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June 18, 2014

El Niño Arrives

Anglers agree that El Niño is here. How strong is this one?

Ask any avid Pacific Coast angler and he'll tell you -- El Niño (The Child) has arrived. As we approach the first day of summer, scientists point to a 90 percent probability of an El Niño episode. But among anglers, there's little doubt. The ocean is noticeably warmer than normal. Fish that traditionally wait until mid-summer to venture north are already biting. And fish that traditionally inhabit these waters -- like Pacific sardines off the Southern California coast -- are all but gone.

Yet questions remain, including the strength and impact of this El Niño on Pacific waters off the U.S. and northern Baja California.

Warm ocean conditions in the Pacific have led in the past good catches, according to Del Stephens, a 25-year offshore veteran in the Pacific Northwest, and a recognized authority.

“My log book records are interesting from the El Niño years. The water warmed early like it is doing this year and was warmer than usual years and the catch rates were higher. We also caught more pelagics due to warmer water,” he says in a column by Andy Wilgamott on the Northwest Sportsman website (http://nwsportsmanmag.com/editors-blog/big-year-tuna-salty-species).

Stephens’ tuna records begin in 1996, and he says that the following two years saw strong El Niño conditions.

“The tuna catch was off the chart, although the fish [albacore] were smaller on the average. Nice oceans with acres of tuna and in very close. The warm water was on the beach and the salmon fisherman were getting torn up by them from time to time,” he reports, adding, “There were a few pelagics caught and a striped marlin [rarely seen so far north] was landed in Washington.”

Signs of El Niño in the waters off the Pacific Coast of Mexico’s northern Baja California occurred as early as last month. “We’ve already started to see very unusual fish catches here,” Tim Barnett, marine research emeritus with the San Diego-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told KPBS. “The first yellowfin tuna was caught in May—that has never happened before to anybody’s recollection.

“And the other thing too is the first dorado (mahi-mahi)—first of June. That has never happened before. They really like the warm water and you normally don’t see them here until September.”

I’ve already seen the signs of El Niño. In February, we caught California yellowtail along the kelp lines off Catalina Island – an event that we normally don’t experience until early summer at the earliest. And while fishing off Cabo San Lucas a few weeks ago, we registered ocean temperatures as high as 80 degrees F – 3 to 5 degrees above normal for that time of year.

While El Niño may disrupt the normal patterns of Pacific Ocean waters and resident species, U.S. anglers are eager for this warm water episode to push exotic game fish like tuna, mahi-mahi, billfish and even wahoo northward. Based on the early signs, this El Niño has the potential to become one of the strongest ever.