A Tuna Tale, In Good Taste


It sure didn't taste like tuna from a can. It was storm-tossed tuna -- pulled from the roiling waters of the Atlantic Ocean as Hurricane Felix teased the Maryland coast. It was moist, had the dense texture of tender beef and a rich flavor unlike any I had tasted before.

It had come to me over the backyard fence, a gift from a neighbor, Edward Marshall. Marshall, a Baltimore City policeman, shared both the fish and the story of the catch with me.

He told me how he and a handful of fishing buddies ended up landing 15 tuna, yellowfin and bluefin, on a boat trip out of Ocean City. A catch of one or two is often considered a good day.

The night before he left Baltimore for Ocean City, Marshall was having second thoughts about making the fishing trip. Hurricane Felix was lollygagging some 200 miles off the North Carolina coast, trapped in an atmospheric eddy between two high-pressure systems. The erratic storm was still churning the ocean waters, producing large, powerful waves.

Marshall had worked the four-to-midnight shift patrolling West Baltimore, and he was tired. Nonetheless, when he and a fellow policeman, Richard Ruby, got off work, they drove down to Ocean City. There they met the three other members of their fishing party. All would share both in the catch and the $700-a-day cost of taking the charter boat, Memory Maker, out to sea.

Memory Maker was motored some 30 miles offshore to one of the favorite fishing spots of its captain, Marty Moran. The seas were choppy but Marshall, who had served in the Coast Guard, had seen worse. The waves, 6- to 10-feet-high and about 100 yards apart, showed hints of Felix's distant muscle.

It was not a perfect day to be on the water. The boat was bouncing and the skies were spitting rain. But if the group caught fish, the weather wouldn't matter. The captain began "chunking" for tuna -- dropping bait fish into the water. Some of the bait floated freely, some were attached to hooks and lines.

Marshall, 29 years old, has been fishing since he was a boy. In the ensuing years he has caught plenty of freshwater and saltwater fish, but he had never landed a tuna. This was about to change. Suddenly, the reels on the fishing poles started screeching. Tuna had taken the bait and were pulling the line off the reels.

Marshall and his fellow fishermen began the slow, strenuous task of reeling the fish in. If they pulled too hard the light leader, the part of fishing line nearest the hook, might break. It was 40-pound test, and some of the tuna weighed more than 60 pounds. You don't overpower these fish; you reel, wait, then reel again.

When one man was tired, he gave the pole to another man, who after his time with the fish, would pass the rod to the next man. The biggest tuna of the day, one that weighed in at 69 pounds, put up such a fight that all five fishermen on board took turns reeling him in.

It was exhausting work, especially hard on the back muscles. Marshall said he felt stiff and sore the next day, as if he had been in "a full-blown street fight."

He and his buddies had started fishing at 9 in the morning, and by 1 in the afternoon, they had all the tuna they wanted. Traditionally, when you catch a tuna, the captain of your boat hoists a flag. This party on this boat caught so many tuna that the rigging couldn't accommodate all the flags.

When the boat got back to the Bahia Marina in Ocean City, Marshall realized he had more fish than cooler space. So he put the fish in the back of his pickup truck and covered them with ice.

He cleaned the tuna himself, a skill he picked up a few years ago while working at a seafood operation in Bethany Beach, Del. He skinned the fish, cut the meat into three large strips, then cut each strip into six steaks.

That night he and his fellow fishermen dined on grilled tuna at his mother's summer place in Delaware. He froze the rest of his catch, gave some to his mother and brought the remainder back to Baltimore with him.

One night shortly afterward, feeling neighborly, he gave some of the tuna to me. I grilled it and served it with a salsa made of peaches, onions, peppers and lime juice. It was magnificent. I was never happier to be living in a place where tuna that recently had been swimming in the Atlantic Ocean could arrive on your supper table over the backyard fence.

So far this year, as beach goers know, several storms have visited the East Coast and churned up the ocean. For some reason, it's been a good year for catching tuna. But Moran, the skipper of Memory Maker, told me he was not sure whether Felix or any storm had anything to do with the good tuna fishing.

Moran said that after Felix blew out to sea he went back to the spot where Marshall and friends had caught the 15 fish. The tuna were gone. Maybe the bait fish that tuna liked to eat had moved to a new spot, he said. Or maybe Felix had relocated the tuna.

I am not sure why the tuna were in those bouncy seas off Ocean City, or why they swam away. But I do know the storm- tossed tuna was among the best fish I have eaten.

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