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July 25, 2012

Opah!

This jewel of the Pacific might be more plentiful than previously believed

Kenny Fogarty had already had a good day of offshore fishing aboard his uncle’s 23-foot center console, Kaku, on an August afternoon in 2009 when he hooked what he thought was another bluefin tuna near a floating kelp paddy 30 miles off the coast of San Diego.

“I was fly-lining a live sardine when the fish bit and took off full speed, just like a tuna,” says Fogarty. The fish was strong, nearly emptying the Shimano Torium 14 reel of 30-pound-test braid on its first run. ­Fogarty worked to regain the line only to have the fish rocket away on another spool-depleting run. It eventually turned, but repeated the pattern a third and then a fourth time. An exhausting hour and 45 minutes later, the fish finally came to color, and Fogarty could scarcely believe his eyes.

It was an opah. Moments later, Fogarty’s uncle gaffed the fish. Later that day, it hit the scales at 88.8 pounds.

Rare Catch
Opah rank as one of the rarest catches off Southern California, but marine biologists and some anglers think these lone hunters are far more prevalent than catch rates might indicate. And while many consider them primarily a deepwater pelagic species, anglers like Fogarty have hooked them close to surface, while others have caught opah close to shore.

This past May, for example, Chas Leeper hooked and landed a 140-pound opah relatively close to shore while fishing off Newport Beach. Leeper and his cousin Skeeter Leeper and friend Ryan Swanson were trolling for thresher sharks just before dark in about 1,000 feet of water about three miles off the coast when the opah attacked a Williamson Bait ’O Matic with a Pacific mackerel pinned under the skirt.

Many of the opah caught offshore are hooked during twilight hours, so the time of Leeper’s catch is typical, but his hooking the fish so close to shore has many rethinking the behavioral patterns of opah. In fact, a year earlier, another big specimen was caught in the same area, leading some to conclude that opah are more wide-ranging and adaptable, as well as more plentiful, than previously thought.

“Opah are commonly caught by Hawaiian longliners targeting bigeye tuna,” says John Hyde, geneticist for the Southwest Fisheries office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Our studies indicate that they might be nearly as abundant off the coast of California and northern Baja California.”

Feeding Habits
Opah are not fussy when it comes to food, according to scientific data and angler experiences. “They aren’t picky eaters,” says Hyde. “On our longlines, we simply just use large frozen mackerel.”

NOAA scientists have examined the stomach contents of captured opah and found them opportunistic predators. “Opah tend to eat a lot of midwater squids. But we have also found juvenile rockfish and sole in their stomachs,” Hyde says. The latter two species are bottom dwellers, indicating that opah hunt close to the ocean floor too.

Opah will also strike artificials. In fact, many caught from sport boats have been hooked on heavy jigs fished from 200 to 300 deep, says Bill Roecker, media representative for a number of San Diego boats. “At least half of the opah caught offshore are hooked on heavy jigs fished deep,” he says. “And most of the fish are caught at dawn and at dusk.”

Both the depth and the timing make sense. Hyde notes that opah tend to dwell during the day in the deep scattering layer, a horizontal zone of squid, fish and other marine organisms at depths of 600 to 1,200 feet. This layer — so named because it scatters sound waves and looks nearly like a bottom return on a fish finder — rises toward the surface in the evening and sinks again at dawn.

Yet this doesn’t explain Fogarty’s midday opah that bit near the surface or Leeper’s opah that struck near the beach.