BY JON DICKENS
SAN PEDRO — It started like many ¾-day party boat trips so far this summer. The 35 anglers aboard were filled with anticipation as the boat left the dock. After an absence of several years, the surface fish had finally come to life locally and they were on the chew. But little did we know what was in store for us.
Reports over the last couple weeks indicated that large schools of barracuda were roaming around the Horseshoe Kelp and surrounding areas off of San Pedro. They were joined by resident calico bass and brought back memories of the “good ‘ol days,” when half- and ¾-day boats didn’t have to travel far to put their customers on biting fish.
For the past few years, the ¾-day boats from San Pedro to Newport Beach more often than not had to make the long run to Catalina Island to catch fish. With the ever-increasing cost of fuel, party boat captains are thrilled to have local fish biting again.
After baiting up, we left the L.A. Harbor and after a short ride pulled into one of the areas where the barries bit the day before. With anchovies being tossed into the gentle wake of the Native Sun, they started to slash at the free breakfast right away. I dropped a 5/8-ounce Hookup Bait into the chum circle and it was inhaled instantly. Fun on the bass rod and it looked like the skinnies were going to cooperate, even though they’d been hit pretty hard of late.
Back in the day, I used to track when the barracuda showed up and how long the bite lasted. Typically, they’d arrive around Memorial Day weekend in the San Pedro/Long Beach area, and the early groups of fish would bite for three days and then move on. If you followed the catch reports, you had to get out there quickly or you’d miss the bite.
On this day, it wasn’t wide-open fishing to start, but they would come through in waves and seemed to have a preference for live bait over jigs. That’s what Captain Aaron Graham suggested to start with for most anglers, as the surface iron bite was typically best towards the end of the day. For most of us who knew how to throw the surface iron, it was a scratchy bite — mostly short bites and followers on the iron. Not many ‘cuda wanted to commit but one angler, Norman Rodriguez, had the Midas Touch and was steadily bouncing barracuda on a slowly-retrieved Salas 7X. It was going to be his day.
We put about 50 barracuda and a couple handfuls of legal calico bass along with lots of shorts on the boat throughout the morning until things slowed down, in part because a couple of jumbo sea lions invited themselves to the party. Time to change things up. The routine for many of the party boats in the area has been to fish the surface first thing, then go to the deeper water sculpin factory to fill the bags with those tasty red devils and finish off on the inside to end the day. Captain Aaron had a different idea this day.
Local BFT rumors
There were rumors of bluefin tuna just down the hill and out about 10-15 miles. A whale-watch boat radioed that they saw some foaming fish and the captains of the Native Sun, the Enterprise and the Victory decided to go looking as a group, each covering a different sector of water but within reasonable proximity to one another. It was a gutsy call, because it might be nothing but a boat ride, plus no one was prepared to do battle with bluefin with the tackle they’d brought for barracuda and bass. But as the Captain said, if we found them, the show alone could be worth the ride.
Foamers dead ahead
Graham was right. After about a 1½-hour boat ride, he spotted a yacht in his gyros with three guys on the bow of the boat, a sign that they were possibly hooked up. As we got closer he got on the P.A. and alerted everyone to get ready. FOAMERS ahead! “Hope some of you brought your big boy pants!” he shouted with excitement.
On the ride out to the area, some of us scrambled to put together whatever tackle we could that might hook a tuna. The problem of course, was having tackle that would hold a tuna. My heaviest outfit was my barracuda jig stick, an old custom Calstar 690J with a Newell 332 reel and 30-pound mono topshot over 40-pound braid. Wayyy under-gunned. I added the heaviest fluorocarbon leader I had — 40-pound — and said a prayer. To that I tied a 100-gram ColtSniper with an upgraded treble hook that really should have been rigged with a big J-hook or assist hooks.
With the group of people we had on the boat, mostly novices, this was going to be interesting. The few hot sticks were grouped together up on the bow with jig rods at the ready. As we got closer, I lost count of how many times the words “Oh My God!” were screamed. Bluefin in the 50- to 75-pound class were clearing the water! On a ¾-day trip?
The size of the first school was impressive and looked like it should result in the whole boat going bendo but as bluefin often do, they sounded as soon as we got within casting range. No problem, as two more schools showed themselves, one off the starboard side and another off the port side, both about 300 yards ahead. Capt. Aaron approached the starboard school carefully and said the electronics showed it was a huge school and there were more coming under the boat at about 120 feet.
Prepare to launch
Surface irons were launched from the bow with great anticipation, as some dropped rubber-banded sinkers with circle-hooked sardines and a few others fly-lined their baits back in the stern area. We had the water column pretty well covered. Within about three minutes, there was suddenly an ear-piercing scream from the back of the boat. “Aaaaah! Fresh one!”
Stormin’ Norman Rodriguez was bit — on the surface iron — and the fight was on. His 10-foot jig stick and 40-pound line would be put to the test, but he’s a veteran fisherman and took his time. Capt. Aaron and deckhand Cris Gutierrez were by Norman’s side immediately, trying to keep other lines away from him as the fish literally pulled him around the boat. Some anglers knew to give him the right of way. Others didn’t have a clue. That’s where the crew is of great help.
I was dropping my Coltsniper on the opposite side of the boat down about 150 feet and cranking it up fast. On my third rip — “Ahhhh!” — I was bit. The fish smoked line off the Newell as I held on and was in my glory. As the first run subsided, I got about two or three cranks on the reel and the hook pulled. Ugh. The excitement was short-lived, but hey, I hooked a big bluefin on a friggin’ ¾-day boat from San Pedro. How many people can say that?
Under-gunned but not overwhelmed
Meanwhile, with no other hook-ups, the focus was on Norman’s battle as the fish continued to make him sweat. A 10-foot rod is not the ideal weapon to fight a bluefin tuna with and even when the fish was straight up and down, it would suddenly get another burst of energy and take yet another lap around the boat with Norman following. As the fish finally settled down, Capt. Aaron asked everyone on that side of the boat to please reel in so we could get this fish on the deck. That included the guy with the bucktail jig and a chunk of squid on it. Wonders never cease.
After about a half-hour, there was deep color and the fish began its slow death spiral. Or so we thought… This tough fish was not giving up. Capt. Aaron offered encouragement and told Norman to keep using the rail for leverage and advised when to crank and when to rest.
Aaron is also part owner of the G-Fly Flying Fish Company that goes out at night to net flying fish for bait for the big bluefin. They supply many of the SoCal tackle shops and sportfishing landings with the premium quality baits and rigging for kite fishing that has resulted in so many 100- to 300-pound tuna being caught the last few years. He’s earned his stripes and knows a thing or two about how to hook and land a bluefin tuna.
We need a second gaff
As the tuna got closer and Aaron saw the size of the fish, he yelled for a second gaff. A minute later, two gaffs struck the fish simultaneously and the screaming began as the 80-pound class fish hit the deck. Wow! Bluefin on a ¾-day boat! On the long rod and surface iron to boot. Pretty amazing.
Once the backslaps and cheering subsided, we continued to look for and find more schools of crashing tuna. No one expected we’d find the volume of fish we were seeing. On the next stop another tuna was hooked, again on the wrong tackle. But Jacob Mojarro definitely brought his “big-boy pants” and worked the fish around the boat for what looked like a repeat performance that Norman had just entertained us with for
30 minutes. He used the rail well and finally got the fish up to color. Just as the gaffs reached out to stick the fish, the line suddenly parted. Pure heartbreak.
We looked at more schools of tuna but as we were running out of time, Capt. Aaron came on the P.A. and said we didn’t want any part of the school that came up just in front of us. They were all 150- to 200-pound fish! With that we turned and headed back to the barracuda grounds to finish off the afternoon. But oh what a show we had just witnessed. From what we heard on the radio, one of the other party boats put a 40 pounder on the deck and another went zero for two. Still, a day for all to remember.
Once back on the barracuda grounds we put some more skinnies on the boat, but it was pretty anticlimactic for me. Somehow hooking a barracuda on the iron doesn’t quite match the feeling of having a runaway freight train called Mr. Bluefin stop your jig and smoke line off your reel at a zillion miles an hour. Nevertheless, it’s often said that one of the great things about fishing in our SoCal waters is that you never really know what you might hook. Boy, is that the truth!