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.

 

 

 

California Yellowtail

With all the discussion these days about small yellowtail being caught and kept I though I would do my best to research the subject and weigh in my feelings.  I really thought I would find facts proving that these “rat” yellows spawn at a young age and grow really fast, to support my belief that keeping these smaller fish was justifiable.  Turns out there is little known about California Yellowtail compared to other fish we love to target in our area, and what is available is not exactly what I expected.

These fish grow fast at a young age and are 3-4lbs at year one, but their growth slows considerably as they age and at 5 years old the average yellowtail is approximately 16lbs.  Most spawn in their 2nd year while all spawn in their third year.  This means that all of these small yellowtail caught on kelps have not yet spawned, something that surprises me and changes my opinion more than a little.  Yellowtail broadcast spawn meaning that they gather in groups and males release sperm in the water with the eggs from the females.  Spawning occurs from May through September, right when we are targeting them.  Armed with this information I am now puzzled with the apparent health of our yellowtail biomass.  On all fronts the scientific community rates the California Yellowtail population as “healthy”.

Another thing that got my attention is the amount of eggs deposited by smaller yellows in comparison to the larger ones.  3 to 5 year old yellowtail spawn just once per year, releasing about 458,000 eggs while their larger cousins spawn multiple times per year and its more like 4 million eggs!  Obviously the large yellows are carrying the weight of the responsibility for the species.  Good when you think of how smart the big boys are, and its healthy that the next generation gets the genes of wise yellowtail.

California yellowtail populations live primarily in Mexican waters most of their lives, and a low percentage migrates above the border during warm water seasons.  The record large yellowtail caught in California was 80lbs (caught in 2001) and the record in Mexico was a whopping 92.1lbs (caught in 1960).  While a ten year old fish will typically be around 35lbs, no California yellowtail has ever been aged at over 12 years.  So how old were the record fish, and how old do they get?  I found no answers.

Interestingly, these fish grow decidedly faster in warmer water, so a resident Catalina yellowtail at 25lbs may be 10 years old!  On years such as this one where a large volume of small yellowtail migrate into US waters there is some that stay at our local islands and coastline for the rest of their lives.  Tagging studies have shown that these fish migrate very little once they get here, staying local and living the rest of their lives within miles of one area.  At least 3 different species of the yellowtail family exist in the Pacific, and scientists agree that more may be discovered if more research is done.  No data was available on the Southern California resident population and its spawning habits.

In past years (1954) yellowtail had a high commercial market value for canning but that is ancient history.  Today recreational catches far exceed commercial catches, another fact that caught me by surprise.  Drift nets (gill nets) account for the bulk of the total commercial amount of yellowtail caught each year, and those nets are set to target white seabass and barracuda (thats what it says!).  Commercial rod and reel catches are surprisingly high actually, but don’t even touch the amount captured by nets.  No real shocker there.

I never have had a problem admitting I was wrong, and this is just another case of that.  What I wanted to find was facts leading to me preaching from my soap box about how catching and keeping small yellowtail is legal and the fishery sustainable.  While the latter seems to be true with the information I found, and obviously the legal aspect is accurate, I have no soap box to stand on anymore.  These small fish should be released whenever possible, and I will make an effort to do so.

Now if I was running a boat that had traveled long distance on substantial amounts of fuel I might change my way of thinking when that first “rat” comes to color.  But the mass destruction of “limits for all” is something I have changed my mind on.  I still believe in peoples right to do their own thinking and certain freedoms for all (within the limits of the law).  I will change my ways based on the data I found this evening, and let you decide for yourself.  These fish gather offshore in groups to spawn this time of year, and we are taking advantage of that and disrupting the cycle of life.  They are fun to catch, and while fishing for these small California yellowtail we have the opportunity to catch something worth really getting excited about.  They taste good too.

What will you do the next time you find a kelp loaded with “rat” yellows?

 

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.

 

 

 

Kelp Paddy Fishing from a A Private Boat

That’s close enough!! Too close and you spook most of what you’re trying to catch. Don’t worry, the fish know your bait is there, trust me.

If you have read this far I applaud you, because there have been kelp paddy articles written over and over, each and every year.  The information here will sound redundant, but the idea is to pound some basic information into the heads of those who just don’t seem to grasp the concept.  Some guys piss others off so bad, that verbal battles on VHF channel 72 near the point of death threats.  Others simply can’t buy a bite.  Maybe they never read any kelp paddy articles.

If you’ve ever fished on a long range boat out of San Diego, you know how they fish kelps.  The captain or a crew member spots a kelp and word gets spread around the boat.  30 anglers, awakened from their naps, froth with anticipation as the charter boat approaches the “salad”.  Most armed with long jig sticks adorned with heavy metal jigs.  The bow of the boat passes the kelp first, and those up front cast at the flotsam as if to be trying to sink it with missiles.   A few guys hook up, but the boat is still sliding (and turning at the same time).  As the anglers in the stern pitch a live bait towards the kelp, the hooked up guys from the bow come barreling down the rail and either saw off freshly hooked baitfish or get tangled.   Some land their fish while causing some, less assertive passengers to throw in the towel.  If the kelp is holding some tonnage, then the boat drifts off while the bite gets really going.  A more organized, steady pick continues as the kelp disappears from sight.

I can see why long range boat skippers fish a kelp this way.  They have a boat full of paying clients, and a responsibility to give each angler the chance to hook a fish.  I also know first hand, that if (as a captain) I do not position the charter boat close enough for passengers to actually HIT the kelp, I will have old timers givinging me a piece of their mind.   If I repeatedly begin a drift far upwind from a kelp, I do believe a mutiny may begin at some point.  I have done this and the passengers simply waited until the boat was close enough to the kelp for them to be able to hit it with a well casted bait, and hit it they did!  Insanity.

That’s about as close as you’ll ever see me on a kelp. On this day, the fish were smaller and biting heavy line, so distance was not as much if a factor.

On a private boat we do things quite differently.  I like to set the boat upwind of the kelp, and begin a drift that will allow the stern to pass the kelp and leave a distance further than a long jig cast.  There are reasons for this.  First off, we do not have the chumming capabilities of a long range boat loaded with 100 scoops of bait, so I don’t want to spook the fish we’re trying to catch.  Secondly, private boats can fish lighter line that gets bit better, because we are not battling 29 other anglers lines to land a fish.  By being further away from the kelp, the chances of landing a yellowtail or tuna is far better if hooked away from the structure on lighter line.

Small fish on kelps can be a blast on light line, especially when hooked from far enough away (from the kelp) that you still have a chance to land them.

I keep fishing long after we’ve passed the kelp, as history has shown that some of the best bites I’ve ever seen, started after drifting a ways past.  While running the charter boat “RailTime”, I had become used to the Furuno CH250 Sonar, and could give a play-by-play for anglers as fish followed the boat far off the kelps they tried to sink with jigs.   Sometimes the fish simply won’t leave the kelp, and I will re-set for another drift when the bite stops and meter marks go away.

If there are fish still on the paddy and the bite has either tapered off, or stopped altogether, I will begin to slow troll live baits past the kelp.  3 anglers max to avoid tangles, I have clients nose hook a live bait and then motor past the kelp as slow as the boat will go.  Again, NOT TOO CLOSE!  A tuna or yellowtail can swim from under the paddy to your bait 50 yards away, in a matter of seconds.

Once the bite tapers off, it’s time to get back to looking. Trolling while looking for paddies saves on fuel, and blind jig strikes add to your score. These albies were caught after we’d drifted far off the kelp, and were enticed to the boat with rubber core sinkers.

If there are other boats in the area, it’d be best if all followed the same routine.  That will never be the case.  Start your drift closer to the paddy when other boats threaten to try and share your find.  You’ll need to be more selective about which kelps to fish hard, because you’ll have to throw more chum to keep the fish at your boat, and not go to the poachers rig.  If there is a paddy holding and biting for 3 or 4 boats, I will watch the birds and fish them instead of the paddy itself.  Back to when I had a sonar at my disposal, the fish were under the birds and I could see that on the meter.  Boats fishing the paddy would trip out when I got the bite going 1/2 mile away from where they were.  Birds are key, especially when it’s dorado we’re targeting.

To summarize, please resist the urge to drive right up to a paddy and cast your baits (or jigs) right into the salad.  You ABSOLUTELY WILL catch more fish off kelps if you stay away from them.  That is, unless you are actually fishing for the kelp itself. ( I hear it makes an excellent hair care product.)   I personally steer clear of paddies with boats on them, or one that has a boat just leaving it.   A fresh kelp, that has not been fished by another boat that day produces much better than one that has been hit hard, even if you heard on the VHF how wide open is “was”.