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How to 'go long' for big Pacific tuna

5/2/2005
This 302-pounder caught aboard the American Angler is the largest ever caught during a 10-day trip. 

Long-range fishing out of San Diego is about the perfect angling vacation, with great fishing and delicious fare always part of the mix.

Perhaps most importantly, you'll be fishing with the best professional crews anywhere, aboard the world's finest sport-fishing boats.

Though long-range trips cannot be called inexpensive, they are a definite bargain.

Compare the cost of transportation, food, lodging, fishing and fish handling for a similar length of time in any of the few places in the world with comparable fishing and you'll see the true value.

The fish

The quantity, quality and variety of fish on Baja's Pacific side is phenomenal. Depending on the time of year, fishing can range from good to red-hot.

I was fortunate enough to be aboard Capt. Sam Patella's 90-foot boat American Angler in November of last year, when a very good bite on yellowfin tuna in the 40 to 100-pound range suddenly went thermonuclear.

For a full day and a half the vessel was surrounded by tuna from 125 to 300 pounds and up, jumping and boiling like explosions going off in the water.

Even with precisely tuned heavy tackle, many fish were lost after heartbreaking battles of 3 hours or more.

We headed home with enough fish stories to last a lifetime.

The vessels

Most of the boats run on a year-round schedule of multi-day fishing trips, but springtime sees some boats running whale-watching trips of varying lengths.

The boats are absolutely loaded with fish-finding and safety gear.

Boats in the long-range fleet run from 75 to 120 feet long, and even the smaller ones are worth millions of dollars.

Legendary boats like the American Angler, Searcher, Royal Polaris, Qualifier 105, Royal Star, Excel and many more are run by skippers with decades of experience.

On many boats, even the deckhands are licensed captains, and operate their own vessels during the summer season.

Some of the chefs have four-star credentials, and prepare snacks and appetizers in addition to three full meals a day.

The food is excellent, and portions are very large.

The passenger quarters on most boats are two- or three-person staterooms. Some of the boats even have cedar closets in the staterooms.

Fresh water makers allow each angler to take a hot shower every day.

Most traveling is done at night, and anglers can sometimes fish 24 hours a day when a hot spot has been reached.

Durations, locations

Three to 6 days: The staple of the summer season, these "mini long-range" excursions are generally run from late May until the end of September. Primary targets are albacore and yellowtail.

This is the perfect way to get started long ranging without a major commitment in time and money.

Target locations are northern Baja's islands — including San Martin, Guadalupe, Cedros and San Benitos — along with numerous coastal spots.

If the migratory albacore are within range, some or all of the fishing time may be spent chasing them.

Seven to 11 days: Trips of this length have more options than the others.

Favored time of year is early September to mid-December for variety, but late spring trips often find the largest yellowtail.

As they head south, these mid-length excursions have the opportunity to visit the same islands targeted by the shorter trips.

Most often, however, the areas targeted are Alijos Rocks and the Ridge, which is an underwater mountain range outside of Magdalena Bay.

Alijos Rocks lie some 120 miles off Baja's south central coast, and consist of three volcanic necks that extend straight up out of the ocean to a height of 90 feet.

As the remnant of an ancient volcano, the reef's drop-offs and ridges surrounding the rocky chimneys hold lots of fish.

It's one of the most spectacular-looking fishing spots on earth.

Twelve to 23 days: These mega-length excursions are generally run in the winter and early spring months, specifically to target large yellowfin tuna over 100 pounds.

The Mexican government's closure of the popular Revilla Gigedo Islands in 2002 caused the fleet to explore many new hot spots, and more big tuna than ever have been landed in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

Possible destinations include the offshore banks near Cabo San Lucas, the Hurricane Bank, the banks off Puerto Vallarta, and even remote Panama and Clipperton Island.

The fishing results from these exotic locales is beyond description.

Species available

Although hundreds of species are available in long-range waters, the majority of fishing effort is most often centered on yellowtail and albacore for trips of 6 days or less duration.

For trips of 7 days or longer, anglers usually focus on wahoo and yellowfin tuna.

Yellowfin tuna: The further south you go, the larger the average size yellowfin that are available.

Yellowfin caught aboard long-range boats range from 15 to 400 pounds.

During late summer and autumn they may be caught close to San Diego, but are usually caught on trips of 5 days or longer.

Most long-rangers hope to catch a tuna over the "benchmark" of 100 pounds, and you'll practically need a two-speed reel to land yellowfin of this size or larger.

Yellowfin over 200 pounds are called "cows," and well-timed (or lucky) boats on trips of 10 days or longer may catch 2 to 20 or more fish in this category.

The "Holy Grail" is catching a yellowfin over 300 pounds, and every year a handful are caught that exceed that mystical barrier.

Small to medium-size yellowfin are caught on live sardines, trolled Sevenstrand Tuna Clones or casting lures like blue/chrome Sumo No. JR jigs.

Many of the larger individuals are caught with specialty techniques like jumbo squid under a kite, chunks and extra-large live baits like skipjack or small tuna.

Wahoo: These speedsters are the world's fastest fish, and if you hook just one you'll be convinced they deserve the title.

More of a sprinter than a heavyweight brawler like yellowfin and bluefin, the first few minutes of the fight are the most adrenaline-inducing experience the sport of fishing has to offer.

They are rarely caught aboard trips of less than 7 days duration, and are most abundant from early September to early December.

Generally ranging from 30 to 80 pounds, a few wahoo exceeding 100 pounds are caught each season.

Unsurpassed as table fare, they are sometimes seen as "ono" in fine restaurants.

Sporting a set of teeth that can slice through 200-pound monofilament like a knife, wahoo hit on trolled Marauder plugs, casting lures called "wahoo bombs" and of course live baits like sardines or mackerel.

Albacore: The mainstay of 3 to 6-day trips from May to September, these highly migratory tuna are often encountered in schools numbering many thousands.

They usually range from 15 to 35 pounds, but occasionally top 50 pounds.

Albacore are the only tuna that can be labeled "white meat," and are great eating when prepared in virtually any manner.

Most albacore are caught on live bait, with anchovies and sardines being the overwhelming favorites.

Casting, sliding and trolling lures all garner their share of bites. Trollers score with Sevenstrand Tuna Clones in black/purple and green/yellow colors.

Casting and sliding favorites include blue/silver Mega-Bait Live Jigs, or soft plastics like a 5-inch Power Swimshad rigged on a 2-ounce leadhead.

Yellowtail: Most long-range yellowtail range from 15 to 30 pounds, and big "homeguard" specimens go from 35 to 50 pounds or more.

A massive yellow weighing 92 pounds from Guadalupe Island in the summer of 2004 shattered the world record, but most yellows over 60 pounds come from the Alijos Rocks area.

Of all long-range species, the biggest yellowtail may be the hardest to land when hooked, because they know exactly where every rock, reef and kelp bed is located within their territory.

Very good on the table, most yellowtail is broiled or barbecued.

Yellowtail love live baits like sardines, mackerel and squid.

They also love "iron" jigs fished yo-yo style.

Favored choices for yo-yoing include the blue/white Sumo No. JR, or the blue/white Tady 45 when the fish are near the surface.

Bluefin tuna: A highly sought-after fish on trips of any length, bluefin normally range from 30 to 125 pounds or more.

"Nothing gets the blood pumping faster than whitewater in the stern caused by airborne 100-pound bluefin tuna," says Capt. Patella.

Bluefin are most often caught on live bait, with sardines and mackerel topping the list.

School-size 30- to 70-pounders bite well on yo-yo jigs, but larger specimens require the two-speed gear much like yellowfin.

Dorado: Normally associated with floating objects, a small patch of kelp no bigger than a desk may hold hundreds of fish.

Size range goes from small 10-pounders on up to 70-pound bulls.

Usually caught on late summer or fall trips, the delicious and brightly-colored "mahi-mahi" will often bite just about any bait presented to them.

Other species: Literally dozens of other species are available, depending on location and time of year.

Shorter trips often see calico bass, white seabass, black seabass, barracuda and rockfish.

Longer trips see plenty of exotics like pargo, grouper, amberjack, rainbow runners and even striped marlin.

Tackle needs

The tackle needs for long-range fishing are extremely exacting.

There are even more variables than in freshwater bass fishing, and the fish are infinitely larger and more powerful.

Think of each different combo like different golf clubs in a set.

Top-of-the-line gear is a must, and quality rental gear is available.

In particular, line must be freshly spooled just before the trip.

When fishing for large tuna, reels are filled ¼-full with one of the ultra-thin "superbraid" lines to allow extra capacity.

Handling the catch

The fish are stored below decks, either frozen in a spray brine fish hold, or sushi-bar fresh in a "Refrigerated Seawater" (RSW) tank.

Upon returning to San Diego, anglers may immediately exchange their catch for canned tuna, or make arrangements to have their fish filleted and freezer wrapped, smoked, or made into jerky.

After processing, the fish can be shipped via air freight anywhere in the U.S.


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