Click here for Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

Thursday, June 20, 2019
500 giant seabass

It was this spring at the Long Beach Fred Hall Show when I was talking with Capt. Chuck Taft about his latest rebuild project, the boat Excalibur. Built by Roger and Kenny Hess, the Excalibur was launched as the dive boat Charisma. Later renamed to the Great Escape, the vessel ultimately fell on hard times. Enter Capt. Chuck.

This is exactly where Taft’s skills shine. He’s spent a lifetime rescuing sportboats on their way to obscurity, making them shine again — breathing the breath of life back into them. He finds them when their polish has faded, resulting in their cost being far below their true value.

Then he tears out the bad and replaces with new. And the toughest task is being able to see exactly where to stop demo and start reconstruction — a skill few have mastered as Taft has. Today the Excalibur shines, a big, beamy 80 footer with an expansive interior and 6 feet of space between house and rail designed for fully geared divers to fit easily past one another.

In the wheelhouse is the most extensive electronics package one can imagine, top of the line side scanning sonar, side sweep and up and down meters, FLIR thermal imaging for night ops.

THE SPACIOUS INTERIOR of the Excalibur galley.

Boarding the boat for the first time, I go to rack my rods and discover the 10 footers fit anywhere, no overhang to squash under. And that bow, amazing space up there for jig tossing.

At 8 p.m. we head out to the Everingham bait receivers. While Capt. Joel Ralston briefs the 15 anglers participating, 2nd Capt. Jason Fain, Deck Boss Chris Vollrath, and crewmen Matt Acer and Gary Glockzin carefully pass a fresh batch of sardines into the 5, 50-scoop deck tanks.

We would fish close to home, and that’s where the fleet was focused. With an otherworldly volume of feed pulling tuna for hundreds of miles, even the long range fleet fishes close, amongst the full-day, overnight, 1.5-day and 2.5-day fleet.

Although schools had strayed north into U.S. waters, windy weather had laid claim there. Yet to the south, just over the line winds remained fair.

Our first morning arrived with little showing but endless bait spots on the meter, no bird schools, breezers or sonar marks to stop on — an endless supply of kelp paddies and other fishless scraps to drag by.

Finally, Carter Bonnoufour breaks the ice with a yellowtail. Then there’s an actual jig strike — a yellowfin. It was Carter again!

For fishing kelps and breezing yellows, I fish bait on 40-pound, Penn Fathom 25 with a 9-foot Cousins stick. There are plenty of spots to try for. It’s strange to slide in on breezing yellows only to have hundreds of fish simply swim off.

It’s about 1300 when the ocean roars to life, spots of bluefin show here and there, then yellowfin too.

It’s sketchy deciding what to go in with — bait on kelps, but it takes a good gander to size up jumpers. It’s pointless to toss at 100 pounders with 40 and a Megabait or Coltsniper.

No sniper in my gear, I’m tossing a slightly too large Mega on 40-pound at the under 80-pound grade schools. Backing a short leader of fluoro — Yo-Zuri H.D.Carbon, is 50-pound braid. It’s whatever Roger Eckhardt had on the Daiwa Lexa 400 XS-P. The levelwind “bass reel” is paired with Daiwa’s Proteus WIN 810 HF, and absolutely launches the small chrome.

As we motor close to breaking fish I’m waiting for either our speed to slow nearly to a stop, or at least until the school slides past the 10 or 2 o’clock position off the bow. Still, the Lexa’s 43-inch-per-turn retrieve proves invaluable for getting the iron up to bite speed as the distance between the boat and splash down closes on the slide.

It takes a few attempts before I hook my first. It’s chaos in the stern, as all other lines are swept back. Quickly my fish is alongside the bow and the coast is clear, no one nearby as the crew hustles to tame the chaos down the rail. I throw the fish on, about a 12 pounder. There you have it. A double digit tuna can be bounced on “bass gear.”

With spots popping all around us now, we’re literally heading from spot to spot, chasing down foamers, mostly yellowfin. The bigger bluefin never bite anyway.

A slide or two later, you can see a brown spot of 3-inch anchovies in the middle of the whitewater. I pick off a second. Capt. Joel sticks it in the noggin and quickly puts it aboard.

At one point a spot sinks under the bow before we get there, but pops back up right in the trolling feathers. A feather gets bit but the guy doesn’t call, just starts winding. So we slide forever, and hook 2 more!

THESE TWO TUNA fishers traveled from Nevada.

But we just can’t seem to get a school to stick with the boat. Very few bite the live bait. It’s all quick stops — run and gun.

Again we’re sliding in on another breezer, dead on the bow as we try to get the critters close where they see the chum before sinking out. Then a second patch of whitewater erupts — 3-oclock — dead abeam on the starboard. I fire, grind into it. I can feel the frothing horde hitting the line as it pulls through the maelstrom. I’m on!

With that one decked, I’m looking up the rail expecting to set the stick down and get ready to go again. Instead a few puddlers erupt into solid foam across the bow. Fire! On!

A couple more attempts follow, but the spots are starting to sink out before we get to them. Finally we get into range again. We’re sliding straight at them.

Launching anyway, I’m grinding as fast as I can. A fish turns broadside ahead. I’m on! The fish headshakes violently. I continue to pick up line as quickly as I can. Then it all goes slack — tore off. Phooey!

A couple of first-timers from Nevada are trying their hand with the iron now. Casting first for them I hand back their rental rod as their iron splashes down. H&M Landing has really nice rental gear, Avet 2-speeds, impressive.

The spots continue to become more boat shy and farther between. I get one more that first afternoon, completing a limit of yellowfin. Moving south and east gets us to an area of mostly bluefin tuna.

When it’s the big boys I’m tossing 80-pound Izor on an Accurate 600 paired with a Phenix 10-footer. A tooth-marked fluorescent pink on white Yo-Zuri Bull Pop is tied on. If smaller grade I toss the Mega, yet knowing full-well if I do get bit chances are good I’ll get tooled and spooled. We get no takers and soon it’s steak time — yum nom, nom.

After dark a few of us dip the Flat-Falls for a bit. I’m just too beat and my Flat-Fall fishing doesn’t last nearly as long as I’d thought. Plus the plan is to fire up around midnight and look for a sonar school to set up.

Midnight motoring starts, but apparently we never find what we’re looking for. Grey light and we’re back in the water with the trolling gear. The water’s nearly flat now but there are no biters, only blues flipping us the fin as they go on gorging themselves on tiny anchovies.

Finally a couple of kelps yield a few yellowtail. I hook one and hand it off. A couple of kelps later and a second bites, but it works me over. Apparently a much larger model, Mr. Mossback pulls a pile of line, working it’s way toward the weeds. I’m not having it — sunset the drag. Still pulling line.

Now it’s right next to the weed ball, not yet in it though — low gear. Then the hook tears out. Dang! They should make fish faces a bit stronger.

We keep trying through the afternoon — never get a bluefin to bite. But a couple of spots of big bonito chew up the trolling jigs along the way.

I set a couple of Flat-Falls down at depth as darkness settles and they’re the only lines out.

By dark on day 2 we have a 2-day total of maybe 17 yellowfin, 7 bonito, and 4 yellows in the hold. It’s not a huge score, but nevertheless there was lots of action and plenty of opportunity. Everyone goes home with fish.

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

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