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.

 

Stealth Basics

After reading Brandon Haywards “The Local Angler” and how important it is to be stealthy while fishing coastal seabass, I thought a quick guide might be helpful.  Brandon nails it on the head in his description of how different Catalina seabass fishing is than what he is doing along the South Coast.

Generators running and seabass biting at Catalina

Generators running and seabass biting at Catalina

 

At Catalina or Clemente its not nearly as important to be quiet, but it doesn’t hurt when the fish are not biting all that great.  Having the option to go quiet is something every boat needs, and here are a few ideas.

Anchoring quietly is near impossible on a sportboat or bigger yachts, so this is an area where skiffs and small sportfishers have (another) advantage when fishing seabass.  Put a guy on the bow with the chain all on deck when preparing to set up.  When you give him the “nod” make sure he knows to quietly let the chain slip through his hands and not loudly free fall sportboat style.

Hand over hand to be super quiet

Hand over hand to be super quiet

Be sure the boat is idling in reverse, and actually traveling backwards.  Be patient and wait for the boat to start backing, and resist the urge to add throttle create unnecessary commotion.  Dropping the pick with the boat stationary or drifting too slowly may cause the chain to tangle with the anchor.  If this happens you will slide and have to re-set, and there is nothing stealthy about that.

Even before you drop the anchor you’ll need to be careful when picking a spot to fish.  Using your eyes and even a good pair of binoculars is essential to see the life and conditions before you look at things on the meter.  Driving in power circles over a structure spot or hard bottom area looking for seabass marks will spook the fish you are trying to catch.  A quick “one and done” approach is ideal.   Drive up wind and current over the spot and watch the meter for the structure itself, then as you idle forward you will see the perch, bass then seabass and yellows up current of the structure.  Set up on the fish, not the spot!   If you must reset, look at your compass before pulling the anchor and note which way the boat is sitting.  Repeat the steps as quickly and quietly as possible.

These days bait pumps are often mounted directly to the valve on the through hull, making a constant hum that reverberates off the hull underwater.  Try installing a short section of hose from the valve to the pump to isolate it from the valve and the sounds won’t travel as much into the water.  1″ I.D. hose fits perfectly over the often stock 3/4″ male threads on most pump bases.  Just be sure to use a sealant as well as a quality stainless hose clamp when doing your retrofit, and check carefully for leaks when the boat is in the water.  If the pump is mounted to a bulkhead, try using rubber pads or a section of cut clear hose between the hard pump bracket and bulkhead or stringer of the boat.

2KW inverter on a small boat!

2KW inverter on a small boat!

Doing all the things mentioned above and then running a generator is not going to help you (or the guys around you) catch fish.  In fact, its the least stealthy thing of all.  Some amazing advances have been made regarding inverter designs, they are now more efficient and less expensive than ever.  The #1 problem with most inverter installations is lack of sufficient battery amp hours.  6V golf cart style batteries will give you huge battery backup power and are designed to be discharged completely, and recharged without damage.  Standard 12V deep cycle batteries are designed for starting power, not amp hour storage.

a pair of 6V golf cart batteries are the same size as two group 29 deep cycle, but have 3 times the amp hours are are more efficient.

a pair of 6V golf cart batteries are the same size as two group 29 deep cycle, but have 3 times the amp hours are are more efficient.

Don’t let the “Deep Cycle” on the label fool you, these are not the correct batteries for a boat with an inverter.  8D and 4D batteries fall into the category of insufficient, they are starting batteries, period.  Finally, be sure to have a battery switch that separates the 6V batteries from your engine starting battery so you can get home even if the inverter drained your house batteries completely.

Now that you know the basics for how to be quiet on your rig, you must assume that others are not savvy to this approach.  Being super stealthy then anchoring right next to a guy that is breaking all the rules will wreck it for you, so be sure to give a wide berth when setting up in a crowd.  Avoid jumping on deck or slamming hatches, and hopefully the boisterous guy next to you will send the school your way.

It Really Is About The Spots

Don’t let that seminar speaker fool you, spots are as important to him as anything else.  Probably more so than he is leading you to believe.  Almost every target species in our local waters relates directly to wrecks, reefs or hard bottom, even if its a halibut that hides in the sand or mud to ambush its prey.  The vast majority of the ocean floor is a lifeless wasteland, and spending any time fishing these undersea deserts is a complete waste of time, period.

A hard look at this 3D image shows flat areas with no structure, and a few spots.  Knowing these spots is curtail to being a better angler.

A hard look at this 3D image shows flat areas with no structure, and a few spots. Knowing these spots is curtail to being a better angler.

The conditions that make a spot bite are of vital importance, but an angler can catch fish if he is set up on a spot properly even if the conditions are not ideal.  Conversely, fishing in ideal conditions and not being on something that is holding fish will rarely do you any favors.  How often have you fished on a sportboat that had to “re-set” the anchor on a spot, and it seemed like he only moved a few feet?  Yes, it is that critical.

Far off the island this spot comes up to just a few fathoms.  Set on it right and catch bass, yellowtail and seabass.  Miss and catch nothing.

Far off the island this spot comes up to just a few fathoms. Set on it right and catch bass, yellowtail and seabass. Miss and catch nothing.

It can be as critical as having your GPS antenna far away from the fish finder transducer on your boat.  You run over the numbers and the “X” on your plotter, only to look at the sonar and see nothing.  When you do run over the marks you want to see on the meter, you hit “save” on the GPS as if the numbers were wrong in the first place.  Maybe they weren’t wrong?  Maybe, you need to be more aware of where your transducer is in relation to your GPS antenna.

Once you get the fine details of your electronics mastered, its now time to get to know your spots.  I mean, build a real relationship with spots so you know them like you know your Mom.  When your buddy gives you the GPS#’s of a spot that is not all there is, you need to ask the right questions.  “Which way was the current going when you got bit?”  “How high does the (rock, wreck or reef) come up?”  Then, when you do fish that special spot, be sure to take notes to help learn every detail for next time.  Spots that you think you have mastered may have intricacies you didn’t know about, so never assume you know it all.

Being set up properly is the most important thing about any specific fishing spot.  Set up too close and you will be fishing for sculpin, rockfish and small bass, the fish that live in and closely around the structure.  Your target species is typically far up-current of your GPS#’s, so set up accordingly.  For example, when fishing for yellowtail on a wreck you should not even be able to reach the structure with a long cast followed by letting your bait drift back. We’re talking sometimes hundreds of yards when the current is really ripping.  Again, you’ll need to be set up perfect.  10 feet to either side and you will likely catch nothing at all.  A chopped chunk of sardine or squid dropped off the middle of your transom should drift to the structure proper.  If it misses, you must reset.

January 2013 yellowtail caught while anchored perfectly on an island rock in deeper water.

January 2013 yellowtail caught while anchored perfectly on an island rock in deeper water.

 

Shoreline spots along the coast or islands are very much the same, except they are more apt to change over time.  Kelp may die off or bloom, hill sides may slide and change the dynamic of a spot.  Note changes in your log for the next trip including whether or not the fish bit, and where you had to set differently to be in position to catch fish.

Drifting has its time and place, but structure fishing is not it (unless you are fishing deep for rockfish and you do not have the anchor gear).  Chumming is essential to get the fish in the biting mood, and the draw the exotics out.  Drifting makes is impossible to chum effectively.  If you have decided that you hate to anchor, then you have decided you are okay with catching much less fish, especially your target species.

So take the time to learn your spots.  Not only the GPS#’s, but what makes them work.  Anyone that tells you “it’s not that important” is either wrong or not telling it to you straight.  A sportboat captain without spots is nothing more than a boat driver.  Show me a professional fishing captain who’s GPS has gone out, and I’ll show you a boat on its way home for repairs.