By Del Stephens. I rolled out of bed and made my way outside where my father and grandfather were getting the boat ready. Still groggy and barely awake , my brother and I scrambled up into the camper and soon we were off to the coast. We climbed up onto the bed but were too excited to go back to sleep, instead we watched for deer along the highway to the coast. It was always fun to see how many we could count on the two hour ride, from Corvallis to Newport, through the coast range. In 1969 the highway still had plenty of curves and deer along the road. Once we rolled into Newport we’d drive through the state park overlooking the jetties and to get a look at the offshore conditions. If the conditions looked favorable we’d launch the boat and soon be a few miles offshore fishing for salmon.
Fast forward about 20 years, same scenario, but this time I was towing my own boat and this would be the start of another chapter in my life, I was about to have my first experience with albacore tuna. When I heard tuna were close to shore and everyone was getting them, I had to try it. I had caught tuna in Mexico but never offshore after them in my own boat.
A three hour drive through the coast range before daylight and a quick stop for tuna feathers, from one of the locals, and we should be running offshore in no time but as luck would have it the best laid plans sometimes get derailed. The local tackle guy was a no show and after waiting for an hour we decided to run offshore and see what we could do. I figured these were predator type fish and some of the plugs I used for Mackinaw Lake Trout should work. The local marina store gave us some coordinates and said “just run to this location and you’ll see the fleet of boats and you should be in the fish”. Could it be that easy..? We were greeted with a smooth glassy ocean and it was a quick twenty miles to the coordinates we were given but it was a lonely ocean with no boats in sight. I scanned the horizon with binoculars, looking for the fleet, when my buddy wanted to know what the fish were that were jumping beside the boat. Amazing, we had found the tuna but the fleet of boats was nowhere to be found so we decided to try our luck and started deploying large mackerel looking plugs.
Wham, the first rod went off before I could even get it in the rod holder .Half way through a blistering run I hear the sound of metal disintegrating right in my hands. The drag was toast and now I had to use my thumb for a drag. A few short runs later and I had the fish up next to the boat, going around and around in what I would eventually come to know as the tuna death spiral. It was wild pandemonium and my buddies white shorts soon turned to pink from the blood bath that ensued. We were using heavy salmon rods which handled the fish fine but the reels were no match for the incredible blistering runs they’d make when they exploded on one of the plugs. We soon had eight nice fat tuna onboard, four reels that were pretty wasted and a cooler that was stuffed, so we decided to stop. Smiling and laughing at what had just happened, we rinsed the boat out and headed back to port. It wasn’t even noon yet and normally you’d think if you missed the first light bite, things would be slow but these silver bullets hit everything we put overboard and of course it was also mid-July and folks around here have a saying I’ve come to know well, “anyone can catch a tuna in July”. So true that day, as we were living proof.
Fast forward another 20 years to last season and you’ll hear many stories of similar experiences from fishermen getting their first taste of this incredible fishery. Throughout the late 1900’s the Chinook Salmon has been king of the saltwater in the pacific northwest but declining runs of Chinook and Coho have left offshore anglers looking for something else to chase. Albacore have been available and harvested by the commercial fishermen for many years and only recently in the last few years have a handful of sport fishermen realized they were out there. Albacore move into the waters off northern California, Oregon and Washington as the summer currents from the south push the warm temperatures above 58 degrees. Typically July 4th signals the start of the season and boats go looking running 40-60 miles offshore. The early part of the season is extraordinary by any standards and is what gets people addicted to the fishery. The singing of line screaming off reels with doubles, triples, and quads is to a tuna fisherman what a hit of cocaine is to a drug addict. Only a tuna fisherman has to wait all winter and spring to get their fix. That first fix of the season is the beginning and the end, the beginning of the offshore tuna season and the end to what wives know of the husbands until late fall when the season comes to end and they sulk back into their semi-normal state.
To say that what has happened to fishermen in the waters of the northwest is a fad, would be a gross understatement. It is the fastest growing fishery on the west coast by any standards. When you mention albacore on the west coast, most people think of southern California but things are constantly changing in the offshore fisheries and with liberal limits in Oregon and no limits in Washington, there are days when the bite is so hot you could boat 100 fish by noon, that is, if you had the storage and ice capacity. It’s not to uncommon for four anglers to bring home 40 plus fish the first few times until they realize they can’t eat all those fish and start imposing self limits just to be able to get another chance to run offshore and get another fix.
The albacore fishery off Oregon and Washington is very healthy and has seen a strong increase in the numbers of fish the last 10 years. Recreational anglers, even in spite of the liberal limits, take less than 1% of the overall harvest, leaving commercial boats from Oregon, Washington, California, Canada and Hawaii to take the bulk of the annual harvest.
Albacore fishing has quickly become an obsession for many NW anglers.
Tuna addicts as many are referred to start watching online sea surface websites such as www.terrafin.com waiting for the warm water in northern California to form a solid connection to the warm water off Oregon and Washington, “Tuna Alley” or the “Tuna Highway” as it’s sometimes referred to. Once that has occurred and is within a reasonable distance offshore it’s time to run. Just a few short years ago a reasonable distance to run for most northwest anglers would’ve been 35-40 miles in their pursuit of Halibut but today reasonable is anything within 75 miles. On occasion the warm water will swing in within 10-15 miles and a few more salmon fishermen will get a taste of what’s it’s like to catch a sports car with a fishing rod and their lives will change forever. Welcome to the dark side and the addiction begins for another tuna newbee. They start looking at blue water tackle online and search for a bigger boat. The need for bigger smoother riding offshore boats has driven many anglers to the east coast for big center consoles with full enclosures, Hydra Sports and Yellowfins are showing up along with an occasional 35-57 foot Bertram, Cabos, Albamarles, Rivieras,Luhrs and other styles not readily known in the northwest. To say “the landscape of the offshore fishing in the pacific northwest is changing” would be putting it lightly.
Chasing this fabulous table fare is not a complicated endeavour. You wait for the warm water to show up, run offshore looking for birds working the surface or locate temperature breaks and chances are you’ll find these longfin bullets. Places where there are up wellings from sea mounds or dramatic changes in structure are also great places to look.
In between offshore ventures a few of these tuna addicts will get together at a local watering hole and you’ll hear phrases not commonly known to this latitude. Things mentioned like”Daisy chains”,…one might think this would be something your kids would play with or “teasers”,…no ladies, this is not some GQ looking guy that tuna addicts use to attract women to join them for a drink but it’s not a bad idea in some cases. A tuna addict who hasn’t fished for awhile can be a scruffy looking character. In the middle of winter someone will announce a TA meeting. The first time I ask my wife if she wanted to go with me, you should’ve seen the look, I had to explain it was for Tuna Aholics. I told her it’s no big deal, just a few guys getting together to talk about fishing, although we do have a 12 step program and if you really want to be cured, the first thing on the program is don’t go to a TA meeting, it just makes things worse.
This scenario will continue to be played out over and over throughout the month of July and into early August until they ply their tactics and return to port someday with little to show for their effort. The fish are still there but have now changed feeding habits and it’s time to change tactics. This is where the seasoned anglers continue to bring home the bounty while the beginners or tuna newbees, as they are referred to, either learn a new method or troll endlessly in hopes their tactics will still work. Some will go home to pursue other species, while others will still have the need for the fix and will learn to jig iron, pitch swim baits and in some cases get lucky enough to fish live bait.
Some might laugh at us since we are truly novices compared to anglers farther south, who have been catching tuna for years, but it’s still new enough for most that they get excited to hear stories of others catching fish or of another opportunity to run to the blue water. You have to be pretty hardy to chase these guys because the summer winds on the north Pacific can be brutal and a 4 foot wind chop on a 6 foot swell at 8 seconds apart can test the durability of any good boat as well as the endurance of any seasoned saltwater fisherman. Many a good angler will set on the sidelines and watch the weather forecast, then make plans to call in sick or take a day off from work, should the need arise during the week.
Labor Day weekend is the end for some as their kids are now back in school and fall hunting is pulling them away from the coast. Wives who have gone through a season know what to expect and are breathing a sigh of relief, as the man that resembles their husband starts to focus back on family, school, fall football, work, etc. The kinds of things most normal husbands deal with during the year. Many of them will never fully recover and soon will secretly start counting the days till they can run to the blue water. A few TA meetings to get them through the winter and they’ll have their own stories to share with fellow Tuna Aholics. Life will be good..
Bio…Del Stephens is a Pro Staff angler for Daiwa, Scotty Downriggers, Gamakatsu, Fish Trap Lures, Ballyhood, Garmin, Mustang Survival and is on the VIP programs of many other companies. He operated a charter business for many years but today devotes his time to running the Oregon Tuna Classic Tournament Series of offshore tournaments and overseeing his company, Dura Industries In northwest Portland.