It was a school of albacore so immense that it lit up the entire sonar screen aboard the American Angler. Capt. Dan Sansome, in the wheelhouse, saw nothing but fish: a solid block at least 400 feet long and 120 feet deep.
"Indeed the largest concentration of albacore I can recall in over 35 years," he said. "That's very unusual, even during prime-time fishing. You just don't see that."
His passengers, using sardines as bait, boated 70 albacore before dusk turned to darkness on the second day of a five-day excursion that ended Monday.
The fish bit again the next morning, and by trip's end 26 anglers had sacked 390 albacore to 34 pounds near Guadalupe Island off Baja California, about 220 miles south of Point Loma.
Seeking variety, they visited San Benitos Island and added 64 yellowtail to their haul, including a 38-pounder caught by Dennis Larkin of Dana Point after a 40-minute fight.
Sansome, who has a three-day trip leaving Sunday, labeled his "the first big haul of the season" even though other vessels arrived shortly after his, their anglers experiencing equally wild encounters with albacore, and even waged war with a few much larger bluefin tuna.
Though this all occurred--and is still occurring--well beyond the 90-mile range of the popular one-day fleet, Sansome said it was significant because favorable conditions--blue water at 62-64 degrees--exist virtually all the way back to San Diego.
Prime-time fishing, he predicted, is very close at hand.
With few exceptions, spotty albacore catches have been the norm aboard day boats embarking nightly to the most productive fishing grounds they can reach: 50 to 85 miles southwest of Point Loma.
The 1 1/2-day boats, traveling to about 120 miles, are doing slightly better.
As of Thursday, however, no vessel had yet attained or surpassed the magical "hump" figure of 100 fish. When that happens, albacore fever will become contagious, putting more people on boats, more boats on the water, and more albacore in the fish counts.
Meanwhile, most are playing the waiting game, monitoring the situation in the papers and on the Web.
"I think this trickle-in thing gets more interest than the actual bite because when the fish finally do come in everybody knows they're here," says Philip Friedman of 976-TUNA, who is offering free updates and interviews on http://www.976tuna.com. "We came close to busting a million hits [in May]."
To further fuel the fire, word is spreading of albacore filtering into U.S. waters. Commercial fishermen have had jig strikes 100 miles offshore beyond Cortez Bank, and last Sunday Dave Runstrom of Irvine went there and caught four of the longfins, all on jigs.
Runstrom was fishing with his wife, Cyndi, and 12-year-old daughter, Kirsten. He gives some credit to his wife, who saw flashes in the water, causing Runstrom to change course and eventually get a double jig strike.
But he gives most to Bat Batsford, president of the San Francisco Bay Area Tuna Club. Batsford makes annual predictions as to where albacore will be caught each season. His prediction for the San Diego-to-north-Los Angeles area, posted on the Internet on April 29:
"We feel that the first sport-caught albacore off this piece of Southern California coastline will be around the . . . outside edge of the Cortez Bank between May 24 and June 1, maybe sooner, if the weather permits and someone is out there to catch them."
Runstrom e-mailed Batsford a note of thanks.
Redondo Sportfishing's first "gray-bite white seabass special," to an area off Marina del Rey, paid off at dawn Wednesday, as 25 anglers landed one fish apiece (limits) before the rising sun signaled the end of the bite. Included were three seabass topping 40 pounds.
The Tortuga out of Marina del Rey Sportfishing has been on the same bite much of the week, with varying success, and Wednesday had limits and one croaker at 50 pounds.
Both landings are running daily trips with 3 a.m. departures. Early arrival has been key as the seabass are highly sensitive to boat pressure and thus far have not been feeding after first light.
While things are spicing up nicely off northern Baja, fleet operators at Land's End are lamenting a bland spring season that has shown only sporadic signs of improvement.
"We are still waiting for an explosion of striped marlin, which we feel should happen in the next couple of weeks if it is to happen at all," Pisces Sportfishing owner Tracy Ehrenberg said in her weekly report. "Otherwise, blue marlin season will be upon us."
So it's hoped. Water temperatures, finally rising in the north, are holding at 70 to 72 degrees off Cabo San Lucas, about seven degrees below normal. Cold winds have been blowing in the Pacific, leaving long trips into the gulf as the only alternative. Pisces reported a "pretty decent" 58% catch rate on striped marlin.