Anglers and crew aboard a Southern California half-day boat were astonished last week to see what the captain had reeled from the depths: a stunningly gorgeous moon-shaped denizen with a speckled body and bright-red fins.
It was an opah, a species more commonly found in tropical and sub-tropical waters much farther offshore. Opah catches are rare off California, and extremely rare in coastal waters. To have landed one of these pelagic beauties from a half-day boat, within view of the shore, might be unprecedented.
Capt. Jeff Patrick of the Western Pride hooked the 125-pound opah on a sardine at a depth of about 250 feet, while on a rockfish excursion out of Davey’s Locker Sportfishing in Newport Beach.
The “mystery fish” was so feisty that he thought he had hooked a shark. The fight lasted 45 minutes and at one point the captain contemplated cutting the line because the rockfish had stopped biting and he wanted to relocate to a more productive area.
“I couldn't get any line [back on] this fish,” Patrick told Phil Friedman Outdoors. “I tried to pass the rod off to a deckhand because I was getting tired, but he walked away and said do it yourself.”
When the fish finally came to within view, Patrick realized that he had something special on the line. The opah’s tender white flesh is considered a delicacy in Hawaiian seafood restaurants.
There is no commercial fishery for opah, largely because the fish do not travel in schools. But they’re occasionally caught by longline fishermen targeting tuna, billfish, and sharks in tropical and temperate waters. Most U.S. catches are in Hawaiian waters.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program advises consumers to avoid opah caught internationally because of the indiscriminate and destructive nature of longline fishing.
But Seafood Watch lists U.S.-caught opah as a good alternative to imported opah because U.S. longliners “have made great strides in reducing interactions in recent years through changes in regulations and modifications to longline fishing gear.”
Said Patrick: “I've been doing this for 30 years and it's the biggest fish I've ever caught. It's the fish of a lifetime, a real blessing.”
–Note: An interview with Jeff Patrick about the opah catch can be heard on Phil Friedman Outdoors Radio