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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS

Sorry, Charlie, the Biggest Offshore Event Isn't Tuna

July 03, 1998|PETE THOMAS

The biggest thing to happen off our coast this summer?

Ask any fisherman and you'll get a quick answer--albacore.

Surely, no species of game fish gets the adrenaline flowing quite like albacore, which have been teeming in offshore waters recently.

But the biggest thing to happen off our coast? It has nothing to do with tuna.

Whales are here and they're putting on such a show in some areas that even some fishermen are giddy about their presence.

"I literally had to slow to an idle the other day near San Miguel Island because there were so many humpback whales," said Fred Benko, captain of the Condor out of Sea Landing in Santa Barbara.

"We had guys on the boat who had been fishing all their lives, old salts, and they were standing there all excited, like little kids. They couldn't believe what they were seeing."

Benko has grown used to seeing both humpback and blue whales around the Channel Islands in summer months--but not in such numbers. He guessed there were about 100 humpbacks around his boat the other day, and so many whales and dolphins remain that he has canceled his fishing trips in favor of whale-watching trips for the rest of the summer.

"Before, we would see about a dozen, and we'd see them every day because they were so damned friendly," Benko said. "But now there are over 100 whales in one big group and they're breaching and lob-tailing and spouting in everybody's faces."

One group of about 800 humpbacks spends winters off Mexico and summers off California. Many of those have found the nutrient-rich waters of the Channel Islands, which are teeming with krill--a planktonic, shrimplike creature that the mammals can't resist.

Benko, who has enlisted naturalists from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History for his one-day expeditions, is particularly excited because blue whales--twice the size as humpbacks, measuring up to 90 feet and weighing up to 150 tons--also are beginning to show. He expects them to stay the summer too, having made the Santa Barbara Channel one of their seasonal feeding stops.

The blue whales aren't as playful as humpbacks, Benko says, but they're even more impressive because of their sheer size--a blue whale's tongue is as large as an African elephant.

Meanwhile, the blues remain scattered over such a wide area that anglers from San Diego to Santa Barbara are encountering them in the same areas they're encountering albacore, providing a bonus for anyone who appreciates such things.

ALBACORE GALORE

There's been no lull in the albacore bite for San Diego-based vessels. The Royal Polaris returned from a four-day trip last Saturday with one of the season's top hauls: 780 albacore for 24 passengers.

The boat was back at the fishing grounds--about 100 miles southwest of Point Loma--Sunday morning and after only six hours there were 400 tuna in the hold. On Monday, anglers sacked another 400-plus albacore, then on Tuesday they got skunked while trying a different area in search of bluefin tuna.

Said skipper Vic Moore, "Not many fishermen get to see 400-fish fishing trips, let alone a 400-fish day."

Vessels from L.A. Harbor to Dana Point, meanwhile, scored heavily on Wednesday just east of San Clemente Island, but on Thursday sloppy weather scattered the tuna.

BOATERS BEWARE

More people will die in boating accidents this weekend than on any other weekend this year. The annual national average for Fourth of July weekend is 60 fatalities. Of those, about half are alcohol-related.

In California, getting caught driving a boat with a blood-alcohol level of .08 or greater can result in a fine of up to $1,000, six months in jail and suspension of the operator's automobile driver's license for as long as five years.

Said Chuck Raysbrook, director of the California Department of Boating and Waterways, "When everyone around you is in a holiday frame of mind, maintaining a proper lookout is absolutely essential."

KLASSIC TELEVISION?

"Surf and Shore Fishing the World," a weekly program that kicks off Saturday on Outdoor Life Network (8:30 a.m.) and Sunday on Fox Sports West (5:30 a.m.), certainly will be unique.

As executive producer Gil Sperry says, it's the only show expressly devoted to those "who prefer to fish with both feet on the ground."

Jeff Klassen is the host. He's a lanky Canadian living in Cabo San Lucas, where he became famous for catching incredibly large game fish--and setting eight line-class world records--from the beaches around town.

The first episode will feature Padre Island in Texas and legendary guide Billy Sandifer, whose specialty is catching large sharks in the surf. Others have Klassen battling enormous roosterfish and snapper off Cabo's white-sand beaches, and catching snook in Florida's Everglades. There's even one show featuring Ruth Buzzi, of all people, catching barred perch and generally acting silly on the uninhabited beaches of Santa Rosa Island.

RUN, RABBIT, RUN

Hunting season for cottontail, brush, pygmy and snowshoe rabbits opened Wednesday and will run through Jan. 26., 1999. Prospects are good, despite El Nino.

"While El Nino is blamed for practically every other bad thing to happen in the state, it doesn't seem that it has had any negative effect on the rabbit season," DFG biologist Sam Blankenship said. "The winter's flooding probably did create hardships for California's rabbit population in some areas, but their good production rate should allow them to bounce back fairly quickly."

Information on the season can be found in the California Hunting Regulations, Mammals and Furbearers' booklet available at DFG office and license agents, or on the Internet at http://www.dfg.ca.gov.

* FISH REPORT, C15

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