The radio in my stateroom crackled with the sound of the skipper’s voice, “Start a chumline here, ones and twos.” It was 5:30 a.m. and a hint of morning light was just starting to show on the horizon. We were at the tail end of a 10-hour steam from San Diego to the famed Tanner Bank, about 100 miles west of San Diego, where vast schools of bluefin tuna had taken up their annual fall residence. I quickly got dressed and headed out on deck. Some of the passengers were already up with rods in hand, waiting for the captain’s go-ahead to drop baits. The excitement was palpable.
We were on the mighty Excel, the largest and most well-equipped head boat in the San Diego fleet. Boasting an impressive 124-foot length and 32-foot beam, the Excel is more like a ship, fully appointed and geared specifically to fish these rich Pacific waters. The Excel is a proven fish-hunting machine with a reputation built on a history of monumental catches, including the world’s largest yellowfin tuna caught in 2012, weighing an incredible 445 pounds.
At the helm, third-generation skipper Justin Fleck slowed us to a crawl while watching the side scan sonar. A glance at the screen showed a sea of red, “There is an unfathomable amount of bluefin tuna below us here,” he said, “as far as the eye can see, there are tuna in every direction.” I headed back down to the stern and grabbed my 30 lb. Okuma setup, prepared for battle. This was going to be an epic day on the tuna grounds.
Southern California, and San Diego in particular, has a rich sportfishing history going all the way back to the early 1900s. In those days, the bluefin tuna was the undisputed king of these waters. And, while the pacific bluefin doesn’t grow to the enormous size of the Atlantic bluefin tuna, the state record is 395 pounds, proving these fish still have the power to test anglers. Unlike the giant Atlantic bluefin seen on shows like “Wicked Tuna,” Pacific/SoCal bluefin are generally fought on stand-up gear. These fish are strong and have the ability to find any weakness in an angler’s approach and exploit it.
For many years, the bluefin tuna was a staple in southern California, but over time, their numbers diminished. This downward spiral in stock was attributed to a variety of factors, all unverified. The only thing for sure was that the tuna seemed to have disappeared, for the most part, showing up just occasionally, mixed in with the massive schools of albacore that filled the void in their absence.
Then, about 15 years ago, something odd happened. The albacore disappeared from southern California waters. It wasn’t a slow reduction either; one year they just didn’t show up south of the San Francisco Bay area. Then the next year, again, no albacore. There was no rhyme nor reason to this shift in patterns, but it was clear to everyone things were changing in these waters, and quickly.
On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m. local time, the massive Tōhoku earthquake struck off Honshu, Japan, registering a 9.0 magnitude and flooding the Fukushima nuclear plant, causing a global catastrophe that is still playing out today more than a decade later. It is well known that Japan has an insatiable appetite for bluefin tuna, with specimens garnering as much as $1 million. A million dollars for a single fish! Tragically, the majority of the bluefin tuna fishing fleet was decimated by the tsunami that struck this region shortly after the Tōhoku quake. A year later, in the spring of 2012, reports started to trickle in of something huge taking baits and spooling anglers in the lee of San Clemente Island, about 60 miles off San Diego. People targeting other species were getting their gear destroyed by these giant fish and it wasn’t long before boats were heading out with heavy rigs to see if the rumors were true. Shortly after, photos began popping up online of big bluefin and suddenly all hell broke loose as everyone wanted a piece of the action.
When I quizzed Excel skipper Justin Fleck on why the bluefin tuna started appearing in 2012, he was quick to point out the possible connection between the Japan earthquake and the re-emergence of the Bluefin in SoCal waters. “Some believe that the decimation of the Japanese fleet allowed these bluefin to complete their historic migration for the first time in generations.” While this resurgence of bluefin in southern California waters was certainly welcomed, it also served as a stark reminder of just how much damage overfishing can do.
Suddenly, these tuna were able to complete a genetically programmed circuit that took them in a several thousand mile circle down the coast of Japan, across the Pacific Basin and up the California coast. With the pressure from Japan’s fishery eliminated, the tuna were able to once again complete this circle. Is this the only factor contributing to the bluefin’s return? It’s hard to say for sure, but the timing and the facts are hard to ignore.
Other rumors also persist. Some say the bluefin were always there, just not targeted properly. The legendary Guadalupe Island has also always been a well-known hunting ground for big tuna. Sitting well offshore, 250 miles south of San Diego, its notorious “Tuna Alley” has been the scene of massive bluefin and yellowfin tuna catches since pioneer skipper Bill Poole first took his boat, the Polaris, there in the 1950s. Now known more for its large population of great white sharks, as seen regularly on “Shark Week,” some have gone so far as to speculate that it is this rise in the population of great whites, along with increasing water temps down south, that has pushed the biomass of bluefin north into California waters.
As of now, there is really no scientific confirmation as to why these tuna have reappeared in southern California. But back on the deck of the mighty Excel, I grabbed a hearty sardine from the bait tank, butt-hooked it on my 30 lb. fluorocarbon-rigged, tiny size 1 circle-hook and gently tossed it several yards from the boat. The tiny baitfish landed softly and quickly sprinted away. Letting the reel run in free spool, within a few seconds the line began to race. Slipping the 2-speed into gear, the line came tight as the circle hook found its mark in the corner of a 30-pound tuna’s mouth. Feeling the hook, the tuna took off full speed for the horizon. Twenty minutes later, with sweat running down my face, I pulled a nice chrome butterball over the rail.
While this size is the norm, the story of the SoCal bluefin isn’t complete without also talking about the monsters that have been caught here over the past few years. In addition to the young of the year classes, there has also been a separate population of big adult migratory bluefin temporarily making SoCal waters their home. These fish are older and were most likely not born in this region of the Pacific. They are genuine trophies and don’t come easy to any angler who chooses to tangle with the giant “horse mackerel.”
Targeting these bigger fish is generally done two ways, either on the kite or using large jigs called “flat falls.” These lures, usually deployed at night over schools detected on sonar, operate similar to the knife jigs used in other parts of the world. Fluttering through the water column, they work to trigger the attack instinct from these giant fish in ways that other heavy jigs don’t. On the kite, anglers troll rigged flying fish or lures called “gummy flyers” that mimic the local flying fish species. These are towed across breezing tuna schools detected on sonar and the bites can be incredibly explosive, as the large model tuna breech on the flyers in dramatic style.
What does the future hold for this emerging population of tuna? It’s hard to predict, as they seem to appear and disappear randomly. But for now, these various year classes seem to be growing quickly and taking up residence in the waters around southern California. If you’re looking to tangle with one of these monsters, you better get your gear tuned up and put your big kid pants on because these fish don’t mess around! If you would like to take a trip on the Excel or learn more about their operation, check out excelsportfishing.com.