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July 07, 2008

Oregon's Amazing Albacore

Close-range longfins take center stage this summer

I had just touched down in Portland on a sunny August morning when my cell phone began buzzing. Bud Hosner, my energetic host for the coming week and co-owner of Big Tuna Marine in the quaint, seaside town of Garibaldi, Oregon, had some news.

"Come straight to the docks," Bud exclaimed! The afternoon sea looked to be nice and flat - "epic conditions," Bud called it. "We're going to give you a quick introduction to Oregon albacore - today!"
 
I jumped in my rental car, zipped west through the rolling hills of Tillamook State Forest and finally entered sleepy Garibaldi. Sure enough, there was Bud, along with his wife Michelle and Capt. Del Stephens, patiently waiting in the wings. We all shook hands, shared a few laughs, then pushed off aboard Bud's 30-foot Grady-White, Seelicious.
 
After running offshore about 12 miles, we slowed to deploy the trolling gear. I had been told Oregon albacore ran close to shore, but this close? Apparently so. It didn't take long for two lines to snap from the riggers. As we worked the fish near the boat, Bud began tossing live anchovies overboard, as well as a couple of baited lines. Soon, the water began to boil with activity.
 
Then, I caught sight of our quarry. They cruised in on quick angles and appeared like fat submarines. Gliding in over the dark-blue abyss, they were fascinating to watch; they almost looked like soaring birds with their pectorals spread so wide! Suddenly, I was snapped back into reality with a heavy thump on my line. I reeled tight, pulled back and was fast to my first Oregon longfin.
 
 
A Tuna Fishery Close to Home
From mid-June through October, albacore run thick in the waters off  northern Oregon's stunning coast. For recreational anglers, the season typically includes two parts: a troll fishery that lasts through mid-August and a run-and-gun fishery during the remainder, replete with opportunities for casting artificials and live baits to hungry albacore.
 
Oregon tuna have become the talk of the town in recent years. As albacore fishing has waned in some other areas, a rash of good weather has allowed more and more anglers to take advantage of Oregon's sometimes tumultuous seas and reach the tuna grounds safely.
 
At the same time, anglers are learning that Oregon tuna don't always require long-distance runs. Occasionally, these fish venture mighty close to shore. Last year, longfins were caught in salmon gear in 170 feet of water, just 2 1/2 miles from the coast!
 
It has all led to an explosion in tuna popularity - in numbers of anglers, online chat forums and a bustling tuna tournament series.
 
"Three years ago on a busy day off Newport, you might see 10 boats," explains Stephens, who runs Tuna Dog, a 33-foot Hydra-Sports. "Last year, you'd see 100 boats. This year, it's going to be 200 boats. We've got people from Washington, Northern California and even Southern California coming up to fish. A good day in Southern California is 10 fish. But you need 20 before you'd even consider it a decent day here."
 
Stephens, who began fishing the albacore in the early 1990s and whose best day last year netted 47 in just a couple of hours, says that while the fishery hasn't changed much over the years, it's just now getting noticed because of an increase in serious recreational anglers with larger boats capable of greater range. "And," he says, "the salmon fishery is obviously not doing so well. People are looking for something to fish for."
 
Indeed, in the wake of collapsed stocks, fisheries managers have implemented the most sweeping restrictions in Oregon's history on salmon fishing. Essentially, there will be none, which likely will bring more attention to the burgeoning tuna fishery.

Troll Up Some Longfins
Albacore sometimes begin showing up off Oregon as early as mid-June, but the Fourth of July typically marks the unofficial start of the season. A popular saying among Oregon tuna fishermen is that "anyone can catch a tuna in July!" The fish feed primarily on squid and krill during this time of year, and they are  ravenous. The best way to catch them is by trolling.
 
"Anything you pull behind the boat will get bit in July," Hosner says. "It's   pretty amazing."
 
Capt. Mike Jespersen, who operates Nalu Charters out of Depoe Bay, says these early fish generally show up around the seamounts and canyons associated with the 100-fathom line and the edge of the continental shelf. That drop-off varies from about 25 miles out in the southern regions of northern Oregon - around Newport and Depoe Bay - to approximately 45 miles offshore in the Astoria region.
 
"It's really common to catch fish in these canyon areas," Jespersen says. "The upwellings attract them. Later in the year, it depends on where the bait is. They follow the bait and the breaks of the chlorophyll. But in the early season, it's dictated by structure."
 
Stephens adds that the ideal water temperature for longfins is 58 1/2 degrees, with a half-degree break close by. A general range for good albacore fishing in these waters, however, is between 58 1/2 and 62 degrees.
 
Hosner has honed some of the most productive trolling spreads in Oregon, pulling much of his philosophy from Fred Archer's classic book, The Art of Tuna Trolling. Hosner relies primarily on lots of small lures that mimic the prevalent forage this time of year. Like Jespersen, he first targets his search for tuna around bottom structure. He also closely monitors Terrafin maps, watching to see where breaks in sea-surface temperatures overlap with chlorophyll boundaries.
 
"You want to be at the grounds by first light," Hosner says. "I like to run at least six, if not eight, lines. And the more teasers, the better. I like Archer's spreader bars. I run everything as close to the boat as I can and prefer everything inside the sixth wave."
 
Hosner has found that he can generate multiple hookups most easily by packing the spread tight, keeping it close to the transom and using heavy enough gear (30- and 50-pound outfits) to keep a hooked fish well under control.
 
"If you don't, you might pick up one or two fish, but then they're sounding and taking the rest of the school with them," he says. "If you bring the school to the back of the boat, you're going to get covered before the school dives."
 
And multiple hookups and big catches are what the game is all about early in the season.
 
"When the first rod goes off, you don't stop," says Jespersen, who likens the early-season bite to "controlled chaos!" "You want to keep running until you have two or three more fish on. Once we stop, we like to have someone casting for another fish. We let jigs and swim baits sink and try to work them around the gear. I try not to pull anything in if I don't have to. Once we get the fish in, we go forward with the throttles - you might pick up a couple more just as those lines jump to life."

Running and Gunning for Jumpers
The fishing may be hot and heavy early in the year, but it really gets exciting in mid- to late-August. The albacore switch from a diet of krill and squid to small baitfish, primarily anchovies. The tuna's movements are now dictated less by structure and depth and more so by the location of bait.
 
The fish may also move in closer to shore on occasion, as happened last year. Normally, anglers must run at least 25 miles to the edge of the continental shelf to find clean, blue water, but from time to time, it shifts in, bringing the bait and the tuna to the anglers.
 
"It varies from year to year," says Stephens. "But almost every year, there is a period of time when the clean water  and the tuna swing in closer to shore. A lot of people who haven't fished here in previous years don't know that it happens quite often."
 
The action can be wild at times. Big swaths of the Pacific can turn white with busting albacore - which the locals simply call "jumpers." And while they are ripe for the taking, anglers should also exercise some caution: These late-season tuna sometimes get spooky, especially if fishing pressure has been heavy.
 
Most of the experts in this area slow-troll swim baits between 1 1/2 to 4 mph. Anglers most commonly run 1 1/2-  to 2-ounce shad-style lead-head jigs  with 5-inch bodies made by Fish Trap Lures (www.fishtraplures.com, 858-273-6970). The most popular colors are Channel Island Chovy and Green Sardine. Plugs, such as Rapala X-Raps and Yo-Zuri models, also work effectively on the troll.
 
Trolling sometimes reveals pods of fish. Other times, they'll appear on the horizon busting bait. When that happens, skippers will throttle ahead and ease up to the school.
 
"We'll run up to them, kill the engines and even the radio, and pitch swim baits out," says Stephens. "Just let them fall in the water for five to 10 seconds. A lot of times, the tuna just pick them up on the fall. It's like a trout bite. If you don't get hit on the fall, just use a slow retrieve back."
 
Though only a handful of hard-nosed anglers have experimented with them in Oregon, metal jigs, such as Shimano's Butterfly jigging system, are also proving to be one of the deadliest ways to catch albacore when drifting through a school of jumpers. Let them sink five to 20 seconds, and then work them back aggressively.
 
The great thing about catching tuna this way is that gear can be sized down dramatically from the heavy equipment used earlier in the season. Anglers use stout casting outfits or spinning rigs, which provide real sport when dealing with longfins that average 15 to 18 pounds and may reach the mid-30s.
 
Stephens likes to use braided line on his outfits with a 10- to 15-foot top shot of mono. He completes the outfit with a 4- to 5-foot fluorocarbon leader. Fifty-pound-test is a good place to start, but you may have to scale back to 20- or 30-pound leader if the fish spook.
 
Another late-summer tactic that is a shoo-in for catching albacore is the use of live bait. Anchovies have historically been tough to come by in this region, but commercial bait sellers are beginning to act on the popularity of the budding fishery (consider that three of the four legs of the Oregon Tuna Classic this year will have live-bait vendors).
 
The routine is simple. Once you drift into a school of jumpers - or as you're reeling in a hooked fish off the troll - simply lob out a couple of rigged anchovies in the same fashion you might with the swim baits. Hosner likes 1/0 or 2/0 live-bait hooks, and sometimes he'll use a small in-line weight to get the offering down. Other times, however, a free-lined bait works just fine.
 
It won't take long for an albacore to find your bait, and if you've got an ample supply of anchovies, live-bait chumming can create quite a stir! It's a visually stimulating way to fish these albacore.
 
But the best part is watching those longfins approach and circle the boat. You'll never forget the way they glide through the water with those pectorals spread. They're one of the sleekest fish in all the Pacific - one of the most graceful of the sea.