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By STEVE MERLO, Contributing columnist
After a decades-long rockfishing slump on the Central coast, the fishing and catching has returned with a vengeance. The waters of Estero Bay near Morro Rock are once again teeming with porpoises, whales and many bird species as they flood into the area to feed on the huge bait balls of squid and anchovies migrating into the nearby depths.
With the return of the bait biomass, large schools of rock fish are also staging a tremendous comeback beneath the surface. Large Ling Cod, Vermilions, Starries, Olives, Widows and Blues are just some of the 60-plus species of California rockfish now filling anglers' sacks with easy "ten-fish-plus two-ling cod limits." Thanks to strict Department of Fish and Wildlife guidelines over the past few years, average size and total creel numbers are well up and fishermen are not complaining. They're just fishing!
This week, I had the opportunity to spend a three-quarter-day trip aboard the "Fiesta," one of "Virg's Sportfishing" vessels, and had a ball dueling with some really nice fish. The company itself, like Estero Bay, has also gone through some recent changes for the good with a change of ownership. Until recently, Virg's had experienced a downhill slide in angler use and popularity, but that's all changed now with the advent of new blood at the helm.
The new owner, Denise de Cock, originally from South Africa and now a hardworking business girl here in the States for more than 12 years, has grabbed the reins and dramatically turned the organization 180 degrees in the right direction. Anglers are once again flocking to the doors, er, decks, I mean, to experience the great fishing out of Morro Bay, and I can attest to their successes.
This past Tuesday, fishing right alongside Ms. de Cock, an avid angler, 20 fishermen and I found plenty of room and some superb fishing only 40 minutes north of the Rock. Plying our lures and baits in waters from 110-200-feet deep, our skipper, Charlie Lanini, put us on top of school after school of great- eating fish and everyone on board had a great time. (Charlie, I'm told, has been with Virg's for more than 35 years).
For several years now, anglers have been restricted to stringent size and length limits on several fish species, including ling cod, and it has paid off handsomely. The Fiesta's 13 "keeper" lings (those over 22 feet in length) for the day, were the most I can remember hitting the deck on any single day's sportfishing count in my recent memory. The anglers on board also managed a tremendous amount of lings under the magical length limit, with plenty of fish just south of the "line," a sign of even better things to come in the near future.
Even the once-threatened Canary Rockfish came aboard with regularity, though all had to be de-pressurized and then released due to current laws. I look for the rules to be eased on them anytime now because of their enhanced numbers.
While I spent most of my time fooling around catching my limit of nice rockfish and five 8-9-pound boat-limit lings (and three "shorts"), all of the anglers on board caught easy 10-fish limits of other rockfish, not to mention their share of big lings to over 10 pounds each, including a monster 12-pound jackpot fish.
What I really liked about the day's venture was the way the crew went out of their way to make each person's adventure an enjoyable one. The deckhands were very adept at handling the occasional backlash or tangle and were also Johnnies on the Spot whenever a gaff was needed for a larger fish or to retrieve one that had fallen off while swinging it aboard.
Talked into this trip by my neighbors, Bruce and Dolores Clark and five of their kids from 7-17-years old, I was afraid I'd be spending my time assisting some of the younger family members on how to use their rented equipment. Instead, the deckhands and skipper went way out of their way to teach each kid how to work their reels and lures, and all of them caught their own limits, including 8-year-old Gage, who also managed an 11-pound ling all by himself and second place in the jackpot.
All in all, the "new" "Virg's Sportfishing" trip turned out better than I had expected and I look forward to venturing out again as soon as possible. While reservations are not required, it's a good idea to call ahead and get your name on the list to keep from being disappointed.
And don't forget that Virg's also has special charters and whale- watching expeditions. During the winter, when the rockfish season is closed, I'm looking forward to their Crabs and Dabs trips to trap Dungeness crabs and catch no-limit sand dabs. Contact Virg's at 805-772-1222 and I'll probably see you there right after I choke down the last of these prime-eating ling cod fillet.