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Three Days on the Vagabond
August, 2002
By Tim Sheridan

It felt good to be back on the docks in San Diego that Fisherman's, H&M, and Point Loma Landings share. It had been three years since I had last been on the Vagabond, and I had been preparing for the trip for months. The two speed reels were loaded with spectra and fresh monofilament in anticipation of hooking and hopefully catching some of those hefty bluefin tuna that prowl the Mexican waters southwest of San Diego. In all, I brought nine rod and reel outfits with me. I had learned the hard way on my last trip aboard the Vagabond that you always come prepared for anything.

During my last trip in 1999, Skipper Mick Lackey found some larger bluefin, 100+ pounders, that broke many of the anglers aboard off on their 30 and 40 pound rigs. I was among that group. The only anglers that got any of those big fish to the gaff came prepared with two-speed reels and 60 pound line.

While the Vagabond was baiting up near Point Loma for this trip, the 24 anglers aboard began to get to know each other. There were many educators aboard, including myself, as well as a variety of other career professionals, as well as a few self-employed fisher-folk who get aboard a tuna boat at least once or twice every summer. I came down with a group of teachers who are teaching or retired from the Las Virgenes School District in western LA County. This group does this trip in August every year, and it felt good to be back among them. There was a palpable excitement among them that the bluefin were there, it was just a matter of time before we would all be hooked up.

As the Vagabond made its way south of San Diego, everyone aboard made sure that all their rigs were ready to go. Line threaded through line guides, hooks tied on with the best knots (I use the palomar myself), and reels clamped securely to reel seats. As on most of these tuna trips, Lackey gathered us all in the galley and gave us the particulars about what was expected of us. Probably the most important words he said that afternoon were to listen to the crew, because they did these trips over and over, and that experience is what helps them to help us.

The next morning, those words paid off for all of us as the bluefin went on the chew right after an early breakfast. A few were caught as soon as the sun started to light the morning but they moved away and the trolling teams began their rotations. It wasn't long after that when the first trolling team had a hookup and the fun began.

The bluefin were boiling all around the boat and within a few minutes the action was rising quickly as one after another angler hooked up to a powerful tuna. I spent a lot of the time that morning taking pictures, but eventually I was able to get hooked up to several quality bluefin that pulled so hard, it felt like my line was attached to another boat on the ocean instead of a fish.

One of the things that I have learned over the years of going on the 3-5 day trips is the importance of making sure the drag on the reels I am using are already set. The time to adjust them is not when a fish is pulling line at breakneck speed. The crew can always help any angler with this and they will check it for you while you are on a fish as well. But if it is already adjusted at 12 to 14 pounds (for 30 lb. test line), then you don't need to worry about losing or breaking off a fish.

So when that large bluefin ate my bait after it had swum about 70 yards from the boat, the drift helped with this too, I was ready with my Penn 15KG reel, Izorline 50 pound line and a Calstar rod. The one thing I didn't need to worry about was if the drag was where it needed to be. The fish seemed to pull line for several minutes before it slowed down and I was able to make some line back. The two-speed reel is an amazing addition to any tuna angler's arsenal. If in high gear the fish is so strong that it is difficult to turn the handle on the reel, put the reel in low gear and it is astounding how much line one can make back on these strong fish. I tried it out with my new Penn 15 KG reel and it was a real eye-opener as to how effective the two-speed reels can be.

As it turns out, the big fish that I finally brought to gaff was about 60 pounds, and ended up finishing third in the jackpot, about one pound out of the money. But of course most of us who go fishing for these hard fighting fish are not in it for the money, we just like that hard pull on the other end of our line. Once the fish was number tagged and deposited in the brine hold, I looked around the boat from upstairs and it was amazing to see rods bent all around the boat. And it was also amazing to see that not far from each angler with a fish going was one of the crew, counseling and giving commands on what to do or where to go next. "Coming down" or "coming through" or "fresh one" were the exclamations that could be heard from the bow and the stern of the Vagabond at the same time.

I wanted to mention here and now that the crew of the Vagabond was invaluable to all of the anglers on this trip. For many of the first time long-rangers, they helped them bait-up, as well as cast their baits into the water where the fish were. All of us who have done this kind of trip many times know that we all started out like that with the bait either going all of five feet away from the boat or coming off the hook completely in the effort to cast out to the fish. Everyone was fly-lining sardines during most of that first days bite, and some were throwing Mega-Baits or Iron-Man lures, but those big bluefin seemed to love the live bait the best. I have always been partial to the circle hooks since they first came on the market, and they have not disappointed me once. The fish is always hooked in the jaw, which really simplifies hook removal. Most of the bluefin I caught that day were on a 2/0 Owner circle hook. But I always make sure that I have a large collection of hooks in all sizes from 1's and 2's to 1/0's through 7/0 and 8/0's. If the fish are down below the surface, be sure to have an assortment of rubber-core sinkers to get the bait down to the fish.

Of course most of the bluefin were caught on the first day, and then it was up to Skipper Mike Lackey to decide what to do and where to go on the second day. The morning began with a few tuna caught and even a few albacore were brought aboard. But eventually the decision was made to begin looking for another school. As it turned out, that first stop on the first day yielded over 150 bluefin for 24 anglers. Not a bad fish to angler ratio.

While looking for more tuna, we ran across several kelp patties holding yellowtail. I decided to break out my jig stick and start throwing iron at those mossbacks. They were more than willing to hit my blue and white Ironman, and the aggressiveness that these fish showed was really astounding to everyone on the boat. I fought one fish for several minutes when the lure came loose, and before I could get it out of the water and cast again, another forkie hit it! I was able to shake him off so he could fight another day.
And it was like that most of the day. We never found another tuna school, but the feisty yellowtail more than made up for the missing tuna. At least as far as I was concerned. Besides, a friend of mine makes a killer yellowtail jerky that tastes incredible with an ice-cold beer.

It has been a few months now since the trip and I am already looking forward to next years trip. My thanks go out to Captain Mike Lackey and his incredible crew and to the new owner of the Vagabond, Bill Edmonds, for all his help before the trip and for returning my numerous emails. As always the food was outstanding and Chris's fresh sashimi complete with steamed rice was superb. I can hardly wait for next year's trip.

The Vagabond specializes in 3 to 5 day trips every summer, so give them all a call at (619) 223-1627 and ask for Bill, or check out their web site at vagabondsportfishing.com.

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