“San Diego Skippers Talk About This “Urban” Hotspot”
The exciting news on the waterfront was the arrival of a large school of bigeye tuna just 38 miles southwest of San Diego. The Charter fleet had been racking up good scores of these elusive tuna, some exceeding 80 pounds, for a few days and by the weekend a virtual flotilla of boats lighted up the dark per-dawn horizon heading for the “spot”. As I steered my boat over the north end of the Nine Mile Bank, the rising sun revealed deep blue water, lots of birds and bait schools. I got that “feeling” that something was going to happen here. Stopping the boat upset my anxious buddies onboard but I was metering good signs about a hundred feet down. We set out our pre-rigged, 60-pound trolling outfits and worked the shimmering CD-14 Rapalas and jigs over the meter marks. Within five minutes we had a tremendous crash on the portside lure. My crew still didn’t believe it was a big fish until the rod bent double and line kept sizzling off a snug drag. Keeping the boat idling in forward gear we were able to control the fish and keep it from sounding deep. Within fifteen minutes we sank two gaffs into a thumping, glistening 112-pound bigeye tuna and all within sight of the downtown skyline of San Diego, “You guys still want to leave?” I smugly said as if I were giving them an actual choice.
By mid-morning we had three bigeyes of 60, 92 and 112 pounds, and two yellowtail weighing 12 and 28 pounds by concentrating our efforts on the Nine Mile Bank. Many sportboats passed us on their way to the outer banks even though they saw us with bent rods. “Never leave fish to find fish” is a motto that many anglers try to adhere to but it is a challenge to stay close to home at a bank that gets little respect yet has produced some great action over the years. By the time the far-flung fleet got the word that the bigeye were “on the beach” the tuna had dispersed by early afternoon and were difficult to track just as dozens of charter, open-party and private boats were arriving. A lot of people got skunked that July day in 1985. The few that reaped the benefits included some half-day partyboats and small skiff anglers that weren’t about to run far offshore to begin with.
In an effort to find out more about the Nine Mile Bank I spoke with some San Diego-based captains who have many years of experience in these waters. The contributions from Captains Fred Huber on the Daily Double at Point Loma Sportfishing, Ken Baruch on the Daiwa Pacific at H&M Landing and Scott Caslin on the Dolphin II at Islandia Sportfishing out of Mission Bay helped create a general profile of this bank as well as special insight to the fishery found there.
The Nine Mile Bank gets its name from its average distance from San Diego Bay. In fact, the large, rectangular-shaped bank is oriented northwest to southeast and varies from nine to 12 miles offshore from Bell Buoy #5 at the entrance to San Diego Bay. The broader south end of the bank is located in Mexican waters and is about three miles north of North Coronado Island. The north end is due west of the tip of the Pint Loma Peninsula. The bank, shown as the Coronado Escarpment on chart C(GS5060, is about nine miles long and varies from one to three miles in width. It’s southern plateau ends abruptly in the deep Coronado Canyon, a spur that projects eastward from the continental shelf that forms the westerly edge of the bank. The north and easterly sides of the bank have more gradual contours. The top of the bank varies in depth from 300-to 500-feet. The 89-fathom spot on the north end is 11.1 nautical miles on a 256° magnetic compass heading from Buoy #5. The 55-fathom spot on the south end is 9.0 nautical miles out on a 209° heading.
The large size of the Nine Mile Bank means that many skippers must cross it on their way to the offshore fishing grounds, at times unaware that they are motoring over quality gamefish en route. Depending on the season and type of fish you’re pursuing, it’s a good practice to take a good, hard look at this bank on the way out (or back). It could save you fuel and provide more fishing time in the process. Your catch results may also compare well with the more far-ranging boats whether its rockfish or striped marlin.
“We’ve had some great action on the Nine over the years”, says Huber, “including striped marlin to 125 pounds and lots of yellowfin (tuna) flurries when they come up. Not bad for a half-day boat,” adds Huber. Caslin has had some productive overnight trips. “We score pretty well on the makos (bonito shark) during the spring to fall period drifting with live or dead bait. We even caught a rare oilfish once on the Nine. During the day we’ve caught bigeye tuna to 75 pounds and three years ago we had a good albacore bite on the west side of the bank on the drop-off. You don’t often catch albacore where you can see buildings on the shore,” says Caslin. Baruch emphasizes the rockfish and yellowtail that are attracted to the bank. “I like chasing the spring breezers (fast-moving schools of yellowtail) that run all along the bank. Sometimes you can slide into a spot of feeders and do real well casting live bait and jigs for eight-to 20-pound tails. A lot of the time we’ll meter fish below 20 fathoms and we’ll use the iron(metal jigs) yo-yo style deep to score. The chilis (chilipepper rockfish) though are probably the most important fish on the bank. At least historically before the new rockfish regs came out,” says Baruch.
In addition to chilipeppers, bottom fishermen will also find reds (vermillion rockfish), bocaccio, starry rockfish and cowcod at times. Surface gamefish always seem to get the glory and its no different on the Nine. Striped marlin, mako shark, yellowfin tuna, albacore, skipjack, bluefin tuna, bigeye tuna, yellowtail, dorado, bonito and barracuda all make news when they make an appearance.
Striped marlin represent the apex gamefish found on the Nine Mile Bank. From late summer to fall a tight community of “marlineer’s” will be found diligently working the Nine when water conditions, forage and currents encourage the stripers to move into the area. Sometimes marlin will be found surprisingly close to shore inside of the bank such as the 135-pounder landed by Don and Shirley Blackman of Blackman Boats just one mile west of the Whistler Buoy #1 (located two miles south of Point Loma).
The bank holds an abundance of baitfish year-round and sea lions, seals, sea gulls, pelicans and porpoise congregate around Pacific mackerel, anchovy, sardines, and larval forage on a daily basis. “Look for good water color, bait balls, birds and don’t forget to talk to other skippers when you’re looking for surface fish,” advises Caslin. The bank can be frustrating. Dramatic feeding frenzies often attract boats like a magnet only to be created by birds, bait and predatory mammals with no gamefish in the mix. It’s a challenge to keep looking when you’ve been fooled a few times.
Yellowfin are the most numerous of the tunas seasonally encountered. “During warm-water years yellowfin can pop up anytime between July and October,” says Huber. Pay attention when you hear about yellowfin being caught as close as the “101” or “425” spots nine miles below the Coronado Islands because these fish can appear literally within hours on the Nine as they follow the 100-fathom break northward. “Catching tuna on a half-day boat is pretty unusual and the Nine Mile Bank is a hotspot due to the distance factor. The inside edge is real close and we probably catch more fish there because of it. The tuna are usually eight to 15 pounds,” says Huber. However, if Huber has a choice, the south part of the Nine is where he would prefer to look for tuna. “Everything comes together here (south end). It has steeper gradients, canyons, fingers or veins of deep water right next to the blue water shelf that feeds the whole area. The edges are more dramatic. It’s a lifeline,” adds Huber. A bit of advice: “Fish by trolling with the dominant edges rather than across. This means your headings will be generally northwest to southeast. Don’t try to anchor. Troll or driftfish with live anchovies, mackerel or sardines after a hookup,” says Huber.
Albacore, bluefin, bigeye tuna and skpjack are more elusive than yellowfin. They also tend to be found more often on the deepwater or westerly side of the bank when they make occasional appearances during summer and fall. Like many surface fish, tuna associate well with floating kelp paddies, especially late in the season. A boon to the more localized angler, kelp paddies on the bank are usually unfished by the sportboat fleet since they are in transit over these waters at night heading to offshore areas. The bank is well-suited to the small-boater who can devote more time and effort working this close-in spot.
BANK ON YELLOWTAIL
Of all the surface fish, the California yellowtail is the most important visitor to the bank. Although they may be found year-round when conditions are favorable, late spring to fall is prime time. When yellowtail start showing at the Coronado Islands, 13 to 16 miles south of San Diego, savvy anglers will start checking out the Nine Mile Bank for signs of fish. “By March or April yellows usually move onto the bank to feed on little squid, larval shrimp and tiny baitfish. We call them “no see’ums” because the forage is hard to see,” says Caslin.
The yellows are usually either “breezers” or “puddlers”. Breezers are unsettled, active fish that chase bait schools, popping up quickly and then disappearing. They are hard to fish, especially from a large boat. Skiff anglers can get on them, but often put them down when they get too close. It’s better to approach them slowly. Trolling Rapalas and casting jigs after a hookup is a good technique to catch breezers. Puddlers are slow moving fish that show themselves as they quietly “slurp” small forage on the surface. They can be spooky as well so give them some breathing room. “Puddlers can be real hard to hook because they may ignore a good, lively sardine if they’re feeding on tiny, two-inch squid we can barely see. Slide up on the puddlers and chum with small anchovies to get them going. Cast smaller jigs if they’re feeding on small frye,” adds Caslin.
By July the yellowtail usually settle down. This is when kelp paddy fishing comes into its own and the sea temperature is 68° or warmer. The yellows may be close to a paddy or quite a distance off. Many paddies may be “dry” or lacking fish entirely so persistence is an important quality to have. A standard technique is to approach a paddy slowly and position the boat upcurrent or upwind so that you’ll have more fishing time as the boat drifts alongside. Chum and watch for boils on the surface that may reveal yellowtail. Monitor the sonar for readings and try deep-jigging if surface fish aren’t showing. It often pays to hang around a paddy for a half-hour or more if there are good “meter marks”, especially if paddies are hard to find. Gamefish may “turn-on” later or return to a paddy after foraging a distance away.
The kelp paddy season attracts the most exotic wanderer of all — the dorado or mahi mahi. Many times I’ve been surprised after hooking a cartwheeling dorado when we were fishing for paddy yellowtail. During El Niño periods dorado have moved onto the Nine Mile Bank as early as late June. The westerly and southerly deep water slopes are good locations. Look for clean, blue, warm water and use the same techniques applied to yellowtail.
Less glamorous, the California barracuda and California bonito were historically common on the bank but have been sporadic in recent years. “I still think barracuda are around most of the year but they may not bite like they use to,” theorizes Caslin. “For some reason the tides, currents and other factors seem to have more influence when they bite now than years ago,” adds Caslin. One thing about todays barracuda, they tend to run big with fish over 12 pounds often caught when they decide to go on a feeding spree. “Bonito are similar but there was a good run of nice fish this past winter,” says Caslin. During the summer its still common to find bonito under kelp paddies on the greenwater or inside of the bank.
If you’re after rockfish during the open season from March to December, Baruch advises focusing on the chili peppers at the north drop of the bank in about 550-foot depths or greater. “A good area for reds is around the hard edges in the middle of the bank. Big cowcod like the south end canyons over 600-feet deep,” says Baruch. In contrast to most rockfishing, cowcod are best during the summer along the Coronado Canyon ledges.
NINE MILE CHALLENGES
Although good fishing has held up well overall on the bank, anglers face a number of obstacles. “Sea lions and seals are a major problem,” says Huber. Boats that stop and fish for any length of time can routinely get chased out by these aggressive mammals. “Run and gun” fishing for breezing fish usually is better at avoiding these predators because you’re frequently on the move. There’s more commercial gear on the bank now, including red fender floats marking prawn traps and gillnets that can be a navigational hazard and reduce the open fishing area. The sheer number of boats on a summer weekend can also be a challenge and reduce the quality of the fishing. Caslin recommends cooperation over competition when it comes to surface fishing. “I’ve seen boats racing each other for a spot of feeding fish only to put them down and scatter them for everyone. It’s much better to approach schools of fish slowly and respect distances between boats to give everyone a chance,” says Caslin
The Nine Mile Bank may not be as famous or productive as some of the offshore banks, but its worth a good look as you’re passing through. After all, you don’t want to “leave fish to find fish”.