Bill Monroe: Dancing with the stars … for tuna

Diminutive white birds danced like twinkling stars above sharp, unbroken crests of a light wind chop off Ilwaco, Washington.

They were Sabine’s gulls, one of the prettiest Arctic nesters, which spend much of their life at sea, working surfaced bait fish like children in the candy aisle.

I was mesmerized by nature’s choreography, lost in though…


Silvery torpedoes suddenly arced back and forth beneath the gulls; albacore tuna lunging at schooled bait as the birds scrambled for leftovers.

The clarion alarm was the same as yelling “FIRE” in a crowded auditorium, except no one jumped overboard.

The bridge cleared within seconds, Capt. Mike Colbach maneuvered the auditorium, shut down the engines and shouted above the commotion: “BAIT UP! GET YOUR LINES OUT!”

Hapless anchovies were quickly dipped from the live bait tank, hooked in the nose and lowered over the side to swim to their fates in the clear blue water.

Mike skillfully stopped the 42-foot long Shake N Bake a little upwind of where we’d last seen the jumpers and for a few minutes, six anxious anglers crowded the rail, silently feeding line into the drift as small weights drew anchovies into the feeding school of swift tuna …


Then “FRESH ONE!” and second “FRESH ONE!”

The delicate ballet of gulls morphed into a crescendo, a symphony, a savage street fight straight out of “West Side Story.”

Tuna are streamlined for a purpose. Muscles carry them thousands of miles, then, when hooked, match muscle for muscle as they try to pull the other end of the line into the water.

Plunging, turning, circling, multiple hooked fish cannot know the organized chaos above them as Mike, co-captain Darrell Miller and deckhand Tony Meyers directed traffic like playground aides guiding kids around the maypole.

Gaffs flew and the deck disappeared beneath a staccato of flopping tuna tails and blood …

“ANOTHER FRESH ONE!” (new hookup)

“COLOR!’ (fish is nearly ready to gaff)

“BAIT!” (need to grab another anchovy from the live bait tank)

“SHARK!” (Uh oh … they pull hard, but razor-sharp teeth mean a lost hook, line and bait)

Cousins Darrell Miller of Vancouver and Pete Miller of Maryland celebrate Pete's first-ever albacore tuna.

Cousins Darrell Miller of Vancouver and Pete Miller of Maryland celebrate Pete’s first-ever albacore tuna.Bill Monroe for The Oregonian/OregonLive

Then the bite died. Mike put us back on the troll, landed jumpers slid into beds of ice in fish boxes and Darrell and Tony washed blood from the deck until it was clean and ready for another round.

All eyes scoured the horizon for more dancing stars.

Following a slow departure from a fog-shrouded harbor and tooth-jarring passage over a cranky bar, our eclectic and seasoned crew fed our souls Monday aboard a boat upon which most of us share a storied history far from sight of land.

Mike is one of Portland’s premier accident lawyers; Darrell Miller is a retired Portland Police detective who splits his time between Vancouver and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; his cousin, Pete Miller of Maryland, is a video conferencing executive; Tony Meyers of Portland is the executive chef at Serratto in Portland; Chris Zechmann of Banks is an engineering manager at Intel; Wayne Stolz of Astoria is a retired bar pilot on a busman’s holiday with his son, Jeff Stolz of Vancouver, owner of a CBD shop and, with his dad, a commercial tuna fisherman during the summer on their boat out of Warrenton. And, finally, myself and son, Bill Jr., a sportfishing guide.

No one enveloped in Mike Colbach’s fishing passion is a stranger aboard Shake N Bake.

We followed “white birds” and scattered shearwaters, murrelets and albatross to multiple bait stops, calling it a day at 51 tuna plugging the icy fish boxes.

Our way home was marked by humpbacked whales … looking for their own whitebirds.

Jeremie Prewitt of Hermiston landed an unusual yellowtail off the mouth of the Columbia River on Sept. 22.

Jeremie Prewitt of Hermiston landed an unusual yellowtail off the mouth of the Columbia River on Sept. 22.Courtesy of Shake N Bake

Huh? It’s been a banner tuna year offshore this summer, punctuated by odd warmer-ocean catches.

A Shake N Bake angler landed a yellowtail on Sept. 22.

Yellowtail, like striped marlin, opa, dorado, bigeye tuna and other warmer water-loving fish, are far more likely to be caught off Baja California, but all have been caught off the mouth of the Columbia.

Mike said it’s the first he’s ever heard of dorado this far north; and not just one or two, but perhaps as many as three dozen.

“Global warming is definitely happening out here,” Mike said.

How ‘bout them coho? Indeed.

It’s a great question and no one seems to have an answer for AWOL coho salmon, which should have filled the Buoy 10 fishery two weeks ago.

Biologists are scratching their heads while ever-optimistic anglers continue to hold out hope for a last-minute rush, bolstered by continued reports of coho at sea — some far at sea.

During Monday’s trip with Mike, one other boat sharing our fishing area landed a 10-pound coho 38 miles out on a bait stop.

— Bill Monroe for The Oregonian/OregonLive

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