Get Set For Tuna...If You're Tough Enough

by Terry Rudnick, Washington Editor

With absolutely no warning, the rod in the holder at the starboard corner of the stern dips wickedly toward the water and the big Penn reel, its drag set lightly and its clicker snapped to the "on" position, begins to emit a raucous scream that would wake the dead. Before an angler near the stern rail can finish yelling "Fish on!" in the general direction of the boat's wheelhouse, two more rods slam down and two more reels cry out with the same high-pitched wail as the first.

Know what this is? If not, you owe it to yourself to find out what albacore fishing is all about.

Photo: TERRY RUDNICK

Within seconds, the stern of the big charter boat becomes a scene of frenzied excitement. Anglers who just seconds before had been gazing lazily over the blue water spring to their feet and swing into action. Trying to remember at least some of the sermon they had received from the boat's skipper the evening before, three anglers wrestle the bucking rods from their holders, tighten the drags on the still-squealing reels and tuck the rod butts against a hip. Anglers not already fighting fish grab bait rods and head for the live well as the boat's skipper turns the big boat sharply to port and zeros in on the spot where the strikes occurred.

The deckhand quickly but carefully starts pinning live anchovies onto the small but stout hooks tied to the end of the lines on each bait rod. Every now and then he scoops a couple of the little baitfish from the tank and throws them over the side.

While the three anglers at the stern continue to strain against arced trolling rods, the bait rigs begin to go over the windward side. The first baited hook hits the water, and before the wriggling anchovy moves a foot from where it landed, there is a swirl, and line begins to melt off a reel that's purposely in the free-spool mode. The angler, if he's patient enough, counts slowly to five before engaging the spool. The line tightens instantly and the rod lurches downward. With a gasp and a tight-lipped obscenity, the battle is joined, and one more angler won't have to worry about finding something to do for at least the next 15 minutes.

Other anchovy-baited hooks go over the side with the same result, and in less time than it takes to tell about it, seven or eight anglers are pinned against the boat's rail, slugging it out with one of the toughest piscatorial customers the Pacific Ocean has to offer. That's what albacore fishing is all about, and the action just described isn't limited to the warm waters off the southern California coast. We have albacore off the Northwest coast, too -- at least we have them some years -- and if you have never been willing to take the time or spend the money to give it a try, you're missing out on some of the hottest angling excitement to be found anywhere.

Westport, then Ilwaco charter boats began making the long trips out to the blue-water haunts of the albacore in the early 1970s, and the fishery has been on-again, off-again ever since. It's on when the tuna's migration patterns bring them close enough to be within reach of coastal charter trips and off when the fish stay too far offshore. They came particularly close last summer and provided several weeks of excellent fishing, and coastal charter offices are hoping for a repeat performance this summer. A couple of early trips out of Westport have already produced albacore, and many charter offices are now booking trips for August.

In the early years of the charter tuna fishery, all of the fish were taken on trolled jigs, and that's still pretty much the case on Ilwaco boats, but now the Westport boats use jigs to locate the schools, with anglers switching over to live anchovies as soon as a feeding school is found.

Photo Credit: LOUIS Bignami the bait trips, as the baited hooks go out, so do the free-swimming anchovies, pitched around the boat as chum. The idea is to keep the albacore excited and keep them interested. If they're feeding, the albacore will stay in the area and continue to slash at anything that looks like an easy meal. And as long as their buddies seem to be feeding, the fish apparently believe there is food to be found right there where the little baitfish are hitting the water. When it works, the boat may take dozens of tuna from one spot before it's all over. Such a feeding frenzy provides more excitement than you can imagine unless you've been involved in it yourself.

The albacore is shaped like a football, but it has the personality of an NFL linebacker. A swimming machine, it can blaze through the water just about as fast as it cares to. It has no trouble running down a jig that skips along the surface at five to seven knots, the usual trolling speed. When a husky albacore hits one of those fast-trolled jigs, it's like no other strike a Northwesterner can expect to see, and when the hooked fish takes off, it may run 100 yards or more before slowing down.

The strike of an albacore on trolling gear is something you'll never forget, but hooking one on bait is even more exciting. When the blue offshore waters are calm, an angler can see one of the torpedo-shaped forms jetting toward the surface at depths of 10 feet or more. They seldom clear the water, usually turning downward just as they inhale the struggling anchovy. The angler leaves the reel in free-spool as the bait swims around the boat with little or no weight on the line, not only to allow the bait plenty of tuna-attracting freedom, but to cut down on the loss of rods and reels when the tuna hit. There is no nibbling involved; an albacore takes the bait on the move, swallows it on the move and is going all-out when the angler sets the hook.

The albacore has a fighting strategy all its own. There aren't any jumps or sudden lunges, just blinding speed and bulldozer power. A typical battle includes three or four runs of 50 to 75 yards, with the fish running straight away, just under the surface. An angler may have his fish up to boat three or four times, only to have it take off again each time.

Besides its well-earned reputation as a tough brawler, the albacore tuna is one of the Pacific's finest-eating fish, with a delicate flavor that's welcomed almost no matter how it's cooked. It freezes well and will keep for years canned. That great table quality makes it all the better when you consider the fact that there's no catch limit, and you may return from your tuna trip with a dozen fish. Average size is 15 to 20 pounds, but albacore of 30 pounds and larger are fairly common.

Unlike a six- to 10-hour salmon trip, tuna trips typically run a FULL day or even two days, depending on how far offshore the schools are. A one-day trip means you leave in the evening, run all night to the tuna grounds, fish much of the day and return that second night. A two-day trip leaves in the evening, fishes all day, stays on the water overnight, and fishes into the afternoon of the second day before returning to port. Either way you do it, it makes for a long trip, but when the fishing's good, no one seems to mind.

Tackle and bait are provided on albacore charters, but anglers are usually required to bring their own sleeping bags. Food and drinks may or may not be provided, depending on the trip. Prices vary depending on trip length, accommodations and other details, so be sure to ask lots of questions when you call the charter office of your choice. In Westport, you can expect to pay $185 to $225 for a one-day trip and $265 to $375 for a two-day trip.

Several charter offices in Westport and Ilwaco run albacore trips. For information about them and for an update on the status of the coastal tuna fishery, call the Westport-Grayland Chamber of commerce, 1-800-345-6223, or the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors' Bureau, 1-800-451-2542.