Cathy Needleman of Los Angeles holds onto the tail of a hefty bluefin tuna she caught using a live mackerel for bait.
Cathy Needleman of Los Angeles with a hefty bluefin tuna she caught using a live mackerel for bait. Credit: Courtesy photo

My heart raced as I watched a school of wild bluefin tuna churn the surface of the sea into froth while chasing a baitball, jumping clear out of the water at high speeds and crashing on the hapless baitfish.

When tuna feed, it is savagery personified.

This scene occurred just a mile off the back (south) side of Santa Cruz Island this month. It is more rare to see a bluefin tuna here than it is to see an orca.

For much of my life we saw and caught few bluefin tuna, yet in the past six years we have enjoyed the best bluefin tuna fishing of my lengthy life.

The cause is thought to be shifting oceanic conditions that push warm equatorial water farther northward because storms are sometimes tracking further northward, like Tropical Storm Hilary recently did.

We have had warm water pushing into our islands and the Santa Barbara Channel all month, and sizzling gamesters like tuna, yellowtail and dorado (mahi mahi in restaurants) ride the warm water currents looking for food.

This boils the blood of our local fishing community. Normally, we have to drive down to San Diego and go out on their fleet of party boats far out to sea for a chance at bluefin tuna. But for the moment, those fish are local to us.

We have been catching a few of them even inside the Channel Islands, at places like the Dome, East Santa Barbara Channel Buoy and off Tajiguas. Finding bluefin in those spots is rare indeed, and I’ve only experienced it myself one other time many years ago.

The mother lode of schools of local bluefin are on the other side of Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands, where a steep undersea mountainside causes upwelling and long current breaks which attract baitfish under floating kelp paddies. The area is swarming with fish right now.

Besides tuna, I have encountered yellowtail and dorado under kelp paddies floating along current breaks. The key is to look for them right after southern (northward tracking) storms push plumes of warm water up against the back side of our Channel Islands.

If I were going after the tuna today instead of writing this article, that is where I would go. So, if the article is brief and seems truncated, you’ll please understand that I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

Some folks like myself enjoy battling a big tuna, and feeding the family for days. Fish caught have been up to around 150 pounds, so the family eats well.

Some folks prefer to just be out among the big fish and watch the savagery of nature.

Along with the foraging tuna, we are also seeing lots of flying fish out there right now, which is a sight to behold.

I’m thinking you might want to find a way to get out there this week while so much is going on. I think you’ll be glad you did, and maybe I’ll see you out there.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.