It’s Transition Time

Every year about the first of November there’s an obvious and inevitable progression towards winter. The sun is lower, the shadows longer, the water is cooling and an unmistakable chill sends notice that summer is over. It used to be the bulk of the offshore fish were going or gone and it was time to shift gears and get ready to go squiddin’. We’d be breaking down and cleaning up the two-speed tackle. Then knocking the dust off the long rods and re-tying those kelp-cutter rigs. I start to feel the urgent call of those slug yellows, tanker seabass and barn-door halibut on both the deep-water bait grounds and scattered along the mid-depth transition zones leading to the shallow kelp lines. In fact just this morning I noticed the squid fleet staring to gather off Huntington Beach…another piece of the puzzle falling into place.

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Capt. Mark with a seabass on the grounds.

But recently, and especially during the last three years for sure, the lines of demarcation between our seasonal norms are not so clearly drawn. This past Thanksgiving is a perfect example. With a decent forecast and the likelihood of a few free hours before “Turkey Time” I had called my buddy Mike Harrison to see if he could get away. With an affirmative answer we picked a time, grabbed another friend, Pete Gauci, on the way out and got moving on a flat calm morning. Mike had been out the evening before to fuel up and had hit the receiver for a generous half scoop of squid from Nacho so we were ready to roll.

Local conditions had been decent for a few days so I had options. We could head up to fish the kelplines along PV or out to hit the myriad rocks, wrecks and hard bottom spots on the Horseshoe. Or south to check some favorite spots off Huntington and along the Pipe. I love going down…so that was an easy choice. It didn’t take long to get in the zone.

The first stop was a knuckle on the old pipe. It had a lot of bass on it but they didn’t want to bite much and eventually the perch took over and made it tough to get the baits down. For the next stop I moved a bit deeper and reset and started chopping and chumming. During the cool water periods it often takes a while to get the bite started and it did. But we stayed patient, fishing chunks and strips as well as whole squid and kept at it and it paid off.

sonar shotsThe meter lit with lots of perch and a few bass

Nothing exotic or glamorous for sure…just fun fishing. All of us had caught about a zillion calicos and sandies through the years (and had a hell of an offshore season this year) but the thrill of a bent rod is there just the same. And then, right in the middle of a wide-open bite, in the last few minutes before I dumped the bait so we had to go Pete landed a big beautiful sheephead. It was his personal best and the jackpot winner and a great way to end our half-day getaway. We even made it back to the dock by 1:00pm, right on time for probably the first time ever. No one was late for our respective Thanksgiving festivities and we were all thankful for the time well spent on the water.

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Pete Gauci and the jackpot winner.

Usually by the first inshore trip of the winter season I have that feeling of finality. There’s comfort in some measure of certain knowledge that the offshore gamesters were gone or nearly so, that it was safe to be shifting gears, and we wouldn’t be missing out. But the last couple of extremely extended seasons fostered nagging doubt. As the same weather window that worked for us made it possible for those with bigger rigs and extra time to crawl back out to the Tanner, I just knew in my heart what was coming. It didn’t take long to find out.

In the heart of the season multiple options present themselves. There are fish to be caught along the coastal structure spots, scattered all over the inner banks and ridges, at the Islands as well as farther offshore. But by late in the season what gamesters are still around tend to stack up on the outer banks. With few opportunities to be had short of the mother-lode…you’ve got to do the distance.

Stop short you’re likely to be in for a long boring day. But as it stands now if you make run to the southeast corner of the Tanner Bank you’re set for a shot at some big bluefin tuna.

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Bluefin on the meter on a nighttime drift.

Located about 35 miles WSW of China Point on San Clemente Island the bank has almost 10 miles of shale and sandstone flats inside the 50 fathom curve. Scattered around are a few uplifted basaltic shallows less than 30 fathoms and the highest comes up to only 9 fathoms. These spots are always loaded with rockfish of all types, sheephead and giant whitefish. When conditions are right sometimes the fishing for big yellows can be awesome. But it’s the yellowfin and bluefin tuna fishing that really makes the headlines.

In years past we’ve had great fall trips at the Tanner. We would run out to the Bank, anchor up current from one of the shallows that showed good signs of life. Then the chum bucket would get deployed and it wouldn’t take long for it to start working its magic. Huge shoals of mackerels would form up in the chum line and the tuna and yellows would be right behind. It was a simple matter to catch all the bait we needed on the spot and flyline one back for a quick bite on 18-30# yft and bft…very fun stuff.

Then we had some cold water years with very few exotics biting on the Bank.

But it all changed back in 2014. The water warmed with the El Nino and the tuna poured back into the bight. But by late in the year when the coastal bite had dwindled the fish had settled in back on the bank and they were biting. It wasn’t as much up on the shallows as before. It was more off the bank up to 100 fathoms and somedays even more. Much of the bite was on ‘chovies or small sardines fished on small hooks and light line…traditional bluefin fishing at its finest. And they were there for much of that winter as they were again in 2015.

Then 2016 rolled around. By March there were scattered bluefin schools out towards the 60. During April the schools showed on the beach off Ensenada and rapidly pushed up to below the Coronados on the 371 and 425. Shortly thereafter if you slid on a bird school on the 9 Mile Bank it was just as likely you could hook a 30-60-pound bluefin on the surface iron as the normally expected offshore yellows. And from there the bluefin and yellowfin fishing just got better and better. But it was giant sized bluefin, the 100+ to 278-pound tankers biting poppers, slow-trolled big mackerel and fast-trolled Yummee flyers which really stole the show this past summer and redefined how we now approach the fishery.

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Jaime/Seasons Sportfishing with a 200#+ bluefin.

And even now the evolving nature of the fishery continues as I write this in early December. The fish are stacked up on the aforementioned southeast quadrant of the Tanner but these aren’t the smaller fish of years past…these are the real deal. The bulk of what’s being landed is 50-90-pounds with a few standouts to the 120-130-pound range and very few small fish at all. And while there has been a steady pick on the fish during the daytime drifts the nighttime has been the right time for some ferocious ripper bites.

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My friends on the “Fandango” walloped the Tuna on the Tanner.

Another different dimension to this extraordinary late-season bite is the gear being used. The setup today is a far cry from the 12# test, #4 hook and a hot anchovy that we fished for those super stealthy, sharp-eyed line shy bluefin off Toyon Bay on the front side of Catalina. Now, especially after the sun goes down, those Tanner tuna are biting the live squid fished on bigger tackle. And that’s making all the difference.

For a perfect example consider a December 1st catch some of my friends just made on the “Fandango” a 51’ Bertram. They hooked 13 to land 12 capped off by a matched pair of 110-pounders during a wide-open 2-5 AM night bite. All their fish were on 80-100# line with big hooks matched to the appropriate two-speed outfits. Their success ratio speaks volumes regarding the effectiveness of using proper gear when you’ve got your sights set on big ones.

bait tanksA PE-150-D with custom bait well surrounded by a bunch of big Tanner bluefin from another wide-open night bite on the right gear.

With Thanksgiving past and Christmas just over the horizon we are definitely headed towards the transition zone between seasons and perhaps even in long term cycles. There is some evidence we’re going into a warm phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a cycle we’ve not seen for nearly 20 years. And if so this uptick in the size and relative abundance of all this bluefin may be more than a seasonal anomaly …it might just be the start of a new era for Southern California sportfishing.

Pacific edgeBe sure to stop by our Pacific Edge store in Huntington Beach. Whether its bait tanks or tackle…we’ve got the gear for you.

Good Luck and Good Fishing and have a Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year!!!

Capt. Mark Wisch
Well-known California captain, writer, speaker and tackle shop owner, Capt. Mark Wisch has been helping anglers catch fish along the West Coast for decades. As an author, Mark has written three books, including “Between Two and Twenty Fathoms,” “In The Gray” and “Lessons from a Lifetime on...