It's Great for the Fishermen but Rotten to the Albacore

For those keeping score, the number of albacore that lost their independence to Southland sport fishermen this year, before the Fourth of July, was at least 18,805.

That was the tally on one- and 1 1/2-day boats out of San Diego's three primary landings. It does not take into account the albacore landed aboard multi-day vessels, nor does it include those caught by private boaters or taken aboard vessels running out of Morro Bay and beyond.

It is, however, an indication that a season that traditionally doesn't begin until July 4 has started with a bang.

"It would have been even better, but we had that long period where the wind didn't blow and the water jumped up," said Steve Crooke, a biologist with the Department of Fish and Game.

Indeed, were it not for about a three-week period during which sea surface temperatures rose from the low 60s to about 70 degrees, sending the longfin tuna elsewhere, dock totals probably would be much greater.

Albacore fanatics feared the worst--a quick end to an early season--when that happened. But their drags have been singing anew for the last several days, thanks to a return of prevailing westerlies and an upwelling of cooler water that has enticed new schools of the Southland's favorite game fish.

Said John Yamate, manager of San Diego's Seaforth Sportfishing: "The water temperature is much closer to normal for this time of year [about 64 degrees, nearly ideal for albacore] and there's a lot of fish around right now."

As he said that, Tuesday at mid-morning, his skippers were calling in the season's first good run of bluefin tuna, which were mixed with the albacore.

The prime fishing grounds for the day boats have been either about 55 miles south of Point Loma or, more recently, in U.S. waters east of the Butterfly Bank.

The albacore have been averaging a smallish 10 pounds and the bluefin a much heftier 20-40.

The 1 1/2-day boats are covering twice the distance and encountering more and larger albacore, and more bluefin. The bonus has been unusually large yellowtail--mostly 10- to 20-pounders--gathered beneath floating kelp paddies.

For what it's worth: San Diego's albacore score as of July 3 last year was 11,780. The previous year, during La Nina, it was 25,451. That turned out to be a record season as sport anglers from Morro Bay to San Diego decked a whopping 254,983 albacore.

More numbers: Besides albacore, anglers aboard San Diego's one- and 1 1/2-day sport boats, as of July 3, had logged 8,078 yellowtail, 97 bluefin tuna, 23 dorado and two yellowfin tuna.

Last year at the same time, the score was 12,952 yellowtail and 2,443 bluefin. In 1999 it was 5,435 yellowtail, 428 bluefin, 16 bigeye and 5,357 yellowfin.

Thunderbird makes splash: It's not often you see albacore in the Marina del Rey fish count. In fact, Rick Oefinger, owner of Marina del Rey Sportfishing with 30 years of experience in the industry, said he can't recall one ever being caught aboard a sportfishing vessel based in the marina.

History was made, then, when a vessel returned Wednesday night from an area between San Clemente and the San Nicolas islands with 73 albacore averaging a juicy 20 pounds.

"That's why we got an island boat [last winter]," Oefinger said of the Thunderbird, which previously had run out of Davey's Locker in Newport Beach.

The boat was supposed to make another run Wednesday night, fishing Thursday, but access to the marina was blocked by Fourth of July revelers, keeping the anglers at bay. The Thunderbird is on a nightly schedule, targeting albacore at the offshore banks and other game fish at the Channel Islands. Details: (310) 822-3625.

Oxnard/Morro Bay: The Cat Special out of Cisco's in Oxnard reported a count of 70 albacore before noon Thursday from an area 50 to 60 miles offshore. Capt. John Fuqua wouldn't be specific about the location, but judging from the size of the fish--15- to 30-pounders--he was probably near where the Thunderbird had been Wednesday.

Virg's Landing in Morro Bay, meanwhile, has been getting its share of Southern California customers since a crew trip two weeks ago produced 80 albacore in an area only 13 miles offshore. Since then, fishermen aboard the Admiral and Princess have had their hands full with the tuna on calm days, fishing 20-30 miles out, and with the weather on rough days.

News and Notes

* Local bite: The sand bass invasion is complete and the tasty little game fish are carpeting patches of ocean floor from Oceanside to Santa Monica Bay. Ten-fish limits or near limits have been the rule this week aboard day and twilight vessels.

* Catalina bite: Independence Day signals the traditional start of the local striped marlin season, but while a few have been seen, none have been brought into Avalon Seafood, the official weigh station on Santa Catalina Island.

The offshore emphasis remains on albacore, and although most of those catches have been east and south of San Clemente Island, a private boater this week reported a series of jig strikes, on dark feathers, four miles beyond Church Rock.

Closer to shore, squid is becoming scarce and the white sea bass counts are dropping accordingly, though Roger Cadman at Avalon Seafood said nighttime anglers are finding some squid and using them to catch 15- to 25-pound sea bass. The yellowtail bite is best at dusk.

* Baja bite: Vastly improved conditions in the Pacific and the gulf--blue water averaging 78 degrees--is resulting in an upswing off Cabo San Lucas. Striped marlin are abundant, though not especially hungry. Everyone is seeing them and most are getting at least one to bite. A trio aboard Tracy Ann released seven in three days. Mostly small blue marlin are starting to show and the arrival of the really big blues appears imminent.

The catch of the week took place at Baja's East Cape, where Richard and Reuben Reinoso of Hermosa Beach teamed to land a 484-pound blue marlin Sunday a mile off Punta Colorada. . . . Fishing off East Cape and La Paz has been inconsistent for all but the inshore species.

* Baja diving: Visibility throughout the East Cape and La Paz areas has improved dramatically this week, from 20 to about 80 feet. Teeming in the clear water at Cabo Pulmo Marine Park are hundreds of hammerhead sharks.

Mark Rayor, owner of Vista Sea Sport in Buena Vista (http://vistaseasport.com), said the sharks, measuring three to five feet, moved in last weekend and have been loitering with schools of manta rays in about 40 feet of water.

* Bass fishing: Pro angler Aaron Martens of Castaic, winner of a recent FLW Series tournament at Lake St. Clair near Detroit, is the lone Southern Californian to have qualified for the prestigious Bass Masters Classic, Aug. 2-4 at the Louisiana Delta. Martens, 28, a former gas station attendant who earned $180,000 with his rod and reel last year, finished eighth in a field of 45 in the 2000 Classic at Lake Michigan. ESPN2 will have same-day coverage of this year's tournament.

* Bear attack: A black bear responsible for injuring two Boy Scouts last week at Philmont Scout Ranch in northeastern New Mexico was tracked and killed by wildlife experts.

The injuries occurred when the bear rumbled through the camp, flattening a tent occupied by the scouts, and biting them. Zachary Reagan, 15, of Bradford, Ark., was treated for minor wounds to his arms and released. R.J. Benz, 17, of Little Rock suffered more extensive wounds to his head, legs and arms. He was released Tuesday.

Don Jones, a conservation officer with the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game, said the bear probably was lured into the camp initially by the smell of human vomit brought into camp in a bag by one of the scouts, who apparently didn't want to make a mess in the wild.

"The first time the bear came into the camp to get the bag," Jones said in a news release. "The second time he got in the scouts' packs and the third time he got the tent."

* Hiking: The body of Andrew Pimm, 33, of Tucson was recovered last week by Sequoia National Park rangers on a snowfield at 13,020 feet on the northwest face of Mount Whitney (14,494 feet). Pimm apparently fell while on a solo hike that began June 18. . . . Timothy M. Shirk, 20, a Yosemite Concession Services employee, died while hiking the Yosemite Falls Trail on June 24. Shirk was climbing with friends to the top of El Capitan when he slipped and fell 40 feet. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

* Hunting: Rabbit season began Sunday for cottontail, brush, pygmy and snowshoe (jack rabbit season is year-round). The bag limit is five a day, 10 in possession. Hunters are asked to wear latex gloves when field-dressing their quarry to reduce exposure to tularemia, a bacterial disease. . . . Applications are being accepted for fall sage grouse hunts in Lassen, Mono and Inyo counties. The proposed season--it is expected to be adopted by the Fish and Game Commission Aug. 4--is Sept. 8-9. Hunters can apply online, with an Aug. 13 deadline, at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/licensing/index.html. Details: (916) 227-2268.

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