When talking to anglers around the world about billfish, Southern California rarely comes up in the conversation. But when looking at the history of the Southern California Bight, which includes the Channel and Coronado islands and Isla de Todos Santos, the vast region has produced some world-class fishing for species such as California yellowtail and white seabass, as well as many migratory offshore species.
The cyclical history of these various fisheries is ever-changing. Some years we have incredible striped marlin fishing, and it’s difficult to predict what the upcoming season has in store. I have spent my life fishing these waters, and a lot of time is dedicated to our summer striped marlin migration, which is based on the scientific evidence that shows two bodies of fish: one that moves north from southern Baja, and another that travels from Hawaii.
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Channel Island Stripes
I’ve found that the best months for shots at stripeys is August through November, exploring a wide variety of offshore seamounts, with the Channel Islands offering great anchorages. These islands truly are a picturesque destination, with predominantly mild weather and a temperate climate. I would speculate that the majority of the striped marlin we see are, on average, much larger than many other locations, excluding New Zealand. While we don’t get the volume of marlin compared with Magdalena Bay or even some other Southern Baja hotspots, we do have a great fishery that would spark the interest of any angler looking for a unique Californian experience.
Historically, the Southern California marlin fishery dead-baited flying fish—the wings and mouth sewn with a bridled hook and trolled between 6 and 7 knots. Flying fish are abundant here, and to this day, they are the bait of choice for both marlin and bluefin tuna.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that live bait changed the SoCal striped marlin game forever. The first report came from well-known California captain Jock Albright. He was trolling the traditionally rigged flying fish offshore when Jim Donnelly, owner of the 33-foot Owens Brigantine named El Professor, along with a Cabo San Lucas native deckhand, flew past them at full speed headed to a group of tailing stripeys, his deckhand on the bow ready to cast a live mackerel at the fish. At that time, the southern Baja fleet was utilizing some live-bait techniques, but it was, in that moment, that many fishermen’s approach to targeting striped marlin changed. And soon, they were outfitting their boats with high-capacity baitwells and bow rails, with some boats even installing tanks and rod holders on the bow to make casting to a tailing, feeding or sleeping marlin a more streamlined process.
Mackerel are abundant in California’s waters and relatively easy to catch. They are also hardy. Trolling lures were also part of the arsenal, although simple—essentially a lead head with a skirt and feathers. The lures were lackluster at best, with virtually no action compared with the advanced resin-and-composite lures of today’s standards. The combination of trolling lures and casting live baits was quite effective in turning the sport into a visual fishery. Now captains and crews spend endless hours with stabilized binoculars glued to their faces, and a typical day spent targeting striped marlin starts with a standard five-lure spread with squid chains or dredges while looking endlessly for any signals of surface-feeding pods of stripeys. Nevertheless, the preferred method for most of the fleet is live bait, and unlike most billfish destinations that utilize dead, rigged ballyhoo, California fishermen use them in conjunction with live-bait casting or choose to pitch them for the bait-and-switch, but undoubtedly, live mackerel provide the best hookup-to-catch ratio.
Bring In the Bluefin
In 2015, Southern California had several amazing things happen. In conjunction with a powerful El Niño pattern, the month of September ushered in blue marlin, shortbill spearfish, wahoo, dorado, and yellowtail and bluefin tuna ranging from 60 to 300 pounds—in full force. It was really unbelievable, and 2015 would mark the return of bluefin in a way that was comparable only to the early 1900s, when members of the Tuna Club of Avalon, located on the east side of Santa Catalina Island, bested these fish on antique tackle.
Early 21st-century anglers were trolling Marauders along the coastal fathom curve for wahoo but getting spooled by 400- to 600-pound blue marlin. Undergunned, teams had to quickly adapt their tackle and techniques to capitalize on these opportunities. And because change simply doesn’t happen quickly in this region, those who were able to do so were also rewarded with historical days on the water targeting bluefin.
Skipping Yummee artificial flyers from a kite prevails in this resurfaced fishery. Tackle shops had a hard time stocking 50-wide reels, kites and helium balloons, as well as the terminal tackle to go with it, and it was difficult and frustrating for many anglers who wanted to catch these bluefin for the first time. Our traditional small-tuna tactics were simply not good enough for the big fish, and while we could count on migrations of small yellowfin and albacore, where a 20- or 30-pound rod outfit with a lively sardine was all one needed to put some fish in the boat, all of that went out the window when the bluefin moved in.
I vividly remember the first day we spotted a school of 100- to 250-pound bluefin foaming on the surface as they gorged on anchovies. It was a football field in size and raging with white water. The excitement was overwhelming. We sent out a kite with a 36-inch helium balloon attached to combat the lack of wind. Using a Yummee rigged with back-to-back 9/0 J hooks, we approached the school from downwind—a common technique used to target yellowfin from Cabo San Lucas to Puerto Vallarta and out to the Revillagigedo Islands. We had experience doing this, and it paid off with the bluefin. As we got to the school, we slowed down to 8 knots, skipping the flyer aggressively with the rod in hand. Just as the bait got in the zone, a 200-pound bluefin came from behind, fully airborne, and inhaled the bait; we were on. We ended the day with four fish in the 200-pound class. It was the beginning of something special.
Fast-forward a few more years: The big-tuna techniques were no longer a mystery, and soon, many anglers and charter captains had evolved into bluefin experts, capitalizing on the fishery with kites. This method was as effective as it could be, simply because of just how boat-shy these fish could be. Many did well running to the frothing fish at full speed and casting large poppers into the school, but they rapidly learned that a long casting rod, or “jig stick,” was a painful way to best a bluefin of any size. The West Coast fishery has a long history with casting lures such as surface irons on long rods with conventional reels, but we have a culture here that is proud of this style, and it offers a wide range of potential, but the more this fishery evolved, the more fishermen took to kite-fishing just to be successful.
Kite-fishing for bluefin, however, was not something new. Members of the Avalon Tuna Club used kites with natural flying fish in the early 1900s, catching them on wooden or bamboo rods with 1-to-1 gear-ratio reels, poor drag systems, and linen or Dacron line. It wasn’t long before anglers realized that flying fish was the absolute best bait to target bluefin, long before an industry came to life. Today, companies that catch and package flying fish sell them for a premium. On average, a single flying fish costs about $30, which sounds insane, but when people realized how effective it was, they couldn’t buy them fast enough. Rigging a natural flying fish with its wings slightly open using a wooden skewer, a large J hook though the body near the wing socket, and followed by a 7/0 treble-hook trailer is a common technique—but it is no small task. There had to be a better way.
This present-day fishery has sparked creative thinking and innovation. My personal favorite is the advent of the handcrafted California Flyer—an uber-realistic update to the artificial Yummee version. An idea brought to life by avid fisherman and lure-maker Jazz Moorhead from Costa Mesa, he wanted to create a synthetic flying fish that would take the place of the overpriced and not-always-available natural bait. He spent hundreds of hours developing this one-of-a-kind lure, essentially creating a taxidermy-quality copy of a flying fish caught at San Clemente Island. Moorhead found a way to mold and pour it, similar to other rubber soft baits. A prototype was born, and he began the thought process of function and then figuring out the best way to attach a hook rig.
Knowing the amount of energy these bluefin bring to the bite, Moorhead chose to make the detachable wings out of a polycarbonate that could hold up to this intensity but which could also be easily replaced if broken. The wings are affixed to the body of the lure by slots and held in place with carbon-fiber locking pins. A channel was created along the top of the lure to accommodate a 9/0 to 11/0 Jobu J hook and a trailing treble or single hook near the tail. The hooks are held in place with clear rubber bands, so when the tuna bites, the rubber bands break, hooking the fish and allowing the lure to slide up the main line. Protruding from the top of the lure head, a fixed hoop allows you to quickly run another leader under it, reattach a new hook-rig leader to the main line, and send the lure back out once the fish is landed. This changed everything: a completely simple, lifelike synthetic flying fish flown from a kite that can be used over and over again.
What really makes the California Flyer a weapon is that you can kite-troll it up to 8 knots and present it just like a natural flying fish—something we couldn’t do with the natural flyers because they are delicate and easily fall apart. When used correctly, it resembles the real thing almost exactly. It looks just like a frightened flying fish skipping and flying away from danger. From below, the tuna see an exact profile and color of a live flying fish, and they can’t help but pile on. It is my No. 1 go-to for targeting the larger California bluefins, and it has proved successful in fisheries all over the world for yellowfin as well. Our bluefin season is April through November, with the peak being in September and October. There are many charter operations in the SoCal area that offer top-quality service and specialize in targeting these amazing tunas. It is an unforgettable experience and something that anyone who likes the thrill of offshore fishing should try.
And finally, you can’t talk about Southern California without acknowledging the broadbill swordfish. It is, without a doubt, the one fish that fills our hearts with passion and our dreams with purpose. Purple fever is real, and we have an amazing history regarding the swordfish. The most swordfish-obsessed is the commercial harpoon fleet. Dating back 100 years, captains and crews have targeted, with harpoons, swordfish swimming on the surface. The waters of the Southern California Bight are temperate with steep thermoclines, and unlike many other locations, the swordfish here spend a significant amount of time on the surface digesting and resting.
California’s present-day harpoon fleet is just a fraction of what it was 30 or 40 years ago, and many boats of all shapes and sizes have taken cues from the harpooners, with owners outfitting them with planks that extend off the bow. The commercial boat’s planks are designed for one crewman to stand, harpoon in hand, waiting for the captain to give him the perfect shot. There is no arguing that harpoon-fishing is the most selective and sustainable method to take swordfish. With zero bycatch and the ability to target larger, more valuable fish, it is indeed a team effort: The harpooner is only as good as his captain, and so on. It takes a skilled captain to maneuver a boat within harpoon distance of a swimming sword, let alone finding the perfect one on the surface in the first place. The one holding the harpoon has the weight of the world on their shoulders, but it is the most exciting and nerve-racking experience of them all.
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I recall becoming sick with adrenaline overload as it coursed through my veins after I stuck my first sword. It was overwhelming but amazing at the same time. As the fishery developed, scouting planes began to play a role, and it became common practice to have a small, single-engine Cessna be your eyes in the sky—spotting and guiding you to the fish.
I’m confident that you have a real chance at catching a sword year-round here, but before deep-dropping took hold, the only recreational chance at a West Coast swordfish would be if you were to find one on the surface and present a bait by either casting or trolling one past him. However, most of these attempts are ignored, and the fish moves on. But for those who have been lucky enough to experience a responding swordfish, this method results in some amazing battles. I have cast live baits at several swordfish with no response, but it’s always a thrill.
While deep-dropping for swords is relatively new to California, it’s here to stay, and has resulted in some real milestones for recreational fishermen, who took the commercial-fishing fleet’s successful methods—some from around the world, some from South Florida’s original sword gurus—and applied them to their own fishery. It took some figuring out, especially when it came to where to set up. The California Bight is loaded with offshore banks that potentially hold swords, but looking at satellite imagery to determine temperature breaks and chlorophyll concentrations is often your best bet for a connection, especially during the fall months.
So, if you’ve ever wondered about the potential that Southern California has to deliver the ultimate offshore experience using the most up-to-date techniques for its fisheries, wonder no more. From pods of striped marlin to broadbills to bluefins, you can’t help but crush on Cali.
This article originally appeared in the April/May issue of Marlin.