I fish mostly with lures and flies, but would not start to claim purist credibility. For that matter, while having a fish strike an artificial lure or fly on the surface is tops for excitement, I find live bait fishing exciting in a quiet sort of way. Sending the real thing down into the water seems like a sure bet. Reality is far from that, but much of the attraction of fishing is anticipation and anything that raised the anticipation level is good.
In live bait fishing, the antithesis of the stereotypical lazy afternoon watching a bobber is the tuna fishing practiced by the sportfishermen out of San Diego. The fleet of charter boats run trips ranging from one day to twelve days or more, seeking albacore, yellowfin, and the occasional bigeye or bluefin (all tunas) as well as wahoo, dorado, and yellowtail. The boats range from thirty-some to over ninety feet long and take anywhere from half-a-dozen to fifty or so anglers.
I've only ever gone on the shorter, one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half day trips made in the summer and fall seeking primarily albacore (the "chicken of the sea"). Depending upon the time of year, those trips have also resulted in some dorado, yellowtail, and bluefin sightings, if not landings. The boats head out in the early evening to run all night down to underwater sea mounts off of Mexico where the albacore use their long pectoral fins to ride upwelling currants to near the surface like aquatic raptors. The fishermen troop aboard with bundles of rods and packs of gear and are checked in, each being handed a clip filled with waxed paper tags imprinted with a number, one through however many anglers on board. All checked in and paid, the boat pulls out and then heads to a bait tender- a series of underwater pens holding live anchovies and sardines, which the bait sellers and crew transfer by the scoop into a large livewell that sits near the stern of the boat. That well stands up from the deck to near chest high. All around the perimeter are a series of shallow wells into which water runs. These are the "hand wells" and are some fifteen or twenty inches long and four or five inches deep. Some boats have a second bait tank up in the bow. Once the bait is loaded, the night captain drives the boat out past Point Loma and heads south beyond the Coronado Islands and down to the fishing grounds. The fishermen all head for the bunks down in the bow to catch a few hours sleep.
Sometime in the early morning hours while it is still dark, the engines change from a steady throb to a low rumble as the boat drifts and the most avid fisherment head up to try a bit in the dark. The captain watches his sonar and depth finder, looking for schools of bait and tuna. Soon the light comes up a bit and the boat begins to troll. Four heavy rods mounted with big Penn reels are clipped to the stern rail and the deckhands set plastic or feather squid and cedar plugs to riding in the wake. Many boats also troll a "boat line", which consists of a rope with a heavy (five pound) weight attached trailed by a very heavy line, all tied directly to a section of strong bungee and then to the rail. That lure follows the boat more deeply and is used as a hand line. The fishermen are assigned to the four trolling rods on a rotation based upon the number they were given on their tags and each rotation spends a half hour waiting for a strike. As the boat trolls, a deckhand sits on a seat up on top of the big bait tank. From there, he keeps a few baits in each of the hand wells and occassionally flips a sardine or anchovy into the wake. Every so often, the captain will mark a school of fish and will take the boat into a tight turn above them while the deckhand flips more bait into the wake. The tuna see the bubbles from the wake and investigate to determine if they are a school of bait. The live anchovies thrown into the wake add versimilitude and the trolled lures further attraction.
Once a fish strikes one of the trolled lures, the cry of "hookup" is raised and the captain kicks the boat out of gear. As it begins to slide to a stop, anglers come boiling out of the galley and from resting places around the stern, grabbing rods and then baiting their hooks with fresh baits out of the handwells. Meanwhile, the anglers on trolling rotation bring in the trolling lures, stowing those rods and getting their own baits into the water while the deckhand chums out more anchovies to try to get the school of tuna in close to the boat.
The boat will turn and drift broadside to the wind, so once you manage to grab a sardine out of the handwell, you either hook it through the vent, gill plate, or its hard nose and head for the lee corner of the stern. There you cast the bait out and start slowly stepping toward the upwind corner, keeping your line as straight in front of you as possible and letting the bait swim freely, leaving the reel in freespool and feeding line out to match the bait's pace. If a tuna takes the bait, you will feel an instant accelleration of the line. When that happens, you wait a short bit, then throw the reel into gear and set the hook. Once you have a fish on, you have the right of way and pass over or under other anglers on the rail. A fish hooked and lost will frequently escape deep, taking the school with it. If you don't get a bit, once you get to the bow of the boat you reel in, release your tired bait, then head down the lee side of the boat to the bait tank to get a fresh bait and cast out once again. By each fisherman keeping his line out straight in front of himself, tangles are kept to a minimum.
For this type of fishing the normal gear seems to be a seven-foot rod with a conventional reel. Typically, albacore call for twenty to thirty pound test line. Hook size is determined by the size of the bait- anchovies call for #1 or #2 hooks, sardines can carry a 1/0 or even bigger. Generally the hook is tied directly to the line without any shock leader. Sometimes a 1/2 ounce rubber-core sinker is added a couple of feet up the line to take the bait deeper.
Once the hooked fish is tired and worked to the surface, a deckhand will gaff it and hoist it on board. It is then dropped into a box to keep it from thrashing about on deck. The deckie takes one of the numbered tags from the lucky fisherman and staples it to the fishes' gill plate. Once a trolling "stop" is over, that is to say the school has left, the anglers all reel in and the deckhands lower the fish into a refrigerated hold where they are cooled by a chilled brine spray. The trolling lures are set out and the search resumes. Occassionally a "kelp paddie" a mat of floating kelp, will be spotted. The captain will troll near it, for such paddies harbor bait and attract dorado, yellow tail, and sometimes schools of tuna.
Trips out of San Diego have resulted in numerous whale sightings along with the experience of seas anywhere from three to fourteen feet. Despite regular mal-de-mer, few fishing experiences have matched the thrill of feeling a sardine become frantic and pick up speed just before the spool on the reel starts to blur as a tuna takes off with it.
Purist credibility will probably have to wait a while.
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