wasn’t sure if it split his lip open.
The next day he would have bruises on his body from where they had crashed into him.
Finally, just in case you think I’m full of shit, here’s the video.
So there you have it– my favorite fishing story. What’s yours?
Send me a note: EStark@FishTravelEat.com