By Gene Kira, August 4, 2003, as published in Western Outdoor News:
Right after World War II, there was a period of my life when most of the adults I knew were involved with the San Diego rack-and-pole tuna fleet that fished off the Mexican coast, and down to South America, either as fishermen or cannery workers. One of my strongest early childhood memories is of an old plywood box--covered with spider webs and mouse droppings--that sat in the corner of our garage.
Inside that box was a world of treasures for a kid: hand-carved bamboo net-mending needles, bags of real chicken feathers (plucked from real chickens, I guess. Some still had pieces of skin hanging on them), linen thread, lightweight cotton rope, rolls of dried dorado skin, and most enticing of all--a beautiful collection of "tuna picks."
"Tuna picks," for all you young 'uns out there, are a kind of brutal fish hook designed for rack-and-pole tuna fishing. They are made with a heavy brass shank and a very heavy, barbless pick that sticks out and is bent back to form a "J." To attract hits, a small bunch of white chicken feathers is attached to the shaft with a dorado, or other skin, wrapper and string. The whole thing averages about five inches long.
Before the purse seine era, these picks, attached by short lines to long bamboo poles, were the main method of commercial tuna fishing. As live bait was chummed over their heads, the fishermen would strike the water with their poles, get a hit, and swing the tuna overhead onto the deck. For fish over about 40-45 pounds, two poles would be tied together. Over about 90 pounds required three poles.
Somewhere in my most distant memory, I seem to see a blurry home movie of four-pole tuna being caught on my uncle Bunky Hayashi's boat while fishing off Mexico or Panama, but really, it's been so long, I couldn't say for sure.
Anyway, fast forward forty years. The old fishermen are long gone. The garage is razed. The plywood box lost. But, a kid is left with something vivid and perfectly indelible--the memory of how that box smelled when you first opened it. It smelled of salt, dried fish, the sea, the tropic sweat of yore, old tuna clippers, rolling along the coasts of Peru, Ecuador, Panama, the Galapagos Islands, Mexico, and yes, Baja California.
Like Marcel Proust's tea-dipped madeleines, the remembered smell of those old tuna picks had the power to take me back to a different time and place whenever I wished--a remembrance of things past.
One day, a sports car, with its top down and a long bundle sticking up in the air, came speeding up our driveway. In it was my friend Butch Bucciarelli, who was redecorating his Harbor House Restaurant in downtown San Diego. Butch opened the long, wrapped bundle, and suddenly I was back in the garage of my Barrio Logan childhood. Butch had brought me a wall decoration that he no longer needed in the restaurant--a real three-pole tuna rig from the old days, complete with three bamboo poles, quarter-inch cotton-rope "lines," massive brass swivels as thick as your thumb, and rigid "wire leader" as thick as pencil lead.
But, alas, there was no tuna pick.
I placed those worn bamboo poles--still bearing the carved initial "W" of some fisherman long forgotten--beside my desk, and I treasured them, but always with an undertone of regret that I lacked a tuna pick that would make it a complete set.
Fast forward another ten years, and I am at the marina of Santa Rosalia, Baja California, Mexico, cruising with a group of small boats from the Vagabundos del Mar Club. A tall, soft-spoken man, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and the toughened body and hands of a former commercial fisherman, catches my eye. He's different from everybody else in our group. His name is Ken Jones, and as we talk, the stories of his life slowly begin to come, of commercial fishing off Southern California, his wife and children, old fishing stuff. Real stuff.
One day soon after that trip, a package arrived in the mail. I opened it, and instantly, I was a kid in the musty garage again, sailing off the coast of South America again, rolling in the chubascos, swinging the tuna above my shoulders. Ken Jones had remembered a promise made at Santa Rosalia, to send me an original tuna pick that he had--complete with skin wrapper and chicken feathers.
Carefully, I attached Ken's tuna pick to the rusty wire leader of my three-pole rig, and it's right beside me now, never to leave. Thanks, Ken. Old fisherman. May the winds be gentle and the seas always kind to you.