Historic Year for Fishing off Southern California

A major El Niño brings unprecedented action to California anglers.


Rewriting State History

A warm winter and drought conditions brought early warm waters to the Southern California bight region in 2014, and the first yellowtail of the season were caught off San Diego in January. Though not an eye-opening occurrence, a few large “home-guard” fish are typically caught in winter, but this time, the numbers were higher and the fish were sizable — the first sign that 2014 could possibly be “an ’83.” In mid-May, I took a fishing/free-diving -expedition to San Clemente Island and our spearfishing group sighted several 50-pound bluefin tuna just off Pyramid Point on the east end of the island. This was obviously the hot dinner-conversation topic, and several marine biologists were on board discussing the ramifications of this discovery. By late May, early June, these bluefin were being caught by boats fishing the offshore banks, and everyone noted the mass quantity of bait -present in these waters. At the same time, yellowtail schools in northern Baja and Southern California were encountered “foaming” on small baits and krill. This news sent social media buzzing, and the local landings were preparing for what was being called the “Gold Rush” of 2014. The fishing frenzy was on. Photo by Will Drost

The Big Fish Arrive

With July in full swing, yellowfin tuna showed up at the party and immediately made themselves welcome at the buffet table. In late July, the first striped marlin was caught, and we all knew the planets were aligning for something very special to happen. By August, the fishing exploded and everyone with a boat that could float 10 miles out and back was going to catch tuna, and lots of them. Birds piled up over these voracious schools of yellowfin, and every conceivable stringer of floating kelp was holding yellowtail, dorado, yellowfin and the occasional bluefin. Tuna fever resulted, an ailment that turned non-anglers into avid participants, and people were doing whatever it took to rig up a live-bait tank and get it offshore. Fishing with Capt. Bob Woodard on his 24-foot cuddy-cabin skiff, we passed an inboard/outboard, 20-foot family-style ski boat at the 9-mile bank with three elderly gents and two rods trolling feathers for a hopeful tuna hookup. Much to their surprise, a 120-pound striped marlin climbed on their feather and gave them the thrill of their lives. Stories like this circulated daily on the blogs and helped fuel a fire that as of this writing has not been extinguished. Photo by Richard Herrmann

Once-in-a-Lifetime Exotics

Having phenomenal fishing not seen for the last 30 years is surely newsworthy, but the real history made in California in 2014 came in the form of fish not known to inhabit California waters for the last 80-plus years. One species had reportedly never been seen off Southern California before. It was late August and the sheer numbers of schooling 20- to 30-pound yellowfin combined with 75-77 degree waters located on some fishy offshore terrain had marlin aficionados mumbling about the possibility of seeing some blue marlin hooked up. That is exactly what happened. Many large marlin were getting hooked on 30- to 50-pound outfits and 150-pound leaders rigged for striped marlin, but they were either snapped off after four- to six-hour battles, or reels simply got spooled and the fish were lost within the first few minutes. The first such story came from Bill Buchanan of Cousins Rod Company and Sevenstrand lure fame. Fishing with Capt. Jock Albright aboard his 44-foot Pacifica KEA KAI, the pair trolled a lure spread for striped marlin about 5 miles east of Catalina the last weekend of August. A rigger bite ensued, with everyone assuming it to be the target species. "After the initial strike, it fluffed off, and while we were trying to pitch it a live mackerel, the fish came back on the same lure," Buchanan says. "What we saw was like a scene from Jaws: A huge mouth engulfed the lure, and the 30-pound outfit was dumping line at an alarming rate." An estimated 400-pound blue started greyhounding past the boat, and they knew it was the fish of a lifetime. "We were running it down at speed but could not keep up," Buchanan continues. "She snapped us off within minutes, but we chased it for a quarter mile at 20 knots as it kept leaping for the horizon." Like the first discovery of a large gold nugget in 1847, this news rang phones and lit up emails, and the quest to land the first blue marlin since 1931 was suddenly on the radar of several accomplished marlin teams. Photo by Will Drost

'Hoo History

But before that piece of history would be recorded, another catch surprised biologists as well as fishermen. In early September, Capt. George Garrett and angler Eric Lim were trolling a lure spread for tuna aboard the 35-foot Cabo Joker. A short corner ripping bite on a Rapala X-Rap 20 with no wire rigging went from being a suspected yellowfin tuna to a 51-pound wahoo! They caught the fish 28 miles out of Newport Beach and weighed it at the Balboa Angling Club, becoming the first wahoo catch ever recorded off California. This fish was soon to be -followed by hundreds more in the coming weeks as anglers headed offshore rigged with wire to target these speedsters. Encountered in roving packs, wahoo became an almost daily catch offshore, and they were sizable ones at that — averaging 50 pounds — with a new state record wahoo of 84.3 pounds caught by Alex Dupre. Knowing history was being written and wanting to be a part of it, captains Steve Lassley and Pete Groesbeck joined forces to coax owner Anthony Hsieh of the 92-foot Jones Goodell yacht _Bad Company _to rig up properly and bring a blue marlin to the scales for a final confirmation of their -presence in our waters. Joined by anglers Ron Ashimine and Eliseo Rodriguez, and following the knowledge that the swordfish-spotter planes were seeing two to three blue marlin a day each week before the full moon in early October, they set sail a few days after the moon and pulled a spread of certified blue marlin lures on 130s. Having not even reached their intended destination offshore, they hooked up early in the day. The Elkins Bonzoid lure fished in the short corner went off and it was game on. When Groesbeck stuck it perfectly in the shoulder and they pulled it through the transom door, they all knew this was going to be a fish of historic stature. Weighed by scale master Rosie Cadman on the Avalon pier, a place where fishing history has been made since 1898, the blue marlin scaled an impressive 462 pounds. It was like the “shot heard round the world” for it firmly placed California on the map as a blue marlin location. Lassley was adamant when he said, “Had a more concerted effort been made by the marlin fleet to use heavier gear and bigger lures during the pre-full moon of October, the number of blue marlin catches would have been in the dozens.” The fish ranged between 300 and 600 pounds, the size blue that would be actively feeding on the 25-pound-class yellowfin tuna that were so prevalent in the Southern California area in 2014. Photo by Bill Boyce

Stripers on Parade

Not to be overlooked, the striped marlin bite off Southern California was astronomical as well. Many boats had multiple fish days and while filming an episode of the new California TV series for the World Fishing Network, both Steve Behrens, owner of Joker, and I got doubled-up on pitched live mackerel while fishing 12-pound, old-style Dacron lines. Mine parted ways early in the fight, but Behrens expertly caught and released a respectable 130-pound striped marlin on the archaic tackle. The marlin fishing went full tilt the next day when the quantities of bait we were fishing the previous day got pushed up and onto a shallow shelf off the east end of Catalina. Trapped in only 300 feet of water and surrounded by a horde of hungry striped marlin, the bite went off. Boats were getting double-digit bites and landing three to six fish per boat. A bite more typical of Cabo San Lucas occurred right here in Southern California. Photo by Bill Boyce

Other Crazy Encounters

Doug Kern, the manager of Fisherman’s Landing in San Diego, was lucky enough to get out of the showroom and on the water, where he and several other local anglers put bluefin tuna to 100 pounds on the decks, and they hooked and released several marlin. He recalled several stories of striped marlin being caught on live sardines being fished on kelp paddies for yellowtail and dorado. Equally surprised was underwater photographer Richard Herrmann, who was shooting photos of pelagics on the kelp paddies off San Diego. He photographed a yellowfin swimming under a paddy that had scraped bill marks all over its sides. Moments later, a 400-pound blue marlin swam just a few feet from his camera. Having nailed the shot, it was readily apparent the blue was in pursuit of that tuna, now using Herrmann’s body as a protective shield. The presence of other exotics, such as tripletail, sea turtles, spearfish, tropical sunfish and huge hammerhead sharks, was also recorded by reliable sources, making 2014 a banner year in California. As of this writing, the bluefin and yellowfin tuna are still present in vast numbers on the Tanner and Cortes banks off San Diego, and boats are getting limits into Thanksgiving weekend. Yellowtail are still being caught every day, but the wahoo and dorado finally decided to take a swim south. It has been an amazing year, and, hopefully, the next piece of history to be written of the 2014 El Niño will be the record snow and rainfall precipitation that the state desperately needs. Though a curse to those dodging the destructive hurricanes of El Niño occurrences, we here in California will always welcome the little boy home. May he return sometime soon. Photo by Bill Boyce
"What we saw was like a scene from Jaws: A huge mouth engulfed the lure, and the 30-pound outfit was dumping line at an alarming rate." Photo by Bill Boyce
The tunas often schooled around kelp beds where boats ranging from small ­center-consoles to party boats ­targeted them. Photo by Richard Herrmann
The tunas often schooled around kelp beds where boats ranging from small ­center-consoles to party boats ­targeted them. Photo by Bill Boyce
Angler Anthony Hsieh landed the first blue marlin caught off SoCal since 1931 aboard his 92-foot Jones Goodell, Bad Company. Photo by Bill Boyce