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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS

Luck Is Needed to Hit the Jack Pot

June 12, 1998|PETE THOMAS

I can tell anyone who likes to fish for yellowtail that the Santa Monica Bay is absolutely loaded with them.

I can also attest that, despite what you see in the fish counts, getting these highly prized jacks to jump on your hook is no easy task.

It's all a matter of being in the right place at the right time, experts point out, which must mean that I have one lousy sense of timing.

On three different occasions during a two-day span earlier this week, I got word of a frenzied yellowtail bite in progress not much more than a stone's throw from my apartment in Hermosa Beach. And on three different occasions I got out there as fast as I could, only to find the fish had disappeared.

Plying the bay for several hours thereafter, looking for signs of renewed activity--birds diving for baitfish chased to the surface by yellowtail--also proved fruitless.

I thought back to what Shawn Arnold, publisher of the Orange County-based Fish Taco Chronicles, once said--that I was to fishing what Kryptonite was to Superman. I then thought maybe I was doing something wrong, so I called Capt. Rick Oefinger of the New Del Mar out of Marina del Rey Sportfishing.

His customers, after all, had enjoyed great success the same two days that I was out, at one point finding themselves in an hourlong battle with 15- to 20-pound yellowtail.

Oefinger was reassuring, saying that one has to put in the time, or just get lucky, to hit the jackpot with these elusive game fish.

He said that for some reason, they seem to be feeding on irregular cycles, biting one day early in the morning, other days at mid-day and others in the late afternoon or evening. Oftentimes, the bite lasts only a few minutes, he added.

"It may also be that they're feeding deep and you just can't find them, and then suddenly they spring to the surface and that's when they're susceptible to be caught by us," he said.

That's also when total chaos ensues; the yellowtail forcing the baitfish into tightly grouped "meatballs" and picking off those on the perimeter; hundreds of squawking gulls diving in for their share of baitfish; frantic anglers casting irons and hooking up with yellowtail on nearly every cast. . . .

There's nothing quite like it, Oefinger said. I told him I wouldn't know.

ANGLING FOR MORE

If albacore fishermen have one thing in common with the fish they're so crazy about, it's that they're fickle.

A week ago, when it seemed the ocean was about to explode with albacore, you couldn't get through to any of the landings targeting the longfin tuna. Their lines were busy, their boats full.

Now, merely because the bite has dropped off some--OK, substantially--not only can you get through, but you can have the boat practically to yourself.

And, yes, you still have a great chance of taking home enough fillets to have a family barbecue and have plenty left over for tuna salad.

But that apparently is not enough. Albacore fishermen need counts in the high hundreds or even in the thousands, not dozens, before they start drooling.

"They're just spoiled," says Don Ashley, owner of Pierpoint Landing in Long Beach, where nightly runs have turned into weekend-only runs because of lack of interest. "This time last year, individual boats were getting daily catches in the hundreds--one day [San Diego's] Polaris Supreme had 500 and Royal Polaris had 800 albacore."

Spoiled or not, landing operators up and down the coast are finding themselves in sort of a Catch-22 situation. How can they put bigger counts in the paper when passenger loads are so light, or in Ashley's case, nonexistent?

The Searcher out of San Diego, for example, on Thursday had only 12 fishermen, who managed to boat more than a dozen albacore. The Pacific Queen had an equally light load, which got into a school of some of the heaviest tuna encountered this young season--prized bluefin weighing 50-75 pounds. By 8 a.m. they already had boated 16 bluefin and lost several more because they were using lighter line for albacore.

"The skipper [Brian Kiyohara] was kind of bummed about that," said Martin Pena, a reservations clerk at Fisherman's Landing in San Diego, home port of both the Searcher and Pacific Queen. "Because he said they could have easily put a lot more fish on the boat."

Thus drumming up a little more business to boot.

ADD ALBACORE

The consensus among skippers is that the recent full-moon cycle had something to do with the midweek lull--the thinking there is that the fish feed at night under the light of the moon and lounge during the day--and that the bite should pick up steadily in the coming days, because the water conditions offshore are still ideal.

Meanwhile, the catch rates are about the same up and down the coast--an average of one to two fish per angler.

The good news out of Cisco Sportfishing in Oxnard is that the fish finally have moved into one-day range: Fifteen fishermen aboard the Cat Special on Thursday had one of the better counts anywhere on the coast with 105 caught between 65 and 70 miles offshore.

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