San Diego Long-Range Fishing

A greenhorn heads to Baja for explosive yellowfin tuna, wahoo, dorado and yellowtail action.

Click through the gallery above to experience the 11-day day adventure, targeting massive yellowfin tuna, wahoo, yellowtail and dorado. Below, this video clip shows how to tie the San Diego Jam, a popular connection for long-range anglers tying plugs or irons to their leaders:

San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Sea air hung heavy with anticipation as Capt. Tim Ekstrom called for lines in. Over the previous two days, 24 obsessed anglers had rigged and examined their tackle, embellished fish stories, and gorged on chef-prepared meals as Royal Star chugged southwest 545-plus miles from San Diego's Fisherman's Landing.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Capt. Tim Ekstrom combed the outside contours of the Alijos seamount as four anglers trolled high-speed Yo-Zuri Bonitas or Braid Marauders, waiting for that opening wahoo bite. Each troller held a spot at the transom rail, assigned to a 50-pound-class boat rod hanging from a lanyard. The rest of us waited with anticipation, holding high-speed casting outfits rigged with a trace of single-strand wire and a favorite iron (casting jig). The author landed this ’hoo while trolling, with help from Paul Carameo. Behind, anglers cast lures and baits to nearby fish. Ekstrom S-curved the 92-foot vessel after marking wahoo on the sounder, and soon a clicker screamed out above our conversations. Crew member Blake Wasano yelled, “Fish on!” to signal the captain, then went to assist the angler. “Reel, reel, reel!” he shouted. With the anticipation broken, everyone else launched his lures into the sea. (Photo Credit: Capt. Tim Ekstrom)Courtesy Tim Ekstrom
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Marc Mills, with Shimano's ­fishing-tackle division, rushed for an open spot at the rail. He loaded his rod, an 8-foot medium-heavy Terez, and chucked out the 50-pound braid tipped with a Shimano Waxwing. The metal sank for about 10 seconds, and then he cranked furiously on the levelwind conventional, pointing the rod tip toward the jig. That's Pacific wahoo fishing in a nutshell. Wahoo are impossibly fast and swim in gangs, says Mills, so long-range boats utilize a system of trolling to find the fish, and then switch to drifting to allow a large group of fishermen a shot at casting to the “skinnies.”Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
All around me, anglers fished their own outfits; rods trended on the heavy side, most equipped with high-retrieve, single-speed star-drag reels. Presentations ranged from metal jigs, surface iron and wahoo bombs to live sardines fly-lined away from the boat. West Coast jig makers such as Raider, Sumo, Salas and Tady made up most of the surface iron, simple lures crafted from colored aluminum alloys.Sam Hudson
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San diego Long-Range Mayhem
I had a blast watching wahoo launch at my bomb just a push pole’s length from the boat. I was glad Long Beach angler Mark Rhodes convinced me to try his homemade bomb (pictured). Bombs feature a wire leader running through a weighted head dressed with a ­reflective skirt; a blade attaches to the hook. The fight itself was short after the intense attack. Mate Wasano plucked the 35-pound ’hoo with a gaff after my 30-second battle boat-side.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Plenty of other anglers had lengthier battles on that first day at Alijos. I watched them hook up at all positions around the boat. Capt. Ekstrom and crewman Paul Carameo kept anglers switching between trolling, casting and ­live-baiting to extend the action, stoking one of the best wahoo bites of my life.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Daybreak at Alijos Rocks was a ­figurative blur. Mills, my host for the trip, said we should expect premiere yellowtail action in the morning. “You know how hard amberjack fight, right?” asks Mills. “Well, yellowtail look similar and fight just as hard, but they taste so much better — they’re often served as sashimi.” But even his warning didn’t prepare me for Alijos Rocks turning from a wahoo highway to yellowtail city overnight. With fish surpassing 50 pounds, these ’tails weren’t the smaller specimens found closer to Southern California kelp. Pictured, Jason Long shows off a heavy catch.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
On anchor, anglers cast out heavy iron, letting the lures plunge to the bottom. The guys who reeled their lures back the quickest hooked massive yellowtail. This iron differed from its surface counterparts in that the jigs were much heavier, and worked straight up and down up like a yo-yo. Other guys pinned live sardines to dropper-loop rigs and landed even more fish than those slinging metal. Mills and I used heavy jigs, paired with Trevala rods and Trinidad 16 reels spooled with 65-pound braid. (No surprise there: Mills brought on board $100,000 worth of tackle for everyone to use on the trip!) When he hung a yellowtail, his thin-diameter rod bent like the inside of a Roman arch. But with each turn of the reel — never stop reeling unless a fish is pulling drag! — he made everyone believers in his light rod as the yellowtail grudgingly came to the surface. Ekstrom mentioned that yellowtail sometimes head to the surface to feed, but not on this trip; we had to work for every jack, fighting each from the depths.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Before we ever left San Diego, Ekstrom and crew loaded massive livewells with healthy sardines from floating pens at the mouth of San Diego Bay. A good supply of lively bait is often paramount for hooking tuna, wahoo and yellowtail, especially if there’s no bait around to be made. But baits die off, and wells eventually need replenishing throughout the trip. So the night before we headed for the Lower Banks, Capt. Ekstrom anchored us in the protected waters of Magdalena Bay, and this East Coaster learned how to make bait. Making bait isn’t nearly as magical as it sounds; it involves using sabiki rigs with squid imitations or large-profile fish skins to catch mackerel. No mackerel were produced out of thin air, but each of us did his part, loading the livewells and having fun with bycatch, like calico bass.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Long-range trips like those based out of San Diego can last from two days to two weeks, and our 11-day haul allowed us enough time to head south 600-plus miles from San Diego to the Lower Banks. Here, cow yellowfin (200-plus pounds) collect in fall. We spent three days hitting areas west of Magdalena Bay to Cabo San Lucas, spots like the Finger Banks, Lusitania Bank and Morgan Bank. The method was scratch fishing — fly-lining large mackerel for long hours for a chance at monsters. Striped marlin catches kept spirits up during long soak periods. Ekstrom often positioned us on ridges that cut through the large banks, always looking for current. The banks were steep, with one precipice ­plummeting from 100 to 1,000 fathoms.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Fishing
“Every cow tuna hooked I hear on the sonar before it hits,” says Ekstrom. “Yellowfin have a very distinct audio.” Besides that, Ekstrom predicts the size of the fish we’re likely to encounter at each spot, helping fishermen decide how heavy the tackle they should use. “If we’re in 70 fathoms, the yellowfin could be 30 to 60 fathoms down,” says Ekstrom, “but they have no problem swimming upward 300 feet in a couple of seconds to hit a surface bait.” Veteran long-rangers manhandle their cows, outlasting the yellowfin from a dead boat with stand-up tackle, all the while dancing between anglers, anchor rode and other fishing lines. Sometimes two or three different gaff hooks are necessary to pull the fish onboard.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Only a handful of fishermen landed cow tunas, and for each of them, it was a personal best. My Shimano Terez rod paired with a Talica 50 II Speed held enough 100-pound Hollow Ace to outlast a cow. Other anglers used comparable gear. Strapped into an AFTCO Clarion fighting belt, my arms, back and legs yearned for a shot. But some anglers spend a lifetime looking for that cow, so I wasn’t deterred after striking out on my first trip. Instead I was impressed, and a bit jealous, by the way veteran long-rangers like Tom Walker and Gunner Kruse handled their cows, outlasting the yellowfin from a dead boat with stand-up tackle, all the while dancing between anglers, anchor rode and other fishing lines. Pictured, Mark Rhodes poses with his cow yellowfin tuna, a fish over 200 pounds.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Heading north from the Lower Banks, we fished an expansive area of ledges 30 to 100 miles off Baja called the Ridge. Initial wahoo and yellowtail catches had anglers psyched up. Known for its wide-open action, it was exactly as Ekstrom predicted. “There’s so much action, so much going on, the Ridge is masterful at making even experienced anglers look like novices,” says Ekstrom. While searching out kelp, dead whales and other debris, Ekstrom crept along a temperature break that teemed with life. Soon, from his catbird seat in the cockpit, he spotted single dorado free-jumping. Those jumps led Royal Star to a school of blue missiles 1,000 strong. That’s when the deck turned into a free-for-all. Cooks even came out to help gaff fish.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
I cast a Shimano Orca surface plug and watched a dodo (SoCal slang for mahi) annihilate my plug instantly. Mostly, anglers used live baits with single hooks, easy and safe for crew to tag-and-bag the 10- to 20-pounders. With limits almost met, astute anglers handpicked the biggest fish from the school, while others worked hookless plugs to watch the strikes. Mexican regulations allow anglers to keep six dorado daily, so Ekstrom let the boat have two sessions with the massive school before peeling away.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Our next run-in with mayhem occurred when Ekstrom spotted tuna “breezing” with schools of spinner and spotted dolphins. Usually the larger 125-pound yellowfin associate with the dolphin, he says, but these tuna were a smaller variety. Pictured, the crew kept the fish nearby with chum as anglers picked away. Mills and I cast Shimano Waxwings on spinning reels to elicit exciting surface strikes. We attracted enough attention that we happily gave up our rigs for others to try. The evening bite saw three anglers land yellowfin to 45 pounds while running-and-gunning near a different dolphin school. “It’s the best kind of jerkin’ and pullin’,” quipped Ekstrom.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
When hooked to a giant tuna that’s digging and circling, don’t be afraid to put your rod directly on the rail. Tackle manufacturers make “rail rods” for this exact purpose: to handle the abuse. Turning a fish is vital on an anchored boat, and a rail provides surprising leverage as a fulcrum. Some anglers are able to manhandle a fish with just a fighting belt, but catching fish after fish can tire even the most fit among us. I watched anglers put the rod between their legs and “sit” on it, reeling hard each time they stood up. Others stuck that rod butt under their armpit and kneeled on one leg, reeling hard just the same when they stood.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Three-hundred-plus miles south of our homeport, Cedros Island sits about 14 miles off mainland Baja. This last significant stop on our trek is famous for yellowtail to 50 pounds, calico bass to 12 pounds and halibut to 30 pounds, says mate Blake Wasano. This illustration shows how far the Royal Star long-range boat chugged to the main fishing grounds we encountered, southwest about 545 miles from San Diego’s Fisherman’s Landing. (Illustration: Brenda Weaver)Map illustration by Brenda Weaver
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Ekstrom maneuvered us around the island, searching for balls of yellowtail. At one especially productive area off southern Cedros, near the deepwater salt docks, yellowtail furiously struck our yo-yo and Butterfly jig offerings. The process went like this: Ekstrom yelled, “Drop!” after marking the yellowtail ball on the meter, and anglers free-spooled their jigs down to the fish. After that, it was catch and repeat. Popular colors are blue-and-purple, blue-and-white and green-and-yellow — but honestly, I’m not sure how much it matters. With all the rods bent tight to fish along the rail, a view of the boat would have looked like the ribcage of a giant woolly mammoth. Aside from the salt docks and few boats we saw all trip, it’s hard not to feel like one’s fishing in a long-ago world, full of large, plentiful fish. Make no mistake, long-rangers are hard-core trophy hunters — they want to catch the biggest wahoo, yellowfin and yellowtail in the Pacific, and then they want to take ’em home to eat. Ekstrom knows a trip is going great when the wahoo average 50 pounds and yellowfin 120. Luckily for us, that’s the type of fishing to expect from long-range boats such as Royal Star, and others that call San Diego home.
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Capt. Tim Ekstrom works the controls one evening after dinner. Between him and at least two other mates with captain's licenses, steering and maneuvering the boat is a 24-hour job. Make Plans Who: Experienced offshore anglers wanting oversize wahoo, yellowtail and yellowfin tuna, plus high numbers of dorado. Long-range boats specifically target good-eating, plus-size schooling species to allow all anglers a high chance at trophies and fillets. When: Marc Mills and I booked our 11-day trip on Royal Star for late November, but long-range trips are available most months. One-week trips are common in the summer months. Consider what species you want to target and how many days you can get away from home. Bluefin prefer 60- to 68-degree water, while yellowfin favor 73 to 75 degrees. Call Fisherman's Landing to find out what's biting.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
What to Pack: Most anglers bring their own high-quality tackle. One 30- to 50-pound casting outfit (conventional or spinning) is a must for iron, jigs and wahoo bombs. Twenty-five-, 50- and 100-pound conventional outfits handle live-lining baits for all sizes of species. Two-speed reels spooled with braided polyethylene really shine. Terminal gear is the same stuff you'd take on a standard offshore trip. Wind-on leaders are vital for live-baiting, plus a variety of circle hook sizes are necessary to adapt to the different-size species. Weights, fighting belt, dikes, leader material (fluoro and wire) and reel-maintenance tools are all mandatory. With anything you forget or need help rigging, crew members can assist. Three delicious meals plus snacks, prepared by two full-time cooks, mean you don’t have to worry about food. For clothes, pack for each new day; you will get bloody, fishy and sweaty. Deck boots and lightweight bibs are popular.Sam Hudson
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San Diego Long-Range Mayhem
Fish Prep: The crew handles all your catches. Each fish kept is bled thoroughly and gutted immediately, then tagged with your number and added to the RSW (refrigerated seawater). The RSW sits belowdecks at the transom and keeps your fish in primo condition at just-above-freezing temps. Once back on land, Royal Star offers fish processing and shipping services at Fisherman's Processing (pictured). Of course, anglers can take their fish to clean themselves or have them cleaned at another local processor. Royal Star and other organizations like Fish. Food. Feel Good can donate unwanted fish to charities, but neither encourages needlessly killing fish. Cost: My all-inclusive 11-day trip was priced at $3,695 (without tips), but prices vary for longer and shorter trips. Staterooms were air-conditioned, Wi-Fi is available, and heads and showers are cleaned multiple times daily.Sam Hudson