The Santa Ana weather condition I described in my last post continued on Friday. It was a gorgeous day – the temperature reached the mid-80s and the wind wasn’t too gusty. After lunch, I rode the Spyder to Dana Landing where I purchased a California sportfishing license and a Mexican one-day license. While I was there, I spoke to a deck hand that had been out on a charter fishing boat three times during the week. He told me a fishing lure called a Butterfly was working well on tuna. I bought one. It’s a metal jig about four inches long and an inch and a half wide shaped like an elongated diamond. It weighed seven ounces.
He said people were having success dropping the lure over the side of the boat. It flutters as it drops down simulating an injured bait fish. You just let it drop freely and wait for a fish to hit it on the way down. Reel it up and repeat.
It was nice out and I decided to take a look at the beach. I parked the Spyder at Mission Beach next to the roller coaster at Belmont Park. The beach had fewer people on it than I expected on such a fine summer-like day.
Mission Beach from the boardwalk near Hamel’s surf shop
I ended the afternoon with a cold one at Offshore Tavern and Grill, then came home for dinner. I went to bed early. Saturday morning the alarm clock had me up before 5am. After breakfast and coffee, I packed a sandwich, a few bottles of water and some beer in a cooler. I met Gary Stemple at the entrance to Mission Bay RV Resort at 5:40am. We drove through light traffic to the marina at the Sheraton on Harbor Island where we met another old friend from my high school days, John Barrientez. We loaded our gear into a Parker fishing boat with a 225 horsepower Yamaha outboard motor from Freedom Boat Club and headed out just after sunrise.
Our first stop was at the bait barge near Point Loma. The bait barge has wells with large nets holding live anchovies for use as fishing bait.
Fishing boats lined up at the bait barge
We bought a half-scoop of anchovies. I don’t get the math or terminology, but a half scoop is equivalent to three or four small scoop nets full of fish.
Scoop net of live anchovies
We got lucky and one of the scoops came with a mackerel about 10 inches long. The live bait went into a bait well which circulates water from the sea – constantly refilling the well with water and dumping the excess through a screened drain.
Bait well full of live anchovies
When fishing here in the ocean, a good supply of live bait is necessary. Once you find the target fish, tossing a handful of anchovies into the water – called chumming – keeps the fish actively feeding near the boat.
We headed out into the open ocean. Our destination was the nine-mile bank about 11 miles away. This is a ridge in the deep ocean water – like a mountain top – where the water is about 300 feet deep. The underwater trenches and canyons around it are about 3,000 feet deep. The various predatory fish – like tunas – move up out of the deep water over the bank hunting for prey. It’s a big ocean though and finding the fish is the first order of business. You can’t catch fish by blindly throwing a line in the water. It’s like hunting – you need to find the area where you’re likely to find the target fish first.
We looked for signs of activity. Sea gulls diving or dolphins working the surface indicate areas where bait fish are and predatory fish are likely to be in the area. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the water was relatively calm. It seemed like a perfect morning to be fishing, but we didn’t see much activity as we cruised along the bank. I sat on the foredeck scanning the water and spotted a pod of dolphins feeding a couple hundred yards away. By the time we moved over there, the dolphins had disappeared and we didn’t mark any fish on the fish finder.
After an hour or so, Gary decided to move to another area. We headed south to the Coronado Islands of Mexico (Islas Coronado). Gary has had success there in the past. We found several pods of dolphins feeding near South Coronado Island. We worked our way around the island in Mexican water but didn’t mark many fish.
Coronado Islands of Mexico
We found a natural channel between islands that was 30 to 70 feet deep and finally marked some fish. After a few minutes of dropping my lure, I had a strike near the bottom in about 40 feet of water. Catching fish in the tuna family is always fun. These fish are fast swimmers and they don’t nibble at the bait. They hit it on the trot. I flicked the lever on my reel and set the drag – the hook set itself and I had a fish on!
It pulled a few yards of line out, then swam back toward the boat. I reeled the line in madly as it went under the boat then turned toward the bow. I climbed past the cabin to the foredeck and got it under control. John manned the gaff but I soon realized it wouldn’t be needed as the fish wasn’t that big. We got it on board and at first I thought it was a skipjack tuna. Later I realized it was actually a smaller cousin called a bonito.
Soon after that, John hooked one using a live anchovy and he brought it on board. We put the fish on ice in the fish hold.
Natural channel between small islands
Meanwhile, some seals and sea lions on the islands were watching us. They knew a fishing boat meant an easy meal. Soon a half dozen or so were around the boat looking for chum and hoping to steal an easy meal from the end of our lines. Just like us looking for dolphins and birds as indicators, they saw us as an indicator of easy prey.
A sea lion was coming after the 10-inch mackerel that Gary had in the water for bait. Then a couple of birds joined the meal line. Gary had taken the mackerel off his hook and put an anchovy in its place. A cormorant took his anchovy and caught the hook on his bill. Gary brought the bird to the boat and attempted to remove the hook. The cormorant – that Gary and John insisted on calling a duck – was indignant and wouldn’t have it. He stabbed at Gary’s hand with his bill and drew blood. We had no choice but to cut the line and hope the bird could shake the hook.
The seal and sea lions chased the fish to deeper water. We moved to another spot to fish away from the seals. Gary had brought some fine cigars along and he offered them to us. The thing is, I like cigars but I like to savor them. I find pleasure in smoking them slowly and discovering the complexity of flavors as it burns. The first third is different from the middle and the last third usually ramps up the flavor. I figured smoking a fine cigar while I was jigging a lure would be like pouring a couple of fingers of good scotch then tossing it down in a gulp – not my style. So I passed on the generous offer of a nice cigar.
We weren’t marking any more fish, so we headed back to San Diego Bay. The conditions were near perfect for sailing and the bay was filled with sailboats. They were able to set a reach in either direction on the bay and we had to be vigilant of their course. Sailing vessels have the right-of-way over a power boat.
View of San Diego from a couple miles out on the ocean
On the way into the bay, we saw a tall ship. It was a replica of the San Salvador. The San Salvador was a 98-foot galleon that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed to California in 1542. The original carried a crew of about 30 men. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to sail around the world on such a vessel.
San Salvador replica sailing in San Diego Bay
We also saw a racing yacht – the Stars and Stripes. There are four of these boats in existence, one of which Dennis Connor sailed to victory in the 1987 America’s Cup in Australia.
Back at the dock with bonito
When we got to the dock, we decided to give the two bonito we caught to the dock hand at the Sheraton. Bonito tend to be a little oily and although many people like to grill or smoke them or even cut them for sushi, they aren’t a favorite of mine. We didn’t get the yellowtail, skipjack or yellow fin tuna we were after, but all-in-all it was great day on the ocean with good friends. Thanks again, Gary and John.