CAL­I­FOR­NIA’S BILLFISH DREAMS

A HIS­TORIC FISH­ERY, SOUTH­ERN CAL­I­FOR­NIA’S STRIPED MAR­LIN AND SWORD­FISH SCENE IS ALSO NOT EAS­ILY DE­FINED

Marlin - - CONTENTS FEATURES - BY CHET SPREEN

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.

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