Ahi Tuna

Yellowfin tuna
Yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus albacares)
Here is a fun factoid in fish trivia; the origin to the name of Ahi Tuna.

You have mostly seen it on several restaurant menus. And like most, assumed the word Ahi means seared yellowfin tuna. Close, but no cigar.

Ahi is actually ancient Hawaiian, meaning fire. But where or how did the connection between this early Hawaiian word for fire and the yellowfin tuna come about?

Taking a descriptive look at these open-ocean game fish, and the choice of this word will actually make sense. 

To begin with, tuna (sometimes referred to as tunny) belong to the Scombridae (mackerel) family of saltwater fish found worldwide. For the record, this subgroup of the Scombridae is called Thunnini which comprise of some 15 species across five genera. The sizes between tuna species vary greatly ranging from the smallest, like the bullet tuna (Auxis rochei) which seldom surpasses a max. length of 1.6 ft / 50 cm, weighing no more than 4 lbs / 1.8 kg, on up to the Atlantic bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) which can achieve a max. length of 15 ft / 4.6 m, with a colossal weight over 1,508 lbs / 684 kg. It is believed the Atlantic bluefin tuna can live up to 50 years.

What makes the yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) a special case is that are a highly migratory species making them among the most widespread species of tuna in the world. While absent from the Mediterranean Sea, they are found throughout the tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic/Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific, Indian Ocean on up through the Red Sea.

Yellowfin tuna
When speed is the essence for survival, few fish are as perfectly hydrodynamically formed for the open ocean as the tuna.

What’s more, yellowfins are regarded as one of the fastest-swimming pelagic fish in the world capable of speeds of up to 47 mph / 75 km/h. Not only does this allow these highly active, agile predators with a streamlined body easily overtake prey, they are more than capable of outrunning most predators. Only the fastest species of sharks, dolphins and billfish can catch them.

Yellowfin Tunas
A group of sportfishermen returning from a fishing outing out of San Deigo, CA with several trophy size yellowfin tunas, in the 70-to-90-pound range.

To fishermen, they are strong, highly tenacious fighters. Even the most skilled rod and reel anglers with the best heavy tackle gear often have their hands full landing even the light weights in the 60-to-80-pound range. A really big yellowfin can weigh over 250, with the current IGFA all tackle record coming in at 388 pounds. That one was taken off Mexico in the Socorro Islands.

Before there were Penn Internationals and mono-filament fishing lines, early Hawaiian islanders fished from outrigger canoes with bone lures that had hooks, also carved from bone, tied to the end of braided hemp lines. To get the tuna’s attention, these island fishermen would paddle the wooden canoes as fast as they could, thereby trolling these lures on stout hand lines through feeding schools of big tuna. Some of these guys would lay into some really large fish – 100 to 200 pounds.

O.K. let’s put this this in perspective. You’re an islander living on one of the islands in Hawaii, and your plan is to catch a tuna. To accomplish this means you are likely going to perform a wind-sprint in a freak’en hollowed out log, hoping one of these fish doesn’t take too long in deciding to take the hook. Once one of these bluewater juggernauts realizes it has been had, its first course of action is to rocket into the depths, dragging yards of the thick hand line over the side at a blistering clip.

During these high-speed runs, the friction between the heavy cord and the contact point on the canoe’s wooden gunwale would become so intense the wood would begin to smoke, just like rapidly rubbing sticks together to start a campfire.

To prevent the line, and the canoe for that matter, from catching on fire a second fisherman continually douses the line with water. Most likely the most successful ahi fishermen in those days were the ones with the most burn marks on the gunwales of their outrigger canoes.

So there you have it as to the origin of Ahi Tuna.