Waterman's Journal

Jan 01, 2012

Seven Days at Sea: The Story of a Historical Long Range Charter


by Colin Sarfeh

Twenty-six anglers stood on the back deck of Qualifier 105 on September 8th, 2011, exhausted and confounded by what took place during the previous hours. No one on the boat, not even the captain, had ever seen or even heard of anything like the bite these lucky anglers had just experienced. Some held beers, toasting to the gift Higher Beings just gave to us. Some swapped stories with fellow awe-struck anglers of their battles that just occurred. Up in the wheelhouse, as we motored north, Captain Joe Crisci was just as in shock as I. He looked at me with a smirk – his eyes said it all – the savvy long-range captain summed up our morning in a single statement: “We just had a historic bite.”

Let’s back up a few days to September 3rd. That Saturday morning, Point Loma Sportfishing, based out of San Diego, was busy, bustling with passengers returning from a previous trip and anxious anglers on the verge of their long-awaited departure. The crew helped load our arsenals of rods and reels, as well as everyone’s personal belongings onto the 105’ long-range sport fishing vessel Qualifier 105. Pelagic Pro Team Captain Joe Crisci was at the helm and steered ‘The Q’ to the San Diego Harbor bait receivers where Everingham Bros. Bait Co. supplied us with a beautiful grade of sardine bait.

Below: Pelagic Pro Team Captain Joe Crisci looks on at the action aboard the Q

This 7-day adventure was a co-sponsored trip, chartermastered by Gary Schall of the Long Beach Fire Department, Colin Sarfeh and Jason Noah of Pelagic Gear, and Gary “Cowboy” Vander Lyke of Tuna Round-Up Charters. All passengers received a Pelagic Gear gift pack consisting of a variety of High Performance Offshore Gear and Gary Schall hosted an “everybody wins” raffle that included Seeker Rods, Sportsman’s Seafood Fish Processing gift certificates, T-shirts, shorts, and duffle bags from Pelagic Gear, and Hennessey’s Tavern gift certificates.

Below: Captain Joe loads the boat with hundreds of scoops of sardine bait.

Locked and loaded for our trip, Capt. Joe briefed us on the tentative game plan for the coming week. Our first fishing would commence bright and early the next morning, where we would start trolling in the offshore zone hoping and looking for sonar marks, flocks of birds, floating kelp paddies, porpoise schools, or blind jig strikes. The fleet had been reporting decent scores of mixed Bluefin and Yellowfin Tuna, both of which ranged from between 15 to 30-pounds with a smattering of 40-pound fish here and there.

Our morning started slow with quick stops that would produce one or two fish stopping the boat on the troll, with a couple of fish quickly biting on bait thereafter. At around 10:45AM Captain Joe halted the boat after three of our five trolling rods screamed, signaling a hook-up. Our slow morning soon turned into a full-speed bite for about ten-minutes on mixed species tuna. Calamity ensued as almost all anglers were bit instantly the moment their baits hit the water.

Below: Six anglers hooked-up on tuna in the stern starboard corner

Yes, there were casualties (or fish lost due to tangles, light line, etc.), but at the end of an hour drift, we had a decent score of these coveted offshore gamefish. Overall, our first day of fishing ended up being a great one. The action continued through the afternoon, and when all was said and done, all anglers were able to put a few mixed tuna in the refrigerated saltwater fish hold. Deckhands Brendan, Rusty, Armando, and second-skipper Eric did an incredible job keeping anglers out of tangles and ultimately bolstered our fish count by avoiding the sometimes unavoidable losses due to the squirrely nature of these school-sized tuna.

Below: Darrel Strickroth with a tuna at color.

After a spectacular tri-tip and artichoke dinner prepared by Chef Brett and assistant Nadine, Captain Joe made the call on our next move.

“We’re going to Benitos (Island). We have been catching big Yellowtail in the early morning hours there and we’re going to give it a shot again tomorrow. We’ll be there around 04:00. Get your rest…you’re going to need it.”

At 03:30 the next morning, the boat shut down and slid to a stop, thereafter the unmistakable clattering of the anchor line being dropped over the bow of the Qualifer resonated throughout the boat. Rising from staterooms, geared in deck boots, one by one anglers filtered on to the stern of The Q. The air was warm for being so early in the morning with little need for the long-sleeve shirts most of us put on.

I pinned a live mackerel on my 60# outfit and sank it to the bottom via dropper loop. Looking over the side of the boat, you could see small baitfish (mostly sardines and sauries) skirting near or even across the surface. From out of the darkness, 10-inch squid would dart into view, attracted by the luminescence created by the ship’s deck lights.

As the sun started to make its morning appearance to the east, Benitos’ silhouette came with it, reminding me of the task at hand and the mossback Yellowtail that call this island home. These “homeguards” don’t take kindly to invaders (AKA bait) that find their way into the rocky bottom structure an island like Isla San Benitos creates, and will attack a bait on instinct if presented the opportunity.

The first fish bit at roughly 04:15 and a nice 30-pound Yellow came on board, a quality grade fish. These hard-fighting-members-of-the-jack-family typically will come through in groups, so my senses kicked in as I prepared myself for action. Another angler gets slammed, and I watched the battle ensue as his rod was doubled over and pinned to the rail while he tried to force the brute off the bottom.

I felt a sudden “tick” on my line, then the distinctive pull a Yellowtail makes as he heads home with your bait. With my reel in gear, I wound down and the line came tight, the 5/0 circle hook implanting itself in the fish’ mouth. Even with my drag set to nearly full, this fish beat me up, taking line and racing me up and down the port-side rail. A ten-minute fight ended in the starboard-stern corner as second-skipper Eric sunk a gaff in my fish and brought a nice, high-thirty-pound class Yellow on board.

Below: Team Pelagic's Colin Sarfeh with a quality California Yellowtail caught at San Benitos Island.

Before 06:00 and the sun became visible in the sky, all anglers aboard had their chance to land a quality 30-40 pound fish. Tom Crewse (great name) appeared to have the biggest fish of the morning with an estimated 45-pound California Yellowtail that he also caught with a mackerel sunk to the bottom on a dropper loop.

Once the sun pierced the sky, tactics changed for fishing. The fish weren’t biting bait as well, so many employed the Yo-Yo method of sinking a heavy Salas 6X or Tady 4/0 iron jig to the bottom and fast-grinding it through the bottom half of the water column. At any time during your retrieve, your jig could be stopped by an 18-30 pound Yellow. These fish bit full-speed from time to time throughout our drifts. I can recall twice where fellow angler, Landon Yacobucci, and I, standing right next to each other at the rail, simultaneously hooked bruiser fish while cranking in our jigs. Twice these battles ended tragically as we both lost fish due to pesky sea lions. In fact, many anglers were fooled into thinking that they were finally connected with that monster 50-pound yellow they have been waiting for their whole life, only to find the island’s “sea dog” screaming off with 300-yards of your line and expensive spectra.

Below: Sarfeh and Landon Yacobucci try to determine the bigger yellow...you make the call!

These seals became a problem and once we had our fill on Yellowtail, Capt. Joe decided to make the move offshore and south to head for “The Ridge” in search of Dorado, Tuna, and more action on Yellowtail. At 10:30 AM we left Benitos Island in our wake, all smiles and grateful for the excellent morning of fishing experienced. We caught a handful of small tuna and Dorado offshore while in transit to our destination lying south of us. Most of these smaller-grade fish were released to fight another day.

“The Ridge” is a 55-mile stretch of underwater banks and high-spots off the mid-Baja coast. Known to host an array of Pelagic gamefish species such as Tuna, Dorado, Wahoo, and Yellowtail, this area also gives anglers the opportunity to catch great eating Pargo and Grouper, the latter of which can exceed 100-pounds.

Day four started by trolling around the north end of The Ridge looking for Porpoise schools that hold tuna, and kelp paddies that attract Dorado. The weather was hot, and we noticed it much more while motoring around looking for fish, but catching few.

As guys reddened under the scorching midday sun, Capt. Joe found what he was looking for. We anchored up on an area known as the 13-spot. Once the anchor came tight, the action started. Yellowtail to 30-pounds bit every bait and lure that hit the water. West Coast fishermen have long favored casting the surface iron on lengthy 8-10’ “jig stick” rods for schooling fish – we were not disappointed by the show put on by these frenzied Yellows.

Below: Co-Chartermaster Gary Schall puts the hurt on a nice yellow // Second Skipper Eric bendo with the 10-footer

Cast your favorite color – or any color iron, for that matter – and you could see four or five fish chase down your jig before one outdueled the others and inhaled it. The fishing was full-speed, wide-open for two hours.

Below: Deckhand Armando Palifax and Landon Yacobucci display a typical "Ridge" Yellowtail.

At that point we had to leave them biting and we trolled away from The Ridge as the sun sank into the Pacific – we had near limits of Yellowtail for all on board.

Below: The sun sinks into the Pacific after another solid day aboard the Q

After a great dinner of chicken and asparagus, Capt. Joe set the hook (the anchor) down on another high-spot on The Ridge. Most went to bed, but a few hardcore anglers stayed up for some fishing and cocktails. A handful of Yellowtail were caught, as well as a couple small Smoothound Sharks and a 6’ Mako, released by Gary Schall. The real action ensued when a $200 bottle of scotch was brought out on the back deck. Intricately designed pranks and daredevil stunts began coming out of the woodworks, most of which will remain in secrecy. Around midnight, the newly deemed “Ridge Rager” was over and everyone went to bed.

Below: An exhausted "Ridge Rager".

The next day, Wednesday, was spent heading north. Up top in the wheelhouse, Captain Joe received a call from one of his “code” boats, letting him know that they had just found a dead whale holding a massive school of Dorado. Once they had their limits, the mates stuck a flag in it and their captain relayed the coordinates to Joe. Deckhand Armando spent the better part of the day up in the crows nest, bathing in the sweltering heat. He was in search of the marker, glassing the sprawling sea with binoculars.

Below: The flagged whale and host for a school of frenzied dorado.

Once found and Skipper Joe had set up on the flagged whale, it did not take long for hungry Dorado to find our baits. For about five-minutes it was pure chaos, with everyone on Qualifier 105 bit. Hooked Dorado jumped everywhere, tangling and infusing many different lines at once. The deckhands did an incredible job during the havoc, gaffing “green” (lively) fish and keeping as many passengers possible out of brutal tangles that typically occur during a full-speed Dorado bite. We were able to fill up on these 12 to 20-pound acrobatic flapjacks, giving everyone some tasty morsels for the dinner table.

Below: A lit up "DoDo" slashes at the surface // Deckhand Brendan and Chuck Herron with a quality Dorado at sunset.

With our quota made for Yellowtail and Dorado, we went out looking for more tuna on porpoise schools to no avail. Captain Joe got on the loudspeaker:

“Not much going on around us for tuna, for us or any of the other boats…No signs of wahoo either. The Rocks (Alijos) are sharked out. Excel is there right now and the few big tuna they do hook are mangled by the sharks – so that option is out. Since we are limited out on Yellowtail, that counts out any of the islands up north, unless we decide to drift for Halibut or something. That leaves us with little option. Tonight I’m going to anchor up on one of my spots off the coast and hopefully find us a grouper or two…we should be there in a few hours.”

At around 7:30 that evening, we arrived at Joe’s “honey hole”. After dinner was when the bite began – a mere preview of the main course to come. There was a strong current, and it took about 16 oz. of weight to get a bait to the bottom for a good chance at an assortment of Rockfish, Red Snapper, or the target species: Grouper. Most sardines or mackerel that hit the bottom were eventually bit by any of the aforementioned bottom dwellers. A few 20-pound-class Groupers hit the deck that night, a pleasant surprise to see come up from the depths. But, the omen was officially sent when Mike Heib coaxed up a whopping 45-pound Tan Grouper. That catch bolstered our adrenaline-high and kept most at the rail fishing into the dwindling hours of that Wednesday night. As the hours faded, so did the fishing and most ventured to their staterooms for a good night sleep below.

Below: Landon Yacobucci and Mike Heib showcase their night-caught Tan Grouper.

At roughly 04:00 that next Thursday morning, I was awakened from my “quick nap” as Captain Joe burst through my door.

“Get up! They’re biting full-speed!”

As I slinked up from a short slumber onto the deck of the Q, there was a lone angler, Ron Shalvis, fishing solo with a slew of Grouper scattered around him.

“I stayed up fishing all night,” recalled the exuberant Shalvis. “At 03:30 the current changed and the boat swung around on the anchor…Once we settled in again with the shift, my line went tight and I was bit. A couple deckhands were the only ones awake, but they were attending to their nightly checklists. I had to gaff my own fish!”

When the captain was rustled awake by a crewmember and saw the back deck of his ship, Joe grabbed a rod, baited up, and dropped to the bottom to see if he couldn’t hook a fish himself. His sardine was instantly inhaled and his stout 80-pound class rod bent over from a hungry grouper. That’s when he handed the rod to Rusty and ran downstairs to wake everyone up – he knew it was game on.

Below: Gary Schall hoists a hefty grouper.

These fish bit everything…I mean EVERYTHING: sardine, mackerel, slabs, heavy jigs, breakfast sausage…wait, did somebody just say BREAKFAST SAUSAGE?!? Brett and Nadine had prepared a morning meal of hotcakes and sausage. After catching a couple fish myself, I stepped away for a brief minute to enjoy a hot breakfast.

When I had finished my quick bite to eat, I thought: What the hell? – and asked Nadine for a couple sausage links. She obliged and I pinned on to a waiting hook one of the tasty pork pieces. No more than five seconds after the succulent Jimmy Dean hit the bottom, I felt the distinct “tap, tap” of a Grouper hammering my “bait”.

Below: Colin Sarfeh and Mike Heib display twin bottom-dwellers.

No one had ever seen or even heard of anything like the bite we experienced before, not even the salty long-range captain. Deckhand Armando has fished up and down the Baja coast for the better part of four decades and cannot recall ever seeing Grouper bite with such reckless abandon.

Everyone had their chance to pull on and land a few of these incredible fish before we took off. Once again, we had to leave the fish biting. This day was truly a once in a lifetime experience with all anglers extremely happy and thankful to be a part of it. Captain Crisci explained our morning as a “Historical Bite” and “something that has never and might not ever happen again in long-range fishing”.

Joe continued modestly, “It was luck really. Just a place to throw the anchor for the evening. Did you see all those red crab on the deck? Those fish were stacked to 15-fathoms on that mass of Pelagic Red Crabs. Simply incredible. What a way to end our trip!”

Below: An incredible shot of the mass of Grouper as seen on Qualifier's sonar.

On that note, Captain Joe Crisci pointed the bow of Qualifier 105 towards Point Loma. Twenty-six exhausted anglers sat on the back deck mesmerized by the morning’s bite – a stroke of fate, if you will – and reveled in the experience just shared. Some were in disbelief of the fact that we had just written a page in sport fishing history.

The Qualifier has had a long-standing tradition that the last dinner before arriving back in San Diego be a traditional turkey dinner, complete with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy. That changed on this special trip as Chef Bret prepared and served a sensational grilled grouper feast during our last meal on board together.

Back at the docks on Saturday, September 10th, the jackpot fish were weighed. Tom Crewse and Rick Bierman took first and second place for their heavy 42.2 and 40-pound Benitos Island Yellowtail. We had returned with a quality catch of tuna, yellowtail, and dorado – but, what drew the most attention was the unprecedented catch of Grouper brought home by the anglers and crew of Qualifier 105. They were the heaviest fish caught, but being non-pelagic gamefish (residing bottom-dwellers) granted the heaviest of the lot an automatic third place in the jackpot lineup. That honor went to Darrell Strickroth with his 50-pound tan grouper.

Below: The Jackpot winners

Above Point Loma Sportfishing in the Qualifier’s office, I met with the boat’s owner, John Klein.

“What do you say, John?” I asked him.

“I’m speechless. In all my years at sea and in this business, never have I seen such a thing…how about we try this again next year?”

We both laughed knowing that a bite like we experienced on grouper might never happen again. But, out on the open ocean, you never know what to expect…stranger things have happened. Until that day comes again when all the stars align and the conditions present themselves properly, the twenty-six passengers aboard Qualifier 105 on that “historic” seven-day voyage can lay claim as the only long-range anglers to experience that special bite: Wide. Open. Grouper.

Most long range trips are known for targeting four gamefish species: Yellowfin Tuna, Wahoo, Dorado, and Yellowtail. What made this trip so special was the fact that usually Grouper are a rare target or an incedental catch with typically 1-5 taken during autumn trips. On this "special" trip, the 26 anglers on board had their fill of quality Yellowtail, Tuna, and Dorado - giving the captain a tough call to make for the last day's fishing. Skipper Joe Crisci put us on spectacular fishing all trip long, and it was only fitting that taking a chance at his "honey hole" produced some of the most memorable fishing any of us aboard can remember.

Big thanks to John Klein and Joe Crisci for having us on board _Qualifier 105 for this epic trip. The captain and crew did an incredible job of not only putting us on fish, but giving every passenger on board a lasting impression of top-notch service as expected on these long range charters. To book your next long range fishing trip or to learn more about the wide variety of long range fishing options, visit the Qualifier 105's website at www.Qualifier105.com _

Photo Gallery

Below: Chef Bret and Deckhand Rusty

Below: Pelagic Gear's Colin Sarfeh and Gary Schall battle yellowtail on "The Ridge".

Below: Travel mode - beers on the back deck of The Q.

Below: Cowboy and Erik

Below: Landon Yacobucci with grouper caught "the night before".

Below: Hoping for one last troll stop.

Below: Chuck Herron and his grouper.

Below: Bounty of The Ridge - Colin Sarfeh with a surface-iron yellow.

Below: Ron Radsick with a Tan Grouper // Radsick with a San Benitos Island Yellowtail

Below: Another killer Pacific Ocean sunset.

Below: Long-time Q105 Chartermaster Gary van der Lyke at San Benitos Island.

Below: Mike Heib and Landon Yacobucci hold up a gaffed Tan Grouper.