Albacore catch one of Oregon's best in many years

CHARLESTON -- Three anglers docking with more than 125 pounds of fish caught in about five hours of trolling would usually be elated.

But when they'd been fishing for albacore in what has been one of the hottest tuna seasons in Oregon sport-fishing history, their catch of five tuna seemed, well, meager.

Even though one of the fish weighed 35 pounds and another tipped the scales at just over 30.

Skipper Patrick Roelle had set the bar high as dawn broke one day recently over Salmon Harbor on Winchester Bay, where he owns Fishpatrick's Crabby Cafe.

"Twenty (tuna) would be the goal for the boat today. ... We want to catch 20," Roelle announced as the albacore adventure was getting under way.

The former fishing guide had reason to be optimistic about catching as many albacore as the coolers stuffed aboard his jet sled could hold.

Everyone had been catching tuna aplenty -- and Roelle knew where and how.

Anglers the previous week had checked in the largest sports catch of tuna since the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife began keeping records.

"In 2007, we had a week with 12,261 albacore, and last week's catch of 12,535 beat that," said Eric Schindler, who oversees the ODFW's ocean creel sampling program.

Earlier, in mid-July, tuna anglers posted the third-best week of all-time, a catch of 10,929 albacore.

"We're on track now to have the second-best season we've ever had, behind 2007," Schindler said.

With the average catch this season running at 4.9 tuna per angler, Roelle's goal of six to seven fish a person seemed reasonable enough.

"If you get into the schools of them, you catch a lot of smaller fish ... you know, 10-15 pounds instead of a 30-pound tuna," he said. "That's what I would expect today -- to get into a school of them, because when you talk to somebody that caught 20 to 30 fish yesterday and they tell you where they were, you've got a good chance of finding them."

But Roelle hadn't counted on the U.S. Coast Guard closing the Umpqua River bar due to breakers caused by a strong minus tide.

Rather than wait out the closure of two or more hours, he decided to trailer his boat to Charleston, a 45-minute drive to the south.

The Coos bar is deeper, wider and less iffy to cross.

Tuna anglers are allowed by law to use as many lines as they want, and their catch limit in Oregon is a generous 25 per person.

Lures on the end of hand and rod lines alike were towed 15 to 80 feet behind the boat, occasionally skipping on the surface.

"The boat attracts the fish," Roelle said. "The fish comes to the motor and the wake of the boat and they find a little 'fish' swimming behind you, and they attack it."

That's when the fun begins.