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Fish Tales


Clarion Standoff


Darrell Ticehurst provides us with a good description of an epic battle with a bigeye tuna in the Revillagigedo Islands ...

If you are a serious angler at some point you think about big game fishing, going after the really big ones - marlin, swordfish and tuna. After all, if you are going to climb a mountain why not climb a high one? I've fished for tuna and marlin many times, but the reality is that I only thought I understood what the big leagues of big game fishing are all about. What brought me up to a new level of appreciation of big fish was a long range trip to Clarion Island for big tuna on board the Qualifier 105.

I had read a lot about the long range trips out of San Diego to the remote Revillagigedo Islands off the Mexican coast (about 400 miles off the tip of Baja to Clarion Island, the second furthest island in the group), but these trips take 16 to 22 days and 8 or 10 of those are running days with no fishing, and I didn't see how I could ever get away for that amount of time, nor did I see how my impatient nature could stand up to all of those days of inactivity. On the other hand, these trips were bringing back 100, 200 and even 300-lb. tuna, and not just a couple but dozens of them on every trip! Man, that's fishing! So my excitement peaked when I got a call from my fishing partner Bobby Franko and he has a solution: take the Qualifier 105 out of Cabo San Lucas and avoid the big running time - 8 days of fishing and only a 400 mile run to the biggest yellowfin tuna on the face of the earth! He tells me the Qualifier has permission from the Mexican government to run four trips out of Cabo this year to the Revillagigedos and would I be interested? Would I! I beat feet as fast as I could into the kitchen to ask dear sweet wonderful wife if I could go. Yes. She said "Yes"!

We flew into Cabo with a array of tackle that really depleted my bank book and caused excess charges from the airlines, but this was my first trip and I wasn't going to have the wrong equipment and I took everything. So I thought. I had the Qualifier recommended list, of course, and my own modifications and additions as well (hey, I'm a fisherman, I got good ideas on what will work, and I'm sure they're probably better than the Qualifier guys who only have 20 years of experience, each, in those islands.) But there are other considerations than a recommended list. After all, I'm not as macho as I used to be and don't have as much stamina as I used too, either, and physical shape also determines tackle needs - but more about physical shape later. (Holy mackerel, did I not understand just how tough these fish are!).

Upon arriving in Cabo we immediately taxied to the boat, joined our 24 fellow passengers, and left the anchorage at 2:00AM that morning. No bait in Cabo so we had a 16-hour run up the coast to Magdalena Bay to pick up bait. The whole boat turned to and we caught about 3,000 big baits, green mackerel of about 8 to 12 inches, in less than three hours. Then came the long 400 mile drive to Clarion and the big tuna, about 39 hours more running time.

We arrive in the early afternoon. Clarion is a small (seven miles or so long) island without a single tree. We anchor up, throw out a live bait and whammo! A rainbow runner hits, I look around and about every other rod has a fish on. (RR's are a sleek fish of about 7 to 15 lbs). These get filleted and chunked in short order and the crew starts a chunk line. A chunk line is a method of chumming for tuna where a small (2"X 2") chunk is dropped into the water every 20 seconds or so, forming a trail of chunks slowly floating downward and behind the boat in the current. All of us are fishing with live bait but no tuna hit, just trevally and rainbow runner, when all of a sudden we hear, "Fish on! A big one!" Someone had put a hook into one of the chunks and let it drift down naturally in the chunk line and a big tuna had eaten it. Thirty minutes later we see the gaff hook come out. I was waiting to see the fish come over the side but nothing happened, as the gaffer just sat there holding onto the gaff. A second gaffer came over and stuck in a gaff - nothing. Here came a third deckhand with a third gaff. Finally one of the deckhands said, "All together now. Ready!" and this godawful big tuna came thudding onto the deck. What a monster it was - 162-lbs. of power. This was a very auspicious beginning to a fishing trip. No, not a fishing trip - an adventure!

We kept the chunk line going all afternoon and caught several other larger tuna and also several smaller (yeah smaller, they "only" weighed in at 40 to 80 lbs.) ones on live bait and "iron" from those doing some lure casting. Just at dusk the sharks moved in. If you wanted to catch big sharks (100+ lbs. to maybe 450 lbs.) You could get one on practically every drift or cast with bait, and did we hungry anglers catch 'em. We must have played a hundred sharks on the trip, no... more like 150, and got bitten off by two-thirds of them. We went through a lot of gear, but had a lot of fun with those sharks - Galapagos brown sharks, white tips, hammerheads, maybe a tiger or two, and probably some others we didn't identify. Some guys were still catching them at 3:00AM!

The next day was MY DAY. I got up late and it was just first light as I stumbled to the back of the boat. I put on a chunk, put it into the water where the other chunks were going in, and started to feed out line, keeping a little slack so that the chunk would float down at the same speed and angle as the other feed chunks. I'd strip out a foot or two, wait a second, then strip out some more, walking to the back of the boat with the current. Nothing happened by the time I'd fed out 100 strips of line. Back and try it again. And again.

One hour later I'm feeling bored, chunking, still stripping out my line, counting the strips as I work my way to the rear. 74, 75, 76, 77...slack slips out of the line, what's that? (Tug). I set the drag to strike and reel in smartly, meeting resistance as the line starts to go off the reel, fast. I pull back hard on the rod. Wham, my rod hits the rail with a loud slam, the line screaming off the reel, and that reel has 24-lbs. Of drag set. I'm onto something new here, and it's pure power. There is more torque being generated by whatever is out there than I would have believed possible. This isn't some hot fuel roadster - this is a diesel truck, and a fast one at that.

I look up and I've got John, the captain on one side of me and Jeff, a mate, on the other. Uh, oh, now I know this has to be for real. If you've got a shark on you hardly get a notice from a deckhand, get a little tuna and maybe you'll get one cruising by for a check, but I've got the captain on one side of me and a mate on the other? I KNOW this has to be a big tuna - these guys have been out here so much they just know what you've got on, and they're gonna make sure I don't farm this fish.

I've got an 80-lb. outfit with a single-speed Penn International 50TW on a pretty stiff stick, so I figure I'm pretty well geared up for action. I've got a heavy duty Braid belt and harness and I'm (I think) in pretty good condition. Anyway the fish starts hauling around the boat and I gotta keep up. It works its way to the bow then back down the side, never for one minute giving ground. I manage to pick up a turn here or there as the fish comes toward me, and mostly avoid giving it back. I lift and get another turn here or there as I sense opportunity. But this is grueling, and that fish just never stops pulling. Finally, the fish runs under the boat and I gotta get over there. Mad dash to the bow, pole pointed downward, almost into the water. Then Captain John helps me get the rod under the anchor rope and it's back to slogging it out with one tough customer. I don't get a turn on the reel handle that I don't work for, every turn is a hard fought lift and crank. Then that darn fish runs again and I gotta start all over getting in that same line that I just fought so hard to get.

Finally I sense that the fish is coming. I've got new rooters around me, my fellow anglers encouraging me, telling me that I've got the fish licked now, just a little more effort. I must really look tired because they are really encouraging me now, cheering and hummmm babying me along. Color! I can see the fish down there, and there is a LOT of color - this is a big one. "Just a little more effort, Darrell." "You've got him on the ropes, Darrell." "We're near the end now, Darrell, you've got him coming." But that fish is pulling hard! They can talk all they want about having this fish, but man, he is pulling that rod down so hard the rod belt is biting into my thighs, and I'm getting tired, I tell you.

The fish is circling in big counter clockwise circles, maybe about a 10-foot radius. As he swims toward me I try to gain a turn, as he swims on the outer arc I try to hold him. I'm feeling more tired by the moment.

"Okay, Darrell, we need to break this cycle. We need a big effort from you. As he comes into you really lift and gain some line. We'll pick up a few more turns and then a big lift and we got him. Now is the time to go for it."

I brace myself for the big effort. I lift as he comes in, and I get three turns. It's working, go for it, I tell myself. The next circle I brace myself and give a big lift, I get the rod up only about halfway, but I get a turn. Next time. Here he comes round again, I lift and get the rod up a ways, I go to turn the crank... and my hand won't move. My arm is frozen, my hand is jelly. Here comes the next turn. "Lift, Darrell, we're almost there! Lift!" I lift for all I'm worth and the rod doesn't leave the railing. I can barely keep my hand on the crank. The fish is winning, in fact, maybe has already won.

"Okay, Darrell, I'll lift, you get us a couple of turns." Jeff has both hands around my rod grip and he lifts the rod tip high. Somehow I summon my last ounce of strength and manage three more turns on the crank. Jeff somehow lifts some more and a gaff sinks home. Two more gaffs sink in and I know I've got this fish (well, with a little help from my friends!). It weighs 157 lbs. on the scales and it takes me two hours to get enough strength to turn a reel handle again. My gawd are tuna tough!

I'm a light line guy, and never fish with 80 lb. I made a lot of mistakes playing that fish that I wouldn't make again, and I've got much more of a sense of pace for that type of fishing than I had beforehand. My first big tuna, and I learned a lot about technique. But on this trip I also learned that the difference between a single speed reel and a two speed reel on heavy lines is unbelievable, and at my age I don't ever want to use a single speed reel for 80-LB line again. During the fight I used a solid gimbal belt that was braced against both of my upper thighs, and I had a lot of pain during the fight. It was several hours later I realized that I had a pair of pliers in my front pocket and the belt had made a perfect black and blue outline of those pliers into my flesh! Pretty smart guy, huh?

Hey, the rest of the trip was all relaxing fun now that I had a big one under my belt. I did have on another big one, on a two speed, and played it for quite a while before the hook pulled. I thought my technique was pretty good, especially after the first one. That first tuna beat me up pretty much, but at least I had learned something about pacing and toughness, and understanding the rhythm that an angler needs to get into, so the second one was a much more enjoyable experience even though it came off. I caught several wahoo, and some sharks. I'll bet I had on 30 sharks--and got bitten off 26 times. I also caught a huge 24-lb. rainbow runner and miscellaneous other varieties.

The normal drill would be to fish from anchor during the late afternoon, evening and early morning hours, fishing primarily for big tuna by chunking and live baiting. During the mid day hours we would troll for wahoo (in teams of anglers - 5 anglers per team, and a team is on until a fish is caught). Some tuna were also caught on the troll but wahoo was the target and wire leaders were the order of the day. Once we hooked up on the troll all of the other anglers would let fly, casting with various types of lures (iron and other stuff) or bait. Wahoo make a blistering fast first run and average about 30-lbs. Most people I know that have eaten wahoo say that it is their very very favorite eating fish. On this trip we caught over 70 wahoo.

The Qualifier 105 runs a few trips out of Mexico every year, and I think they are the only ones that do. It makes big league fishing like this accessible since you can hit the Revillagigedo Islands in a one week trip instead of the normal three week trip out of San Diego. It eliminates much of the running time to leave out of Cabo, and even encourages a side excursion into Cabo San Lucas for a day or two on one side or the other of the fishing trip.

The boat is nicely laid out for anglers with really great food (the cook got a huge round of applause on the last day, as everybody thought the food was especially good - not your normal fish camp fare), a wide and clear back deck for fishing and VCR's in every room. The rooms are pretty small (if you see their brochure and compare the picture of a stateroom in there to the room on the boat you'll wonder what kind of lens could have been used for the shot-those rooms are darn small, but fairly comfortable). There are enough rod holders for everyone, in fact, enough rod holders so that everyone could bring 8 rods apiece. That means that you can use separate rods for the different types of fishing each day, and leave them rigged up and ready for use.

There was a complete tackle shop on the boat, which helped a lot since you can't possibly anticipate everything you'll need. Best of all, the crew was a really good group from Captain John Klein to all of the others, helpful, fun and they worked darn hard for all of us to catch fish. My friend Bob Franko said it all for me when he said: "Not only is this the big leagues of fishing - and we're here! - but it is a really enjoyable adventure. The fishing is only part of why this trip is so special. The camaraderie, just being at a legendary spot that I've been reading about for 30 years, being in a good boat, all combine to make me want to come back again soon."

For more info on the Qualifier 105, contact Pt. Loma Fishing, San Diego, CA 92166 Phone: (619) 223-2786.

Originally published in The Reel News (206) 277-2331

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