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.

 

 

 

2012 Southern Cal Tuna Club “Stag” Tourney

Mike called me months ago and told me to block out some dates so I could run his 38′ Uniflite “Mundy Mooring” in the fall “Stag” tournament this year.  Its an annual tourney in the Southern California Tuna Club (SCTC) and we have fished it together for the last 4 or 5 years.  Mike is the perfect guy to run a boat for.  He is fun and easy going, yet likes to catch fish and is will to go the extra mile.  For the week leading up to the trip I worked on the boat, doing routine engine and generator service, and getting the tackle and gear ready.  At the same time I was watching the tuna deal very closely, and the weather.  Last minute the weather forecast turned for the worse, but Mike said “go for it” anyways, and boy am I glad we did.

An old friend of Mikes passed away very recently, Gordy Bateman.  Gordy was (I think) 99 years old, and one of the saltiest guys ever the walk the earth.  A member of SCTC, Gordy had a reputation for taking his boat, the “Fighting Lady” to the ends of the earth in these tournaments.  He’d show up for the weigh-ins at the last possible minute, and pull some big, tournament winning tuna out of the hold.  I mentioned to Mike that the tuna were on the edge of our range for the time alloted, he was hesitant.  Then I said we could do it in memory of Gordy, and the idea became set in stone.

Rigged and ready to go.

On thursday, October 4th I loaded up my gear and got things ready.  Mike came down along with his guest Ron and we went to the fuel dock to top off the tanks, then out to see Nacho at the bait barge for our ammo.  Nacho asked me “whacha want?”  I said “Some live squid would be great about now buddy.”  (Not knowing he HAD live squid).  “Okay, its in that well on the other end.”  I was stoked beyond words.  The sardines have been hard to keep alive on long trips this whole year, but I knew the squid would make the trip no problem.  There is a lot of squid offshore right now, and I knew the tunas were keyed in on the squirts anyways.  The tanks full of live squid lifted my spirits, considering the deteriorating weather reports on the outside.

We ran back in to the slip to pick up Tom, Mikes son and one of my good friends from all the way back to grade school.  Tommy jumped on with his gear and we were off in minutes flat.  I checked my voicemail and e-mail for last minute intel, and even got an on the water call from Josh who was just in from the tuna grounds.  With that intel I plugged in the #’s and set our course, only 117 miles to go.  “Its gonna be a LONG night boys”, I said as we rolled our guts out going across the flats in a beam sea.

I took my turn at the wheel, but refrained from overdoing my time like I typically do.  I knew I had to have my game face on when we reached the grounds, so I took my place on one of the bridge bunks and rested as hard as I could.  No way to sleep when you can hardly keep from falling out of your bunk.  It wasn’t rough, but the angle could not have been worse.  I was actually waiting for the axe to fall, but it never did.  Sometimes the weather forecast is wrong, but instead of being worse than they said, it was better.  At 4am I took the helm and looked at the plotter.  We were outside the 1010 Trench, just 5 miles from a 213 spot.  The water was 69.8, and had been for the last 30 miles.  I knew we needed to find the break before we would be in the tuna.  I turned up the gain on the machine and set the depth to 10 fathoms, then set the fish alarm so the first meter marks could be heard as well as seen.

At grey light we were almost right on top of the high spot, and the jigs were out.  From the 213 to the 1010 Trench would be straight downhill, just like I had planned.  Mikes guest Ron is 80 years young, and I wanted him be be safe and comfortable.  I heard the Furuno fish finder alarm go off and looked down to see a nice jag of tuna, then looked over at the Furuno RD30 Sea Temp meter and it read 70.5.  The next thing I heard was the sound of reels screaming.  “Perfect!  I love it when a plan comes together.”  I ran down the ladder and helped clear the jig rods, and at the same time brailed a 1/2 scoop of live squid into our wake as the boat slid to a stop.  Tommy was winding in a hoochie daisey chain right through the chum and got bit on the grind.  The tuna ate the thing not 15′ off the transom, and he came tight on a nicer grade fish.

At deep color I called it out “big albacore guys!”  Mike was stoked.  I gaffed Tommy’s fish and placed it in the kill bag, then went to work on Mikes fish, which was a little bigger model.  The head gaff ended up in the mouth, and the lift into the boat was a little sketchy.   Glad the fish made it in the bag, because it ended up being the tournament winning fish.  As is typical with early morning first bites, we were slow getting baits in the water, and never did get a bait bite on that stop.  No doubt we would have if we had been better prepared.  We transferred the ice from the freezer on the bridge and put in on the fish, then set the jigs and I went back to work.

The jig stops were steady and we began to pick off bait fish here and there.  The albacore turned into yellowfin, and our numbers were getting up there.  The kill bag was getting hard to close.  We found a kelp on the 1010 proper and hooked a dorado, then another.  It sure is fun when the kill bag has several different species in it, especially in a tournament that has different categories for different fish.  With the job basically done and now being 130 miles from Catalina, I made the turn to start heading uphill.  It was still early, and we were still in the fish.  I set a course for the Hidden Bank and expected a break in the jig stops, but it never materialized.  No late morning lull or crew falling asleep.  You gotta love fall fishing.

Ron on a tuna with Tommy handling the deckhand duties.

We came up on another kelp and I got out the first bait.  A very slight backlash when I cast a flylined live squid up wind turned into an instant tuna bite.  The result was a knot on my spool and the tuna getting the best of me with a loud “SNAP!”  The whole thing took all of 3 seconds.  Thats how good it was.  We added some yellowtail to our score on the way up the line, then crossed the break and back into dead waters we went.  It was time to head for the barn.

We ran through the night at 8.5 kts, straight uphill.  Not one drop of water came over the gunnels the whole trip, but it was still bumpy.  You could tell it was blowing hard on the outside, and the weather updates on the VHF spoke of 40kts of wind at San Nicolas Island.  At midnight the weather really laid down, and we bumped it up to 10kts.  After more than 30 hours at 8kts, 10 felt like we were hauling ass.  At 4am I pulled back the throttles as we came up under the East End light at Catalina.  I metered around for some conditions and marks, but found nothing I liked.  So I continued up the front, looking for signs of life.  By now my legs were weak with exhaustion, and I could feel my eyes burning.

Mike with his tournament winning 29lb albacore.

I set us up at Yellowtail Point, and we cast out a few baits.  Then we weighed our catch and began the process of filleting and packaging our beautiful fish.  It was flat grease, and in this club you can weigh your fish at anchor with a certified scale if the seas are calm.   We fished through half the day, knowing it was not going to be anywhere as good as the day before.  I did catch a big calico that I thought might win that division.  It was bested by just ounces, but didn’t take away from our tournament victory in any way.  In every other tournament that Mike and I have ever fished, we stayed out and fished hard til the very last possible second.  Not this trip, we were in 4th Of July Cove and on the mooring at 3pm, with the dinghy in the water and ready to go.  Lines out was scheduled for 4pm, but we wanted to head into the Isthmus for Buccaneer Days, and witness the mayhem first hand.  We ate ice cream and tried hard not to fall asleep standing, then headed for the awards banquet.

At the clubhouse in 4th of July Cove we met up with all 60+ of the other tournament participants.  We all shared stories of our travels, and nobody could believe we had done what we did.  Basically was stayed up for 3 straight days to get down to the tuna grounds and back, but it was worth it.  The traditional swordfish and steak dinner only made me more tired, and as they announce that Mike and I had each won a category (tuna for Mike, and yellowtail for me) we felt the real pay off of doing the trip in memory of Gordy Bateman and the “Fighting Lady”.  I was now so tired I could hardly put together a sentence.  Tommy headed back into the Isthmus for more of Buccaneer Days, and Mike, Ron and I sat in the cockpit of the “Mundy Mooring” sharing some fish stories.

I called my wife and my son Scott to tell them I was safe and missed them tremendously, then laid down.  I fell asleep faster than I could ever remember, and woke up with both a victory and the memory of Gordy fresh in my mind.

Marlin fishing on the way home from Catalina.

 

 

 

Eyes in the Sky. How Birds Help You Find Fish

I will preface this article by saying that the information I’m about to give is based upon what I’ve been taught from guys I respect, and my own personal experience.  I have not gone to “bird college”, or researched this stuff endlessly.  What is written in the next few paragraphs is my words and how I see things.  I am still learning and hope to learn more about birds every time I get out on the water.

I was on the flybridge of the 48′ Uniflite Brainwave, back in 1983 and we were fishing out front of San Diego, on the 9 Mile Bank.  I stood next to Bill Lescher, the Captain, who had asked my friend and I to “quit playing video games in the salon” and come out for some fresh air.  I loved to fish, but a big boat with video games on a nice TV and all you can eat Pringles was tough to resist.  Bill had his eyes on the horizon, and I asked him what he was looking for. “Birds” is all he said, as he was too focused to give me the details right then.

Suddenly Bill turned the boat and pushed forward the throttles.  I remember how loud the boat was just then, and how much it vibrated as it came up to speed.  “What is it!  What do you see?”  I asked.  “Birds!, look at how all the birds are flying in the same direction!  They’re leading us to something!”  Something was right.  The boat slid to a stop and I looked over the edge of the flybridge in time to see 4 or five large bigeye tuna swimming almost straight down.  Bill flew down the ladder and cast out a bait as fast as he could.  He was screaming in frustration that us two boys had not even moved a muscle to try to fish. We were still in shock from how quick the whole fire drill had began, and it ended just as fast.  We never even got bit, or should I say, Bill never got a bite.

Later in life I spent a ton of time on the water with another captain that followed birds and watched them more than the water or electronics.  We’d spend days at a time hunting for striped marlin off Southern California, and did so quite successfully.  He answered my questions about birds, and then showed me first hand how helpful they were in our quest to find fish on any given day.

“Birds don’t have a 7-11 on the corner where they can get a bite to eat whenever they want, so they must follow the food.”  I was told.  While staring through the binoculars for signs of life, I was trained to call out any and all birds I saw, and what they were doing.  A certain lingo went along with it and would be foreign to any untrained passenger on board.  “He’s got somewhere to be.  Standby.  Yep, he put the brakes on!  On your 9:30, bout a 1/2 mile out!”  Followed by me running up to the bow and getting ready to cast a bait.  Translation:  A bird flying hard (not lazily) caught my attention.  Then is stopped mid air and dove down towards the surface.  This is almost always a certain sign of a feeder.  (Marlin feeding on the surface.  The fishing equivalent of a “slam dunk” if you can get a bait on it.)

The most common bird out there is the Western Gull.  What I like to look for is the bright white and defined mature gulls.  The ones with brown mixed into their plumage are immature, and have not yet learned much more than following other birds.

This is a 3rd year Western Gull, and what I’m looking for offshore.

I watch these guys fly and look for one that is flying like it’s on  mission.  When I see one doing hard wing flaps with sense of urgency, I’ll follow that bird with the glasses, and look ahead of it for signs of exotics.  Gulls are also a great sign when sitting on a kelp, or on the shoreline at Catalina when looking for seabass.  See a bunch of these birds sitting on the water during the day, all grouped up in 80′-130′ of water, and you can be certain there is squid where they are sitting.  See a single pelican?  There is probably no squid, as pelicans don’t care for squid.

Terns are a great indicator, and seemingly come out of nowhere.

This is a tern, and they are a great indicator for many surface feeding  species.  Come into an area with some life and start seeing these guys, and it is time to get serious.  While terns will give away the location of yellowtail and barracuda that are chasing bait upon inshore waters, it’s the bait the terns are after, and it might just be mackerel causing the action.   Offshore, these birds diving and picking on the surface means exotics.  I can’t think of a time when a spot of terns were diving offshore and it was a false alarm.  Terns will sit on kelps and help make them easier to find, and a kelp with one of these on it is a kelp I WILL fish.  Offshore you hear about “time of day” and “on the slack” or “bite time”. Turns seem to appear right at bite time, and disappear into thin air when it’s over.

Shearwaters are an all around sign that there is life in the area, but not really something I’d run for.

Shearwaters are common to see just about everywhere offshore.  Where I key in on these is when they are picking along a current break, or sitting on a “slick spot” on the surface.  The slick spot could be the oils coming to the surface from tuna feeing deep on sardines or mackerel.  I have had jig strikes driving over slick spots with shearwaters, many times.  These birds often hover just above the water with their feet touching like they’re walking on water.  They are eating tiny little things I can’t see, and sometimes thrive on the leftovers and scraps after a spot of tuna or dorado have finished feeding on finbait.   Not really known for diving on marlin or tuna, but more for giving away little clues that tell me “I’m getting close.”

Jackpot! Sightings of these are rare, and for me a sure sign that a marlin is nearby. The word Jaeger is German, and literally means “HUNTER.”

Jaegers are really amazing birds.  Hawklike with talons and split feathers coming off their tails, they fly with precision and purpose.  Jaegers feed by following the surface fish we target, knowing that sooner or later they will chase baits to where other birds can scoop them up.  Instead of getting their own meal, jaegers steal it from other birds by chasing them down with a show of acrobatics that is truly distracting to me as a captain.  Every time, the pursued gull or tern eventually concedes defeat and spits out a meal for the Jaeger, which is catches mid-air and eats.  I rarely see two of these at the same time, and almost never see one sitting on the water.  These guys are where the action is, and I would follow one all day if I could keep up.  This is my favorite of all the birds we see in So. Cal.

I do believe that at least one type of pelagic fish we target actually follows birds to help it find food.  That is the dorado.  I have pulled up to a kelp with the sonar on and watched the dorado go in a certain direction, right behind a single gull or tern.  There was no bait on the sonar, and the water clear enough to see the dorado right on the surface, obviously following the bird.  Conversely, I was off the 499 one day, between bite times, and saw a single jaeger with no other birds in sight (in any direction).  I happened to look over the side in time to see a striped marlin go past on the starboard bow.  The fish never made any attempt to turn or slow down, and the jaeger was right on it’s tail.

There is no question that trolling offshore can have it’s boring stretches.  I find that watching the birds helps me stay alert, even of they are not sending me the right signals.  For sure watching gulls, terns and jaegers has helped me catch more fish than listening to the VHF radio.   If nothing else, it’s better than playing video games in the salon waiting for a jig strike.