Targeting California Albacore

When longfin fever strikes the California coast, angling activity kicks into high gear...

There’s an old saying in Southern California fishing circles that 10 percent of the anglers catch 90 percent of the fish. Or maybe it’s 20 percent of the anglers who catch 80 percent of the fish. However you crunch the numbers, it’s undeniable that fish aren’t fair. They seem to find their way onto the hooks of the same hot sticks again and again.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Southern California during summer albacore season. When longfin fever strikes our coast, angling activity kicks into high gear and boats quickly fill with all manner of anglers. From salty sardine slingers toting armloads of the latest high-tech gear to newbies making their only ocean-fishing trip of the year, everybody gets in on the action.

Joe Mahler /


1. Control Your Bait

The best tuna anglers stay in touch with their bait while letting it swim freely and naturally. Albacore are fished with the reel in free-spool and the angler applying light pressure to prevent an overrun on the longfin’s aggressive take. Keep your bait in front of you, and minimize the amount of slack line in the water 1. Occasionally take in line by manually rotating the spool backward.

On most of these trips, you’ll find a few guys who always seem to be hooked up. They’re especially obvious during a typical “plunker” albacore bite, in which 20 or 25 anglers pick off a handful of tuna at each stop. They are easily recognized by their ear-to-ear grins, sore arms and aching backs.

If this doesn’t describe you, take heart. By following some basic steps, you too can quickly join the ranks of top partyboat albacore anglers.


2. Do the Tuna Shuffle

Making sure your bait stays in front of you keeps you out of tangles and in the game. On a boat filled with dozens of anglers, this means doing what crews call the “tuna shuffle.” After casting off the windward corner, anglers must shuffle 2 constantly up the rail, toward the bow. It works great, but only if everybody does it. If you reach the bow without getting bit, get a fresh bait and start over.

3. Fish the Bow

Many partyboats drift stern-first, which means that during a sustained plunker bite, the chum initially thrown off the stern corner ends up off the front of the boat. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found the bow empty of anglers, with boiling tuna all around. After I make one full drift on the slide, I’ll usually go up to the bow for my next cast 3.

4. Make a Decent Cast

While a long cast with a fly-lined bait is certainly an advantage, it’s not the be-all and end-all that novice anglers make it out to be. Get a healthy bait in the water quickly, and nine times out of 10, it will swim away from the boat. Always cast with the wind in your face 4 so the boat will drift away from, not over, your bait. Don’t sweat it if you cast over another angler’s line; simply switch places at the rail. Relax and take a deep breath. The worst thing you can do is to try too hard for distance and rip your bait off the hook.


Always Be Ready

Albacore fishing often involves long bouts of trolling to locate schools of fish. When a jig strike stops the boat, scores of anglers rush out of the galley or stumble up from the bunk room to get live baits in the water.

The best fishermen on the boat will already be hooked up. The first few baits dropped back on the slide – when the boat drifts to a stop after the motors are taken out of gear – are sometimes the only ones bit. I don’t care if it’s been two hours since the last stop; you’ll always find me standing by the bait tank, rod in hand and hook pinched between my thumb and forefinger. I’ve picked out the bait I want, and I usually have it in the water before the clickers on the trolling outfits stop screaming.

Have Backups Ready

The best anglers have multiple bait outfits rigged and ready to grab so they don’t have to waste time retying during a hot bite. I always have at least two sardine rigs, one light anchovy stick, a heavy jig outfit and a sinker bait ready to deploy.


Listen to the Crew

Hooked-up anglers must follow their fish and the crew’s instructions. When you get tangled with other anglers’ lines, listen to the crew and you’ll get out of it most of the time. One of the first instructions will be to step back from the rail and bring the two rod tips together. This seems counterintuitive, but it helps deckhands see how the fish are wrapped and keeps the lines parallel rather than pulling against each other.

Finish Strong

Many times I’ve seen anglers fight the good fight only to tire or relax when the fish comes into sight. The result is often a pulled hook or bite-off. The best anglers keep up the pressure and short-pump the spiraling tuna to the surface. Small two-speed bait reels let you drop into low and winch stubborn fish to the gaff.

Handle Bait Carefully

Forming a cradle with your hand will allow you to lift and control a lively bait without damaging it. Keep the bait nestled in your wet palm, but never squeeze it. If you have to manhandle a live bait or drop it on the deck, toss it over and get a fresh one – no matter how good it was. It takes practice, but learning how to select, hook and get a bait into the water before 20 other anglers rush the bait tank is key to success.

Dare to Be Different

It’s not unusual to go through a series of jig stops or sonar schools with no bait hookups. This is a good time to try something different. If everybody is fishing large sardines, put out an anchovy on 20-pound-test. Or try dropping a bait straight down with a chrome torpedo sinker tied in-line.

Sometimes you do everything right, but you just seem to be snakebit. If you’re not getting bit or you dump a few fish, it’s easy to get frustrated and go into a funk. Keep doing the right things and fish hard until the last bell, and you’ll be surprised how often things turn around.

Gallery: Hooking a Sardine
What’s the best way to hook a live bait?
That depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Planning a Trip

Rods: 7-foot graphite conventional live-bait rods like the Calstar 700XL or 700L or the Super Seeker 870-7.
Reels: Conventional star/lever-drag casting reels like Avet JX Two Speed, Shimano Torium 20 or Okuma Cedros Star Drag 10.
Lines: 20-pound monofilament for casting small sardines or anchovies, 25- or 30-pound line for most sardine fishing.
Hooks: Live-bait hooks sized to match the bait; 1/0 to 3/0 for typical sardines, size 6 to size 1 for anchovies.

What: Albacore.
When: June through August.
Where: Southern California and northern Baja offshore waters.
Who: Numerous partyboats leaving from San Diego landings.

Fisherman’s Landing

Point Loma Sportfishing

H&M Landing

Seaforth Sportfishing