When Tim Ekstrom told me August 10 about the bluefin going on the bite some 140 miles south, he added, “We’re going out tonight on a day and a half. Why don’t you come along?”
“I’d love to,” I replied, “but you can sell out and make more money without me aboard.”
“We’ll be lucky to get out with 16 or 17,” he said. “We might not even get out.”
So I signed on with Tracy Toussaint, the Royal Star’s office manager.
“By two p.m. we were full up,” she told me at the dock. As I suspected, there were many anglers waiting for a chance to get some biting tuna in a season that’s seen very little of the sort.
Co-owner-skipper Randy Toussaint left early, before dark, because we had to make 140 miles to get to the break where Ekstrom had left ‘em biting two days earlier. The afterdeck hummed with the activity of anglers setting up multiple rigs of 30, 40 and 50 pound strength. Seas were almost calm, with a very small swell and a light ruffle on the water.
In the morning, way down the line, we were still sailing on pleasant seas in a light breeze. It was a couple of hours after gray light when we neared the tuna area. We stopped to check out a large kelp and were rewarded with a hot dorado bite that found some anglers still resting in their bunks. Everyone awake got at least one, though it looked like more were lost than decked, as the berserk “flats” rushed everywhere, leaping and tangling lines. The fish appeared to be the same eight-to 12-pounders I saw at 200 miles a week earlier.
Skipper Toussaint took us away shortly, without making a second pass at the paddy. The fish weren’t large, and we weren’t after the flats. We wanted tuna.
When I asked our group for signed permissions and gave everyone a calendar the night before, I told anglers aboard I had three prizes: one for the first decent baitfish (which excluded the dorado), one for the jackpot, and one more, intended for a drawing. We never had time for a drawing, so I gave that prize, a softcover version of my book At The Rail, to the angler who had the next best accomplishment, which was determined later.
Not long after we crossed the break we were looking for (about three-tenths of a degree), we got stopped on a blind jig strike by yellowfin tuna. A green and silver Zucker’s skirted jig brought the school to the boat for a free for all. The first baitfish earned one of the prizes, a hardcover version of At The Rail. That tuna was caught by Greg VandenOrdel of Irvine, a six-foot, nine-inch gentleman, a resource specialist at Willmore Elementary, working with kids who have problems with math and other subjects.
Greg tends to make his fish look small, and he told me he played center at Chapman when he was in college. I wondered if he hadn’t done some pitching, too. As it turned out, Greg’s day of fishing accomplishment was far from over.
The yellowfin bite was hot. The fish rushed the boat, and hung around 15 or 20 minutes. The bite had the same aspects of a fire drill the dorado produced, and plenty of fish were lost to tangles and burn-offs. The spunky little yellowfin were mostly 12 to 20 pounds with a few larger.
The fish were put down in the refrigerated seawater hold, and when the bite ended we continued on. Our next trolling stop produced some jigfish and only two baitfish, both yellowfin.
Then things changed again, when every troller (with skirted jigs, no less!) got bit and the school came to the boat. They were bluefin! These tuna were even more aggressive than the yellowfin; something I hadn’t seen for 15 years or more. At first I thought they were just hanging around the boat, so I fished stealthily by making long casts with fluorocarbon and ringed hooks. The casts were met with immediate takes.
Then, as I brought a fresh bait to the rail, it flipped off and fell in two feet from the hull. Half a dozen tuna rushed out from under the stern, competing for the frantic sardine. The bluefin were staying up, right under the boat. You didn’t have to cast a nosehooked sardine. Just dropping a belly-hooked bait over the side brought an instant strike. We needed all the help we could get from second skipper Brian Sims, crewmen Gregg Tanji, Blake Wasano and Paul Caramao. The gaffing, tagging and untangling got so hot cooks Drew Rivera and Justin Jackson came out to lend a hand.
After a summer of no tuna, this was nirvana for fishermen on the Star. Some limited at the stop on bluefin of 12 to 25 pounds. The bite lasted the better part of an hour. We were nearly exhausted, and enjoyed a fine, man-sized lunch of corned beef and cabbage.
Later we had a couple more bluefin stops, with enough fish to finish out our limits of five. These stops also produced some larger bluefin of 30 to 40 pounds or more. Some of those came on sardines or fresh-frozen squid sunk with slip sinkers. Nacho Camarena of Oceanside got one with a slip sinker. Dan Esmay of Alpine bagged two of those nice big bluefin. For that he won a softcover copy of At The Rail.
But the real story came while we were working on those larger models, when VandenOrden brought up a powerful fish on 30-pound line and a long rod. The 58-pounder took a black and purple dart. It was an opah, the first one I’ve seen brought aboard the boat I was fishing on in my angling career. It fought hard and long. We didn’t know what it was until we saw it 60 feet down, and it resisted for another 15 minutes after we saw it.
An opah; what a prize! I took video of the end of the fight, and many still photos of the fish onboard. I expect it will make next year’s calendar. I gave Greg the jackpot prize of a bag full of my sponsor’s products: Salas jigs, Mustad hooks and baitmakers, Seaguar fluorocarbon, decals and various other fishing tackle items.
We spent the rest of our afternoon pioneering for the fleet in a leisurely way, motoring outside in warm water and then heading north toward home under the expert guidance of Captain Randy Toussaint, who called in with our fish count, reporting to his partner Tim Ekstrom we had caught an “Oprah.”
Most of us had our fish picked up at the dock by Fisherman’s Processing, and were offered same day fish, cut and wrapped. Some, like my fishing pal Steve Mawhinney of La Jolla, took bluefin home to cut, freeze and smoke. Steve was one of the unlucky anglers who missed the dorado bite, snoozing in his bunk.
“I thought they said we wouldn’t get there for another hour or two,” he said.
“You snooze, you lose,” I told him. But we really had no losers on this trip, during the first slam-bang tuna bite of the season, initiated by the Pacific Queen the day before I got my invite from Royal Star skipper Tim Ekstrom.
That night I was the one snoozing. So tired from all that fish-catching, I went to bed early, and missed the yellowtail dinner prepared by Drew and Justin. In the morning we arrived at Fisherman’s Landing after several hours of cruising on a grease-calm ocean. I heard there had been a bluefin bite at the Coronados on live squid. Maybe the bite will go off everywhere, now.
The Royal Star’s website reported, “A great all around day of angling in nice weather made for a memorable 1 1/2 day for all aboard. Nice scratching most of the day on various jig strikes and kelps with a wide-open hour-long bite on the bluefin tuna being the highlight. We ended up with limits on the bluefin, 35 yellowfin tuna, 21 dorado, five yellowtail and one opah. The bulk of the bluefin tuna were 12 to 20 pounds but we did have one stop that produced five from 37 to 45 pounds.”
Tim Ekstrom was right on when he told me the fish were biting and invited me aboard Royal Star. I’d like to thank him and Randy and the crew for their very professional assistance to all anglers aboard, and for the opportunity to be there at what is likely the real beginning of this year’s tuna season.
Captains Tim Ekstrom, Randy Toussaint and Brian Sims
(619) 224-4764 - Fisherman’s Landing