SoCal Sportboat Fishing – Love At First Bite

First of all, I must admit that although I have extensive fishing knowledge pertaining to Northern California, I am still very new to the Southern California style of fishing. My experience is limited to two 3-day trips aboard that wonderfully fishy boat, the Pacific Queen (I will be back aboard her in just about a month). My first trip was a spontaneous affair. Since my son lives near San Diego, my wife went to visit him one summer and I was unable to go due to work. Being the great wife that she is, she felt bad about going without me. When she returned, she handed me a pamphlet she had picked up from the hotel where she was staying. It was a flier for the Pacific Queen and she convinced me to book a trip in September when I could get some time off.

SoCal Sportboat

It was such an amazing adventure. I did a little research into the tackle and bought a couple of reels (I doubted if I would be able to rent left-handers). I flew solo into San Diego and stayed in the Dolphin Motel (now closed) right across the street from the landing, a clean but very bare-bones room. I checked in with the landing and rented poles to go with my new reels and pressed the guys in the shop for as much info as I could get out of them. They were very patient and willing to share what they knew.

SoCal Sportboat

Now, loaded up with what I thought I would need, it was time to board. I loved how fishy the boat looked. I had never seen livewells so big. At 6 foot and 300-pounds, I looked at the bunk doubtfully, but I got in to try it out and realized that it would serve me well. I realize a shower is a necessity on a 3-day, but I never-the-less saw it as an absolute luxury on a fishing boat.

After stowing my gear, I went on deck to chat with my fellow anglers. Everyone was friendly (even the rowdy guys setting up on the port side) and I could tell this was going to be a fun trip. As final preparations were being made, I watched an enormous, one-eyed sea lion playing around the boat’s stern. And then we were underway. A short cruise took us to the bait docks and once again I was amazed. I had been to bait docks many times, but the sheer size of this operation was beyond me. I found a corner that would keep me from getting in the way of the deckhands who were running up and down the length of the boat frantically dumping scoop after scoop of beautiful sardines into the bait tanks…yes, I said tanks. Plural. In addition to the huge stern tank, there was also one on the bow.

Ahead of us at the bait dock, I noticed a boat that I had seen during my online research, the Excel, a long range, luxury fishing operation. Luxury. Fishing. Two words I had never used in the same sentence before I came to San Diego. I marveled at the gear in the rod racks. A quick calculation told me I was probably looking at somewhere around $100,000 worth of rods and reels. A conservative estimate, I am sure.

Livewells full, we headed out to sea. The sun was bright but not too hot, a light breeze blew, and the water was nearly flat. In the galley, Johnny was putting together the first of the many top-notch meals we were to enjoy. Being something of a cook myself, I was very impressed with his skills and ability to cater to any special requests. In the bow, Captain Gavin gave an introduction speech. He was funny and very knowledgeable and I followed everything he said with the utmost attention. I was surprised to find out that the boat generated her own water from the sea so that conservation was not an issue. Being a first-timer, many of the things he said I took on faith only later to discover just how right he was.

First stop: the Coronados, targeting yellowtails for the remainder of the afternoon. We drove around for a bit and then the motors backed off and I heard those words I had been waiting for: “Let’s give it a try right here”. I flylined a live sardine for the first time in my life. I had watched several online videos regarding choosing and tossing these baits and together with the captain’s advice I was reasonably sure I was doing it right. I was an old hand with conventional reels so casting was not a problem for me.

SoCal Sportboat

My bait hit the water 20-feet out and immediately swam out and down. Next to me, one of my fellow anglers hooked up and dodged under my line to follow her fish. As I watched her I felt a tug on my own pole. I’m bit!!! Well, sort of. My bite was a hungry sea lion taking my sardine’s body and leaving only the head.

A few yellowtail hit the deck but none of them were mine. An absolute herd of sea lions chased us from spot to spot making it nearly impossible to get a bait down. I didn’t mind though. I enjoy watching people catch fish even if I am not. I chalked it up to my inexperience. As the sun was setting we dropped anchor in a sheltered spot and enjoyed a fantastic dinner. It was a long day and I crawled into my bunk with the knowledge that we would give the yellowtail a try again in the morning in the same spot. The gentle waves rocked me into one of the deepest nights of sleep I had ever known. I had spent untold hours on the water, but I had never slept on the ocean before and I must say that it was one of the finest experiences of my life.

Sometime in the middle of the night, the cadence of the swells changed and I awoke to the sounds of the engines humming along at cruising speed. We were on the move. I had no idea what time it was but I crept up to the galley to see what was going on. A sleepy deckhand informed me that the captain had received a report of some yellowfin down south and we were going to check it out. Now I’m excited. I am somewhat obsessive and as soon as I had booked this trip I had studied to find out all I could about yellowfin. I got myself a cup of coffee (sleep was no longer an option) and settled in to wait it out. Several hours later the sun broke clear over a calm sea dotted here and there with distant boats and land was visible as a dark smudge on the eastern horizon. The smell of breakfast brought everyone on deck but before it could be served the captain was heard over the PA asking for some bait to be tossed as we slid up onto a kelp paddy. I grabbed my rod and stood at the livewell keyed up with anticipation.

And then it was fishing! I tossed out my sardine. It was a swimmer and as I watched it dive, a flash appeared from the depths and line peeled from my reel. Straight down it went. I have hooked more fish in my life than I can remember (salmon, sturgeon, striper, steelhead, halibut, lingcod, rock cod) but nothing compared to the power on the other end of my line at this moment. I began to get nervous as my reel emptied, wondering if I had gone too light on the drag. I made the cardinal mistake of putting my thumb on the spool to slow it down and watched with horror as smoke appeared. My thumb actually smoked! The run finally stopped and I gathered my wits and got to work. I gained the line back in bursts as the fish allowed. For every 30-yards I gained, I gave back 10, but I was winning. The tuna had now started doing the circling I had heard of so many times. As he came towards me, I reeled like a madman and I put pressure on him as he moved away. Each circle got smaller and brought it closer to the boat.

And then there it was. Color. It seemed like I had been fighting this fish for hours, but in reality, it was closer to 20 minutes. Having my senses now, I kept it below the surface. One of the deckhands had been paying attention and knew that he would soon be needed (these guys were awesome-no doubt the most professional crew I had ever had the honor of fishing with). Knowing I was new to this, he guided me so that he could get the gaff in my fish. My 30-pound fish hit the deck and began slapping its tail in that same drumroll rhythm I had been hearing in the background all over the boat during my fight.

I was on the board!

SoCal Sportboat

The day continued much the same. We trolled between paddies and got into schools here in there and filled the holds with yellowfin and dorado. It was fishing at its finest. Awesome crew, great people, perfect weather, and catching fish. There were plenty of downtimes to relax and recuperate from these powerful fish. At one point, one of the trolling rods hooked a marlin and the young man who was up on that pole fought that fish like a champ for nearly an hour. It was a striped marlin and entertained us by dancing on its tail with some acrobatic leaps added in for good measure. It was released in the water, a beautiful, majestic fish, worthy of its reputation.

There was a long period of trolling with no action and lunch was served. Despite the fact that something to eat was always available in the galley, everyone made sure to take part in Johnny’s meals. He took pride in what he did and it showed, not to mention he was one of those characters who had all the stories you love to hear. I took my plate out on deck and as I was eating I noticed a change in the crew’s attitude. On this troll they had become relaxed after cleaning the decks and stowing the fish, getting a breather from the day’s exploits. But now they were in action: hosing the decks, loading up the bait holders, all business now. No one else seemed to notice. My curiosity was piqued. Two of them were in a close, whispered conversation when one of them glanced ahead of the boat, and following his gaze, I saw a huge paddy about a mile away. Now I knew what had them excited. Even at this distance, fish could be seen jumping and rolling all around it. It must have been 100-yards across. Now the word was out and my fellow anglers were gearing up for what turned out to be the most chaotic fishing scene of my life up to that point.

We slid up on the paddy and if there was anyone who wasn’t hooked up, I didn’t see them.

SoCal Sportboat

As far as I could tell, every rod was bent and we ducked and dodged around each other like some kind of square dance. We all worked together to follow our fish and it was remarkable to see. Fish were hitting the deck everywhere. On four casts, I had four hookups and landed all four fish. Not bad for a beginner but I confess that I had to take a break. My back was singing. My arms were twitching. These were smaller fish but the power packed into those streamline bodies is incredible.

Our last dinner on the boat was a wonderful prime rib. I gratefully climbed into my bunk, exhausted and happy and quickly fell asleep as the waves gently rolled. I awoke to the lights of San Diego. I squared my galley tab and gave a generous tip to the worthy crew.

The captain’s skills were once again evident as he threaded his way to the dock in reverse.

SoCal Sportboat

Offloading was accomplished quickly and fish were piled in stacks according to each angler’s number. Some of us arranged to have it processed professionally, some on the boat and some took their fish home to do themselves. I opted for a processor and caught an Uber to the airport. As I looked down upon the beautiful City of San Diego, I knew something had begun. I was hooked worse than any of the fish I caught. I had been fishing my whole life and nothing had given me as much satisfaction as what I had just experienced. I knew I would be back and I was right.

I was back the next year, accompanied by my son and his best buddy who had listened to my tales and couldn’t resist seeing if I was telling the truth or tales so often associated with fishermen. That trip is another story for another time but it suffices to say that it was better than the first. And here I am, 34 days and counting to the next trip. I have a little experience under my belt and I am focusing on the finer points, spending money like it’s free on tackle and gear. Another adventure. I can’t wait.

Don Zamzow
Don Zamzow is a passionate student of fishing who has spent decades exploring all the waters of Northern California targeting the likes of stripers, s...