So, we made the five-hour trip from Great Barrington to Provincetown, trading one tourist trap for another, and arrived at the small coastal town just around dinnertime. John met us at the Beachcombers right off of MacMillan Wharf and we had drinks and dinner while we made our morning plans. John introduced us to Captain Mike, a lobster fisherman, who like most lobstermen reequipped his boat every fall to go after giant bluefin tuna as they migrated past Cape Cod eating their way through tons of baitfish. The fattened fresh tuna is prized by many including the Japanese who can often be found on the dock ready with cash to purchase tuna directly from the fishermen for sushi and steaks. Bruce and I were to be unpaid crew on Captain Mike’s boat and it was understood that Mike would keep any fish caught, but we were just happy for a chance to fish and the adventure. The tuna’s average weight was about 500 pounds and at fifty dollars a pound at the time, a few nice fish would insure Mike’s fishing enterprise through the long winter.
Bruce and I got up early the next morning and left the motel to get coffee and rolls at a local Portuguese bakery and meet Mike and John at the boat. The old lobster boat was definitely a working fishing boat, not pretty but efficient. It had been refitted with large reels filled with 1000-pound shock line, some large broomstick-like thick fishing poles, and several wicked-looking harpoons. There were spotter planes flying overhead who were employed by commercial and charter boats, but all the fishermen listened to the radio chatter as the planes kept track of the schools of fish and reported their whereabouts. It wasn’t uncommon to have several schools at a time in the deep bay off of Provincetown. We boarded the boat to start our adventure.
The waters off of the Provincetown bay are deep and usually calm. It was a beautiful morning and we drank coffee as we steamed out of port and left the town behind us. There were many boats out and the captains all seemed to know each other. We went past some brightly colored buoys and Mike told us that they marked his lobster traps. I noticed several guns aboard and he explained that they were for protecting his traps from lobster thieves and pirates. He had shot at some the week before but didn’t say if he hit anyone. Mike said most of the boats were armed because there were few law enforcement boats on the water and it was necessary. I believed him.
Our job consisted of watching the water for bait runs and manning the poles. Mike used a lure on the shock line that looked like a school of rubber squid with a single giant hook that cost 120 dollars. If we caught anything the lure would be destroyed but the loss was worth it. After a while, Mike handed me a harpoon and stationed me in the bow of the boat. Fish were underneath us and I was told if I saw one close to the surface to throw the harpoon as hard as I could. I stood poised and ready but before I could do anything I was interrupted as a large trawler floated in front of us. Mike said it was Russian and probably illegally in our waters. The other boats blew their air horns in displeasure but the Russian rig lowered two speed boats into the water, both carrying net rigging. The boats headed in opposite directions encircling a large school of fish with a purse seine net. The boats met so the men on board could tie off the net, then a crane on board reeled the net in. The fish went crazy at being netted and tried to jump out, but the net was very effective and soon a million pounds of tuna were on the trawler and being processed.
This incident marked the end of our fishing trip as the remaining fish took off. Mike said the catch was far over the commercial limit but in general even if a boat is caught exceeding the limit, the fine would be minimal . . . the price of doing business. We turned around and headed back, stopping at the captain’s lobster traps along the way. I watched in fascination as he harvested some nice lobsters, throwing the little ones back. We had an enjoyable dinner that evening but were rather disappointed about our catch that day. Mike and John said we could go out for another try the next day. So the four of us met at the Portuguese bakery that morning for breakfast, enjoying hot rolls with bacon and cheese and strong coffee – the coffee had to be strong as we had spent a good part of the night before barhopping on Commercial Street. In addition to being a haven for artists and a cosmopolitan mix of people, restaurants, and stores, Provincetown is also a brilliant party town and a lot of fun if you keep an open mind. For instance, Bruce and I rented rooms at a small motel on the Provincetown/North Truro line, not knowing the owner was a dedicated nudist. Imagine our surprise when we went out for an early morning swim in the pool only to find a naked guy serving coffee and donuts poolside (no lie). It set the tone for the day!
After breakfast at the Portuguese bakery, we grabbed our coffees and made our way to the boat where it was docked at MacMillan Wharf. It was a sunny morning and the spotter plane radio chatter said the tuna schools were plentiful, so after loading equipment and bait aboard we were off for part two of our adventure. As we made our way out of the harbor on the converted lobster boat, we noticed the water boiling with tons of baitfish being chased by bluefish and striped bass, as sea birds hovered over the carnage to get an easy meal. Since we weren’t in tuna water yet, I baited up a surf casting pole to try my luck with some blues or stripers. I hooked one right away and brought a 26-inch blue on board. Bluefish are the bullyboys of fishing, strong, mean, and always hungry. So imagine my surprise when we noticed a big school of them jumping out of the water with fear in their eyes. Captain Mike said the tuna were chasing them and invited us to watch on the boat’s fish finder. The big fish were everywhere so Big John told me to pull my light fishing pole up because if I hooked a tuna it would break my pole, and at 400 dollars a pole I took his advice.
Big John and Captain Mike got the large umbrella rig prepared to go overboard and Bruce and I took our places on the bow of the boat with harpoons on either side. Big John yelled out that the fish finder said we were right over a school of tuna and to get ready, so we took our stance. But as we did, we heard something that sounded like a person loudly exhaling and we looked up just in time to see an orca (also known as a killer whale) breaching not far from the boat. It was quite the experience! I have had encounters with some marine mammals before – I’ve seen dolphins quite a few times while fishing, watched manatees in Florida, encountered seals on the Wareham beach, and even whales on a watch boat – but I had never seen orcas except on TV. They were beautiful, powerful creatures and we watched as a pod of them breached, blowing water from their blowholes loudly before diving back in the water again. The next sound we heard was Captain Mike swearing as we realized that these beautiful creatures wanted tuna for a meal. Our tuna!
Killer whales are very intelligent and social mammals who share their catch with each other. They hunt together in packs surrounding their prey, driving hapless fish into their waiting jaws for the kill. Mike sat down in disgust as we watched the orcas take their fill of the tuna while seabirds went crazy for the leftovers. I couldn’t help but reflect on the morning’s events. We had seen bluefish chasing bait fish, tuna chasing bluefish, and orca chasing tuna – it made me reconsider our place in the food chain and more than a little fearful of what we would see next (Godzilla came to mind)! Captain Mike was not happy with the turn of events and decided to head back to shore after checking his lobster pots again . . . he did catch a half dozen big lobsters so the day was not a total loss.
Once we got back to the wharf we cleaned up the boat, filleted the blue, and headed back to the motel where the naked guy checked us out of our rooms. Then Bruce and I headed back to Great Barrington to our jobs and girlfriends. We were tired, sunburned, and smelling a little fishy, so were quiet for the drive home. The next day Big John called to tell us he and Mike had caught a 470-pound tuna that morning. We were sorry to have missed that experience, but it was good news for our new friend and his boat and as consolation for us, the bluefish chowder I made with my catch for dinner that night kicked ass!
~ Michael Romano, a Great Barrington, MA, resident for almost 40 years, is an avid fisherman who in his own words “kind of treats fishing as a contact sport and has had more than a few misadventures in the process.” He has fished many local waters and also enjoyed quite a few saltwater trips. Michael is a retired chef – he and his wife Susan, worked for years at the now-closed Kolburne School in New Marlborough, MA, where he enjoyed taking many of the students fishing.
Read this article in the Early Summer 2018 issue of Our BerkshireTimes Magazine.