You’d never know it by reading the fish counts coming out of San Diego, but summer is over and fall has officially arrived in Southern California. The days are getting shorter, the air and water temperatures are dropping, and the bluefin tuna are making their yearly appearance at the Cortes Bank and Tanner Bank.
Though not as reliable as the swallows returning to Capistrano, the tuna can usually be counted on to show up at these outer banks around the first day of fall and this year was no different as the Freedom out of 22nd Street Landing in San Pedro found them biting on their first trip of the season.
Located approximately 100 miles offshore, the Cortes and Tanner banks lie side by side approximately 50 miles southwest of San Clemente Island.
The Cortes Bank, named after the steamship Cortes that found it in 1853, is the shallower of the two banks with its high spot, Bishop Rock, lying only a few feet below the surface. Though Tanner Bank’s high spot is deeper, sitting in 80 feet of water, the banks are very similar in their composition and layout. Both are basically underwater islands comprised of a combination of hard and soft bottom interspersed with the volcanic rock outcroppings that act as fish aggregating high spots.
The depth and topography of these remote banks separates them from our other offshore banks and makes for a fishery more akin to that found at Alijos Rocks than to anything in Southern California. Boats will drop the anchor to fish these banks. They’ll target migratory species like bluefin tuna and bonito as well as resident species such as rockfish and yellowtail.
The Cortes and Tanner banks are mostly targeted by 1½ day boats originating from Long Beach or San Pedro, though San Diego landings will occasionally run trips there as well. If you’re interested in making a trip, both the Freedom and the Toronado out of Pierpoint Landing are currently offering trips which normally depart at 9 p.m., arrive at the banks shortly after dawn, fish until dusk and get back to the dock around 3 or 4 a.m. the following day.
I’ve been addicted to the fishery at these banks since I made my first trip to the Cortes as a teenager. The tuna bite had been slow on the trips leading up to my first visit, but the fish were big (well at least by those day’s standards), with fish up to 60 pounds being caught. I was there as a pinhead on the Toronado and Capt. Ray Lagme told me that I was allowed to fish as long as I stayed out of the way of the paying passengers. Everyone was bunched up in the stern, so I went up to the bow and fished a dropper-loop rig for rockfish. The tuna were M.I.A. that morning, but the sheephead and big whitefish were wide open and I loaded up.
Around midmorning, the current switched, the chum started to drift up off the bow and I saw a big tuna blow up on a sardine. Grabbing my 40-pound bait stick, I pinned on one of the mackerel that I’d hidden in the front bait tank and cast it out. The mackerel hit the water running and was detonated almost immediately. The line screamed off the spool as I gave the fish some time to eat the bait, before throwing my trusty Penn 500 Jigmaster in gear.
It was a solid hook up and the rod doubled over, but the spool never even slowed down as the fish raced away, pulling behind it all the new line I’d dutifully wound on before the trip. I should have been a little more dutiful about the knot I used to tie the new line to the line already on the reel because my splice broke the second it came off the spool and the fish disappeared.
It’s been almost 25 years since that day and although I’ve caught plenty of big tuna and fished for them in more exotic locations than Cortes Bank, that fish remains one of my strongest fishing memories.
Just telling this story has me pumped up to get back out to the Cortes Bank. Hell, I might jump on a trip this weekend.
When you do book a trip, you’re going to need to bring the right tackle. You’ll want to bring along the same rods and reels you’d take on any tuna trip, but you should also carry some 8-ounce torpedo sinkers to fish the rockfish and some yo-yo jigs in case the big yellowtail decide to bite.
According to Capt. Tom Lee on the Freedom, the bluefin have been line and hook shy on some days, so you’ll want to bring a variety of hook sizes from #1 up to 4/0 along with some lighter fluorocarbon leader. I wouldn’t fish anything lighter than 20-pound leader (and that’s pushing it). You’ll also want to bring a heavy rod with 40- to 50-pound line for when the bluefin hit more aggressively or the big yellowtail decided to bite.
Whatever you do, please make sure and tie a good knot so that you don’t have to look back 25 years from now and wonder about just how big that fish you lost might have been.
Speaking of knots, in the next So Cal Scene we’ll take a look at the why and how of using fluorocarbon leaders to get bit when tuna fishing is tough.