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'The Bite Is On' : For Anglers, When Yellowtail Is in Season, Work Can Wait


SAN DIEGO — There are two facts to keep in mind about the California craze called yellowtail fishing.

First, when "the bite" hits, reel-minded people come running. Second, the bite underway off the Southern California coast is the best in many years.

And that means workaday folk are dropping everything and flocking to the charter boat landings and marinas that dot the coast, particularly in San Diego, which boasts the oldest, biggest and most experienced fishing fleet on the West Coast.

Take the happy fishers arriving back at H & M Landing in Point Loma one balmy evening aboard the 80-foot Cherokee Geisha after an overnight sortie to prime yellowtail country off Baja California.

"When the yellowtail are biting, I just call my agent and tell him, 'Don't book me, I'm going fishing,' " said Jay Rasumny, a bit actor from Hollywood.

"If you want a real fighting fish, you can't do better than the yellowtail," said Pat Drayer, a plumber from Capistrano Beach. "I just closed up the shop and came down when I heard the bite was on."

Oh sure, other fish have their constituencies. The big tuna are prized trophies. Barracuda and marlin are formidable foes. And white sea bass, well, bass fishers are known as just plain loco in love with their aquatic adversary.

But angling passions are uniquely aroused when talk turns to California yellowtail (Seriola dorsalis), those oval-shaped, pointy-snouted pescado that can easily run 15 pounds or more and taste heavenly all grilled up and dabbed with garlic butter, lemon and a dash of sherry.

"Even after 25 years of fishing yellowtail, I'm too excited the first night of a big bite to sleep," said Horace "Lucky" Ketcham, an official with the San Diego County Health Department who took a sick day recently and was waiting at H & M to board the Cherokee Geisha.

Andrea Carlson, a freelance publicist from Laguna Beach, who caught her limit aboard the Cherokee Geisha, explains her passion in percentages: "I love yellowtail fishing. It's 40% anticipation, 40% catching it, 20% eating it, and 100% of the greatest thing ever."

Pete Gray, co-host with actor Martin Milner of a San Diego radio show devoted to fishing, "Let's Talk Hook-Up," said that yellowtail are everything anglers could want in a fish: They bite hard, they bite on the surface, they fight like hell, and they can be caught with light tackle and relatively close to shore.

"For a true saltwater angler, this is the type of fish that gets them really excited," Gray said.

Also excited are the boat owners, captains, landing owners and others tied to San Diego's fishing industry.


Spring fishing has been a bit lean in recent years. Among the culprits: unpredictable water temperatures and increased competition from charter landings and the commercial purse-seiner fleet in Ensenada, the self-anointed "Yellowtail Capital of the World."

All of which makes it even sweeter when the yellowtail are in bloom, known in the fishing fraternity as simply "the bite." This bite started in late March and will stretch who knows how long.

"There's a saying on the landing: 'The yellowtail makes the cash register ring,' " said Tony Harmon, second captain aboard the Cherokee Geisha. "When the bite is on, a lot of bosses get calls from guys calling in sick and going fishing."

Even the fishing press has been taken aback at the ferocity and size of the bite.

"I don't know whether the seiners are sleeping or what, but it has been well over 20 years since I have seen the yellowtail so thick or covering so wide an area as they were last week in Ensenada Bay," columnist Fred Hoctor wrote in the Western Outdoor News.

When a bite is good, the party boats dock only long enough to disgorge their passengers, hose down the vessel, and take on more fuel and provisions.

Charters commonly leave before midnight to be at prime fishing spots off Baja at dawn. The books will tell you that yellowtail are common from Baja to Point Conception at Santa Barbara County, and veteran anglers will say that the richest areas year in and year out are south of the Coronado Islands off Baja and in the tangled kelp patties.

Milner, who lives in La Costa and is best-known for starring on "Route 66" and "Adam 12," has fished nearly every fish and every location, fresh and saltwater, and rates the yellowtail as good as they come.

"Pound for pound, they're as good a fighting fish as any," Milner said. "They're tricky. They'll take your line into kelp and try to snap it. They'll run for 200 yards."

Said Ketcham: "You may catch a lot of small fish over your lifetime. But catch a couple of yellowtail and you'll remember them forever."

Amen, said George Conway, a tennis professional from Pacific Palisades. The yellowtail's runs are scorching, its maneuvers flashy, and its energy unflagging from bite to gaffe.

"The yellowtail is the most exciting fish you can hook," Conway said. "When they take off, you just pull back on your reel and hang on for the experience."

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