The Outer Limits, skippered by Ben (Doc) Uhlig, plows westward from this port on Washington’s central coast several times a week, into the gray Pacific in search of blue water and the free-ranging fish that feed there.
The target is albacore, a swift-swimming, hard-fighting tuna that roams the tropical and temperate seas of the world in pursuit of baitfish. In July and August it ventures cautiously into colder climes, such as that of the Northwest coast, following warm-water currents that flow northward during this mildest time of year.
The currents and their fish usually stay far off Washington’s shore. It’s only when they swing closest to the beach - within 70 miles or so - that most Northwest charter boats are able to intercept them.
Uhlig’s 60-foot Outer Limits has the range and accommodations to hunt them. It has bunks for 28, a galley with a full-time cook, and circulating live wells that can keep bait strong for days.
It hasn’t always been that way for him. Years ago he fished out of Ilwaco, with a smaller boat.
“We’d leave at 3 or 4 in the morning and run like hell for many hours,” he said. “We’d get out there and fish for three or four hours then run like hell back, and get in at 7 or 8 at night.”
Now, Uhlig usually leaves in late afternoon or early evening and travels all night to the fishing grounds. The next day, anglers fish from first light to last. The third day they fish if there’s time. Then they commence the long run home, arriving usually in late afternoon.
How far they run does not depend on whim.
Late each week, Uhlig receives a fax from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C., made from a satellite photo. The fax reveals where warmest waters are, so he knows where he’s going and how long it will take to get there.
Right on the edge between warm water and cool is where albacore hunt their prey, and that is where he tries to be.
To catch tuna, Uhlig creates a scenario that suckers the fish into thinking they’re part of an elaborate event - sort of a Universal Studios tour for tuna.
A row of six rods spans the stern of the boat. Each pulls a plastic squid - a giant hoochie that skips at 5 to 8 knots in the wake of the boat. Up and down the port and starboard rails sit more rods in holders, 10 or a dozen to a side. All have bare hooks except for the sternmost two on each side, which are called “sliders.” Each slider is baited with a dead anchovy, hooked solidly through the head.
Mounted beyond the boat’s transom is a pair of wooden containers, called “drop boxes,” each about as long and wide as a spiralringed notebook, and each filled with water. Inside are anchovies.
Albacore travel in schools, and a hit by one means that others are there. Begging to be caught. Uhlig explains the choreography.
Each angler draws a number to determine batting order. When a tuna strikes a trolled jig, angler No. 1 grabs that rod from its holder on the stern and begins to fight the fish.
Anglers 2 through 6 spring to the other stern rods and throw them into freespool for 20 or 30 seconds to keep the lures near where the strike took place.
Everyone screams for the skipper to stop the boat.
Meanwhile, four other anglers leap for the sliders and throw them into freespool, too, to get anchovies into the mix.
“The sliders are more effective than anything,” Uhlig tells the group.
As the twin Caterpillar diesels hit neutral, someone slaps loose the gate on drop-box No. 1. It dumps its contents into the sea, creating a cluster of bait off the stern.
Other anglers leap to the rods around the rail, baiting up quickly with flopping anchovies fresh from the well. As their lines go over the side, the skipper kicks his engines briefly into reverse, a deckhand pops the gate on the second box and - voila - an instant school of anchovies around and under the boat, sucked into position by the props.
As the boat begins to drift with wind and current, lines out, one crew member stands at the live well and tosses anchovies into the sea, one by one, every few seconds, steady as a heartbeat.
He gaffs no fish. He untangles no lines. He just tosses bait. It leaves a trail of tidbits for the tuna along the vessel’s drift. If everything happens right, the tuna stay beside the boat.
“What you catch is what you keep,” Uhlig tells his clients. “There’s no sharing on this boat.”
Sharing makes for angry feelings, Uhlig said, between the dedicated angler and the guy who thinks the sea is a good place to get drunk.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TUNA CHARTERS Following are some of the tuna charters out of Westport and what they charge for services. Travis Charters: One day $185; two days $285. Bring your own food and drink. Neptune Charters: Two days $285. Maximum six people. Bring your own food and drink. Coho Charters: Two days on 60-foot Outer Limits $350. Includes bunk beds, galley-cooked meals, coffee. Beer, pop available at extra charge. Ocean Charters: Two days $393 on 80-foot Deluxe. Includes galley-cooked meals and staterooms for two to five people. Alcohol at extra charge. For information on booking salmon, tuna or bottomfishing charters and accommodations, call Westport Chamber of Commerce, (360) 268-9422.