Albacore Spawn a Frenzy Like No Other Tuna Can

There are ordinary tuna, and then there are albacore tuna, which have an extraordinary following.

That might be putting it lightly. When the albacore show, as they did en masse off the Southland coast last Saturday, those who like to catch them get a little crazy.

That, too, might be putting it lightly. In fact, observing these people during a full-scale albacore bite would make a great paper for some aspiring psychologist.

Just don't get in anyone's way, or you run the risk of getting a sardine stuffed up your nose.

The spell has been cast. Boats are leaving every night from ports in Los Angeles south to San Diego, putting their passengers on a literal tonnage of longfin tuna. The daily tallies are astonishing, more than 100 per boat on most days, with individual anglers often bagging 10 or more per trip.

But it's never enough when it comes to albacore, which seem to trigger something in the minds of even the the most mild-mannered fishermen.

This becomes evident the moment the reel sings out, signaling a jig strike, at which point people storm out of their bunks and galley as though there were a fire below.

They begin acting like maniacs, physically competing for the liveliest of baits, using their elbows to push through the crowd as they follow their hooked albacore up the rail, cursing anyone who dares cross their line, then acting like perfect gentlemen the moment the bite subsides . . . until the next jig strike, after which the pandemonium begins anew.

This sort of behavior really is remarkable, and difficult to explain, though people have tried. A few such observations:

* From Kiki Ramirez, a reservations clerk at H&M; Landing in San Diego: "Well, all I know is that the phones are ringing nonstop. You can't even take a breather. I think it's just the fight, and the fish itself. Albacore is just a magic word. Albacore."

* Paul Morris, 55, co-owner and manager of Fisherman's Landing in San Diego: "I don't really know what it is, but they sure do create mass hysteria. We could be catching the same amount of yellowfin tuna, and they could even be bigger than albacore, but we would still do more business if they were albacore."

* Ed McEwen, 80, legendary skipper (now semi-retired) of the Pacific Queen out of Fisherman's Landing: "Albacore are the love of my life. They're nomadic. Sometimes they're not not here for three years, you think they're gone, and then they're here again, and you want to get 'em while they're here. And of course, they're the best-eating of the tuna family."

* Bob Fletcher, 55, president of the Sportfishing Assn. of California: "Partly, it's because people love to eat the finest grade of tuna you can get. Even though yellowfin tastes great, albacore is better. To me . . . albacore is what I grew up on. For so many years we had albacore and not as many yellowfin, so history surrounds the albacore, and until last year they were gone [since 1985] and now they're back, and nobody can get enough albacore."

* Frank LoPreste, long-range pioneer and owner of the Royal Polaris: "Albacore brings out every type of fisherman that exists. There are guys that only fish on piers, but when the albacore show, he gets his friends together and goes out after them. It goes back to the old days, when albacore were the big thing. They still are. It's amazing what a craze they create."

MORE ON ALBACORE

Last year, the first albacore landed aboard a Southland-based boat was caught May 18. This year, the first one was caught about a week earlier, by Jack Pechous of Phoenix aboard the Excel at Guadalupe Island off Baja.

But the bite really began last Saturday when the fish literally flooded U.S. waters, with the bulk of the action taking place at the Butterfly Bank, a wing-shaped high spot about 50 miles from Point Loma and 65 miles from L.A.-Long Beach Harbor.

How long will they stay?

Last year, they stuck around for about six weeks before warm water generated by El Nino drove them out and replaced them with yellowfin, which prefer warmer water than albacore. Also included in the mix were yellowtail and dorado in what was one of the most memorable offshore fishing seasons on record.

This year, landing operators are optimistic the albacore will stay even longer because El Nino has weakened considerably and it'll take longer for the water to heat up. Albacore and bluefin tuna prefer water between 62 and 65 degrees, while yellowfin like it in the high 60s and 70s.

McEwen, who calls himself "the oldest living operator still on the West Coast," is predicting the albacore will migrate north between the mainland and Catalina for the first time in several decades, based on their arrival from the west instead of the south, and on their proximity to the mainland so early.

"When they show first off Baja, they tend to stay outside as they move north," he says. "But when they hit the coast like a blanket [from the west] we usually have a good season, and these fish are so close already."

One private boater earlier this week reported landing several longfins less than 20 miles off Dana Point and the fish, weighing up to 35 pounds, have been encountered as far south as San Quintin off Baja and as far north as Morro Bay.

So this could be a good season, indeed.

AN ALBACORE TALE

Brent Mazur, 42, a mortgage broker from Costa Mesa, decided against the crowded party-boat scene and instead chartered the Limitless, a 44-foot six-passenger yacht out of Dana Point.

He said the $600 tag was well worth it.

"We started in Mexico and worked our way up," he said of Wednesday's adventure. "We were getting jig-strikes and two or three fish per stop until we hit the 43 [fathom spot, beyond the Butterfly].

"We were there for an hour and 10 minutes and put 49 albacore on the boat. We were catching them so fast that we were dropping the poles and the fish on boat and the captain would hand us another baited rod and he would then deal with our [boated] fish.

"The bite was instantaneous. We had so much blood dripping off the back of the boat that there were eight to 12 blue sharks cruising around behind us the whole time. It was an epic trip."

And a messy one.

THE OTHER TUNA

The Royal Polaris, skippered by Rollo Heyn, returned to Fisherman's Landing on Wednesday morning sporting a haul of yellowfin weighing up to 300-plus pounds.

The boat's owner, Frank LoPreste, called the last long-range trip of the season "the best one." Fishing was so good at Clarion Island of the Revillagigedo chain off Mexico that passengers were cutting off 150-pound tuna on the last day because the boat was nearly full and they wanted to fill it with even bigger fish.

The biggest, a 325-pounder, was landed by Ken Verderame, a U.S. Navy test pilot from Albuquerque, 325.2 pounds.

In all, there were nine yellowfin weighing more than 200 pounds, one over 300 and eight between 190-199.

THE CABO BITE

Tracy Ehrenberg of the Pisces Fleet reports an overall success rate of 93%, meaning only 7% of the anglers are getting skunked on her boats out of Cabo San Lucas.

Not bad. Striped marlin remain the prevalent catch, with boats flying up to five marlin flags per day. Odd catches of note: a 100-pound hammerhead, a 95-pound pilot shark and a 70-pound blacktip shark. An 18-pound sierra mackerel reportedly was caught in the surf. If so, it would be a Cabo record.

Up the coast at the East Cape, the fishing is nearly as good. Peter Putt of Santa Cruz caught two stripers and a dorado to win a recent tournament out of the Playa del Sol hotel.

PEOPLE, PLACES AND THINGS

* Saturday is free fishing day, meaning you don't need a fishing license normally required of anyone 16 or older. The Department of Fish and Game is sponsoring events geared for first-timers at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale and and the West Side Basin in Garden Grove. Details: (562) 590-5132.

* Dennis Spike of Coastal Kayak Fishing in Reseda is holding a kayak-fishing tournament in the San Diego area--headquarters are at the Shelter Island Rotary Pavilion--June 13. Cost is $55, which includes a barbecue and a chance at winning a trip for two to Baja's East Cape. Details: (888) 845-2925 or on the Web at www.kayakfishing.com.

* Penn Fishing University is holding a free, two-hour seminar June 19 at 6 p.m. at West Marine in Long Beach. The speakers are Ronnie Kovach, Gil Mendiaz and Craig Morton. Details: (562) 598-9400.

* The DFG announced it has raised $275,050 through the sale of hunting tags for bighorn sheep, deer, elk and pronghorn antelope. One hunter shelled out $150,000 for the right to bag a bighorn. The money raised will benefit the species for which the tags were sold, the DFG said. It won't do much, however, for the individual animals that happen into the hunters' sights.

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