Albacore Tuna  

 

Pacific Juvenile Albacore in the Ensenada/San Diego Area

History, Biology, Lures, Tactics and Night Fishing

 

Manfred von Borks, Sc.D.  vonborks@gmail.com   Rev 6 Final Edition: June 2011

 

June 2005 Ensenada, B.C. Mexico: Following five years trolling for tuna and other gamefish offshore Ensenada using just about all of the many recommended lures it became apparent that there was no consistency in what type of lure or color was hit. Lures that worked well on one day came up zero the very next day in the same productive area whereas lures seemingly non-productive the previous day were now hit over and over again. As a retired aerospace systems engineer, long time boater and ocean fisherman I assumed that there had to be a scientific explanation, I decided to make an effort to find it. For starters my research began by looking at various ancient and modern fishing cultures and the lures they used then and now, that led into the history of the local albacore fishery and a two year effort to understand the biology, foraging and feeding habits of our local albacore population.  What follows is a summary of those findings:

 

Albacore are found throughout the world in temperate and subtropical blue ocean waters. They are members of the Scombridae family which includes, in part, tunas, mackerel and bonito. This paper is concerned with that North Pacific population spawned in the vast ocean area west of the Hawaiian Islands to Midway Island and east of the Northern Philippines to Southern Japan. The 1 year old fish live in the western pacific near and west of Japan.  2, 3 & 4 year olds move eastward mostly traveling into the California Current region along North America.  Typically, these juvenile fish arrive offshore Ensenada beginning in early spring. Four year olds are common across the North Pacific; almost all the 5 years and older are back near their spawning grounds.  Most of the 2, 3, & 4 year olds that appear off North America in summer and fall return to their spawning grounds for winter, a few may holiday over in local waters. Spawning adults (6 years+) rarely appear off North America.  Recent research suggests that there are two North Pacific populations, one traveling north to Oregon, Washington, British Columbia; the other hitting Northern Baja and California.  On rare occasions albacore have been caught in every month of the year however the heavy influx of migratory fish usually arrives sometime in mid-May offshore Northern Baja. The fish usually proceed north, running parallel to the coast anywhere from 20 to 150 miles out. Monterey Bay and San Francisco area boats will normally see their first catches by late June.  The bite off Baja and California can last into November, Morro Bay north occasionally sees late-season action into December.
 

Please note above photo. A mixed bag of ten juvenile albacore caught in pristine waters about 50 miles offshore Ensenada in May of 2003. The bright colors fade almost immediately upon landing. The significance of this picture was not apparent until years later when photos were being assembled for this paper. This is a remarkable photo in that the full age range of migrating juvenile albacore is included. The bottom left albacore is about 1 ½ to 2 years old, the distinctive “football” shape is apparent; as they age the football becomes elongated. The largest fish is about 3 ½ years to maybe 4. These are all prime white meat “Chicken of the Sea” albacore tuna. They were caught on two trolls 30 minutes apart at about 6 knots in the same 63 degree F water column. Seven were caught on dark purple/green trolling lures and a plain cedar plug, three were caught “live bait casting” with the boat stopped while retrieving trolled lines and hooked fish.

Albacore tend to concentrate on the ocean side of upwelling fronts, most often in the clear clean blue oceanic waters on the seaward edge of temperature breaks where they feed on small fishes, squid and crustaceans that tend to gather in those areas. When offshore they are typically found in clear blue waters ranging from 50 to 64 F, on occasion, depending upon the food supply, they will feed in warmer waters up to about 69 F. Temperature and oxygen are linked, as the temperature raises waters’ capacity to hold oxygen diminishes.  Ocean water temperature, the quantity of dissolved oxygen in the water and salinity are all very important environmental factors which distinguish albacore from other tunas.

In reviewing historical records the albacore was often referred to as the "mystery tuna", the mystery being that in that time period "massive schools of albacore, so dense that you could almost walk from boat to boat on their backs, then after an hour or so of intense fishing the entire school would disappear, even though large schools of bait fish were still available". I personally viewed this phenomena on a few occasions and developed the theory that in an intense feeding frenzy situation with many fish involved, all  confined to a very limited area, the oxygen level in that immediate water column would diminish thus causing the albacore to abandon the area. In one incident we trolled thru a feeding frenzy with several thresher sharks churning the bait fish, we started pulling in albacore one after the other when suddenly nothing, however the sharks were still working on the bait fish, then several minutes later a single strike, the fish was a young Big Eye Tuna about the same size as the albacore. Big Eye tuna are more tolerant to low oxygen levels thus this fish remained in the area feeding on the bait fish after the albacore departed. Early in the season I noted that Tuna species such as Bluefin, Yellowfin  and Big Eye of the same physical size will often school with each other.

Although albacore usually stay well offshore in pristine waters in some years they have come within 20 miles of the Southern California and Baja coasts. During the 1983 El Nino a large school moved within a mile of Palos Verdes, CA.  In the late 1950's I had an ocean view home in the Portuguese Bend Club (Palos Verdes). I was awaken very early one morning by the noise of a low flying aircraft, it was a spotter plane for a group of local San Pedro Tuna boats, the pilot, an ex-naval aviator and close friend was "buzzing my house, there were six commercial boats harvesting albacore just off Portuguese Bend. Local fishing for albacore was good and it supported a thriving local canning industry, then about 1965 the albacore just vanished, exact reason's unknown. At that time my friend along with many local tuna boats and crews relocated home ports to Mexico and South America, the local cannery's were shuttered never to reopen. 

Albacore live at least 10 years, the juvenile albacore usually taken in Baja waters are typically about 2 and 3 years old ranging from about 10 to 25 pounds.  These select young tender albacore are very high in Omega 3 and are most prized for steaks and sushi.  Southern, Central, Northern California, Oregon and Washington have seen more of the older fish occasionally ranging to 40 pounds. During unique El Nino periods 60 and even 70 pound adult albacore have been taken out of Morro Bay in late autumn…

The largest albacore ever caught on rod and reel in California was 90 pounds caught off Santa Cruz in 1997. From 1926 to 1934 there was an absence of albacore but a booming return in 1935. Thru the late 1950’s sport fishing for albacore in near shore waters off Southern California’s was very popular and productive with as many as 3000 registered boats in operation.  In recent times California saw a decade-long absence of albacore from 1986 to 1995.  Oregon and Washington did not experience the same downswing. From 1995 until 2002 the recreational catches of albacore literally exploded throughout their range. Southern California experienced its best ever sport fishing in 2002 when over 250,000 albacore were brought to dock. The 2003 and 2004 seasons where good sport fishing years but since then the bite has been dropping. The 2005/2006 seasons started late and ended early with very few fish available. The 2007 Ensenada albacore season looked like a “no-show” but in June Mother Nature blessed the area with an abundance of anchovies and the albacore responded with larger than usual albacore weighing up to 41 pounds hitting the decks spewing anchovies. During this period there was a noticeable absence of young fish in the two year old range that in past years were most common in the area.  Albacore schools in the Ensenada off-shore waters were small and the fish were traveling far, wide and fast competing for anchovies with the very aggressive bluefin tuna pen seiners who were working the area 24/7.

The Ensenada albacore season abruptly ended in early July 2007 as the shoals of anchovies were depleted.  It was a different story in San Diego where overnight and two day boats had much better luck finding almost record numbers of 30/40 pound albacore in as close as 35 miles and out to about 100 miles where the albacore were finding plenty of anchovies in U.S. waters safe from the Mexican seiners.  In September even Long Beach and San Pedro off-shore waters showed record numbers of Albacore with overnight boats going out 70 miles for limits of fish ranging from 25 to 40 pounds. The absence of young fish is a disturbing sign that may be the result of heavy commercial albacore fishing of mature (5 to 10 years old) adults in their distant Pacific spawning grounds, as a general rule these older breeding adults do not migrate.  The Ensenada/San Diego 2008 season was very short, Ok for San Diego sport boats but for all practical purposes a no-show for Ensenada. As of June 2011 the albacore situation remains very quite.

A bit of history: Carved bone fishing hooks found in Sweden date back about 7000 years, the ancient Egyptians used bronze hooks adorned with feathers and bright jewelry, early California Indians use beautifully carved holographic abalone shell hooks, in more recent times common tablespoons were a very popular lure material with many an old fisherman swearing by his hand made spoon lure. In the accounts of the early days of fishing in Southern California (1870–1885), there is little reference to trolling, possibly, the few trolled catches were recorded as hand-lined or taken by hook and line. There are references to landings, both sport and commercial, of barracuda and white seabass, catches of bonito were irregular, and albacore were mentioned only in passing.

 Tuna sport fishing as we know it today began at Catalina Island, the Catalina Island Tuna Club. The first documented sport catch of a bluefin tuna was in 1896, it weighed 183 pounds. In 1899 a 251 pound bluefin was landed. At this early date the fish were taken via rod & reel angling with linen line, for bait usually a local flying fish. At that time albacore were considered “bandits” and “trash fish” as they often took the bait, they were hauled in, hit on the head, and dumped overboard. The name of the game was landing a giant bluefin tuna. 

 

In the late 1880’s a large and growing Japanese fishing community had taken hold in Fish Harbor, San Pedro. The Japanese introduced a line and pole method of fishing (slang “Jap Pole’ing”) for the capture of Bonita that was sold fresh to the Southern California Asian and Italian market. "Bandit" albacore often showed up taking the bait, It was soon realized that the meat of the small young albacore was a superior product that would fetch a better price than Bonita, thus increased concentration on albacore.  During this period there was no shortage of tuna and other fish in the immediate local waters. In this method of pole fishing fishing large quantities of live bait and other chum was used to bring and hold the fish to the boat for easy harvesting. By 1900 commercial fishing boats used a combination of trolling and Jap pole’ing. Prior to albacore local canning was mostly limited to sardines and mackerel brought in by local San Pedro Portuguese and Italian fisherman, the wives of whom often worked in the local canneries.  In 1903 an experimental pack of 700 cases of albacore were canned, they were immediately snapped up by the public, thus began the tuna canning industry. From about 1910 thru the late 1960’s San Pedro was host to the world’s largest tuna fleet and home to several major canneries’. Since about 1980 the U.S. demand for canned tuna has declined while the demand for fresh tuna has risen dramatically.
 

 Jap pole'ing Tuna - Three poles one bare hook
 

Back to the lures: Over the years just about everything imaginable was used to fashion that “secret killer lure” and that quest continues today.  Fisherman will find lots of must have eye-candy in Cabela’s, Melton and other fishing catalogs and on-line sites extolling the virtues of a plethora of eye catching lures of plastics and feathers, holographic’s, bubble jets and even sonics', with each and every one represented to be “the most productive lure you can own” ranging in price from a few to several hundred dollars each.  At one time or another every lure trolled probably caught a fish and a simple truism emerges: “for every fish there is a lure, for every lure there is a fish”, and getting the two together is what fishing is all about.

 

Nature’s most effective lure is the “feeding frenzy”. The old Southern California Tuna fleet’s created feeding frenzy’s by dumping live bait and chum then churning the waters all around the boat with high power streams of aerated water, then just a bare barbless hook on the end of a line pole worked very well. Which goes to prove the old saying:  “Hooks catch fish, Lures catch fisherman”.

 


 

So what about all those beautiful lures? And do gamefish actually see color?  Can they visualize and appreciate all those exotic lures and make some degree of discrimination (a preference) between the many thousands of products offered up for their palette?   Thanks to original research by Dr. Kerstin Fritsches and followed-up by other investigators we now know that many gamefish have the ability to discriminate color, their eyes have the sensor cones necessary to detect a spectrum of colors ranging from yellow, green, blue to violet with vision peaking in the blue-green range. Human vision is similar but covers a broader range of colors including orange and red. Like human’s gamefish eyes contain rods that are used for motion, peripheral and night vision, rods are very sensitive to brightness and contrast but lack the high resolution of the cones.

 

Most gamefish are essentially colorblind to brown, red however that does not mean that these colors make the lure invisible, when trolled those colors, or any solid material of any color, would either reflect or block the background light thus appearing to a gamefish as a dense object, movement and size being critical factors.  Recent investigations suggest that many gamefish may also perceive UV, an interesting new area for lure research.



 

Note the comparison between the Fish Eye View picture and the Marlin Wavelength Chart, in this instance a digital filter matching the Chart was overlaid the Human Eye View picture yielding a perfect Marlin Fish Eye View. We do not know for sure that Albacore and Marlin share the same spectrum, but probably very close. 

 

In so far as visual discrimination, the ability to discern the difference between a lure and prey is less understood.  Field observations would suggest that most gamefish cannot discriminate with any degree of visual acuity the difference between objects of about the same size swimming and maneuvering in a like manner. Meaning that a blue/green stripped anchovy, a small white squid, a purple tuna clone, a green plastic squid lure or a brown wooden cedar plug when trolled on or near the surface would look from below, against the bright sky thru turbulent waters, as familiar blurred grey-black objects, maybe food targets of opportunity? Motion, swimming like a fish or a squid and scent is obviously very important, if not their stomachs would be full of chunks of Styrofoam coffee cups.

 

Recent and on-going studies suggest that "scent" is a significant factor further suggesting the addition of a liquid chum line to the troll. For a very effective liquid chum try a Menhaden Oil Cocktail: Add a tablespoon of L-Tryptophan (an amino acid, a protein that fish cannot ignore) into a gallon of a high quality virgin Menhaden Oil, dispersed via an automatic dispenser.
 

How about the ever popular plain brown wood cedar plug, everyone agrees it is a proven tuna catcher, no one knows who invented the cedar plug or just when it came into use but records indicate that hand carved wood, bone, whale tooth and walrus ivory plugs of that basic shape go back a very long time. The standard cedar plug is an unpretentious piece of wood with a dull lead head, about as plain a lure as one can get, it is totally lacking in color and sex appeal and when ocean trolled on or near the surface it becomes obscure, so why do tuna bite the thing? 

 

The human eye and brain have the ability to convert eye sensor data into a wide screen full color high-resolution 3-D graphic picture of an object. A human below the surface can quickly discriminate between live and inanimate objects. The human diver views the targeted object and contemplates what actions or inactions he elects to undertake, like capturing the object, taking a picture, just observing or whatever.  Accomplishing this seemingly simple feat instantaneously requires a lot of brainpower, humans have large brains, fish have very small brains, meaning fish have very little computing power and a limited encoded generic memory for reference thus limiting their ability to think, to compare, and to discriminate. Additional memory can be developed from experience, meaning time, in this instance we are dealing for the most part with young fish, two and three year olds, with most of their time spent transversing the vast Pacific ocean where meals are few and far between thus limiting practical learning experiences.

 

A typical sport fishing boat would troll four to seven lures at speeds ranging from of 6 to 9 knots. At the higher end of that range a sport fishing boat would trail a turbulent white water wake. The boat is essentially dragging the lures thru the wake bouncing along on or just under the surface. To a fast moving young albacore foraging below the surface and looking upward into the troll, the trolled lures now embroiled in the turbulent wake, would look, if noticed at all, as a blurred image. That blurred view of a lure may compute as a familiar prey silhouette, a moving dark shadowy object in contrast against the bright sky/surface glare. There is evidence that motion vision is probably mainly mediated by the blue/green receptors, therefore black against white (skylight w/white water wake) or blue/green against skylight might be the most visible colors from that point of view. To a fish it is all a matter of survival, eat or be eaten, the instantaneous output instructions from the albacores small brain to their motor muscles would be an uncomplicated “go” or “no-go” signal, either continue the fast foraging pace or go for it, if it’s a lure they quickly realize it was not food, but too late.  "Contrast is the key element; the actual color of a lure in a turbulent surface/near surface ocean troll would be of secondary importance to the contrast it presents against the skylight."
 

Juvenile albacore migrate to California for one reason and one reason only, to forage and feast for maybe 4/6 months, then back home.  Being very hungry opportunistic predators foraging 24/7 they obviously are interested in whatever comes along and have been known to take all types, colors and size of lures as well as most small fish and various small sea creatures. Gamefish are not taught by their mothers how and what to eat, they are genetically programmed to survive, essentially to recognize the “signature” of familiar food sources, like a marlin tracking a mackerel or an albacore foraging from the surface to 100 feet seeking a bait ball, a foraging school of anchovy’s or a shoal of small squid. Common sense suggests that offering them a large troll that looks familiar rather than the exotic would be the way to go.

 

It was previously mentioned that albacore feed “24/7”, but that does not mean that they never take a break.  On many occasions fish are seen on the fishfinder at 150 to 200 feet or more just hovering.  Heavy live bait chum may lure them to surface waters for successful bait casting, but at other times nothing seems to work.  Since this circumstance is most often noted later in the season as surface water temperatures reach the upper 60’s it can be speculated that the albacore just go down deep to enjoy the lower temperature of cool water while they digest what they have recently consumed. Live bait tanks on sport fishing boats are usually small, just enough bait for live bait casting and a bit of chumming but not enough to bring the schools up from the deep.  

  
Most sport fisherman troll a different color and type of lure on each line offering a smorgasbord buffet because that kind of thing appeals to humans but fish do not see it that way and that may be counter-productive on a troll.  A school of albacore may come upon the mixed troll from any point on the compass, depending upon the closing angle, boat trolling speed and the albacore swimming speed they could easily be moving past each other at 40 knots, even when coming up from behind they may be swimming 10 to 20 knots faster than the troll, thus when the lead fish (he is the boss, if he bites they all tend go for whatever is in view) in a foraging school suddenly comes across a mixed multi-colored troll there may be a moment of confusion as the presented signals do not readily compute as a familiar food signature. They are seeking anchovy schools, bait balls and squid shoals, a few lone lures would be looked upon as passing target of opportunity, a snack, not a bountiful feast. If that mixed troll does not instantly match up with some generic memory code during that brief passing moment, and with the school close behind pushing the lead fish on, it could result in entire school bypassing the troll completely. Albacore fast closing on the trolling vessel from say 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock usually power past a troll as making a quick 180 degree turn for a small “fish” or two is not worth the effort and/or there was no time to “compute”, and that happens a lot, if you have a scanning sonar fish finder you can watch the passing parade.

 

Lure size is very important, albacore are considered “small tuna” and juvenile albacore are even smaller, it has been well established that juvenile albacore are known to ignore large mackerel and sardines around a party boat with much live bait and chum in the water. The much used standard 6 and 7 inch tuna lures with a #10 hook are too big for juvenile albacore, the 4” w/# 6 or 7 hook is better.  The typical young California anchovy is only about 4 inches long. Small squid and anchovy schools are what albacore are seeking and what looks familiar to them thus trolling small all like color lures with like color teasers daisy chained on the leaders will look and sound like a familiar school or shoal of food fish. In addition to sight, scent and sound play a major role, a foraging/feeding school of several thousand anchovy’s does not make a lot of noise but they do deposit a mucus/protein/oil waste slick on the current maybe stretching for miles. If the albacore school is homing in on that trail or the distant sound of a major feeding frenzy no trolling lure is likely to deter them.
 

To say again the young albacore migrated thousands of miles to the Pacific West Coast to enjoy a bountiful and familiar meal, that meal being California anchovy’s and small California market squid, the anchovy being dinner and the more elusive squid the dessert, the little squid is not as filling as the dense anchovy however they are easily swallowed and quickly digested and the young albacores eat a lot of them whenever they can be found. However trying to troll a small live squid or a little anchovy is not a viable option, a better choice would be to use plastic lures, the same lures used by the Commercial Pacific Albacore/Salmon Jig Boat Fleets operating in the waters offshore Central California to Washington. During albacore season these local boats target the small juvenile “Chicken of the Sea” albacore, the young oval football shape fish to the 3 ½ year old fish with very high Omega 3 and very little mercury as compared to the older albacore and other tunas. The young albacore are usually foraging close the surface, the older albacore will be in deeper cooler waters.

About “Chicken of the Sea”. The young white meat albacore found in Southern California waters were of such exceptional quality that in 1914 a local canner changed the name of their company to “Chicken of the Sea”.   During the Depression years of the 1930’s inexpensive California canned tuna served-up in the form of tuna salad, tuna salad sandwiches and tuna noodle casseroles were a mainstay and important source of protein in the American diet. Remember Charley the Tuna? Charley was a well known animated TV character who spent his time trying to get caught by a Star Kist Jig boat. His strategy was to convince them that he had good taste. The commercials always ended with the lowering of a hook bearing a "sorry" sign while a voice said, "Sorry Charley, Star Kist doesn't want tunas with good taste, Star Kist wants tunas that taste good". Albacore that make the grade (Chicken of the Sea) are young white meat tunas; all other tunas are dark meat and by law must be labeled as such.

Commercial jig boats and tactics differ from sport boats in several ways, the commercial boats are larger, usually have but a single screw and troll very slowly, just fast enough to keep the lures positioned as such they move thru the water almost wake-free. Their many lures are spread over a larger area at varying levels moving much like a natural shoal, in clear waters they are easily spotted from a distance by foraging albacore.  Albacore do not stalk their prey, they forage at a fast pace, sighting prey at a distance is important as that provides a moment in time for their small brain to compute and confirm that the target is most probably a food source, and then initiate their famous aggressive closing mode, a fast hard swoop, gulp, swallow and all while continuing the run without slowing down and always away from the boat. Albacore schools are typically very small compared to bluefin, thus instantly stopping the first fish to bite and quickly bringing him with the entire school into the troll is essential and a time proven tactic. 
 

The Commercial lure often used is a small green soft plastic squid or a green tuna clone. A commercial jig boat trolling 20 lures with maybe a bit of chum oil in the water looks sounds and smells to an albacore like a shoal of small squid. They use dual barbless hooks, troll slowly at about 5/6 knots, and quickly power winch the fish in while underway. The lures are weighted to troll just below the surface at three depth levels, the troll spread is easily spotted by foraging albacore and the lure/depth separation also prevents tangling. The theory is that the first fish to bite is usually the lead fish and his bite sets off a kind of mini feeding frenzy, getting him quickly astern will bring the school with him and into the troll. Contrary to proven commercial practices many Sport boat skippers troll too fast and allow the first fish to hook-up to run unhindered for a few moments praying for additional hook-ups, which on occasion happen if the school comes into the troll from astern. The fact is that the albacore that took the lure, a passing target of opportunity, grabbed it on the fly and continued on his set course, if that lure was in white turbulent waters as is the usual case, the other fish in the school may not have noticed the quick bite and just continued to follow the leader on his run away from the boat. If it was the lead fish, as is most probable, he is taking the entire school along with him. When that fish is finally stopped and turned, now at a considerable distance from the boat, another fish instantly takes the lead and the school continues on following the new leader. Getting that first fish turned around and into the troll ASAP will better the odds of other lure hits and provide an opportunity to bait cast into something other than empty waters.

 

A shoal of green squid would seem to be an odd sight in the ocean but that’s the lure color that works for the commercial boats, the likely reason is the albacore eyes peak in that wavelength, the signal going to their small brain may not actually compute as a shoal of green squid as humans would see it, but more likely it computes as a very strong positive signal, an indication of familiar objects of like proportions moving at a familiar speed, meaning it passes the "Duck Test" and they go for it.

 

On a bright sunny day the ocean surface will absorb/reflect much or the sun’s red and orange wavelengths, yellow goes a bit deeper with green, blue and violet down even further. Thus illuminated by the bright mid-day sun the green wavelength, the wavelength that the fish eye is peaked, reflects well off a green lure. So on a bright sunny day theory suggests that if trolling below the surface bright green lures should work very well.  At dawn or dusk or on an overcast day the sun spectral radiation is attenuated and shifts slightly dampening colors such as yellow, orange and red, meaning that illumination is a bit more blue-violet.  Theory suggests that at those times dark lures would appear most intense to the fish eyes.

 

If the lures are just skipping along the surface the skylight shinning on the topside of the lure would be reflected upward, a predator below looking up at the lure against the bright sky would only see a blackened object contrasted against the sky. You can perform this simple test yourself, just hold one of your yellow-green lures up against the bright sky, if you could eliminate all background light you would see only a darkened object against the bright sky. Now hold up a solid black lure, which one is the easiest to see?
 

Going back to the standard brown wooden cedar plug, trolled in the ocean it is obscure, does not reflect or absorb much of anything, it is noticed only by its silhouette in contrast against the sky.

 

Try something really cool like surface trolling 4 inch silver spoons (Drone Spoons). Experienced ocean fisherman know that predators will be feeding under and around a “bait boil”, the theory here is that baitfish gyrating in well lit near surface water create grating light, grating light is light reflected off the fish scales when surface driven bait fish twist and squirm, it looks like a "flash", a very common sight in a bait boil.  Predator fish drive the baitfish schools to the surface creating bait boils, the frantic twisting and flashing of individual small fish are the visual food target beacons predators go for, often turning into a wide open feeding-frenzy. Homemade silver spoon lures for tuna (crafted from common table spoons "borrowed" from the ships galley) were popular 100 years ago, now we know why and how they worked…..
 

Testing Lures?  Many very expensive lures are advertised to have been “successfully tournament tested”, “outperformed all the competition”, etc., etc. In fact there is no quick and easy scientific procedure available to determine if one lure is better than another. Scientific testing requires a controlled environment, the open ocean is not controllable, developing and implementing the necessary controls and standards to seriously study lure attraction, meaning the repeated “bite” preference of fast foraging opportunistic predators, is not possible.

Note: Google this:  (Col. Vol. Sci. Pap. ICCAT, 58(4): 1501-1510 (2005)" for swordfish lure test)

 

Trolling Tactics:  If you were to spend an entire weekend reviewing sport fishing magazines and Web Sites wherein first person accounts attempt to describe in detail how to properly troll for Pacific ocean game fish you would quickly realize that there is no consensus on anything other than to catch a fish on a troll you must actually troll something. There is much contradictory information on-line concerning tactics, tackle, lures, speed, outriggers, troll spreads, length of runs, number of lines, type of line, teasers, chum, time of day, etc., etc., etc.  In this confusing situation it may be helpful to remember that early California Indians paddling between the mainland and the many off-shore islands trolled a hand line behind their sturdy plank canoe like boats with a chunk of flying fish attached to a hand carved abalone hook, and they always had fresh fish for dinner.

 

So which lures to use and how?  There is no such thing as a “perfect lure”, sometimes everything works and at other times nothing works. Taking into consideration all the scientific data concerning the foraging and feeding habits of these fish, the advanced lure materials and technology currently available and then input some personal experience and practical know-how from a score of local experienced fisherman we can come up with a few pretty good guesses:

 

To improve the odds it is suggested that the troll include both surface and sub-surface lures. If six trollers are used troll two on the surface, surface lures jumping in and out of the water create a noisy teaser effect, troll two down about 2 two feet and two about 4 feet or so below the turbulence white water, wake and bubbles.  For surface trollers go for dark lures like purple, blue, black or dark green with holographic markings. A dark body will provide excellent contrast against the bright sky and the holographics will produce a “grating” flash. The dark body and the flashing are easily noted by fish foraging below looking upward. For below the surface lures use weighted bright green lures. The color green is most noticeable when under the surface as turbulence is minimized and the blue-green ocean filtered sunlight penetrating the water will reflect well off a green lure. A few small green daisy chain plastic skirts on the leader will provide a turbulent sight and sound attraction that will engulf the end lure making for a more attractive and noticeable target. 

 

Leaving a long oil/protein rich surface chum trail behind the boat will further improve the odds, should a foraging school of albacore cross the oil slick trail even miles down track it may just turn them toward the boat/troll generated noise, in this scenario the school would be closing on the troll from the stern allowing for a full and almost instantaneous hook-up.

 

A very effective troll setup: Troll just below the surface under the turbulent white water wake and prop wash, all black cedar plugs or black tuna clones with with UV holographic heads with a black teasers daisy chain on the leaders. This all black “Darth Vader” trolls presents a stark blackened silhouette sharply contrasted against the sky. Couple this with a liquid chum trail, after a couple hours of trolling with no strikes you can assume the fish are resting in the deep or are elsewhere..

 

As any experienced ocean fisherman knows fishing is a hit/miss adventure, fishing by its very nature is inconsistent and unpredictable. Successful fishing is being where hungry fish are biting, what is dangled in the water and how it is manipulated is secondary; in a feeding frenzy even bare hooks are quickly taken….

 

Most seabirds are thought to have UV vision, and maybe polarization as well, this capability enables them to soar over vast ocean areas spotting foraging baitfish shoals, the noise of seabirds diving into the shoal can be heard underwater miles away attracting all sorts of predator fish.  Seabirds have historically been a good sign of potential gamefish activity. It has been speculated that foraging dolphins jumping high out of the water may be looking for distant seabirds. The fisherman’s best bet for locating gamefish is still a sharp-eyed young guy in the tuna tower (that’s why it is called a “tuna tower”) looking for seabirds, baitfish boils, kelp paddies, thresher sharks at work and surface foraging fish.
 

Night Fishing Lures & Tactics:

 

While reviewing various scientific papers concerning the feeding habits of albacore several observations were noted here and there regarding night behavior suggesting that if use were made of special lighting and custom glow lures night fishing for albacore may offer an interesting potential.  Further research into that area and fortuitous on-line contacts with knowledgeable and interested fishery scientists has produced strong evidence that night fishing not only offers a very interesting potential, but it most probably would be more productive than day fishing due to an abundance of additional food resources that are available at night.

 

Albacore most probably forage 24/7, they do not really sleep, they must swim continually to breath or they will drown.  During the evening hours albacore supplement their day food sources consisting mostly of California anchovy’s and the small California market squid with deep ocean creatures such as lanternfishes and heteropsis squid. At night these little creatures migrate toward the surface to nutrient-rich waters brought up from the depths via upwelling’s that occur along the California Current. The little lanternfishes and h.squid are about the size of anchovies, they feed within this rich water column upon the abundance of plankton attracted to the nutrient rich surface waters. Lanternfishes and h.squid have blue-green bioluminescent organs that perform useful communication and defense functions but that “glow” makes them easy targets for night foraging predators. Lanternfishes are among the most abundant deep ocean fishes in the world oceans with dense populations along the Pacific West Coast, and the little h.squid are most common in the California Current system from Baja to Washington. Scientists have reported that seabirds feed regularly upon these small glowing night treats. Lanternfishes are believed to constitute an important part of the albacore’s local evening diet.

 

Albacore night feeding habits are very different from day, during the day they school, sometimes with young bigeye, bluefin and yellowfin tuna (adult blue/yellowfin tuna “sea cows” lunch on small albacore), they cover a lot of ocean at a fast pace foraging between the surface down to about 30 meters for elusive agile squid and the fast maneuvering anchovies which often travel in very large shoals. When they sight prey albacore hit very fast, hard, and with increasing ferocity often turning into a short exciting color changing jaw snapping “feeding-frenzy”.  At night it is the opposite, upward migrating lanternfish and h.squid move slowly, remain almost stationery in the upper water column feeding upon larvae and plankton relying upon their “glow” to attract these tiny creatures. Their slow lateral movements are mostly dictated by ocean currents, they remain thru the evening hours feeding between the surface down to about 100 feet then retire to the depths before dawn. The albacore match that mode and slow way down, the schools breakup; they often forge independently dispersed over a larger area as are the drifting lanternfishes and h.squid. To locate prey at night their sight, sound and scent/taste sensors are at a heightened state, albacore forage only in very clean, clear, cool, deep blue oxygen rich ocean waters with their mouths open extracting oxygen from the sea, thus they will quickly sense any change in water composition such as mucus or traces of protein from feeding anchovy’s or heavy concentrations of plankton indicating that a potential food source is close by...


As previously noted the majority of albacore foraging off Northern Baja/Southern California are the “football shape” fish typically two year olds intermixed with one and three year olds and a few four year olds. A few of these fish have previously migrated to the Pacific West Coast once or twice and a few may have “wintered-over” in local waters. Obviously memory and genetic coding kicks in, the older fish know exactly what to look for at night and where to look. Sonic tracking indicates that albacore usually stay within a limited 5 to 10 mile area during dusk to sunrise suggesting that sufficient food sources are available within those limited confines…..

 

Taking all of the above into consideration is seems highly probably that if the right ocean conditions exist and nutrient/biologically rich surface waters prevail plankton and little fishes will be there feeding thus attracting the larger gamefish. Locating those unique areas where deep sea fish migrations are likely to occur is problematic, reviewing bathometric and topographic structure charts, satellite color/chlorophyll charts, temperature surface charts, coastal upwelling indices and local weather conditions are all useful tools but a better idea is to cruise very slowly watching for fish on the fish finder. Cruise within known fishing grounds and around those particular areas where over the years gamefish have been day caught more or less consistently, to the extent that those locations have been named and appear on fishing charts as “fishing sites”. Those named areas are most likely over or around underwater convergences, structures and shelves where rich surface waters prevail.  Most promising would be those areas wherein albacore have recently been caught “at dawns early light”, fish caught that early in the morning did not just wake up and are out foraging for breakfast, more likely they have been snacking all thru the previous night and within a short distance of where they were morning caught. A location where albacore were noted just before dark also suggests a night feeding area. When fish are spotted on the fish finder stop and drift, albacore night fishing would be mostly drift fishing with surface floating LED blue-green light arrays, glow lures and maybe some high protein liquid chum oil. Albacore are excellent foragers and navigators, over the course of a season or two they will have located night feeding areas and would naturally migrate to those areas at dusk, thus the possibility remains that certain locations may be productive over a period of time, maybe even over an entire season and possibly from year to year?

 

Studies indicate that 57 of every 100 albacore caught are hooked in water ranging in temperature between 60 and 64 degrees F with most of the balance usually caught in warmer waters up to 69F, but only if good water conditions exist.  Other gamefish such as billfish, bigeye, bluefin and yellowfin are not as concerned with water quality and they like warmer temperatures, and these fish may be closer inshore where rich upwelling’s and surface temperature breaks are more common suggesting they may be candidates for night fishing as well.


Albacore and most ocean gamefish are responsive to blue-green light; bioluminescent fish emit blue/green light. On a dark night albacore are unable to see the prey itself, only the dim glow of the fish’s luminous organs, they sight that familiar signature and go for the glowing object swallowing the whole thing, thus a jig rigged for night albacore fishing could be as simple as a hook attached to a weighted string of very small high intensity blue-green epoxy glow beads or small glow beads embedded in a iron casting lure, the hook should be baited as scent is very important at night. Cast the jig and allow it to sink down to about 100 feet then slowly reel it up,  gamefish vision is much slowed at night meaning that a fast jerked jig would appear as a blur or not seen at all. On a day troll the typical tuna clone single barb hook is “hard hit” usually deep setting the hook, at night the albacore bite would be “soft” as both the predator and prey are in a slow swimming mode, this suggests a very sharp dual or triple barbed hook configuration.



 

Above please note two prototype high intensity strontium aluminate based epoxy glow-bead lures formulated to match the wavelength of the luminous prey they are intended to simulate. The beads are charged from any light source however a battery operated LED/UV flashlight or a “Black Light” is best and  they will glow for many hours after only a few minutes under the charger light.




 

Upper left is a night photo of the little lanternfish, about the size of an anchovy, the upper right photo is the bottom view that a predator would see on a dark night. The little h.squid has many more small blue organs on its tentacles than are shown in the photo. Glowing night fishing lures would be patterned after these configurations and wavelength.
 

California Anchovy: Note the blue-green stripe on top, in a sense it is a virtual beacon light being the exact wavelengths that billfish and tuna eyes are peaked. An albacore day foraging looking down or straight ahead would have any easy time spotting a school of anchovy or an anchovy bait-ball at a depth/distance of 100 feet or more. Note the squid photo, this unique flash photo of squid on deck was taken almost immediately after landing; the squid cycled thru their entire spectrum of color within seconds then expired and turned white.  The lower left photo show squid mating in their ivory/white default color.

 

Ocean night fishing for albacore with special lights and custom lures has no precedent, no tried and proven tactics to fall back on; it will be experimental, lots of trial and error. Albacore biology and feeding habits indicate that they most probably feed at night; the rest is up to the fisherman.

 

Future: The future of the albacore fishery in the Northern Baja/Southern California looks very bleak.  Notwithstanding the natural periodic cycles of absence as experienced over the past 100 years the present problems and circumstance are more profound and well understood:

 

The increased worldwide demand for fresh tuna has driven up prices to the point that it is now economically feasible to employ both long range jig boats and modern long line vessels to harvest the typically small albacore schools in their home waters. Harvesting in albacore home waters means more adult fish will be taken depleting breeding stock, thus fewer young migrating albacore. Furthermore this increased demand for fresh tuna has spawned a fast growing and essentially uncontrolled bluefin pen feeding industry in Northern Baja. Fish farms are generally thought of as environmentally clean and friendly aquatic facilities wherein fish are hatched and feed is factory manufactured from grains and livestock by-products, the Mexican fish farms are actually fattening pens wherein wild young bluefin tuna of about 35 pounds are netted offshore, towed in and confined to small local inshore pens, there they are fattened up with local caught coarse ground chum consisting of anchovy’s, sardines, mackerel and whatever other fish can be found in the local waters. The tuna are fed at least twice a day and harvested about 5 months later at double their original weight. The adverse environmental impact upon the local in-shore waters is becoming apparent, Mexican regulations designed to control this industry are not enforced, the end result will be further contamination of inshore waters and the failure of the Baja anchovy fishery. No anchovy’s, no albacore.

 

Intense residential, commercial and industrial shoreline development between Tijuana and Ensenada including container port expansion in Ensenada Harbor and a large LNG terminal north of Ensenada is having a major impact on the coastal inshore waters. The relationship between shoreline development and the inshore waters are complex requiring professional land use management, planning and infrastructure development to control sewage, industrial waste, feeding pen waste, land runoff, watershed routing, etc., etc.  Implementation of these crucial requirements is well beyond the scope, capabilities and resources of the local Mexican government. The resulting deterioration of inshore baitfish spawning areas will adversely impact both inshore and offshore sport fishing, including the venerable yellowtail, once an Ensenada mainstay fishery. 

 

In 2005 large numbers of Humboldt Squid moved into the Ensenada area, these large animals are voracious feeders that hunt in large packs eating almost everything they can find both large and small.  Rockfish, an important Ensenada market and sport fish are easy targets for the Humboldt. Note: For reasons yet unknown the Humboldt vanished from Ensenada in 2010, and in other parts of California as well.........

 

For detailed information on Commercial Pacific Coast Albacore Fishing:  http://wfoa-tuna.org/index.shtml