El Niño’s Past and Future Fishing Potential for Anglers

Translated literally, El Niño means “little boy” in Spanish. According to popular folklore, this term was coined way back in the 1600’s by commercial fishermen who noticed periods of unusually warm water that pushed boundless amounts of fish up the Pacific coast until Christmas. This phenomenon has graced our coast many times, and has accounted for some of the greatest fishing this state has ever seen, sport or commercial. Most recently in 2015, the largest El Niño event on record hit the coast to create an epic season that San Diego fishermen will long remember.

Image courtesy NOAA

Though I imagine there are hundreds of stories waiting to be told about this last El Niño, I wanted to reach out to two prolific big game fishermen who made some absolutely epic catches and refined their techniques in ways that impacted the entire sportfishing industry.

wahoo caught during el niño

One of whom is BD’s own Ali Hussainy. Having fished around the world, Ali’s experience and passion for offshore angling are evident as soon as you bring up the subject. In 2015 he was able to capitalize on the local wahoo scene while also being on the forefront of the now famous trophy bluefin fishery. We were able to talk about how that historic season progressed and the lasting impacts it had on our offshore fishing.

Looking back at 2015, we both know it was the biggest El Nino event in over 145 years. Were there any signs or indicators, early on in the season, that pointed to an unusual year ahead?

No, that was the crazy thing. They just showed up out of the blue, and it caught everybody with their pants down. The first thing that I remember kicking it off were these dudes that had a local clothing brand here, and they went out fishing and they were trolling marlin jigs, I think. And out of the blue, they went fishing, and caught a 450 pound black marlin.

That shit does not happen out here, and that was like, “Whoa, something weirds going on.” And then there was a blue caught, and then another bigger blue, and then a black. And that was sort of what kicked it off.

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Now by August, which is typically around the peak of the season, how had the local fishery changed from even just the previous year?

Honestly, the normal fishing that year as I remember it was not that remarkable. The regular small tuna were around, but it wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary. What was remarkable was when we got into the fall and we started to see the big marlin and the wahoo, and then there was yellowfin around that were really big, like 125, 150-pound yellowfin, which is not a normal fish for here. And getting into September and October you were like man, something is different.

wahoo caught on marauder during el niño

A local Southern California wahoo caught in October of 2015

In late October 2015, I got a call from some yacht captain buddies and they were like, “Dude, there are big ass tuna on the 43.” They’re like, “Go out there and run the Puerto Vallarta program, which was skipping the kite, and instead of using a dead bait use one of these Yummee flyers, and here’s how to rig it.” And we went out there and within 30 minutes got bit, and that fish died 10 minutes later. Fishing had changed completely on that day. Completely.

bluefin tuna foamer

Was that the beginning of the kite fishing that we know of?

bluefin tuna caught during el niño

Yes. It was the greatest thing, dude. I only knew of five fish that were caught prior to that. And then when I caught that fish, we put the pictures out everywhere. And it was on the cover of the Melton Tackle catalog, it was on Shimano’s web, it was everywhere. That fish broke the internet. And that was after we had been catching wahoo.

Did the warm conditions change the local areas to the point where it reminded you of anywhere else in the country or the world?

We were catching fish that we would normally expect to catch 600, 800 miles down the line. And basically everything that we would expect to catch on the upper ridge to the middle ridge, was right in our backyards. Tons of yellowfin, tons of dorado, and then the wahoo which is unheard of, and then plus you throw in the chance to catch a blue or black marlin in San Diego. Doesn’t happen very often, maybe one fish every few years. And now all of those big Marlin moved up off Catalina and north to the Channel Islands, and my marlin buddies were going out catching five or six stripers in a day, with a blue or two in the mix. That shit just doesn’t happen.

Defining the El Niño

el niño chart

Image courtesy NOAA

Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly this weather phenomenon is. According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the El Niño-Southern Oscillation or ENSO for short, is a multi-phased weather event where surface wind and water conditions around the equator can cause significant weather patterns later on in the year. The first phase is the one we are most interested in. “El Niño” is characterized by warmer-than-usual surface temperatures along the equator.

This band of water gradually moves into temperate regions where the typical Easterly winds weaken or in some cases, shift to a Westerly front that allows the warm water to surge north beyond its normal boundaries. That is why many southern species take the ride up, chasing bait until the water temperature is no longer to their liking. “La Niña” is the second phase and causes an opposite effect. The Easterly winds that normally blow around the equator are strengthened and drive cold water northward into regions where it is normally much warmer. The third phase is more of a transitional period simply known as “neutral” where sea temperatures sit right where they should be and the winds behave in a more typical pattern. 

Turning back to fishing, I was interested in talking with someone who had experienced several of these events to re-create some of the moments that stood out. Clayton Dobbs is a tournament-winning angler and an encyclopedia of big-game fishing technique. I wanted to understand how the last El Niño forced him to adapt to this dramatic shift in conditions.

Clayton Dobbs (far right) stoked to win a free set of Fraser gyros at the BD Avalon Billfish Classic

So Clayton, do you remember the first El Nino event that you experienced during your fishing career?

Yeah, ’82, ’83, ’84, that area. Again, that’s when it got really warm, but it was pretty much straight yellowfin. The big one for me though with the variety, was 2015. That’s when we had the wahoo and all that crazy stuff.

Could you tell me a little bit more about the local wahoo scene? What was your experience out there with them?

The first two bites I got, I was dragging along with my marlin lures because the water was like 75 and purple. Hawaiian color, it was really bitchin’. I had been fishing down by what they call the 178, which is basically the North 9, kind of outside the La Jolla Canyon. All of the sudden both my jigs dropped off my outriggers, and I was like, oh, fuck me. I pulled it in, and knew right away. It was just razor-bladed off. It was like they didn’t even move, they didn’t even pull the rubber bands on my taglines. So I was like, damn, that was some wahoos.

And so we dropped back like your old Marauder type deal, and I was fishing like we did in Oahu. Back when I lived in Kaneohe, I used to fish them over there, and we’d just pitch them short in the wake, like 25 feet back, so we gave it a shot. I pulled around for, I don’t know, a few days like that. I talked to another guy, and he said he was doing the same thing, and he screwed up and he let a couple of jigs go back by mistake. He goes, “Within five minutes, I was bit.” So then we changed up our tactics, going back to Long Range style, 50 yards back, and I got three of them, with one being 78 pounds.

It was a monster. Biggest one I’ve ever caught. And then we got a couple of smaller ones in the 30-pound range, and they were all on what they used to call a goblin, which is a black-and-orange Marauder.

Turning to marlin fishing, how does the El Nino and the warm water affect the fishing around Southern California, and Catalina Island in particular?

Well, for me, that’s when I got that blue marlin. I got a 400-and-something pound blue marlin on the 152, which is on the slide area of Catalina. That’s on the East end there, basically right in the middle of the slide. We were driving along, it was early morning, I looked out and I saw this massive fucking boil… I was like, whoa, what was that? And there was some small skipjack jumping around. So I got a KKPono skipjack, put it on, and then 10 minutes later, we were fully going. The blue was going around the starboard side of my boat faster than I was trolling at nine knots, just greyhounding. It was cool as hell. I had to kick it up, bend it over to the port side to get the line tight again. A few hours later, we let him go.

shortbill spearfish caught during el niño

No kidding? You released it?

Yeah. For real.

It was cool. And then that same year, we got two, what they call short-billed spearfish. I got two in ’15 and one in 2016. And what that looks like is a wahoo with a small bill on its nose.

Could you go over your typical Marlin spread during the season?

Well, the marlin stuff we do, I’ll run five lures, I’ll run my two, a short corner, medium corner, my two riggers, short and long, and then I run what we call a whiskey line up with me. Then I got a guy that just sits back there, and they’re just watching the lures.

And then my bait tank, I have two baits hooked up all the time that are drop-back baits, and if a fish comes up, you get short bit. Marlin are dumb as fuck, right? You pull the throttles back, but you’re still moving. My boat at idle is about five, five and a half knots, and you drop the bait back to wherever you were short bit if it’s pulled some line or whatever, because on a marlin trolling lure, if you hook 10 fish, eight of them fuckers are gonna fall off. It’s a violent attack, a blind attack. They hit it with their bill, so it’s not really conducive to getting them.

And then on your drop-back baits, it’s reversed. You’ll catch eight out of 10 on your drop-backs, because they eat the bait, you use the circle hook, and you just catch them in the corner of their mouth. When the lures get short bit, you send out your two drop-backs, and you’re bit with both of them instantly. So you might have a double, and then throw one off the bow and get a triple.

marlin caught during el niño

See, 2015 was an anomaly. Let’s say Highway 5 was open from basically Catalina, all the way down to like the Revillagigedo’s, way the fuck down there. And so that surface temp made for this open road, so those fish were rolling right up here, and it was cool as hell. Like I said, I was shocked we got that blue marlin. I thought it was a black marlin, to be honest with you, from the boil. It was big. I’ve seen black marlin up here, never seen a blue, and it was pretty cool.

Current Conditions

el niño graph

Orange is El Niño and blue is La Niña. Courtesy NOAA

Rumors are starting to surface of a new potential El Niño event on its way for the Fall of 2023. Going back to the NOAA, they release a weekly report which at the time of this publication, indicates that the extended La Niña which has gripped the coast for nearly three years, is finally coming to an end. Typically, this marks a shift to a neutral state in the ocean as the gradual process of warming the cooled water takes time. However, forecasts are pointing toward a strong push of warm water in the upcoming months. If you look at this historical graph from 1950 to present, you can see a definitive pattern where following an extended cold period like the one we just experienced, a strong El Niño event is likely to develop at a faster pace than expected.

All I can say is while you can never count the fish you catch before you leave the dock, I am definitely getting my gear ready for this fall. If things keep going the way they are, I might have another shot at that wahoo I saw on the Rockpile!

Leave a comment about your craziest fishing experience during our most recent El Niño in Southern California!

Growing up in Oceanside California, Nathan Winicki found his passion for fishing at a young age through going on open party trips with his dad, a former sport boat captain and veteran long ranger. For the past 14 years, Nathan has experienced everything from overnight trips to 10 day voyages, and ha...
I thought with such cold water this late in the spring, we might have a chance at those mythical fish "Albacore"?
Our most exciting trip in 2015, was catching BF and YFT 4-7 miles off Dana Point. 4 of us caught a dozen Tuna, none under 40, ten BFT to 50, a 50 pound YFT and a 75 pound YFT. Most of us were fishing 25 or 30 and were on the fish for long periods of time. we were all exhausted and left them biting. Unreal day of fishing locally.