yellowtail taken off Baja may be a world record

foulshot

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Spearfisherman's big yellowtail taken off Baja may be a world record
By Ed Zieralski
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
8:39 a.m. 0,


Phillip Colla
Craig O'Connor in the waters of Guadalupe Island off Baja California with his 77-pound, 4-ounce yellowtail, taken while spearfishing.

Craig O'Connor took up spearfishing as a way to put food on the galley table of his sailboat when he and his wife sailed the Pacific on a two-year cruise in the 1990s.

"It got to where I became a pretty good spearfisherman," said O'Connor, who lives in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco.

How good? Good enough to be invited on an exclusive 10-day free-diving trip aboard the Horizon out of Point Loma-based H&M Landing. And good enough to spear a potential world-record yellowtail on that elite trip.

Pending approval by spearfishing authorities, O'Connor's 77-pound, 4-ounce North American yellowtail, which he speared off Guadalupe Island on July 21, will top the 77-pounder shot by Doug Kuczkowski off Guadalupe Island on the Horizon in 1999.

O'Connor plans to submit the fish for consideration as a record by both the International Underwater Spearfishing Association and the International Bluewater Spearfishing Records Committee.

"I went on the trip with the anticipation of shooting a tuna and really didn't think about getting a world-record yellowtail," said O'Connor, 50, an engineer for high-rise buildings. "Some of the guys with records have all the forms and everything and are ready for it. But I just enjoy all the aspects of spearfishing, being in the water, getting to spear fish and being able to bring fish home for the freezer. Those are the highlights for me. Don't get me wrong. Shooting big fish is always a thrill, but this trip had some of the best free divers in the world on it."

Captain Ron Martin, second skipper on the Horizon, said O'Connor was on a 10-day trip when he captured the huge forktail. This was the 12th straight year that this particular group of experienced free divers (breath-hold only) chartered the boat for Guadalupe Island, 210 miles south of San Diego and 150 miles west of the Baja coast.

"We go to Guadalupe first, but if the white sharks are a problem, we go to San Benitos," said Martin, who ran the boat with first skipper, Greg Grivetto. "This year and last year we had shark encounters."

Martin said one great white shark swam to within five feet of one of the divers.

"They had just speared and landed three yellowtail, and it came in on two different divers," Martin said. "It got to within five feet away and turned as one diver jumped into the skiff. Then it circled around and then got to within seven feet of another diver before turning. It gets very exciting."

It was into those conditions that O'Connor set his record.

O'Connor, who was making his sixth trip with the free-diving group, said he was having a slow day before getting his shot at the monster yellowtail.

When the current slacked and he lost sight of a school of bait, O'Connor said he found a "promising point" that featured a steep dropoff to 50 to 75 feet. He then found an eddy where the current slowed.

"When I got there I noticed a huge school of bait and a couple of fur seals working it," O'Connor said. "It looked like a perfect spot for yellowtail to come through. So I hung there for a while and watched some smaller fish swim by me."

O'Connor said when big fish swim near a school of bait, the baitfish will part or ball up, do something different that will alert a free diver that a bigger fish is near.

"You have to be stealthy and work hard to get big fish," he said. "It's like hunting, but you're diving in cold water, so you have to wear a hood that makes it hard to hear. And you're wearing a mask, so you can't see that well, either."

He said it's different than hunting on land because you can't rely on any sounds at all.

"When you hunt, you can hear birds, squirrels, twigs snapping, things like that," he said. "You don't get any of that when spearfishing. It takes a while to see what's happening, and there are times when it gets really exciting. Other times it takes a lot of patience and a lot of looking."

All of O'Connor's patience paid off on his record-setting dive. It all came together for him, he said. The bait began acting "strange," so he slid into the water and went down 25 to 30 feet.

"As I was going down, I saw two yellowtail out of the corner of my eye," he said. "I swam away from them so I didn't alarm them, and they got curious and came closer. Then I saw two great fish coming toward me. I veered away to make them more curious, and when they cruised by me, with the one in the back offering me the best shot. I was pretty excited, but I was calm and relaxed enough to take the shot."

Shooting from an estimated 25 feet, O'Connor hit the big yellowtail behind the gill plate, and the dance was on.

"It was just about a perfect shot," O'Connor said. "It was stunned at first, and then it started moving toward the bottom. I was in danger of losing him in the rocks, so I swam for the float line and grabbed it and started swimming the fish to deeper water. I got him in deeper water even though he was kicking for the bottom and I was kicking for the surface."

With Guadalupe fur seals gathering and showing interest, O'Connor felt the added pressure to get the fish to the surface.

"I finally wore him out after nearly 30 minutes," O'Connor said. "I got him close enough that I could get a good hold through the gill plate, and then I wrapped my legs around him. That's when I realized it was the biggest fish I'd ever speared and I hung for all it was worth until the skiff reached me."

Like all his catches in the past, this big yellowtail was filletted and packaged and given to family, friends, the folks who watched his and Lori's cat and neighbors. But there is one big difference.

"We're getting a mount of the fish," O'Connor said. This one's going on the wall."
 

dreaminhogs

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I don't understand how those guys swim off that Island. Toooo many White Sharks for my comfort. I can't understand if that is sport or suicide. Impressive Yellow Tail though.
 

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