From 1996 to 2005 I spent every summer except one fishing offshore, making the money that got me through the school years and turned fillets into Natural Lights. While I am “only” 32, I have seen an entire cycle of offshore fishing, from no albacore to albacore to (almost) no albacore, wide-open kelp paddy fishing, shiners of 100- to 300-plus-pound bluefin, and, in the end, an appreciation for whatever the summer season offers.
Dateline early July, 1996: It was my first summer working on an overnight boat, the Producer to be exact, and we were still fishing yellowtail at the Coronados in July. Albacore were like unicorns. It was a struggle offshore the first few weeks of July after the Fourth, with days during the week where the boat laid in and then scratched out dorado, bluefin tuna and yellowtail — like single digits — on overnight trips that went as far as 100 miles to put something in the counts. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, there was this huge float of dorado on kelps to go along with yellowtail. For the rest of July and all of August it was limits of dorado, limits of yellowtail on the dock count boards and screens. Then the yellowfin showed up in September right before I had to go back for my junior year of high school. It was an incredible offshore season. It was the start of an phenomenal string of overnight seasons that went until 2003.
After that first year things really took off and it was the start of kind of a modern day “golden age” — for lack of a more creative term — of offshore fishing. Highlights: 1997 when the yellows were wide open down the beach this time of the year and the first overnight albacore of the ‘90s were caught when Ray Sobiek decided to bend offshore and go looking one Saturday in May. Running full everyday in ’97 by only catching a few handfuls of albacore and baby yellowtail galore before it switched over to yellowfin; slam dunk albacore fishing from 1998 until 2001 and then having yellowfin take over in the falls; bluefin and albacore fishing being incredible down past 100 miles on multi-day trips in 2002 and anywhere from 50 albacore to limits on overnights in 2002; making the change to long range in 2003 and having albacore fishing that was so ridiculously wide open that the lift pole came out on most all the summer trips; and then, watching this funky transition period take over the past few seasons and writing about it instead of having to grind through it.
I learned the scientific stuff about offshore fishing when I wrote my first book, The Southern California Angler and interviewed biologists and scientists. Here are some snippets:
Barbara Block, of the Tagging of Pacific Pelagics Programs and Stanford Professor: “Bluefin tuna are born off Japan. They swim over to Baja and travel up the coast to roughly Monterey and they swim across what is ‘essentially a bluefin corridor’ back to Japan.
Bluefin can do this up to three times in a 600 day period.
Dan Fuller, Assistant Scientist for the Inter Tropical Tuna Commission: “Basically, yellowfin move with the north and south expansion of suitable habitat. When the 18.5-degree Celsius isotherm moves north up the coast in the spring then yellowfin start their seasonal movements. It’s not technically a migration like albacore. It just depends on suitable habitat.”
John Childers, Fisheries Research Division at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center: Albacore migrations occur between Japan and North America… There are two stocks of albacore: the fish (SoCal anglers) get, and the North Pacific stock, which is made up of fish that end up off Washington, Oregon and the U.S./Canada border.” Also, “the fish we catch (out of SoCal) are less than five years old and still haven’t reached sexual maturity.”
The best way that I have figured out to describe migrations of albacore and bluefin and the seasonal movements of warm water fish like yellowtail, yellowtail and dorado is with the atom example:
Think about the biomass of offshore fish as being like an atom. The good years, the albacore of the late '90s and early 2000s, for example, the center of the biomass -- the neutrons and protons that are clumped together, the meat -- butted right up along the coast, as in the banks within one- and two-day range. During the mediocre years the meat kind of clips the edge of where we fish, and the totally shitty years, the whole thing is out of range, or only the occasional school (as in a electron on the outer ring) comes within range, like last year when the only albacore were out west and even then there was no meat to the schools. That's how it's been the last few years on albacore. Also think about how far albacore range, and how miniscule our zone is in the grand scheme of their migrations. Here's an image from NOAA that shows off releases and recoveries:
The bluefin came right up where we want them last year, and if I can predict anything with a shred of hope based on conditions and cycles, it's that of a good bluefin season. They like the cool water, and it looks like there has been some overwintering, based on the fact that several long range boats have seen little spots up while transiting through the 200 miles zone on long trips and ecology jaunts.
Block said that the biomass of bluefin that we're in during this bluefin cycle is incredible -- this is what a sportboat buddy told me -- and that last year's small fish should be in the 20-pound class this season. The pen operations are shrinking and drying up (there are no pens at the Coronados) due, mainly, to the economy.
Albacore could certainly be a possibility, but then again, this could just be the start of another stretch where everything else fills in for the missing albacore.
In the end, the only thing constant is cycles. In 1996 I thought I'd never see an albacore, in 2003 I had total albacore burn out and would have been happy to never see another one and now in 2012 I'd take wide open albacore over anything else.
Cycles and conditions...