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Crazy Days of March Extend to Other Realms of Sports

March 24, 2000|PETE THOMAS

March Madness? For some, the month has much more to offer than college basketball.

The world beyond closed doors is just now springing to life. Bears are coming out of hibernation, just as the basketball Bruins are about to go into theirs.

Sierra peaks are still layered with white, but the low rolling hills are a lush green. The sky is mostly blue instead of gray, and warmer, longer days are putting those not so consumed with mainstream sports in the mood to go out and bask in the splendor.

Fishing rods are coming out of the closet, shotguns are being removed from their cases, boats are being brought out of the yards and kayaks and canoes are being pointed downriver. Wax is being applied to surfboards as well as on skis.

For many, this is what March Madness is all about. So here's a taste--not all of it savory--of what's going on beyond the hardwood:

* Catalina croakers: You know it's spring when white seabass start spawning at the island, and Santa Catalina has been serving them up all week on days when the wind isn't up. On Sunday, a 71-pounder was the biggest of several large croakers hauled aboard the Lucky Strike out of Pierpoint Landing in Long Beach. On Wednesday, 37 anglers aboard the Big Game out of Pierpoint bagged 37 seabass to about 40 pounds.

"It's been a bonanza out there," says Philip Friedman, whose 976-TUNA hotline is running a series of charters out of Pierpoint. Some bonanza. The season bag limit was reduced to one a day on March 15 and reverts to three on June 15. Still, one 30- or 40-pound seabass is ample, both at the end of the line and in the freezer.

* Halibut high: The spring bite is on and more than 3,000 anglers are expected to compete for exotic fishing trips and other prizes in either of two huge tournaments held annually in Santa Monica Bay. The Marina del Rey Halibut Derby is April 1-2. You can enter by calling (310) 827-4855. The Santa Monica Bay Halibut Derby is the following weekend: (310) 450-5131.

* Halibut low: At S.E.A. Laboratory in Redondo Beach, they're mourning the loss of Big Mama, a 50-pound halibut that was one of 20 apparently speared and stolen by intruders who left a trail of blood and guts.

Big Mama was a 10-year resident of a 10-by-20-foot oval tank at the hatchery-aquarium at the base of King Harbor. She was unique in that she willingly spawned in captivity and had been very productive over the years. She was also hugely popular among children visiting the facility. The motive for the butchery is unclear, but if someone turns in a 50-pound halibut at either of the aforementioned derbies, he or she will fall under heavy scrutiny.

* Troubled waters: Reports are still filtering in of vessels outfitted with controversial long-line gear plying Mexican waters well within the 50-mile limit supposedly in effect to preserve game fish populations. The latest come from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico's crown jewel in the eyes of sport fishermen, who contribute millions to the country's economy each year.

Rumor has it, corrupt individuals within the lame-duck administration are selling long-line permits to anyone who wants one. This, of course, has not been proved. Another explanation is that some fishermen are being allowed to use the gear--which basically is miles of lines with hundreds of baited hooks--as part of an "experimental" shark research project.

Mexican fisheries officials have been vague on the issue, but do acknowledge that there is some illegal fishing going on. Meanwhile, tourism officials are up in arms over the matter, and rightly so. They can build all the golf courses they want in Cabo, but as the marlin fishery goes, so goes the city.

* Troubled town: Farther up the Sea of Cortez at Loreto, yellowtail arrived en masse, on cue not long ago. And they were promptly rounded up by commercial seiners.

"The commercial netters are taking all of them, even within the boundaries of the [national] marine park," says one frustrated fleet operator.

Loreto, one of Baja's most beautiful and charming cities, basically has two sportfishing seasons, one for yellowtail and a mid- and late-summer run of dorado. Only dorado, a species reserved for sport fishermen, are protected against the seiners.

* Roosterfish raids: Spring is when gill-netters from mainland Mexico, who have largely fished out their waters, start making illegal raids on inshore areas in the remote East Cape region of Baja California, trying to load up on anything they can catch to satisfy an increased demand for fish during Lent, the period preceding Easter. Notable in their nets are roosterfish and jacks.

Since protecting the interests of sportfishermen--whose value to the economy far surpasses that of commercial fishing--does not seem to be a priority this year, there's no reason to believe the gill-netters won't be back.

* On the brighter side, there is some decent fishing off southern Baja, mostly for dorado and small tuna in the East Cape and La Paz areas.

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