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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS / PETE THOMAS

Fleet Doing Its Best to Ride Out Storm

April 09, 1999|PETE THOMAS

It has been rough going this season for San Diego's long-range fishing fleet, what with the accidental death of one of its captains, a collision with a 700-foot freighter and, most recently, the possible suicide of a passenger.

With news like this, it's easy to overlook the highlights of these 18-day adventures to Mexico's Revillagigedo Islands, arguably the world's most prolific yellowfin tuna and wahoo fisheries.

A few recent examples:

* A 316-pound yellowfin tuna caught aboard the Red Rooster III by Robert Lewis of Marina del Rey. It's one of the largest of the season and one of a few 300-pounders landed the past week or so, a sign that bigger fish have moved into the area. The all-tackle world record is a 388-pound 12-ounce yellowfin caught there in 1977.

* The Royal Polaris pulled into port Monday with its deck littered with enormous tuna. Seventeen anglers boated 225 yellowfin, 214 wahoo, 26 grouper and nine pargo. Top tuna was a 284-pounder by Tom Blohm of Yuma, Ariz. Such success was surprising only in that the average age of the anglers was about 65, skipper Frank LoPreste said, adding that there were never more than seven or eight people fishing at one time.

After a while, anything under 130 pounds was released to make room for bigger fish.

* While relaxing at anchor before lunch and the long journey home, those aboard the Royal Polaris were astonished to see an 80-pound wahoo swimming around the boat--in only 60 feet of water.

Deckhand Roy Rose free-gaffed the game fish and hauled it aboard. It was instantly added to the lunch menu and when it was gutted, the crew was just as astonished to see what had attracted it to the boat in the first place: chicken necks thrown overboard by the cook.

"It had six chicken necks in its gullet," LoPreste said. "Now we know that chicken necks are a hot item for wahoo."

LoPreste insists this is not an April Fool's joke.

* On the Red Rooster III's recent trip, something equally bizarre happened during the fishing portion, though it was not nearly as bizarre as what would follow on the way home.

Faren McGirt, 24, of Hollywood, caught an albacore, a popular species of tuna that prefers much cooler water than yellowfin, while the vessel was anchored at Clarion Island. Fluke catch or not, it goes down as the first albacore of the season, a noteworthy accomplishment in fishing circles. Unfortunately, McGirt would not make it home to enjoy her moment in the sun. . . .

TRAGIC ENDING

McGirt was an experienced angler and had fished aboard boats up and down the coast over the years.

This was not her first trip on the Red Rooster III, but it was her last. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, she was last seen smoking a cigarette near the bait tanks at 1:15 a.m. on March 31.

She was reported missing by her boyfriend at 5:20 a.m. The boat was 50 miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Baja California peninsula, headed for the resort city to drop off passengers who were flying the rest of the way home.

An extensive search involving three vessels, a Mexican navy helicopter and a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 airplane, failed to turn up the body. And when the Red Rooster finally made it back to San Diego last Sunday morning, it was boarded by FBI agents, Coast Guard investigators and U.S. Customs officials.

If this sounds familiar, it is. The Royal Polaris received a similar greeting two months ago after one of its captains was killed while playing with explosives. The U.S. attorney's office has yet to file criminal charges in that case but may still do so.

Chief warrant officer Bernie Ramirez, the lead Coast Guard investigator on the Red Rooster case, said, "All indicators lead to a probable suicide." He added, however, that McGirt had been quarreling with her boyfriend on and off during the trip and that the two were given separate staterooms because of their fighting. Ramirez would not identify the boyfriend.

The FBI, which is also involved in the investigation, said it's premature to label this a suicide. "Maybe it's a suicide, maybe there's foul play or maybe it's just a terrible accident. We just don't know yet," special agent Jan Caldwell said.

The FBI is treating this as a criminal investigation as a matter of course, and there was evidence seized, Caldwell said, refusing to elaborate.

Linda Palm-Halpain, owner of the landing and the Red Rooster, said there were "notes involved," which might explain the suicide reasoning.

Ramirez said that both McGirt and her boyfriend "were known to be drug users" and that McGirt, according to witness accounts, "had been acting quite strange and flighty" throughout the trip. Ramirez did not say whether there were drugs found during the search of the vessel.

He added that at this point he is not considering taking any action against the Red Rooster skipper, Bryan Haslam, or his crew, who followed proper procedure.

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