West Coast Albacore
May 10, 2011
Hook into one of these silver torpedoes of the Pacific and you'll know you've been in for a tussle! Now's the time to get prepared for tuna.
Veteran albacore angler Mike Anoba handled this 34-pounder off the deck of the Wild Wave. Photo by Steve Carson
Twenty anglers screaming at the top of their lungs is enough to send a jolt of adrenaline through even the most jaded been-there, done-that type of person.
If all the screaming and hollering wasn't enough, merely hooking an albacore is guaranteed to test the strength of your heart, not to mention your upper body. These long-finned tuna are not only fast, they're plow-horse strong, and they're often aggressive biters. While that all adds up to sporting exhilaration, their flaky white meat is delicious baked, broiled or barbecued, and best of all, they're more abundant than ever.
Hook one of these silver torpedoes and you'll immediately realize that other game fish simply cannot compare as it rips heavy line past your reel's drag. When the albacore start their annual run in late spring, you don't want to miss it!
CHICKEN OF THE SEA
Sometimes referred to as chicken of the sea, these white meat tuna generally run from 15 to 35 pounds apiece through most of their West Coast range. Fortunate anglers in central and northern California see slightly larger (20- to 40-pound) fish in most years.
During El NiÃƒ±o periods, that larger grade can get really large. It is not unusual to see 60- and even 70-pound albacore out of Morro Bay in late autumn. The largest albacore ever caught on rod and reel is the California state record 90-pounder that was caught off northern California's Santa Cruz in 1997. That monster albie was disallowed by the International Game Fish Association for world record consideration due to a technicality. The Washington record is an impressive 52-pounder from Grays Harbor, also caught in 1997. Oregon does not list an official record.
California recreational anglers experienced a decade-long absence of albacore from 1986 to 1995, when few were caught. Albacore chasers in Oregon and Washington did not experience the same strong downswing, and many hardcore California albacore addicts traveled north to feed their habit.
Since that time, the recreational catches of albacore have literally exploded throughout their range. California anglers experienced their best year ever in 2002, when over 250,000 albacore were brought to dock. That same year saw 134,709 long fins caught by anglers aboard San Diego-based local party boats alone, and that doesn't include fish caught by the famous long-range fleet. The totals for 2003 saw the San Diego local fleet land over 63,000 albies, but the lower totals were partially due to water conditions causing a late start to the local season.
One of the reasons for the albies' popularity is their high quality as table fare. Albacore are the only tuna that can be labeled as white meat. Other canned tunas such as yellow fin and skipjack are labeled as light meat. Albacore are also excellent smoked.
SEASONS OF PLENTY
Albacore have been caught in every month of the year, but the heavy influx of migratory fish usually arrives some time in mid-May, about 200 miles south of San Diego. The fish proceed north quickly, running parallel to the coast anywhere from 10 to 150 miles out. San Francisco and Monterey Bay area boats will normally see their first catches by late June.
In short order, the speedy long fins surge past Coos Bay, Ore., and Westport, Wash., as they follow their preferred water temperature. They may be well offshore in British Columbia waters by early August. During strong El NiÃƒ±o periods, albacore have even been caught off southeast Alaska.
Weather conditions in Oregon and Washington make albacore fishing primarily a July-September affair. The bite off San Diego and in northern California can last into November some years, and Morro Bay occasionally sees late-season action into December.
Albacore are so plentiful and wide-ranging, that California and Washington currently have no limit on the number that recreational anglers can catch. Oregon posts a purely symbolic limit of 25 albacore per day.
Anglers venturing out to the albacore grounds may encounter numerous other kinds of offshore fish. California anglers have the largest number of possibilities, but Oregon and Washington-based trips can be surprised by almost any of the same species.
Blue fin tuna are the most popular, and usually range from 20 to 70 pounds in California and southern Oregon waters. Showings of blue fin from 75 to over 150 pounds pop up with enough regularity that California anglers should keep an extra-heavy live bait rod rigged up at all times.
Captain Sam Patella of the San Diego-based boat American Angler says: "Nothing gets the heart pumping like whitewater on the stern caused by airborne 100-pound plus blue fin tuna!"
Anglers aboard San Diego's local fleet alone landed 12,045 blue fin tuna in 2002. The largest West Coast blue fin ever landed on rod and reel was a massive 363-pounder caught in 1983 at the Channel Islands. Commercial netters have brought in California blue fin in excess of 1,000 pounds in the same area.
Other catches by West Coast albacore anglers may include: yellowtail, dorado, skipjack tuna, yellow fin tuna, bigeye tuna, opah, several kinds of sharks, and even striped marlin.
The wildlife viewing on the offshore banks is equally spectacular. Frequent sightings include porpoises, sea lions, sharks large and small, sea turtles, jellyfish, the huge and odd-looking mola-mola [ocean sunfish], dozens of seabird species, and several whale varieties.
Sometimes the wildlife encounters are a little too close. Losing hooked albacore to hungry sharks is a common occurrence, and the occasional nearshore albacore runs can be plagued by marauding sea lions.
Not so common is an incident that happened aboard the party boat 'Wild Wave' off of Santa Cruz last September. Just as an angler's 30-pound albacore was gaffed, a huge orca (killer whale) charged in and grabbed the fish in full view of the passengers.
Deckhand Dylan Buckingham briefly played tug-of-war with the greedy cetacean, which finally relinquished its prize. "I'm lucky he didn't yank my arm out of the socket!" said the astonished Buckingham.
of the West Coast, good albacore water generally starts along the 1,000-fathom curve at the edge of the continental shelf. High spots or seamounts that rise up off the deep ocean floor create an upwelling that attracts baitfish. Ideal water temperatures are 60 to 64 degrees, but notable catches have been made in anything from 57 to 70 degrees.
Look for very clean, deep blue or purple water filled with lots of life, such as birds, porpoises, jellyfish and the like. A temperature break, where warmer and cooler currents come together, is a natural gathering place for baitfish.
The advent of the Internet, satellite thermal imaging, and GPS technology has greatly helped with the task of locating schools of these fish, which can move 20 miles overnight. Serious tuna chasers inhabit Internet chatrooms where "hot" GPS numbers are exchanged.
Satellite-created color SST maps showing temperature breaks are pure gold. Lining up a good temperature break with a known offshore bank is sometimes like a map to the mother lode.
Just about every ocean-going vessel may be used to chase albacore. San Diego boasts the world's largest fleet of sportfishing boats. Some are luxurious long-range vessels like the 90-foot American Angler, and chase albacore on trips up to five days in length.
The majority of albacore excursions aboard party and charter boats from San Diego, the Los Angeles area and Morro Bay landings are 20 to 23 hours in duration. From Monterey to Oregon, most boats are out for no more than 12 hours, although the 70-foot Wild Wave from Santa Cruz runs a San Diego-style operation. A few charter operators in Westport, Wash., also offer trips as long as two days.
Albacore fishing is divided into three distinct phases: trolling, the slide, and drifting. Each phase has different tactics, and the successful albacore angler needs to become a master at each.
Trolling utilizes much heavier tackle than is actually needed for the average size albacore. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the fish that hits the trolling jig is often the lead fish in the school. If that fish is quickly winched to the boat, the rest of the school is more likely to follow it up to the boat.
Once the school is near the boat, anglers can use more sporting tackle with live bait or casting lures. If the troll-hooked fish breaks off or goes for an extended run, the entire school may depart.
Another reason for heavy tackle is that trollers may hook a blue fin tuna, big eye tuna, a striped marlin or other species. The heavy tackle allows the angler a chance at catching these bigger fish.
Trolling lures can include standard tuna feathers, cedar plugs or swimming plugs made of wood or plastic. Feathers may have a chrome, lead or resin head. They may actually be made of vinyl, plastic bristles, feathers or metallic Mylar.
A phenomenon for the past several seasons is the Sea Striker Cedar Plug. Although available in all of the same popular colors as feather jigs, plain wood has been the most productive color. On certain days, the fish will show a definite preference for the cedar plugs over any other trolling lure.
Trolling speed is usually between 5 and 8 mph, but albacore have no problem chasing down lures trolled at well over 10 mph if they are so inclined. Lures are positioned at staggered distances from 50 to 90 feet behind the boat. Anglers hoping for boat-shy blue fin tuna may drop a lure back 125 feet or more.
The slide is the short period when the boat slides to a stop after a fish has been hooked while trolling. Immediately drop or cast the lure, preferably on the downwind side of the boat. Let the lure free-spool back, paying close attention for a strike as the lure sinks. Once the boat has come to a complete stop, retrieve the lure back at medium speed.
Most anglers use soft plastic swimbaits for this method with a typical choice being an anchovy or purple candy squid-colored 5-inch Berkley Power Swimshad tail with a 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-ounce leadhead. "They are deadly on the troll, the slide, and casting during bait stops," said Captain Mike Baxter of the Wild Wave out of Santa Cruz. "They're actually better than live bait for the slide."
Some anglers prefer a flashier and deeper-running iron jig, such as a sardine-colored 4-ounce Mega-Bait Live jig.
Albacore are normally found in water thousands of feet deep, so anchoring is rarely an option. Drifting with the wind and current is the norm.
More albacore are caught using live bait than anything else. By far the most common live baits are anchovies and sardines. However, albacore eat a very wide variety of sea creatures, and can also be caught on live smelt, herring, squid and mackerel.
The past few years have seen a rise in the use of invisible fluorocarbon leader material. Captain Baxter is convinced about getting more bites with fluorocarbon on finicky fish. "Even when the fishing is good, it can be a 2:1 ratio. When fishing is slow, the difference is even more dramatic, sometimes 5:1 or even higher."
Selecting lively bait is important, as is the correct hook size. With anchovy bait, a relatively small size 2 or 4 live-bait hook won't kill the bait. Sardines usually require a 1/0 or 2/0 live-bait hook. In all cases, the hook size is matched to the size of the bait, not the size of the fish.
When a strike occurs on live bait, it is important to let the fish run in free spool for a full five-count. Flip the reel into gear, but instead of setting the hook, crank the reel handle hard, until your rod is fully loaded up, and the drag is going out. There is usually a great deal of slack in your line from the wind, drift and currents. It is vital that you get tight to the fish. Once the fish is running against the drag, the hook sets itself. Jerking on the rod can only cause the hook to pull out.
The same lures used for the slide are also used for casting. Either soft plastics like the Power Swimshads, or iron like the Mega-Bait Live jigs are among the most popular.
Cast the lure upcurrent as far as possible, and let it sink from 30 to 125 feet. Soft plastics can be retrieved at a medium to fast speed. Iron-type jigs should be cranked back fast or doinked. The doink technique is regular jigging motions as the lure settles in the water column.
Top-quality tackle is a must. Discount-store gear simply won't cut it, and top-of-the-line equipment must be properly maintained. Tuna will quickly shred equipment with the slightest weakness or imperfection.
Reels are virtually always high-quality conventional-style star drag or lever drag reels. Rods generally range from 6 to 7 feet, with all rods used for liv
e bait fishing needing a relatively soft tip. Absolutely critical is the use of fresh monofilament line.
Think of your different rods and reels as the different clubs in a golf bag: You need the correct tool to do the correct job.
- Light live bait combo, 15- to 20-pound line - Use when bait is small or fish are finicky. This combo will keep you from getting skunked on a tough day.
- Standard live bait combo, 20- to 25-pound line - This will be the first outfit you reach for when the fish are running 20 to 30 pounds, or for even larger fish if the baits are small or listless.
- Heavy live-bait combo, 30-pound line - Use with live sardine baits, or when albacore are mixed with 25- to 50-pound blue fin tuna.
- Extra-heavy live bait/light trolling combo, 50- to 60-pound line - Able to cast a weightless sardine 50 feet from the boat, but still has the brute power to muscle tuna up to 150 pounds.
- Trolling combo, 80-pound line - Enough power to quickly land husky albacore or even a stray striped marlin.
For terminal tackle, you'll need an assortment of live bait hooks, size 4 to 4/0; fluorocarbon leader material, same test as the main line; assorted sliding egg sinkers from 1/4- to 1-ounce in size; chrome-plated torpedo sinkers, 1 to 4 ounces; and assorted tuna feathers, cedar plugs, soft plastic swimbaits and iron jigs.
Also remember to bring along these accessories: diagonal cutters and holster; fish-fighting belt; deck boots; a warm jacket; golf-style towel; and seasickness medication.