There’s not one among us who hasn’t looked at the old photos from the Avalon Tuna Club and fantasized about being able to go back in time and get a shot at the leaping tuna that seemed so prevalent. That island and those fish were the crucible within which modern saltwater sport fishing was forged. Anglers like Charles Fredrick Holder, who’s catch of a record 183-pound fish in 1898 led to the formation of the Tuna Club, author Zane Grey, and “Tuna George” Farnsworth, namesake of the island’s biggest bank and developer of the kite trolled flying fish, drove advancements in tackle and technique.
The fish continued to bite through the turn of the century and well into its first decade, but eventually they left. There’s not much info available on when those tuna first showed up at the island or when exactly they left but after 1909, things got pretty quiet. The amount of angling pressure they received certainly wasn’t enough to wipe out the population so it’s obvious that something caused the fish to move on.
The LA Times reported on the fishing improving in 1899. “Avalon, July 4 — the world’s tuna record was broken last evening by Colonel C. P. Moorhouse of Pasadena, who landed a 251-pound tuna with rod and reel after a battle which lasted three hours and twenty minutes. The tuna was hooked off White Rock about sundown and the greater part of the battle was fought in total darkness. The movements of the tuna were exceedingly hard to follow and great care had to be exercised to keep the line from parting. Frank V. Rider captured a 175-pound tuna this morning off Long Point, after two hours and thirty-one minutes of rare sport. Schenck landed a 150-pound tuna in two hours this morning. This is Mr. Schenck’s first tuna and he is now a member of the famous Tuna club.”
The bite carried on into 1900. “Tuna fishing in now par excellence. Great schools of the leaping monsters are seen daily and seldom is the anxious angler compelled to come in without a strike, although he may not land his fish when hooked. Friday morning and afternoon schools of tuna played back and forth across the bay not over a hundred yards from shore, pursuing a school of mackerel which had run in. Every day, three to ten of the huge fish are brought to gaff, and the smaller ones have almost ‘ceased to count.’ Friday three were landed, two of which weighed 108-pounds and the other 120. The largest was caught by Franklin C. Schenck of New York, an enthusiastic fisherman, who has landed eight tuna since his arrival several weeks ago.”
Reports continued through the summer of 1904. “That tuna, the great game fish that infests the waters about Santa Catalina Island, are plentiful in this channel was demonstrated Monday when Reverend Warren D. More and a party of friends encountered a large school of these monsters a short distance beyond the kelp line… Captain Gourley, who had the party out, reports that tuna can be seen in the channel during most of the summer months.”
But warnings went out out that the bluefin were picky eaters. “Flying fish have been seen in large numbers lately, and it is the only bait that tempts the big tuna…”
By 1905 anglers realized that there were more tuna around than they thought. “There is no need of confining tuna fishing to the waters of Catalina. The same fish may be found in the Santa Barbara channel, and the one reason they have not been caught here is that the fishermen have not understood the methods of their capture. Captain Merry of the Vishnu contributes the following facts in connection with the sport… flying fish necessary for bait…”
In 1909 there was a report. “Guests at the Potter Hotel are given convincing evidence that leaping tuna abound in the Santa Barbara channel by a photograph of the three monster game fish caught by S. Larco’s fishermen last week. The card is tacked to a bulletin board near the hotel desk, and on the board in large letters is written, ‘Caught in Santa Barbara channel August 23.’ The sign has already attracted much attention.” Later that year talk turned to boats chasing huge schools of albacore off Santa Cruz island and then there was nothing but silence.
What does any of this have to do with the big tuna that are biting off our coast right now? Probably nothing, but it just might mean that we are in year three of a potentially decade long cycle that repeats every hundred years or so in Southern California waters. If that is the case, the next few years will be pretty interesting and come 2022 or 2023 there might just be some damned good albacore fishing off the Channel Islands.
Whatever the case, this big tuna bite is important enough to sportfishing in Southern California that 100 years from now fishermen are going to look back at old grainy Instagram photo archives and marvel at the size of the leaping tuna while dreaming of the opportunity to go back in time to get in on some of that action. So regardless of whether you catch one or strike out, just be glad to be alive and fishing during one of the brief moments that the stars align and these big fish bite.