Charles Frederick Holder.

Life in the open; sport with rod, gun, horse, and hound in southern California online

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than many anglers use for a five-pound small-mouth
black bass. 1

During these days Don Antonio was rowing. I
frequently saw him in the afternoon, when the purple
shadows were creeping out from the lofty cliffs along
shore, near the tuna grounds ; or he would be seen
riding a heavy swell in the lee of the Sphinx, looking
as imperturbable, as he chummed for his patron, as the
great face bathed in the spray of the restless sea. On

1 Since this was written, many much larger bass have been taken, and the record
is held by Mr. L. G. Murphy, with a bass weighing 436 Ibs.

252 Life in the Open

such a day I hooked a bass off the kelp beds and lost it,
then with a camera photographed a more fortunate
angler, whose boat was rushing away with a wave of
foam beneath her stern, despite the vigorous efforts of
the boatman. Again I hooked a bass that with a bril-
liant burst of speed took three hundred feet from the
reel and carried the boat on with surprising force. It
is always the largest fish that escapes, and this is usually
the " record-breaker." I could hardly move it, and the
line sang and hummed like a lute touched by some
mystic fingers deep in the sea. It was a question of
stopping the bass before it reached the kelp bed, half a
mile offshore. For twenty minutes I vainly lifted and
essayed to reel, each moment the fish nearing the
dreaded kelp forest.

The approved and only possible method of proced-
ure was to raise the rod gradually with both hands, then
lower it quickly, reeling as it dropped, but I believe I
never swayed this monster far from the even tenor of
its way. Exhausted, I handed the rod to a companion ;
he too failed, and the great fish, now but a memory,
dashed into the kelp, and passed out of history, leaving
a dangling line alone to tell the story.

It was near the end of the season that Don Antonio
crushed his rivals among the boatmen of Avalon. The
long days of summer were growing shorter, the cool
winds that had made the island an ideal spot for angling
were dying down, and day after day the sea lay like a
mirror, its surface cut by shoals of innumerable fish.

The Rise of Don Antonio 253

The sea-birds were coming down from the north, long,
undulating lines of shags passed north and south, clouds
of gulls followed the bait catchers, and the west at night
became set in autumnal splendours and ineffable tints of
gold and red. The delightful fall fishing season, Sep-
tember, was on, with two more fishing months to follow.
A rain had cleaned the sleeping air ; the blue haze on the
distant mountains softened the rugged outlines ; the
chaparral and trees took on deeper tints of green, all
telling of the waning summer and the coming of the
island winter, the season of flowers.

One morning when great bands of vermilion shot
upward from the horizon, cutting deep into the sky,
Don Antonio rowed his patron out from the vale of
Avalon. The channel was calm, and the rhythm of the
tide gave a gentle undulation to the kelp leaves that
lay glistening in the rising sun. The tide was low, and
all along shore the black beard of kelp brought out
the rocks in strong relief. On the points eagles stood
preening their feathers for the day ; a school of sea-
lions was making for the rookery after a circuit of the
north shore, and as the boat rounded the point and
entered the light green water a fair and smooth sea
stretched away. Don Antonio dropped the anchor
near the beach, half a mile above the rookery, in sight
of the sea-lions that lay basking on the black rocks,
arranged his rope to cast off at a moment's notice,
placed his oars in position, baited his hook with three or
four pounds of albacore, and while the angler made the

254 Life in the Open

cast began the chumming which is supposed to aid and
abet the capture of fish in all climes.

The equipment of this black-sea-bass angler may be
of interest. His rod and reel were designed especially
for leaping tuna and black sea-bass ; the silent reel
was equipped with heavy, patent, anti-overrunning
brake and leather thumb-brake, and held perhaps six
hundred feet of twenty-one-thread linen line. The rod
was a split bamboo, seven feet in length, with long butt
and single joint mounted with agate guides. A six- or
seven-foot bronze wire leader was attached to the line,
the hook being the Van Vleck pattern a singular-
shaped silvered hook in high favour among tarpon

A light wind sprang up and swung the boat to the
east, gently rippling the water. As the moments slipped
away the angler leaned back in his chair, with rod across
his knees, the line overhauled and between his fingers,
as the big reel had no click, and glanced over the San
Clemente Channel at the long, low island that loomed
up in the blue haze. It was not a day of waiting.
Presently there came an ill-defined tightening of the
line ; it might have been a drifting kelp leaf, possibly
the shifting current; then it slackened, and the
angler took his rod in hand, his right clasping the butt,
the left caressing the cork grip above the reel, as he
well knew that the largest of game fishes in the bass
tribe are the most delicate biters. There was no mistake
here ; Don Antonio dropped his cigarette, threw off the

The Rise of Don Antonio 255

turn of the anchor rope, and held the buoy in his hand.

The line was slipping through the smooth agate
guides, and Don Antonio, dropping into Catalina Span-
ish in his excitement, whispered hoarsely, "Ahora, aho-
raf" But not yet ; the bass might have the heavy bait
merely between its lips, to be jerked out by a too hasty
strike. Another foot, until ten or twelve had gone, then
the rod rose in a strong, well-directed strike, and the
game was on. Stse-stse-ceese-ceese ! went the line, hissing
through the water, the silent reel unburdening itself to
the measure. Over went the buoy, around whirled the
boat, and bravely they were away. Stern first it surged,
with Don Antonio holding back gently at the oars.

The rod pounded the air with terrific jerks and the
xepert handling it was almost lifted from his seat by the
impetuosity of the rush. Directly out to sea the fish
went, headed for deep water, and as at this particular
point there was no kelp, the combat was to be on its
merits. In a few seconds the boat was rushing stern
first into the swell beyond the lee of the island, a big
wave beneath the combing stern. Ten, twenty, thirty
minutes slipped away, and the boat was well offshore
where the wind and sea were rising, and the angler mean-
time had accomplished little but hold the rod, vainly
pumping with seven hundred feet of line out, the fish
ever boring down. After a desperate effort it was
turned, when it rushed inshore, and at the end of an
hour was again towing them seaward. Sometimes a few
feet of line would be gained and as many lost, the fish

256 Life in the Open

adopting tactics designed to wear out the unsuspect-
ing angler : rising suddenly to plunge down with irresist-
ible force, to circle the boat, then run in.

Don Antonio all this time held the oars in silence,
backing water, offering all the resistance possible, and
keeping the stern of the boat to the fish. The sea was
rising under the north-west wind, and to sit in the stern
of the boat rushing against a heavy sea was to invite
disaster. Once a big comber came surging in, and rein
had to be given the wild steed, that fortunately turned
inshore again, overrunning its former course. But it
was presently a question of cutting away the fish or
foundering, when the angler, in an inspiration, bethought
him of a bottle of oil in the boat, and a moment later
Don Antonio was pouring it over the side. The change
was magical ; the fluid mysteriously blazed a spot to the
windward of the boat perfectly smooth, and presently
the singular spectacle was witnessed of a low boat in the
centre of a heavy sea, yet in a zone of perfect calm ten
or twelve feet across. Here Don Antonio held the boat
while the angler renewed the struggle, and, two hours
from the strike, reeled the fish to the boat.

Up it came, slowly swimming around in decreasing
circles, and as its full proportions dawned upon him,
Don Antonio made a fervent appeal to the saints. The
bass seemed as long as the boat a giant and as it
turned, its huge tail deluged the men with oil and water.
It was then that Don Antonio reached out and gaffed
the heaviest fish ever taken with rod and reel, gaffed

The Rise of Don Antonio 257

it well. But what then ? It struggled like a wild bull,
threatening to carry the anglers down, and it was only
after a contest that the bass was securely lashed astern ;
even then it could not be towed, as they were three
quarters of a mile offshore. A passing boat, whose
oarsman was a rival of the Don, was hailed and came
down to them, and, with the camaraderie of sportsmen
the world over, offered their services. By the combined
efforts of five men the bass was hauled into the boat,
the fish filling it, the crew taking to the other. In this
way the bass was towed into Avalon, where it was forth-
with triced up on a huge crane and weighed. " Three
hundred and seventy pounds, senor." Little wonder that
it had towed the boat eight miles and had been saved
only by pouring oil upon the water. Very much after
this fashion did the record pass to an angler from Phila-

As Don Antonio walked through the little town that
night, he was followed by Mexican boys who said in
hushed tones : " It is he ; he gaffed it." His victory was
complete, and on the record book one may read after
the entry of his patron's catch, " Don Antonio Oromo,
boatman ; the largest game fish ever gaffed."

Chapter XVII

The Royal Catch

WHEN the early spring of California melts
into summer, when the west winds freshen
and sweep across the great current of Japan,
the Kuroshiwo, the island of Santa Catalina, in Southern
California, stands like an emerald in a setting of turquoise.
Its crest is a vivid green ; the deep waters that bathe its
rocks and leap and foam in the shadow of its mountains
are a steely blue, and they environ a fishing ground of
many and varied delights.

Winter has passed a winter of wild flowers, of
soft winds ; and summer has come. You may know it
by the gathering of the clans at Avalon, the little port
and town of the island, where congregate in June an-
glers from all over the world, to await the coming of the
leaping tuna, the great game fish peculiar to this place
or the big Japanese yellowfin albacore, Hirenaga
so far as its capture with the rod is concerned.

Los Angeles is the point of departure for the tuna

grounds ; and twenty miles distant, reached by several


262 Life in the Open

railroads, is San Pedro, from whence the Cabrillo or
the Hermosa, large ocean steamers, take the angler across
the Santa Catalina Channel, thirty miles, to the island of
that name, a great mountain range lying in the purple
haze to the west.

Avalon is a miniature Naples, with the charm of
colour in sky, water, and rocks that makes up the Italian
resort. There are good hotels, from one to three
steamers a day in summer, and one in winter, wireless
telegraph, and a variety of sports and pastimes, from
fishing for a remarkable assortment of big game fishes
to hunting and riding over the mountains and cafions.
But above all it is an angling community ; the entire
southern portion of the bay is lined with the fishing
stands of the boatmen, each of whom has a certain
number of feet of beach line, out from which extends a
string of rowboats, tuna-boats, glass-bottom boats, and
sailboats, so many that the bay is filled with them.
This bay is so clear and still, so glass-like, that the
angler can hardly realise that he is not in some loch in
Scotland, or on the St. Lawrence.

If one does not bring his tackle with him, the best
can be purchased from any of the shops along the bay,
and all the boatmen provide it. Tackle is a subject of
vital importance here. The Tuna Club has established
a sportsmanlike code as to tackle, and every year gives
a tournament, offering valuable prizes to encourage the
use of the rod. As a result, the giant fishes of these
waters the tuna, black sea-bass, yellowtail, albacore,

The Royal Catch 263

white sea-bass, ranging from fifty pounds to four hun-
dred are taken with light lines and rods, the deadly
handline being almost unknown. Good tackle, in fact
the very best made by old and reliable makers, is essen-
tial, since a poor line or rod will often lose the day after
a struggle of hours. The reel is known as a tuna reel, of
rubber and German silver. It is large enough to hold
six hundred feet of wet line. Such a reel costs from
$15 to $75. It has a patent anti-overrunning arrange-
ment, a brake or click, and to the cross-bar is attached a
rubber or leather pad that can be pressed upon the line.
This is the brake par excellence. The line is a 21 or 24
cuttyhunk. There are a number of makes ; the 2 1 is
large enough, and it is in this connection that the re-
markable feature of this angling is seen. The number
2 1 is not much larger than the cord used for eyeglasses,
yet a four-hundred-pound fish has been killed with it.
The line costs from $3.50 to $4, and there must be no
question about it ; it must be true every inch of its
length. The hook is a matter of fancy. I prefer the
old-fashioned O'Shaughnessy, number 10/0, to my mind
a perfect all-round hook, but the Van Vleck is one in
good favour on the tarpon and tuna grounds. The
leader is of piano or phosphor-bronze wire in two or
three links, each connected by a brass swivel in all,
six or seven feet long. The line above this for ten feet
should be doubled or quadrupled, for the gaffer to grasp,
if necessary, after the gaffing, and for security against
chafino; when the tuna is boring down into the channel.

2 6 4 Life in the Open

The tuna rod is identical with that used for tarpon,
seven feet in length, in two parts, a one-piece tip and a
short butt. The latter is often of rubber, mounted with
German silver, with the tip of noibwood, bethabera, or
green-heart, weighing about twenty-five ounces. The
rod may be of split bamboo. Such an one costs from
$20 to almost any price, but the typical $22 or so tuna
or tarpon rod is best.

The tuna is the king of the mackerel tribe, the
royal catch, Thunnus thynnus of the scientist, a fish
that attains a weight of fourteen hundred pounds and a
length of fifteen feet ; a world-wide rambler on the high
seas, yet, so far as is known, all attempts to catch it
with rod and reel except in Southern California have
failed. On the Pacific Coast the tuna is rarely seen in-
shore or near the mainland, and of all the islands which
are strung like jewels from Santa Barbara to San Diego,
Santa Catalina is the one where the tuna is seen in
greatest numbers. This is probably due to the con-
tour of the island , which affords nearly twenty miles
of lee calms and sheltered coves into which the tuna can
drive its prey, the California flying-fish. This fish
appears, and the tuna with it, anywhere from May first
to July, though the latter is often an uncertain quantity.

From May until November, sometimes December, a
storm or squall of any kind is unknown. So pass
the days away waiting for the tuna, days of dolce far
niente. One morning some one looks out over the bay
to the east where, across the channel, the snow caps of

The Royal Catch 265

San Antonio and San Jacinto stand ten thousand feet
in air against vermilion clouds, looks and sees a mass
of whitecaps in the midst of the calm, sees black
objects leaping from the sea, and then Avalon goes

" Tunas ! " " Look ! " " The tunas have come ! " are
the cries in " dago " Spanish, California Italian, Hispano-
Mexican, and English. Every angler rushes for his rod
and boat, and in a short time several trim tuna launches
are darting out across the bay, while less fortunate
anglers are hurrying hither and yon hunting for boat-
men, boatmen are hunting for patrons who perhaps are
playing golf, baitmen are rushing for the seine, and the
whole fishing community is thrown into great excitement.

Meanwhile the boatman is baiting the hooks with
the large-twelve-inch California flying-fish, the natural
food of the tuna, impaling it so that the bait will move
through the water in a natural position and not twist.
The school of tunas is moving north and the boatman
steers the launch to cross them. All being ready, the
anglers wet their lines to prevent any burning off when
the leather brakes are applied, slack out fifty or sixty
feet, and sit with rods across the lap, one to port, the
other to starboard, the tips at an angle of forty-five
degrees, left hand upon the rod grip above the reel
seat, and right thumb upon the leather pad which the
skilled angler plays upon to kill the game.

On nearing the school, the fishes become more
distinct and the splendid spectacle is afforded of large

266 Life in the Open

tunas feeding. A stretch of perhaps twenty acres is a
mass of foam. Some of the fish are playing along the
surface, churning the blue water into silver. Some are
leaping high into the air, going up like arrows, eight or
more feet. The boatman is bearing off and is several
feet ahead, but suddenly slows down to half speed.
Big flying-fishes are speeding away in every direction a
foot or more above the water, looking like gigantic
dragon-flies. Now the bait is in the line of march
of the school. The boatman stands like a statue, his
hand on the little engine, ready to stop and reverse.
Suddenly he whispers, " Look out, sir ! " his voice hoarse
with what should be suppressed excitement, and two or
three flying-fishes cross the exact location of the baits.
He knows that a nemesis, one or more, is directly be-
hind. Then comes a rush of something, a blaze of silvery
foam along the surface, tossing the spume high in air,
and two rods are jerked to the water's edge, while the
reel gives tongue in clear vibrant notes like the melody
of an old hound that one angler had known in the
Virginia fox-hunting country long ago.

Zee-zee-zeee-eee ! rises the music, the symphony of the
reels ; now a duet, both joining and giving out long-
continued notes as the line is jerked away in feet and
yards, in veritable handfuls. In the meantime the
school is closing about the boat and there is fear that
the lines will be cut by the crazed fish. Fisherman's
luck ! one breaks perhaps too much pressure was put
upon the brake, perhaps the sharp fin of a tuna cut it.

The Royal Catch 267

So one angler slowly reels in, and watches the play of
his more fortunate companion.

The boatman has stopped the launch at the sound
of the reel, and is now backing her slowly, so that the
angler may not lose all of his line. The slightest mis-
take, a fraction too much pressure on the thumb pad, a
little overdue excitement, a mild attack of buck or tuna
fever, any condition away from the normal, and the
game is up, as the line can be snapped by any jerk, and
is seemingly an absurd thing with which to fight so
powerful a fish.

But this angler is an old tarpon fisherman. He has
seen the silver king vault into the empyrean, has seen
it flashing, coruscating, caracoling in the sunlight, so
that he seemed to be playing a fish in mid-air. He has
his nerves well in hand, and slips the butt of his rod
into the leather socket, and follows every move of the
game by the agate tip. Down it goes, fairly into the
water, as though struck by repeated blows. Zee-zeee-
zeee-e-e-e-e ! the music of the gods, the echo from the
strains in the dark, unfathomed caves, perhaps, where
this wild game has plunged.

Every hundred feet of line is marked by a " telltale"
band of red silk, and the angler has watched three and
a green one, indicating fifty feet, slip through the silver
trumpet guides, and still the fish is going; yet but
a few seconds have passed. Four hundred feet, and a
little shower of leather filings has collected in the reel
near the pad. The launch is going at full speed

268 Life in the Open

backward, the angler is pressing upon the brake and lift-
ing with all the power the line will stand. Five hundred
feet as a red dot flashes up the rod ; then the pressure
stops, the first rush is over, and the angler slowly lifts
the slender rod, which is bending to the danger point,
yet holding. The boatman has stopped the engine and
that angling miracle is seen, a tuna towing a heavy
launch by five hundred feet of a number twenty-one
thread line. It is asserted by some who have not seen
it that this is an impossibility, yet it is done every day
when the tuna are biting along the isle of summer.

The fish is slowly rising ; the school has passed on,
and the singing of distant and other reels is heard.
Enthusiastic, but less fortunate, anglers pass by, and
rise to give the sportsman cheer and wish him good
luck ; they are warned by the boatman, who considers
social amenities totally out of order, to keep away from
the line, as any man with a fish hooked is entitled to
the field. Up comes the tuna, imparting to the line a
quivering motion until it reaches the surface, when it
turns and comes along the surface like an arrow.

The angler springs to his feet, that he may see the
splendid move, and reels for his life. No power, no
multiplier, could eat up the line to match this racing
steed that comes on and on, a blaze of silver, gold, and
blue, tossing the water within ten feet of the boat,
where it turns in a miniature maelstrom and is away.
But the angler meets it, stops it again ; and so the
battle goes on, and an hour slips away.

Landing the Leaping Tuna.

(i) The strike. (2) Rushing in on the boat. (3) Boatman Neal at the gaff. (4) Weighing

a Tuna.

The Royal Catch 269

The fish repeatedly rushes in, trying to take the
angler at a disadvantage ; then plunging to the bottom,
to rise like a bird to the surface, and circle the. boat, then
towing it a mile to sea, where it turns and literally goes
crazy in a series of evolutions, at the end of which
it has been brought within a few feet of the boat.
Again and again this has been accomplished. Again
and again the angler has felt himself going under the
tremendous pressure, but hope shines like a star some-
where in his heart ; he has determined to land that fish
at any cost, and never relinquishes his hold upon the
rod or reel. Almost an armistice is called. It seems well-
nigh impossible to bring the fish nearer. Seeing the
boat, it breaks into a frenzy, bearing off with such vio-
lence that disaster hovers about, too near for comfort.

Lifting, reeling, pumping, holding fast, the fisher-
man always feels the continued strain which tells that
the tuna has never lost a scintilla of its strength and
vigour, is still fresh, while it long ago began to tell
on the man, indeed on the nerves of one looking on.
Suddenly, after three hours and a quarter, the fish turns
and swims away to the south, dragging the boat, oc-
casionally stopping to rush in ; but at the end of four
hours, within three hundred feet of where it was
hooked, and after a last run of four miles, the tuna is
brought to gaff. Ten or twelve miles it has towed the
boat up and down the coast, ten miles of fighting. 1 The

1 The author's record fish, the first large tuna taken, weighed 183 Ibs. It
towed the boat, against the boatman's oars, ten or twelve miles in four hours.

2;o Life in the Open

weary angler stands and leads it into the field of the
gaffer, and as the steel sinks into its silvery flesh below
the jaw, it makes a supreme effort and plunges, shatter-
ing the gaff, making fifty feet. There 's many a slip
between gaff and line in catching tunas !

Again the angler rallies and a fresh gaff hits the
mark ; the angler slacks away, and all stand upon the
rail as the gaffer slides the splendid fish into the boat, a
monster in gold, silver, and azure, which later on tips
the scales at one hundred and fifty pounds. A few
ponderous blows on the flooring, a strange, penetrating
quiver, and the king is dead. Up runs the flag of vic-
tory, bearing the blue tuna, shattered nerves and weary
muscles are forgotten, and the boat runs in amid the
cheers, whistles, and salutes of the lookers-on in boats
who have been watching the catch and the often heart-
breaking struggle.

That afternoon the angler wears a little blue button.
He has taken tarpon, perhaps the weird rohu and
mahsir that Kipling sings about ; but he would not ex-
change his experience with all these for that four hours'

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Online LibraryCharles Frederick HolderLife in the open; sport with rod, gun, horse, and hound in southern California → online text (page 14 of 21)