Sitting on the shoreline at Silver Lake up in the high Sierras fishing trout, my kids and I are soaking Power Bait in a light breeze. The wind makes the tips of the ultralight rods twitch, and I get “am I getting a bite Daddy?” every 10 seconds or so. “Patience boys, you’ll know when you get a bite.” It doesn’t work, and one or the other is constantly reeling in to check their bait. Finally I look them both in the eye and say “if you think you are getting a bite, you are not. If you know you are getting a bite, then turn the handle and lift the rod hard.” Even though this went down 300 miles from Catalina, I couldn’t help but think how true this is when fishing for white seabass.
Flash forward to late spring, 2013 at Catalina and I am watching my wife fish with a light lead head couple squid pinned on. We’re sitting on the anchor in 45′ of water outside a prominent kelp line on the back, and she is getting picked at by perch, small calicos and such. She’s swinging on the better of the pecks, and quickly going through the little live squid we have for the day. I step closer, and notice she has her reel in gear while soaking a bait. Time for an intervention.
When fishing for seabass or yellowtail at Catalina, you’ll need to ignore the perch bites. Leaving the reel in free spool while controlling the line on the spool with your fingertips is key to letting the business end of your line go, so perch and small bass don’t steal your bait. Its like working with a roll of toilet paper, if the roll is stuffed into one of those gas station multi roll holder things, all you get is little pieces of tissue torn off because of the resistance, while at home you may get the whole roll if you don’t use two hands. Same principle with a delicate squid on a thin wire hook. Apply pressure or have your reel in gear, and the peckers will rip the bait off every time.
Now deciphering the feel of a perch bite and a seabass bite may sound easy, but sometimes its not. Nowadays with Spectra, short top shots and uber sensitive graphite rods, its easier to feel the difference but it still takes time to learn. To translate the feel of a seabass bite into a tangible reality, try visualizing a big, slow, lazy croaker cruising into a school of perch to check out what’s happening out of curiosity. The seabass circles the bait, then turns and sucks the bait into its big mouth. Almost faster than the eye can see, it spits it back out. On the rod you are holding, that will be a sharp tap or thud, very different than the pecks of the perch. Now that the fish has had a taste he swims around and picks up the bait again. (Don’t worry about whether the bait is tattered and torn from the perch or first seabass bite, he still wants it, trust me.) Now is the time when its most important to be in free spool, because if the reel is in gear you risk pulling the bait out of its mouth or pulling the hook before its in position to hook the fish.
A wary seabass may drop the bait and pick it back up several times before actually eating it. What to do now is thumb the spool lightly and hold the rod tip half way between pointing at the fish and full set up position. Finger hold the spool and lift the rod slowly, to see if it loads up. If the rod loads up, then goes slack, drop the tip and let the seabass have another chance at the bait. If the rod loads up and the fish begins to pull, put the reel in gear, wind down and set him up. This whole process could take a fraction of a second, or several minutes, depending on how good the fish are biting. With little to no current and less than ideal conditions, the bites will be this subtle a good percentage of the time.
In a wide open big seabass bite where many fish are hooked and caught, it becomes almost laughable how everyone notices the little taps before hooking a big seabass. A large school of seabass will, at times, scare off all perch and small pecker/grabbers so you know the only bites you are getting are seabass bites. Still, some of the attention your bait gets feels like the smallest of perch nipping at your live squid.
If you just can’t stand trying to feel the difference between a seabass bite and a perch bite, then a dropper loop or jig/squid combo is for you. Just know that this set-up works way better when the rod is left in the rod holder, in gear with the drag set to fight the fish. Otherwise you’ll swing at every perch bite and go through a tremendous amount of bait. Even worse, you’ll spend too much time winding in, changing baits and dropping back while not having your bait in the zone where it needs to be. Just remember what I tell my boys, “If you think its a seabass bite, its not. Its only a seabass bite when you KNOW its a seabass bite.” When you are sure, then swing away.