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Captain Zac Hood and First mate Jesse Hughes with two nice Bluefin tuna.
Captain Zac Hood and First mate Jesse Hughes with two nice Bluefin tuna. Photo by David Boylan
ColumnsFood & WineLick the Plate

Lick the Plate: Catching bluefin tuna fever

It’s that time of year again when the fishing heats up in the waters off San Diego and I normally connect with Captain Mark Mihelich who captains Boundless Boat Charters. This year, he was booked solid, so I was lucky to have another option with co-worker and charter-captain-on-the-side, Zac Hood.

Zac is a construction manager by day and out on the water every chance he gets in his beautiful Parker, considered by those in the know as one of the best fishing boats for handling all the conditions that offshore waters can produce.

So not only does Zac work a physically demanding job, he is up at 4 a.m. on most weekends to pursue his fishing passion.

Zac invited me and three other co-workers out recently for a full day of “chasing bluefin” as they call it. Another one of our group, Jesse Hughes has extensive experience working on commercial fishing boats out of San Diego and is well versed on the fish in these waters, how to track them down and get them on board.

Jesse was functioning as our “mate” which meant we were in good hands when it came to be properly rigged for catching tuna and a skilled gaffer if we caught them and got them close enough to the boat for him to do so.

Bluefin tuna are a prized catch and when they venture into waters not far off the coast of San Diego and Oceanside, the word gets out quickly.

It usually takes at least a full if not multi-day trip to reach them. Not only are they one of the best fighting fish, but if you are lucky enough to land one, they are, in my opinion, the best-eating fish there is. More on that later.

Our day began with a 4 a.m. wake-up call and at the bait dock loading up with live sardines at 5:30 a.m. Our destination was the 209, a location about 30 miles offshore while keeping a close eye out for flocks of seagulls feeding on churning waters they call “foamers” on the way out.

If sighted, we would be prepared to full throttle it towards the foam, pulling back as we approached, then cast spoons towards the tuna who were in a frenzy. If we spooked them and they dove, we would go deep with sardines.

This drill happened about a dozen times, and it was getting frustrating, to say the least, as we were approaching mid-afternoon and I for one was exhausted.

That all changed quickly as the call we love to hear rang out loud and clear “fish on” which woke me up real quick.

Landing even a modest size bluefin tuna can up to 30 minutes and sometimes longer, all the while reeling up any slack given, following the instructions of the pros, adjusting the rod as to not bruise up your body too much, and the feeling that you are doing very heavy, awkward curls for an extended period of time with no rest.

It’s not uncommon to go through all this and get the tuna close enough to the water to see “color” as they call it, then have the rod go limp and the fish is lost. I’ve had this experience in the past and I slumped to the deck in defeat, needing some time alone to gather myself.

That didn’t happen this time though as Jesse expertly gaffed the sizeable Bluefin as soon as it was close enough to do so.

After he pulled the gills and other organs to keep the blood from seeping into the flesh, he handed me the heart and the entire group demanded that I had to take a bit of it as part of “first tuna tradition” or something like that.

I still don’t know if I was being had but I did it anyway and now I have that fish story to throw out there on occasion.

More bluefin tuna were caught, and the day was a success. Jesse expertly cut up my bluefin and vacuum sealed it ready for the freezer. Even the fish I was going to eat the next day I put in the freezer for a few hours to quell my probably unfounded parasite paranoia.

In my opinion, tuna of this quality is not meant to be cooked. Dinner the next three nights consisted of a mix of sashimi with some low sodium soy sauce for dipping and poke bowls.

This year my poke bowls consisted of bluefin lightly marinated in low sodium soy, sesame oil, chopped green onions, crushed red pepper flakes, and sesame seeds combined with brown rice, avocado, cucumbers, radish, seaweed salad from Lazy Acres, and corn cut off the cob.

There are dozens of ways and ingredients that can be combined for poke but the foundation for me is always a high-grade, fresh tuna or Yellowtail. It’s just such a healthy bowl of goodness.

As of this writing, tuna is still fairly close off of the coast of San Diego and I have a memory to last a lifetime.