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2005 REVIEW: EL Loco II brings in biggest tuna, Spicy Tuna takes most cash

WON Staff Writer

CABO SAN LUCAS, BCS -- Tuna large and small qualified for big bucks in the Mercury/WON Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot, as anglers on 135 boats had to battle tough conditions and reluctant biters to claim a share of the $447,600 up for grabs in overall and daily jackpots.

first dayof action, most of them headed to the Finger Bank.

Cabo San Lucas seems like the last place anyone would go to worry about time and money, yet annually the world's top offshore anglers head to Land's End to do just that. Maybe it's because competitors in the Mercury/Western Outdoor News Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot make quick work of hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

Perhaps no tournament makes competitors get the job done in a shorter amount of time than the Tuna Jackpot, but finding boats for teams to fish on is a bigger problem than finding teams that want to compete.

Last year 135 boats lined up for the 7 a.m. shotgun start off the Cape Rocks and sped off in search of a tuna they could put in the boat by 4 p.m. and still make it back to the weigh station in Marina Cabo San Lucas before the 6 p.m. deadline.

One of the boats wouldn't get back until two days passed.

Any day of fishing comes with decisions and with $447,600 in cash payouts on the line, the importance of those decisions is magnified.

Because of the unique geography of Cabo San Lucas, perched as it is on the tip of the Baja Peninsula, teams in the Tuna Jackpot have the choice of two seas to fish. Head left from the Cape Rocks and it's the Sea of Cortez, to the right the Pacific Ocean. Straight out and you're in the middle of nowhere.

A look at the history of the Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot shows that some of the biggest tuna have been caught from the Cortez side, It also shows that you don't necessarily need a 200-pound behemoth to go home with monster amounts of cash.

This time around, solid information indicated schools of huge tuna were on the banks above and outside Cabo on the Pacific side. Yet the Pacific is often anything but and the wind came up early the morning of the first fishing day of the tournament. The more protected waters of the Sea of Cortez and it's famous high spots held yellowfin, but mostly smaller schoolies.

Time and distance are different on the water, especially when the weather is up. For example, boats that can run 40 knots in flat calm conditions may not be able to do more than 10 knots in rough seas. In other words, a spot of fish that was only an hour away in ideal conditions is 4 hours away in snotty weather.

THE SPICY TUNA TEAM of James Coiner, Joe DeHorta, Andres Curtolo
and Otto Paredes, pictured here with the Corona girls and Captain
Ricardo Cobreros Bribiesca and mate, won a check for $105,400.

Yet a large portion of the boats that took off the first morning decided to head up the Pacific side in search of a cash cow. Deciding where to fish is perhaps the most important decision in a tournament, yet there are many others, from choosing how much money to put in the side jackpots to who is going to pull on the fish. Sometimes those decisions become a matter of life and death.

The anglers on the boat Joana, an older boat owned by a local Cabo businessmen, were told the boat had a GPS, but it turns out the regular skipper took it with him to run another boat. They came aboard without any electronics or survival gear of their own, although the diabetic on the team did have a couple day's supply of medicine.

Why would this matter? While other boats rushed to the scales, the Joana broke down. The captain of the Joana reported mechanical problems to Mike Packard, the Tuna Jackpot staff member in charge of the radio as tournament control. Packard said the initial reports were confused, with one report indicating the boat would be able to make it in on the remaining engine.

By the time it was determined the boat was a single engine vessel and was adrift, all tournament boats had returned and it was night.

Luckily, the Joana had a good radio and the power to run it. Unfortunately, that's all the boat had in the way of electronics. The skipper had not kept his position by seat of the pants navigation with the compass, and without any GPS the crew and team members had no position to report.

Packard would remain in radio contact all night and the next day would notify competitors to keep an eye out for the Joana.

Meanwhile, other first day competitors who headed up the Pacific side found their payoff in tuna large and small.

Ed Tschernoscha, a fishing tackle retailer from Southern California, had done his homework. Tschernoscha runs Baja Fish Gear in Lomita and was in contact with the skipper of the El Loco II before the tourney. He arranged for the skipper and crew to go out in advance of the event and catch Humboldt (also known as jumbo or giant) squid to use as bait.

BAJA FISH GEAR'S Ed Tschernoscha tells the crowd how his team
caught the biggest tuna of the Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot sponsored by
Mercury and put on by the WON staff.

When the El Loco II got into an area of tuna, but only small yellowfin would come up to the spreader bars, the advance planning paid off. They decided to drift on the school of tuna and a big fish slurped up the chunk of fresh squid Tschernoscha had pinned to an 8/0 Owner Gorilla hook.

Tschernoscha, a big man, made the most of the opportunity. With the hook tied straight to 100-pound test there was a solid connection between angler and tuna. What tipped the scale in his direction, Tschernoscha said, was the Smitty Spider system of webbed harness and pad. A mere 45 minutes after hookup, a giant tuna was on the deck.

But was it big enough? Should they try for another fish and risk breakdown or other mishap while valuable weight seeped from the yellowfin? The Baja Fish Gear team chose to charge for the barn and get the tuna on the scales as quickly as possible.

So the El Loco II was the first boat to back into the corner of the marina adjacent to the entrance to the beautiful Puerto Paraiso Mall. The big tuna quickly attracted the attention of tourists and locals alike as it was toted to the scales.

When Tournament Director Kit McNear announced the yellowfin weighed 199.7 pounds, there were plenty of high fives, hugs and handshakes between Tschernoscha and teammates Tom Cook and Pete Ralph, but you had to wonder whether they rued an earlier decision to only enter the $1000 daily jackpot.

The Tuna Jackpot has an overall payout taken from the entry fee for the three biggest fish over the two days of fishing. Since the entry fee is a modest $700 to encourage participation, most of the cash payout comes daily pots. Teams can enter $500, $1000, $2000, $3000 and $5000 daily jackpots, with half the money in each pot going to the team with the biggest tuna each day.

Since the El Loco II was only in the one sidepot, that meant only $34,800 was missing from the $197,400 daily pool.

ROLLING UP THE DOCK is the 199.7-pound
yellowfin tuna that topped the Mercury/WON
Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot.

One of Packard's job as tournament control is to let competitors know how each fish weighed affects their chances. He quickly let it be known that lots of money was still on the table. That led to a rash of small fish brought the scale.

The minimum size is 40 pounds and Victor Locklin was only a little apologetic when he weighed a 41.8-pound yellowfin.

"I've got too much money in the jackpots not to weigh this fish," said Locklin, who was in the $500, $1000, $2000 and $3000 pots. In a previous Tuna Jackpot, Locklin wasn't entered in any of the daily pots - and had to settle for third place overall money despite catching the biggest tuna the first day. At the time he weighed his small fish, it was worth $98,400.

A slew of smaller fish were wiped off the board when the Got Caught hung up a 105.9-pound yellowfin and nailed down the $68,200 in the $500 and $2000 pots.

Out on the water, Bill Patton and Mark Karpenko had been trying to wrest another tuna from the building wind and swells on the Pacific. When the radio reports indicated no big fish had been weighed yet in the top two jackpot spots, they decided they better get back to Cabo as fast as they could.

The Paulina made the entrance to the marina with a scant 10 minutes to spare and as their captain maneuvered into the tight corner by the weigh station, Patton and Karpenko heard the Tuna Jackpot's Pat McDonell announce a 50-pound tuna could still win the final pots.

"We knew we had a 60 to 70-pound tuna," recalled Patton, "and we were in the jackpots across the board."

Don Small's Turner's Outdoorsman team got to the scales first with a 58.3-pound tuna that was also in the jackpots across the board. Their celebration didn't last long.

It was almost dark and the Paulina's tuna didn't look like much, but when it was hauled up on the scale and weighed 66 pounds, Patton and Karpenko were $94,000 richer.

THE FIRST DAY GOT OFF to a fast start when
Ed Tschernoscha of Baja Fish Gear, Tom Cook,
Pete Ralph, Captain Julio Cota and his
deckhand brought this 199.7-pound yellowfin
tuna to the scales at the Mercury/WON
Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot.

The final day of the tournament was decided by a simple decision that made it a tale of two fish. Basically, two teams that had been beat up on the Pacific the first day opted for the placid waters of the Sea of Cortez and managed to get a tuna to bite.

The Spicy Tuna team of Job DeHorta, James Coiner, Andres Curtolo and Otto Paredes were able to locate a school of tuna, but trolled lures didn't get any results. They decided to soak live caballito (little horse) mackerel and at 1:30 hooked up. When the fish hit the deck 40 minutes later, they headed straight for the dock - a good decision.

Their tuna weighed 75.3 pounds and would be good for the $105,400 in the $500, $1000 and $3000 pots if it held up.

The Mar de Cortez team of Todd Clark, Larry O'Brien, Jim Thompson and teammate and crew member Eduardo (who replaced first day team member Steve Kruger) saw lots of tuna in the Sea of Cortez, but also couldn't get a bite until they soaked a caballito.

But the Mar de Cortez arrived at the dock well more than an hour after the Spicy Tuna. If they had arrived earlier, would their tuna have weighed more.

As it was, the Mar de Cortez fell one-tenth of a pound short of a glorious sweep of the $197,400 in the daily jackpots when their tuna weighed 75.2 pounds. They had to be happy with $92,000, which really isn't that hard to do.

The Bottom Line made another decision. They decided not to weigh what could have been a winning fish and instead tried to locate the Joana.

The Reelaxe, which wasn't in any of the daily jackpots because of mechanical difficulties of its won, had earlier decided to spend the day looking for the lost boat. The best the two boats could come up with was that because of the quality of the radio signal, the Joana was somewhere between the Reelaxe and the Bottom Line.

Packard was on the radio with the Joana all night and day and helped coordinate search efforts that included a Mexican Navy vessel and helicopter. Staff, including local representative Enrique Fernandez, also contacted U.S. and Mexican officials, which resulted that night in the Mexican Navy ceding territorial jurisdiction to the U.S. Coast Guard, which immediately launched a rescue effort that included a U.S. Navy vessel and a C-130 aircraft.

One of the first things the Coast Guard did was issue a notice to mariners that included a grid that was the best estimate of the Joana's location. Meanwhile Chris Badsey refueled his Reelaxe and at midnight headed back out with Packard aboard. The Natural Stone also joined the search.

It was the cruise ship Seven Seas that found the unfortunate mariners and gave them food, water and medicine. The Reelaxe and the Natural Stone arrived and took both anglers and boat back to Cabo. They even made it in time for the awards dinner and won some of the $150,000 in trips and tackle given away during the tourney's three parties.

Thanks to the concern of the Tuna Jackpot staff and tournament anglers, the team members on the Joana got home safe. The situation should be a lesson to all anglers who venture out on charter trips around the world and the U.S and even on their own boats - be prepared for a breakdown.

Badsey was himself stranded for 36 hours off Cabo with no radio contact when the electronics died on his boat. Friends actually had to fly from the U.S. and charter a boat to run to the last coordinates he was able to transmit.

When you consider high quality handheld GPS and VHF radio units go for about $250 each and an entry across the board in the Tuna Jackpot is $12,200, doesn't it make sense to invest first in safety?

It's the right decision.