Team Bad To The Bone Hauls Away the Hardware

 

8/28/12

To say Team Bad To The Bone had a good tournament season would be a huge understatement.

The success of any good tournament team starts with planning and discussions on where to fish as well as the tactics to be used. This team came together four years ago when it seemed I was always looking for a new crew for each tournament. While at the same time Stephen Seal and Anthony Warren had found their new passion – chasing albacore but they too were also struggling to put together a team for each of the Oregon Tuna Classic tournaments. Stephen had been to one of my tuna seminars and as luck would have it we ran into each other again while in Sitka Alaska fishing and the beginnings of a new friendship emerged which would later lead to more fishing trips and discussions of merging our teams and as they say “the rest is history”.

A few 2nd and 3rd place finishes along the way with a few Big Fish trophies to our credit but the 1st place bragging rights have eluded us by mere ounces on more than one occasion. Elusive no more as we left Ilwaco early Friday morning on BOOYAA. We were more intent than ever on securing that top spot. Our honey hole had been scouted our earlier in the week and was 35 miles southwest and waiting for us. About 30 miles out we came across half the Ilwaco charter fleet and most were dead in the water on live bait stops. We pulled the throttles back and got the gear ready to deploy but had to wait five very long minutes for the mandatory 7:30am lines in so as not to violate tournament rules. A little jumpy and excited to see all the boats dead in the water we couldn’t wait and at 7:31am the first lure went into the water.

Archer bar on the long rigger with a Zuker zucchini broomtail trailing then an Eat Me Lures Mexican flag inside on the short rigger and a pink & white Ballyhood Albacore Allstar on the flat line clip off the corner. The other side had a similar spread and down the middle was a new lure yet to be mentioned but very deadly on previous trips this season. I’ll talk more about it this winter during one of my seminars because you’re going to want one, for sure.

 

We picked off a few fish here and there while trying to convert the hookup into a live bait stop and were adding a couple fish to the box on every stop. We graded each fish as it came over the rail and after awhile determined we were not catching tournament grade fish and needed to move to a new location. Right here is where a good tournament team separates itself from the pack. You have to be willing to stop fishing while in the middle of a wide open live bait stop and move to a new location in hopes of bigger fish. Some teams get the bite wide open and if the fish are coming over the rail they’re happy but just catching fish doesn’t work on tournament day. Leaving fish to find fish just doesn’t seem right but that’s exactly what we did.

 We turned the boat in the direction of our original intended location, just a few miles away, and went on the hunt for bigger fish. We’d put the lines and they were hungry and chomping still catching fish as we went but prepared to stop if the size of fish got better. Soon we were making circles on the honey hole barely getting a line in the water before zzzzzzzzzzz and we’d go into convert mode trying to get the troll stop converted into a wide open live bait bite. Someone would scatter a scoop of live bait over the water while others were getting mr squiggly hooked up and over the rail to entice a bite and within seconds a silver bullet would streak by taking the bait, “hooked up”. Those words are music to any angler and they rolled out like a choir singing amazing grace. We were in harmony with the fish gods. One rod over the other rod under and chasing our fish – we were doing the dance although sometimes it seemed like we were weaving a mess but we had it down. It was like a well oiled machine get’er done. Once in awhile we’d bust a fish off and you’d only have to reach into the salon for another rigged rod, bait it up and send it over the rail to hook up within seconds then go right back into the dance.

At 3:30 we shut down the fishing machine that is “Team Bad To The Bone” and turned the 53 foot Riviera towards our next destination, Garibaldi and the weigh in. We had a 48 mile run and didn’t want to waste this effort by missing the deadline.

We crossed the OTC demarcation line with 20 minutes to spare and pulled up to the fuel dock as we waited for other boats to offload their catch of the day. Putting 525 gallons of fuel onboard gave us plenty of time to pull 45 tuna out of the fish box carefully sorting and weighing the bigger ones. The fuel nozzle was slow and we were worn out. A few minutes later our five heaviest fish hit the scale at 124.70 pounds.

Tired and sore from reeling in 45 fish we washed the boat and checked our gear prepping it for the next day. Weddy and Megan represented us at the captains meeting while Anthony and I replaced a few top shots and hooks. Soon the gear was ready for the next day and we set down to a great flat iron steak dinner prepared by Anthony on the back deck. We discussed strategy for the next day and agreed, based on what others had experienced, we really needed to go back to the same place the next day.

 

Sleep came easy but morning arrived way too fast as we rolled out at 5:00am and once we were loaded up with live bait we pulled out of port.

I truly believe you have to have a very strong will to succeed since it seems we’ve had a few obstacles with each of the tournaments. As with any new boat with lots of systems they tend to have a few bugs to work out in the first year and we experienced an electrical issue with the heating system tripping a breaker so we did the next best thing – we improvised. We borrowed a hair dryer from Megan and now we had ourselves a new defroster for the first few miles. His name was Anthony.

The plan for day two was to run back to where we had been the day before which was easier said than done. Nothing like running straight into a sporty ocean with wind and swells coming out of the northwest and taking occasional spray over the top of the fly bridge 25 feet above the water.

Three hours later we arrived at the honey hole to find green murky water pushed in by the strong northwest swell and wind. Oh well, no one ever said tournament fishing was easy. We went on the hunt for cleaner water working west and a little north. That hunt didn’t take long as we got a report of a defined color break from green to blue only a few miles away and in twenty minutes we were hooked up and proceeded to put 20 fish on the deck in the first stop. We kept them going in spite of drifting back into the green water a few miles and were fortunate enough to pick up a 34.7 pound green water hog which would later win the Big Fish pot.

 

The bite eventually died and we quickly ran back up to where we originally hooked up. We barely had two rods in the water when we hooked up again and it was on all over again. We were back in our zone and the machine was running smooth. “Welcome to the dark side” never had a truer meaning. It wasn’t as stellar as some of our previous trips but we were making it happen. This time another 23 fish went into the box and the grade of fish seemed a little better than the day before.

Thoroughly worn out we felt confident as we turned the big boat for home and was looking forward to a smooth ride downhill to Garibaldi. Once the fish were offloaded and weighed we jumped on the task of cleaning up the boat before relaxing with a few cocktails on the back deck.

A mixture of 90’s country music and soft rock floated through the boat while Weddy fixed her well known meal of marinated Greek lamb chops, Greek salad and honey roasted corn.

Sunday the day started out with a mandatory polygraph given to all the top finishers for each day of competition. And in spite of being the guy that wrote the questions for the test you’d think I would breeze right though it – and I did but I still got nervous. Did we properly bleed all those fish..? I heard everyone got nervous on that one. When the action is fast and furious on the back deck it wouldn’t be hard to miss bleeding a fish.

We arrived at the tent anxious to hear the results and didn’t have to wait long before learning we had won the Friday competition then had to set through the auction before hearing what we were waiting for and was a little surprised by our efforts.

By the numbers here’s how it went…88 tuna caught for 2 days, 78 tuna donated to the food bank, 1st place Friday – 2ND place Saturday –winners of Saturdays Big Fish competition – winners of the Garibaldi Tournament Champions and 2012 OTC Tournament Series Champions winning the official invite to the IGFA Offshore World Championships in Costa Rica next spring. $3,700 in prize money all donated back to the food bank – $3,000 worth of Shimano Terez rods, Talica & Trinidad reels with line as Tournament Champions. Not sure what were going to do with those since were sponsored by DAIWA. All in all 5 separate trophies for 2 days of competition and add that to our 2 trophies from Ilwaco and the tally – 7 trophies for the 2012 OTC season. We went into this season tied with one other team for winning 5 trophies over the last 5 years but that has now changed a little.

We may have taken most of the trophies but the food bank was the real winners with over 16,000lbs of tuna donated this season.

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Wide Open Tuna

In the quiet serene of the early morning, long before the sun comes and most people are still soundly sleeping, the day of a tuna fisherman is underway. The welcome sound of water rippling across the boats hull and the low rumble of the motors piercing the darkness is music to our ears as we gently make our way out of the harbor. The intent for two of my buddies is to be on the tuna grounds at the break of daylight to get into some early morning fishing action.

Preparation began the night before as my crew rolled into the Oregon coastal town of Garibaldi and over dinner with my crew members, we discussed the boats leaving the dock before daylight and head out to sea. My crew and I easily made the decision to allow our buddies to leave before us. After all this was not a tournament day and with my years of experience while chasing albacore I knew we would be fine sleeping in and casually leaving port whenever it suited us, this morning it was 8:30 am. Yes I know, very few hardcore tuna guys would never be caught leaving at such an outrageous or late time.

 The Bad to the Bone crew and myself had just come off a second place finish at the Ilwaco leg of the Oregon Tuna Classic the week before, and we were hungry for another shot at the top spot going into the next tournament. There is nothing wrong with second place, but we strived for the bragging rights that accompany being number one.

The upcoming tournament would not have live bait available, so this trip was all about honing our skills working the iron and functioning in harmony as a team. When you watch successful tournament teams, each crewmember has a designated job to do and they do it well. Today we are going to define each crewmember’s position and fine-tune it to perfection. Our mission was simple – find the fish, get the bite wide open and work it like a well-oiled machine.

Getting the bite wide open, is one of those mystic feats most tuna fisherman long to experience and once achieved, it is the ultimate accomplishment. Learning how to do it consistently requires paying close attention to details then perfecting your techniques every time you are on the water. Once achieving this feat a couple times, it could be compared to running a marathon. Every one has the ability to achieve this success but only those who try will experience it, few will master it.

The fog had lifted long before we slow poked out of the harbor. Passing through the no wake zone the big Hydra Sport leaped up out of the water as the throttles found their way to the stops.  A quick hour and fifteen minutes later the boat settled to its destination 60 miles southwest of Garibaldi. Tuna Town, Cross Hairs, all monikers for the “Promised Land” for tuna fishing, or better known as 125 x 45. We stopped a few miles short of where the others said they’d be so this was a good starting point. Tuna Town is not just one spot, but an area and well known for producing good numbers of fish. The currents and upwelling’s from the sea mounds and canyons below offer a rich environment for food and warm water most of the summer. It’s an easy run from Newport or Depoe Bay, but the trek from Garibaldi will require a little more fuel and can beat you up going home if the north wind picks up. Today it was a pond with no wind, no swell and not a boat in sight.

My crew quickly deployed 4 rods and we started to troll while I called one of our buddy boats to see if they were still in the area, we were fishing. It was 9:45am as the return call informed us that they were about 5 miles from us but not having much luck and had only just landed their first fish of the morning. We agreed to stay in touch and as I hung up the microphone the corner rod began to sing – fish on!

I immediately pulled the throttles back into neutral then back into reverse. I wanted to stay close to the hooked fish. At the same moment the crew was going into our orchestrated Chinese fire drill. One person was throwing chum while the others were pitching all the available swimbait rods in the direction of the hooked fish. Once the swimbait rods were out they went into rod holders and the crew was now grabbing the iron rods and proceeded to vertical jigging. My job, as the skipper is to stop the forward momentum of the boat and back up a little just to stay close to the hooked fish. You have to be careful not to back up too far passing over the fish or worse yet, creating a mess with the still deployed trolling gear. If I can keep the boat positioned within 20-30 feet we will be in perfect position. One of the keys to this whole scenario is advanced planning of what you’re going to do when you find the fish. Questions arise; do you keep trolling to try and hook up all the rods or are you going to try to get a wide-open bite and work the fish from dead in the water? Some boats keep trolling too long and have a hard time doing both. Early in the season it may not make as much difference but once you get into August, it’s critical to stop immediately if you have any hopes of getting things going.  

As the action continued, in less than 30 seconds the swim bait rods were going bend’oh, jig rods were hooking up and the bite was now wide open. My job was to be the deck hand as I scrambled to clear troll gear and get the troll caught fish into the boat. For the next hour and 15 minutes I rotated jobs with the various crew as they would fish and then run the deck continually switching positions.

In order to keep the bite wide open someone has to run the deck. That encompasses – tossing a handful of chum about every 5 minutes or so, gaffing fish, cutting the gills, placing them in the bleed bucket and eventually getting them onto the ice in the fish box. At the same time they may have to replace a torn Fish Trap (swim bait) once in awhile or possibly a mangled assist hook when needed. Our crew is five people but it can be done with 2 or 3 as long as someone is running the deck while others are fishing. When a fish trap is replaced, the deck hand can pitch it back out and put it in a rod holder and now it’s fishing again. One of the nice things about albacore fishing is you can fish as many rods as you can handle. There is no limit other than your ability to manage what’s out. When I’m fishing with a crew of five people, I could have as many as 7-12 rods in the water at any given time that equals four people fishing and one deck hand.

Fish Traps (swim baits) with the rods in the rod holders works well while vertically jigging because they will typically drift fish out away from the boat and not fall very deep even when there’s very little wind drift. You normally won’t have to worry about them getting tangled with the people working the iron. If you have live bait available, that will add another dimension to the game. If live bait is not available but you have access to frozen or dead bait that also works well for chum and can also be fished on a live bait hook pitching it out to drift fish just like you would a Fish Trap. A word of warning: When the bite is wide open albacore will hit just about anything bobbing around so make sure the bail is set, or you could have a mess on your hands.

 

It won’t take long before you’ll be looking at each other, arms aching, blood everywhere (including all over you), the tuna will be darting everywhere under the boat and it looks like a giant aquarium at feeding time. The frantic workout that goes along with a wide open bite will soon have you shedding clothes down to your tee shirts, tank tops and even skivvies so dress in layers otherwise you’ll over heat and possibly lose a few pounds during the aerobic tuna dance. You only had to look around a little to see clothes piled everywhere this day. It’s enough to make one wonder if the phrase “Fish Naked” came from a wide-open bite.

It’s blood, guts and glory paired with pandemonium and soon you’re wondering when it’s going to stop and it may not stop for hours. In our case we usually discuss how many fish we want to keep before we even leave the dock. This was not a normal morning for us as we slept in, stopped for lattes and casually left long after the sunrise. The excitement of the Chinese fire drill was now worn off by the time we realized we hadn’t had this particular conversation. Amidst all the pandemonium I raised the question and in sequence almost immediately everyone stopped dead in their tracks. In that moment everyone froze, looking at me with one of those blank “Oh crap” stares. We quickly did our tally, how many fish for you and you and on down the line. The count for how many we had hoped to keep was far less than was already in the box. Not quite the problem you hear people complain about and no grumbling was heard as we landed what was now on the hook and immediately retrieved the other rods before they could hook up again. It’s hard to stop in the middle of a feeding frenzy, but that’s exactly what we did. Our day was done and it wasn’t even noon yet. Our first stop with just over an hour of fishing there was over 32 fish in the box.

 A few high fives, a quick drink and we began the cleaning up of the bloody carnage that was the crew and the boat. Another critical thing to remember is, do not rinse the boat until you’re done fishing or you may lose your bite and will have to move to find another school of fish. It won’t take long for the sharks to show up during a wide open bite but rinsing the boat while dead in the water whacking’em will speed up their arrival and too much blood in the water can also turn them into feeding machines sometimes leaving you with only a tuna head to reel in.

In our case we set down and took a break to cool off before cleaning things up. If you’re not the type of person that wants to stop at a mere 30 plus fish or if you just wanted more, you could easily keep going.

In many cases people lose the bite and decide to go find more fish. That is certainly one option but I would suggest you stay put, take a break and have something to drink to cool off or maybe just have a snack. What’s wrong with taking a break, the fish did and if you work it right they’ll be back and probably before your rested. If you have live bait, put out a couple rods leaving the clicker on with the bail open. They’ll let you know when their back and you’ll soon be back at it going wide open again. No live bait, don’t worry, use dead bait or a swimbait. Whatever you do, don’t rinse the boat out or you’ll have to move to another location and start over.

One of the biggest things about tuna fishing is finding the fish. So there you are working them over and all of a sudden you lose your bite. They may not have gone anywhere but down, so use your iron and go after them and bring them back up. It’s not as hard as you think, and always worth a try. If you have a lot of drift, you may have drifted out of the area that was holding fish and might just need to move back up to the original spot and get them going again. If you’re chumming and have the bite wide open they’ll follow you a long time.

Be aggressive go after them and work’em over. It will show you a whole different side of the sport that’s fun, exhilarating and a serious rush for all you adrenaline junkies. The “dark side” as we call it will get even darker and the addiction stronger.

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Odell Lake Monster Mack’s

May 1997

Traveling down the Cascades Lakes Highway I was looking forward to a couple days of fishing on Wickiup Reservoir with some buddies. You never know what to expect or who might show up from year to year. This annual fishing trip always generates wild times, a lot of laughs and a few new friendships. I’m not sure the designated tree for the beer can pile is indicative of how much fun we’ve had, but maybe the size of the pile might tell who showed up that year. We stood around the campfire catching up on the past, telling jokes and stories, while the beer flowed freely into the night. Sometimes well into the wee hours making it difficult to find a crew awake and sober enough to crawl out of their warm snug sleeping bags at the crack of dawn. The lite drinker that I am, I always try to make sure my buddy Tom Shew is along. We’ve shared many fishing trips and Dr. Pepper being his drink of choice makes mornings a little more enjoyable for both of us.

This adventure would prove to be a soggy one as a cold front was threatening with rain and snow. It was early May and in the cascades that can mean beautiful sunny weather one moment or snow blowing sideways the next. I’ve learned you have to be prepared for anything.

I was just coming off four days of guiding for Mackinaw Lake trout at Odell Lake and the fishing gods had been good to us with fantastic fishing and exceptional weather. My fingers were still tender from being in the water and around sharp teeth and fishing hooks. Four days of guiding had yielded 34 Mackinaw ranging from 8 to 31 pounds, releasing all of them for another day and creating a great start to the season.

The first day on Wickiup was typical Cascades weather. The sun shined, then it rained followed by a light snow, sleet and the wind blew. Out on the water we stayed inside the comfort of the boat canopy keeping the heater company and only went outside long enough to reel in a kokanee from time to time. Fishing was slow, as it very often can be when the wind blows, making it difficult to control the trolling speed. The water was 37 degrees and most of the peaks around still had plenty of snow covering them. When the wind came up it would pierce the layers of clothing like cold sharp steel.

By 10am we retreated to the warmth of the campfire at Gull Point Campground with only a dozen kokanee in the cooler to show for our efforts. Shivering, the warmth of the fire slowly penetrated us and soon we were debating what to do next. After a warm breakfast in our bellies, I informed my two fishing partners, Tom Shew and his buddy Gary, this kind of weather was normal for this time of year and we could pull the boat to chase Mackinaw back at Odell. Being adventurous chaps, and with no hope of getting back out on Wickiup until evening made the decision easy to make a trip to Odell Lake.

Within an hour we were on the water at Shelter Cove Resort. Tom stepped into the boat and almost tripped as he caught sight of the enormous plugs dangling from the rods and grinning with a puzzled look on his face. I smiled and remarked, “big plugs equal big fish”. These two had never fished for the monsters of the deep in Odell and didn’t have a clue of what was in store for them or what to expect. If the plugs were any indication, they were in for a big surprise.

The weather was cloudy, cold and a light breeze blowing from the west created the signs we needed for great Mackinaw fishing. The Kokanee fishermen had all surrendered to the shelter of their RV’s and we had the lake all to ourselves. As I began coating anchovy oil on the plugs, I noticed them looking at each other laughing and shaking their heads in amazement. I continued with my routine clipping the lines into the downriggers and sending the plugs into the darkness below. My companions intently observed my every move as I precisely went through the motions of the techniques I had honed. Having never experienced this type of fishing was intriguing and the duo was about to get introduced to a whole new world of chasing deep-water predators. Having only fished these monsters for two years, I was also still learning the ways of these magnificent fish and the opportunity to share this was a real treat for me as well.

We were trolling Ace High Canadian plugs made by Silver Horde for commercial salmon trollers. Attached to 4 feet of leader topped with a 6-bead chain swivel that was snapped into the main line swivel. During the early part of the season you want to put the plugs out about 100 feet behind the boat before clipping them into the downriggers and sending them into the darkness below. Once you get into June and the fish have been chased, they get a little wary and you need to let them out 125-150 feet behind the downrigger before clipping them in. Then the task of running one lure snaking along the bottom while lure number two maintains at least 10 feet above to keep from tangling can be a challenge.

If you think more is better, forget it. I’ve ran four set-ups on 4 downriggers and you’ll catch fish but you’ll have a smaller average size. If you want to catch the big boys you need to run big lures and remember their spooky. When trolling plugs like Lymans, J- Plugs and Silver Hordes it’s critical to keep your trolling speed over ground at 2.5-3mph. Too slow or too fast and the lures won’t be as effective and as these speeds you’ll also need to stay close to your downrigger to constantly be adjusting it as the bottom goes up and down. It’s a lot of work to do it right but after you land a couple of these brutes you’ll be hooked and understand what it takes to catch trophy size macks.

Mackinaw lake trout were planted in Odell Lake in the early 1900’s and because they live on the bottom and only periodically come up to feed, it takes the use of a good fish finder and a downrigger to put your bait in their feeding zone. Combine the technical difficulty of this fishery along with the abundance of the Kokanee and it’s no wonder people have left them pretty much alone, but today that would change!

Barely trolling 400 yards Tom asked “What does that mean when that pole is limp like that”? I grabbed the rod reeling frantically trying to get all the slack taken up from trolling deep and fast; the “race” as I call it. The fish is shaking his head trying to spit the plug while the fisherman reels furiously to get the line tight –Who will win? I handed the rod to Tom as we won the first round. Gary followed by example when the other rod also went slack. Amazing, it couldn’t be, a double – my first!

It wasn’t long before we were starring at a pair of 8 to 10 pound fish lying on the floor of my boat and I told them, “These are small ones but the best eaters if you want to try them on the grill”. The cross-eyed look on their faces told me they weren’t sure of what to believe next. Smiling and happy we threw them in the cooler and went back to fishing.

By now it was snowing and the shoreline was nowhere to be seen and we didn’t mind as we more concerned with watching our rods popping up slack. Trolling up the lake and following the 140-foot contour line we huddled around the heater to keep our fingers warm.

Now thoroughly impressed I told them I was changing the rules of the game. I would no longer be joining in the “race”. Whoever is closest to the rod should grab it and reel like crazy till it’s tight. Twenty minutes later the score changed as they hesitated looking at the limp rod debating who should grab it. That brief hesitation didn’t produce the outcome they hoped for. You’d think after I threatened them with the boat paddle they’d get faster, but that wasn’t the case. Soon the score was fishermen 2 and fish 2 but my mates were quick to catch on with no more misses the rest of the day.

I wanted them to experience the “race” and the battle getting the most from this adventure while adding a few more memories.

They got faster at reeling up the slack and the fish got bigger when the guys soon released two fish, each exceeding 18 pounds.

The day was capped by Tom’s victory over a 32 pounder smiling from ear to ear as I took the photograph. This would not be a day he’d soon forget as he released the fish and we soon headed back to Shelter Cover to load the boat.

Tired from bobbing around in the boat and tugging on Odell’s monsters we couldn’t wait to get back to Gull Point Campground at Wickiup to tell the others as the campfire would have a few more stories tonight.

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Hatteras Blue Fin Tuna

When you live in places like the Pacific Northwest the winters can be wet and cold leaving us offshore guys wondering what to do or maybe where to go for some sun or a little fishing. A few years back I was fortunate enough to get an introduction into a fishery that will get your juices flowing good.

When you think of places like the Outer Banks names like Oregon Inlet, Nags Head and Hatteras come to mind. From Portland Oregon there is no short way to get there either. The closest airport is Norfolk, VA and then a 3 hour drive down the coast line then out onto the island traveling south through the little coastal communities that dot the Outer Banks.

I had researched a few charters and had been wanting to go after giant blue fin tuna when out of the blue I received an email, that was forwarded to me, from a charter skipper who had fished one of my friends on a previous trip and he was sending him a note to say “they were in.”

The first morning I arrived at the Hatteras Village Marina at 6:15 am road weary with blood shot eyes from dealing with the time change since it was only 3:15 am Oregon time. A brief introduction to Captain Dan Rooks and his first mate Mike Edwards and we cast the lines then eased out of the slip in the morning darkness. We slowly sneaked our way out of the small harbor moving past magnificent 50-60ft. custom built sportfishers. The Carolina’s are known for their rich history of boat building, huge flared bows and many are built in a small shed out behind the house. This was one of those boats and my crew had a reputation of knowing the tricks of their trade.

It wasn’t long before we dropped lines in the water and started trolling. A few skirted ballyhoos on the long riggers with a couple lines down the middle to fill the spread. It was a nice day on the ocean and you could hear the radio chatter of other charters working the area, all in search of these big fish. After an hour of trolling with no luck we picked up the lines and ran 10 miles to where half a dozen charters were into them with multiple hookups reported. We dropped our lines back in and within a few minutes I had my first blue fin tuna on the hook and was doing battle. I quickly realized I had way too many clothes on and was over heating badly, I was plenty warm for a boat ride but too well dressed for the workout that ensued.

The first day produced constant action once we got into them about 10:00am and by 2:00 pm I was ready to call it a day. I yelled up to the bridge and told Captain Dan I could handle one more and then I’d be done for the day. A few minutes later he obliged and we had number 8 on the hook. The tally now was 8 fish landed, 7 tagged and released with a nice 125 pounder in the box to take home. What a first day, landing fish ranging from 125-200lbs and doing it in 10-15 minutes each time. If you would have told me I’d land these brutes in only 10-15 minutes I would’ve thought you were crazy. The key – reels with drags set at 22 pounds at strike and able to go to 30 pounds max drag to finish them off and get them to the boat. They generally make a couple of good runs then it’s gain a little – lose a little, back and forth before you finally wear them down and get the upper hand on them depending on the size of fish..

On the ride back in I collapsed in a heap on the bench in the salon, I was really in need of a little sleep, but all the action of the first day was replaying over and over in my mind leaving me too excited to sleep. That would just have to wait.

My muscles we tired, my whole body was exhausted and felt like a noodle. Welcome to Blue Fin boot camp – I had three days of fishing with these guys and if this was any indication of how things were going to be I was in for the time of my life.

Day two – still a little groggy but chipper as I bid good morning to the guys and climbed aboard for another day. Lines cast and we were soon leaving the sleepy lights of Hatteras Village.

We went back to where we left off the day before and after an hour with no action I was nodding off sitting on the ice box against the bulkhead. The seas were forecasted to be rough in the afternoon but we already had a three foot wind chop. I was desperately lacking sleep, still tired from the day before, and nothing will put you to sleep quicker than a rocking boat with no action. At 10:30am I moved into the salon to have a snack and my thoughts wandered back to the day before. Another hour slowly dragged by, no blue fin tuna yet, and now it was time for a sandwich. I had just taken my first bite, my mouth was still on the sandwich, and the sound of singing reels told me we had found the fish. The sandwich got tossed and things were about to get exciting again…

I made a dash for the fighting chair for the first hookup of the day, a triple, and my thoughts were now focused on the task at hand. What a way to start the day. The first fish was barely 100 pounds but the skipper ask if I would keep it and donate it to the community, so it went in the box. Now it was on to number two and either the activities of the day before were taking their toll or this was a much larger fish. The second fish was kicking my tail, my muscles were screaming and my whole body ached as this battle was an endurance test of strength and will. This fight took longer but after what seemed like an eternity we were able to tag and release a tuna well over 250 pounds. It was now onto number three and by now I was hot and overheating again. Mike took my hat off, threw it into the salon, and after a short battle was surprised when the fish came to the boat in just a few minutes. A nice fish in the mid 150’s but considerably smaller than number two. Mike tagged and released the third fish as I stood up, out of the fighting chair, on wobbly legs.

A few high fives and I turned around making my way to the salon to shed some clothes and cool off. I downed a whole bottle of water while sitting on the bench in the salon with my arms and legs just hanging limp trying to let them recuperate. I was in a daze trying to fathom what just happened.

My reprieve lasted a very brief five minutes before the sound of singing clickers brought me out of my stupor and back into the fighting chair. This time, a double, and I set out to cranking them in slow and steady…pump, lift and reel…pump, lift and reel. By now my muscles were loosening up and the fish were coming in easier. I was now starting to focus more on technique my muscles were warmed up making things less awkward. Getting in a rhythm and using the fighting harness is a must or you’ll be all day landing one of these beasts.

The first fish came in, was tagged then released and Mike handed me the second rod. I caught a glimpse of other fish darting back and forth past the back of the boat. It was incredible, they were swarming all around us and it reminded me of a live bait bite with albacore. I was working the fish, slow and steady, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a ballyhoo go sailing past me out over the back of the boat and before it even came close to the water six feet of fish came clear out of the water just ten feet behind the boat and inhaled the bait. What a sight, another 150 pounder on the hook and now fish number three was waiting for me. I was now in a groove and my technique was now bringing these brutes to the boat in less than 10 minutes. Another fish tagged, released, and on to number three then, a moment later another ballyhoo went sailing past me out over the back of the boat. This bait landed and was in the water less than a few seconds when a huge behemoth boiled on it, crashing the bait, and now number four was on the hook and waiting for me. What started out as a double had turned into a four fish hookup and Mike was just keeping them tight until I could get to it.

Finally number seven had been tagged and released. I stood up out of the fighting chair and told Captain Dan we needed to break yesterdays eight fish total. He said no problem and I headed to the salon for more water and a break. We didn’t even have all the gear out again before things started happening again. I took the rod and after a short fight number eight was now tagged and released. We had established a routine and now things were getting easier. The fish were coming in within a few minutes tagged and being released. I had just enough time to have a snack and sip of water before the sound of a singing clicker indicated number nine was on the hook. I dashed out of the salon and took up my position in the chair to battle with our last fish but my skipper couldn’t resist seeing all the fish swarming behind the boat and pitched yet another ballyhoo out the back hooking. There would be one more before we were done – making it a ten fish day.

In no time I had them up to the boat, one at a time. Mike was an animal man handling these fish like a linebacker focused on his job. It only took him barking at me a few times that first day to realize it was dangerous leadering these brutes and you needed to pay attention to what he tells you or things can come unraveled quickly. Mike was the coach and when I was in the chair but he became the athlete when it was time to lift the big tuna’s head to unhook and release it.

It was only 1:30pm and I couldn’t believe we had landed ten fish in just two hours. There was no way we would’ve achieved this if it had not been for Mike’s coaching while I focused on my technique battling these magnificent fish. If you’d told me I could land ten fish between 100 and 250 pounds all in a manner of two hours, I’d of said “no way” but that’s what just happened. I felt a sense of satisfaction and a definite feeling of accomplishment and couldn’t wait to tell my buddies back home. The skipper and his mate had really put on a show and with some coaching this angler had experienced way more than I had ever dreamed possible.

The wind had been forecast to build in the afternoon so it was a good time to be headed in for the day. I finished the rest of my sandwich and lay down on the bench as we started the long run back to Hatteras. We were 55 miles out, 15 miles farther up the coastline than the day before and now had a sporty sea. Fortunately it was a following sea and should make for a smooth ride back.

The next morning I was at the boat with a smile and Captain Dan took me up to the little café at the marina store for a cup of coffee. He mentioned we were not in a big hurry since we were only going to be running a short distance today. We pulled out of the slip as the sun was just breaking over the horizon and it was a beautiful sight shinning against the low cloud cover.

We only ran 15 miles before it was time to deploy the gear. A rigged a diver rod for Wahoo, a few close lines for yellow fin and a couple lines out for blue fin tuna was the flavors of the morning. The morning eek by slowly with no action but around noon we picked up a couple small yellow fin tuna as well as a black fin tuna that all went in the box. We were trolling over sunken wrecks, under water structures and after a few passes over the same wreck the skipper noticed fish below about 120 feet. Captain Dan asks if I know how to use a butterfly jig and after a nod of acknowledgement said he’d stop the boat over the wreck if I wanted to try my luck. Inquisitive, he questioned if I was any good at it and I just grinned back then chose one of the jig rods in the salon. They had been left by another fisherman and my crew didn’t really know much about them or how to use them so hopefully I could contribute a little and maybe they could learn something.

The boat came to a stop. I counted to 120 as the jig was dropping and when I thought I had it about where it should be I flip the bail and started the erratic jig retrieve pump and reel action used for bringing up the jig. It only took about three pumps of the rod and I was hooked up and the skipper laughed and commented- “Yeah you definitely know what your doing”. Mike put a fighting belt on me and after a brief battle I landed a nice 20 pound amberjack that went in the box. I showed them the technique again and explained the action used with the jig.

By 3:00pm we had a nice box full of yellow fin tuna to go with the amberjack. We pulled the gear and headed for the home. No blue fin tuna today but still a great day on the water.

Once back in the slip I stayed and visited with Captain Dan and Mike covering more details of the techniques and gear used over the last couple days.

It was a fabulous trip and turned out to be way more than I had expected. We had hit the Blue Fin Tuna at an opportune time the first couple days and these guys really put on a show. I came out to learn more about this fishery and they were very willing to share some of their successful techniques for a west coast guy hoping to give it a try off the Oregon coast once the summer water temps warmed and the tuna were within reach.

I told them I’d be back and look forward to getting out there again sometime this winter or next spring, whenever the blue fin tuna show up again.

I have since made it an annual trip out to Hatteras the last few years. If you’re thinking of giving it a go, the blue fin tuna can show up anytime from November thru April but the last couple seasons the best times have been late February thru March. The weather is generally a little better late March but you need to be prepared for winter time conditions should a cold front move in. Just layer up because one of these big fish will heat you up in no time.

For a view some of the photos of these magnificent fish caught on these trips go to my facebook page gallery. http://www.facebook.com/people/Del-Stephens/100000866078701

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Fin-Addicts

I rolled out of bed and made my way outside where my father and grandfather were getting the boat ready. Still groggy and barely awake, my brother and I scrambled up into the camper and soon we were off to the coast. We climbed up onto the bed but we were too excited to go back to sleep, instead we watched for deer along the highway to the coast. It was always fun to see how many we could count on the two hour ride, from Corvallis to Newport, through the coast range. In 1969 the highway still had plenty of curves and deer along the road. Once we rolled into Newport we’d drive through the state park overlooking the jetties to get a look at the offshore conditions. If there were no white caps showing and the conditions looked favorable we’d launch the boat and soon be a few miles offshore fishing for salmon.

Fast forward about 20 years, same scenario, but this time I was towing my own boat and this would be the start of another chapter in my life, I was about to have my first experience with albacore tuna. When I heard tuna were close to shore and everyone was getting them, I had to try it. I had caught tuna in Mexico but never offshore after them in my own boat.

A three hour drive through the coast range before daylight and a quick stop for tuna feathers, from one of the locals, and we should be running offshore in no time but as luck would have it the best laid plans sometimes get derailed. The local tackle guy was a no show and after waiting for an hour we decided to run offshore and see what we could do. I figured these were predator type fish and some of the plugs I used for Mackinaw Lake Trout should work. A nice guy in the local marina store gave us some coordinates and said “just run to this location and you’ll see the fleet of boats and you should be in the fish”. Could it be that easy..? We were greeted with a smooth glassy ocean and it was a quick twenty miles to the coordinates we were given but it was a lonely ocean with no boats in sight. I scanned the horizon with binoculars, looking for the fleet, when my buddy mentioned there were fish jumping beside the boat. Amazing, we had found the tuna but the fleet of boats was nowhere to be found so we decided to try our luck and started deploying large mackerel looking plugs.

Wham, the first rod went off before I could even get it in the rod holder. Half way through a blistering run I could hear the sound of metal disintegrating right in my hands. The drag was toast leaving me to use my thumb for a drag. A few short runs later and the fish was up next to the boat, going around and around in what I would eventually come to know as the tuna death spiral. It was wild pandemonium and my buddies white shorts soon turned to pink from the blood bath that ensued. We were using heavy salmon rods which handled the fish fine but the reels were no match for the incredible blistering runs they’d make when they exploded on one of the plugs. We soon had eight nice fat tuna, four reels that were pretty much wasted and a cooler that was stuffed, so we decided to stop. Smiling and laughing at what had just happened, we rinsed the boat out and headed back to port. It wasn’t even noon yet and normally you’d think if you missed the first light bite, things would be slow but these silver bullets hit everything we put overboard and of course it was also mid-July and folks around here have a saying I’ve come to know well, “anyone can catch a tuna in July”. So true that day, as we were living proof.

Fast forward another 20 years to last season and you’ll hear many stories of similar experiences from fishermen getting their first taste of this incredible fishery. Throughout the late 1900’s the Chinook Salmon has been king of the saltwater in the pacific northwest but declining runs of Chinook and Coho have left offshore anglers looking for something else to chase. Albacore have been available and harvested by the commercial fishermen for many years and only recently in the last few years have a handful of sport fishermen realized they were out there. Albacore move into the waters off northern California, Oregon and Washington as the summer currents from the south push the warm temperatures above 58 degrees. Typically July 4th signals the start of the season and boats go looking running 40-60 miles offshore. The early part of the season is extraordinary by any standards and is what gets people addicted to the fishery. The singing of line screaming off reels with doubles, triples, and quads is to a tuna fisherman what a hit of cocaine is to a drug addict. Only a tuna fisherman has to wait all winter and spring to get their fix. That first fix of the season is the beginning and the end, the beginning of the offshore tuna season and the end to what wives know of the husbands until late fall when the season comes to an end and they sulk back into their semi-normal state.

To say that what has happened to fishermen in the waters of the northwest is a fad, would be a gross understatement. It is the fastest growing fishery on the west coast by any standards.

When you mention albacore on the west coast, most people think of southern California but things are constantly changing in the offshore fisheries and with liberal limits in Oregon and no limits in Washington, there are days when the bite is so hot you could boat 100 fish by noon, that is, if you had the storage and ice capacity. It’s not to uncommon for four anglers to bring home 40 plus fish the first few times until they realize they can’t eat all those fish and start imposing self limits just to be able to get another chance to run offshore and get another fix.

The albacore fishery off Oregon and Washington is very healthy and has seen a strong increase in the numbers of fish the last 10 years. Recreational anglers, even in spite of the liberal limits, take less than 1% of the overall harvest, leaving commercial boats from Oregon, Washington, California, Canada and Hawaii to take the bulk of the annual harvest.

Tuna addicts as many are referred to start watching online sea surface websites such as http://www.terrafin.com waiting for the warm water in northern California to form a solid connection to the warm water off Oregon and Washington, “Tuna Alley” or the “Tuna Highway” as it’s sometimes referred to. Once that has occurred and is within a reasonable distance offshore it’s time to run. Just a few short years ago a reasonable distance to run for most northwest anglers would’ve been 35-40 miles in their pursuit of Halibut but today reasonable is anything within 75 miles. On occasion the warm water will swing in within 10-15 miles and a few more salmon fishermen will get a taste of what’s it’s like to catch a sports car with a fishing rod and their lives will change forever. Welcome to the dark side and the addiction begins for another tuna newbee. They start looking at blue water tackle online and search for a bigger boat. The need for bigger smoother riding offshore boats has driven many anglers to the east coast for big center consoles with full enclosures, Hydra Sports and Yellowfins are showing up along with an occasional 35-57 foot Bertram, Cabos, Albemarle’s, Rivieras, Luhrs and other styles not readily known in the northwest. To say “the landscape of the offshore fishing in the pacific northwest is changing” would be putting it lightly.

Chasing this fabulous table fare is not a complicated endeavour. You wait for the warm water to show up, run offshore looking for birds working the surface or locate temperature breaks and chances are you’ll find these longfin bullets. Places where there are up wellings from sea mounds or dramatic changes in structure are also great places to look.

In between offshore ventures a few of these tuna addicts will get together at a local watering hole and you’ll hear phrases not commonly known to this latitude. Things mentioned like”Daisy chains”,…one might think this would be something your kids would play with or “teasers”,…no ladies, this is not some GQ looking guy that tuna addicts use to attract women to join them for a drink but it’s not a bad idea in some cases. A tuna addict who hasn’t fished for awhile can be a scruffy looking character. In the middle of winter someone will announce a TA meeting. The first time I ask my wife if she wanted to go with me, you should’ve seen the look, I had to explain it was for Tuna Aholics. I told her it’s no big deal, just a few guys getting together to talk about fishing, although we do have a 12 step program and if you really want to be cured, the first thing on the program is don’t go to a TA meeting, it just makes things worse.

This scenario will continue to be played out over and over throughout the month of July and into early August until they ply their tactics and return to port someday with little to show for their effort. The fish are still there but have now changed feeding habits and it’s time to change tactics. This is where the seasoned anglers continue to bring home the bounty while the beginners or tuna newbees, as they are referred to, either learn a new method or troll endlessly in hopes their tactics will still work. Some will go home to pursue other species, while others will still have the need for the fix and will learn to jig iron, pitch swim baits and in some cases get lucky enough to fish live bait.

Some might laugh at us since we are truly novices compared to anglers farther south, who have been catching tuna for years, but it’s still new enough for most that they get excited to hear stories of others catching fish or of another opportunity to run to the blue water. You have to be pretty hardy to chase these guys because the summer winds on the north Pacific can be brutal and a 4 foot wind chop on a 6 foot swell at 8 seconds apart can test the durability of any good boat as well as the endurance of any seasoned saltwater fisherman. Many a good angler will set on the sidelines and watch the weather forecast, then make plans to call in sick or take a day off from work, should the need arise during the week.

Labor Day weekend is the end for some as their kids are now back in school and fall hunting is pulling them away from the coast. Wives who have gone through a season know what to expect and are breathing a sigh of relief, as the man that resembles their husband starts to focus back on family, school, fall football, work, etc. The kinds of things most normal husbands deal with during the year. Many of them will never fully recover and soon will secretly start counting the days till they can run to the blue water. A few TA meetings to get them through the winter and they’ll have their own stories to share with fellow Tuna Aholics. Life will be good..

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