ILWACO — Tuna season is in full swing, with local fishermen reporting high numbers and bigger-than-average albacore.
On Monday, July 11, Ilwaco-based Shake N Bake fishing charter provided an inside look at what some consider the best fishing worldwide during a tuna trip for five first-time albacore fishermen. In less than three hours, more than 50 tuna were caught.
It was a what has become to be expected in what’s considered one of the most productive fisheries on the West Coast, where “plugging the boat,” or filling the hold to the top with tuna, has become routine.
“The fish are aggressive and there are a lot of them,” said Aaron Walker, owner of F/V Opportunity. “There’s hardly a fishery that compares to this type of action, fight and food quality. This is Tuna Town USA.”
Eleven miles west of the mouth of the Columbia River, the Astoria Canyon emerges underneath. The 75-mile long canyon begins at around 330 feet deep, before dropping into an abyss beyond 6,000 feet. The canyon is an epicenter of scientific research, but also a highway for migrating albacore tuna.
North Pacific albacore begin an expansive annual migration in the spring and early summer in waters off Japan, continuing throughout the late summer into inshore waters off the U.S. Pacific Coast, ending late in the year (late fall and winter) in the western Pacific Ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.
Oceanic conditions strongly influence both the timing and geographical extent of the albacore’s migration in a given year. The vast majority of albacore are caught in waters with sea-surface temperatures that range from 15 to 19.5 degrees C (59 to 67 degrees F). The migrating fish are typically bounded by these thermal gradients as they conduct their round-trip travel across the Pacific Ocean, according to NOAA.
Thirty-five miles offshore, fingers of warmer southern currents shimmer in hues of blue. It’s within these slightly warmer surface waters that albacore can be found in an abundance. While passing along the Washington and Oregon coast, they feed primarily on mackerel and northern anchovy.
Jigs are trolled until a school is located and the first hookup occurs. A screaming drag from the first albacore on a reel often serves as the alarm. Once the first tuna is hooked, the remaining jigs are reeled in and replaced with lines baited with a live anchovy.
“Fresh one!” yelled deckhand Clark Von Essen, signaling the first hookup of the day on July 11.
Nearly simultaneously, each of the half-dozen rods slumped and shook violently against the strain of a newly hooked albacore. Diving and making repeated runs, each albacore took a minimum of 10 minutes to reel in. Several took nearly 20 minutes or more before being gaffed and pulled overboard.
Once aboard, the tuna were bled on deck and then stacked in the hold. After a little over three hours of fishing, the vessel was “plugged,” a term reserved for when there’s no longer any room in the hold.
In total, more than 50 tuna were caught; 42 were kept for the trip home and another eight were caught and released.
“We are having some canned, some smoked and some for sushi,” said Jill Cleary following the trip, adding that they looked forward to sharing the catch with friends, family and neighbors.