Talent

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When I was 15 I was really into motocross.  I had the newest bike with all the aftermarket accessories and matching helmet and gear.  I looked factory, I really did.  Rode every weekend I could, and got the places we visited wired.  Then one trip in particular I got a serious dose of humble pie.  My older sister had a boyfriend that had raced motocross in the past, and he challenged me to a race.  Well, I knew this little track like the back of my hand, and had the latest and greatest everything, so “bring it on!!”.  The boyfriend proceeded to get on my Dads 1970 Kawasaki 90.  A bike with springs in the back for suspension and a metal gas tank.  “NO WAY could this guy even keep up with me”, or so I thought.  He literally dusted me, blew me away.  As we got off our bikes he looked at me and said one word……..”Talent”.  Lesson learned.

These days the fishing industry in my little world has gotten quite competitive.  FaceBook is a daily reminder of just how bad it is, with posts of guys holding fish and comments that can include a solid trashing and photos of one-upmanship.  Simple conversations easily turn into a contest of who has done what and who did it better, probably where the term “fish story” came from.  Embellishments and adjectives abound.  Funny how when fellow chest pounders end up side by side fishing together there is always someone that is having their worst day ever, or so they say.

I escaped competitive team sports, surfing and motocross simply because fishing was more “fun.”  Now I too find myself feeling a bit competitive more than I like.  To really be able to chill out and relax, I’ll need a chair and some Power Bait for some trout action.  Running boats as a hired operator has big expectations, none set higher than the one I set for myself, but do I have the talent?  I have the time on the water, and the been-there-done-that, yet I still fall short of my visions of glory most of the time.  I know as an angler I can’t hold a candle to some of the company I keep, but as an operator I seem to do just enough to not want to throw in the towel just yet.

The big question here is, why is fishing so competitive to me these days?  I was told when I got my Captains License that fishing would become work and not play, but this is over the top.  Have I been sucked into the internet and FaceBook as an alternate reality?  Very possible.  What I do know is this, I stack the odds in my favor as much as possible to offset whatever I lack in actual talent.

You’ve read it all here before.  Leave early, stay late, avoid crowds and so-on.  I take those things very seriously, it makes all the difference.  Having anglers with talent on the boat helps a bunch too.  If I’m going to run the “Fresh One” and Bob Elliott is going to be on the boat, I already have one foot in the winners circle, that guys just plain makes me look good.  I prefer to fish when the weather is less than ideal, simply because its thins the crowd.  Hearing about a bite somewhere is a huge advantage, because that means somewhere else is untouched and can be scouted completely without hassle.

Last few years there has been one thing above all that has helped me to accomplish the goals I set for myself enough to keep me coming back, and that is learning and adapting.  I’d never have picked out a mint colored Tady 45 in a million years, but thanks to the internet I saw time and time again it was a killer color.  For years I put all my effort into the slack high tide for seabass, only to watch the pattern change to the slack low is as at least as good as the high.  Drifting for squid instead of anchoring?  Who knew?  I might not anchor while making squid again until it changes, and change it will.

So I admit I’m not the gifted one, born with enough talent to make it easy.  I still want to catch more and bigger fish than the other guy, but I’m happy to see my buddies do well.  I stick to what works for me until it doesn’t work anymore, then I adapt to what does work, best I can.  Maybe one day we can all line up and figure out who’s the most talented, if thats even possible.  I’ll just sit back and see who wins, unless its in a chair fishing for trout with Power bait.  Oh, I got that wired.  “Bring it ON!”

The Deal With Live Bait

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I spend my winters solving problems on my customers’ boats and a common discussion among all of them is the bait system.  It seems that when the fishing is good during peak season, just about everyone with a private boat has some sort of bait issues.  The misconception is that the bait tank or pump or a combination of the two is to blame.  Logically, if you pay attention to the timing of your bait problems and the coincidence that everyone else is having the same issue at the same time should tell you.  “Its not the bait system, its the bait itself.”

Even the best bait systems can't keep uncured bait alive.

Even the best bait systems can’t keep uncured bait alive.

So lets go through the basic cycles of the live bait that you purchase from one of the many bait receivers along our coast.

A bait boat (purse seiner) looks for bait sometimes miles from the receiver its delivering to for signs of a payload with sonar and surface activity.  When the operator finds a spot of bait, he sends a skiff off the back of the boat with a crew member and one end of a long, curtain like net.  The top is at the surface supported by floats, while the bottom is weighted down.  The skiff circles and so does the seiner until they meet after making a “set” around the bait.  At this point in time, a certain percentage of the bait is mortally wounded by the net, but still very alive.

With the bait contained in the “purse”, now comes the time when they transfer the bait into the bait boat and yet another percentage of the bait is mortally wounded, but still alive.

Now the bait boat retrieves its net for another set or is done and ready to head for the receiver to drop off its load.  The trip back might have dramatic changes in water clarity, temperature or it might be rough.  In each case, along with the ride in the bait boat, another certain percentage of the bait is mortally wounded, yet still alive.

The seiner arrives at the receiver and the bait is transferred, typically through a long tube like you’d see coming out of a trout stocking truck (only larger).  You get the idea now, more bait gets wounded and all that.  What is now in the receiver is the exact opposite of what we call “cured bait.”  Its dying, its going to die (not all of it), whether you let it go, put it in your bait tank, or leave it in the receiver.

The slime coat on bait (as well as most fish) protects it from infection.  The catching process has removed the slime coat and now these fish are on their way to fish heaven, slowly.  Squid is the exception, I’ll get to that later.

Like any retailer that sells a perishable commodity, the best business model here is to sell this bait as quickly as possible.  Like fruit, vegetables and fresh meats, this bait has a shelf life thats about to expire.  For the weekend guy out for a couple hours or the 1/2 day boat with 30 scoops bait capacity that most of which will be tossed overboard as chum, this bait is fine most of the time.  For the more serious overnight and multi-day guys, this bait will simply not do.  It’ll die before morning, nothing you can do about it.  Yea, maybe 1 in ten will survive, as they were the small percentage that wasn’t mortally wounded during the catching process.  They’re not happy being in a tank full of dead buddies that are giving off scales and slime as they lay on the bottom of the tank and die.  There are no refunds for a tank of dead bait, so shop wisely.

After a few days in the receiver, most of the bait that was going to die already has.  After a week whats left is pretty darn good bait.  Two weeks?  Good luck catching a bait with your net.  This one to 2 week old (or older) bait is what we refer to as “cured” bait.  No, it wasn’t soaked in some special curing solution or given antibiotics or something, its just what survived the process necessary to bring live bait to the masses.  Its a part of Southern California Sportfishing and what sets us apart from most of the rest of the world.  We’re very fortunate to have bait receivers up and down the coast, made evident by the despair created when a bait operation is out of bait, or suffers a break down of some sort.  Be cool to these guys, they work hard.

The bad news is…….. There is so much business for the receivers during the summer and periods of great weather and fishing, that they rarely can keep up with demand, yet alone be able to “cure” bait.  Your choices are:  Buy bait and take your chances, catch your own bait, or fish with jigs and artificials.  Frozen squid is a viable option for certain things we do around here too, but it should be of good quality.

Mackerel are hardy and easy to catch all year round.  Tips for keeping this easy are:  Fish mackerel at night and during periods of high tide or incoming tide.  Use the Sabiki style bait catchers with a lighter line and smaller hooks, it makes a huge difference.  Then add a torpedo sinker big enough to avoid tangles when multiple baits are hooked.  Keep a designated “bait rod” handy when offshore, as small mackerel can often be found under kelp paddies and they will readily climb the “Lucky Joe’s.”  Mackerel, squid and other baits caught are basically cured as long as they are carefully handled, and will live in a good bait system almost indefinitely (*see squid exception below).

Kelps are a great opportunity to "tank up" on bait.

Kelps are a great opportunity to “tank up” on bait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lastly, I’ll discuss squid.  Hardy and hard to kill.  If squid dies in your bait tank, you either overloaded it, or you really do have an issue with your bait system.  Once squid spawn they rarely live longer than 3 days.  That red, mean, messy and inky squid either hasn’t spawned or just spawned that day.  The slower stuff, that doesn’t try to bite you as much but still stays on a hook is 2nd day stuff.  The mush, hard to make a long cast with, easy to catch and often plugs up the outlet screens on your bait tank are 3rd day after spawning garbage.  This rapid deterioration is why the high price tag, as live squid is often a bit more expensive per scoop than sardines or anchovy.

Hopefully, I just fixed your bait system and saved you a few bucks.  Use it to put some fuel in the rig and go catch something.  Don’t forget to ask around for what receiver has the best bait.  Trip planning is a key part of the puzzle for those who consistently catch more fish.

 

 

 

 

 

Adapting

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There is this unexplainable phenomenon in fishing where a certain lure or technique that works so well on any given day, or maybe an entire season, does not work at all ever again.  Over the years I have had countless guys pull an old iron out of their box, and with it comes stories of giant fish and stupendous catches.  Yet with few exceptions, it no longer works. When it goes back into the box with the rest of the “back in the day” legends,  the stories go with it.  This is exactly the same way I feel about my past experiences with Catalina Island over the last two years, what worked in the past no longer applies.

Salta Verde Kelp, almost completely gone.

Salta Verde Kelp, almost completely gone.

This spring I noticed that most of the kelp along the backside of Catalina is gone.  Maybe the water temps never got cold enough for the kelp to grow like it normally does in the winter, or more likely that big storm we had in March wiped it out.  Spots, pockets and edges are completely gone, while some new spots are now fishable.  Its not good or bad, its different, but unless you change your tactics and ignore the waypoints in your GPS, its like fishing a whole new island.  How many times have you heard “fish the conditions, not the spots”?

There is one thing I have learned over the last few seasons over all others, patience.  It used to be that I could spot a set of conditions, set up and chum, and catch a fish with a fair amount of consistency.  Bouncing from spot to spot, picking away though out  the day for a limit of seabass, with the halibut, yellowtail and calico bass to fill the sacks.  Last year that was not the case at all, it took time to get the exotics to show and bite.  Patience.

I sat on the East End through one whole afternoon, night and morning to pick at these seabass.

I sat on the East End through one whole afternoon, night and morning to pick at these seabass.

I still take notes on each and every trip, then refine them when I get home in my trip logs for future reference.  Tides, current direction and time of day are key entries for the bites I see.  What is clear to me is that little of what worked in the past, is working now.   Skimming over old notes the early season routine was that the seabass showed up on the West End of Catalina first, mostly mid or deep water stuff.  Certainly not shallow water beaches until the water warmed and the seabass were in full spawn mode, like April or May, at the earliest.  My first good score this year was in very shallow water, just after watching a spot of free swimming seabass that were obviously spawning.  This happened nowhere near the West End.

Very shallow water wide open seabass in April, 59 degree water.

Very shallow water wide open seabass in April, 59 degree water.

Last year I spent too much time following old notes and focusing on the West End of Catalina early in the season.  I knew the fish were down East, but being stubborn I learned a lesson.  Even during the Western Outdoors Seabass tournament I stayed away from the East End, where the winning fish was caught amongst guys that had limit style fishing.  I returned two days later after metering school after school of big seabass on the way to weigh in our smaller grade seabass from middle of the back.

East End wide open seabass, bigger grade.

East End wide open seabass, bigger grade.

Even after a handoff of limit style fishing from Wes that was handed to him from Tony on the “Mardiosa” it took almost an hour to get that first bite.  Patience.

So if the last few years you have struggled to catch exotics at Catalina Island, consider changing your tactics.  Fish new spots, differently, with more patience.  Stay longer, wait it out.  My first bite this year I was actually asleep on the bridge when the fish started biting, and I was not going out of my mind that we needed to be somewhere else.  Anyone that has fished with me before knows how seriously I take things when we have not yet had that first bite from the right kind.  I’ve learned to adapt, relax, and change things up.

While the way I fish Catalina has changed over the years, a lot of it just being the learning curve that never ends, I still see guys fishing the same old ways that worked for them in the past with poor results.  Yes, I pay attention to what the other guys are doing too.  I hear of the frustration, and see first hand how they blame their lackluster seasons on everything but themselves.  Just like that old iron in the box, some things just don’t work anymore.

 

 

And So It Begins

Its March 2014 and time for things to get rolling.  Most are playing the waiting game for the select few to find that first good batch of exotics that want to bite, and that is not such a bad plan.  For that select few however, its the hunt and the find that are the fun part.  There are a few ways things can be discovered, but only one true way to attain that bite of a lifetime all alone.

You just have to go.  Memories from last year, or years gone by send ideas flowing of where to start.  Maybe a glance at old notes or photos triggers this, or maybe you have a favorite early season starting point.  Some may study temperature charts or see signs from shore on a drive down Pacific Coast Highway.  However you end up in that magic spot, whether it be fate, luck or skill, you’ll take it.  Watching that first rod go off with the unmistakable peeling of line off the reel that absolutely cannot be a bat ray or a black seabass sends chills down your spine.  This is the pinnacle of Southern California Springtime fishing, nothing else even comes close.

Other times you may get a piece of information that “feels” right.  A whale watching boat sees a spot of birds working and the Captain tells a few friends.  Or maybe you see a light boat on a spot on your drive down PCH, or a few boats sitting on Newport Reef and decide you might want to join the party.  No matter how alone you are when you fish these spots and catch a few, this is not what its all about.  You missed the feeling of finding it yourself, and there is no way to justify it as your find.  Sorry guys, doesn’t work that way.

This time of year is the perfect opportunity to make something great happen, so why ruin it by calling people and asking for dope or checking the internet for signs, signals, clues or dead giveaways?  Take a chance and put your skills to work.  Anyone can drive a boat to where someone else found the fish, drop the pick and say you are fishing.  That will all come later in the season when every inch of the coastline and our islands are scouted and fished daily.  Take this time and make the most of it, you’ll learn so much more and take your fishing (catching) to a whole new level.

The best part is, this is a school of fish not wary or put down by erratic boats and pressure.  You’ll see your target species bite like you’ve never seen before.  The real trick once you’ve found this on your own is to keep it quiet.  Each and every year there are guys that consistently find these fish all alone and enjoy epic bites for days on end without telling a soul.  Its too good to share, and why would they?  It took lots of long nights and fuel to find them on your own, don’t give it to someone that will blow it up as theirs.

Fact is, its happening right now.  No cheating!  Just go.

 

Reality Check

I have been lucky to know and learn from a few guys who’s name you probably never heard before.  Truly talented anglers that simply have what it takes to catch more fish than you and I, everytime they were on the water.  Humble, secretive and unassuming, traits that now get described as “old school”.  They learned by watching and listening, and expect you and I to do the same.  Puff your chest out and tell the story of the best day of fishing in your life, and you’ll be welcomed with a half smile and skeptical eyes, not one of the hundreds of stories they have that would make your’s sound like a terrible day on the water.

We lost one of these unsung heroes last Sunday, and the only ones not sad to see him go are the fish that have a much better chance at survival because of it.  Way too fast, too soon, nobody was ready.  Multiple lifetimes worth of fishing stories now legend, only to be passed on by the few that saw what he could do first hand.  Imagine catching a marlin just to chunk it up for bait, big tuna bait, and making it work.  Just a sample of what was a common occurrence in this mans time on the water.

“That guy”, who’s pile of fish at the end of a long range trip was astonishingly WAY bigger than everyone else’s, yet he never boasted, bragged or belittled you.  No super fancy gear, sponsorship jerseys or matched set of custom rods, the guy you’d think might need your help at the beginning of a trip.  First guy up, first guy bit and last one to bed, always without a single complaint.  Rusty hook goes into a perfect bait cast further than you with older gear and he’s bit again.  He looks at you and you are hooked up, and you might get a smile, or a wink.  With that new fancy this, and state of the art that, you land that fish.  What you may never know is that he landed 3 while you were hooked up.  They’re laying on the deck, bleeding, and he’ll get them later when the bite slows down.

These guys may go to a seminar, because its about fishing and they love fishing.  They might read a book for the same reason.  They do not write books, give seminars or have websites.  No phone calls to get GPS #’s of where someone else found fish, or visits to pay per view websites, they just go and get it done quietly.  As operators they have a secret fish finding sense that I cannot identify, they will not talk.  The angler we just lost had enough work for the crew to do at any time that it was tough to look, listen and learn.  Maybe it was on purpose, maybe he just ran a tight ship.

I attended the funeral services today along with enough others as to overflow the mortuary out into the hall, standing room only.  In that room I saw many of the men I describe above, all sad to see this one gone.  Guys I have fished with side by side and been humbled time and time again.  I opened my ears, and closed my mouth.  There is not a story I could make up that these guys have not actually lived, and there was not a single fishing industry logo to be found.  We all stood in shock, listening to words being spoken of a great fisherman no longer with us, together, alone, sad.  The man in the casket was not just one of the few, he might have been the end of an era.

The Ultimate Plastic Fantastic

Its not often I endorse anything, if ever at all.  Its come to my attention that this particular bait is being somewhat overlooked, and its the best of the best.  Scores of lure manufactures are scrambling to pour new baits and strike it rich in our small marketplace, but this one is head and shoulders above the rest as far as results.  It works for calico bass, maybe better than anything else ever.  It also is a favorite for rockfish and sheepshead, yellowfin/bluefin/albacore love them too.  Want a hot bait for halibut, nothing tops it!

Not available in stores, but you’ll need to visit your favorite tackle shop for rigging supplies. This bait can be rigged weedless and tossed deep into kelp and structure without tearing. It can be fished drop shot method too, with great success.  Remember the “Flying Lure” infomercial from a while back?  Well, this bait can do that too!!!  Amazing, right?  So versatile, this bait can be fished for almost any saltwater species from surface to the deepest depths for swordfish.

So effective its not even allowed in the professional saltwater bass tournament circuits, it seems they want less effective baits to level the playing field and get guys searching for reaction bites instead of feeding these bass what they really want.

These baits can range in price from very expensive to absolutely free, and that depends on you and how bad you want it.  Have you guessed it yet?

When you are done throwing an artificial baits trying to coax a fish to eat something unnatural, with tired arms from casting and not from pulling on big fish…………………

Stop and fill the bait tank with some live squid.

*Note* This was meant for comedic and entertainment purposes only, and was not meant to threaten, insult, belittle, discredit or otherwise piss anyone off.

Being Thankful

Things have changed in our world making it easier to focus on the negative.  The internet has given people a place to voice their opinions for a large audience, and its rarely positive.  Complaints about bad service on sportboats, the absence of albacore for the last few years, the MLPA’s and a host of others.  So I thought maybe this being Thanksgiving and all, it should be a time to look at what is good in our fishery.

Most can remember when a tank of candy bait was a rare and special treat.  Nowadays, or at least during this current cycle, live squid is more common than sardines at the local receivers.  With advances in electronics making it easier than ever for just about anyone to run a boat at night, the squid is around for those who want to catch their own too.  When things change in our cycle and squid becomes a rarity more than commonplace, we will all miss it.

The frenzy created by a good score on the albacore is undeniable, but look at what we have instead.  The bluefin moved in, especially this year and we had some incredible fishing for these hard fighting and excellent eating tunas.  Remember the last time you went albie fishing and the guy next to you caught a bluefin?  You wished it was you right?  Well, enjoy that we got them so good this year and we even had regular shots at the bigger models.

Local sand bass summer spawn bites are a blast from the past these days.  We maybe get a week or two of it now, and it pales in comparison to bites we’ve seen in years gone by.  While there is some evidence that some sinister acts may be preventing these migratory fish from ever getting to us, we need to be thankful for the big seabass that moved in and bit on the Huntington Flats for nearly a month this year.  A 30# seabass was small, and croakers to 50+ were the talk of the town.  Who would not trade a seabass for a sand bass?  You know I would.

We had a substantial volume of marlin moved into Southern California waters this season after a 3 year hiatus.  Some were saying they were gone for good, but history has shown that the cycles of striped marlin in our waters ebbs and flows since man first put pen to paper and kept track of such things.   While trolling endlessly for marlin may be boring for some, the dorado and yellowtail on the kelps made it really worth staying in the glasses all day.  We were very fortunate to have this and not have it be an El Niño warm water event.

While the internet does allow us the freedom to speak our minds about things in this world we are unhappy with, and that in and of itself is something to be thankful for, we should also be thankful for the things we do have.  Fish for what is biting, instead of complaining about what isn’t.  This Thanksgiving I am especially grateful to have such a loyal following of this site, and my ramblings.  The fish reports will be updated when something new happens, and get back to everyday next season.  I am thankful for the time away from it now.   Have a very Happy Thanksgiving guys, and tight lines.

Boat Work Season

With a great season behind us, its time for boat work, and getting ready for next season!

With a great season behind us, its time for boat work, and getting ready for next season!

The days are shorter, and air is colder and that itch to get your boat out and catch a fish is beginning to fade away.  Admit it, mentally you have a list of things you know need to be addressed, and you are putting it off until after the first of the year.  You performed on the water feats of MacGyver magic all season long to keep that rig running, including the use of duct tape and bailing wire as bandaids.  You know its true!  As Thanksgiving goes by, then Christmas, that mental list will fade, and your pride and joy will take a backseat for a few months.  Then comes that day you get the call, “the fish are biting”, and you ready your gear for an early season seabass trip only to find out the hard way the boat didn’t fix itself over the winter.  I’ve been in the marine industry 30 years, and trust me, its a very common tale.

For my Captain On Board clients I leave a spiral binder and several pens at the helm for a “punch list”.  Every glitch in the electrical system, rattle or creak, window leak, vibration or maybe an idea for an upgrade goes on that list.

Fresh bottom paint should be applied at least once every 3 years.

Fresh bottom paint should be applied at least once every 3 years.

Right now is the time to go over the punch list and prioritize it, then get to those repairs!  Slipped boats need to come out of the water for a fresh coat of bottom paint, shafts pulled and checked and dinged props repaired or replaced.

Time for some TLC

Time for some TLC

 

 

Shipyards are slow this time of year, as everyone puts this stuff off until the very last minute.  Perfect time to call around and negotiate the best price for shipyard services.

 

Once back in the water its time for maintenance.  Change fluids and filters, replace zincs and check batteries.

Replace batteries BEFORE they go bad.

Replace batteries BEFORE they go bad.

 

Plumbing that looks like this should be replaced.

Plumbing that looks like this should be replaced.

Look at the dates on the batteries and decide if this is the year they need to be change out.   If the batteries are 3+ years old, consider changing them before you end up stranded far from home.

 

Consider changing 12V bait pumps every season.

Consider changing 12V bait pumps every season.

 

 

 

Go through all the plumbing on the boat, tightening hose clamps and checking hoses for cracks or signs of deterioration.

 

 

Bait and washdown pumps should be checked and replaced now instead of when they break and leave you with a tank full of dead bait.

 

 

Proper stress crack repair is a full blown glass job.

Proper stress crack repair is a full blown glass job.

A thorough clean and wax job will put your eyes on every inch on your boat.  Work from the top down and note every crack and ding, these too should be repaired this time of year.

 

 

Replace leaking portholes.

Replace leaking portholes.

Leaking portholes and windows may seen like a nuisance but that water is doing more harm than good.  Some can be sealed with the window in place, while others may need to be removed and re-bedded to to make a good seal.  Portholes may need to be replaced completely.

 

Go through your anchor gear and check connections, the condition of the rope and chain and tighten shackles and swivels.  Service your anchor winch, or add one if its on your wish list.  Maybe that anchor winch is slow and unreliable, so its time for an upgrade.  Right now is the time.  No doubt by doing all this before the holidays, you can come up with a few things to add to your Christmas list you just can’t justify treating yourself to.

Anchor winch upgrade to the latest and greatest.

Anchor winch upgrade to the latest and greatest.

 

Here at Captain On Board we do big boat projects all winter long, and like every year our schedule fills fast.

COB does re-powers.

COB does re-powers.

All the things our clients can’t do themselves or simply don’t have time for, we gladly take care of.  Engine re-powers, complete rewire jobs and major painting projects, we do it all.  I am available for anyone that wants to contact me for advice or a lead on parts/materials all winter long, but if you want something done it’ll have to go on the 2014/15 schedule, because we are booked solid again.

Contact me, Captain Jeff Jones at: captjeffjones@gmail.com.  If you are stranded and need to get going, try my personal cell phone at: 1(562)704-9545,  24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  First and foremost here at Captain On Board, we are Captains, and know you need to get going as soon as possible.  Most of the time I can get you underway just by helping you over the phone, so don’t be afraid to call.

Southern California Rockfishing

Typically when I plan on writing an article I do a trip and take the photos, then get into writing armed with current photos to add.  In this case, there are just too many anglers confused about the regulations so I am doing things backwards.   I have always enjoyed fishing for (and catching) rockfish, and today with Spectra it can be done with light gear allowing anglers to feel every nibble and enjoy the battle all the way to the surface with the high gear ratio reels available.  While an article on how to target more and bigger rockfish may be on the horizon, this is aimed more at spelling out the rules we must follow in a way that is easier to understand than the CDFW website, http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/mapregs5.asp

Basic rockfish season now runs from March 1st through December 31st, so on New Years Day if you want rockfish you’ll need to head below the US/Mexico border, being sure to have all your proper documents in hand when you return.  In US waters you will need to know that rockfishing deeper than 300 feet is against the law, unless you are targeting sand dabs which have no limit on size, number of hooks you can use to target them or amount you can take.   It would be wise to fish the sand dabs before heading to your favorite rockfish spots, as being in possession of rockfish while fishing in waters deeper that 300 feet could cause you some problems with the DFW officers if you were boarded.

While targeting rockfish know that 2 hooks is the maximum allows at a time for each rod, again staying within the 300 foot depth limit.  Salmon Grouper no longer have a size limit and the limit you can have in possession is 3 per angler.  Sculpin you can keep 5, and the size limit is 10 inches, sheepshead 5 also with a minimum size of 12 inches.  Cabezon need to be at least 15 inches with a limit of 3 and their cousins the lingcod need to be 22 inches with a limit of 2 per angler in possession.  All cowcod, canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish are protected and must be released.

Bag limits are the confusing part so read carefully.  You can keep 10 rockfish total, with no more than 3 salmon groupers and cabezon included.  This is called the RCG complex and excludes sheepshead, sculpin, whitefish and lingcod.  You may keep a limit of each of these in addition to your 10 rockfish and all the sand dabs you want.  Now the limit becomes a total bag of 20 mixed fish in possession per day per angler of the fish listed above, with all the sand dabs you want on top of that.

Now we add the cowcod conservation areas to the mix and it gets even more complicated.  These are special areas set aside to protect the cowcod from being accidentally hooked and brought to the surface, where its virtually impossible to release them effectively.

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While fishing in cowcod conservation areas the deepest you can fish is 120 feet unless you are targeting sand dabs.  Special restrictions are placed on what you can have in possession and is limited to Sculpin, lingcod, sheepshead and whitefish.  If you catch any of the other rockfish outside the cowcod conservation area then move into the boundary and get boarded, you may have a hard time explaining yourself, so best to avoid that situation.

There is more to fishing rockfish successfully than simply driving to a waypoint and dropping to the bottom.  Things like surface and subsurface currents, bait and artificials,  tides and time of day and all the gear involved.  Like anything else in fishing, a very small percentage of anglers do far better than the masses using some special techniques and knowhow.  That in and of itself, is a whole book worth of information.   For now, you are now armed with the information you need to head out confident you know the regs.

Always check the link I provided above before you go rockfishing, as the CDFW watches how many of each species is caught through sportboat and commercial logs, and may close or alter the fishery at any time.

 

Wrecks and Reefs

While one may find a squid nest over sandy bottom that is holding fish or spawning sand bass out in the mud, there is no denying that the bulk of the fish we target is around structure.  Nowadays with super detailed chart plotters and books filled with GPS numbers for spots up and down the coast, its easier than ever to drive to (and over) just about any kind of structure your heart desires.  Wrecks, reefs, rocks and rock piles all available to those willing to do the homework necessary, with very few secrets left, if any.  That hard part is knowing what to do when you get there to maximize your efforts.

Big bass, WAY up current of the wreck.

Big bass, WAY up current of the wreck.

A wreck will hold scores of different small fish types and crustaceans that are the forage for larger predators.  It has caves, holes and crevices that make great ambush points for these fish we target, but fishing right in the wreck is not always the best plan of attack.  If there is very little or no current or the water is cold, then that may be a great time to fish your baits right in (or as close as you can get to) the wreck.  Fish like sculpin, sheepshead and lingcod rarely venture far from their holes right in the structure, so to target these in any conditions you’ll want to place your bait in harms way.

Critters that live right in the structure

Critters that live right in the structure

Other fish will be more active and may travel further up current than you’d expect when they are in feeding mode.  You will see this in warm water or when the current is really ripping.  Its at these times that your opportunity for a good score is best, but most fall short by fishing the wreck itself and not where the fish are.  What?  Let me explain.

Even on a cold January morning, this yellowtail was way upcurrent of the reef.

Even on a cold January morning, this yellowtail was way upcurrent of the reef.

 

When a strong current washes over a reef or wreck the food begins to flow over the spot and the little critters come out to eat what is coming their way.  Predators follow, and join in the bounty.  Perch, wrasse, mackerel, smelt and more swim directly up current of their home to snatch any and all little bits of food the current is bringing.  Its a competition, survival of the fittest, and the ones that get the furthest out get first bidding.  The bass and exotics follow, often being the more aggressive of the whole biomass.  So when you drive over your waypoint be sure to drive up current and watch the fishfinder carefully.  First you meter the spot, then the bait and small critters, then the perch, then finally the bass and bigger fish.  Do not turn around and set up on the wreck, set up on the fish!

Mid summer with warm clear water and lots of current this could be 100 yards or more off the spot you have on your GPS.  With a perfect anchor job the wreck or reef will be directly down current of your transom, something few guys can do properly.  Add some chum to the feeding frenzy and what you get is some really good fishing.  Think about it, how often have you seen the bigger fish like barracuda and yellowtail boiling off the bow?  This happens on sportboats and private boat alike.  Pull the hook and reset further away from the spot, meaning fish the fish not the structure.  Sounds easier than it is, and it works on kelplines along the shore at our local island or coastline just the same.  A kelp bed is just another type of reef.

Eagle Reef, Catalina.  This bass came way off the kelp to eat a live squid.

Eagle Reef, Catalina. This bass came way off the kelp to eat a live squid.

Something you will see if you set up perfectly as described above is another boat will come and drive over the spot you are fishing, thinking you are “not on it”.  Then you get to cringe as they drop the anchor right on top of the spot.  For those of you who did not know why we ask that you never drive behind and anchored boat, this is why.  Someone properly fishing a rock or reef will be a ways up current from the spot where the fish actually live, and by driving behind them your are seriously disrupting the bite.

Do NOT do this!

Do NOT do this!

 

Some simply do not like to anchor and have no intentions of chumming at all.  The calico bass guys are one such group, and they too could pull some truly big bass out away from the wreck if they followed this philosophy.  Fish the fish, not the spot.  Not to say that the calico bass guys do not catch some really big bass with plastics right on the reefs, but they should see some of the giant bass I’ve caught with a flylined mackerel WAY out in front of the spots they fish.  Crack of dawn bite on a big bait, big bass boils on the surface under the birds and I come tight.  Nothing better.  Try slow trolling a bigger bait up ahead of the spot when conditions make it impossible to set up correctly.  The results can be astounding.  Just remember that the bigger bass and exotics are up current of the structure, and fish the fish, not the spot.

Bigger yellowtail on a slow trolled live squid, again, way ahead of the reef.

Bigger yellowtail on a slow trolled live squid, again, way ahead of the reef.

 

Fish Food

Not much saves the day like a good meal when the weather is bad or the fish don’t bite.  Hot breakfast burritos are great hand warmers on cold mornings, and a fresh salad can cool down the burning pain of a days worth of wind and sunburn.  All of this is well and good until a poorly planned meal cuts into serious fishing time.  Plan accordingly for bad weather and cooking appliance malfunctions with backup food that is easy to prepare.

Practice recipes at home for an easy home run on those days when the fish don’t please your passengers.  Eggs can be cooked ahead of time and frozen with good results, especially when made into a burrito or casserole.  Noodles for spaghetti can also be cooked ahead of time so boiling water isn’t on the stove in rocky seas.  I like to make breakfast casseroles with precooked ingredients then tightly wrapped in tin foil for the oven, just make sure your dish actually fits in a boat oven!

Avoid things that need to be prepped by doing them ahead of time.  Salads can be pre made in disposable dishes to keep things easy, burgers can be precooked, and so on.   Leave complicated meals for a day of the trip when you know you will be in a marina or on the anchor in calm seas, it just makes sense.  All of these tips work for any boating trip, whether it be a cruise, delivery or sailing adventure.  For fishing trips I think its even more important to have backup plans when it comes to the menu.

As a Captain I really get frustrated when its time to catch squid and someone is making a big meal.  There is almost nothing worse than having the squid almost ready to crowd when the breaker on the generator blows due to an excessive load from the galley.   Please make dinner before or after I have done my job, thank you.  Offshore trolling for tuna or marlin in the early morning I especially dislike when someone comes up to the bridge to ask me to “please run downhill so we can cook breakfast?”  Let me get this straight.  We ran all night for a 100 miles to be on the fish and you want me to drive away so you can make breakfast?!  C’mon guys!!!!  Make me a Pop Tart, really.

Sandwiches work for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Want to get fancy?  Do a lettuce wrap with a pre-made curry chicken and cashews, or a tortilla wrap with pre-cooked bacon and avocado.  Just because the boat has a galley does not mean you can cook in it on a fishing trip.  Long distance sailboat racers have this down to a science with frozen casseroles and vacuum sealed meals that just pop into the microwave.  As much as I hate to admit it, we have a lot to learn from our wind loving brethren.

In closing I will list a few things I have seen on boats over the years that just make my life easier.  Get a coffee pump, like the ones at your favorite coffee store and set the coffee pot to do its thing long before the anchor gets pulled.  Make the joe, then put it in the pumper with a nice bungee strap so it can’t spill.  Then serve coffee in short cups with lids to keep spillage to a minimum.  Chicken soup works good in these pumpers too, just fyi.  Bring enough food for the entire trip than does not need to be cooked, just in case the microwave does not work for some reason or the weather is horrible.  Also, some foods can be heated on the engines exhaust manifold with the use of some tin foil.  I grew up working on a boat where this was a common practice, and we had some great meals.

I wrote this because I just got off a couple of trips where the cooking was a hindrance to the fishing, and I see no point in it.  While running uphill as the sun set I had just come into warmer water with birds up when a guest came up the ladder and asked me to “turn down hill while the water boiled for the spaghetti.”  I had no choice but to oblige, but now I know to add that to the departure speech when we leave for every trip now.  “Life jackets are here, fire extinguisher is there and PLEASE NO COOKING WHILE I AM WORKING!!!!!”

I can’t believe I actually have to tell someone that……..

Private Boat Bluefin

Bluefin and Dorado on deckOf all the tunas we encounter here in Southern California, few are as hard to catch from a private boat as the bluefin tuna.  This in one of the fish that sportboats have a serious advantage targeting, utilizing side scanning sonar and heaps of live bait capacity to chum with.  Bluefin can be caught on the troll, but not nearly as easily as yellowfin, albacore or skipjack, so some special techniques must be used to maximize opportunities for these hard fighting exotics.

It all starts with some pre-planning.  Sea Surface Temperature charts (SST’s) are vital in all offshore trip planning, and knowing what water your target species lives and feeds in helps.  Bluefin like what we would consider the cooler water, from 64 to 68 degrees.  Being able to regulate their body temperature allows them to tolerate even cooler waters, but catching them also means finding the bait they are feeding on.  For that you’ll need edges or “current breaks.”  Armed with a little intel on where bluefin have been caught in the last couple days and a good SST chart, a guy could find the break and have a starting point in mind.

Next and probably most important is bait.  Research this ahead of time to find out what receivers have the best bait available.  This year live squid has been working excellent, and is a hearty bait that lives well in almost all bait systems.  When the fishing is good and near the weekends it may be hard to rely on the bait receiver, so catching your own is another option.  A strong, healthy bait makes all the difference when fishing bluefin, and anything less seriously hinders your chances at success.

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On a sportboat the trolling rotation is more of a routine than the necessity it is on a private boat.  To improve your odds, use lighter leaders to elicit strikes and utilize plugs and spreader bars often not allowed on overnight boats.  These trolling lures require some tuning and patience when deploying, but work better than your typical feather on heavy leader.  The natural cedar plug works well for bluefin, but will need to be re-rigged on lighter fluorocarbon leader to really shine.  Experiment with lure positions long and short to find where the tuna want to bite, and often bluefin will take a trolled jig way back.  When a strike occurs be ready to get a live bait in the water as fast as possible, and toss a few baits over as chum.

Breaking Tuna

Use a good pair of binoculars to find signs that the tuna are around and stay in areas with life and clues they are around.  Slick spots on the surface of the water tell a tale of fish feeding deep and the oils rising to give away this action.  Troll over these and watch the fish finder for tuna marks, and toss a few live baits as chum when you do see meter marks.  Watch for birds giving signals of feeding tuna, and look under the birds for boils, splashes or breezing fish.  If you see good meter marks or have tuna come up and boil on the chum you have thrown, stop and fish that prime live bait you have.  Be patient and do long soaks, as bluefin prefer a bait far from the boat at times.

Kelp Paddy

Finding a kelp can be a great way to catch bluefin.  Wind in the trolling outfits and begin a drift up wind of the paddy, throwing chum as you slide by.  You may catch yellowtail or dorado closer to the kelp, and maybe even get the tuna to bite.  Most often the tuna will bite after you have drifted a ways past the kelp and the yellows have stopped biting.  Continue chumming one’s and two’s and be patient.  Make sure to have fresh baits on but at the same time leave your bait out as long as its swimming good.  If you see boils and/or meter marks, consider starting the boat and just “bumping” it in and out of gear once.  This will push the chum hiding under your boat out and to the waiting bluefin, possibly starting the bite you have been waiting for.

Big Fish Light Gear

30# is a great all around starting point for live bait but don’t be afraid to drop down to 25# or even 20# if you know the fish are around and just can’t get them to bite.  If they bite the 30# fine and are hard to land, move up to the 40#, 50# or 60# as needed. Bluefin pull hard, and quality tackle is a must for these bruisers.  One secret used by great anglers is the use of small hooks.  If a 3/0 hook matches the size of the bait but bites are hard to come by, try a #1 to see if it makes a difference.  It usually makes a big difference, and with a quality hook you can still land a high percentage of the fish that bite.

If you are lucky enough to hook and land a bluefin on a private boat, special care should be taken to preserve your catch.  Bleed bluefin right after gaffing but cutting the gills and making a cut on either side of the tail.  This will drain the blood line along the body and yield more quality meat.  You may want to gut the fish and stuff ice into the body cavity, but a good ice chest with plenty of ice mixed with salt water works wonders to cool these warm blooded tuna quickly.  When one bite ends and you go looking for the next one, consider filleting your catch between stops and packaging it for the ice box.  This will not only give you the absolute best quality table fare when you get home, but a chance to make some fresh sashimi on the way in.  Just be sure to have some wasabi and soy sauce on the boat!

Grip and Grin: Some Tips on Taking Photos with Your Prized Catch

Photos keep the memories of a great trip alive forever, especially when you landed that fish of a lifetime.  Nowadays with digital cameras and computer programs that let even those with novice level skills make great looking photos, you still need to get a great shot to start with.  When its time for the “grip and grin” on one of my trips, guys get a little frustrated with me and how particular I am about how they hold their fish.

“Its not about deception or trying to make the fish look bigger, its about balance and composition.”  I tell them.  “Wash the blood off the deck and the fish, and turn it the other way so we don’t see the gaff mark.”  After saying these things I get dirty looks and heavy sighs.  Amazing when a few days after the trip I send them that one photo that came out just right they admit its as important as I make it sound.  Take the time, and you just might get that wall hanger or magazine cover shot you always wanted.  You will forget what a pain it was to take the time and get the perfect shot in the end.

Try to take the photo right after the fish was caught to preserve the vibrant colors and true emotions of the angler, and get an interesting background.  While is admirable to try and hide your secret spot, the fish won’t be there in a week so go ahead and get it in the photo.   Don’t be afraid to have two or more people in the photo, as faces make a picture more interesting.  Be aware of things that create shadows like the boat or hats and vizors, but even some of those things can be tweaked when editing.   Try to hide your hands and arms, as they are not interesting and might make a big fish look smaller than it really is.  Remember:  Right hand/right gill……..Left hand/left gill.  This will keep your hands from either being twisted backwards or in front of the fish.   Experiment with angles and depth, as a straight up and down fish looks flat and lifeless.

 

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Face blended in with the background, fish has blood all over it and my hands really show how small this 10 pound seabass really is. No way this picture is going on the wall or any magazine.

On a recent trip I grabbed one of the small seabass and had Joe Davis take a few shots to show how most photo poses make for less than desirable results.

Another common failure.  Zero balance with the fish sticking out to one side, and my hand is on the wrong side of the fish.  I get this pose quite often and guys simply do not understand what I mean when I say "No, put your hand on the other side of the fish."

Another common failure. Zero balance with the fish sticking out to one side, and my hand is on the wrong side of the fish. I get this pose quite often and guys simply do not understand what I mean when I say “No, put your hand on the other side of the fish.”

 

Getting better, but still an epic fail.  My left hand is behind the fish, and that is where its supposed to be.  This is not a photograph of my hands, its of a white seabass.  My right hand is on the left side of the fish, ruining everything that might work with this photo.

Getting better, but still an epic fail. My left hand is behind the fish, and that is where its supposed to be. This is not a photograph of my hands, its of a white seabass. My right hand is on the left side of the fish, ruining everything that might work with this photo.

Now here is the same fish, caught the night before.  I did not take any special steps to wash the fish or smack the sides to bring back the color.  I simply held the fish in a balanced way, and made sure the background did not take away from the details, yet still adds composition and makes it more interesting.

 

This is a close as one can get with a 12 hour old small fish.  Hands hidden, symmetry and interesting background.

This is a close as one can get with a 12 hour old small fish. Hands hidden, symmetry and interesting background.

 Now take the time to get good shots and you’ll be happy with the results.  I purposefully used a small seabass that was not a great candidate for a good photo as an example of what a difference it makes in how you hold your prized catch.  Add the rod and reel, other anglers and better lighting on the face, and the odds of a great photo just get better. To get one good shot I take hundreds of photos.  This is meant as an example of how to improve the odds of getting a “wall hanger”, so imagine if this fish was still alive and much bigger!  First things first, you still need to get out and catch a fish worth taking a picture of.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Make a Crowder Net

A crowder is arguably the best way for a private or charter boat to make squid.  It consists of two parallel poles with a net attached between the two.  The net is is all the way down the poles at the end that goes in the water, the other ends are the handles.  Typically done with two guys, on smaller rigs it can be done solo with a smaller crowder.

One size does not fit all.  Sportboats and yachts may deploy crowders with 20′ poles and 10’X10″ nets, while private boats will do better with 8’X8′ or smaller nets and 10′ to 15′ poles.  Its important to pick a crowder that matches the size of the boat its going to be used on.

The custom part of any crowder is the bag, or how deep the pocket of the net is.  A flat net tied between two poles is nearly useless.  Too deep of a bag and the crowder will be too hard to lift through the water, and may reach under the boat and wrap the props or rudders.  Its a truly custom deal, from one boat to another.  One goal you will want to achieve when making a crowder net is to make it so the net is still in the water when the poles are set down and the handles are in the cockpit of the boat.  Having the bag still in the water makes it much easier to braille the squid out after crowding squid.

Squid in the crowder with the poles set down in the cockpit of the boat.  Notice the squid is still in the water for easy scooping.

Squid in the crowder with the poles set down in the cockpit of the boat. Notice the squid is still in the water for easy scooping.

Once you have decided how big of a crowder net you want for your boat, you’ll need to make a jig.  It needs to be high enough off the ground for the bag depth you want, and the exact dimensions for your crowder.  In the photo below, the jig is 8′ wide (pole to pole) by 6′ long.  It will have a 4′ deep bag in the water.  Keep in mind that the net will stretch more in the water that in your shop.  I like the bag of my crowder to be more at the bottom of the net, so I set up the jig in a way that will help me achieve this.  No need for the crowder net to have bag at the top in my opinion.

Crowder jig

Crowder jig

Next stretch the netting you want to use over the jig and use nails, staples or zip ties to attach it.  It takes a while to adjust the netting into the shape you want.  Don’t worry about areas of bunched up netting, it will all come out straight when you sew the edges.

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You will have two straight edges, a side and the top.  I stapled those edges first, then began to adjust the netting to make the bag.  Be patient, its trickier than it looks.  For the bag itself I place something in the net to hold it in shape so I can see how its going to come out.  For this crowder net I used two Nerf footballs.

 

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Now take the cord you plan on using for the edges and thread it through the netting, using the jig as a guide to keep the lines straight.  I used a bamboo skewer as a fid (sewing needle) and tape the cord so it has nothing to snag the netting.  At the corners leave some slack and tie and overhand knot making a 6″ loop.  You will use this loop to attach the crowder net to your poles.

Tuna cord with fid attached.  Tuna cord is smooth and has little stretch.  Butt cord is rough, making it hard to pull through the netting.

Tuna cord with fid attached. Tuna cord is smooth and has little stretch. Butt cord is rough, making it hard to pull through the netting.

 

 

 

Be sure to run the cord through every hole in the netting, and pull enough through so you can go all the way around the crowder net.

Be sure to run the cord through every hole in the netting, and pull enough through so you can go all the way around the crowder net.

Once you get to the bag end of the crowder net on the jig, take special care to use the jig as your guide.  If the net is properly set on the jig, this will define your bag.  In areas the net will be bunched up, but you still need to sew the cord through every hole in the net.  At the end you will have the tuna cord pulled though all 4 sides, with knots tied at each corner.  Each corner knot should have enough cord hanging off to use for tying the crowder net to the poles.

How I do the corners.

How I do the corners.

 

Sewing the bag edge of the crowder may take hours.

Sewing the bag edge of the crowder may take hours.

 

 

 

 

Now you can cut the excess netting off the crowder.  This should only be two sides.  Be sure to leave enough outside the cord you ran through so the net does not break at the cord.  The excess will be sewn on to the cord in the next step.  I use a simple soft nylon cord or string, smaller than the tuna cord I used to outline the crowder shape.  Sewing the net to the cord is the longest and most detailed part of the process, and takes hours or even days sometimes.  Do not rush this, as it defines the quality of your crowder.  Soft line is easier to pull through the netting and around the cord.  You’ll thank me for this advise.  Again, I use a bamboo skewer for the fid.

Pass the fid (smaller cord) through the inside of the crowder net around the tuna cord and over the outer edge of the net when sewing.  I make three turns along the cord, then do a half hitch and repeat.  At the corners, tie the smaller cord to the tuna cord to finish a side.

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1st pass….

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2nd pass…….

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3rd pass…..Now tie the half hitch.

 

 

 

 

At the 1/2 hitch, go through where your last pass is.

At the 1/2 hitch, go through where your last pass is.

 

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Finished crowder net

Finished crowder net

Continue to sew the edges all the way around the crowder net.  On the sides and bottom I like to make two passes, going in opposite directions.  This makes a strong criss-cross pattern in the sew.  I sew only one side and finish the ends of the side, instead of trying to sew the entire crowder with one pass.  It would simply be too much string to pull through with each stitch.

Now the the crowder net is finished, you’ll need to attach the net to a set of poles.  Something strong enough for the nights when there is a lot of current and you need to rest the poles on the side of the boat and lift, without breaking the poles.  I like fiberglass poles, the extruded kind.  Some guys like bamboo, or even fiberglass gaff blanks.  Be sure to leave about 2 inches of pole below the crowder net for less tangles at the tips.  Refer to the “How to Make a Gaff” article on this site for the way I like to tie things to fiberglass poles, its exactly the same.

Netting can be found on the internet.  Try Memphis Net and Twine or Nylon Net Co.  I have some netting I got from a koi pond store that is intended for covering ponds to keep critters out.  Its nylon and durable, but harder to push through the water than mono.  Mono is very fragile, and hangs up on everything.  When you begin to crowd squid and the mono netting hangs up on a screw in your rub rail, you risk tearing a hole in the net.  Take special care to tighten all screws and remove anything that can snag the mono netting.  You will also need to make a cover to protect the net from snagging and sun damage.

I go back and forth between mono and nylon on my personal crowders.  I find that mono glows next to an underwater light, and sometimes scares away spooky squid.  For this crowder its what I had in my shop at the time.  Guys will tell you that mono is easier to push through the water, but I think the difference between mono and nylon is so slight, you will hardly notice.  If the net is too hard to push through the water, its typically because the bag is too big.

You can expect it to take a minimum of 3 whole days to make a crowder from start to finish, not including the time it takes to get the materials.  For this reason, crowders are expensive to buy.  If you know the dimensions you want and the bag depth, one of the companies mentioned above might make you a crowder net special order.  In the past I have done this with mixed results.  They will charge you an arm and a leg unless you order several nets, the extras you can sell to your friends.

Good luck!