The lengthy run south from San Diego is worth it for anglers targeting trophy wahoo and yellowtail.
January 6, 2014
Way off the coast of Baja Mexico, the Alijos Rocks jut out of the Pacific Ocean, attracting wahoo, yellowtail and yellowfin tuna. Watch how quickly a wahoo bite happens on the San Diego long-range boat Royal Star. The video starts when anglers cheer out and alert the captain that two anglers hooked up to wahoo on the troll. As the boat slows, anglers (that weren’t trolling off the stern) cast irons, wahoo bombs and live bait off the back, hoping to hook a wahoo from the school.
Black arrows mark anglers in the video that are hooked tight to wahoo. Notice how each fishermen is dragged around the boat, following their fish? Mates do an even better job of coaching the angler, maneuvering the hooked line in and around other lines, and making the gaff shot when necessary. On long-range boats out of San Diego, California, there is no fighting chair. Anglers bring aboard heavy tackle and fighting belts to battle fish mano-a-mano.
Our Long-Range Trip
Many great long-range fishing trips begin at San Diego’s Fisherman’s Landing. I wouldn’t say you have to be the best fisherman to go on one of these trips, but you do have to be dedicated. We boarded the Royal Star, a custom-built boat capable of handling 25-plus anglers.
On this mid November morning, crew members helped anglers load gear and bags for an 11-day fishing trip.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
One of the fishiest areas during our long-range trip was Alijos Rocks. Three main volcanic islets punch through the water’s surface in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We never got too close to the rocks, instead fishing the steep drop-offs from the rocks.
It takes about two days to get here from San Diego, a total of 480 miles south of Southern California (and 160 miles west of Baja).Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
One of the main targets around Alijos are wahoo, like this nice fish caught by Tom Walker.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
We fished aboard the Royal Star, a 92-foot vessel with 12 air-conditioned staterooms for two, plus 5 heads and 4 showers. On this trip the boat was captained by Tim Ekstrom, a top navigator with decades of experience and part owner of the boat.
The front of the boat houses two extra baitwells (not pictured) and holds two long-handled gaffs.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
A prime spot to keep your tackle boxes and rods are the shelves located just forward of four livewells at the stern. This way, you can grab new tackle, different rods or re-rig close to the action. Missed opportunities arise when the bite’s “wide open” and you can’t find your gear.
The incredible custom tackle boxes brought aboard the ship deserve a column of their own.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Many fishermen believe the next world record yellowtail could come from these rocks. Yellowtail fight and look similar to amberjack found in the Atlantic Ocean. I have no problem admitting that yellowtails taste much better than AJs, but the jury is still out on which species fights harder.
Another main target at Alijos are giant yellowtail like this catch by Shimano’s Marc Mills.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Before the boat ever left San Diego Harbor, one important stop was for live bait — bait pens float in line, near the mouth of the bay. Bait is vitally important for long-range trips, with many anglers depending on high-quality offerings to tempt trophy gamefish. Baits are sometimes caught on-site (called “making bait”) at the various fishing locations.
In this photo, Capt. Ekstrom and crew catch baitfish such as sardines from the pens with seine nets and load the wells using long-handled nets.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
The crew had to contend with pelicans, sea lions and other birds looking for a free handout at the bait pens. “It’s like Sea World back there,” said one angler.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Back at the rocks, the wahoo bite was on fire. Anglers hooked wahoo while trolling lures such as Braid Marauders or Yo-Zuri Bonita or casting lead-head skirts called wahoo bombs.
This wahoo, caught by Ryan Long, was hooked “slinging metal” (working a metal jig back to the boat quickly).Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Tallies for yellowtail, yellowfin tuna, bluefin tuna, skinnies (wahoo) and dodo (dorado) are kept for each angler to stay within Mexican fishing limits. At the left side of the board are numbers — those numbers each represent an angler on the boat. Mates place a tag with your individual number to the tail of each fish you keep. The board itself rests in a “grab” baitwell.
This well is where crew placed baits for anglers to hand-pick. Notice the baitfish swimming in one of the oversize wells, at right.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Marc Mills, of Shimano, brought aboard close to 100 rod-and-reel setups for anglers to use. Plus, he rigged some of the rods with Shimano wind-on leaders and a plethora of different Shimano metals. Some of the favorite rigs on the boat included the Talica II, Orca poppers, Stella SW, and Tranx.
Shimano rod-and-reel setups.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Look at the head of Phil Wade’s yellowtail — his big fish was chomped by an even bigger shark.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
While cruising between spots, Mills gave seminars to anglers interested in new Shimano products. Based out of Irvine, California, Shimano often tests their latest tackle for toughness on these long-range trips.
In this photo, Mills rigs new topwater plugs called Orcas.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
These Shimano Waxwings were rigged for wahoo on TranX setups. Waxwings are tied straight to braid main line for the best action, says Mills. Some lures were rigged with a trace of wire too.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
We used aviator safety wire pliers to tie the wraps in haywire twists. Tape was added to the nose of the pliers to prevent harming the wire. This neat trick came in handy, especially when tying numerous rigs.Sam Hudson
Heading toward Alijos Rocks, the Royal Star rendezvoused with the Royal Polaris. The Polaris was returning back to port from its own fishing trip and had left-over bait that we gladly took. Throughout the entire 11-day trip, we saw no more than a handful of boats on the water.
In this photo, four mates prepare to snatch up a buoyed net full of bait.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Three crew members hold the net while two others offload baits into the four giant wells. At left, notice a cutting board and two bait wells.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Besides fly-lining baits, wahoo bombs were one of the most effective presentations for wahoo. Anglers preferred casting gear over spinning gear by a far margin.
Notice this angler’s taped hands, a tactic to prevent cuts from the braided main line after extensive casts.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
The most productive way to catch wahoo was by trolling Marauder-or Bonita-style plugs. Four anglers trolled lures at the same time while searching for wahoo schools.
I hooked my biggest wahoo only to have it chomped by a massive shark. Still, the meat from this wahoo fed the whole boat dinner.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
This wahoo plug is just getting broken in! Chunks missing from plugs are common when targeting these speedy, toothy mackerel. Only when the hooks start falling off the plugs — or when they start swimming in circles — do the lures get retired.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Two lanyards connect a trolling reel to the Royal Star‘s stern rail. Four different setups can be trolled at once in this manner. The four setups are assigned to four anglers that make up a team. In total, there were five teams that took turns trolling for wahoo. This simple configuration and system is surprisingly effective for wahoo.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
The mates on long-range boats tend to be highly adept at getting fish in the boat, whether it’s gaffing a fish or untangling lines of anglers fighting fish.
A mate leans out to make a gaff shot on a hefty wahoo.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Fish like this wahoo are immediately bled out to preserve the fresh fillets. After, the fish are kept in the RSW (refrigerated sea water), a nearly freezing seawater slush to preserve the meat.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
When the wahoo action is hot, sometimes there’s not enough time to get the ‘hoos cooled down immediately. For a short while, wahoo can load up the deck.
Notice these fish have numbers stapled to their gill plates for identification. Plus, a clipped tail means the angler wants the fish processed at a fish-processing plant back onshore.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Randall Nimura landed this yellowtail near Alijos Rocks during a hot bite. (You can see the rocks in the background.)Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Besides fish like wahoo and yellowtail, other species were caught bottom-fishing near the rocks such as this big eye. Mostly, they’re released back to the ocean unless they’re particularly tasty.
Anglers tend not to spend much time on fish that aren’t wahoo, yellowtail, dorado or tuna. Still, lots of these species were new to me.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
The ocean whitefish was a common catch on live bait when targeting yellowtail on the bottom.
Often, if anglers caught a bunch of whitefish it meant it was time to move to a new spot.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
This spotback scorpionfish, caught on a metal jig, is often mistaken for a sculpin. Both the second and third dorsal fin spines are elongated and equal length.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Any number of rockfish are common catches on the bottom, most of them are colored in extreme shades.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Some anglers set up GoPro cameras to catch the fishing action when it’s happening.
The second floor allows for an unobstructed view.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine
Each night, tired anglers ate impressive dinners. In fact, breakfast, lunch and dinner were all tasty. Two full-time cooks made everything fresh, along with midmorning snacks and dinnertime bread. When the bite got out of control, the two cooks doubled as mates too, taking turns gaffing fish for anglers.Sam Hudson / Sport Fishing Magazine