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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS / PETE THOMAS

If Yellowtail Is the Objective, Santa Monica Bay Is the Place

January 30, 1998|PETE THOMAS

It's the same scene that plays itself out almost daily each winter in the Sea of Cortez. . . .

The anglers awake before dawn, take a short cruise to the fishing grounds, drop their lines in the water and watch a beautiful sunrise while reeling in one yellowtail after another.

But there are a few major differences: The sunrise isn't nearly as spectacular, the fish aren't quite as big and there is no sleepy Baja village such as Loreto to return to after a few hours at sea.

There is only Marina del Rey.

Yes, one of the most consistent yellowtail bites around is taking place smack in the middle of the Santa Monica Bay.

That in itself is strange enough. Yellowtail usually don't show locally until spring, and when they do it's usually in a more exotic or pristine setting, such as Santa Catalina Island, or perhaps the Horseshoe Kelp a few miles out of L.A. Harbor.

Not this year. The yellowtail arrived off the Santa Monica-Malibu area just after Christmas and that's where they've chosen to stay, spending their mornings gorging on sardines and doing whatever else it is yellowtail do by day and night.

"Rain or shine, we've been getting them every day," says Rick Oefinger, owner of the New Del Mar out of Marina del Rey Sportfishing, the only L.A.-area landing whose half-day boats are within range of the hard-fighting jacks. "This is usually halibut time for us, but there aren't many halibut around yet and it's probably because of El Nino."

El Nino might also have something to do with the fact that the water in Santa Monica Bay, normally in the mid- to upper 50s in January, is a springlike 60-63 degrees and the same deep-blue color it was during the summer, when yellowfin tuna breezed through the bay for the first time in recent history.

Granted, the bay may not be the cleanest place around, but for the time being, it's good enough for one of the more popular game fish known to Southland anglers.

And good enough for hundreds of fishermen enjoying the convenience of having these fish so close at hand, and creating a good measure of chaos trying to catch them.

Come first light, the yellowtail begin to feed, causing the sardines to employ the only defense they know: to ball tightly up near the surface to make themselves appear as one. This works to some extent, keeping the game fish at bay, darting only after those unfortunate sardines straying far enough from the mass.

But gulls and the pelicans don't buy it for an instant. They can easily spot the bait balls and dive right in, emerging with an easy breakfast.

Fishermen merely have to spot an area with diving birds, motor up alongside the bait ball, drop an iron lure to the bottom and reel in. A strike usually comes within a few seconds.

On busy weekends, this creates a circus atmosphere as private boaters scramble from one bait ball to the next, hoping to be the first on the scene.

Philip Friedman of the fishing information hotline 976-TUNA went out Super Bowl Sunday on a small boat owned by his friend, Bob Alvarez. The duo--with some help from Friedman's sons, Philip and Patrick--boated 18 yellowtail from 5-15 pounds, along with limits of rockfish caught between bites.

Friedman, who for the last 10 years has made a living monitoring recreational fishing off the California coast, offers this advice for others with small boats who might want to get in on the action:

* The bite gets going about 7:30 and dies by about 10:30.

* Look for bird activity but don't become obsessed with chasing down the birds. "We had some of our best fishing a half-mile away from the really wild bird schools." Also, if you see everyone chasing down one group of diving birds, look around for another, because too many boats on one bait ball tend to drive the game fish down.

* The fish seem to begin feeding just beyond the Santa Monica Pier, after which they slowly work their way north, so if you get out a little late, you might want to try working north a little. The bite has been ending about 10:30 off Malibu near Pepperdine.

* Drop your iron all the way to the bottom and wind the iron at a steady pace all the way to the surface. The fish have been biting as deep as 200 feet. "Most of our fish were caught yo-yoing off the bottom, [but] Alvarez caught four of his yellows in less than 10 feet of water."

Look for the bite to continue a while. The yellow streak runs long and wide, as evidenced by similar counts of Oxnard-based boats, most of which are venturing into the northern reaches of the bay.

Says Oefinger, who has logged counts of up to 100 fish on several occasions this winter: The sardines are solid from Hermosa Beach all the way to Malibu and probably beyond, because they're even catching yellowtail every day off Oxnard. I don't see any end to this soon."

Of course if catching yellowtail in the bay doesn't appeal to you, you can always book a trip to Loreto.

BAJA'S BADLANDS

The investigation continues into the apparent murder late last year of two Nevada tourists on a fishing trip to Baja California.

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