Del Stephens travels the Pacific Northwest ruining marriages and bank accounts one albacore tuna seminar at a time.
The deep-sea version of fishing crack — peddled by a man called Tuna Dog — has anglers ditching their salmon gear and conventional boats for stout rods, heavy lines and big boats that can run 50 miles offshore to partake in Oregon's fastest growing salty adventure.
What: Free tuna-fishing seminar
Who: Del Stephens, aka Tuna Dog
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, June 2
Where: The Black Bird Shopping Center, 1810 W. Main St., Medford
Details: Topics will run the gamut from basic gear and techniques to advanced tactics for finding and catching albacore.
Stephens knows that all it takes is one albacore feeding frenzy — complete with screaming reels and a bloody boat deck — to turn any angler's curiosity into an addiction.
"I had a guy come up to me and told me I cost him $150,000," says Stephens, 54, of Portland. "He went to one seminar, then went tuna fishing once, and that was it. He had to buy a bigger boat.
"I'm teaching people a whole new line of bad habits," Stephens says. "When people get hooked on tuna fishing, we just say, 'Welcome to The Dark Side.' "
The Dark Side comes to Medford on Saturday, June 2, when Stephens hosts a free tuna seminar from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at The Black Bird Shopping Center, 1810 W. Main St. The seminar will run the gamut from basic gear and techniques to advanced tactics for finding and catching albacore.
Albacore swim in schools from Southern California to British Columbia, Canada, in search of anchovies and other bait fish, eating more than 5 percent of their body mass daily. They typically run 10 to 20 pounds but can get up to 40 pounds.
Albacore have been a staple for decades of Oregon's commercial fishing fleet, particularly out of ports such as Charleston. But tuna didn't really register on sport anglers' radar screens until a crash in the salmon fishery more than 20 years ago sent saltwater anglers looking for alternatives.
Even then, tuna were a blip in the annual catch until albacore hunters created their own feeding frenzy by landing nearly 60,000 fish in 2007, easily eclipsing the recreational salmon catch in the ocean.
Since then, the fishery sees anglers landing 30,000 to 40,000 albacore annually off the Oregon Coast in a wide-open season that runs roughly July into September with no catch limits.
"The only limit is the amount of tuna they can cram in their coolers," says Brandon Ford, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Marine Program in Newport, which is Oregon's second-highest tuna port.
With 11,166 tuna landed in 2011 and a catch rate of 3.6 fish per angler trip, Charleston ranks as Oregon's top tuna port. Brookings ranks fourth, just behind Depoe Bay.
While Central Coast tuna anglers typically run 50-plus miles offshore to find albacore, various differences in current and upwelling often drag tuna within 20 miles of the South Coast.
Regardless, tuna anglers are running big boats seaward in search of currents that boast water temperatures of 58.5 degrees or slightly higher and where there are a collection of sea birds feeding on bait fish. That's where the tuna can be found.
"Sometimes the tuna will be jumping out there," Stephens says. "Obviously, that's a good sign."
Stephens fishes primarily out of his 33-foot boat, called "Tuna Dog." He prospects for tuna by trolling feathered, anchovy-like lures with 8/0- to 10/0-sized hooks, skimming them along the surface at 6 to 8 mph until the first tuna gets hooked.
The hooked tuna invariably brings others to the surface, where other anglers aboard can cast live or frozen anchovies or artificial baits such as 5-inch rubber shad imitations.
When the surface bite dies down, Stephens typically "works the iron," — fishing 1.5- to 4-ounce painted lead jigs vertically at whatever depth the electronics peg the tuna.
For trolling, Stephens prefers stout, stiff rods akin to those anglers would use for sturgeon or halibut, with large, open-faced reels capable of carrying 300 yards of 50-pound monofilament line and with no line guide.
"Tuna run so fast they'll burn the line guide right out of the reel," Stephens says.
Anglers rely on calm ocean days to run far enough offshore to reach tuna, and a rule of thumb is to sport boats with gas tanks that deplete one-third to get to the tuna grounds and one-third to get back — with the extra third of a tank as a buffer.
Stephens made his first tuna run in the early 1990s, putting eight albacore in the boat that first trip out of Newport.
"It was amazing," he says. "I couldn't believe how hard they fought."
He fishes the tuna tournament circuit with a four-person crew, easily able to boat 30 albacore an hour when the bite's hot.
"It's really exciting to catch that many fish," he says. "Then it's, what do you do with it all?"
In recent years, the recreational tuna fleet has started to mature and grow. And unlike salmon anglers, tuna anglers are more likely to share fertile grounds and rarely balk at fishing close to other boats.
"It's a big ocean," Stephens says. "Most of the time there are too many tuna out there to matter."
Calm days are best, and that 58.5-degree water can sprout small floating cities.
"Six or seven years ago on a nice day and with a nice ocean off Newport, you might see five boats 50 miles offshore," Stephens says. "Today on a flat ocean, there will be 300 to 500 boats, and you better watch where you're going. You might hit someone."
When the bite starts in July, the fish are so aggressive that "anyone can catch a tuna in July," he says.
As the season progresses and the commercial fleet joins the fray, albacore can become more wary, Stephens says.
Tuna neophytes' biggest mistake is following the adage of "running to the blue," or heading west until the ocean waters turn deep blue instead of looking for those golden temperatures.
"Sometimes they'll run too far and run over fish," he says.
Do it right, and the fish will run over you. Albacore fever often leads to anglers buying a half-dozen new rods at a time and carrying a higher bank loan on their new boat than their old house.
"It's an expensive hobby," Stephens says. "When guys go gung-ho into it, it's kind of funny.
"But that's The Dark Side."