May 10, 2011
Albacore, the Pacific coast's most exciting game fish, is on the move now. Get ready to get in on the action.
Ranging from central Baja California and all the way up the U.S. west coast well into British Columbia waters, ranging from 10 to over 100 miles from shore, the annual run of the speedy, white-meat tuna known as "albacore" or "longfins" is the most electrifying event of the saltwater fishing season. Absolutely delicious baked, broiled, or barbecued, albies also fight more than any other fish species except, perhaps, their bigger and meaner cousins, the bluefin and yellowfin tuna.
The author shows off a 30-pound albacore that hit on a live sardine fished aboard Captain Art Taylor's Searcher off San Diego. Photo by Steve Carson.
Usually running between 12 and 35 pounds throughout their range, one or two whoppers over 60 pounds are usually caught in Central or Northern California each season. The California state record is a 90-pound monster taken off Monterey in 1997, and the Washington state record is 52 pounds, also taken in 1997.
In most of California, the earliest-arriving fish are often seen in mid-June, with the run peaking in July and August, and occasionally simmering all the way into November. Extreme Northern California, Oregon and Washington have a shorter window, usually seeing their first catches in mid-July, with the last fish departing in mid-September.
Albacore are usually the dominant target species wherever and whenever their runs occur. Pretty much any floating vessel from pangas to yachts that can safely navigate out to them has been used in their pursuit. Fishing aboard large party boats is the safest and simplest choice for most anglers, but skilled private boaters catch more than their share of longfins.
In Southern California, major party boat fleets that often target albacore are found in every port, and San Diego Bay's legendary long-range fleet is justly world-famous. Boats out of Mission Bay, Oceanside and Newport Harbor also get into them regularly.
Central California's Morro Bay and Avila are traditional areas that have unfortunately had weak runs the past few seasons, with NorCal's Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz Harbor being albacore-chasing strongholds.
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Westport, Washington, also boasts a large party boat fleet that targets albacore. In between are thousands of private-boaters, and even in formerly traditional salmon havens like Newport, Garibaldi and Depoe Bay, Oregon, whenever albacore fever strikes, it is incurable.
CONDITIONS AND TEMPERATURES
Water temperature is key to locating albacore. In San Diego, veteran party boat skipper Buzz Brizendine of the Prowler out of Fisherman's Landing, says, "We start looking for albacore to arrive when temps hit the low 60s, and our ideal range is 62 to 65 degrees."
In Northern California's Santa Cruz, popular captain and fishing radio show host Mike Baxter relates, "The absolute ideal number for us is right at 60 degrees, although I have seen good catches as low as 57.5 degrees."
Heading into Oregon and Washington, temps as low as 59 degrees regularly hold fish, but as Captain Baxter explains, "You always want to look for as large a temperature 'break' as you can find between your target water temperature and the cooler water. The warmer water also needs to have that deep, clean, clear-purple color."
Baxter adds, "It is also important to find that warm water in close proximity to a hard break with cooler, plankton-rich water. Terrafin or other Satellite SST subscriptions are a must, and subscribers should also make sure they check out the plankton/chlorophyll charts which help tremendously with this."
TACTICS AND TACKLE TROLLING
Many private boaters rely heavily on trolling, especially if they cannot carry live bait. Productive trolling speeds vary depending on conditions, and anything from 4 to 10 mph can be considered "normal." Most often something between 6 and 8 mph will prove best, but when covering a lot of water, don't hesitate to put the jigs out at up to 14 or 15 mph.
The same basic "albacore trolling feathers" are used along the entire Pacific Coast, usually ranging from 4 to 6 inches in length. Since albacore often feed on very small prey, smaller-size jigs are often the better choice. The most popular colors are black/purple, Mexican flag and zucchini (chartreuse/orange/white). The venerable cedar plug is also an extremely effective offering.
Relatively small prey items like these flushed from an albacore stomach are typically what they prefer to feed on. Photo by Steve Carson.
Swimming plugs are also very popular, and are more likely to draw a bite from any stray bluefin tuna that might be present. Far and away the most popular of these plugs are Rapalas, in particular the X-Rap Magnum XR15, XR20, and XR30 sizes. Colors that imitate the local baitfish are effective, but "contrast" colors such as firetiger and, in particular, purple/black can be especially deadly.
A swiveled 16-ounce torpedo sinker (poor man's downrigger) can be a big help when rough weather conditions prevent the trolling lures from running properly.
should be done minimally with a Penn Senator 4/0-size reel and 50-pound monofilament. This is to make sure that the troll-hooked fish is landed quickly, hopefully leading the rest of the school up to the boat. Heavier 80-pound class tackle is sometimes used if bluefin tuna or oversize albacore are around.
Many private boaters also troll with swimbaits. Trolling speeds with swimbaits should be in the lower 4- to 6-mph range, meaning less ground can be covered when searching for fish. The tackle is lighter, too, with 25- or 30-pound test the norm.
A great trick when trolling with swimbaits is to simply let the remaining troll lines sink out after stopping for a strike. The sinking swimbaits will nearly always draw hookups if there are any additional fish around.
The very short time interval as the boat "slides" to a stop after a trolling hookup can be very productive. Getting a swimbait or live bait back quickly makes all the difference. Dropping back almost instantaneously is especially important early in the season, when the fish appear to be traveling in smaller groups, and are less prone to respond to chumming.
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Swimbaits should be in the 5- to 6-inch range. Weights can range from 1 to 2 1/2 ounces, with both internal and external jigheads working well. Match the local baitfish colors, or go with black/purple if the fish are hitting trolled lures in the darker colors.
Both swimbaits and metal jigs are popular for dropping back on the slide. A greater number of anglers use swimbaits, but when the fish are holding deeper, a metal jig reaches the deeper strike zone much better.
A typical slide-fishing setup consists of a Penn Torque TRQ25N or TRQ30 filled with a topshot of 25- or 30-pound monofilament over 50-pound test superbraid backing. A 7- or 8-foot live bait-style rod rated for 15- to 40-pound test will handle albacore of almost any size.
Once the boat has stopped due to a troll hookup or spotting fish on the electronics, live bait is the usual approach. Choosing a lively bait is crucial, and fluorocarbon leader material can make a tremendous difference in the number of bites.
Cast and retrieved soft plastic swimbaits are a favorite in Oregon waters. In California, classic iron-style jigs like the Tady 9 are traditional favorites, and the newer Asian-style jigs like the Williamson Herring Jig are effective everywhere. Best sizes are usually between 2 and 5 ounces, and just about any color combination with chrome is just fine.
BAITS AND RIGGING
Live bait in Southern California is about an 80/20 split between sardines and anchovies. In Central California and up as far as Santa Cruz, it is also an 80/20 split, but with anchovies the much more common species over sardines. From San Francisco north, commercially available live bait is almost always anchovies.
That said, this writer has also seen albies caught on live mackerel, jacksmelt, topsmelt, herring, squid and even white croaker; albacore are documented to eat over 60 different prey species.
When the live stuff simply isn't available, bring along some fresh frozen anchovies or sardines. It will be pretty good for chumming, or rigged just like live bait. Besides live or dead whole chum, 2-inch chunks of sardine, herring, anchovy or mackerel can hold a school around the boat, and just leaving a troll-hooked fish soaking deep as a "live decoy" is a deadly but little-practiced trick.
Live bait fishing is usually done with lighter tackle, especially with anchovies. A typical setup might be a Penn Torque TRQ15-size reel with a topshot of 20 or 25-pound test monofilament over 30 to 50-pound superbraid backing, and mounted on a 7- to 9-foot light-tipped live bait rod rated for 12 to 30-pound line.
The wise angler who knows that small anchovies will be the bait of the day will also have a "stealth" live bait outfit consisting of a TRQ12-size reel filled with 15-pound mono for those days when the fish are finicky.
In most live-bait fishing scenarios, a 3- or 4-foot piece of fluorocarbon leader material is almost a must. Hook sizes for live bait can range from 6 to 4/0, and are matched to the size of the bait, not the size of the fish.
The offshore bag is not exclusively comprised of albacore, and several bonus species are available depending on locale and conditions. Commonly found traveling the albacore grounds in Southern California are bluefin tuna in the 15- to 50-pound class, and occasionally much larger. Bluefin also travel to Northern California, but in much smaller numbers. A handful of bluefin per season may be caught in Oregon and Washington, but these numbers do appear to be growing.
In San Diego-area waters, when late-summer water temperatures exceed 66 degrees, 10- to 50-pound yellowfin tuna often replace albacore in the offshore grounds, punctuated by rare visits from 50- to 150-pound bigeye tuna. Skipjack tuna from 5 to 15 pounds are usually considered a nuisance, while exotic-looking opah from 40 to 100 pounds are an amazing sight.
SoCal anglers prospecting under floating kelp paddies usually find lots of 8- to 25-pound yellowtail, and in late summer and fall, dorado in the same size range are also common. Up past Point Conception, fewer of these species are present, but a few are caught as far north as Washington each year.
Billfish are almost exclusively a SoCal phenomenon, with striped marlin over 100 pounds showing up pretty regularly. During strong El NiÃ±o periods, the striped marlin may rarely venture farther north, and shortbill spearfish and broadbill swordfish have been seen aboard SoCal boats in some years.
Sharks are also present offshore and are a bonafide game species on their own. In Southern California and, to a lesser extent, Northern California, mako sharks and the occasional thresher are a special treat for albacore chasers. Oregon and Washington anglers may see the elusive salmon shark, and
blue sharks are relatively common all along the west coast.