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They’re Back and Biting : Belated Return of Yellowfin Tuna Gets Worried Fishermen Off the Financial Hook

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ramune Barkus huffed and puffed, and fumbled her rod at times, but eventually reeled her fish to the surface, a missile-shaped tuna that deckhand Shawn Stewart stuck with a steel-barbed gaff and plopped onto the deck of the Pacific Dawn.

Down the rail at the stern, Barkus’ husband, Ralph Hemer, was being pulled from one side of the boat to the other until he, too, had put his fish within reach of the deckhand’s gaff.

Nancy Davis, having stumbled from her bunk to the stern, wiped the sleep from her eyes, promptly hooked up and successfully battled her fish in a daze.

Then Aaron Howell put two small tuna on the boat within minutes.

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Everyone was hooking up and soon the blue-gray deck of the Pacific Dawn was littered with 10-20-pound yellowfin tuna, many of them still flopping.

And as far as the boat’s owner, John Shull, was concerned, dawn in the Pacific never looked so good as it did on the eventful day last Saturday, when a fiery sunrise was merely a bonus.

It was the first productive day of the year for San Diego’s huge overnight fleet, and it seemed to kick-start a season that, to put it mildly, has been slow to get under way.

Shull, 37, and dozens of other boat owners whose vessels have limited range--100 miles or so--and whose lifeblood is the tuna that usually show in early July in offshore waters just south of the Mexican border, had been waiting for the ocean to liven up for the past several weeks.

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Many of them had been sitting at the docks more days than not. Or if they did have a chartered trip, it more often than not resulted in a “dry run,” 90 miles south and back again over an expanse of sea that in some ways was more like a desert than an ocean.

“We’d just troll and troll and troll . . . and we’d catch nothing,” said Jon Blackman, who occasionally acts as Shull’s second skipper.

A brief encounter with giant bluefin tuna two weeks ago was nice, but most of the fish weighed more than 100 pounds and were too tough to tackle. Only a few were landed, and thus the counts were low and response by a tuna-hungry public light.

Some boat owners have had it so rough this season that they have had to move out of their homes and onto their vessels. Others were, and some still are, facing the possibility of having to bail out of the business, losing their boats to creditors.

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Those with money to spare used the time to work on their boats. Shull installed a tuna tower and new deck on his boat, which runs out of Fisherman’s Landing.

But it made him sick, seeing all the boats sitting idle at the docks.

“I’ve never seen so much lumber at the docks in my life,” he said.

But that was before Saturday.

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Long-range skippers returning from their trips to areas off Baja California 200 miles and farther south, where fishing for yellowfin and bluefin tuna has been outstanding for six weeks, last week began sighting huge schools of yellowfin much closer to home and tipped the overnight fleet.

The news spread fast and, after a good pick on the fish Friday, everyone sensed that Saturday would be the big day.

The docks were bustling Friday night for the first time this summer. People jammed the landing parking lots of Fisherman’s, H & M and Point Loma Sportfishing, and milled about the waterfront by the hundreds, waiting for the call to board their boats.

They filled the tackle stores, making sure they weren’t forgetting anything, and when it was time, they hurried down the ramps to the boats, clutching their gear, looking like miners hoping to strike it rich.

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And many of them sensed that, in a way, they would.

“There’s a definite buzz around the harbor tonight,” said Shull, watching things from his boat while his crew prepared for its overnight charter.

That buzz was evident well into the balmy night, aboard every boat from the Apollo to the Zaida. But it was nothing compared to the buzz on deck Saturday.

From the first jig strike at dawn, signaling a call to arms, or in this case fishing poles, to the several other jig strikes throughout the day, Shull’s customers battled yellowfin and skipjack tuna.

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Hemer, 63, a Glendale lawyer, had chartered the boat well in advance and was going to make the trip, tuna or no tuna.

“I’m not complaining,” he said, after landing his third yellowfin.

The entire fleet was enjoying similar encounters with the highly prized yellowfin, working an area 40-70 miles southwest of Point Loma.

And by day’s end, it seemed that the summer season finally had begun.

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Fishermen celebrated and the boat owners breathed sighs of relief.

The fleet reported 1,476 yellowfin tuna, more than twice the number taken aboard one- and 1 1/2-day boat trips all summer.

“This ought to bring them out of the woodwork,” one skipper said to another, his voice crackling over the radio.

It has, despite a significant drop in the fish counts Sunday and Monday.

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Telephones at all three landings have been ringing constantly since Saturday, and some of the boats have had to turn away customers for the first time this year.

“It’s definitely got people excited,” said J.J. Gerritsen, 28, owner of the Tracer, which runs out of Fisherman’s Landing. “And we definitely need some excitement right now.”

What the fleet doesn’t need is the drop in counts, such as those experienced on Sunday when boats combined for fewer than 500 fish, and on Monday when the count dropped to fewer than 200.

“There are still acres and acres of fish down there and everyone knows it,” assured Phil Lobred, general manager of H & M Landing.

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Perhaps, but what good are they if they refuse to bite?

The fleet has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to even come close to matching last year’s success.

Paul Morris, general manager at Fisherman’s Landing, keeps track of exotic fish counts for one- and 1 1/2-day boat trips at all three landings. Through Aug. 14 of last year, the fleet combined for 9,559 yellowtail, 7,258 bluefin tuna, 5,973 dorado, 3,176 yellowfin tuna and 16 bigeye tuna. Through Aug. 14 this year, the fleet has combined for 2,947 yellowtail, 2,214 yellowfin, 223 bluefin and 19 dorado.

The good news is that skippers currently are sighting and metering schools of tuna as close as 25 miles away, and that the fish are spread out over several hundred miles. The fleet finally seems assured of several days such as Saturday.

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The bad news is that for every day the fish refuse to bite there is a subsequent drop in business, which boat owners and landing operators can ill-afford.

At least they now have customers and reason enough to be out there, trying to keep the counts up.

“We’re turning people away at night because there’s so much business now,” said Kurt Reynolds, 28, owner-skipper of the Rising Star out of H & M Landing. “Everybody was hurting bad, but now it’s looking like we’re going to make it. We’re still really concerned, though.”

Catching Up?

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San Diego game fish catches aboard one-and 1 1/2-day boats through Aug. 14

1993--9,559 yellowtail, 7,258 bluefin tuna, 5,973 dorado, 3,176 yellowfin tuna, 16 bigeye tuna.

1994--2,947 yellowtail, *2,214 yellowfin tuna, 223 bluefin tuna, 19 dorado.

*1,476 of the yellowfin were caught last Saturday.

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