Just when fishermen had begun to gather in small groups to gripe and cuss quietly, it happened.
On the stern of the 90-foot Point Loma, exactly 61 miles out of Morro Bay, at 1:44 p.m., Dale Nagano felt a terrific yank on his trolling rod. Then he shouted the word 16 albacore fishermen had been waiting nearly eight hours to hear:
The deckhand who had been casually tossing anchovies onto the rough seas from atop the bait tank sounded an air horn to alert a few fishermen who'd gone below for some sack time.
It's amazing how intense a human reaction an albacore can create merely by being suckered by a trolling lure, and smacking it with its bony mouth. Men ran, shouting, in all directions, two of them falling in the process. Cold hands plunged into icy bait tank water, groping for fat, squirming anchovies. Lines were cast. "C'mon, let's get those lines in the water!" the skipper shouted, over the PA.
Within minutes of Nagano's strike, virtually every fisherman on the boat was hooked up.
The powerful tuna pulled fishermen up and down the rails, and all around the boat. On five- to eight-foot seas, a bunch of fishermen trying to hang on to bent rods and remain upright at the same time looks like a convention of Charlie Chaplin mimics. But no laughter, please--this is serious stuff.
While fishermen staggered up and down the rails, Nagano, with 80-pound-test line on his trolling rig, had horsed his 20-pound albacore to the side of the boat and was yelling for a gaff.
When his fish was hauled aboard, and the yellow-green tuna lure with it, Nagano went back to action. He slammed his trolling rod back into a rod holder, grabbed one of his bait rods, stuck a plump anchovy onto his hook, tossed it into the water and was hooked up again within seconds. He thus became the only two-albacore man on the trip.
Joan LeVine's albacore was gaffed and decked. Grinning and slightly winded, she sat down and said: "OK, I've got mine, I'm done."
Someone stuck a gaff in Sho Kinouchi's albacore, but George Kane was struggling. He's 5 foot 3 and was connected to a big albacore, possibly 30 pounds, on 20-pound-test. The albacore had taken him three-quarters of the way around the boat, he'd gotten his rod around the bow anchor only with a strong effort, and had survived two brief tangles when the end came.
Midway up the rail, Kane could only watch, sadly, as his line suddenly went slack and drifted down onto the foaming, choppy sea.
"Aw, man--I hope I get another chance," he said, running off for another bait rod and one more anchovy.
The bedlam continued. The bait tank man was throwing handfuls of anchovies overboard, trying to encourage the fast-moving albacore to stick around.
As quickly as they had appeared, they vanished. After all, you wouldn't figure that a tuna species that migrates across the Pacific Ocean would stick around long in any one place.
At exactly 2 p.m., 16 minutes after the action had begun, there wasn't a single bent rod to be seen.
The score: Seven fish brought to gaff, all 18 to 25 pounds; about a dozen fish lost.
"Well, now that we've kicked the skunk off the boat, we'll get a couple more stops before we head back," said Ted Griffith, the Point Loma's skipper. "This is how it's been for the last several weeks--three and four good days back to back, then the fish will go down for a day or two."
But the best of this day was past.
Right up to 7 p.m., as the sea grew nastier and swells crashed over the stern, men braced themselves on whatever they could hang onto or lean against, wiped seawater from their eyes and stared intently at their trolling lines, still in the water. There were no more hookups.
The 1986 albacore season will go down as a tale of two cities. In San Diego, where hopes were high after three straight good albacore seasons, the fish the Japanese call the dragonfly tuna never showed up. In Morro Bay, 275 miles up the coast, it has been business as usual with a sustained albacore presence since July 31, and one that could last until November.
"San Diego gets much more attention than we do, when there are albacore at both places," said Mike Fitzsimmons, who runs seven sportfishing boats from his Virg's Landing in Morro Bay, a town of about 9,000, and off a pier at San Simeon.
"We get a lot of action when San Diego has a slow season, but not as much as you'd think. We're a long drive from the population centers, in L.A., Orange and San Diego counties. People feel the water is much rougher up here (it is), and while that may be true some of the time, we have nice, flat-water days, too.
"We have albacore every year, and no one's ever explained why. One theory is we have a more dense anchovy population up here. I kind of believe it because it seems like every October and November, the albacore disappear at the same time the anchovies do."
Some San Diego boats followed the albacore this season. Ted Griffith got tired of sitting in port in San Diego, so he took his 90-foot Point Loma to Morro Bay, leaving behind a lot of broken dreams.
In San Diego, it was a season of discontent.
"A lot of people took a bad beating down here this summer," said Carol Sandner of Point Loma Sportfishing. "There've been a lot of canceled charters, a lot of cases where groups just walked away from their deposits. We had short flurries of albacore in June, early August and late August that never amounted to anything.
"Economically, it's tough. You're talking about several hundred boat owners, crewmen and office people."
Albacore move eastward across the Pacific in the winter months, reaching the north coast of Baja California in late spring. Then they turn north. In most summers, they pass by the Southern California coast within range of sportfishing boats.
So what happened in '86? How come the end-around?
"There's been a long tongue of cold water stretching for most of the summer from Point Conception to northern Baja California," said Bob Nishimoto, fishery biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla. "Most albacore are caught in 60- to 64-degree water, but this band of cold water has been in the 50s. It's a barrier."
The Point Loma's one stop that produced albacore the other day was in 60-degree water.
Although San Diego's anemic albacore counts continued all summer, Morro Bay's were as healthy as ever.
"We sent out our first exploratory albacore trip, on the Admiral, on July 31," Fitzsimmons said. "John Rowley was the skipper that day, and he had only six fishermen on board. But they caught 102 albacore that day, and we've had counts every day since then. We had full loads for all of August, and some 10-fish-per-rod days.
"I bought this business in 1978 (Virg's Landing is for sale again, for $2.2 million) from Virg Moores, and he told me it was common for albacore to be around through Thanksgiving, and that one year he was catching them on New Year's Day."
Veteran albacore fishermen Dale Nagano and Sho Kinouchi have driven up to the central coast from Gardena three times this season.
"In mid-August, we had three albacore each on a Port San Luis trip, up to 50 pounds. On Labor Day weekend, we had a total of four albacore on a day when the water was rougher than this. The swells were coming right up on the deck."
Fitzsimmons is a pilot and uses a small plane to fly in parts for the seven boats he owns.
"There just isn't a big population center near here, and when we need parts we need them in a hurry, and that means a flight to San Francisco, L.A. or Fresno," he said. "I also use the plane to spot anchovies for our bait boat, the Billy Boy."
Albacore get the headlines on central coast sportfishing, but rock cod pay the bills, he said.
"Our bread and butter fishing here is rock codding," Fitzsimmons said. "It's consistent, and we have a loyal group of people who've fished with us for years."
Rock codders and albacore types are totally different. Albacore people are intense, aggressive types. They fish a lot harder. Rock codders are laid-back guys. It's slower-paced fishing, you don't have to run so far for rock cod and it's a year-around fishery. And it's only $23 for a full day.
Virg's albacore trips are $100. Fishermen board the Point Loma, the Admiral or the Princess at about 10 p.m., the boat leaves for a four- to six-hour run to albacore waters at about midnight, and returns to Morro Bay at about 10 the next night.
Just south of Morro Bay, at Avila Bay, albacore fishermen can also fish on Port San Luis Sportfishing boats. That fare is $90.