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SPORTS WEEKEND | OUTDOORS / PETE THOMAS

Change of Tack, Tactics for Albacore

May 23, 1997|PETE THOMAS

Dave Baum considered himself fortunate merely to be able to be aboard the Producer when it pulled out of its dock at H&M Landing in San Diego last Saturday night.

"I fish whenever I can get the wife to let me," the 34-year-old Lakewood resident says. "Sometimes have to bribe her. What I do is give her money for home improvement and things like that."

The arrangement paid off for Baum on last week's excursion. He gained notoriety Sunday for catching the first albacore of the season, thereby throwing the saltwater fishing community into a state of full alert and causing a major change in the thinking of anglers and skippers alike.

"We have to decide whether to stay inside and fish for yellowtail or concentrate outside where the [albacore] are being caught," says Ray Sobieck, skipper of the Producer.

That decision will become a no-brainer if the bite continues to improve. Already, daily counts are at 100 or more, rekindling memories of the days when the voracious tuna would grace the Baja coastline by the thousands.

"When we were catching albacore, people lined up by the hundreds to get on a boat," recalls Paul Morris, manager of Fisherman's Landing. "It was a carnival atmosphere--we were putting 50-100 people on every boat. There were no complaints about the passenger loads in those days, I'll tell you that."

There hasn't been an albacore season to speak of since 1989, when the San Diego fleet scored 19,000. "And 19,000 fish was not a good year," Morris says.

The last good year, with six-figure counts, was 1985.

In the years leading to 1985, the bite was so predictable that skippers built careers around the albacore run.

"Albacore fever was an addiction," says Michael Fowlkes, a former boat owner who now produces "Inside Sportfishing" for Fox Sports West. "You'd go to the docks and you could not find a place to park, and there was not a single space available on any boat [without a reservation]. Anything that could run and float went out, and anyone with a license to drive one went out.

"That's what made me want to become a fisherman. That's what hooked me on fishing. My whole life's dream was to buy a boat and become an albacore fisherman."

His dream came true when he bought the 48-foot, six-passenger vessel Instinct in 1984. But when the albacore runs fizzled out after '85, so did interest in the more expensive "six-pack," or six-passenger charter boats.

Fowlkes, who had quit his high-stress job in the television industry to get into the sportfishing business, eventually sold his boat and got back into show business.

Philip Friedman of Torrance, hoping to cash in on the fanatical interest in albacore, began the fishing information hotline, 976-TUNA, in the fall of 1985, just after the last substantial albacore run.

"We started right at the end of the craze and everybody still blames the lack of albacore on us," he says, half-jokingly.

He has managed to maintain a fairly profitable business despite the absence of albacore, but he says that whenever even some of the longfins surface, his phones remind him of what might have been.

"We're adding more phone lines to take the surge of incoming calls because callers are getting busy signals," he said two days after Baum's 16-pounder hit the deck.

Experts theorize that a cyclical change in oceanic conditions, perhaps associated with a series of El Ninos in recent years, has resulted in warmer water and a subsequent change in the migration patterns of albacore.

"That and the fact that in the late 1980s and early '90s, they [commercial fishermen] were gill-netting the hell out of the North Pacific," says Tim Barnett, a marine physicist with Scripps Institute of Oceanography. "They were laying 20,000 miles of net a night. They netted the whole damned North Pacific. Now that that's been banned [an international ban on high-seas drift nets was imposed nearly five years ago] we think the stocks are responding."

Albacore, which prefer water in the low- to mid-60s, are believed to migrate from the south and west Pacific into the eastern Pacific each spring and summer. Most veer left and end up off the Pacific Northwest.

Some--perhaps a separate stock of fish--would make their way into the nutrient-rich waters off Baja California. For most of the past decade, with sea temperatures often closer to and even above 70 degrees, the ocean south of Point Loma supported plenty of yellowfin and bluefin tuna, but relatively few, if any, albacore.

Though the effects of another predicted El Nino are expected to warm things up again this summer, there are currently vast bands of cooler water stretching from mid-Baja north.

Barnett says he wouldn't be "overly surprised" to see an albacore season develop, but he added that any season probably would be an abbreviated one.

"I'd advise people, if a bite does develop, to get on it early because it might not be around long," he adds.

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