Autumn surprise: Fall is becoming prime time for tuna
Sometime early next summer, probably late June, 60-degree subtropical ocean currents will push close to the chilly waters off the Northwest Coast. Albacore tuna and other fishes from far-flung southern latitudes and eastern longitudes will swim within 60 miles of most Oregon and Washington ocean ports.
To the delight of charter and private boat operators targeting tuna, the fish will draw much nearer as summer progresses, nearer yet in fall.
Many Northwest anglers know the thrill of catching powerful tuna and the bounty of boneless meat that results from even an average trip, yet albacore aren’t high on the list of target species for most Northwest anglers, especially east of the Cascade Mountains.
Thus, most people don’t know what they’re missing: Albacore are the Northwest’s hardest fighting gamefish.
Sorry chinook, steelhead, smallmouth bass, and even bluegill pundits. It’s a matter of biology.
The albacore’s complex and perfectly evolved circulatory system regulates body temperature, which increases muscle efficiency. Their high metabolism, high blood pressure, huge volume of blood, and high levels of hemoglobin help them increase oxygen absorption.
Albacore are built to be one of the ocean’s perfect swimming and fighting machines. They reach speeds of 50 mph and routinely slash at 20 mph through schools of their preferred prey: anchovies, sardines and squid. Tuna gain weight perceptibly throughout the summer, adding bulk to their tasty white loins.
By the end of September, they are at their largest and most numerous in our offshore waters. Ironically, this is when most guides put away the tuna gear for the year. The ocean tends to become less predictably calm in October, but many stop fishing simply because of waning seasonal interest.
One versatile and popular Snoqualmie, Wash., guide with two very fast boats is breaking that mold and successfully redefining the end of albacore season out of Westport. For the last few years Mark Coleman has fished during October to target giant schools of jumbo-sized, surface-oriented tuna.
Success rates in October 2013 were world-class, says Coleman, with a huge score of tuna loins all but guaranteed. As the month ends, the long-range forecast continues to look good and he’s talking about the possibility of November tuna trips.
Coleman owns All Rivers and Saltwater Charters, a Snoqualmie based outfit that offers a broad range of Puget Sound, San Juan Islands, Westport, and coastal river trips chasing salmon, steelhead, ling cod, halibut and rockfish.
But it’s Coleman’s passion for tuna and his express tuna charters out of the Westport Boat Basin that have gained him the most notoriety and that have vaulted him to the front of the pack of Northwest tuna guides.
As the owner of two twin-engine tuna boats that rocket offshore at up to 30 knots, Coleman offers access to the fishing grounds more than twice as quickly as most of the boats in the traditional tuna fleet.
Charter operators out of Westport began offering tuna trips about 50 years ago. During that time and still today, most charter boats have been large and slow, leaving port the night before fishing or at 1 or 2 in the morning. Anglers sleep on the boat – in theory – and reach the tuna grounds in the light of morning.
By offering express, one-day trips from much faster boats built specifically for offshore tuna fishing, Coleman offers a more manageable one-day trip with far less travel time.
This Oct. 13, a day when many northwest sportsmen were in deer camps, on salmon rivers, or on reawakening lake and river trout fisheries, I went 28 miles offshore with Coleman, his capable deckhand, Mike, and five other anglers.
A more typical run to the tuna grounds out of Westport is 40 miles, but late-season tuna come close to shore to feast on abundant pacific anchovies in the mixing zone between warm currents and colder waters. The previous day his boat left the harbor at 6:30 a.m. and was back in port before noon with all the iced-down tuna it could carry.
With a Seahawks game scheduled to start at 1:15, I was hopeful we’d repeat the luck.
The infamous Westport Bar crossing was imperceptible as we left the mouth of Grays Harbor headed southwest on flat-calm seas. Coleman’s “Reel Ultra” rocketed across the ocean for almost an hour before he instructed us to begin scanning for birds, bait, and, better yet, jumpers.
Albacore don’t typically “jump” completely clear of the water. They slash, boil, and porpoise on the surface as they chase anchovies upward.
Baitfish-indicating shearwater gulls and albatrosses were everywhere on the horizon as we scanned, and Coleman reported lots of bait on the fish finder. Within moments someone shouted “jumpers,” which turned out to be 40 porpoises slashing across the surface. Moments later, Coleman saw real jumpers nearly a mile away via binoculars, and we were off in pursuit. Once near the feeding tuna, Coleman killed the throttle and anglers sprang into action.
Hundreds of anchovies swam in a tight circle in the bait tank as deckhand Mike netted six and began lightly hooking our live baits to ensure they would swim well and stay on the hook. Coleman instructed us to face into the wind and allow our anchovies to swim freely.
Live-bait fishing for tuna is widely considered to be the most fun and effective way to elicit strikes.
The deckhand gently but securely hooks each anchovy in its collar, behind its gills. The anchovy can’t escape the hook yet can still swim mostly unimpeded and naturally – key to motivating a tuna to bite.
Even with a size 1 tuna hook through its collar, a Pacific anchovy swims at a measured, moderate pace after losing sight of the boat.
Suddenly, my anchovy sped up, not because a fish had taken off with it yet, but because it saw tuna slashing through the water. Within seconds, the anchovy went from 2 mph to 20. The day’s first tuna had grabbed my bait.
It’s critical to allow a tuna to run with a bait for at least three seconds before engaging the reel’s drag, which I did, but it’s also important to remember never to put too much pressure on a fish that sprints to 50 mph.
That fish broke me off, along with four others that day that would snap my 30-pound monofilament as I tried to tire them like salmon. Albacore are not salmon. I managed to boat nine other tuna, however, and we filled the Reel Ultra’s fish boxes by noon with more than 40 oversized tuna averaging 25 pounds each.
All day, we were encircled by a spectacle of tuna feeding on the surface. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has measured migrating schools of albacore 19 miles wide, and while this school probably wasn’t close to that big, we never left it.
Bluefin and bigeye tuna, dorado and yellowtail are also occasionally caught out of Northwest ports, but albacore tuna are far more plentiful in the cobalt-blue warmth of our offshore tuna grounds. NOAA says Pacific albacore populations are very strong, despite heavy commercial fishing pressure for one of the world’s most targeted fish stocks.
Booking a tuna trip for 2014 with a dependable guide is a slam-dunk path to a freezer full of some of the best fish flesh around.
I went home from my deer-season tuna trip with 115 pounds of boneless loins to sear, can, ceviche, casserole, stir fry, and share with friends and family.
Not a buck in the state of Washington yielded that much meat.