It was a school of albacore so immense that it lit up the entire sonar screen aboard the American Angler. Capt. Dan Sansome, in the wheelhouse, saw nothing but fish: a solid block at least 400 feet long and 120 feet deep.
"Indeed the largest concentration of albacore I can recall in over 35 years," he said. "That's very unusual, even during prime-time fishing. You just don't see that."
His passengers, using sardines as bait, boated 70 albacore before dusk turned to darkness on the second day of a five-day excursion that ended Monday.
The fish bit again the next morning, and by trip's end 26 anglers had sacked 390 albacore to 34 pounds near Guadalupe Island off Baja California, about 220 miles south of Point Loma.
Seeking variety, they visited San Benitos Island and added 64 yellowtail to their haul, including a 38-pounder caught by Dennis Larkin of Dana Point after a 40-minute fight.
Sansome, who has a three-day trip leaving Sunday, labeled his "the first big haul of the season" even though other vessels arrived shortly after his, their anglers experiencing equally wild encounters with albacore, and even waged war with a few much larger bluefin tuna.
Though this all occurred--and is still occurring--well beyond the 90-mile range of the popular one-day fleet, Sansome said it was significant because favorable conditions--blue water at 62-64 degrees--exist virtually all the way back to San Diego.
Prime-time fishing, he predicted, is very close at hand.
With few exceptions, spotty albacore catches have been the norm aboard day boats embarking nightly to the most productive fishing grounds they can reach: 50 to 85 miles southwest of Point Loma.
The 1 1/2-day boats, traveling to about 120 miles, are doing slightly better.
As of Thursday, however, no vessel had yet attained or surpassed the magical "hump" figure of 100 fish. When that happens, albacore fever will become contagious, putting more people on boats, more boats on the water, and more albacore in the fish counts.
Meanwhile, most are playing the waiting game, monitoring the situation in the papers and on the Web.
"I think this trickle-in thing gets more interest than the actual bite because when the fish finally do come in everybody knows they're here," says Philip Friedman of 976-TUNA, who is offering free updates and interviews on http://www.976tuna.com. "We came close to busting a million hits [in May]."
To further fuel the fire, word is spreading of albacore filtering into U.S. waters. Commercial fishermen have had jig strikes 100 miles offshore beyond Cortez Bank, and last Sunday Dave Runstrom of Irvine went there and caught four of the longfins, all on jigs.
Runstrom was fishing with his wife, Cyndi, and 12-year-old daughter, Kirsten. He gives some credit to his wife, who saw flashes in the water, causing Runstrom to change course and eventually get a double jig strike.
But he gives most to Bat Batsford, president of the San Francisco Bay Area Tuna Club. Batsford makes annual predictions as to where albacore will be caught each season. His prediction for the San Diego-to-north-Los Angeles area, posted on the Internet on April 29:
"We feel that the first sport-caught albacore off this piece of Southern California coastline will be around the . . . outside edge of the Cortez Bank between May 24 and June 1, maybe sooner, if the weather permits and someone is out there to catch them."
Runstrom e-mailed Batsford a note of thanks.
Redondo Sportfishing's first "gray-bite white seabass special," to an area off Marina del Rey, paid off at dawn Wednesday, as 25 anglers landed one fish apiece (limits) before the rising sun signaled the end of the bite. Included were three seabass topping 40 pounds.
The Tortuga out of Marina del Rey Sportfishing has been on the same bite much of the week, with varying success, and Wednesday had limits and one croaker at 50 pounds.
Both landings are running daily trips with 3 a.m. departures. Early arrival has been key as the seabass are highly sensitive to boat pressure and thus far have not been feeding after first light.
While things are spicing up nicely off northern Baja, fleet operators at Land's End are lamenting a bland spring season that has shown only sporadic signs of improvement.
"We are still waiting for an explosion of striped marlin, which we feel should happen in the next couple of weeks if it is to happen at all," Pisces Sportfishing owner Tracy Ehrenberg said in her weekly report. "Otherwise, blue marlin season will be upon us."
So it's hoped. Water temperatures, finally rising in the north, are holding at 70 to 72 degrees off Cabo San Lucas, about seven degrees below normal. Cold winds have been blowing in the Pacific, leaving long trips into the gulf as the only alternative. Pisces reported a "pretty decent" 58% catch rate on striped marlin.
In the East Cape region, a striped marlin bite that appeared to be materializing has suddenly dropped off as the billfish have scattered and remain elusive. A sailfish bite that had materialized, meanwhile, appears to have vanished. "They seem to have just disappeared," said "Smokey" Dave Manuel, who compiles a report based on the catches of Palmas de Cortez and Playa del Sol hotel fleets.
Though fishing remains spotty at the East Cape, water temperatures at least are somewhat favorable, averaging 76-81 degrees.
News and notes
* Whale-watching: The Condor out of Sea Landing in Santa Barbara has been the platform for one incredible show after another during the last two weeks. Breaching humpback whales and bow-riding dolphins notwithstanding, the most spectacular sight was that of killer whales attacking a mother gray whale and her calf.
At one point, the mother gray tried to save the calf by lifting it partially out of the water on her belly and pressing the calf against the hull of the 88-foot vessel. But the orcas were persistent, ramming the mother and eventually stealing her calf.
Said Bernardo Alps in an American Cetacean Society newsletter: "Each observer told of others shedding tears during the encounter, but no one admitted to it."
* Freshwater fishing: Tim Alpers, whose ranch-raised trophy-sized rainbow trout have become famous among Eastern Sierra anglers, has announced his stocking schedule for the Mammoth Lakes basin (Lake Mary, Lake George, Lake Mamie and Twin Lakes). The first plant, of 600 pounds, was last weekend. Future plants: June 15 (600 pounds); June 29 (675); July 6 (625); July 13 (625); July 20 (625); July 27 (650); Aug. 3 (625); Aug. 10 (625); Aug. 17 (625); Aug. 24 (650), and Aug. 31 (625).
* Mountaineering: Four Americans were among dozens of climbers and Sherpa guides to have attained the summit of Mount Everest in the last two weeks.
Guillermo Benegas, 32, of Berkeley, and James Sparks, 55, of Lyons, Colo., scaled the world's highest mountain (28,035 feet) with Alexander Allan, 45, of Scotland and four Sherpas.
Paul Giorgio, 36, of Auburn, Mass., and Richard Paul O'Bryan, 47, of Ohio, attained the summit with Grant MacLaren, 32, of Edmonton, Canada, and Tuno Findik, 29, of Ankara, Turkey.
The season officially ended Thursday.
* Shooting sports: Raahauge's annual Shooting Sports Fair runs today through Sunday at the Norco facility. It's a hands-on event, allowing visitors to test-shoot weapons in a supervised setting.
Several seminars are on tap and among the demonstrators are noted trick-shooter John Cloherty, renowned deer-hunting guide Duane Adams and speed-shooter Rob Leatham. Admission is $12 for adults and free for children 14 and younger. Discount passes worth $2 are available at Turner's Outdoorsman stores. Women get in free today only. Details: (909) 590-7425.
* Camping: The California State Department of Parks and Recreation, citing a reduction in park fees that is likely to lead to a significant increase in campground use this summer, is advising campers to make reservations well in advance. They can be made by calling (800) 777-0369 or visiting http://www.parks.ca.gov.