2013 Year In Review

It’s been an amazing year for fishing in Southern California.   After several seasons of bust conditions, sportboats going back to the bank, tackle manufacturers fading away, and endless wind, this one seemed to make up for it in spades.   Some added boats to their fleet and Captains rose out of retirement to fill in and join the bounty.   Fundamentally things had changed and those who took full advantage expanded on new ideas.  Lobster charters and all night seabass trips kept boats busy and helped revive a seemingly dead industry.  Visiting the San Diego Landings it was a relief to see the crowded bustle and excitement that reminded me of years gone by.

January 4th Yellowtail Surprise.

January 4th Yellowtail Surprise.

 

It all started with the yellowtail, and I was pleasantly surprised to hook and land one at Catalina on January 4th on my first trip of this year.  Little did I know this was just the beginning, and in a few short months the forks would transform the Coronado’s into something out of a storybook chapter titled “The Good Old Days”.  San Clemente Island went off to epic proportions, but was inconsistent enough to keep things interesting.   In fact, all the local islands had their share of good yellowtail fishing, and it continues now in October with a powerful cutoff low spinning off the coast.

 

Typically smaller island seabass were not small this year.

Typically smaller island seabass were not small this year.

Of course you know I am going to mention the seabass, and what an incredible show they put on all up and down the bight in 2013.  Epic bites at Tijuana Flats, Huntington Beach, Oxnard and Ventura, Catalina, the Channel Islands and San Nicolas Island.  For me and my Captain On Board clients it was one for the history books.  In the last 6 years I have been able to string together limit style seabass trips and help scores of anglers catch their 1st (and 2nd AND 3rd) seabass ever, but this year it was all about the tankers.  The sheer size of the seabass this year boggled the mind.  There is nothing more satisfying for me than gaffing that first seabass for someone that has been trying for years to check seabass off their wish list, but to have it be a 50-60lb slob is just amazing.   Even my wife got into the action, hooking and landing a coastal tanker on the Huntington Beach bite on light tackle.  She is still smiling over that one.

Even my wife got into the action.

Even my wife got into the action.

In the midst of all this action the bluefin slid up the coast and even I had no idea they would stay and put on such a show.  While some did (and still are) complain about the lack of albacore the bft’s more than made up for it in my opinion.  For a non El Nino year we had an amazing amount of dorado show up locally, and absolute tonnage of yellowtail on the kelps.  Late in the season the yellowfin showed and are still biting today, but is was the shot at a bluefin over 100lbs that kept San Diego landing parking lots full.  I expected the axe to fall at anytime, thinking things were too good to be true, but it never really did.  It would be really good for a while then shut down, only to get good again unexpectedly.   While all of this fantastic offshore fishing was happening, something nobody predicted slid in and took us all by surprise.

Fat bluefin were eager to bite almost this entire summer.

Fat bluefin were eager to bite almost this entire summer.

“Boys, we have a normal billfish season upon us!”  Even as guys were pulling into the harbor with their 2nd and 3rd marlin flags flying most were skeptical, but it kept on going.   Swordfish never really bit but there were plenty around and several hooked.  “Good Karma” got one, and a couple stick boats put up scores.  Certainly not the best marlin season in history but way better than recent years.  Mike “Beak” Hurt released 7 striped marlin on one trip, and Andy on the “Mirage” topped that with 8 releases not long after.  For those still doubting this was a “real” marlin season, I disagree.  As an interesting side note we had short billed spearfish in the mix.  One was caught and I was intrigued, then 5, then 10 and it started to get interesting.  No way to know for sure how many were caught total, as small center consoles and private skiffs were getting them as well as the prominent marlin guys.  No doubt some spearfish were caught that were never reported.

GoodKarmaSwordfish

Good Karma Swordfish

This season saw its share of oddities to go along with the spearfish.  Early in the season an abnormal amount of opah were hooked and landed.  The albacore did show and a couple handfulls were caught.  A giant (and controversial) mako was taken that made headlines, followed by others (over 1,000lbs) that smartly got less publicity.  The big threshers never showed in volume but pups were being caught on piers up and down the coast.  Giant oarfish are washing up on beaches as I write this, more than enough to get the attention of scientists and biologists.  Possibly the most amazing thing has been the abundance of squid almost everywhere, all year long.  This is a trend than has repeated itself for the last several years but I am still in awe.  Launch ramps were full on weekend with private boaters eager to get out and sample the possibilities, and afternoons saw guys telling stories of strange sighting and stellar catches.  A great year indeed.

All the squid you want, all year long.

All the squid you want, all year long.

 

 

 

Private Boat Bluefin

Bluefin and Dorado on deckOf all the tunas we encounter here in Southern California, few are as hard to catch from a private boat as the bluefin tuna.  This in one of the fish that sportboats have a serious advantage targeting, utilizing side scanning sonar and heaps of live bait capacity to chum with.  Bluefin can be caught on the troll, but not nearly as easily as yellowfin, albacore or skipjack, so some special techniques must be used to maximize opportunities for these hard fighting exotics.

It all starts with some pre-planning.  Sea Surface Temperature charts (SST’s) are vital in all offshore trip planning, and knowing what water your target species lives and feeds in helps.  Bluefin like what we would consider the cooler water, from 64 to 68 degrees.  Being able to regulate their body temperature allows them to tolerate even cooler waters, but catching them also means finding the bait they are feeding on.  For that you’ll need edges or “current breaks.”  Armed with a little intel on where bluefin have been caught in the last couple days and a good SST chart, a guy could find the break and have a starting point in mind.

Next and probably most important is bait.  Research this ahead of time to find out what receivers have the best bait available.  This year live squid has been working excellent, and is a hearty bait that lives well in almost all bait systems.  When the fishing is good and near the weekends it may be hard to rely on the bait receiver, so catching your own is another option.  A strong, healthy bait makes all the difference when fishing bluefin, and anything less seriously hinders your chances at success.

CloudySunset

On a sportboat the trolling rotation is more of a routine than the necessity it is on a private boat.  To improve your odds, use lighter leaders to elicit strikes and utilize plugs and spreader bars often not allowed on overnight boats.  These trolling lures require some tuning and patience when deploying, but work better than your typical feather on heavy leader.  The natural cedar plug works well for bluefin, but will need to be re-rigged on lighter fluorocarbon leader to really shine.  Experiment with lure positions long and short to find where the tuna want to bite, and often bluefin will take a trolled jig way back.  When a strike occurs be ready to get a live bait in the water as fast as possible, and toss a few baits over as chum.

Breaking Tuna

Use a good pair of binoculars to find signs that the tuna are around and stay in areas with life and clues they are around.  Slick spots on the surface of the water tell a tale of fish feeding deep and the oils rising to give away this action.  Troll over these and watch the fish finder for tuna marks, and toss a few live baits as chum when you do see meter marks.  Watch for birds giving signals of feeding tuna, and look under the birds for boils, splashes or breezing fish.  If you see good meter marks or have tuna come up and boil on the chum you have thrown, stop and fish that prime live bait you have.  Be patient and do long soaks, as bluefin prefer a bait far from the boat at times.

Kelp Paddy

Finding a kelp can be a great way to catch bluefin.  Wind in the trolling outfits and begin a drift up wind of the paddy, throwing chum as you slide by.  You may catch yellowtail or dorado closer to the kelp, and maybe even get the tuna to bite.  Most often the tuna will bite after you have drifted a ways past the kelp and the yellows have stopped biting.  Continue chumming one’s and two’s and be patient.  Make sure to have fresh baits on but at the same time leave your bait out as long as its swimming good.  If you see boils and/or meter marks, consider starting the boat and just “bumping” it in and out of gear once.  This will push the chum hiding under your boat out and to the waiting bluefin, possibly starting the bite you have been waiting for.

Big Fish Light Gear

30# is a great all around starting point for live bait but don’t be afraid to drop down to 25# or even 20# if you know the fish are around and just can’t get them to bite.  If they bite the 30# fine and are hard to land, move up to the 40#, 50# or 60# as needed. Bluefin pull hard, and quality tackle is a must for these bruisers.  One secret used by great anglers is the use of small hooks.  If a 3/0 hook matches the size of the bait but bites are hard to come by, try a #1 to see if it makes a difference.  It usually makes a big difference, and with a quality hook you can still land a high percentage of the fish that bite.

If you are lucky enough to hook and land a bluefin on a private boat, special care should be taken to preserve your catch.  Bleed bluefin right after gaffing but cutting the gills and making a cut on either side of the tail.  This will drain the blood line along the body and yield more quality meat.  You may want to gut the fish and stuff ice into the body cavity, but a good ice chest with plenty of ice mixed with salt water works wonders to cool these warm blooded tuna quickly.  When one bite ends and you go looking for the next one, consider filleting your catch between stops and packaging it for the ice box.  This will not only give you the absolute best quality table fare when you get home, but a chance to make some fresh sashimi on the way in.  Just be sure to have some wasabi and soy sauce on the boat!