Oregon albacore running at near-record numbers

Editor's note: Based in North Puget Sound and operating from Alaska to Baja, Joel Shangle has been a news junkie on the West Coast saltwater scene since the 1990s, first as editor of California Fishing & Hunting News' and now as editor of California Sportsman, which hits newsstands in October. He's the host of Northwest Wild Country, a popular fishing and hunting radio show airing throughout western Washington, and has the deepest source list this side of the Library of Congress. In other words: if you're catching fish on the West Coast, just try to get away from him.

Record-breaking coho numbers — and exceptional offshore coho fishing in the Columbia River Ocean Zone — have gotten the majority of the attention off the North Coast of Oregon this summer, but the 2009 albacore tuna fishery is already tracking as one of the most productive longfin seasons on record.

As of the end of August, Oregon anglers had landed more than 37,000 albacore, the second-highest total to-date since the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife began tracking tuna-harvest numbers.

Of course, it's only been two years since Beaver State anglers caught close to 60,000 albacore in June, July and August of 2007 — easily one of the most productive three months of albacore fishing in West Coast history — but this summer's landings in Newport, Coos Bay, Depoe Bay, Bandon, Brookings and Garibaldi appear to be tracking a more gradual upward curve than in '07, when three ridiculously productive weeklong spikes in July and August accounted for over 40,000 fish.

"If it hadn't been for the weather, we would've beaten that number for 2007," says Del Stephens of Tuna Dog Offshore. "The fish are out there in big numbers and they've been easy to catch. Whenever we've been able to get out, we've caught the heck out of them."

Participation and harvest typically wane in September as fish become more spread out and fall salmon seasons start cranking in Tillamook, Rogue and Nehalem Bay, but Stephens said he believes that the albacore bite will extend further into fall than usual, which will push the total overall harvest in Oregon to more than 40,000.

"The way the run is looking this year, it'll stay strong well into October," he says. "We could be fishing on tuna until Halloween."

Run & gun
Tactics begin to change dramatically now as the region's best tuna anglers running out of Garibaldi, Newport and Depoe Bay stow the clones and trolling plugs and break out swimbaits and jigs to pursue the run-and-gun bite keyed by active, surface-oriented fish.

Early-season trolling gear will still work, but as schools become more scattered, you're better off running to the blue-water breaks, locating active schools, fishing them hard with swimbaits and jigs until the bite dies, and then running to the next pod of jumpers.

"You'll still catch a few fish trolling plugs, but that's old-school fishing," Stephens says. "If you really want to get into something that's fast and exciting, learn how to run-and-gun and learn how to pitch swimbaits or run an iron. People lose interest this time of year because they're not catching nearly as many fish trolling, and because they don't know how to fish swimbaits and iron."

The West Coast R&G, Part II
I'll give you the A to Z on the West Coast run-and-gun in next week's column. In the meantime, go get a mess of 3- and 5-inch swimbaits and 2-ounce jigheads and start practicing your long-distance casting.

Washington: tracking the coho Chupacabra
Every year around the first week of September, the same urban legend starts to circulate around the Pacific Northwest: "Airborne observers from the Oregon/Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife have spotted a school of coho 10 miles long crashing on bait between 'Y' and 'Z'! There's a '10-mile-long' pod of coho coming!"

The 10-mile-long coho school is a fable on level with Sasquatch and the Chupacabra in these parts — I've been hearing the story for about a week now — except this year, the mystical coho Chupacabra appears to be real.

Coho salmon season off the mouth of the Columbia River between Leadbetter Point, Wash., and Cape Falcon, Ore., re-opened on Labor Day after a weeklong shutdown, putting southwest Washington and North Coast Oregon anglers back on top of a massive coho biomass that produced borderline-silly fishing and record angler participation throughout August, when lower Columbia River angler-effort and harvest numbers for the month were the highest since WDFW & ODFW started keeping records in 1969.

"I spent 47 straight days out there and limited 12 to 14 people every time," says Capt. Butch Smith of Coho Charters in Ilwaco, Wash.. "Most days in July, we were back to the dock by 10:30 a.m. It's by far the best fishing we've had since 2001 when the run was 1.2, 1.3 million."

It was so good, in fact, that the Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife departments decided to pull the plug on the offshore fishery on Aug. 26 out of fear that an off-the-rails late-August harvest would bust a federally-mandated quota.

However, weather deteriorated along the coast for the last week of August, forcing most anglers up into the lower Columbia, so fishery managers are left with a surplus ocean quota and a Sasquatch-sized coho run that still stretches from the Washington/Oregon border to lower Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

"The ocean has been pretty well blown up the past few days, but when we get out there again, it'll be exceptional until at least the middle, end of (September)," Smith says. "There are a whole lot of coho out there, and some really nice ones. Normal fish is between 10 and 15 pounds and we just had one over 20."

That size average will improve over the next three weeks as the run's later-arriving eating machines continue to pack on a pound a week until they funnel into the lower Columbia in late September. Weather allowing, most of the fishing will happen between Buoys 1 & 2, which lie roughly 2 ½ nautical miles west of the Buoy 10 line in the lower river.

"Fishing out there (in the ocean) has been insane, and I get a feeling when we start getting those 15-, 16-, 17-pounders on a regular basis, it's going to be equally insane in the estuary," says Val Perry of Perry's Fishing Adventures.

B-10 blows up
More on the Columbia estuary fishery — the famed Buoy 10 — next week.

California's 2009 salmon season goes quietly
California's only saltwater salmon fishery of the summer came and went with a whimper last week. The Klamath Management Zone Ocean Fishery, which ran for 10 days (Aug. 29 to Sept. 7), was routinely a bust for most boats fishing between the California/Oregon border and Horse Mountain.

"It was horrible for most people," says Gary Blasi of Full Throttle Sportfishing in Eureka, Calif. "They should've been staging in the river mouths, but those fish weren't where they usually are. We can usually find them in shallow water close to the beach, but we had some really warm water in close this year, so that might've kept them out of the spots we usually find 'em."

Blasi found his best success in deep water off the continental shelf, fishing in 1,000 to 1,200 feet of water with 300 to 400 feet of downrigger cable out, likely working on fish migrating toward Oregon's Rogue River.

"The first few days we got three or four fish total, so we ran straight out for 14 miles into deep water," he says. "There's a ton of bait out there, whales all over the place, but, man, I've never had to fish for them that deep and that far offshore. It was a weird deal."