Tuna fishing's hot in the cold blue water of the deep Pacific

<I>RON MALAST photos</i><BR>Tom Morgan with a 42-pounder taken aboard the F/V Katie Marie.

Anglers find exciting times 25-40 miles off Ilwaco

ILWACO - If you're looking for offshore action, Ilwaco is the place to start. One of the most exciting fishing experiences available to anglers in Washington is sportfishing for albacore.

Albacore (Tunnus alalunga) are currently being fished 25 to 40 miles off the mouth of the Columbia River by the local charter fleets. Albacore being caught are averaging 16-25 pounds, with an occasional whopper of 35-40 pounds.

The albacore is a fast-swimming fish and easily distinguished from other tuna by its long pectoral (side) fins and high quality of meat, which is marketed as "white meat" tuna in the market place.

The location of albacore is usually determined by environmental factors which influence the timing of the migration, they are found in warm ocean currents (38F to 66F degrees) and are generally beyond the range of the average recreational boater.

Therefore, limited number of charter boats operating out of Ilwaco does the vast majority of the fishing. These boats head to sea in the darkness, which means crossing the Columbia Bar using lights, radar, GPS and a great deal of experience to reach the fishing grounds before the crack of dawn.

The Ilwaco commercial trollers have been chasing these fish for years; sport fishing for albacore has expanded rapidly during the current season. A typical albacore trip would require the fishermen to check in at the charter office by 2:30 a.m. with a boat departure time of 3 a.m.

Generally, after a run of from two to three hours, the crack of dawn breaks across the eastern sky with the boat cruising through "blue water" with top depths ranging from 800 to well over 5,000 feet. In the crisp morning air the crew starts the process of setting the lines being tipped with cedar plugs and a various assortment of colored jigs (I can only speak for boats operating out of Pacific Salmon Charters, other offices use different techniques). Snubbers (4-6) are put out off the stern rails of the boat, several rods and generally several lines from outriggers the spread being designed to simulate a school of bait and laid out at varying lengths.

The hunt now begins with the charter boats spread out, yet in constant radio contact while captain, crew and fishermen search for flocks of birds or disturbances on the ocean surface, which would indicate "feeders" or jumpers. A trolling speed of between 6.5 and 7.5 knots is usually maintained as some people snooze, others pour their first cup of coffee and rub their sleepy eyes and await the resounding call "hook-up!" At the cry, the boat, crew and passengers immediately come alive each with position to take and a task to perform, determined by the nature of the hook-up, snubbers, rod or out-rigger.

As the fish is pulled or reeled towards the boat the decision is made by the captain if the time is right to toss bait over the side to keep the attracted fish in close proximity. If this done, others will take light rods, a light sinker and let the free-spooled baited lines drift in the current. This is without a doubt one of the most exciting techniques of albacore fishing. To hook an albacore on a light salmon rod with a 320 reel and light line is like "jelly beans in the morning." Albacore have a tremendous first run capability and use every bit of it to their advantage.

Being able to catch tuna by the three various methods (snubber, long rod and light tackle) is a real thrill, you should check with your charter office to make sure the three options are included in your trip.

After several hours the light-weights start falling by the wayside, after fishing until 1p.m. or 2 p.m. all will be sleeping like babies with visions of albacore jumping in their heads on the way home.

Charter boats operating as we do over 12 hours, must carry a double crew of captain and deckhand to meet USCG requirements.

Catching fish is only a part of the off-shore experience. During the past month we have seen and been played with by hundreds of porpoises, numerous whales, many, many blue sharks, a thrasher shark and off-shore birds such the albatross.

As we have mentioned before, two albacore apiece is OK, three fish each is good, four fish per rod is very good and to return with five fish per rod is excellent. That's more tuna than a person can eat in a long time and numbers are not quite as important to the sportsmen as the quality of the trip.

As with all fishing, there are no guarantees and if you are looking strictly for meat, go to the local fish market. If you are interested in a quality offshore experience, that includes fishing - book an albacore trip.

Capt. Ron Malast is owner/operator of the charter boat Big Dipper operating out of Pacific Salmon Charters in Ilwaco, 642-3466.

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