Posts Tagged ‘Big Game Fishing’

Nov 20, 2012

You CAN Fish in Rough Water

The weather forecast was for 25 to 30 knot winds as a strong high pressure system south of the Australian continent built a strengthening ridge along Australia’s Queensland coast. Yesterday had dawned calm, but as the wind increased from a gentle breeze to a 15 to 20 knot trade wind a sea had started to build. Late in the afternoon, we saw the first of several black marlin surfing down the growing chop and rising swell. By evening, we had tagged and released 3 marlin, breaking a week long spell of slow fishing which had seen only an occasional marlin rising to our baits in the hot, calm, November weather.

Over breakfast that morning, our charter guest looked at the white caps on the sheltered water behind number 5 ribbon reef and watched the booming ocean swell outside the reef crash onto the reef front. “I don’t think I want to fish today.” he said. “I’d rather just lie around the mother boat and read.” “You don’t mind if we go, do you?” was my reply. “The boys and I have been waiting for this. Those tailers we saw yesterday should be just the start of it. Every black marlin in the Coral Sea will have tailed in against the reef overnight, and if they eat like the ones did yesterday it’ll be the best day all year!”

Our charter’s friend and fishing companion/guest said he would like to join us if we didn’t mind. After a relaxing morning on “mom” we set out just before noon. “As rough as it is, we won’t be in any hurry.” I told the crew. “If it’s as good as I think we’ll have all we need. If it’s slow, we’ll have more than we want—even with a late start.”

A "Good" Day on the GBR, Australia!

Overnight, the swell had built, but had time to get farther apart than the uncomfortable, short, steep, chop of the late afternoon of the day before. Duyfken could rise with the large (12 foot plus) seas instead of crashing against the steep faces of yesterday’s smaller, but far more nasty chop. By 1:30 PM, we were back at the motherboat having released 3 marlin and boated one well over 1,000 pounds. My mate had to lean out over our transom and knock vigorously on the motherboat’s wooden hull to roust the sleepers inside to weigh our guest’s fish of a lifetime. His richer, but less adventuresome, friend has still never caught a really big marlin, even though we went back out and released several more nice ones later that day.

If the fishing grounds are close enough to a safe harbor or anchorage, we can fish in some truly rough water. In areas where we have to travel long distances to and from the grounds, we usually stay in on days we would relish in a spot like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where yards, rather than miles, measure the distance to the fishing grounds.

Even so, on rough days, special tactics are often required. On really rough days, with heaving decks, stand up fishing is a BAD idea. Trying to maintain balance with both hands occupied is difficult and dangerous. It can be safe to fish even the heaviest tackle from a well-built fighting chair, but foolish to try to stand up against the transom of a wave-tossed sport fishing boat. Even with expert professional crew, it is the question of their safety while trying to stand up and handle a fish on the leader—that is often the main reason for my canceling a trip due to rough weather.

Trolling tactics also have to be modified to suit the conditions. Forget all the hokus pocus about trolling lures on exact positions on the wake. Climbing the face of big seas trolling speeds will drop and rise with the waves. Downsea speeds can jump from 6 or 7 to up to 12 or 14 knots as we surf down the wave fronts. Our wake is changing all over the place and complicated calm water lure shapes are useless in the rapidly changing conditions. (Don’t tell me to only quarter the sea – I AM going to get in front of that tailing marlin or tuna regardless of whether it is upsea, downsea or directly in the trough!!)

Forget staggered trolling patterns. On high wind days troll paired baits or lures of equal weight, equidistant behind the transom. They will be less prone to tangle each other when blown sideways. Trolling fewer baits in rough weather makes life easier and raises overall efficiency.

I always fight fish by chasing them in forward gear rather than reverse. This is especially important in big seas when backing up into breaking waves is down right dangerous — and STUPID. By motoring forward upsea and passing the fish, you reach a position where you can back up downsea in the final manuever of the fight.

In the end it is the safety of the boat and her crew that dictates whether we go or not and it is always better to err on the side of caution.

— Peter B Wright

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Oct 22, 2012

Fishing the Nest

Big yellowtail love to eat squid around the nest

During the spring months in Southern California, before the tuna and billfish arrive, we spend much of the early season targeting yellowtail, white sea bass and halibut in areas where the market squid are spawning. These squid “nests” attract all kinds of sea life from huge bird schools and feeding sea lions up top, to massive aggregations of sharks, rays, black sea bass and other bottom feeders anxious to take advantage of the easy bounty the spawning squid provide. The squid nests are typically found over sandy or muddy bottom in the 20 fathom depth range on the outside of the kelp lines and rocky structure along the coast or at the islands.

The easiest way to locate a nest is to look for large flocks of gulls sitting on the water and occasionally diving and picking squid off the surface. Sea lions will often be seen in the same zone “chewing their cud” as they try and swallow the squid they catch below the surface. Schools of feeding porpoise will sometimes be in the mix with the gulls and seals. The concentration of life around the squid nest is usually easy to spot by all the surface activity.

The other way to locate the actual nest is to find it on the sonar. Squid concentrations show up on color sonar as a thick, blue “fuzz” on the screen. Many times the squid will look like interference on the sonar screen due to their lack of a swim bladder to reflect a stronger sonar signal. Sardines and mackerel show up as stronger green or red sonar marks, which to the practiced eye don’t look like squid. Ideally, there will be larger deep-red marks around the squid concentration which indicate the presence of larger predators like sea bass, yellowtail and calicos. Another simple way to find a nest is to look for commercial squid light-boats anchored over the spot waiting for night to fall.


White sea bass are considered the ultimate prize and are often jumbo size when feasting on spawning squid

Once a squid nest is located, I like to meter around with the sonar and find the area with the largest concentration of squid and game fish marks on the machine. It is always best to anchor just up-current from the best marks and then scope back until the boat is positioned over the prime zone. You should be able to drop down and catch the squid or their eggs if you are right on the spot. The squid spawn millions of eggs and attach them to the sandy bottom in large balls which are easily snagged with bottom rigs. I will always have a rod rigged with a gang of squid catchers to drop down and sample the life on the bottom. Sometimes the squid will grab the squid catchers in sufficient numbers to fill a bait tank with a couple scoops of hook bait in short order.

I like to fish several types of outfits when targeting yellows and sea bass over a nest. My favorite rig is a dropper loop set up with a 4-6oz. torpedo sinker on the bottom and a 6/0-8/0 octopus-style hook on the short dropper 3 feet above the sinker. I always hook 2 squid on the hook to mimic the look of 2 mating squid suspended above the nest. Leader material should be 40-60lb test fluorocarbon. I like 50-65lb braided main line spooled on a 3/0-sized conventional reel mounted on an 8’ medium heavy live bait rod. The other favorite terminal rig on this same outfit is a white 1oz. bucktail jig with a couple squid pinned on the hook. A small white or glow-in-the-dark jig with a single hook can also be deadly for yellows, sea bass and big halibut when tipped with a couple squid and fished in the rod holder with the jig positioned just off the bottom. Most of the outfits used to fish the nest can be placed in the boat’s rod holders and fished in-gear. Game fish are seldom shy when they slurp up a couple squid fished on bigger hooks and will usually hook themselves.

The real beauty of fishing the squid nest is the lack of cover for bigger yellows and sea bass to run into once they are hooked. The clean sand bottom in 20 fathoms almost guarantees even the biggest fish can be easily landed if they are kept from wrapping the boat’s anchor line and chain. A good squid nest can give up a 30lb halibut, a 40lb yellow and a 50lb white sea bass on consecutive drops if you are there at the right time. It’s definitely worth the effort to find a nest and take advantage of the bounty the spawning squid can attract!


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Aug 15, 2012

Old Tricks Renewed

Years ago I bought a fishing reel and a planer from a man I saw walking along a beach on the Indonesian island of Lombok. I first noticed a wake a hundred yards or so offshore, moving parallel to the beach. It stood out dramatically on the clear, still water on a windless day.

“Look!” I exclaimed to my companion. “A big fish, or a porpoise, or a turtle – or something!” My puzzlement grew. Something was making a significant wake, but I could not tell what kind of marine creature it was. Then I noticed the man walking along the white sand beach which curved for nearly a mile below our rented, thatched roof, bungalow.

I ran down and followed the man who was carrying a crude handline spool carved from a short section of large diameter bamboo. A segment of the bamboo, below the piece which had the line wrapped around it, was carved into a pointed vee shape which reminded me of the sand spikes surf fishermen use to hold their rods while they wait for a strike.

A light monofilament fishing line stretched out toward the wake which paralleled the man’s path, slightly behind him. As I looked more closely I could see three more tiny wakelets, evenly spaced, between the shore and the larger wake.

A hundred yards before we reached the rocky headland at the end of the beach the man stopped and drove the spike at the bottom of reel into the beach sand. He continued to walk slowly as he pulled in his fishing line, which he laid out along the beach, a couple of yards above the wet part of the sand.

As the closest of the tiny wakes approached the shore I saw that a dropper line trolling a small homemade feather lure was tied to the main line. The fisherman laid both the dropper line (and lure), and main line on the beach and continued to walk along and pull in his line. Two more dropper lines and lures were laid on the beach alongside the main line before the large wake approached the shore and its secret was revealed.

A piece of a wooden plank had been carved into a fish shape with a short piece of wooden dowel protruding from the centerline one-third of the way from the head to the tail. The main line was attached to the end of the dowel.

The carved fish functioned as a side planer dragging one lure directly behind, and several more from the dropper lines. Walking the beach he could troll for fish at several distances from shore .

To fish back up the beach the fisherman rotated the symmetrical carving so it faced in the opposite direction, but with the dowel still protruding toward the beach. He lifted the line from the beach and paid it out as he walked along. Because of the way he had placed the dropper lines and lures on the sand he had only to pick up each lure as he came to it and flick it into the water. He was soon trolling all his lures. Halfway back I watched him catch a small jack that reminded me of a blue runner on one dropper lure.

I suspect that the price we finally agreed upon for me to take possession of his simple but sophisticated and lovely tackle was the most cash money he had ever owned. I had already seen his small son with a simpler, less ornate, version of his father’s tackle so I knew their ability to earn a living was not compromised and we both seemed happy with the bargain we struck. I KNOW I still treasure the tackle and the memory.

Today planers are a common and often essential item in tackle boxes. They are usually constructed of metal or plastic and have some method of being “tripped” so that once a fish has struck the planer quits trying to dive down or pull out to the side and offers less resistance to being reeled in to the boat.

Planers which angle off to one side are not common among big game anglers but are used quite effectively in lakes. Anglers trolling lakes use side planers to troll in shallow water or over submerged weed beds or reefs which the boat cannot cross over.

Diving planers have a myriad of applications along with, or in place of, down riggers used for species as large as bluefin tuna and marlin or as small as trout or land locked salmon. Any time a lure or bait needs to be trolled well beneath the surface a planer may make the difference between being “skunked” and a limit of your favorite fish. Your local tackle shop will gladly sell you the planer and lures or bait you need, and will give helpful hints on productive areas and tactics.


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Jul 30, 2012

Fish of a Lifetime

Every father who fishes can understand how happy Guy was when he was there with daughter Jessica for her catch of a 600 plus pound swordfish. Below is Guy’s account of the catch.

– Bill Shedd

I was on the third consecutive shoot for a documentary about the marine life off the Yucatan peninsula, based out of Isla Mujeres, in the province of Quintana Roo, Mexico. In January I started the project by fishing and diving on sailfish aggregations with world famous Captain Anthony Mendillo of “Keen M Sportfishing” based in Isla Mujeres. With the help of Dr. Molly Lutcavage we tagged 12 sailfish with Pop up Archival Tags (PATs) to better understand their migratory paths after they leave the Yucatan.

During the second expedition in March, Capt Mendillo put us on 5 mako sharks in the same area and we were able to tag three makos with PATs for the same reason. Very little is known about the migrations of these large pelagic species in the western Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Award winning film producer George Schellenger accompanied me on all expeditions.

July is whale shark season and thousands of snorkelers flock to the region to swim with the docile monster fish while they gorge on fish eggs and plankton just a few miles offshore this quaint island paradise. On any day, for 60 days, the whale sharks can be as few as a dozen and if conditions are right as many as five hundred spread over a square mile of ocean. George and I had the cameras rolling all day for three consecutive days.

On this expedition, my daughter Jessica who has just graduated from Edinburgh University, Scotland with honors in Zoology was thrilled to spend so much time in the water photographing whale sharks. There were so many that often two or three of the thirty foot long animals would fill the frame.

The socio economic benefit to Mexico of these marine interactions is enormous. Close encounters with otherwise rarely seen oceanic nomads brings a lot of money to the region— it is a highly sustainable activity which is well regulated by Mexican authorities.

The last day of this expedition was planned for swordfishing. Capt Anthony Mendillo took us out on a 48 foot Cabo, the “Chachalaca” by kind courtesy of the owner Lawrence Berry from Texas. He had a few good spots offshore where he deep drops Florida-style for swordfish in 1400 to 1800 feet of water. Similar to the Florida east coast oceanographic situation, the Gulf Stream roars north past Isla Mujeres, squeezing between the west end of Cuba and the eastern tip of the Yucatan. We were not fishing IGFA rules here, 100# braided nylon line with a 200# topshot 100 feet long to the leader. We just wanted to catch one on rod and reel.

Dropping the squid bait, with light and heavy weight a hundred feet from the hook, Capt Anthony keeps the boat moving into the current at 3 knots while 1500 feet below the bait is actually moving north at 1 knot in a 4 knot current. The potential for tangles is huge which is why Capt Anthony only sets for an hour at a time and then checks the bait.

Jessica got the bite minutes after 10 a.m. on the first drift, the rod tip bouncing and the line flying off the reel from the start. Mates, Ruben and Gallo, helped get her set up in the chair with harness and gloves braced for what could be a long duel. Capt Anthony spun the boat around and began to chase after the fish. He had a big smile on, he knew from 15 years of swordfishing that this was a good sized fish. Jessica worked hard on the fish and after an hour it came to the surface and did one massive jump, leaving all on board speechless, “500 plus!!!” said Ruben. Capt Anthony nodded in agreement. We got close to the big swordfish swimming just beneath the surface, purple and blue. Standing next to Capt Anthony on the bridge, I could see the bait hanging from the left side of its mouth. No one wants to fight a big swordfish that is foul hooked. Capt Anthony got close to the fish, Gallo the mate got the leader for a technical catch but the swordfish was still fresh and spurted away with great sweeps of its tail, its back was electric blue/purple as line dumped off the reel and Jessica shrieked in exasperation, all her hard work melted off the spool in a few seconds as the great fish sounded. Capt Anthony was encouraging said, “Jessica, take your time, this is the fish of a lifetime.”

While Capt Anthony turned the boat this way and that, Jessica kept heavy pressure on the fish and cruised past the 2 hour mark when again the leader came up on the rod and the great fish was swimming below. Again, Gallo had the leader to hand but the swordfish turned on the after burner and paddled off into the deep as if the fight was just beginning. Sweating, tired and sore, Jessica redoubled her efforts and Capt Anthony instructed her to put on some more drag, while keeping pressure on the reel with her gloved left hand. Over the next 50 minutes this added pressure worked and Jessica pumped the swordfish to the surface. It came up tail first, spent, having been wrapped in the leader later on in the fight.

The crew went quickly to work, securing the fish as we gazed and marveled at its size and girth. It took six men to slide the fourteen foot long fish into the boat. The bill was through the cabin door into the salon when they closed the transom door. Jessica gulped some water. Capt Anthony popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and the celebrations started. Capt Anthony said it looked a hundred pounds bigger than anything he had caught off Isla Mujeres or Florida.

Back at the dock, the giant fish was swum across to the public beach by willing hands where an expectant crowd helped to pull the fish up on the wooden gantry. Hundreds of locals gathered to take photos with the fish. Capt Anthony had to exert a little pressure to create an opening for the team to take some shots. After 30 minutes the fish was taken down, measurements were made and then Capt Anthony and crew cleaned the fish. Jessica found remains of a large squid in its stomach. The chunks of meat were all weighed as well as the rest of the backbone, head and fins totaling 590 pounds. With the loss of blood, body fluids and scraps the swordfish was clearly in the 620 pound range. Total length was 14 feet. The meat was shared amongst crew, family and friends, not a scrap was wasted. I watched fisherman carry off the fins, head and backbone to make fish soup.

Back home I contacted the IGFA inquiring about other large swordfish catches by lady anglers. The last catch of a swordfish over 600 pounds was a 772 pound fish by Mrs. Lou Marron in 1954 in Chile. That is before I was born! Apart from being an island record, it is probably a record swordfish for the Caribbean coast of Mexico on rod and reel.

Congratulations to Capt Anthony Mendillo, his crew and to Jessica for an outstanding angling achievement.

— Guy Harvey

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May 16, 2012

Satellite-Tagged Striped Marlin


Pulling Hard

The line snapped out of the Roller-Troller outrigger clip and the rod just barely bent, but no line was coming off the reel like you would expect with a typical striped marlin strike.  My son, Zane, looked at me and we both said the same thing…“Mako shark on the marlin lure”! 

Zane scrambled down the bridge ladder and grabbed the rod and started winding, but the fish just kept tracking along at the same speed as the boat.  Outdoor writer and good friend, Rich Holland, started clearing the other 3 trolling lines as Zane worked the fish closer to the boat.  Rich just got the last troller out of the water, when Zane said the double line was coming out of the water.  I looked over just in time to see the “mako shark” had grown a bill, as 150lbs of angry Catalina Island striped marlin exploded into the air just outside the port outrigger!

Rich, my son Zane (13) and I were off the east end of Catalina Island in Southern California trying to put a couple of the first Pop-up Satellite Archival Tags “PSATs” in our local stripers.  

At the ready

 A PSAT is an archival tag that is equipped to transmit the data via direct satellite upload when it “pops” to the surface. The PSAT’s major advantage is that it does not have to be physically retrieved like an archival tag for the data to be available. They have been used to track movements of ocean sunfish, marlin, sharks, tuna, swordfish and sea turtles. Location, depth, and temperature data are used to answer questions about migratory patterns, seasonal feeding movements, daily habits, and survival after catch and release. The sophisticated – and very expensive – $4000 PSAT tags had been supplied to us through the joint efforts of the Avalon Tuna Club, Paxon Offield and The Pfleger Institute of Technology (P.I.E.R).

We had been having a very successful marlin season on our boat “Kawakawa,” and were excited to be selected to place the tags.  But, with an outdoor writer and two expensive PSATs aboard, the pressure was on to get the job done!

Zane’s marlin gave us a good scrap, but on the 30lb tackle he was soon boat-side and ready to be leadered and PSAT tagged.  We were very careful to keep the marlin away from the props and also to keep him from hitting the side of the boat during the leadering and hook removal process.  Luckily the fish was hooked right in the corner of the jaw and cooperated well once I was able to grab his bill in preparation for tagging.  We removed the little magnet which was taped to the tag, and this turned on the PSAT transmitter.  We then carefully placed the tag at the base of the dorsal and gently released the striper.

Satellite Ready

After high-fives and victory shouts we put the lures back in and continued trolling up the famous Catalina Island east end ridge looking for another striper.  It didn’t take long before we were “wired” again on our second striper of the day in only 300 feet of water.  Rich graciously insisted young Zane take the second fish so he could shoot photos.  Twenty minutes later we had the fish to leader and were able to place our second PSAT in a perfectly healthy Catalina Island striped marlin!

We learned several months later from PIER scientist Dr. Michael Domeier, that one of our stripers immediately left Catalina water after we placed the PSAT and charged straight south 400 miles, where the tag stopped transmitting off Cedros Island in Baja, Mexico.  Domeier theorized that the marlin had possibly been eaten by a predator, due to the data profile he received from the PSAT.

We were stunned and disappointed to learn that our second PSAT tagged marlin was re-caught the same afternoon after we placed the tag!  It turns out the fish was re-caught by a boat fishing in a tournament which was held the same day we were out.  Sadly, the fish was killed and the PSAT was removed by the boat that caught the fish.  Dr. Domeier later recovered the PSAT and was able to upload the few hours of data from the overly-hungry striped marlin.

We were thrilled and honored to be one of the first boats in California to place a PSAT in a striped marlin.  Since that day back in 2004 there have been many stripers PSAT tagged off Mexico, and a few more have even been tagged in Southern California.  The data gleaned from the PSATs has greatly increased the knowledge base of the striped marlin’s habits at this northern limit of their usual range.  

 — Greg Stotesbury

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Mar 2, 2012

World’s Greatest Fishing Hole

When John Rafter asked me “Pete, if you knew tomorrow was going to be the last day you ever got to fish in your life, but you could be wherever you wanted to be, and in the prime time or season, where would you choose?” A thousand images flooded my brain. “That’s really tough. There are so many places.” I replied.

“What about St. Thomas?” Rafter queried, “We were talking about this at Oden’s Dock in Hatteras and someone said that was the best blue marlin fishing ever.”

St. Thomas is a lovely island and the Virgin Islands have great diving and snorkeling in crystal clear bays over sand so white it hurts the eyes—and some of the best reefs in the Caribbean. With 5 to 10 bites a day on blue marlin not guaranteed, but also not unusual, it conjured up fond memories.

“I’d have to think about that and Cape Verde would probably win if I was going after blue marlin. There are even more fish there, and lots of action would probably win out over someplace like Madeira, which is such a gorgeous place just to be, that the fishing is almost a bonus. In Madeira, even though the action is not as red hot when you do get a bite, it is likely to be a real monster. But the biggest blue I ever saw was off Mindelo in Cape Verde so that’s a tough one.” I mused.

I make my living fishing for monster marlin and tuna and love that kind of fishing even though it can be hard work and is often stressful when we’re under pressure to produce. When I fish for the sheer fun of it, I’m often targeting smaller fish.

The Great Barrier Reef is the ultimate. Not just lots of marlin, but monsters over 1000 pounds..."

“I haven’t had a chance to take Bimini after bonefish yet.” I told Rafter. “I can remember wading the flats east of the island she’s named after at sunrise, and that’s pretty darn gorgeous. With a rising tide and those schools of fish pushing up onto the flats trying to pick out tails and get a bite out of those spooky devils, if I could only fish one more day I’m not sure I wouldn’t like to share that with my little girl.”

Then I thought about tarpon. It’s cooler and yuppier to fish with fly rods on the flats and that is also great fun, but Boca Grande won for that scene. I remembered the sun setting in the west just as a full moon was rising in the east. Calm water shimmering in the light that never really quit with the big full moon spring tides carrying all that LIFE. Weed and crabs and minnows all going with the current and then the tarpon— thousands upon thousands of them rolling in huge packs of prehistoric predators eating every bait we put out. No records, no pressure to perform, just fish after fish jumping, fighting, and being released-healthy. I’d hate to think I’d never see that again.

“What about those days we had in Hatteras when the bluefins were THICK?” Rafter interrupted my silent thoughts.

Boy could I see that in my minds eye. Enormous shapes zooming through the water eating chum before it could get really wet. Giant tuna eating chicken wings and squashed Pepsi cans if they were thrown in the cadence of the cut up baitfish chum. The line crackling off the reel. Using 100 pounds of drag on custom Cal Sheets Penn 130 reels with a top shot of 300 pound line.

Or sunny days off Cat Cay and Bimini in the old days with even bigger tuna running before the sea. Harder there to get a bite but even bigger fish!

“And the diving there is truly wonderful. The dive industry is WAY bigger than fishing down under. We get to snorkel and dive in the best spots that even the dive boats don’t go to – in fact, the fishing guys found most of the dive spots when we were the only ones out there and that was only during our short black marlin season.”

Then Rafter stopped me cold. “You know what? Ernie Foster was in the crowd at Hatteras and here’s what he said. ‘Boys, you never know which day IS going to be the last one you do get to go fishing. You better enjoy each one as if it WAS the last.’”

Thinking about this has made me appreciate my time on the water even more and I’ve resolved to concentrate even more than I already do on two aspects of my fishing.

Share it with kids. There is no better way to enjoy a day on the water than taking a kid fishing. Someday, I’m going to finish a book I’ve started called “Mentors” partly about men who took me fishing. In the meantime, I’m going to do more of what my grandmother called “Paying for my raising.”

Help out the fish. Only strong resources and good management can ensure what I have loved for future generations to enjoy.

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Feb 17, 2012

Boat-Shy Bluefin Off Southern California

The past few years in Southern California, we have been plagued with the “La Nina” condition, which keeps our offshore waters cooler than normal in the summer months.  Our typical warm-water run of striped marlin, dorado and yellowfin tuna never makes it far enough north for us to reach them during “La Nina” years from ports in So Cal.  Fortunately for us large, schools of bluefin tuna do sometimes make it above the US-Mexico border on cold water years, as they have a better tolerance for the cool and nutrient rich California current. The bluefin take advantage of the tremendous amounts of bait which congregate along well-defined current lines during cold water years. Our local bluefin are tough to catch, but worth the effort and are the best eating of any of our local offshore species.

When the bluefin show in the Gulf of Catalina they can usually be located over the offshore banks and ridges, such as the 43, 182, 289 and San Clemente Island ridge in purple-blue 62 to 68 degree water.  One of the keys to locating bluefin is to look for fast moving spots of terns or petrels fluttering over the surface and crashing on bait.  Bluefin spend a great amount of time at the surface feeding and “breezing”.  Their surface roaming, tight schooling behavior makes them particularly vulnerable to the fleets of purse seine boats from Mexico and San Pedro.  By the time these fish reach local waters they have usually been harassed several times by the relentless seiners.  This makes them even more boat shy and sensitive to engine noise, generators and sonar pings.

Bluefin tuna are one of the most highly prized and best eating in the world

Bluefin are notoriously boat shy and difficult to hook from small private boats with smaller live bait capacities than the bigger party boats.  Party boats can chum tremendous amounts of live baits and attract the bluefin to the boat, but smaller private boats have to take the baits to the bluefin and use stealth tactics to get their share.  This requires some modified techniques to get them to bite consistently.

After locating an area with schools of bluefin showing on top and bird schools working around them, we immediately start glassing with gyro-stabilized binoculars to find the larger spots of fish and birds.  This past season you could even watch for “jumpers” (free jumping tuna) in the working bluefin schools and then target the spots with the bigger fish.  Our secret to getting the Bluefin to bite was to turn off all the sonar units, both up-and-down and side scanning, and then position the boat above the direction the fish were working.  We would then shut down the motor and wait for the bluefin to get into casting range of our fly-lined sardines and small mackerel.  Many times the bluefin would shy away or go down for no apparent reason, but every once in a while the whole school would be crashing bait all around the boat in a virtual frenzy!  Even when actively feeding, the super-shy bluefin would only hit a perfectly presented bait that swam as soon as it hit the surface.  Bluefin tuna can be the most frustrating fish in the world, but there is nothing like the thrill of the first run of a fat bluefin hooked on light tackle on your own boat after a stealthy approach!

Our favored bluefin tackle is a light 7 ½’ to 9’ live bait rod with the best casting reel available, spooled with 300 yards of 30-50lb spectra backing, with a long 20-30lb fluorocarbon top shot.  Many of the schools of tuna run 15-25lbs, but then there are the occasional schools of 40-80lb fish.  You won’t land many of the 70-80lb bruiser-bluefin on the light gear, but then you’ll never get the bite if you don’t use tackle that can fly-line a small live sardine or mackerel bait.  We had several tragedies on big tuna this past season, but we also landed a fair amount on the light gear.  We tried using 30-40lb fluorocarbon leaders, but found we got bit the best using 25lb pink-tinted 100% fluorocarbon with a 1-2/0 light wire, ringed circle hook to suit the bait.  The circle hooks reduce the bite-offs from the larger sharp-toothed Bluefin, but we still lost some of the bigger models to chewed leader after long fights on the light gear.

Due to their superior quality on the table, we handle the bluefin we catch in a special way.  Ideally, we head gaff the fish to avoid any gaff holes in the precious loins or bellies.  We then immediately cut a couple of the gill arches with a pair of poultry shears, then make a small cut at the base of each side of the caudle peduncle (tail) just down to the backbone.  Once the gills and tails are cut, we place the tuna head down in a bleed tank of circulating sea water and let the tuna bleed out completely before slipping them into an insulated fish bag full of ice and saltwater slush.  This process insures all your efforts to catch the elusive and boat-shy bluefin tuna are rewarded with prime sushi loins and bellies at the end of the day!  

Greg Stotesbury

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Jan 11, 2012

Old Dog New Tricks

A big bonito was splashing along from the left outrigger leaving a hefty wake. A small mackerel-like scad trailed from the right outrigger and was swimming beautifully below the surface of the Coral Sea. We were trolling at 5 knots. These are my two favorite baits for the giant black marlin that roam Australia’s Great Barrier Reef during the southern hemisphere’s Spring spawning aggregation of these mighty marine predators. I consider this combination the “marlin equivalent” of the steak and lobster dinner humans call “surf and turf”.

Australia's Great Barrier Reef is the spawning ground for giant black marlin which arrive in the fall each year

When the strike came, it was an attack upon neither of my favorite natural baits, but because of what I had previously derided as such a poorly performing artificial lure, I had refused to use it. Moldcraft’s “Spooler” does not perform well at the high speeds at which I normally troll artificial lures. It is prone to leap out of waves and tumble over, often tangling the hooks and skirts, especially on rough days when the boat would surf and change speed and wake patterns, especially on down sea tacks. I didn’t like the look of the thing out of water and hated the way it ran. It sat, unrigged, in the tackle drawer for over a year.

“You’re missing out Peter B.” John Phillips told me. “You won’t believe how good it works at slow speeds. I call it the ‘scad’. You really ought to try it.” “That’s because you can’t catch scad.” I needled him. “And I’ve told you where to go and on what tide.” “No it’s not. Even when I do I have scad, the “spooler” really works. Try it, I promise you— it works great at low speed. I even use it with live bait sometimes, and just the other day, it got bit instead of the livey!” Phillips replied.

A few days later we were fishing together with a group of friends from the Canary Islands sharing our two boats. It was calm and I had plenty of big baits. Late in the afternoon I wanted to look over a sunken patch of reef in shallow water that held enough toothy critters like wahoo, sharks, barracuda, and large mackerel, to make fishing live bait out of the question. In short, there was no need for the small bait lure I usually pull down the center. I might as well give the spooler another try. Minutes later we were releasing a 200 pound black marlin that passed up the surf and turf combo for a handful of junk food!

Moldcraft’s “spooler” is a soft plastic lure modeled after earlier, homemade, lures that were constructed from discarded wooden spools that had been filled with sewing thread. The “spooler” had a nifty action at the five to six knot speeds that I use for dead bait. But the hydrodynamic instability that worked against it at high speed became an asset. The lure head wiggled and wobbled violently leaving a stream of bubbles (or “smoke” as fanatical fishheads call it) combined with a lively swimming action.

The next day we had three strikes. We caught one marlin on a natural dead bait and caught one and lost one on the lure. “A couple of more days like this and I’ll be a believer!” I told Phillips on the VHF radio. I became a “Spooler” fan! Dead bait anglers, or even live bait anglers, for any species of billfish, should try adding a spooler approximating the size of their natural bait to their spread. You will be pleasantly surprised!

Peter B

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Dec 14, 2011

My Latest Trip to Panama

When the staff of the Tropic Star Lodge tells you it is a fairly hard 35 minute walk/climb from the lodge, across the peninsula, to the white sand beach, believe it! And that is each way, NOT over and back! And if it has rained earlier in the day, which turns the clay soil into grease, it is even more difficult!

We all made it but found out we were not as fit as we would have liked! If one of us had slipped and been hurt, getting someone with even a minor injury like a twisted ankle or busted leg up, and then down ( down was even worse in the mud), would have been a real challenge. Our clothes were wringing wet with sweat from 100% humidity, hot weather and exertion, when we got back down to safety a drink of water and then a cold beer!

Tropic Star is a spot I have been recommending for decades after I had visited a few times several years ago. I first met Terri Kitteredge and her dad Conway when they visited Australia in 1982. Terri and her husband Mike run a great operation.

Before this trip, I had fished Piñas Bay on big U.S. boats owned by Jerry Dunaway and Jean Paul Richard, but had seen the lodge’s fleet of 31 Bertrams in action. I was also lucky enough to have stayed in the original owner’s private home, now part of the accommodation for guests, and referred to by one and all as “The Palace”.

There is a little cable car up the hill to the palace which we used for what we called a cocktail cruise as we had for a much needed shower at day’s end. Mostly, I walked it as it is just enough of a climb to make you breathe heavily, but always glad you did it —good cardio exercise and not TOO hard.

The efficiency of the crews, mechanics, and support staff, make this arguably the best run and most successful, charter fishing fleet anywhere. With over a dozen identical boats (31 Bertrams, a long established gold standard) fishing daily, there are always extras available and every essential spare part is on site.

Black Marlin are the main species of marling encountered off Tropic Star Lodge on the famous Zane Grey — Photo by Richard Gibson

The boat I was on caught a blue and a sail and lost another blue in 4 days fishing, reasonable action, but not great. Some of our boats had quite a bit more action and had multiple marlin days. The sun does not shine on the same dog’s back every day.

There were good luck and bad luck tales every night over a choice of tasty Piña Coladas, rum drinks or beer before we retired to our luxurious accommodations to shower and get ready for dinner.

It seemed to me that communications between crew and anglers, in both English and Spanish, were not as good as they could have been due to a reluctance of both the local crews and our team to TRY to speak in an unfamiliar language. The better Spanish speaking students translated when necessary and after a couple of days both sides found out the reluctance to attempt to speak together were not necessary and basic communications improved.

When traveling, do not be embarrassed, go ahead and try to communicate. Often, both sides know some words, enough to communicate. Things like “weight “ for more drag, and is NOT “wait”, and let him eat it, got resolved over time.

We came home and I retrieved the computer I had left in the TSA screening area in Miami. What a relief that was!! I had failed to back up files on my new computer and the idea of losing all those magazine articles made me decide to get a new flash drive ASAP!

When I got home, I helped coach some brand new members of the “Young Guns at Quail Creek”, the local scholastic shooting team. Some of the youngsters who started shooting less than a couple of years ago are already winning, not only in junior class, but even winning state championships as High Over All – beating everyone including all the adults and the instructors who got them started.

My hat is off to the entire crew of kids, instructors, parents, owners and staff of Quail Creek Plantation. GREAT JOB!!  I really enjoy teaching young people to both fish and to shoot. It is very gratifying to give back some of what I was given when I was a kid!  Also, ethical fishing and hunting are the strongest forces for real conservation of our game fish and game animals.

Good fishing wherever you are.

—Peter B

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Dec 7, 2011

Guy Harvey On — The Great Barracuda

There are twenty species of barracuda in tropical waters around the planet, of which, the great barracuda is the largest. The IGFA all tackle world record is 85 pounds, but the largest recorded specimen was 106 pounds. Can you imagine meeting that guy on a dive! Large specimens are rare, and most of those caught in the Caribbean do not reach 40 pounds. The majority of barracudas that we see on dives here in the Cayman Islands are in the 5 to 15 pound size range.

The great barracuda is long, slim-bodied and has a pointed head, with a jutting lower jaw, full of canine teeth that give it a ferocious look.  Their second dorsal fin and anal fin are set far back on their body, effectively giving them another tail, enabling them to accelerate very rapidly.

Barracuda have a jutting lower jaw, full of canine teeth that give them a ferocious look — Photo by Bill Boyce

They are tremendous fish to paint. They play the part of the reef bully, but are handsome at the same time, with gorgeous metallic hues, punctuated by irregular black blotches, that are striking from a distance. They can change colour by adopting a mottled or banded colour scheme when waiting motionless near the bottom or beside structure. Their large eye and menacing look tell the story of a successful reef predator.

Young individuals up to about 3 pounds usually live close to shore in the shallow water, and are found in coastal lagoons, harbours and mangroves flats. Growth rates are fast, but little is known about reproduction in this species.  Large adults may occur farther offshore along the reef edges and even out in the open ocean. They are aggressive carnivorous fish, and are an underrated game fish. Larger barracudas are usually caught by anglers trolling along reef drop-offs on heavy tackle targeting other species such as wahoo and tuna. However, when specifically sought on the inshore flats by anglers in shallow water, also looking for bonefish and permit, the great barracuda can be a spectacular game fish making swift runs and frequent jumps.

People who eat barracuda and other large reef fish do run the risk of ciguatera poisoning. The symptoms are varied usually include gastrointestinal and neurological disorders, which can last for weeks and sometimes years. There is no effective treatment for ciguatera poisoning.

However, there is a very low incidence of fish poisoning from eating barracuda in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Part of the reason is that they are regularly consumed, so big ones, over 15 # are rare (compared to the Bahamas for example).

Ciguatera toxins are produced by dinoflagellates which herbivorous fish consume. These fish are then eaten by large predatory reef fish, such as grouper, amberjack and barracuda, which appear to be unharmed by the toxin. Because the toxins are lipid-soluble, they accumulate through the food chain. The toxin may be more concentrated in the head, viscera and roe.

Ciguatoxin-containing fish may be highly localized and islands may have some reefs where the fish are inedible, and other reefs where the fish are unaffected. No open ocean fish, such as wahoo, tuna and dolphin have been found to carry ciguatoxin.  

Ciguatoxins are odourless, colourless, tasteless, and unaffected by cooking or freezing, therefore persons living or traveling to areas where ciguatera toxin is endemic should follow these general precautions:

1) Avoid consuming large predatory reef fish, especially barracuda.

2) Avoid eating the head, viscera or roe of any reef fish.

 3) Avoid eating fish from areas with known ciguatera toxins.

In the Caribbean there are many beliefs about how a poisonous barracuda can be identified, by its size, the colour of its teeth, rigidity of its scales, or by putting some of its meat on an ant’s nest, or its flesh turning a silver coin black. My grandfather used to give the head to his cook to make “fish tea”, and if she was around the following day, he would have the barracuda steamed for lunch! Very brave of him!

The dubious food value of the barracuda in no way detracts from its game qualities. The message of this story is that if you are in doubt, then release the barracuda alive.  Nowadays, there are dehooking devices available that enable you to release a barracuda or any fish, without taking it out of the water or risking injury to one self.

As an ardent diver, I look forward to the next barracuda encounter. I put their predictable curiosity towards swimmers and divers to good use by capturing head shots and close-ups as they come by to check you out. Frequently, they are accompanied by a group of bar jacks, or as we experience at Tarpon Alley in Grand Cayman, they hang out around the tarpon and schools of horse-eye jacks.

It is our collective responsibility to conserve the marine environment and maintain the biodiversity of the planet.

Fish responsibly, dive safely.

Guy Harvey

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