Rare opah catch made via Jet Ski

Rare opah catch
Ben Hyun (left) and Alan Ogata pose with rare opah catch, 147 pounds. It was caught from a Jet Ski. Photos are courtesy of Ben Hyun

Saltwater anglers in Southern California are discovering that Jet Skis and other personal watercraft offer a much faster means by which to reach the fishing grounds. They’re also proving, like kayak anglers before them, that big-game species are not off-limits to those on smaller vessels.

One of the pioneers is Ben Hyun of Corona. He has caught tuna and dorado (mahi-mahi) from a Jet Ski, but recently accomplished what almost undoubtedly is a first: landing an opah via Jet Ski.

Opah, which reside in deep-water pelagic zones, are rarely caught by any anglers. The beautiful, oval-shaped fish weighed 147 pounds, only 16 pounds shy of the world record.

Rare opah catch
Opah being towed back to port; photo courtesy of Ben Hyun

Hyun caught the opah, also called moonfish, after an hour-long fight off Dana Point, in Orange County.

Hyun and Alan Ogata had ventured 20 miles offshore in the hope of catching tuna. Because the jet-powered vessels are so fast, a voyage that takes a conventional fishing boat two hours to complete was accomplished within one hour.

Said Hyun: “Fully geared, I go 45 mph or less depending on conditions and bait. The beauty of a ski is that if conditions change when I’m far out, I can bolt back to the landing quickly, out of harm’s way. I have a 22-gallon fuel tank with 80- to 90-mile range.”

The anglers were after tuna.

This has been such an unusual summer, with water temperatures 5 to 8 degrees above normal, that yellowfin tuna and other subtropical species have migrated into Southern California waters, far north of their typical range.

Hyun and Ogata are serious Jet Ski anglers, one of perhaps only a few dozen, but they say their ranks are growing.

Their vessels are equipped with coolers transformed into live-baitwells, fitted with aeration pumps and rod holders.

Rare opah catch
Ben Hyun with his bright-orange opah; photo courtesy of Ben Hyun

But no anglers venture out expecting to catch an opah, solitary swimmers that do not gather in schools, except during spawning periods. Recreational catches anywahere are rare, although a half-dozen or so were caught this summer, an oddity attributed to the warm-water event.

(Three opah were caught on one boat, a San Diego-based sportfisher that was in Mexican waters.)

Because opah do not swim in large schools, there is not a directed commercial fishery for them. Commercial long-liners sometimes catch them incidentally, while targeting tuna, and those are the fish that end up in seafood markets and restaurants.

Hyun and Ogata arrived at a high spot called the 267 Bank and were searching for kelp paddies, which often provide cover for tuna and other game fish. They could not find any sign of fish activity, however, so they cruised to the south, on slightly different courses.

Rare opah catch
Opah are also called moonfish because of their oval shape; photo courtesy of Ben Hyun

Ogata finally metered some activity on his fish finder and radioed Hyun. Both anglers then sent baited mackerel to deep water, and that's when the opah struck.

The fish fought so hard that Hyun thought it was "a big, fat bluefin tuna," he said in a phone interview. "Then I saw its bright orange fins and said, 'Oh my God, it's an opah!"

He said in an interview with Phil Friedman Outdoors Radio: “These fish are things that you read about, and see on Yahoo, and you wish you could catch one of those, right? But they're actually right here in your backyard."

Ogata wrote on a Jet Ski fishing website that subduing the powerful game fish with a gaff was no easy task. "It was like trying to hold onto a fright train!” Ogata stated. “It tried to tail dance away three times and I was as spent as Ben, trying to hold onto this monster."

The duo ultimately silenced the opah, and secured the fish to Hyun's Jet Ski with a rope.

"I dragged that fish home at 9 knots from 20 miles out," Hyun said. "It took me forever to get back. It was like 'Wicked Tuna.' ”

The pair also has caught bluefin tuna and dorado, or mahi-mahi, from their Jet Skis this summer.

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