We passed the Coronados Islands June 20 after loading bait for our seven-day trip aboard the Excel, and we saw Royal Star heading for the harbor. Skipper Tim Ekstrom gave our captain Mike Ramirez a radio call as the two long range boats went by one another.
“I just came off The Rockpile,” said Tim, “the first time I ever dropped anchor in the Coronados. We got 120 yellows; it was just unbelievable!”
There was quite a fleet parked on The Rockpile, we noticed a few miles down. But we had bigger fish to fry, and skipper Ramirez kept the big Excel’s bow pointed south. The reports we got over the next two days were discouraging, both on the albacore grounds at 250 miles and at The Rocks, where we headed. Cameraman Leif Backe and I handed out goodie bags to all passengers, with Salas jigs, Mustad hooks, baitmakers and hats, FishingVideos.com calendars and DVDs and various other items donated by our generous sponsors.
We also had a drawing for a new Accurate BX 500 reel, won by Mike Reader of Torrance, who’d brought his daughter Sarah fishing. Ralph Bunquist of Tallahassee, another fortunate angler, won a new AFTCO Alijos fighting belt, and everyone also won a prize bag including more good fishing stuff like $50 fish cleaning certificates from Five Star and Sportmen’s Seafoods, some more Salas, Catchy and Tady jigs, Seaguar fluorocarbon samples, 10 percent off on fish cleaning, etc.
It didn’t help that the weather was up, but motoring downhill on the big boat, the northwest wind and swell didn’t bother us much. There were three ladies among our 23 anglers. We ate like kings and no one felt sick. Chef Jim Guyot prepared meals that kept us looking forward to the next call to the salon. We enjoyed meals of breaded pork chops and green beans with bleu cheese butter the first night and chicken breast with zuchinni and Chocolate Overload cake for desert on the second evening. Eggs Benedict was served the morning we got to The Rocks.
Only one boat was still fishing there when we arrived, and it left soon. We scratched hard for a few tuna and yellowtail. At least one very large yellow came up, along with a couple of 40-pound tuna. I got a small tuna, one of the dozen or so we managed for several hours of hard fishing. Later, Ramirez made what was proved to be a very smart decision; he left and headed east. Fishing was down everywhere, according to radio reports, so Mike reasoned it was worth trying The Ridge, where no one had fished for months.
The Indy was right behind us, and had been since we left San Diego. The two skippers conversed, and Jeff DeBuys went to Thetis Bank while Ramirez took us toward the 23 Spot. We drove all night, after a wonderful yellowtail dinner. Guyot cooked the fish grilled with a Wasabi mayo sauce, and put rice and sugar snap peas on the side.
We were just backing down on our first anchoring when the yellowtail showed behind the boat, chasing sardines. The ‘tails came up and slashed at the surface, nice big ones. It wasn’t but a few seconds later that the first one was hooked, and then another, and another. Within moments the afterdeck became a very busy place, with everyone hooked up and the deckhands straining to gaff fish, untangle clients, keep bait in the wells and try to keep hooks in the water.
The yellowtail at the 23 Spot were fat and sleek, probably because of the carpet of small pelagic red crab floating past. The animals very only the size of a thumbnail but they were so thick they literally covered the surface. The 15-knot breeze didn’t deter them from floating. Flylined sardines that swam hard proved to be just the ticket for the yellows. Maybe they were tired of all those little crunchies.
I fished yellows with 25 and 30-pound Izorline XXX on 25 and 30-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon and 3/0 Mustad ringed 94140BLN hooks, with an Accurate two-speed 197 and a two-speed 870 N reel. The rods were Super Seekers, a 660 XF and a 6460. I caught two on each rig and then handed off a couple more. I also used a 6465 Super Seeker with 30-pound and an 870 two-speed reel.
Then I tried moving up to a 40-pound rig with XXX and Seaguar in that flavor, on 4/0 Mustad hooks, and the fish weren’t deterred in the least. I used a new Accurate BX-2 500 reel on a Super Seeker 6470 rod. The yellowtail bit on the heavier gear just fine, and I noticed some anglers like Carl Dorton fishing with 50-pound tackle and doing well.
It was one-stop shopping for yellowtail of 15 to over 40 pounds. After an hour or two of pulling on husky yellows, many anglers began to catch them on yoyo jigs and surface iron. I got one on a 7X “wounded soldier” on the first cast, and I’m not a particularly good fisherman with the surface iron. It was a kick to see the fish come up and smack the jig. Then I tried a blue and white 6X heavy jig and found the same sort of instant success. I released several yellows up to 25 pounds and handed off a couple.
That yellowtail bite was pure mayhem. It was one of the two or three best bites of its kind I’ve ever seen. Mark and Carl Dorton and Brad Merritt, Excel regulars who also charter the boat, purely agreed with me on that later. Mark hooked a marlin, the season’s first, as far as I know, and got a good series of jumps out of the beaker before it executed its freedom-finding whack with its bill. What fun!
We had a nice lunch with chicken tortilla soup. Skipper Ramirez said we should start to work our way north, so we moved up to the 13 Spot. Things were pretty quiet there, but we caught a couple of fish in a wind that was picking up. Soon we went in to dinner, and made our way up toward the Rosa Bank. The dinner was delicious, stuffed pork loin. The stuffing was spinach, basil, green onion, feta and Parmesan cheese, fresh garlic and salt and pepper. The sides were grilled carrots with butter and brown sugar, and boiled potatoes with butter, parsley and chives.
The next day was the roughest yet, with up to 20 knots of miserable northwest breeze. In the morning we found a kelp and plucked one yellowfin and 20 yellowtail from it. We looked hard for tuna all day with no success, though we were in sight of the Indy when she found of school of bluefin and picked up 20 or so. But that was it for a tough day.
We arrived at the albacore grounds, crossing the break into 65-degree clean water, next morning about 8:30. We’d heard reports from the Royal Polaris and the American Angler that the fishing had resumed there, and we were anxious to give it a try, 250 miles from port.
The reports were right on, and the weather backed down. At 8:49 we found a school that came to the boat and bit, minutes after we crossed that break into clean warm water. The school stuck with us for a long time, long enough to drift south three miles. The longfin were 15 to 35-pounders, they were sleek and silver, and they were willing. As Prowler skipper Buzz Brizendine used to say, “They were biting nails!”
I started out fishing the 25-pound rig, thinking I’d get more bites. I got bites, all right, on at least every other bait. It was like the yellowtail bite all over again. I was badly in need of my two-speed Accurates. Without them I’d have spent hours pinned to the rail. But with a two-speed reel you can really put the crank on those cranky tuna that take you straight down. Nose-hooking and belly-hooking sardines worked very well.
There were occasional bluefin and yellowfin tuna of like size mixed in with the albacore. Soon the intensity of the bite had me going up to the 30-pound tackle again. Then I went to 40-pound gear, and I got an albacore on it, but the fish definitely seemed to prefer the lighter gear, and a 3/0 over a 4/0 hook. I had new BX-2 reels with me in the 500 and 600 series, loaded with 50 and 60-pound line, but I knew they’d have to wait for bigger tuna.
At last we drifted right out of the 65-degree pocket where the tuna were located, and we had to go looking again. The sun burned off the clouds that afternoon and the breeze dropped to 10 or 12 knots. We spent the rest of our day trolling, with stops every ten or 15 minutes. Most of the stops produced two to half a dozen fish, so we had to keep moving. Yes, we had some short bites, and there were times when we went 20 minutes without a bite, but it was an interesting day for those who were quick to get a bait into the water after a jig strike.
A few were too quick, dropping back on the slide, and after trollers got cut off a couple of times the skipper asked anglers to wait until he gave the word to cast baits. When a troller gets cut off, it doesn’t help the boat’s chances to bring the school close. Fishing tuna demands group cooperation.
One other advice item: when the boat stops, don’t dither and dwaddle at the bait well. Select a good bait, sure, but don’t chase it around the well, making other anglers wait. Get a good healthy bait and step away from the tank while you hook it. Keep your rod cradled under your arm so no one is endangered by the rod tip, and keep the bait-getting process moving. One selfish angler can delay several others from getting a fair chance at the fish, especially early in the season when tuna aren’t staying with the boat more than a moment or two. That’s common courtesy.
Back to the chase: Our albacore fishing day lasted until sunset. As the afternoon came to a close on one of the year’s longest days, we got more stops for a few fish. I checked the trollers to see what the fish were biting on those many stops. Mostly the hot jigs were Mexican Flag and Zuchinni Zucker’s, a Catchy Spinnerhead in Mean Joe green, and other jetheads and Tuna Clones in bright colors.
Right at sunset we had our second-best bite of the day, for at least a dozen albacore. I got one of the last when it bit way up swell. I was pleased to fight it midship and from the bow without fear of tangles. That last longfin made me so happy I didn’t care if the dang fish bled all over me while Leif took my picture. I was satisfied, and very tired.
Next day was our last to fish, and only for a short while, as we were scheduled to dock at 5:30 AM during a bicycle triathlon. We tried an area to the north where Randy Toussaint had caught some better-sized bluefin a few days ago, in 61-degree green water. We looked for over an hour before Ramirez and his crew found a foamer.
We pulled up on the boiling tuna, and we could see jumpers of at least two sizes up to 60 pounds or so, pursuing some sort of small bait. Deckhand Derek Waldman was on the ball enough to get a few shots with his Nikon, and one showed a bluefin out of the water. No bluefin bit the trolled jigs as we slid in on the school, which submerged immediately. We did hook two fish, though, and both were decked. I took photos of Mark Dorton and Mike Rangel with their bluefin.
We were done for the trip a short while later, and skipper Mike Ramirez pointed the bow of the Excel toward San Diego and home. He served us our last meal at sea that evening, the traditional dinner of prime rib, nicely cooked by Guyot and presented to us with all the fixin’s. An appreciative group gave the skipper a good hand right after dinner, in recognition of his efforts and fish-finding abilities.
One of the giveaway 4/0 ringed Mustad hooks produced first place for Jessica Diaz of San Bernadino. She tied it straight to her 60-pound rental outfit on a dropper loop with a sardine and caught a 46.4-pound yellowtail with it. The rest of the gear included a TLD 30 reel, Big Game line and a Seeker 6470 H rod. She said the big jack gave her a half-hour tussle.
Bill Rinkes of 29 Palms won second place for a 44.2-pound yellowfin, and reel-winner Mike Reader of Torrance won third place for a 42-pound Alijos yellowfin tuna.
Thanks to Ingrid Poole and her assistants Betty and Kathy for our invitation to take this exceptional trip, and to the crew of the Excel for making it work out the way it did: Mike Ramirez, Derek Waldman, Brandon Wilke, Jeff Bunde, Scott Shurko and Jake Phillips. For the great eats, thanks to Jim Guyot and Rene Sanchez.
Captains Justin Fleck and Mike Ramirez
(619) 223-7493 - Fisherman’s Landing