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The Albacore

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



"Vext with the puny foe, the tunnies leap, Flounce in the stream, and toss the mantling deep ; Ride over the foamy seas, with torture rave, Bound into the air and dash the smoking wave."

OPPIAN.

The albacore, the long-finned, big-eyed harlequin of the Santa Catalina and San Clemente channels, is the understudy of the tuna, following its mighty cousin, cheek by jowl, in many of its cyclonic rushes into the bays and harbors of the California islands. Owing to this habit, it is often a factor to be counted on in tuna fishing. Being more active and agile, it seizes the bait intended for the tuna, and the unfortunate angler, while surrounded by the big fish of his choice, catches nothing but twenty-five-pound albacores, which, while excellent sport, under the peculiar conditions becomes a deep-seated injury.

In watching a school of tunas at this time, the albacores are seen, types of activity, rushing hither and yon, in marked contrast to the larger fish, on the alert to steal the prey of the tuna or pick up the silvery morsels which often besprinkle the water after the larger fish has rushed through a school of smelt or mackerel. Like the tuna, the albacore is a pelagic fish, born on the high ocean and a rover in many seas, at home in mid-ocean, coming into shallow water and near island shores in spring to exercise its voracious appetite upon the small fry of its choice herring, anchovies, squid, smelt, mackerel, and others.

So far as known the Southern California islands are the only localities where the albacores are caught with the rod ; the conditions being particularly favorable, the fish coming in near the rocky shores from the Coronados to San Miguel Island where there is smooth water in the lee, permitting the angler to play them with pleasure and comfort. I have hooked the albacore within twenty feet of the rocks, but the favorite and most popular trolling-ground is half a mile off Avalon Bay, where large schools, or many small ones, are found, breaking the mirror-like water into foam, from May fifteenth to November or December, the fall fishing possibly being the best. At any time, but especially in the morning, the swift launches of the boatmen, with their gay tuna and other signals stretched to the breeze, may be seen in the offing, the two anglers sitting in the stern with rods out on either side.

A typical equipment may be described as follows : the rod of greenheart, noibwood, or split bamboo ; if the two former, to weigh about twenty-six ounces, as the fish is often a sulker and has to be " pumped." The rod, if the angler consults his greatest convenience, is a single piece; that is, a long tip with a short butt, and there are two long tips to such a rod, or better still, three -- one stiff, for tuna, a second less so for albacore, and a third lighter yet, for yellowtail and white-sea bass. The rod has double bell guides of German silver that the line can be changed every day so that the rod will not assume a chronic curve in any given direction. The reel, which should always be lashed upon the rod, should be of medium size, to hold three hundred feet of wet number fifteen cuttyhunk line, which is tested to twenty-eight pounds, though some anglers use tuna reels and tackle for this sport, owing to the possibility of hooking one of these fishes at any time. A short phosphor-bronzed leader and an 8/0 O'Shaughnessy, a Van Vleck, or any similar hook completes the equipment. Trolling at full speed the albacore can be taken with a bone jig, but there is no pleasure in this for the rod angler, as before the engine can be reversed the fish takes nearly all the line. Sardine, smelt, or squid are typical baits, but the latter is almost impossible to obtain, and smelt is the common lure. The hook is inserted in the mouth, brought out at the gills, the point turned and thrust into the belly of the bait near the vent ; when pulled straight, or " set," it is almost concealed. The mouth of the smelt is closed with a wire fastened to the shank of the hook, or thread may be used, and the lure is complete. No sinker is employed, and each leader or snell should have two, if not three, swivels.

We are now ready for the sport. The launch is sent slowly along, the speed being governed by the exigencies of the occasion. The boatman and gaffer sees the schools from afar, as the albacores leap from the water two or three feet, and follows them up. The strike comes, a long, sudden, tremendous strain or jerk, which has been known to take the rod from the hands of a not over-alert angler. There is little need to strike or attempt to hook the fish ; in nine cases out of ten this is accomplished by the albacore itself, as it strikes on the run, with a fierce rush, and does not stop, bearing away and down as it feels the hook, with such irresistible force that the angler is often obliged to give and give, until his thumb loses nearly all sensation by the continual pressure upon the leather brake in the vain attempt to stop the fish, which plunges deep and yet deeper, sounding at times like a very whale ; then, perhaps maddened by the reel, it sways and cuts the water to right or left and rises far away in so singular a manner that the angler fears that it is being chased by a shark, and so, ever fighting, ever bearing off with tremendous power for its size, the fish comes slowly in, the angler with the butt of the rod in the leather cap between his knees working his passage and paying fare as well. The multiplier is all-powerful, and far down in the azure waters a flash of silver is seen, circling broadside on. Slowly it rises, now showing a black eye almost as large as that of a plesiosaurus in its adolescence. At this stage it is well to count on a stupendous rush, as the silvery game, at the apparition of the boat, makes one of a series of final charges, any one of which might shatter the rod, or break the line if it was checked. The click gives tongue loudly with its short, quick ze-e-eing, " stabs the air with its shrill alarm," and again the reel moves and the fish comes in. This is repeated several times during the fifteen or twenty minutes' contest, and presently the angler sees the game at the surface, still full of fight, a finny fury. Bending the tip forward he passes it into the field of the gaffer, who ends the game by his clever movement beneath its silvery throat.

The strength of the albacore can be appreciated by the terrific tattoo which it now plays upon the canvas-covered planking of the boat, which, if small, it shakes from stem to stern. The boatman gives the fish its quietus and holds it up by the measuring scales, with his " Twenty-five pounds, sir ! " And this is what we see : a plump, compact tuna, all but the long side or pectoral fins ; about three feet in length, the muzzle sharper, the eyes larger, almost the same spikelike second dorsal and anal ; a remarkable thickness and compactness in proportion to its length, and one would invariably " guess under its actual weight ; the tail is strongly forked, keeled, and here are the finlets of the tuna, seven or eight in number. Trim the side fins, and the average observer not skilled in fish lore would announce it a tuna; but these remarkable fins distinguish it from all other fishes. Each pectoral fin is nearly half the length of the entire body, or to be exact, two-fifths its length, shaped like daggers, with a slight curve downward ; the fins are very narrow and in every instance observed by me were held close to the sides of the fish when swimming, the real locomotive organ being the tail, a " screw " of tremendous power. Doubtless the long pectorals have more to do with the remarkable agility of the fish than is suspected. In its coloring the albacore is very attractive, garbed in resplendent tints. Its back is a vivid steely blue, and being broad and rotund it is a conspicuous object in the water. The belly is white, or silvery, the fins dark, gleaming with a blue iridescence or lustre.

Such is the catch, the albacore, the Germo alalunga (Gmelin) of science, the most active of all its congeners. It is one of the commonest fishes in the Pacific waters, found in nearly all tropical seas, but not caught on the Atlantic coast and rarely seen. In the Mediterranean Sea it is a familiar catch in nets. Germon is its French title, but the common name, albacore, was given it by the Portuguese, who undoubtedly took it from the Arabic al, a ; bacora, little pig. The specific name, alalunga, by which it is known in Sardinia, means " long-winged." Many authorities give the maximum weight of the albacore as twelve or fifteen pounds, which is far too low. I have measured an individual which weighed sixty-two and a half pounds, and have been in-formed by reliable fishermen that they have taken albacores in the deep San Clemente channel, ten miles west of Santa Catalina, which weighed one hundred pounds but these large fishes rarely come inshore. The one first referred to was caught by an acquaintance, not fifty feet from the rocks, and for three hours it fought, towing the boat during that period an estimated five miles, often against the oars of the boatman, and making such strenuous resistance that it was considered a tuna until the long sabrelike fins of the fish told the story. No tuna could have made a better struggle than this long-finned, big-eyed wanderer of the family Scombrida.

On the Pacific coast the albacore spawns in July and August; at least at this time fishes with ripe spawn are observed. The eggs are deposited presumably in the open channel; the very young fish I have never seen. The smallest observed weighed about five pounds. The young resemble the adult, except that the pectoral fins are shorter. The adult fish, while it is caught near the island shores, never approaches the mainland, being found from two to five miles out. Always present in vast numbers, feeding or playing, the albacore is a feature of the angling life of the islands and affords no little amusement to visitors who watch its leaps, and the turmoil it creates now here, now there, ever wandering, it is a constant menace to the small fishes. The average catch weighs from fifteen to twenty pounds, yet fishes of this size drive the large flying-fishes inshore and often afford remarkable exhibitions of ground and lofty tumbling, almost invariably coming down like arrows. The rush of a school of albacores, as they charge the flying-fishes, invariably arouses the angling community, as every one knows that here are bonitos, and possibly tunas, all forming a pack of sea-hounds crazed with the lust for slaughter.

Ahoy! " comes from a launch over the water, and a boatman, with a camaraderie not always found where competition is keen, is seen pointing away to the south, where a scene is staged on the blue, glasslike sea well calculated to stir the blood in the veins of the most phlegmatic angler. A great patch of the ocean appears to be in violent commotion ; the air is filled with flying-fishes, which dart along soaring, not flying, crossing each other's path, resembling great dragon-flies, glistening in the sunlight, while a roar like the sound of distant waves breaking upon the rocks is heard. Boats are turned in that direction, and anglers, rod in hand, are presently in the midst of the fray. In such a sortie it is not a question of catching fish, but how many will satisfy. Two anglers have taken forty or more with rods in a few hours.

The greatest demand for albacores comes from the black sea-bass anglers, who have discovered that this leviathan looks favorably upon the rich oily meat of the albacore. To the dwellers on the Mediterranean it is a choice dish, but to the average American albacore is neither "fish, flesh, nor good red herring."

Despite this, the offshore commercial catch is large and important in all the seashore towns from San Diego to Santa Cruz. As sport it brings many dollars to the coffers of the boatmen, who go from five to seven miles out from San Diego, Coronado, San Pedro, Long Beach, Redondo, Santa Barbara, and all alongshore. The catch for 1895, taking this year as an example, was one hundred and seventy-eight thousand one hundred and forty-five pounds, valued at $4600. Nearly all the fish used in this way are caught by sail-boats, whose owners troll far from shore in rough water, using several lines, and bone jigs.



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