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.

 

 

 

BAIT AND SWITCH FOR SO. CAL. MARLIN

This is not marlin 101, but the advanced class for those looking to change things up a little and catch more Southern California marlin.  The technique discussed in this article may sound good when read, but prove difficult to wrap your head around once you are actually on the water, where the marlin are.

You’ll need to start with a set of 4 or 5 soft head marlin jigs.  I like the Moldcraft Standard Wide Range, and the Moldcraft soft birds.  The Wide Range swims good both on the flat line and in the rigger, and stays in the water on semi rough days.  Rig the Wide Range with 12′-15′ of light leader material.  I use 90# Seaguar or Berkley flourocarbon.  I really can’t express enough how important it is to find the leader in the packs that have it wrapped in big coils.  The small plastic leader dispensers give the leader way too much memory, and that memory seriously affects the way the jig swims.  You can (and I sometimes do) go lighter on the leader, as you will not be catching any marlin on these jigs.  Do not rig any hooks on these jigs, just a bead and a perfection loop knot or crimp to keep the jig from being pulled off the leader by a hungry marlin.  (trust me)

Moldcraft Wide Range Standard

 

Moldcraft Soft Bird

For the birds I also use light leader, and rig them with a snap swivel and bead behind the head.  The swivel is for attaching to the Wide Range marlin jig leader, and should be buried inside the skirt.  Keep these leaders short.  I use 6′-10′ for easy storage when you need to get things out of the way quickly.  The length of the lure leader has to do with swimming action, and keeping the swivels out of the water, so don’t try to shorten those.  I also like the squid daisy chains from Moldcraft.  Again, I re-rig these with lighter leader, sometimes flourocarbon.

Once on the water, use those gyros and all the intel you have to find the fish.  I will troll your standard marlin jigs with hooks while looking for the break or weed line I want to fish hard. This will not be a trip where you bounce from high spot to high spot.  You will find the marlin and stay there.  This is where most guys get seriously tripped up.  Understand that when you find the bait, birds and life you are looking for, and have some intel that told you there is marlin there, stay there.  The area of life may sometime be a tiny “postage stamp” of conditions.  Don’t let anything other that those conditions evaporating make you leave where the fish are.  You may even want to turn your VHF off, seriously.

Now deploy your soft heads in a symmetrical pattern.  Flat lines short, and where your boat gets bit short.  Adjust for weather obviously, but you already know that because this is an advanced marlin class.  Set both flat lines perfectly even, and apply the minimum drag necessary to keep line from coming off the reel.  For the flat lines I either use a Moldcraft Soft Bird with a Moldcraft Wide Range attached to the swivel and swimming behind.  It is important that all your leaders are exactly the same length for this.  Getting the bird/jig combo perfectly set so that the bird is “fluttering” and the jig is swimming takes a little adjustment, and patience.  It’s worth it.  If the bird is being pulled out of the water by the rod tip, attach the trolling line to the reel handle with a rubber band, lowering the line and helping the bird do it’s thing properly.

Sometimes I will choose the Moldcraft Squid Daisy Chains on the flat lines.  Same principle applies here.  I never mix them up by putting out one daisy chain and one bird/jig combo.  You’ll find out why later in this article.  For the outside (rigger) lines I use just the Moldcraft Wide Range if the jig is going to be trolled in an outrigger.  Birds get pulled up by riggers, and daisy chains have too much drag for what we are doing here.  On bigger boats I will troll outside lines from the rod holder, and not use the riggers at all.  This condenses the spread, and keeps all the jigs easier to watch.  (and trust me, you’ll be watching the jigs)  The outside lines also need to  be even, whether they are in the riggers or run from the rod tips on the outside.  Run the outside jigs one wave longer than the flat lines, and never held down by a rubber band on the reel handle.  Like this, you’ll be able to maneuver at will without tangles.

Now for the bait portion of this lesson.  Your typical marlin baitcaster is a 7′ parabolic rod with large guides for knots to easily pass through.  I use the same rods for dropbacks as I do for casting on feeders or tailers.  A reel in the shape and line capacity of a Penn 500 (please don’t use an actual Penn 500) filled with either 16, 20 or 30# mono works great.  Don’t overfill the reel, as there will be knots that need to fit on the top of the line.  I wind the line in a “U” shape to accommodate the knots down the middle of the spool.

I tie a bimini twist in the main line to double the line.  Some call this a shock leader, but I do it for the purpose of connecting the 30# to the bait leader (typically 90# flouro).  For the connection to the leader, I use an albright knot.  I will don gloves and pull as hard as I can on both of these knots, EVERY TIME.  When it comes time to pull on a fish, I know for sure the knots are good.  Tie the knots fresh every trip, no exceptions.  This year I have been experimenting with wind on leaders, where the 30# fits inside a section of hollow spectra, and the leader fits inside the other end of the same section of spectra.  That in itself is a whole other article/class.  Finally, for lengths I use a short double line of 5′ or less, and leader length of 12′ or less.  (We’ll add more leader next paragraph)

For the end of the leader I tie in a 150# Berkley barrel (not ball bearing) swivel, then another 2 to three feet of 90# flouro, then the hook.  I like the 6/0 Gamakatsu HD Live Bait hook, but something similar will do just fine.  Since this class if full of marlin experts, I will say that the circle hooks work great if you don’t set the hook when you get a bite.  I do not know the name and numbers of the circle hooks, but any good local tackle store can help you with that.  I use a 4 turn uni knot for the hook, and after pulling the knot tight and testing it, I slide the knot loose at it’s base so the hook can swing freely, like a ringed hook.  I personally do not use ringed hooks, as they tend to foul while in a bait swimming in the bait tank.  Same reason I don’t use ball bearing swivels, they foul and cause the line to twist as the bait swims in the tank.

Once fishing and in an area where you might find a marlin, pin a bait on and keep it in the bait tank, ready to cast or drop back in the blink of an eye.  If you have multiple bait tanks, have every one filled with a bait pinned on and ready.  I pin the hook through the bait on it’s back, behind the head.  Just over the gill covers, down the middle of the back, there is a set of tendons that hold well and keep the bait alive indefinitely when done properly.  You may like to hook your baits differently, and thats fine.  I have tried all the other ways, and through the back of the head is what has always worked best for me.

Dropback rod and bait, ready.

Now you have your hook-less softheads out and your baits pinned on and ready, it’s time to talk about how to do this bait and switch deal.  Assign one of your crew to watch the jigs.  More than one if you have them available.  If you hear a clicker for even just a split second, drop a bait.  If you see a meter mark that looks good to you (yet another article), drop a bait.  With the jigs out the way I described, you can pick up and run to feeders or tailers without worry.  When you hear a rubber band snap, or a clicker chirp, you can look back and see what jig got bit.  Why?  Because all your jigs are set symmetrically and the  one that got bit will be out of place.  Have your crew place the jigs in the exact same spot, every time.

When you get a bite on one of the jigs, do not slow the boat (or stop).  Keep the speed constant and the fish will stay with the boat.  Sometimes, you can have the angler wind the rod with the jig or teaser the fish is on with one hand, and drop the bait with the other.  Basically he’ll be hand feeding the marlin.  I always play it like there is a whole school of fish on the jigs, even if I only see one.  Drop as many baits as possible, and have crewmembers do double duty (winding teasers while dropping back baits.)  Remember, the boat is still moving at trolling speed.  If the marlin just will not come off the jig and eat the bait, I will turn the boat to the side the jig is on (that the fish is keyed in on.)  This puts the jig into clear water, and slows it down a tiny bit.  It also puts the bait in clear water, and more often than not, the marlin quickly switches over and eats the bait.

Now I offer this explanation for those who are asking “why”.  First off, with no hooks there will be almost no chance of the jigs picking up eel grass or kelp.  As all you experts know, marlin are on the bait which is often along weed lines that are next to impossible to troll through with traditional hooked marlin jigs.  Next, we all know that Souther California marlin eat jigs differently that ones in Mexico or Hawaii.  A very high percentage of our jig fish fall off because they just aren’t as aggressive with the jigs here.  Way too many opportunities are missed when a marlin gets hooked on a jig and the crew clears all the rest of the jigs from the spread.  The traditional way of hooking a jig fish is to throttle up and “set the hook with the boat”, thus removing any chance of hooking more fish on dropback baits.   Finally, with soft heads the marlin can whack away at the jigs without getting stung and scared away.  The lighter leaders help the jigs swim better, enticing more strikes.  The whole package will bring more fish where you want them, behind the boat.

Results of the Bait and Switch technique

So give modern bait and switch a try, and see how you like it.  For me, the hardest part is finding a crew that will commit completely to the drill.  For most crews, the thought of pulling jigs with no hooks is more than they can bear.  I do know for a fact that this method works incredible.  You can take the basics I’ve outlined here and do your own twist, like with ballyhoo instead of live baits and softheads.  Many do, with professional, tournament winning results.

The spoils.

 

CIYC Billfish Invitational Marlin Tournament, 2012

The name “Sassy Cissy” goes on the perpetual trophy yet again. Jerry Lewis would be so proud.

I never knew Jerry Lewis very well, and only met him a few times over the years.  I certainly knew his boat, the 50′ Hatteras “Sassy Cissy.”  Many years back I installed a 90 gallon bait tank in her cockpit, and was impressed with both the boat, and its owner.  The boat had a reputation in my eyes as always being on the marlin, and having a bunch of smiling, laughing guys on board wherever she went.  I never dreamt I’d one day have the honor of leading the “Sassy Cissy’ to a tournament victory.  Turns out, the tournament was originally started started by Jerry Lewis, who passed away just this last February.

It seems there was always the same group on the “Sassy Cissy”, and when Jerry passed and the boat went up for sale, two of that group joined in a partnership to buy the boat.  Spike has years of experience owning several boats, and had traveled the West Coast with Jerry on the ‘Sassy Cissy”.   Denny was the unofficial engineer on the boat over the years, and knew every system on her intimately.  Together they formed a good team, with Denny keeping a close eye on the systems and Spike more comfortable running the boat.  The third member of our team Dennis, fished the “Sassy Cissy” many times over the years, and has his own boat in Hawaii.  Dennis is a marlin aficionado and marlin jigs are the name of the game for him.  Almost as OCD as I am about leaders, hook sharpness and jig effectiveness, he took over the duties in “the pit” to the point where I had no say whatsoever.  I was not even allowed to wind his leaders at the end of the day, because he winds them a certain way and I was doing it wrong.

So you ask “why the hell were you even there at all Captain Jeff?”  Well, I began to wonder the same thing myself before the tournament even started.  I had no business setting the jigs, or even in the engine room.  When it was time to get on the mooring, I was the guy pulling the dirty, mussel covered rope down the rail, not running the boat.  I was truly out of my element.  I tied the leaders and bimini twists on the bait rods, and even that led to a bout with frustration as I was told what swivels to use, and not to use.  Honestly, I considered jumping ship.  Some of the best marlin fishermen in the whole world have been humbled in So. Cal waters, where I have scores of marlin under my belt as a Captain, crew member, and angler.  I figured I’d either have to concede to be the “boat ho”, or earn the respect I felt I deserved.  I’m glad I chose the latter, and we came away with a victory in the end.

I got up at dawn on day one and cleaned up my sleeping area on the bridge.  (I always sleep on the bridge)  I went down to use the head and found the entire crew asleep, still.  Not good.  I watched as every boat in our tournament left long before we were even close to ready.  Even the harbor master came by in the red harbor patrol boat, tapping his watch as if to say “c’mon guys, you’re late.”

Empty moorings from where our competition had been moored. I never was good at being late to anything.

I was dying inside, but had to keep my mouth shut.  Hair was brushed, and faces shaved, all long before we started the engines and dropped the mooring lines.  I cannot express the doom I felt at this point.  Once out of the harbor, Spike presented me with a schedule where we would rotate position every 30 minutes.  I was flabbergasted, but agreed because “that’s how we’ve always done it when Jerry was alive.”

We ran down the ridge and right into the rising sun.  Not exactly the best way to spot a sleeper.  Everytime I got the wheel in the rotation I would point the bow away from any other boats and away from the sunlit waters that were so blinding, and every time I rotated off the wheel the bow went right back at the sun and other boats.  While at the wheel I would think out loud.  “We gotta get the sun at our back so we can see the marlin, and keep an eye on the temp gauge so I can save the breaks on the GPS.”  Well, at some point the rotation dissolved and we took the positions we were all comfortable with.  Dennis was running the jigs like a madman, checking them for kelp and eel grass every 5 minutes or so, with Spike helping him and watching the jigs for signs of a marlin.  Denny sat by the bait rod, ready for a dropback if any rod got even a tap.  I was at the helm, glassing and watching the meter for signs of life.

At one point Spike came up and helped me look for birds and life, and I spotted a batch of feeders, not far from the East End of Catalina.  A smaller, faster boat was closer to the fish, and saw the same thing.  We had no chance on getting on the feeders before it was too late, but it was a sign that we were in the right area.  Not long after that we came upon a sharp edge that showed like a glassy highway running through the sea.  I pointed it out to Spike, and watched to see if the temp changed.  It did not.  We had come into cooler, more offcolor water that was full of bait and had birds flying in every direction.  As soon as we crossed the break, we got bit on the port corner short on an old 7 Strand Petrolero.  Dennis was swimming the jig on the front of the first wave, closer to the boat than I have ever run a marlin jig.  Denny looked at the bent rod, stunned.  Dennis reminded him to drop back the bait, and when he did it was an instant bite.

Denny hooked up as I backed down.

I watched in horror as Denny set the hook like something out of an old marlin video from the 70’s.  Four hard pumps with the rod, I cringed.  We were informed just the night before, at the captains meeting, that we had to fish with circle hooks.  I had retied all our marlin bait casters with circle hooks the club provided in our “team bag”.  That is not exactly how to set the hook with a circle hook, but the marlin took off and jumped several times, obviously not getting off any time soon.

I had left the boat in gear the entire time to keep the jig lines straight, and make sure that whatever marlin we had looking at our spread did not lose interest.  As soon as the fish started jumping up the starboard side, Denny yelled “chase this damn fish Jeff!”  So I spun the boat and began to get on it with the bow pointed straight at the fish.  Dennis and Spike cleared the rest of the jig lines, then Dennis came up to give me a “pep talk”.  He said “why aren’t you backing down?  Chase the line, not the fish man.”  I replied simply “I got this.”  If I had backed down on the fish, I would have wrapped the jig lines in the props, and boats are meant to go pointy end first.  Denny stood at the starboard side gunnel and I stared at his rod tip to see where exactly I needed to be.  3 minutes into the fight, the fish settled down and started to tack up what little swell there was.  I spun the boat and kept Denny on the starboard corner where I could see him, and the rod.  We backed slowly, gaining line the entire time.  As the fish would rise to jump, I would hit the throttles to compensate for the extra pull on the line, Denny our angler is 82 after all.

The fish began to fight deep, something not typical of a fish hooked in the corner of the mouth with a circle hook.  I expected to have a shot at 5 minutes, but we were now at twenty minutes.  I began to worry about knots and tackle failure, as time is your worst enemy on a marlin with just 90# flourocarbon in its mouth, rubbing on the course bill.  Dennis invited me several times to join him in the cockpit at the lower controls, so I could help him leader the fish.  Thing was, the fish was deep under the swim step, and only I could see the fish from the bridge helm.  As soon as the fish showed signs of tiring and coming up, I made the move to the pit, and put on a pair of gloves.  At the end, the fish just plain gave up and began to get sucked into the props as its tail was on the centerline aft, and I had the engines in gear at idle.  I pulled the boat out of gear, and the fish laid there, exhausted.  I took the leader from Dennis and grabbed the bill of the fish, looking for the circle hook in the corners of its mouth.  Not there?  It was gut hooked, and Dennis gave the leader a light tug and broke the line at the mouth of the marlin.  Close!

Dennis put the starboard engine in gear and I began to try and revive the tired marlin.  Over the port gunnel I could not reach down far enough to get the entire mouth of the fish in the water where it needed to be, so we switch to me laying on the swim step, face to face with a fish that has a spear on its nose.  That was a first for me, but all went well.  After what seemed like an eternity, the color came back to the fish, and so did its kick.  I let go, pushing down so as not to get a face full of marlin bill.  The fish turned and swam down to freedom, and to fight another day.

Clean release.

For the rest of that day, and most of the next, we looked hard to find another marlin.  I listened carefully to the VHF for any other marlin hookups in our tournament, but none ever came.  At 3:30 on Saturday we pulled in our lines, victorious.   I showered and put on some clean clothes, almost as tired as the marlin we’d released the day before.

Me and the boys.

At the Catalina Yacht Club we met the rest of the tournament participants on the porch, and waited eagerly for our traditional swordfish dinner and awards ceremony.

Team ‘Sassy Cissy” on the porch.

I was congratulated by some of the best So Cal marlin fishermen around, and tried my best to be humble and hold back the incredible urge to grin.  My teammates decided to stroll into town and I chose to call it a day, heading back to the “Sassy Cissy”.  I called my wife Shari, and I knew I could tell her exactly how excited I really was without her thinking I was being pompus.

The next morning I went into the salon and I was told that the team had made a decision and I had no choice but to agree.  They want me back to run the boat again next year.  Had they asked me before we caught the marlin, I would have declined.  Now it seemed we all knew our place on the team, and at least a little of the respect I feel I deserve had been earned.  “To next year!”  We all shook hands and the deal was made.  I think I might ask for a raise.