Pat McDonell's Blog

WONews Column by Pat McDonell

Pat McDonell is the Editorial Director of Western
Outdoors Publications and has fished and hunted all over the world, from Brazil’s famed peacock bass waters to Morro Bay for albacore.

A graduate from San Diego State University in Journalism, he coordinates the staffs of the weekly newspaper and magazine. He was a founding member of United Anglers of SoCal. He’s an avid saltwater and freshwater angler and hunter. He is also the director of the annual Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot Tournament held each November in Cabo.  McDonell, 52, is married with two daughters and resides in Carlsbad.

Swimming with the bluefin
Huge fish, in local waters


The shaft of the 8-foot bamboo gaff was bobbing vertically 40 yards off the stern, and the second I hit the water and started swimming away from my 18-foot skiff I thought, “There’s a tuna right under me bleeding and I’ve seen a lot of sharks out here today. This is not smart.”


But, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.


We were eight miles off the San Onofre Power Plant “domes” on Tuesday,  the day before my 61st birthday on a run out of Oceanside Harbor July 14, and my buddy Floyd Sparks of Olivenhain and his 12-year-old son Dillon were on my 18-foot skiff.  Floyd was hooked up with a big bluefin, and I mean a BIG bluefin, and I know this as I’m swimming to the gaff because I put the bleeding hole in that big fish. The gaff on the first gaff attempt was not good. The bamboo gaff was ripped out of my gloved hands, and the first thing out of Floyd’s mouth was… well, it’s not appropriate for a newspaper, but it alluded to my hitting the tuna two feet up from the tail.


You learn a lot of things when you are looking for, rigging up and fighting big bluefin, something unheard of in SoCal waters. If you doubt me, don’t. I’ve been doing this now for 31 years at WON as editor. This is the first sustained “big” bluefin season in local waters in three decades, maybe more. It’s a freak show. Look it up.


The second thing said was by me after I saw my gaff disappear with the fish, “Crap, that’s the only gaff I have on the boat.”


“Well, I hope it floats,” said Floyd.


And it did. Surfacing 40 yards away, and that’s when I started stripping down to my swimming trunks.


So, my first bluefin lesson of the day was this: “If you have never gaffed a big tuna over100 pounds, or any fish over 100 pounds, if you want to stick it and it’s still frisky or ‘green,” get in the head and pull up. Same as if you hit in the tail. It can’t propel without water. There can be no hesitation. While I have caught multiple 200 pounders and gaffed a lot of fish, never have I gaffed a big tuna. I leave that to the long range guys and Panamanian crewmen. 

But this is a special season, and frankly, a lot of people have failed out there in local waters. Too impatient. Too light a tackle, too little pressure with light drags, J hooks instead of circle hooks, bad technique, poor knots or just lousy lucky. The key bit of advice: Leave light tackle home. The longer the fight, the worse the odds. 

There's more to this story, as we caught the one fish that turned out to be 145 pounds, plus two more bluefin, of 60 pounds for Dillion and this writer, and I'll have  details in this next issue of Western Outdoor News,  mainly a lot of how-to information on specific tackle and technique that worked for us and can work for you too. I think these fish re going to be around for a while, and without question there are massive schools of them. 


Pat McDonell is editor of Western Outdoor News, and directs jackpot tournaments in Cabo, Catalina and San Diego. He can be reached at

FLOYD SPARKS with his 145 pounder. 

PAT McDONELL and his 60 pounder, one of two of these "smaller" bluefin caught Tuesday 8 miles off San Onofre, 

Best bluefin story of all, and there’s a bunch
The first week of June has been one of those “fish of as lifetime” period, and while a few years ago it was white seabass on the coast, it is now bluefin in the nearshore banks with 100 to 200-pound bluefin coming to the well-prepared and fortunate few.

JOEY ENGLE WITH his big bluefin back at Dana Point. He also got a 50-pound bigeye as yellopwfin and bigeye enter the tuna picture in SoCal nearshore waters. He got the big Bluefin on a an Okuma Andros 5 at the 209 Spot.

It has been a wild season, and it looks like it’s going to be even more wild as yellowfin move in, and now bigeye. The volume of fish as seen on the water and especially in the sky by the Sportfishing Association of California spotter plane piloted by “Drew” has witnesses miles of breaking fish.

There’s more fish out there in U.S. waters than we have ever seen,” said Ken Franke, president of SAC. Who contracts out with the spotter plane to help sportfishers locate scools. They have not had to go far. The fish area spreads out from San Clemente to the border.” The border is an issue as the Mexico moratorium is in place on bluefin while the U.S. waters allow 10 fish, at least for now. That situation on Mexico’s moratorium on the bluefin will have a happy ending, I predict, with some good intel on the back end of that prediction.

Meanwhile, U.S. waters continue to be a fish trap for tuna and yellowtail with all the red crab. The bluefin, and now the bigeye and yellowfin. Joey Engle, whom I met this past winter on a local yellowtail Sum Fun trip and who guides folks on their boats, texted me midweek that on Sunday he’d scored a 125-pound bluefin and a 50-pound bigeye on a run to the 209 Spot out of Dana Point.

A run I took with friends Jim Mitchell and Floyd Sparks out of Oceanside Harbor on the Tuna Kahuna had all the elements of a great day. Bait, weather, gear and local knowledge of the bite the previous day in the 181/209 area turned up only a 30-pound yellow on a paddie, and that was it. By the time you read this, who knows what will have transpired.

All I can say is this on the bluefin: The key is to get out, get bait, spend time on the water and be prepared with the right bluefin tackle. And be prepared to spend a full day and into the evening for the bluefin, because they seem to like the late afternoon and evening for feeding and likely, after most boats have left. They are on the red crab, and the sight of acres of crashing bluefin on the thick hoards of red crab and tornados of terns and and sheerwaters is a sight to behold. After we left the 209 Spot at 5:30 after a promising tornado of terns turned up nothing, and no sight of breaking tuna, I heard the bite went off there for one late arrival and at the 267 just off Dana Point went off at dusk. A rumor, but I don’t doubt it.

So, while I struck on our effort Tuesday before returning to my desk, my advice is this: Just go if you get the good information. And if you get bit on the wrong equipment and anything lighter than 50 on one of those behemoths, hang on, for a while.

So, the best bluefin story of all I’ve heard – and I’m hearing of a bunch -- walked into the front door of WON headquarters on Thursday. Three friends, all spearfishermen, scored a 177.3-pound bluefin at the 277 spot on Wednesday. Jon Walla of San Clemente walked into the WON offices this morning with the pics and story of how he and friends Aaron Shook of San Clemente and Dominic Fadala of Huntington Beach went for a spearfishing hunt on John’s 22 Radoncraft at 4:30 a.m. and encountered the fish eight miles off Dana, destroying two football fields of red crab, terns and shearwaters diving. The fish were in spots, said Walla, but the bite seemed to be in a vast area based on the bird activity.

“They swam up to boat, about 10 feet off the stern, and they weren’t interested in what we had (on rod and reel) but they were concentrating on the red crab. So on the second go-around on the bird schools, we got in front of them again, and they came in, and when Aaron went in he said he easily saw 100 fish over 100 pounds.”

Aaron was already in the water, and Dominic joined him.

“It was big spot of bluefin, a couple football fields by the way the birds were working; the birds were picking in every direction, not just the spot we were at. Aaron dove down and the float was still on the boat, and yelled get it off the boat, so we tossed it over.”

The fact that Dominic’s speargun wasn’t loaded was actually good luck. If had it loaded, he would have nailed another big bluefin, but as it turned out, it took three shots to get Aaron’s.

“The first shot didn’t hurt him (the fish), but it stuck,” said Walla. “The second shot was deep at 80 to 90 feet down, and then we got him up to the firing line of 25 to 30 feet of the surface and stuck ’em with a third shot.”

Getting the fish into the boat was a “nightmare” because of its size, said Walla, but on the deck it was taped out, and amazingly the calculations on the boat were to the pound as the digital scale at Dana Harbor Fuel Dock, at 173.3.

Wall said the fish would set a new bluefin state record for spearfishing. 

the bluefin to the float at the 267. It took three shots to subdue the bluefin that is going to be submitted as a state record for the speargun.

AARON SHOOK OF San Clemente exults as he tries to lift up the bluefin that was a team effort at the 267 Spot on a trip out of Dana Point on Jon Walla’s 22-foot Radoncraft.

BIG HIT: passport needed for Mex FMM
  More paperwork, more restrictions

Just announced:  Mexico now requires anyone fishing in Mex waters within 12 miles of land on partyboats or a private boat to have a passport. Starting now. No exceptions.  It's really, they say, a  current regulation now being enforced.  That enforcement  puts a huge crimp in the 3/4-day sport boat traffic from the San Diego landings to the Coronados, the Rockpile to the south, and any fishing area within 12 miles of the coast or any island.  It also affects any private boater or charter boat that fishes the "coast."

 On this side of the border, I imagine we will see a greater impact on our own local fishing areas, especially La Jolla as people opt out of fishing in Mex waters. Fortunately, the fishing for yellows is so good in U.S. waters that 3/4-day trips could skip the islands. 

Thus far, local landings  have been issuing the FMMs -- or "by sea" visas in the past to anglers who  provided a valid government issued ID or birth certificate. Now they need a current passport to get proper documentation.

For those us who live in San Diego, have a boat, fish the Mexican waters or get on partyboats often and travel a great deal, a passport is no big deal. But there's a huge core of Americans who do not have them, particularly kids, and many adults who enjoy fishing out of San Diego likely won't get them just because they are required by Mexico. They simply won't go, and likely will opt for fishing out of landings to the north closer to home that fish U.S. waters. You REALLY have to want to fish Mexican waters in that 12-mile zone.

Long Range? No issue. multi-day trips. No issue. Trips like that are expensive and pre-planned. Not so much 3/4-day trips where decisions are based on quality of fishing and "Hey, I have a day off, I'll drive down to San Diego and go on the San Diego or  Malihini." Private boats?  The passport is not as big of an issue. We're used to the paperwork quicksand. If you fish in Mex waters like do, you have  a passport, you go online and pay the ridiculous per per person $25 FMM fee and jump through the online nonsense since you can't get an FMM anywhere else.  I'll vent more on that later.

The impact is to any shorter trip on a sport fisher or six-pack that fishes coastal Norte Mexico, and especially the Coronados. Most captains who want to fish the within 12 miles of the coast or islands will basically say, if you want to fish with me, you gotta have a passport. Or not fish the islands or 12-mile zone  with a load of folks, some of whom don't have passports. A charter group? The chartermaster will have to make sure his guys all have them.   On trips in which yellowfin are just outside the Coronados, let's say, you are far enough offshore for a tuna trip, out more than 12 miles from a Mexican shore, but if one passenger doesn't  have a passport? Well, those islands are off limits. Or anywhere within 12 miles like the Rockpile, the lower end of the Nine Mile Bank, Tijuana Flats, the coastal kelp beds, San Martin Island, Colonet, and the string of high spots down the coast. 

The fishing business in dealing with Mexico regulations gets more and more difficult, On the positive side, yes, we still get to fish Mexican waters. And when was the last time a boatload of Mexicans could freely come north and fish our waters? Never happened. So, we should count ourselves lucky, in a way. 

And my best advice is this: If you are an adult and you have children, pay a few dollars extra on the application like I did and get a passport and the passport credit card, which is good for all ground and sea port of entry uses but  NOT  flying where you need the passport.  The passport credit card works for the FMM process, and it's easy  to carry in the wallet. 

To go to the  Sportfishing Association of California (SAC) website for all the Mexico regulations, go to :

for a good story on this by the San Diego Union-Tribune by Ed Zieralski, go to:

Finally,tomorrow, Saturday, May 30. I will be on radio show Let's Talk Hookup on 1090-AM from 7 to 9 a.m. and I'm sure this will be a hot topic on air, and Ken Franke of of SAC, who has to deal with this stuff involving Mexico on behalf of the fleet, will no doubt  weigh in. 



Okay, so I wrote above  I would vent about private boat fishing in Mexico? Let's say I don't go any more, or I go once or twice a year in my boat. Before the new FMM/Visa requirements for 12 miles or the islands were required, I used to constantly fish the Mexican coast, bring my surfboard, combine trips, and I'd go to Ensenada both as a fishermen by trailer and by water like many others when the Hotel Coral opened with its launch ramp.  I found out a few weeks ago that the paperwork for a PBer makes it a horrendous experience for the trailer boater and the guy who runs down to the Hotel Coral for the weekend. I will admit, for a longer stay, the Coral and Ensenada in general is a great destination. But for a weekend, or overnighting at the marinas, or a short fishing tournament, it's not too enticing any more. 

That is because when you arrive by boat or trailer with your rig, you first have to check in at the Coral office. You show your passport, your registration, proof of boat insurance, your 10-year Boat Importation Permit, your fishing licenses for all aboard, your FMM receipt and FMM  manifest you printed out from the  online experience with Mexican customs before you left…. that's not all. Before you can spend the night at the Coral Marina, or any Marina, you have to show all that paperwork not just to the Coral office personnel (very friendly, as always), but you are taken by car to the downtown Ensenada  by a rep for the Marina Coral to the Ensenada Harbormaster to either show all that documentation, or to obtain it. 

Each. Time. You. Go. To. The. Coral. By water or by trailer.  No exceptions. Before you can lay by the pool with a margaritas or get a slip key, you must  pay a visit to the Harbormaster Office to show all docs, or obtain them.  

I did not know that last October on a run  from Shelter Island in San Diego to Ensenada  with a friend.   On that trip, I jumped through all the paperwork hoops above BUT, I did not have the Boat Importation Permit. Didn't know I had to have it. But, you do. Good for 10 years, a beautiful gold embossed sheet, and it costs a little over $100. All boats (and owners) that overnight in ports must have them.  So, on this latest trip from San Diego, I knew I had all the paperwork, in a folder. But to my surprise I still had to be taken to the harbormaster's office in downtown Ensenada. I guess they don't take the Coral Marina's staff's word. 

On this second trip, a month ago with my buddy, Bill, he was clearly ticked off at both of us having to be taken to the office. Now, we had a great time, fishing in a small yellowtail tourney out of the  Marina. Good time. Love the place. The Coral looks better than ever. But the paperwork is insane! 

Taking a boat to Mexico for a long period of time, a week or longer,  is a pretty good situation. Love the Coral hotel, love the town, and good friends are down there. The exchange rate is 15 to 1. But for a weekend, a one-day tourney, or just an overnight stop before heading home? Way too much trouble. And it is one reason why no one in the U.S. will ever hold another tournament down there for boaters coming by car or water.  I speak from experience in this: I directed several of our events there, and finally called it quits when no Americans would come down. Or not enough of them. 

 I will still go down and fish out of the Coral from time to time on other people's boats, leaving mine at home, But clearly those days of 100- to 120-boat events are over and they are not coming back no matter how good the fishing is or how short the border wait is.  

El Nino on the way, in the larger size
The bite is heating up already
Opah at the 150 spot!


The word now, a full-blown El Nino is likely coming. Look for fall rains, warmer water, more exotics and all the usual -- good and bad -- aspects of a full on warm water condition. Last year was a mere tune-up.

In a report on Monday morning on, while similar indications were reported last year at this time, this year is shaping up to be different, said David Pierce, climate researcher with Scripps Institution of Oceanography. That said, it’s still too early to know for sure, he stated in the KPBS story.

“You have to have both the ocean and the atmosphere cooperating together,” Pierce said. “Last year the ocean surface temperatures and the subsurface temperatures below the surface looked like it was going to be an El Niño, but the atmosphere didn’t really start responding. But this year is a little bit different. The atmosphere does seem to be responding.”

Pierce said El Niño is set in motion when massive convective storms form over the warmer-than-usual tropical Pacific.

“It’s kind of like if you roll a ball down a hill and there’s a lot of people around, “ Pierce said. “Someone might run up and kick it and deflect it from its path. So we’re rolling down hill, we’re aiming towards an El Niño, but random weather events can still make a difference.”

See for more on this story.Of course, we are already seeing the effects of warmer water. 

I think the weather has me snakebit. The last three Fridays -- the Davey’s/Freelance charter I hosted, the May 16-17 Catalina WSB tourney I directed, and this past Friday on my 18-foot boat with WON BASS director Billy Egan out of San Diego -- it has rained and blown all three days, The rest of the days of those weeks? Perfect. Anyway, chasing catching yellows under birds was brutal in 15 knot winds and chop, but we did it. We hit the Coronados to Nine Mile Bank to the inside about 5 miles off Point Loma, and got one fish, a 20 pounder. Billy got it on two cranks on a wrapped surface jig. That’s the second time he’s been on my boat and gotten just one fish, both yellows. I told him that’s the boat’s official limit for him now, and just deal with it. Ha. Better to get one than blanked.

BILLY EGAN of WON with our lone yellow. It ate the surface iron. The bite continues to be excellent this week, at the islands and on the coast, under the birds. 

Good tip: True, the yellows are eating the iron, but if they don’t and they are  on the surface but lockjawed,  try a 1-ounce leadhead with a 4-inch swimbait. Some red in that bait will help as they are on small bait or the red crabs. The fish are moving fast.

his past week, the 43 Fathom Spot and 150 Spot off Huntington Beach gave up opahs. On Monday, Jim Cook of Hesperia caught a135.7-pound opah on a live while using an Avet reel, Izorline 40-pound line on a dropper loop setup. He was headed back out after he weighed it in n Memorial Day.

JIM COOK AND HIS opah from the 150 Spot yesterday off Huntington Beach, on  Memorial Day. 


Good news from Billy Egan. The upcoming WON BASS Clear Lake Open, one of the two big pro bass events we have, is way up in signups. Each year the tourney – and the U.S. Open at Mead, have grown in size. They are easily the biggest pro events in the West. Bill also directs the SARL, Big Bear and Havasu events for WON.

This reporter will be on Let’s Talk Hookup this Saturday, May 30, on 1090-AM from 7 to 9 a.m. with hosts Pete Gray and Rockcod Rick Maxa. We'll be talking tournaments, El Nino, fishing and the newspaper’s latest stories. Call in if you can. The free Mighty 1090 App is how I listen to the show on my phone. Go to and you can listen by clicking the icon, and also get the app there. But any app store can do that instantly. I like the station in general and tune into Pads games, so the app works for me outside the station’s power range. It’s just far more convenient as I’m not tied to the radio. Call in at (877) 792-1090 or (858) 457-1090.

Angler Chronicles TV show producer and good friend Danny Jackson let me know that on Fox Sports West, a June 14 segment on catfishing is good one to watch or DVR. “It is called "Catfish 101" and is a tutorial as well as lots of bent rod action on blue and channel catfish,:” said Danny. “ We have fish in the 20- and 30-pound range on video. There are also very good tutorials on how to rig, techniques, baits and even how to fillet and cook them.

ROFESSIONAL GUIDE AND LOCAL expert, Capt. Don Spencer.   Huge blue and channel catfish will be featured in a new Angler Chronicles episode to air on June 14.

Added Jackson, “I did film all of this at Irvine Lake and it will be a good episode to kick off the summer since lots of anglers look to target catfish in the summer. Everything in this program of course applies to anywhere fishermen are targeting catfish in the southland.”

One of top calico hunters around,Karl Erbacher, recently caught the biggest calico bass ever caught in a tournament. Amazingly, it only got he and his teammate John Dunlap, a second place finish at a recent SWBA event. This has been the year of big calicos, for sure. Lot of theories why. One is that the islands’ squid nests bulked them up and spoiled them, now the nests are gone and they are more aggressive.

The 10.6 pounder was caught at Catalina Island on May 9 with Erbacher using a Big Hammer 9-inch sledge in color #125 Hot Karl. The total bag weight for the 5-fish limit was over 28 pounds and good for a second place team finish.

KARL, RIGHT,  AND JOSH Dunlap at the weigh-in earlier this month.

The “Team Salty” duo, regulars on the bass tours,  are big fish honchos. They have now   set the big fish record for the SWBA series with this fish, and also holds the big fish for the SBS with a 9.48 calico.

The tale of the check: In the Catalina WSB tourney, the winning check total was written out without factoring in the $1,400 first place money. So we did it digitally back here at WON. Looked pretty good. In the tourney at Two Harbors, we assemble the stats on the computer in 15 minutes so we can get to the awards, have lunch, give away the monster pile of prizes and get the folks back fishing or on the road across the channel. In all, it went pretty smooth this year, $19,000 in bucks and $25,000 in prizes, including a trip to Alaska for two and two Furuno units, 12 Avets, six Cousins rods, Grundens clothing sets (4)……..but the white seabass were nonexistent. Good thing we had yellows and halibut to weigh.

One question teams had was, if no WSB was weighed, when what happens to the optional money? There was $4,590 in the three optionals. It will all be returned, minus 10 percent. Strangely, it made for a lot of happy teams. If you can’t win, then getting most of the dough back is second best and not so bad. It’s an accounting nightmare for us. We really like to give that money out at the tourney.

Next up for me as a tourney director is the Sept. 4-5 San Diego Jackpot at Dana Landing, in its third year. The first year we had 9 teams in a hastily created event when Ensenada was cancelled. Last year, in its second go-around, we had 45 teams. This year the tuna and yellowtail event should draw even more teams. It’s just $50 to enter as person, no limit on team members (two is minimum) and if you have a Yamaha powering your boat, you get a free individual entry. Payouts to third, $100 optionals for yellows and tuna. Check in is Friday night and Saturday morning at Dana Landing (only, this year). See (click on WON events).

Pat McDonell is editor of Western Outdoor News and director of the WON saltwater events at Cabo, San Diego and Catalina. Contact him at





Clearing the desk
This next week I will be at Catalina Island for three days, directing the annual WON/Yamaha Catalina White Seabass Championship out of Two Harbors. If you want to fish it, just show up Saturday morning 7 a.m. to 10:30 at Two Harbors. Cash only. The prizes alone are worth doing the event, not to mention the good excuse to go after the yellowtail at either San Clemente or Catalina islands. There’s a LOT of fish out there. And a lot of sea lions. Fair game, although the cards are stacked in favor of the ever-expanding and smart sea lions.



The Freelance ¾-day run last Friday was a charter I hosted out of Davey’s Locker. Never have I had a such a great group and such brutal results. Plenty of the fish were at Catalina’s east end. Great bait. But… just one yellowtail was brought aboard. The sea lions ate all our baits and hooked fish. Lesson for all. Hook ’em quick, use 30- to 60-pound for ’dines ’cuz the fish don’t care, use only the biggest and greenest for quick hook-ups, and have surface iron with at least 40-pound line ready. It’s a race to the finish.

Last week was a tough one here at WON. Our accountant, Denise Cully, retired after 25 years. She didn’t hunt, or fish. But, if you entered an event here at WON, she handled your money and doled out your checks. And mine and many others. Never a mistake. Professional and calm. We are truly going to miss her. She’s not so much retiring as moving off into a life of travel with her husband Dr. Michael Cully, and higher education — going after a Master’s. In 30 years here, I’ve seen a lot of folks come and go. That was a tougher one than many.

In last week’s issue of WON, the story and cover headline were correct, but the caption of the photo on page 1 mistakenly listed the 11-8 brown as a rainbow. The brown was a nice pre-Mother’s Day present from her son, Capt. Craig Kojima gave to his mother Jean as he put her onto the beautiful fish at Lower Twin Lake in Bridgeport. The fish hit on a trolled custom-painted Rapala.

MIKE CARSON WITH his Aloha Spirit WSB.

The Alaska trip I am hosting in August is a better deal than we thought. It has been confusing for some interested folks. The trip for three days of fishing, is now $2,425, not $2,495 and includes the $130 Sitka tax that is not included in the $2,295 list price on the Kingfisher site. So, our price is $100 less than the lodge offers, and also includes a $100 clothing credit at the lodge which is not offered to any other groups. Just WON. In addition, low fares on Alaska Airlines last week dropped to $400 out of LAX. Last year those same fares were $800 to $900. There is no better time than now to go on a Kingfisher Alaska trip, hosted by WON. E-mail Connor Johnson at to reserve your spot.

Dick Gaumer, who worked in sales here and as a rep for a number of companies and who has been retired for years, is not doing well these days, and a phone call — soon — to say hello would be advised.

CORRECTION: We have to depend on various loyal sources for our weekly info, and when they are wrong, so are we. It happens. Mike Carson of Burbank was on the cover with an Aloha Spirit WSB and the wrong name was on the caption. Carson has had some big WSB over the years, his two biggest a 62 and a pair of 50s. Nice. This one was a 30 pounder he caught on a flylined mackie.

* * *

Pat McDonell is editor of WON. Contact him at

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