Live Bait Fishing for Albacore
By Ken Bertelsen
When asked to write a “ GREYBEARD “ feature on live bait fishing for Albacore on small to medium size boats, my first thought was how well I qualify for the task. I am now 68 years old, retired and my beard is grey. I started fishing for Albacore around 1955, and have never stopped. In my first years fishing off our northern California coast, little or no sport fishing for Albacore existed. However the Commercial American Tuna fleet was tremendous. The Albacore seemed to hang around the different Seamounts (Guide, Pioneer, and Davidson.) Seldom did you see any of the fleet close to shore. In those first years I would encounter hundreds of commercial jig boats (trollers) and an occasional commercial live bait boat. I was fascinated watching them fish with cane poles and feathers, and chumming live bait (Anchovies). These live bait boats were from San Diego, and were larger than the jig boats, with large freezers to hold their catch. They would come to shore at night occasionally to make bait, usually just south of Pigeon Pt. I learned early not to troll too close to these boats, (jig or bait boats). In those days they would shoot a round across your bow as a reminder. (It never happened to me, but I have witnessed it). The commercial tuna fleet today is but a fraction of what it used to be with a lot of their fish being sold off their boats to the public. Albacore are a trans-pacific migrating fish. We generally look for them in Northern California around the middle of July, and enjoy great fishing through October. This does not always happen, recreational anglers experienced a decade-long absence from 1986-1995, when few were caught. I fished every one of those years with little or nothing to show for it. One year, I believe it was 1992, I followed the previous days track of the San Francisco based party boat Ranger. John the skipper told me he had great success at 112 miles from Pt Bonita, on a heading of 235 degrees and the weather was fine. He told me not to even bother to put the lines in till I reached 108 miles. The next day I put the lines in at 112 miles and fished out to 126 miles. We landed 22 Albacore, and I thought I was in heaven. We planned on drifting overnight and continuing our fishing the next morning. Around sundown on the first day the winds came up and I decided I had better come home. The wind and nw swell prevented us from heading to Pt. Bonita, and the next morning found us just south of Pigeon Pt. This is just one of a few crazy trips I made during those years. I can’t wait until each year in mid July when those first fish arrive. When they come, be glad they did.
My first boat for Albacore fishing was a 24 ft. Fiberform cuddy cabin model with a single 454 gas engine. My electronics consisted of a compass, VHF radio, and the ability to subtract or add 180 degrees from whatever course I left in the morning. Judging the prevailing direction of the wind and swell would insure that I get back somewhere close to where I left from.
My current boat is a Bertram 38 ft. sport fisher with twin caterpillar 325hp diesel engines. My electronics on board are 2 vhf radios, 64 mile radar, GPS chart plotter, Loran C, Hand held GPS, Cell Phone (with amplifier and antenna), 2 depth sounders (1 digital, and 1 large Furuno color machine, and 3 compasses. I have taken this boat to Mexico, and have fished live bait from Mexico to Pt. Arena. The cockpit of my boat is 120 square ft. I have overhead rod storage in the cockpit for twelve rods (rocket launchers) they are for live bait rods only. (Two per angler)
I have two 50 gallon live bait tanks with lights in the bottom of each tank. If I have a pump failure I can switch to a standby. I consider my current boat to be medium size, and my fiberform boat I would consider as small. Having fished live bait from both I think I have a good understanding of what it takes to be successful in either one.
A medium size boat such as mine is comfortable fishing about six people with live bait, while a small boat should fish three or four people. Albacore fishing live bait is different than any other fishing on small or medium size boats because it requires a team effort. Your window of opportunity when the bite goes off is determined by how well each angler performs. Lose a fish because of a mistake will often leave all of you
looking over the side wondering what happened? A good team effort, working together will put more fish in the boat, and smiles on every ones faces. Let us begin!!
(small to large)
Live bait tanks start at the canvas bag over the stern type, with a water pickup device under the stern or transom of the boat to create a water flow into the bag when the boat is moving. Stop the boat, and so does the water. Needless to say I don’t like this type of live bait tank, however that is how I started.
There are a vast amount of molded fiberglass tanks available, in all different shapes and sizes to fit all boats small to medium size. These tanks come with pumps to use, or the manufacturer will recommend what pump works well with there units. I h3ly recommend Southern California manufacturers of these tanks, as they are familiar with their tanks designed for holding Anchovies or Sardines. They can help you set up the proper water flow for these type baits. My tanks are made by Pacific Edge in southern California. I test these tanks often by timing how long they take to fill (8 minutes is my magic number). If your tank does not have a light built into it, provide a light from the top. Traveling at night to the tuna grounds is easier for the bait if they can see. This is also the case if you are holding the bait overnight. I like tanks that induce water in a clockwise direction, this creates a current for the bait to calmly school in. Deal with a manufacturer that can give you answers.
On large party boats there is generally one man who is responsible for the live bait, and operation of these tanks. He is always given a God like position onboard. These boats often travel days to there fishing grounds, and encounter large temperature changes we don’t have to worry about.
(buying or catching)
I have never been successful with a throw net, so I would defer from even discussing this method of catching live bait. I often use the Subiki bait rigs in the Pillar Pt harbor to catch my favorite bait for Albacore, the Pacific Sardine. I have just as much luck fishing from my berth as I do from inside the outer breakwater. I find the last two hours of the incoming tide, through the beginning of the outflow to be the best time to fish for them. I bait the area with small amounts of cat food, and turn on my large deck lights to attract them to my area at night which seems to be the best time to catch them. How much bait I catch using this method varies from night to night, and is partially determined by how many people are willing to give me a hand. Assuming I have one tank loaded with Anchovies from one of the commercial receivers, I will use my other live bait tank to store the Sardines for fishing only. (No chumming). I would consider catching three to four dozen Sardines using this method a good night.
Buy far the easiest, and most efficient way to buy live bait is from the commercial live bait receivers in San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz, and Monterey. I want to stress the fact that these bait receivers exist primarily from the sales of live bait to the many fine party boats that fish our coastline. These boats buy a lot of bait, and they buy it often. So as sport fishermen we must often allow them to load ahead of us sometimes. It really doesn’t matter because were going to pass them up heading out anyway.
OK its our turn at the receiver, I never know how many scoops of bait I am going to buy at first, I want to see a scoop or two in my tank to see what they are (sardines or anchovies), are there any red noses, how big is the bait, the bigger the bait is, the less your tank will hold. Knowledge of how much live bait your tank will hold is very important. When taking the live bait on board they will be extremely active, and will not give you much of an idea of what is enough. A great advantage I have on board my medium size boat, is the fact I have two live bait tanks. I will often put two scoops in each tank, and after a period of time when the bait settles down I will slowly move all the bait into one tank, and drain the empty one. (Removes about four hundred pounds of weight) When you leave the receiver in the dark, get a light on in or above the tank right away, and move slowly until you see the bait settle down into a calm schooling motion (it doesn’t take long). Remember when traveling offshore to watch your bait occasionally, if you encounter rough seas you may have to slow down. Remove dead bait periodically and place in a bucket to use for chum. (Do this all day). Remember the condition of your bait when you arrive at the fishing grounds is far more important than the volume of bait you have in your bait tank .You can adjust your fishing and chumming to the volume you have.
WHY FISH WITH LIVE BAIT?
The most common way to catch Albacore is by trolling. The best trolling method I have found is the Franko method. I am sure Bob will write a GREYBEARD feature that will make you very proficient at this method of catching tuna.
I like trolling to find the school of fish, and then transition into live bait fishing. I use lighter tackle for live bait. I feel the fish pickup and run with my line while holding the rod in my hands. My fish has not been dragged by my 30,000lb boat for 50 to 100 yards. The fight of an Albacore caught on live bait is much better than one caught trolling.
Another great reason to use live bait is that your chances of catching other game fish increases dramatically. While fishing in northern California I have caught Bluefin Tuna, Striped Marlin,Yellowtail, Bonita, Barracuda, large Spanish Mackerel, Blue Sharks, and Lancet Fish. I have witnessed the take of Swordfish, Opah, and Dorado using live bait on party boats in our area.
Another great reason to fish live bait is, when you reach your personal limit of fish you want to take home, it is far easier to catch and release when all you have to do is lean over the side of the boat, and cut the line. A 20 cent barbed or barbless hook is a lot cheaper than $5 to $10 trolling lures.
Regarding chumming, the first thing I would say is important is to realize the most damaging thing you can do to prevent a successful live bait stop is to chum incorrectly. It is not necessary to chum at all if you are catching fish after a trolling stop. If after a trolling stop, you are unsuccessful getting the school of fish to the boat, change your tactics on the next stop. When a troll fish hits, stop the boat and chum just three or four live fish immediately. By the time the boat slides to a stop the chum fish should be about half way between where you first hooked the troll fish and were your boat is. This will often aid bringing the school of tuna to the boat. Get the live bait lines in the water as soon as possible. If you can hook up right away, a live hooked tuna on the line is the best thing as other fish will follow the one hooked. If you want to chum during a live bait stop, less is better than more, live chum have tails, and if you chum too many a few will get away from the immediate area of the boat and the tuna will follow. Another way to prevent this from happening is to pinch the three or four live bait before tossing overboard, this will slow them down as if they are injured (they are).When the tuna stop biting on this stop, don’t chum any more live bait. The tuna may have left, so try a few dead baits over the side; this may bring a few deep stragglers up. Unlike a large party boat, when fishing from a small or medium size boat your volume of live bait is smaller, therefore you must chum smarter.
I will make this section brief and to the point. Everyone has their own preferences, and if you don’t your local tackle store can make great recommendations. The quality, and cost of the equipment is not as important as how you use it. I will list my recommendations regarding tackle:
1. Fishing rods should be boat style, on the short side 6 to 7 feet max. (Both trolling and live bait)
2. Reels. Trolling: (2 speed) I use Shimano TLD 30 reels for trolling. Many others will work fine.
Live bait reels: If you are going to spend any money on good quality, this is where to spend it. These reels take a real beating. Good drag system is a must.
3. Fishing line: Trolling reels: monofilament 50 or even 60lb.test. I tend to use no less breaking strength, because when trolling with the intention of transitioning to live bait, I use a tighter drag than normal. I want a troll caught fish to the boat as fast as possible. Don’t allow the fish to run.This is important in getting the school to the boat.
Fishing line: Live bait reels: (TIP OF THE YEAR) Straight Fluorocarbon (Cabela’s no-vis 100% Fluorocarbon 20lb.test 600 yards $29.99) should be enough to spool two reels. All tuna have large eyes, and great vision. This will help tremendously with line shy fish. A genuine problem I fought for years with monofilament. The advantage of using straight Fluorocarbon line VS making Fluorocarbon leaders is obvious. You must remember to wet the line when tying knots with Fluorocarbon line.
4. Live bait hooks: SHARP hooks are a must, and plenty of them as you will lose a lot of them to lost fish, swallowed, frayed line etc. (I like Owner hooks) at the rate you will use them you will never have to worry about sharpening them. An ample supply of hooks from #6 thru #2/0 is important because the size of your live bait will vary greatly from trip to trip depending upon what is available at the local receivers.You must always MATCH the hook size to the size of the bait. I like to use a ¼ to ½ oz free flowing egg sinker on my line, to help encourage the bait to sink. How you hook the bait is also very important. Using anchovies I prefer placing the hook through the bottom jaw and out the top near the nose. Collar hooking is another option. With sardines, and mackerel I prefer to hook cross ways thru the nose in front of the eyes. (this area is very bony and the hook will hold well). Another option is to hook them near the anal area (this will encourage the bait to swim down in the water column.
(The key to making a successful bait stop with small and medium boats)
A great advantage a large party boat has is the fact they often can stop on meter marks, and begin to chum steadily using their large capacity bait tank to its fullest advantage. They also have the advantage of having 20 to 40 fishermen soaking live bait. This can create a bait stop for them that can last for hours. Small to medium boats will seldom have this advantage.
I am convinced the most important factor in creating a successful live bait stop in small and medium boats is a fast efficient transition from trolling to stopping, and getting the live bait rods in the water. I spoke earlier of a team effort, this is were it often really counts.
I troll a little differently when I know the fish are receptive to live bait. (usually after a couple of stops). I tighten the drags on all the trolling rods to what I consider their maximum limit. If I know there a lot of fish in the area, and very willing, I will even troll with just three rods instead of five or six. This naturally reduces the time it takes to clear the rods with no fish, all the while coaching the fisherman with the troll caught fish to “GET IT IN”. I have stopped the boat almost immediately, and I shut the engines off. (I do this because I have two large diesel engines that make a lot noise. I don’t recommend this for single engine gas boats, as I don’t think their noise level is enough to matter. Constantly turning single gas engines on and off fifty miles out never has made me comfortable. While reeling in the empty rods throw a couple of those dead baits out of the bucket, tuna will seldom bite them, but it should give them an idea there might be something around they like. Everyone can now grab a live bait rod. The first thing I do with the rod in hand is check the setting of the drag, then I bait it with a lively live bait. By this time my boat is drifting sideways in the swell, you must put your line in on the side of the boat that is upwind. (usually face the oncoming wind and swell). Immediately free spool line off the reel (clicker off), a natural constant flow of line off the reel is imperative. This is the one time in your life you should POINT the rod level with the water at where you think your bait is. I forgot to mention, when first placing your bait in the water, make sure your bait is swimming away from the boat. Sardines in particular have a nasty habit of turning around, and swimming under the boat and hiding. Chumming live bait is perhaps the most difficult decision to make. Too much is WORSE, than not enough. If you do chum try just two or three, and give them a pinch behind the head or tail to slow them down a little.
Let’s get back to our live bait rod we have been free flowing line off of. A sure sign your bait has seen an albacore can be felt by sudden jerking, panicking of the baitfish. A sign you’re going to get a run. When an albacore picks your bait up you will feel no bite, but you will feel a rush of line off your reel similar to the feel when you make a long cast. You MUST control the flow of line off the reel with light pressure from your thumb Give a slow count of 5 or 6 if using an anchovy, or 10 or 12 if using a medium or large sardine. The reason for the long and longer count is to allow time for the tuna to swallow your bait, also it’s to allow time for your line to straighten out. Maintaining your rod in a level parallel with the water position, engage the drag. (remember you already checked the drag before baiting up). Hold the rod in the same position, until you feel it load up and line begins to flow off the reel. Now the most important part DO NOT STRIKE, merely LIFT the rod and reel.The Tuna will hook itself.
I think anyone who has ever been on a party boat has heard “follow your fish”, or “stay in front of your fish”, the same thing applies in small or medium boats. Well, by now we probably have two or three fish hooked up, and one guy standing by with the gaff. It is always a great idea when you have a more than two fish hooked up to leave the third fish away from the boat (maintain pressure on him). This help prevent tangles, and a live tuna in the water at all times is better than any chum you could use. I always have at least three or four extra live bait rods rigged in my rocket launchers, so that when a line is broke fighting a fish, or a hook is left in a fish that has swallowed it, rather than taking time to rig a new hook, any one of us can grab a rod preset and ready to go. If you do happen to get your hook out of the tuna’s jaw, (he should have swallowed it), be sure to check the last couple of feet for damage to the line.
Well how many did we end up with? Look around, everybody’s got someone else’s rod in their hand (can’t do that on a party boat) and a smile on their face.
One last comment before TRANSITIONING back to TROLLING, clean up, and place trolling rods at their respective position. Trolling lines placed in position quickly is very important. Let’s try just three trolling rods that school of fish is close by, if we don’t hook up in 15 minutes we’ll add the other three.