Thousands of fishermen look forward to the annual schooling of albacore tuna off the coast of Southern California.
Anticipation runs especially high in San Diego, the long-range tuna sportfishing capital of the world. There, a fleet of more than 65 modern boats stands ready by late June to make their assault on the prized, powerful fish when they get within range: About 80 miles out, an overnight trip.
"That's where the money is," said Bill Poole, a pioneer of long-range fishing and part owner of the fishing fleet at Fisherman's Landing.
This season, however, and to a lesser extent, last season, the anticipation turned to disappointment as summer turned to fall. The longfins were virtual no-shows, leaving the fleet scrambling in a frantic search for both fish and customers.
There were sporadic hot spots here and there, but mostly "way out there"--more than 150 miles out. That's well out of one-day range.
Poole was one of the first to find such an area while on a four-day trip aboard his Polaris Supreme. On Aug. 8, he returned from 150 miles out happy with 429 albacore and 18 satisfied anglers, optimistic that the albacore were back.
The Royal Polaris, also part of Poole's fleet, caught 527 albacore and 3 bigeye tuna during the same period at a similar location.
But the fish got no closer to shore, and even that distant bite didn't last. The fish disappeared and Poole estimated the overnight boat business to be down about 75% by the end of August.
"You'd be surprised at how many fishermen get the flu when the fish stop biting," Poole said, referring to canceled reservations.
A mixed-tuna bite is giving some latecomers big-fish action just 25-35 miles out. About 10 boats a day are making the trip, taking some bigeye and bluefin tuna over 100 pounds to go along with a few albacore, some yellowfin and skipjack tuna.
That is a fortunate bonus, since much of the fleet is normally out of operation by this time of year.
"It used to be, you could shoot a cannon off this dock after Labor Day and not kill a soul," Poole said. "But I guess they're hungry for fish."
The current bite, however, is not expected to be a signal of a late arrival on the part of the albacore.
"These fish are just the big fish that are breeding stock, you might say," Poole said. "We have had those as long as I can remember but nobody ever fished 'em much."
The overnight boats--"the backbone of the fleet," according to Poole--have indeed felt the pinch caused by the absent albacore.
"This is one of the worst years on record," said Ron Dotson, a fisheries biologist based in La Jolla. "There has been no albacore bite to speak of this season. You have to go back to 1959 to find as bad a year."
Said Poole: "I've been fishing out there for 42 years. I remember in 1959 we had none, not a single fish caught by a sportfishing boat."
Comparing that year to this season, he said: "In '59 there were none; this year a handful."
Just what this means to individual skippers depends on how much business boats can drum up in other ways.
In 1959, for example, Poole wasn't hurt too much by the lack of albacore.
"In '59, we had . . . a phenomenal yellowtail year, the all-time record: 255,000 yellowtail."
There was no comparable alternative this season, although there was a yellowtail bite decent enough to keep the fleet busy.
John Collins, manager of Point Loma Sportfishing, put it this way: "We're every bit as busy, but in terms of dollars and cents, a ticket to go yellowtail fishing doesn't cost nearly as much as it does for albacore."
And if the lack of the prized tuna has been something less than devastating, it certainly has left it's mark.
"They'll hurt, and probably go down 10 or 15% anyway (after the season totals are added up)," Poole said. "Some will go fish yellowtail, bass or whatever. The yellowtail helped us but it didn't make a good season out of it."
Said Dan Sampson, senior owner of Point Loma Sportfishing: "I don't know of anyone who's going to fall on his face because of this."
Sampson estimates, however, that his business--a fleet of 20 boats--is down roughly 25% to 30% over the last two years.
Said Poole: "If (the two other primary landings: H & M and Point Loma) did the same as us, you're talking a million-dollar gross down, which is nothing on a $10-million gross fleet."
Catherine Miller, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Sportfishing Council, said there is a positive trend developing because of the relative absence of albacore the last two years.
"Without the glamour fish, the avid fishermen discover they don't drive as far; they can get the more local variety of fish such as bass and barracuda farther north," she said.
"We offer some wonderful fishing for these species as well," she said. "Even when we have banner years, albacore is a fish you can count on for only two months: July and August.
"It's pretty clear that for the industry's sake, other markets, such as spring and fall surface gamefishing, along with the tourism and travel markets should be opened up. They've got to take advantage of that, regardless of how good the albacore bite is, and that trend is developing."
But for now all anyone can do is hope the tide will turn next year.
"They'll survive," Poole said. "It's not going to be a catastrophe like a lot of people think.
"You always have the border-line operators that have to have a big season to make it. Over the years gone by, I've seen 'em come and go and the guy that has a good substantial business, he'll hurt during the time--he's certainly not going to put any money in the bank--but he usually gets his bills paid."
Sampson: "Business is down, there's no question about it. But it's like any other business. You have to take the bad with the good. . . . It's not the end of the world."