Fishing Off Baja Peninsula Is Good to the (Alba)core

Albacore fever in the Sea of Cortez?

No such thing ... until now.

"Nobody believed it. People came around to see them because nobody believed it was true," said an excited Mark Rayor, owner of Vista Sea Sport in Buena Vista, halfway between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz on the Baja California peninsula. "As far as I can tell these are the first albacore on record at the East Cape."

Rayor and Don Oser, both East Cape residents, on Monday made the highly unusual -- if not unprecedented -- catch of two albacore weighing about 30 pounds apiece.

A few days earlier, fishermen aboard several boats out of Cabo San Lucas at Baja's tip teamed to boat more than a dozen albacore of similar size. And there was an unconfirmed report of a 60-pounder caught Wednesday.

As if it needed proof, one sportfishing landing was circulating a photo showing Capt. Javier Avaora of the Solmar fleet hoisting one of the longfin tuna with the Cabo marina as a backdrop.

"All of the local anglers I've talked to have never seen them before," said Tracy Ehrenberg, owner of Pisces Sportfishing and a longtime Cabo San Lucas resident. "Could it be El Nino?"

Apparently not.

What makes this story so strange is that albacore are a cool-water tuna, preferring temperatures in the low- to mid-60s. As they migrate in from the west, usually in late spring, they tend to arrive with the more temperate currents along the northern half of the 1,000-mile-long Baja peninsula, then travel slowly north into U.S. waters before migrating back to the Western Pacific in the fall.

In recent winters, however, more albacore have held over in the Eastern Pacific, particularly off Baja, perhaps because of an abundant food supply and comfortable temperatures. This seemed particularly true this past winter, as fishermen aboard long-range vessels out of San Diego encountered them sporadically, usually 200-400 miles south of the border.

Steve Crooke, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, positively identified the fish caught by Rayor and Oser, after studying their photographs.

"In light of all the albacore currently in the Eastern Pacific, and given the [cooler] water temperature in the Sea of Cortez, it's not that big of a deal but it is significant," Crooke said, adding that larger albacore can tolerate water temperatures into the low 70s. "They've been taken below the cape [Cabo San Lucas] in the past, but really only during cold-water years, and this hardly classifies as a cold-water year."

On the contrary, this is supposed to be a warm-water year, courtesy of a mild to moderate El Nino predicted by many to have at least some influence on water temperatures throughout the Eastern Pacific this spring and summer.

In fact, unseasonably warm temperatures had been the norm throughout the southern Sea of Cortez for most of the winter, resulting in summer-like fishing for dorado and yellowfin tuna.

Recently, however, strong winds and shifting currents have prompted an upwelling of colder water, resulting in readings anywhere from 64 to 75 degrees, perhaps giving albacore the avenue they needed to make southern inroads.

The East Cape albacore were caught in 70-degree water. "Now we're going to go try for salmon," Rayor joked.

*

Tuna fishing had been steady in sparkling East Cape waters, but with the changing conditions came the arrival of big yellowfin tuna, reaching 120 pounds, traveling beneath and feeding alongside porpoises.

Hoping to catch a few, Rayor invited Oser aboard his 31-foot sportfisher, Jen-Wren, Monday morning.

They started the day five miles off Los Frailes, teaming to catch a striped marlin and two dorado before moving farther out to look for warmer water and giant yellowfin.

As they began to travel to the north, they received a call from another captain seven miles to the south, in cool water, saying the big tuna had been located and were biting.

Rayor ran to the area and when he arrived "the water was a gorgeous blue, but it had dropped to almost 70 degrees," he said. "There were acres of porpoise, but they were lethargic and I could not see one bird or any other signs of life. I couldn't meter any fish or even any bait."

Surprisingly, the big yellowfin, perhaps lingering in a deep thermocline, could still see the lures and rose after them. Within a few hours, the two anglers had three 70-pound yellowfin on the deck.

Then came another strike, followed by yet another. The fishermen didn't know it as they reeled, but the fish on their hooks would make them the most popular people back on the beach.

"They got spread kind of thin as they were the first ones ever seen down here," Rayor said of the fillets he carved from the albacore. "Everybody wanted to try it."

*

Locally, an albacore season that typically begins in June or July may start much sooner. The skipper of a commercial jig-fishing boat on Wednesday reported to www.976tuna.com that he had boated 20 albacore weighing 20-30 pounds about 85 miles southwest of Point Loma.

Responding to similar reports and hoping to jump-start the season, Capt. Bill Cavanaugh of the Pacific Queen embarked Thursday night from San Diego on a three-day exploratory trip.

News and Notes

* Salmon fishing: The local season begins Saturday and prospects range from good to unknown.

In the Ventura-Santa Barbara area, prospects are good. Dave Holaday, a spokesman for Port Hueneme Sportfishing, said one captain this week metered a school of fish extending six miles in the Deep Hole area near Point Mugu. "Plus, the other day about five salmon were seen just swimming near the surface," Holaday said, reporting water temperatures at 52-55 degrees.

Farther north, fleets that almost exclusively target rockfish during the winter and early spring have been kept at the docks because of the rockfish closure that began last Nov. 1. "So there have been almost no boats out, incidental catches made and I don't have a clue" about prospects, said Joe Romley, spokesman for Virg's Landing in Morro Bay.

Romley said the public is biting regardless. The Princess is sold out for Saturday and Sunday.

The bag limit is two king salmon a day with a 24-inch minimum length.

* Turkey hunting: The season opens Saturday and runs through May 4. Hunters are required to carry a valid license and Upland Game Bird Stamp. Shooting hours are 30 minutes before sunrise until 4 p.m. Bag limit is one bearded turkey a day, three a season. (A bearded turkey is one having a beard visible through the breast feathers.)

Experts suggest that hunters scout beforehand and look for tracks, feathers, signs of scratching and dusting, and droppings. Large amounts of droppings under a tree may give away a roost.

* Legislation: The California Fish and Game Commission has sent letters of opposition to the authors of Assembly Bill 1190, which would ban dove hunting in California, and Assembly Bill 342, which would ban the use of dogs during the hunting of any mammal. The Fish and Game Commission has imposed regulations regarding wildlife management since 1870 and sees no reason for outside interference.

"We believe the Commission has done an exceptional job in both protecting California's natural resources and providing our residents with hunting and fishing opportunities," Commission president Michael Flores said in a news release. "We do not see the need to move outside of our existing processes at this point."

Both bills, opposed by a long list of hunting and conservation groups, will be considered April 8 by the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife.

* Radio: "Let's Talk Hook-up," a saltwater fishing show co-hosted by Pete Gray and Marty Milner, will move from 690 AM to 1090 AM beginning April 5. Gray said the move was made largely to gain a better time slot, weekends from 7-9 a.m. The show currently airs weekends from 6-8 a.m.

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