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Click here for Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Hooping renaissance

Go big or go home
It’s an interesting thing, how perspectives have morphed in just the past few weeks. Those monstrous bluefin, their presence as a target, has become a consistent option, just one of a variety. And surely there have been and there continues to be the occasional day where the bite goes ballistic — fit for a party boat with 20 or 30 anglers aboard to hook and land near to one around. That's the magic benchmark for a self-sustaining big game bite, no help needed from fall-back species like rockfish and others.

Strangely, in this fishery of the big bluefin chase, 30-pound yellows at San Clemente Island have become the fall-back ”bag filler” when high passenger count 1- to 2-day trips do choose to chase these giants in the early a.m.

But this morning the transition is clear. The cow bluefin fishery is really best suited to 6-packs, high-dollar yachts and long range-style operations.

On the grounds last Friday were the American Angler and the Shogun. Wendy Tochi and I are aboard the 6-pack Options, with Calstar's Glen Kuromi and friend Randy Mikuriya, as well as Robert Fleschman.

Missing from the scene is the fleet of 1- to 2.5-day boats out of San Diego, as they are all chasing the crowd-pleasing yellowfin tuna bite to the south. All but one of the San Pedro/Long Beach, Newport and Dana boats have chosen to target more willing gamesters better adapted to having multiple hook-ups going simultaneously.

A blast from the past for Options skipper Capt. Wes Flesch and myself, the Black Pearl drifts all day dead center of the spread.

Around us, yachts like Thumper all fly yummy flyers of various brands towed far behind a fishing kite.

Of course, the trend-setting Carolina Lures Yummee Flyer tops the list. It's big-boy fishing all the way. There's no shortage of fish, but bites are hard to come by, and when they do, the fights are hard to finish.

The challenge is finding a way to entice a 130- to 250-pound bluefin into biting an offering on gear capable of taking advantage of that opportunity.

In our quiver are an Okuma Makaira 50IISEa and a tuned up Penn International 50II, each strapped on to Phenix HAX 720 X4Hs, and loaded with 130-pound Izor Brutally Strong, topped with First String 100-pound. In addition, there is a third 50II, a Talica. It's on an old-school Sabre GF 660H.

Our lighter gear consists of several Avet 2-speeds in the 40- to 80-pound range and a couple of TLD 30s on Calstar 6460 XHs. A 10-foot Phenix Abyss PSX 1009 and Accurate Boss Dauntless 600N sits ready with a Yo-Zuri Sashimi Bull popper, just in case.

For all this big gear, the finicky fish are finning down at the first thermocline, hanging in a solid layer for acres, between 100 and 200 feet. As we drift, it's tempting to drop in with the sinker rig and 30-pound, but no one dares. These are mixed fish, including a few in the 40- and 50-pound class, but the bulk of the marks on the meter are much, much bigger.

We spend the morning hours plumbing the depths with customized 5-hook, 250-gram Flat-Falls or live sardines, either fly-lined or on sinker rigs. Our bait is as good as finbait gets, green and mean, and with some small mackie in it, too.

A couple of the yachts make the Flyer work and soon we're running a flyer too. However, we can't seem to draw a strike. It's mid to late morning, we're on the drift, fish on the meter the whole time. A strange visitor flashes through under the boat deep, several times and we can’t quite get a bead on what it is. A shark, maybe?

Crewman Jiro Spagnolini runs a kite bait dangling down to the surface on 130-pound, way downwind. It finally happens. Down goes the pennant into the water! We’re bit!

Line is peeling off the Avet Pro EX 30II, and soon it’s clear we have to fire up to get any of it back before it’s all gone! All the other lines come up, and off we go!

The big fish is surly, stays way out bull-dogging the whole time. Randy takes a turn, then Glen. In between, Jiro handles the sketchy times when the fish makes a move down the rail or tries to cross under the boat. I pull on it for a while. It’s a dog, clearly. We’re convinced it has to be a cow — it really gives us a run for it, even on the big line.

I’m on the rod when we first see a flash of color, briefly. The fish sees the boat and gets squirrelly. Jiro, poring sweat now, is back on the rod. Capt. Wes Flesch maneuvers the boat. A few laps later, Jiro has it to color again.

Then it’s out on the surface cutting an arc across the bow. A tall sickle of tail fin cuts the surface. “Swordfish,” suggests Wes. It’s far too burly to be a marlin, and it never cleared the water as marlin always do when first hooked. At any rate, it’s no tuna, way too long for that.

Still, that classic dorsal never shows. It's an enigma. It disappears back down, and out of sight.

A few minutes later, the monster of a fish loses its concentration. It’s totally beat, and pops into view under the bow. It is a marlin, a huge one! We all come to the rail bearing gaffs.

Flesch sinks the first, back on the nape of its massive shoulders. Another goes into its chest. I start to reach over the other gaffs, toward the most open mark, then decide it's too far back — it would be hell to get that flopping head through the gate.

I quickly pull back and thread my calcutta between the boat and other gaffs, sinking it right into the fish’s collar, and the blood flows. Down the rail we go. Someone sticks a fourth hook into it. Wes opens the gate and we pull until its big eye barely clears the gunnel. It stops coming. Wes is hollering, “pull back!” Though its tail still dangles deeply into the water, we can’t lift it any higher, that’s for sure.

I have a hand controlling the bill while the other holds the gaff, which is equally pinned under my arm. We crouch down and drag the big fish through the gate. It’s a monster, easily the largest striper I've ever seen, over two bills, easy.

It can’t be. So as soon as the photos are done, we’re digging through the literature to see what it really is. But it becomes clear, it has to be just a beast of a striper.

Yellowtail at the island? No way! We’re in it to win it, and win, lose or draw, we opt to spend the rest of our time trying to get a big bluefin on the Flyer. Several of the other boats have managed to, and the fish are all big, 150-plus pounders.

At one point, a shiner spot of the bluefin shows right under the hull, all monsters and enough to scare you. A couple of spotter planes fly overhead.

In the end, it’s marlin on the menu, and our first shot at it is seared on a bed of spaghetti squash. Its lightly orange flesh, has a firm consistency and a mildly salmon-like flavor.

* * *

Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat captain, he also works as a marine research scientist with the Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at:

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