An Albacore Story

cabezon

Sculpin Enterprises
WFF Supporter
At @SilverFly’s instigation, I have been intending to write down some thoughts on albacore fishing. After five albacore trips (four with Nick), I'm an old hand. :rolleyes: Here's an amalgamation of my experiences. Events are somewhat fictionalized (but recognizable to the guilty parties...).
You prepositioned everything the night before. The alarm goes off too early. Quick shower, get dressed, make a sandwich, load your stuff into the car, hit the road.
Drive over an hour in the fog to arrive in the parking lot at Westport in the gloaming. You pull on whatever you don't mind getting covered with albacore blood and slime during the heat of the action during the day, grab your rods, lunch and drinks (hydration, not a buzz, is the order of the day), your gear bag with boxes of flies and pouches of reels, and trudge down to the shore, over the bridge, and down to the dock. Go left at the base of the bridge and pass the other boats in the All Rivers fleet.
Nick and his deckhand will already be there at the last boat. They'll be hauling the massive ice cooler on board and prepping the boat, a 29’ Defiance Guadalupe, for the day. You will wait a bit while all the members of your party arrive, say your hellos to each other and Nick who will introduce his deckhand, shoot the shit / tell some lies, and string up some rods. Nick and his deckhand will help you stow your gear and strung rods in the forward cabin or tied down to the roof of the cabin.
The departure time comes and the deckhand pushes the boat off the dock. Some of you will be settling inside the cabin and others on the outside benches that lie against the cabin and face the aft deck. Your first stop is the bait float where the deckhand will load several netfuls of live anchovies (hopefully) into the live-bait tank that occupies the center of the aft deck. Nick will then pick his way through any other morning boat traffic and turn west at the eastern end of the breakwater. While this is going on, the deckhand will erect a canopy over the two outside benches against the back cabin to protect those riding outside from the worst of the spray blowing over the top of the cabin.
As the Westport bar crossing is bumpy today, Nick will motor out as carefully as he can but the steep waves generated by the interactions of the tide and swell will start to bash the boat. You won’t be alone crossing the bar as several other boats in the All Rivers fleet will also be jail-breaking for the fishing grounds as will other charters and private boats. Mark, co-owner of All Rivers and skipper of the largest boat in the fleet (42’er with triple 250hp engines) will soon blow everyone else out of the water in the race to the tuna grounds.
Get settled in. You are in for a pounding 2-hour ride offshore at 15-20 knots. It is the Pacific and you are always heading into the swell from the west on the way out. Nick will do his best to avoid the worst of it, but you’re going to knock your fillings lose... If you are a spewer, take one of the outside seats – more fresh air, more room to blow chunks...
Everyone is looking for the right water temperature for albacore, generally in the low 60’s, warm. The surface waters just off the harbor will be in the upper 50’s – perfect salmon water (or tuna in fur coats). As you cruise out, you will slowly, inexorably watch the water temperature readout on the screen by Nick slowly creep up. The water color will be green – a sign of upwelling and the algae that fuel the rich coastal food chains. And then the green will lighten up, maybe even patches of blue. “Here may be bluefins…” (you know who I am talking to here). Then, the water will be bluer and bluer – the relative desert that is the open ocean. Lots of light but no nutrients to support photosynthesis. If you are going to live here, you have to be an efficient swimmer to move from one meager food patch to the next.
On the ride out, the other captains will be entertaining each other by giving each other shit over the radio. No secrets by this time of the year at Westport. Mark will probably be leading his mini-fleet (and the other wise boats) to where they had success the previous day. He’ll get there first and have his gear in water while you still have another 20+ minutes of pounding…
But eventually, you are there too. On a normal 6-pack bait/gear charter, the mate will set out a spread of four or five gear rods as Nick trolls along at 3-5 knots. The rods will be held by rod holders while on the troll. Four folks will be the designated fishers on the first round and the other two will rotate in. If fish are hooked on the troll, Nick will cut the engines. The mate will pin a live anchovy with a small bait hook and have you throw it out into the water. It dances until it dies.
At the start of the troll on a flyfishing charter with 4 anglers, the mate may deploy a single gear rod with a tried-and-true cedar plug off the rod holder in the center of the stern. Two flyfishers will sit on the aft corners of the boat and deploy their flies and lines parallel to the sides of the boat on the edges of the foam. The other two will take up positions on the rear benches and deploy their rods laterally; they will run their flies and lines farther off from the white foam generated by the props and the hull. Except for the gear rod in its holder, everyone has direct visceral contact with their fly dancing behind the boat.
And you sit, and feel your flyline in your hands, and watch. Of course, you are looking for signs of tuna at the surface or active birds, especially sooty shearwaters. If there is something interesting out there, Nick has probably already seen it… Albatross may glide into the path of the boat and effortlessly continue on its long wanderings. In the water, the occasional jellyfish may pass by and you might even see some marine mammals, seals or whales out this far. And you wait. Nick may throw some S-turns into his troll pattern and the captains keep up a steady chatter of what/where appears to be working and what/where isn’t.
And then it happens. Something just smashes your fly and begins to pull off line like a rocket. You don’t need to “set the hook” on albacore; it sets the hook on you…. You yell out “fish on’. Nick immediately throws the twin Hondas into neutral. He does not want to motor too far past the initial contact with the school. The mate throws out a handful live anchovies to interest the other tuna in the area and he begins to reel in the cedar plug. The other fly fishers start to erratically retrieve in their flies on the “slide”, the deceleration of the boat. And from another corner of the boat, the call of “fish on” rings out.
Sweet, two fish on. These hooked fish are still far out, especially if hooked on the troll or early in the slide. By now, you should have stopped that initial run but you are now deep into your backing. Where did the flyline go? You begin the tug of war. You win some backing, you lose some backing. Rinse and repeat. But in the end, it’s only 25 pounds of highly evolved swimming power against you and you outweigh it 10 to 1 or better. By now, it has sounded under the boat and spread out those huge pectoral fins – the albacore’s favorite trick - drag maximizers. And you and the other flyfisher fighting albacore are doing a dance around the back of the boat, around the bow, and up and below each other.
Albacore are going to go where albacore are going to go. You’re just trying a) to avoid tangling your line in the prop, b) having the fish dive completely under the boat to the opposite side of where you are with your rod, and c) avoiding the two tuna from creating some weird origami out of the two fly lines. Nick is giving instructions to guide you around the boat and up and over or down and under the other flyfisher totally immersed in his own tuna battle.
On the fish-finder Nick can see that the rest of the albacore school is holding 60-100’ below the boat. While you are fighting your fish, the other flyfishers have been casting their fly lines out, letting them sink as the boat drifts, and then retrieving with whatever rhythm they think will have the best chance of getting bit. The mate continues to throw out the occasional handful of anchovies that blast away in frightened dashes; they know what is coming…. And occasionally, you will see an explosion at the surface as a tuna rockets up from its holding position to pick off a hapless anchovy in a blink of an eye.
You finally have your fly line back on the reel. Congratulations, but the fat lady ain’t singing yet. You pump the rod and gain line grudgingly. Finally, you see a silver flash deep below you in the water. The end game is beginning. The deckhand or Nick will slide by to your neighborhood with a gaff in hand. You can see the silver sides, that giant pectoral fin like a massive plane wing, and the big eye as you continue the war. The fish is tiring, you think, you hope, you pray. It is just below the surface now and your job is to guide it in range of the gaff. Resist the temptation to grab the rod above the cork; that won’t end well… You try to guide the fish to the side of the boat where the gaff is waiting. But it kicks out just as the deckhand is beginning his swing of the gaff. Swing and a miss…. Strike one!!! If the fish is still a bit green, it might take some line and dive down 15 – 20 feet under the boat - uggghhh. The pumping process begins anew.
Finally, you guide your fish along the side of the boat. The deckhand swings the gaff and catches the tuna in the head. Perfect shot. He lifts the dead weight over the gunnel. Bright blood squirts everywhere. Time to remove the fly which is VERY firmly embedded in the jaw. Maybe you hold up the fish for a hero shot but more likely the fish will be dumped on the aft deck. The deckhand has the other fish to land now. Blood pours out of gaff wounds in the head and pools on the aft deck. You catch your breath. The other tuna soon joins yours on the deck. And suddenly both start madly beating their tails against the deck like a pair of demented metronomes. They are dead; they just don’t know it yet. Their beating tails spray blood everywhere. Eventually, the staccato beating stops.
In a brief window of quiet (or when the pile gets treacherous), the deckhand deposits the carcasses into the port or starboard storage tank. He then dumps a generous helping of sea ice (4oF colder than ice made from freshwater) from the huge cooler. This will cool the overheated tuna muscle as quickly as possible.
You can see schools of juvenile sauries right at the surface. Sauries, it’s what’s for tuna lunch. The bait stop is crazy. Two guys are hooked up, then three, then four. Nuts. Nick directs the symphony of overs and unders to keep lines from tangling (“don’t cross the streams”). The carnage accumulates in the aft deck. Are we a commercial boat? We’re just using fly rods – buggy whips…. Hell yeah!!!
Finally, Nick can’t stand just being an observer. He breaks out a 12 wt. with a popper and heads up to the bow. As he casts, he keeps up a running commentary that has us in stitches. Swing and a miss, swing and a miss, swing and a miss. Then, “fish on”, a quintuplet. And Nick’s got the biggest smile as that fish comes over the gunnel and he holds it in his hand. I try my luck with a popper a short time later and bang, it works for me too.
Or, it is another day. [Cue weird transition music as the screen goes out of focus and then cuts back in on a slightly different day.] You are ready to see if you can catch another albacore on this bait stop. So, you stake out your corner of the deck, pull off some fly line, and cast off the stern (with your back cast over the engines) and drop your cast 30 feet lateral of amidship. Then, you realize that you are casting your fly line downwind (that helps with the casting) but the wind is pushing the boat over your fly almost as fast as it can sink and you can retrieve it. Crap. Maybe if you try to cast a 12 weight with heavy sinking line backwards over your shoulder into the wind, you can gain some additional time. Or you can catch your fly on the trolling motor and make Nick hang his ass precariously off the side of the boat to free it (maybe…).
[Transition music again.]. Or maybe no one else wants to play after the first two fish. Maybe there is a drive-by by a blue shark attracted by the anchovies or the blood in the scuppers. Or a curious mola mola buzzes by the boat on the bait stop.
Nick makes the executive decision – let’s try somewhere else. He wants the fly lines in and we’ll start out on the troll again. Everyone resumes their corner of the boat and readies their flies and lines. Nick kicks the boat in gear. The plume of white froth shoots behind the boat. And the boat is barely moving when someone else cries “fish on” and the circus pulls into town for another show. Again and again and again until the boat has no more room in the storage tanks. Your arms feel like overcooked spaghetti. But your grin runs from one ear to the other.
[Transition music.] Calmer day, different drift angle. Cast out your fly over a corner of the stern. The wind pushes the fly and line astern and clear of the engines. The deckhand throws out a handful of frightened anchovies that head toward your fly. Strip, strip. Tight. “Fish on”.
[More transition music.]. Or it is going to be one of those days. Some initial success when we arrive, but then everything goes cold, stone cold dead. The albacore have all left for the Central Pacific or something. Maybe they’re on a diet or gone vegetarian. Trolling for hours and hours. Nothing happening. Not much chatter on the radio. Someone at the edge of radio range off the Columbia River is into them. But that is just too far to go. It is going to be one of those days. Grind it out.
Like an admiral plotting out a naval campaign, Mark of All Rivers deploys his fleet to explore different areas. Troll mindlessly, seemingly aimlessly. Change speeds on the troll. Throw in more S’s. Wake up Mr. Albacore. Wake up flyfishers mesmerized by the endless fruitless trolling.
You’ve had your fly out for a while. Time to check that it isn’t fouled. So, you start to strip it in. 20 feet off the stern, the fly pops free from the white water of the props. And a huge albacore leaps from under the froth to take a swipe at your fly and it misses. AAAGGHH. Quick shot of adrenalin. Instantly, you attempt to throw your fly back out but manage to wrap it around one of the stanchions that support the rail that runs around the bow of the boat. Conveniently, your albacore sensei is there to free it. You flip it behind the boat just to the side of the white water and a tuna smashes your fly. “Fish On”, finally…
Everyone’s spirits pick up and we begin to scratch out a fish but no wide open bait stops. The tuna are being very picky. They don’t want your fly just trolling at boat speed. They want a fly with more action. So, you drift your fly back into the prop wash and erratically retrieve it in and out of the prop wash. And you let it drift back and repeat. And it works. Another smash and call of “Fish on”. In ones and twos, the body count is beginning to add up. At the end of the day when we compare our success to the other boats in Mark’s fleet, team fly fishers has done well on a tough day.
Hot day, slow day. Eventually, Nick has to call time but he’s stretched your experience to his legal limit. There is still two hours and 40 miles to head back to Westport. Reel in the lines, store the rods, settle into your seat for the trip back. Maybe wolf down that forgotten sandwich or guzzle some Gatorade. Rehydrate, should have been more of a priority earlier.
And now you are going to be entertained big-time by a wizard with the fillet knife. For $4/fish, your deckhand will strip your tuna to four loins and a belly in a little over a minute. [Yes, I have it on video and I timed it]. The cleaned carcass is flung over the side to feed the hagfish and other benthic scavengers. It is a master class in efficiency and minimal knife cuts. And he’s doing this while Nick has put the peddle down to get back to the barn. You’re cruising home, at 20 knots or better, but now with the swell. And the deckhand is acting like he’s speed-carking these tuna from the parking lot in Westport and not on a rocking and rolling boat. Amazing skill.
As the tuna are carked, the loins and bellies are stored in plastic bags, and the bags stored on ice. Carking complete, the deckhand switches gear and begins the process of cleaning the boat. He and Nick have used the wash hose to clean the worst of the gore in the quiet moments (and sometimes in the middle of the chaos because the deck is becoming slick with tuna blood and gore). But, his responsibility is to wash every surface by the end of the day.
On the ride home, the water color has changed from blue to green. The water temperatures have cooled. Flocks of coastal birds: murres, rhinocerous auklets, are diving for herring and anchovies in the green water. Gulls are wheeling overhead. The shore has metamorphized from a vague shape on the horizon to sharp details.
Finally, Nick turns the corner inside the western edge of Westport jetty. You pass the channel marker. And the edge of the east end of breakwater where someone has written “Don’t forget to tip your deckhand” on the surface.
We’re the last of the All Rivers fleet to hit the dock. The deckhands on the other boats are completing their final chores. They offer congratulations on our success. Makes us feel good as we prove the effectiveness of flyrods here.
We’re all tired and ready to head for home. We still have to settle up the balance of the charter bill and provide a tip that Nick and the deckhand will share for their hard work today. Money well spent. Piles of gear bags and rods appear on the dock. How are we going to divide up the tuna? How many do you want? Do you have enough ice? How are we going to carry all of this up to the parking area? Where are the Westport Sherpas? O.K., this is going to take a trip or two. Say our thank yous to Nick and the deckhand. Congratulate each other on a successful day.
Load the vehicles. Change into something that isn’t covered in tuna blood. On the road. Arrive home with a crap-ton of tuna. Cover it in ice in coolers and decide to deal with it the next morning. Some dinner, a shower, crash. Memories.
Steve
 
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Kfish

WFF Supporter
Thank you so much for the write up! Super helpful for a first timer like myself this summer.
One question, how much line do you have out while trolling?
 

cabezon

Sculpin Enterprises
WFF Supporter
Thank you so much for the write up! Super helpful for a first timer like myself this summer.
One question, how much line do you have out while trolling?
It varies. I've caught fish two rod lengths behind the boat and almost 100 feet behind the boat. When they are on the feed, it probably doesn't matter. When it is slow, change things up.
Steve
 

Jake

veni, vidi, fishi
Great write up. $4/fish to clean? Never heard of that before. Hope y’all have a great season this summer.
SOP on every guided trip I’ve been on where keeping fish is a thing. And, to me, it’s worth more than that because I’d waste far more than $4 in meat per fish and it’s a pretty good show.
 

Nick Clayton

WFF Supporter
Its definitely not mandatory to pay the deckhand to cut your fish. People are more than welcome to take them home and cut them themselves.

Most people decide that paying 20-30 bucks to a deckhand who will cut and bag them on the back of a boat moving 20-30 knots through the ocean, and have them all finished prior to hitting the dock, is well worth the money.

I can cut albacore faster than 99.9% of people on earth, including my current deckhand, but I would one hundred percent pay him to do it if I was going as a customer tomorrow, just so I didn't have to take them home and mess with it.
 

Matt B

...
WFF Supporter
Its definitely not mandatory to pay the deckhand to cut your fish. People are more than welcome to take them home and cut them themselves.

Most people decide that paying 20-30 bucks to a deckhand who will cut and bag them on the back of a boat moving 20-30 knots through the ocean, and have them all finished prior to hitting the dock, is well worth the money.

I can cut albacore faster than 99.9% of people on earth, including my current deckhand, but I would one hundred percent pay him to do it if I was going as a customer tomorrow, just so I didn't have to take them home and mess with it.
All I know is 6 pinks will stink up my back yard worse than 8 albacore. But yeah it is soooo worth it.

Speaking of which, it is an odd year and nobody has started that thread. ;)
 

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