written by Sophia McDonald | photos by Justin Bailie

During Oregon’s albacore tuna season, Clay Archambault’s life is paint-stained Carhartt’s and finicky equipment, and long weeks at sea followed by relaxation with fellow fishermen in Newport’s South Beach Marina. “I really like the things you experience on the water and in the fishing community,” he said. “You learn people’s stories.”

Archambault has been searching the world’s oceans for tuna since he was 19. His love of the sea came from his late grandmother, whom he calls his best friend. She took him on a year-long sailboat trip in the Caribbean right after he graduated from high school. “That really set the hook for me and the water,” he said.

He briefly pondered going to art school, but when someone offered him the opportunity to work on a fishing boat, he jumped at it. His first gig was a 114-day jaunt (known as a “long-leg”) into the waters of the South Pacific. “It was an education I didn’t really foresee, but as time went on, I realized it was exactly what I was looking for,” he said.

He spent a couple of years fishing on commercial boats in New Zealand, Chile and Hawaii before deciding he wanted more time on land. At the age of 20, he and a friend bought a forty-foot wooden fishing boat, which they used to catch rockfish, salmon and tuna.

The Island Girl, a fifty-three-foot boat known as a skookum, has been his home for the past eleven years. Archambault’s sole focus from June to October is hunting the elusive tuna.

Tuna travel a long trail in the ocean, noted Del “Tuna Dog” Stephens, founder of the Oregon Tuna Classic, a sport fishing tournament that benefits the Oregon Food Bank. Tuna begin their annual journey in the waters off Japan in spring and reach the U.S. just north of San Francisco in late summer. From there, they travel up the coast to Alaska, fattening up on rockfish, sardines, anchovies, plankton.

One way to locate tuna is to track their prey. The Island Girl is equipped with gear that tells Archambault stats such as water temperature, sea depth and where schools of plankton are abundant. Even so, Archambault said, nothing beats the actual sighting of tuna. “That’s the exciting part!”

Once Archambault and his sole crew member have found a good fishing area, they lower two metal poles out at forty-five-degree angles from the boat. Each one holds six lines with double-pronged tuna hooks and fluorescent-hued squid-like shapes. They throttle the boat down to six knots, or about seven miles per hour.
Then they wait.

Archambault often wakes at dawn and works into the night. His goal is to catch about a ton of fifteen-pound juvenile tuna a day in two-week jaunts. He sells his catch through local brokers, with much of it going to overseas markets such as Japan and Spain, although local demand for albacore has picked up over the past ten years.

Albacore fishing in Oregon dates back to 1929, done from primitive dories. Today, the state has 400 registered tuna boats that, last year, hauled in nearly 10.2 million pounds of fish, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Boats based in Newport accounted for almost half of Oregon’s tuna catch.

Archambault, like most Americans, grew up on canned tuna. The first time he tried fresh albacore, it was marinated in Italian dressing, wrapped in bacon and grilled. “It’s a whole different world once you try it fresh,” he said.

Grilling is a popular restaurant preparation. “I like the flavor that comes from cooking over direct heat,” offered Michael Waliser, chef and owner of Saffron Salmon in Newport. “Searing creates color, and color creates flavor.”

Waliser buys albacore direct from the boats for his grilled tuna with tomato confit served in his small bayfront restaurant, specializing in Pacific Northwest cuisine. “We know who we buy it from and the names of the boats,” said Waliser. “When tuna is in season, it’s impeccably fresh.”

Seasons and Regions Seafood Grill in southwest Portland has a classic interpretation of albacore. “What do you do with tuna? You make a tuna salad sandwich,” said Allan Schwab, co-owner of the restaurant. Chef Greg Schwab’s sandwich is served on hazelnut-studded bread with a slice of melted Tillamook cheddar.

Mark Kosmicki and Tiffany Norton with Eugene’s Party Downtown have a different suggestion—infuse albacore with smoky flavor. Kosmicki likes to smoke the meat over applewood and serve it as part of a radish salad, which, he said, is one of his all-time favorite dishes at the restaurant.

Home cooks should be careful not to overcook albacore, he said. Nevertheless, they should not be afraid of experimenting with it. “Tuna basically goes with anything,” said Schwab. “If you have a recipe that calls for steak, substitute albacore. It’s really good in dishes where you might not think you can use fish.”

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