CALIFORNIA’S BILLFISH DREAMS
A HISTORIC FISHERY, SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA’S STRIPED MARLIN AND SWORDFISH SCENE IS ALSO NOT EASILY DEFINED
A historic fishery, Southern California’s striped marlin and swordfish scene is also not easily defined By Chet Spreen
IT was late in the evening the day before Labor Day when I received a call from my fishing partner that a mutual friend had found the striped marlin. He had worked an area we had recommended the day before and located a good batch of fish between Catalina and Santa Barbara Island, in a body of water we had been watching for the past two weeks via satellite imagery.
The next morning found us slowly drifting past the bell buoy outside Corona del Mar Beach as a hungry school of Pacific greenback mackerel busied the crew catching bait for our next three days of fishing. As we gently shook our last mackerel into the bait tank, I slowly idled the old Pacifica out into the darkness on a familiar path to my favorite areas out to
the west of the still-sleeping California coastline.
After putting 50-plus miles astern, a quick check of the temperature gauge revealed the distinct 2-degree break we had been watching move steadily west-northwest over the past six days, confirming we were in the zone. As we stitched our way down the edge, our quarry presented itself as a group of three sleepers spotted a half mile off the edge by our team on the bridge using gyro-stabilized binoculars. The three striped marlin, traveling slowly in a chevron formation with dorsals folded down and tails exposed, were about to be delivered breakfast in bed as I quietly slid the Pacifica into casting range. As three volleys of mackerel flew through the air and descended onto their targets, the slickcalm seas erupted. Tails kicked into action, dorsals popped up and the three marlin chased our casters’ baits in all directions. Hoots and yells of joy broke the quiet morning air as two of the three striped marlin began greyhounding in opposite directions. It was just the start of a great fishing trip —the next two and a half days ended up being the most successful trip we had ever experienced, releasing half a season’s worth of fish, and perhaps even best of all, we had the action all to ourselves.
We’ve all heard or read about this kind of action in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, but Southern California flies under the radar as a prominent billfish destination. Over the years, I have always been amazed that the area’s billfish potential isn’t more widely known. Given the right conditions, we have a solid fishery here, but when I tell people we fish for marlin, they look at me like I am crazy.
Actually, marlin fishing is nothing new to Southern California. It could be said that modern sport fishing originated here with the world’s first big-game fishing club: the Tuna Club of Avalon. Originally, anglers pursued the vast schools of 100-plus-pound bluefin tuna, but when migrations tailed off in 1920, members turned their interests to striped marlin and swordfish. The pursuit of billfish off the Southern California coast has evolved from wooden boats and linen line to highspeed megayachts and braided Spectra, but as the equipment has changed, the tactics have stayed relatively the same. Striped marlin are the primary billfish we target in California waters, followed closely by the great gladiator of the sea, the broadbill swordfish. In the recent El Niño event from 2014 to 2015, blue and
“WE FOUND PACKS OF MARLIN ON THE 43-FATHOM SPOT IN GREEN 64-DEGREE WATER, IN AREAS HOLDING SAURIES, ANCHOVIES AND MACKEREL.”
black marlin up to 700 pounds also made their appearance, as well as decent numbers of shortbill spearfish. The fishing season typically runs from as early as late June through Thanksgiving, with some seasons running even longer still during stronger El Niño periods.
The striped marlin are believed to migrate into our waters from the southwest, making a long trek from the western Pacific near Japan. Recent genetic studies have revealed the possibility of five distinct separate stocks of fish: Japan-California; an immature Hawaiian stock; a mature Hawaiian group; a Mexico-Central America-Ecuador stock; and, the largest in terms of marlin size, the Australia-New Zealand stock. Scientists theorize that during El Niño cycles, the Japan-California stock pushes to the north and is then backfilled by the higher-volume Mexico-Central America stock, thus creating a Cabo-like striped marlin fishery right in our backyard.
Swordfish are a different story. Chugey Sepulveda, director and senior scientist at the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research, is a fisherman and research scientist and has a wealth of knowledge on the Southern California fishery. “In the eastern North Pacific, there are two stocks of swordfish: the eastern Pacific and the western and central North Pacific stock,” he says. “Based on current management through the International Scientific Committee, California swordfish are believed to be from the WCNP stock. At PIER, our recent sword fish-tagging studies, supported through federal and private grants, have shown that Southern California is likely a mixing area in which fish from both stocks enter to feed. Basically, tagged swordfish off California go to the west toward Hawaii and also south into Mexico.”
EL NIÑO: BOOM OR BUST?
The weather pattern known as El Niño, in which warm, nutrient-rich water floods the region on an irregular basis every few years, greatly affects the fishing.
So, does an El Niño event create the best billfish conditions locally? Bob Hoose, a stalwart of the SoCal billfish community, has been successful for decades on his boat, Prospector. When asked about the recent El Niño in 2015, Hoose says, “In the past 30 years, the 2015-2016 season was the best local marlin fishing in my lifetime. I have never seen that volume of fish on a normal or La Niña season.”
As for the catch reports, during the 2015 season, Capt. Doug Carson and Andy Crean’s crew aboard Bounder racked up 96 striped marlin releases, with most of those fish coming from the Channel Islands in the month of September. The big El Niños of the early 1980s were no slouch either. “During the 1983-1984 season, Capt. Joe Mike Lopez and Dave Denholm on Espadon had 41 releases in ’83 and 47 releases in ’84, which is great marlin fishing by our standards,” Hoose says. However, this does not mean fishing dies during El Niño Southern Oscillation-neutral or La Niña years. Hoose has had plenty of action: “One of my best days on the water was during a La Niña season aboard Dreadnaught 44 with Capt. Jack Patterson. We found packs of marlin on the 43-fathom spot in green 64-degree water. So, we have had truly excellent marlin fishing during La Niña years, and it was always associated with an area holding bait, mostly sauries, anchovies
and mackerel,” he reports.
When it comes to swordfish abundance during an El Niño, much is a mystery.
In talking to some more experienced captains and anglers, they cannot remember a more productive year than 1978, when water conditions set up perfectly during a normal, or ENSO-neutral, season. The Balboa Angling Club in Newport Beach, California, reported 71 rod-and-reel broadbill captures, which is wildly more than the closest next year of 29 caught in 1971. In 2017, we experienced a normal cycle, and recreational anglers reported an abundance of basking swordfish in the SoCal Bight and a resurgence in captures.
A recent addition to the marlin and swordfish addicts in the region is Seth Dubois, of the hard-charging crew on the 50-foot Pacifica Bullpen. He says, “In 2017, I saw more swordfish than I had any other year. I think the reason was the water temperature and the amount of squid and bait on our local banks.” I asked Sepulveda for his take on last season’s increase in swordfish sightings. He says, “1978 was certainly an anomaly, and I can assure you that 2017 did not come close to it. Further, we had some great weather this year, which likely helped us see those swordfish that decided to put their fins out of the water.”
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
The best on the West Coast always spend a few hours before each trip preparing a
A beautifully lit-up striped marlin takes to the air off Santa Catalina Island. For many years, this fishery has provided West Coast anglers with what many consider to be one of sport fishing’s top thrills: sight-casting to a marlin on the surface of the ocean.
As seen from high above, a pair of striped marlin works a baitball of mackerel on the surface of the calm Pacific Ocean. While trolling a spread of lures and teasers, Southern California crews utilize teams of spotters equipped with gyro-stabilized binoculars in order to find action like this from miles away.
Hooked up! Anglers will usually fight their striped marlin from the bow, allowing the captain to easily give chase as needed during the battle.
While sight-fishing is a popular tactic, striped marlin will also fall for a trolled bait or lure and will readily attack teasers and daisy chains. More West Coast teams are utilizing dredges and rigged ballyhoo to target these acrobatic game fish.
As with nearly every other marlin fishery in the world, the same axioms hold true in Southern California: Find the birds and bait, and the marlin won’t be far behind. Striped marlin that are actively feeding on the surface are also the most likely to inhale a properly presented live bait.