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.

 

 

California Yellowtail

With all the discussion these days about small yellowtail being caught and kept I though I would do my best to research the subject and weigh in my feelings.  I really thought I would find facts proving that these “rat” yellows spawn at a young age and grow really fast, to support my belief that keeping these smaller fish was justifiable.  Turns out there is little known about California Yellowtail compared to other fish we love to target in our area, and what is available is not exactly what I expected.

These fish grow fast at a young age and are 3-4lbs at year one, but their growth slows considerably as they age and at 5 years old the average yellowtail is approximately 16lbs.  Most spawn in their 2nd year while all spawn in their third year.  This means that all of these small yellowtail caught on kelps have not yet spawned, something that surprises me and changes my opinion more than a little.  Yellowtail broadcast spawn meaning that they gather in groups and males release sperm in the water with the eggs from the females.  Spawning occurs from May through September, right when we are targeting them.  Armed with this information I am now puzzled with the apparent health of our yellowtail biomass.  On all fronts the scientific community rates the California Yellowtail population as “healthy”.

Another thing that got my attention is the amount of eggs deposited by smaller yellows in comparison to the larger ones.  3 to 5 year old yellowtail spawn just once per year, releasing about 458,000 eggs while their larger cousins spawn multiple times per year and its more like 4 million eggs!  Obviously the large yellows are carrying the weight of the responsibility for the species.  Good when you think of how smart the big boys are, and its healthy that the next generation gets the genes of wise yellowtail.

California yellowtail populations live primarily in Mexican waters most of their lives, and a low percentage migrates above the border during warm water seasons.  The record large yellowtail caught in California was 80lbs (caught in 2001) and the record in Mexico was a whopping 92.1lbs (caught in 1960).  While a ten year old fish will typically be around 35lbs, no California yellowtail has ever been aged at over 12 years.  So how old were the record fish, and how old do they get?  I found no answers.

Interestingly, these fish grow decidedly faster in warmer water, so a resident Catalina yellowtail at 25lbs may be 10 years old!  On years such as this one where a large volume of small yellowtail migrate into US waters there is some that stay at our local islands and coastline for the rest of their lives.  Tagging studies have shown that these fish migrate very little once they get here, staying local and living the rest of their lives within miles of one area.  At least 3 different species of the yellowtail family exist in the Pacific, and scientists agree that more may be discovered if more research is done.  No data was available on the Southern California resident population and its spawning habits.

In past years (1954) yellowtail had a high commercial market value for canning but that is ancient history.  Today recreational catches far exceed commercial catches, another fact that caught me by surprise.  Drift nets (gill nets) account for the bulk of the total commercial amount of yellowtail caught each year, and those nets are set to target white seabass and barracuda (thats what it says!).  Commercial rod and reel catches are surprisingly high actually, but don’t even touch the amount captured by nets.  No real shocker there.

I never have had a problem admitting I was wrong, and this is just another case of that.  What I wanted to find was facts leading to me preaching from my soap box about how catching and keeping small yellowtail is legal and the fishery sustainable.  While the latter seems to be true with the information I found, and obviously the legal aspect is accurate, I have no soap box to stand on anymore.  These small fish should be released whenever possible, and I will make an effort to do so.

Now if I was running a boat that had traveled long distance on substantial amounts of fuel I might change my way of thinking when that first “rat” comes to color.  But the mass destruction of “limits for all” is something I have changed my mind on.  I still believe in peoples right to do their own thinking and certain freedoms for all (within the limits of the law).  I will change my ways based on the data I found this evening, and let you decide for yourself.  These fish gather offshore in groups to spawn this time of year, and we are taking advantage of that and disrupting the cycle of life.  They are fun to catch, and while fishing for these small California yellowtail we have the opportunity to catch something worth really getting excited about.  They taste good too.

What will you do the next time you find a kelp loaded with “rat” yellows?

 

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.

 

September Seabass

Amazing how a good group of guys can change my old habits and feelings about how I do things professionally.  I got an e-mail from a very nice girl that wanted me to take her boyfriend to Catalina and teach him what I could in a day.  With the clients I already have I never thought I would be able to make the time for a new one, and frankly I just don’t have the desire to jump on a boat full of strangers anymore.  Its hard to explain why, I just struggle with it.  Maybe I am just getting old and cranky.  Often there are high expectations I just can’t meet, or my expectations are too high and the clients are not willing to make the effort.  Well this last trip showed me that there are still guys out there that are capable of being nice, having a great time and fishing hard all at once.  It was a very tough trip as far as the fishing goes, but one I will not soon forget.

First guy on the dock at 5:15am turned out to be a guy I went to high school with.  We knew the same people and shared some history in the dark while waiting for the rest of the group.  When the deck lights finally came on, we both realized we knew each other and it was the perfect ice breaker.  Whew!  One by one I met all 6 guys and there was not a bad attitude amongst them, but that did not change the pressure I feel to find fish every trip.  Even my wife does not see the stress I hold inside until that first fish hits the deck.  I take what I do very seriously, but try not to show it because I know when it rears its ugly head   its not pretty.

We loaded up on bait and headed across in nice seas, discussing our game plan.  Being a Saturday I wanted to go around back and get away from the weekend crowds, hoping to find something that had others had missed.  We found perfect conditions at the East End of Salta Verde Kelp, a strong uphill current that held the kelp down so far that we could not see it at all and clean green water.  We had to reset to get on it right, and started picking away at the bigger bass.  While I expected to hook a yellow at any time, it never happened.  Soon we were surrounded by a couple other boats and had to move, looking up the back before heading back down East for the current change.

We then set up at Orange Rocks on the inside.  If it had been June or July we would have caught a seabass, but on this day it was just a batray bite.  Nice conditions and a current switch, with no bites from the right kind.  Then to the East End for more mackerel than we could afford to lose bait on, then to K20 only to get run over by Joe’s Rental Boat tourists.  Frustrating.  A drive by at Hen Rock showed me what weekend fishing in the summer at Catalina is really like, with no less than 12 boats all fishing a 2 boat spot.  So up the front we went in windy slop to get up to the squid grounds.

Once in the Isthmus we anchored on Eagle Reef three times only to drag anchor each time.  Let me say here that I made the mistake of not bringing frozen squid for chum, so we had none.  Armed with some frozen to chop, I would have made more of an effort to fish the reef, it looked good.  Now getting late and the bottom of bait tank very visible I decided to swing for the fence and set up just inside the squid nest at Lions head.  I metered around patiently until I found a spot of seabass in 11 fathoms.  I spun around and they were gone.  Spun again and there they were again.  Dropped the pick and started catching mackerel, too many mackerel.  We were running out of bait and time now, and I was sick to my stomach with pressure.

We hooked a mystery fish that I still think was a yellow, lost it,  then caught a batray hooked mid water column.  Expectations were falling when we hooked another fish that looked like the right kind but the angler was convinced it was another ray.  He joked and played until it came to color, then he was all business.  First seabass of the day on the deck with the sun now behind the island.  Finally!  Then we hooked one and lost it, then got another.  The bait tank was looking empty.  The meter was lit up with worms and if I had some chum to throw I would have thrown it all.  We had a triple next of all bigger models, and got one out of it, a gaffer on the bow that wanted to wrap the anchor line.  All bites from bigger fish from then til the bait was all gone, which did not take long.

They started small and got bigger...

They started small and got bigger…

Finally!

Finally!

Smiles all around as we left the island, mission accomplished.  I gladly filleted the catch for this group that fished so hard all day, and never gave up hope.  Bryan Wheeler, the boat owner and birthday boy drove the boat home, exhausted.  It was darker than the inside of a cow, and he impressed me with the way he ran the boat.  Smart guy.   I plan to soon visit Bryan’s business, “Wheeler Speed Shop” in Huntington Beach, as I hear its worth the tour and he is very good at what he does (the boat shows it).

We all learned a lot from each other and new friendships forged.  New fishing spots, how to hook a bait and cast a mile, and how to stick with the game plan into the late innings.  As always I learned the most, and on this trip I learned that there are still nice guys out there that want to fish hard while not taking it so seriously as to make it not fun.  Thanks guys and I appreciate you all dealing with me and my stress until that first seabass was in the box.  Long ass day, but I am sure glad it ended with a huge bang.

Great group of guys.

Great group of guys. Home late but well worth it. If we’d only had a little more bait………..

Sickening Wide Open Seabass

Me and Scott hooked up!

Me and Scott hooked up!

While making the move from the middle of the back last weekend with our one fish to weigh for the Western Outdoor News Catalina Seabass Tourney, I noticed something interesting.  Very good conditions along a stretch of the island, and solid seabass marks for almost a mile.  We did not have the time to stop and fish it properly, but did make a few halibut drifts while I took some mental notes.  I knew I had to get back and on this stuff before the world found out, and I did.

Ryan Slob!

Ryan Slob!

Monday morning I called Mike Mundy with the 38′ Uniflite “Mundy Mooring” to see if he could go.  He is a member of the Avalon Tuna Club and the Southern California Tuna Club, and I knew both had the coveted 1st White Seabass flags available.  Mike could not go, so I called Bob Elliott, owner of the “Fresh One.”  Bob knew I would not call if I didn’t think it was good, so he made it happen.  We could not go that day, “can we go tomorrow?” he asked.  It was the best we could do, and I had to accept that.  Turned out to be a good move.

"Fresh One" owner Bob Elliott, happy he took the day off I think.

“Fresh One” owner Bob Elliott, happy he took the day off I think.

I got down to the “Fresh One” about 8am with an ice chest filled with frozen squid for chum.  Bob rounded up his fishing buddies that could take off work and they were due to arrive at 10am.  I checked the engine fluid levels and the generator.  I prepped the boat and was ready and waiting when the group started to arrive.  Everyone was excited, and I don’t think there was a doubt in anyones mind it was going to be good.  We just didn’t know HOW GOOD it was going to be.

Walt getting it started.

Walt getting it started.

We topped off the fuel tanks and headed over.  I ran the boat a little harder that I usually do, but was afraid the Darryl on the “Marie Claire” might sell the bait he was holding for us.  I was in no hurry to fish, as I felt it was a late afternoon/evening bite.  I was mentally prepared for a sundowner, but we did not have to wait that long.  When we came into the area, the “Mardiosa” was hooked up and picking away at the fish.  We looked around for not much, watching Tony closely to see when he would finish up (with limits).  It took a while and Tony called in the “Options” for a clean handoff.  As Wes slid back I saw he already had one hanging.  NICE!  These guys had paying customers on board and for sure had priority to get it done.  We waited patiently.

Walt Ryan and Scott proudly posing with our score.

Walt Ryan and Scott proudly posing with our score.

Even if Wes had not called us in, I still would have moved and set up on that spot.  While Wes was on it we could all see the bite building.  It was getting closer to bite time and the fish really waned to chew.  Wes had to deal with a seal so it took him about 45 minutes to an hour to finish up and start heading for home.  When they hooked their last fish, Wes signaled us to head over, and we did.

Scott and Ryan.  I love this photo and how it shows the true size of Ryans SLOB!

Scott and Ryan. I love this photo and how it shows the true size of Ryans SLOB!

Our transfer was not as smooth as the one between the “Mardiosa” and the “Options”.  I did not mark a single fish for a long while after Wes left.  Anxiety began to set in, as we chummed hard for about an hour before getting our first bite.  Walt was on the bow and hooked the first fish, but before he had his fish to color we were all pulling on fish.  He called for the gaff and I yelled “you will have to gaff your own buddy, we are all a little busy.”  A couple fish fell off and I grabbed my camera.  When we finally got the last fish for limits, only about 20 minutes had passed.  Ryan got the big fish so a couple of us released the 30# models that were lip hooked and very releasable having been caught quickly on heavy tackle.  We were in skinny water so releasing these fish was a snap.  We could have caught and release for ever, but called it quits when the 5th fish (last for limits) hit the deck.

You know its good if I can get a bite.

You know its good if I can get a bite.

I have seen it that good 3 times in my whole life.  Anything you dropped down was bit instantly.  You hear of guys getting bit on 80#?  These would have bit 100#, easy.  In the Video you see Bob getting his fish, then Ryan hooking one right under the boat.  It gives you an idea of just how good it really was.  Enjoy.

Click this link to watch the video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fk3YQ2Fx6iY

FreshOne

 

Light Line Old School?

Abu Garcia Revo Toro with matching Volatile Rod.

Abu Garcia Revo Toro with matching Volatile Rod.

Some serious advances have occurred with the tackle today, leaps and bounds really.  Reels have butter smooth drags that last and last, fluorocarbon leaders and Spectra have changed the way we fish completely, yet some things remain the same.  All this wonderful technology means nothing if you never hook a fish.  To get that fish you are targeting to bite you need to pick that perfect bait, make a long cast and use all your senses to make that opportunity into a reality.  The question is, when you do everything right and don’t get the bite, then what?

You drop down in line class, that’s what.

Yellowtail on light line.  Braid cut the kelp to get this fish.

Yellowtail on light line. Braid cut the kelp to get this fish.

There is a whole new generation of anglers now that read that last sentence and cringed.  What with all the fancy reels with smooth drags and teflon/boron composite super rods that make fishing almost unfair, why not?  Did the reel manufacturers make these state of the art drag systems for fishing 80#?  Yes, the new gear is capable of fishing heavy line but it really shines when you fish the lighter stuff.  With heavy line you don’t even need drag, so why the dirty looks when someone breaks out the 20#?

Whether you are on your own boat or a charter, everyone wants to catch lots of big fish.  When the moon and the stars align perfectly and that once in a lifetime wide open ripper happens you can break out the broomstick with 100# and put the wood to them.

 Break out the 80# when they are chewing!!!

Break out the 80# when they are chewing!!!

How often does that happen, really?  Most of the time we are just trying to get picked up, and land that one big fish for a snapshot and bragging rights.  Finding that perfect leader that is neither too heavy to get a bite, or too light to land the fish is what you are looking for, and it may change from spot to spot, minute to minute.  That is why we have so many different outfits and not just the one with 80#.

Spectra brings light line fishing to a whole new level.  65# braid is like fishing 20# mono in both feel and line capacity.  Its not uncommon to see calico bass guys with high tech gear that looks much like the freshwater largemouth arsenal on steroids with 65# or even 80# braid.  Then add in the abrasion resistance and low visibility of fluorocarbon leader and “presto”, its a whole new ballgame.  That does not automatically mean you will get the same amount of bites on 40# as you would on 20#.  The whole package with 20# fluoro is still miles ahead of an old school outfit with the same line in mono.  You have less stretch, more pulling power, kelp cutting capabilities and abrasion resistance far beyond what was available only a few years ago.

What is missing today is anglers that actually know how to fight a fish from bite to gaff, therefore we get guys that insist on fishing the heavy lines.  More than ever I see guys take that $400 rod with all the technology and point the tip at the fish and grind away, wondering why the fish spit the hook halfway to the boat.  Lift your tip!  The fish did not get away, you lost it.  I can see why charter boat Captains are screaming at passengers to “fish nothing less than 50!!!”  They are sick and tired of putting the boat on the fish only to see most of what is hooked, lost.  It all comes down to a lack of talent, period.

When you hook that big seabass or yellow on a kelpline and it gets its head down and swims right into the kelp, loosen the drag.  Let the tackle do its job.  The braid will only cut the kelp if its moving, you’ll need to let the fish run and tire before you begin the tug of war.  Even then its more of a seesaw battle, with you pulling for a while, then the fish pulling for a while.  Its the back and forth of the braid on the kelp that does the cutting, while straight pulling hard causes heartaches.

Light line seabass.  This one went right into the kelp, and came out after a long seesaw battle.  Heavier line never got bit at all.

Light line seabass. This one went right into the kelp, and came out after a long seesaw battle. Heavier line never got bit at all.

 My grandfather used to call this, “playing the fish.”  He’d say it while fighting a 120# bigeye on 25#, then my Uncle would gaff it.  We’re talking Penn Jigmasters with plastic spools.  I can still hear the “THUD” of the fish hitting the deck, time and time again.

Its become a common conversation for me, some guy saying “why would you even use 15# when fishing for seabass?”  I find myself in defense mode when its the guy pointing the finger that needs angling lessons.  I’ve driven the boat for a lady angler that got a striped marlin to the boat on 6# for a tag and release.  (We got that fish in 27 minutes)  Most angling clubs don’t even recognize anything caught with line over 30#, and the Tuna Club of Avalon encourages its members to fish with linen line in 3 and 6 thread sizes (like 6# and 15# respectively).  At last years Avalon Tuna Club Seabass tourney I caught a 22 pound seabass on 6 thread linen, and didn’t even place in the top 10!

22lbs on the Avalon Pier.  Fish was caught on 6 thread linen.

22lbs on the Avalon Pier. Fish was caught on 6 thread linen.

 

 

Not much ever changes back to where it was, but light line fishing is being seriously overlooked these days.  With the hotbed of young kids today out making a name for themselves through websites, videos and social networking it sure would be nice to see one take on the challenges of light line angling skills.  I can hook and hand seabass and yellows on 30# all day and most get gaffed, but when I hook one on 12 or 15#, its mine.  I tie good knots, test them all and lift my tip.  In the end, its me getting the typical “grip-n-grin” photo taken with a fish heavier that the line it was hooked on.  The guy taking the picture probably never got a bite, and was fishing 40#.  Fishing seabass on 50# is like fishing trout with 20#.  Tie good knots and learn how to actually fight a fish and use the tackle to its full potential.  You’ll not only hook (and land) more fish, but have way more fun doing it.

36# seabass on 15# fluoro in shallow water.  No problem.

36# seabass on 15# fluoro in shallow water. No problem.

 

TIps and Tricks

On each and every trip I do I pick up something new from a client, and I’d like to think they learn something new from me.  A new knot, or a trick that makes private boat life, just a little easier.  Some tricks are even more amazing, and help solve major problems.  The most common thing I run into is when a client has been misled in some way, and I can set the record straight with some common sense explaining.

Bait do not need lights to live.  In fact, the light in your bait tank is for your enjoyment, just as the window is.  The bait receivers in San Diego that cure sardines for the long range boats use boxes with lids to cure the bait.  Slots in the tops of the boxes are so the bird shit can be washed off, (and maybe even for feeding the bait), not to let the light in.  Really serious private boat guys paint the insides of their bait tanks black or dark blue, and keep a cover on the tank when traveling.  Fin bait will take on that darker color, and swim hard when hooked and cast out to hungry gamefish.

To feed your bait, either when kept in the bait tank of your boat for a long time or in your private receiver, you can use corn meal.  Blood works great as well, so a cutting board bait tank lid can do wonders for your bait while you are filleting your catch throughout the day.  The blood of the fish you are cutting will drip into the tank, and your bait will eat it.  Cool huh?  If the bait in your receiver is so strong that you can’t catch it with the dip net, try throwing a handfull of cornmeal and net them as they come up to feed.  Works every time.

Squid do not need to be fed, and can not be kept in the tank or a receiver for long periods of time.  Why?  Because when they spawn, they start to die like salmon.  You can prolong the life of your tank of squid (and prevent some of the eggs that clog the drain) by placing a live bass in with the squid.  I personally have not seen a bass eat bait while in my tank, but don’t tell the squid that.  The amount of eggs in the tank will be far less if you put a bass in the tank, but I honestly don’t know if other fish work.  Mix sardines and squid, and the squid will eat the sardines.

A dropper loop is a type of rig where you have a sinker at the end of your line, and a hook dangling a ways up.  Its very common and used for everything from rockfish to yellowtail.  The problem is, a traditional dropper loop knot is a 50% knot at best.  Try tying a spider hitch to double your line (you’ll end up with a big loop.)  Simply cut the loop so you have a long line, and a short one.  TIe the sinker on the long line for dropping straight down, or tie the sinker on the short line for what is called a “reverse dropper loop” for drifting.  The spider hitch is a very good knot, much better that the traditional dropper loop knot.

Speaking of dropper loops, they are also killer for seabass.  At Catalina the perch, mackerel and other grabbers may frequently steal the squid off your hook.  Instead of a torpedo sinker, try tying on a white iron (jig) in place of the sinker.  Seabass will eat the jig without bait on it, especially when they decide to really bite.  Yellows too.  This way, you can fish two rods and if you get tired of changing the bait on the dropper loop, you can feel better about being less attentive with that rod.  I have caught many a seabass and yellowtail at Catalina with an iron with no bait on it, dangling near the bottom with the rod in the rod holder.  Another tip, it works great for rockfish too!

Another handy tip is the green stretch wrap from Home Depot.  You’ll find it where the moving and packaging supplies are.  This stuff works great to wrap your rods for traveling, or to keep that crowder net from blowing in the wind on the way back from a trip.  I love this stuff, and it never ceases to amaze me how often I use it.  Things on the boat that “tap” or “rattle” in the night can be secured with a couple wraps of this miracle plastic.  It replaces duct tape, if that’s even possible.

When its cleanup time a pump sprayer will save you time, and your clothes from bleach spots.  Again, at Home Depot you can find these small plastic pump bottles in the garden department.  Fill it with straight bleach (or your favorite squid ink dissolving solution) and pump the handle.  Simply spray it around the cockpit where needed and give things a minute to work their magic.  Scrub the tough stains then rinse.  At least you’ll ruin a few less shirts this way, as regular spray bottles will send a mist into the air and onto your clothes.  I’m sure you know what I am talking about.

Releasing rockfish and black seabass is discussed endlessly but the answer is so simple.  Lifesavers.  Yes, the candy slash breath freshener can actually save a life.  They dissolve in a short amount of time in the water, so all you have to do is tie a hook that will rust away onto a rig with a heavy sinker and place the hook in the fish’s mouth, and drop it down to the bottom.  When the Lifesaver dissolves, the fish is free, and back to the depths it came from alive and well.

I could go on and on now that I’m on a roll.  Ever set up on a small wreck and miss by just a little bit?  Next time this happens, try turning the rudders so the current will swing the boat into position.  I swear, it works.  The more current you have, the more dramatic it is.  Works with outboards and outdrives just fine too.  No more resetting for little misses.

I have many, many more.  I will write another article about different tips and tricks when its time appropriate.  Just remember to be open minded, and willing to learn something new. I love learning new, easier ways to do things almost as much as showing someone a new easier ways I was shown or figured out on my own.  Operating a private boat is hard work, so why not try something new that makes things quicker, easier and more enjoyable.

 

 

Deciphering the Code

Believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear (or read on the internet).  At no time in history has this been more true than now, and in regards to fishing reports it’s the gospel.  So how does one take the information available and use it to their advantage?  First of all, you have to actually have some intimate knowledge of the area being discussed, and fish often.  There is just no way around that.

A very high percentage of fishermen have this total inability to resist telling others that they caught a fish, but where exactly is often as elusive as the size of the fish exaggerated.  To find the truth behind the lies one must ask the right questions and connect the dots.  “What time of day did you catch it?” and “which way was the current going at bite time?” are excellent questions to catch a liar in the act.  Another is “so, how was the weather?”  The real trick is, not to tell the information provider that you think they are lying and shut down the conversation completely.

Using Catalina as an example, those three questions can nail down the details you need to at least get you to the right end of the island, and front or back.  Again, being personally familiar with Catalina you would know that the West End and East end are very different on most days, and the answers to the 3 questions above would easily tell where the storyteller was.

Having a code group of guys that frequently give you intel also helps tremendously.  This is a “give a little, get a little” cooperation.  Train them well to keep their eyes open for every detail of their trips, and to report back as soon as they return even if their trip was less than productive.  Then, when you read an internet report that a boat caught 20 yellows but the spot where they were caught is questionable, you can ask other guys in your code group if they saw the boat posting the score.  Not just specifically where they were (or weren’t), but “which way the current was going”, and “how was the weather.”  Now you can start to connect the dots.

Another piece that is of vital importance is the “when” because if a bite happened 3 days ago at Catalina then it is most certainly over now.  That is  your clue to “go the other way.”  Nothing worse than fishing yesterdays news, a day late and a dollar short.

TIme of day helps when you have a tide chart handy when getting reports, as a school of fish can be tracked on what tide they’ve been biting on.  If an internet reports says that a bunch of seabass were caught at the V’s early in the morning and the tide was low, you can deduce that it is a false report because the East End back of Catalina rarely bites on a low tide (and bites on a downhill current, typical in the afternoons).  Nothing in fishing is “always or never”, so take that with a grain of salt and base your investigation on current bite trends.

“Silence is golden.”  A few really stealthy guys refuse to give up ANY information when the fish bite, but are super chatty when they are in swing and miss mode.  Call these guys often and find out when they are fishing.  When you don’t hear back you can expect that they found some fish that wanted to bite.  From there you can take the above information and begin your investigation.  Someone saw them, and their silence is the clue you need to know it’s time to start making some calls.

Like anything else with fishing, time on the water and turns of the prop are more valuable than all other things combined.  Avoid the trap of old timers that talk the talk, but no longer walk the walk.  Things change and getting your intel from these old salts can be very misleading.  Their ability to connect the dots has faded because of a lack of current time on the water.

Fishing information is here to stay, so the competition to provide the best intel is fierce.  There is more than just money at stake here, there are reputations.  Fighting it is like fighting taxes, you’ll never win.  If you find a spot of fish that wants to bite and expect to keep it a secret the best thing to do is not tell a soul, but don’t make that your tell.  Like any good poker player you’ll need to be aware of the clues you give, and know when others are trying to get you to make that mistake.  Otherwise just tell the truth, that you had a fun trip but are keeping the details to yourself.  Pure honesty, even if you don’t divulge any facts is admirable.  Just don’t lie, because the clues will give you up every time.

One thing that is heavily disputed is the ownership of said information.  The person who actually found the fish owns the intel, but can lose it by simply keeping it a secret or telling lies.  “How is that possible” you ask?  Simple.  By not owning the intel and telling the truth, others trying to decipher the details may actually stumble onto the school of fish without the finder saying the magic words “and don’t tell anyone!”  If I got a call that the fish were biting at a certain spot, at a certain time using a specific technique and the Captain told me to keep it quiet, I could actually run interference and keep it safe.  Someone else calls me with a guess that is correct as to where the bite it, I would use some tactful redirection. Simply put, by being deceptive, you lose your rights to the spot and the fish.  I see it happen day after day, as guys try to be secretive and go back the next day and wonder “how did everyone find out about this?!”  Tell the truth to the guys that control the flow of information, and this will happen much less often.  Then if your intel gets out, you have someone to hold accountable other than yourself.

 

 

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.

2013 Catalina Seabass Forecast

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Everything changes, and last year our seabass fishery changed dramatically.  While I poured over logs and notes from years past, I was left scratching my head trip after trip at Catalina last season.  On the coast we saw seabass bites that re-wrote history books, and the fish that should have been at Catalina seemed to gang up in mass at the Channel Islands.  There were seabass at Catalina, but not any bites that resembled what we’d seen in the last 10 years.  Has something fundamentally changed?  If so, this forecast will mean next to nothing.  Only time will tell, and I for one, am hoping things get back on track.

Free diver seabassFree diving spearfishermen have given me a wealth of knowledge, information and insight to what is really happening before most bites start.  While most rod and reel fishermen have forged a philosophy that these watermen are mere pests, I embrace them.  Not wanting to don a wetsuit and get in the water myself, I get the details of our underwater environment from these guys and learn things impossible to know with just a fishfinder and sonar.  Since 2009 I have been getting early reports of seabass from the divers, and most of the time it turns into a bite after I get the intel.  Interestingly, the seabass move into an area where the free divers can target them, but when they bite they are not doing what helps the spearos get their shots.  This means the intel I get from spearos comes BEFORE the bite, and this helps immensely.

For as long as I have kept logs and notes the first seabass catches each year have occurred along the Palos Verdes peninsula.  This can happen as early as December but typically from January to March.  Astonishingly, this area gets looked at much less often than further away Catalina Island.  When I get the call that a spot of seabass have moved into Palos Verdes, I know the ball is rolling and soon they will be at the island.

Breakwall sized seabass

Breakwall sized seabass

While a few of the smaller fish show up along the Federal Breakwater just weeks after the first reports come in from the Peninsula, the bulk of the fish apparently swim to Catalina’s  West End.  Unless weather and wind are a major factor like in 2011, you can expect to find the first really good scores to come from spots like Johnsons Rock or West Cove.  In what I would call a normal year this happens in March or April.  Historically the first really good go-around happens in March during the Fred Hall show.

 

April 2012 seabass at Catalina

April 2012 seabass at Catalina

Last year there were signs that things were off kilter early on, but I would not have guessed that we would have such a tough season at Catalina.  This year I see nothing out of the ordinary and am really hoping for your standard seabass season.  Not to take away from last years epic bites at Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and even Santa Barbara Islands, but Catalina is my backyard and I want my seabass back thank you.

While the air and water are still cold right now, its not abnormally cold or late like this time last year.  Free divers have seen a few seabass along the Palos Verdes area already, and all the signs are looking like a normal year.  It’s my hope (more than prediction) that the seabass will make the migration to Catalina on schedule in the next few weeks, so sometime in early March.  Fred Hall is from March 6th through the 10th and the show falls during a prime new moon phase.  The fact that I will be working the show further solidifies the chances of a huge bite at this time.

One thing that will be different this year is the yellowtail fishing.  I hooked and landed a smaller grade yellowtail this year in the beginning of January, and I have little doubt that this is a holdover from our great kelp paddy fishing this past summer season.

January 4th, 2013 yellowtail

January 4th, 2013 yellowtail

I suspect that we will see that there is some real volume of these smaller yellows, and over the next few years these will grow into the home guards we all want to have around.  Past El Ninos have deposited large numbers of small yellows at our local islands, and in the following years we enjoy great fishing for the forkies.

So with what looks very much like a normal pattern in 2013, I predict a seabass season more like what we are used to seeing.  What happens along the coast in another matter, but I hope our coastal tanker fishery continues to grow.  If nothing else, having bites in more than one area will thin the crowds a little, as that is the one huge downside to a typical seabass year at Catalina.  If the one abnormal aspect of this years season is less drama and good fishing, I will be pleasantly surprised.

Which Way To Go

Captain Nikki

 

All eyes are on you, and so is the pressure.  A group has gathered to join you on a fishing adventure and you are the captain for the trip, so you better find some fish.  Whether it be friends from work, your family or your fishing buddies, if you make the right call you might be the hero that day and in stories that are told again and again.  Make the wrong call and you may never live it down.  The pressure can be overwhelming.  Here are a few tips to stack the odds in your favor.

Do your homework.  Before finding out where the fish are biting, be sure to look at all the other factors that come into play before making a game plan.  Safety first, so assess the skills and limitations of your group and plan accordingly.  With a group of beginners or kids, you may not want to plan a trip far offshore or to where heaps of talent and patience are required.  Look at the weather, which is easier than ever with all the weather sites available today.  Obviously know the vessel you will be in charge of for the trip and don’t get everyone excited for an adventure that exceeds it’s capabilities.  After all these things are considered you can now focus on the fun stuff, where the fish are.

There are many types of fishing information and most guys focus too hard on the “what” and the “where”.  The answers you are looking for as a captain come when you ask the questions “when” and “how”.  What time of day did your target species bite?  What was the bait, lure or technique used to catch said target?  Simply driving to where some fish were caught yesterday will often make your group into frustrated spectators instead of hard core killers.  With a little experience (or maybe luck) you might take the intel that it “was a morning bite” and look at a tide chart.  You find that the tide was high when the fish were caught, so it may be the high tide you want to fish and not the morning.

Maybe there wasn’t a bite and you are just planning a trip to a favorite island, which way do you go?  This is a question that agonizes captains each and every day of our fishing season, of everyone’s fishing season.  Some spots or areas have little or no back-up plan, meaning if your target species is not biting on your trip you will have nothing else to fish for.  These are often referred to as “Hail Mary’s”, and good communication with your crew is essential before making such decisions.  Be sure to tell your guests that there is a chance they will catch nothing, but if the fish bite it will all be worth it.  Overbuilding expectations can sabotage even the best intentions of any captain.

Certain areas are more consistently productive than others, but with that comes crowds that can ruin the fishing, and your trip.  When planning on heading to say, the East End of Catalina, do so on a weekday rather that a crowded weekend to avoid the drama.  When a weekend trip is planned, look at areas that have had few or no reports in a long time.  These areas when left alone may hold the mother lode and finding yourself the captain in a wide open bite, without a boat in sight, will make your group sing praises.  The same result can come from sitting in a crowd, wailing on big fish while the rest of the fleet watches.

So now comes the moment of truth, the decision is in your hands.  Which way to go?  The answer will never be an easy one.  You may never second guess another Captain again once you realize how difficult this decision really is.

Crew Trip! Catalina Island

Every once in a while I get a call from someone that has put together a trip sounding so fun, I just can’t pass it up.  A lot of it has to do with who will be on the trip, and this trip included a cast of Captains, watermen and really fun guys.  Taylor is an old friend and his boat partner Richard used to be a Captain for Bongos back when I ran the RailTime.  Richard’s guest Bryan turned out to be one hell of a hot stick on this trip, and Taylor’s guest Tommy did a tour in the Coast Guard.  Finally we had Ryan Simmons, another old friend from Seal Beach that has this super high energy for fishing that is truly contagious.  All six of us “good on a boat”, you just can’t beat that.

Making a decision proved difficult, and comical.  We were all so willing to concede any responsibility that no one would actually take command of the trip.  “You want to stop and get some fin bait?”  “Whatever you guys want to do.”  It went like that the whole trip.  We actually woke up Nacho and then decided not to even buy bait.  I had brought along one of my COB underwater lights and there is squid right out from of the harbor, so we opted to catch a quick tank of squish.  As always, catching squid is a real crowd pleaser, and everyone on the boat got involved.  With tanks full of squid and buckets of fresh dead we headed for Catalina, still not able to come up with a game plan.  With everyone on board still so excited after making bait, we were going fishing, not sleeping.

First stop was the middle of the front.  The wind was blowing and it wasn’t until we were tight to the island did we feel a little of the effects of the lee.  I metered along the rocks to find a spot of bass, and be close enough so the guys could get in the water for a lobster dive.  Finally the anchor went over the side, and Tommy, Richard and Taylor suited up while Ryan and I got to work trying to get the bass to bite.  The bass did not bite wide open,  but we did pick away at straight legals.   For the boys diving lobsters they had the opposite luck, lots of shorts and just a handfull of legals.

From there we headed up to Eagle Reef to get some sleep.  There were 5 squid lights boats there and one of them was sitting right where I was thinking we would anchor for the morning bite.  I picked a second choice spot and we all got a little sleep.  By now it was after 3am, and sunrise was coming fast.

Middle of the back, as calm as you will ever see.

     In the morning we headed west for something big to pull on.  What we found were some promising conditions, with not a single exotic hooked.  Around the West End we went and headed down the back.  It wasn’t until we reached Pedestal Rock that we found some really fantastic calico bass action.  The bass quickly responded to our chum and stacked up behind the boat, every bait was a bite but still no exotics.  Taylor suited up and jumped in with a spear gun to confirm my suspicions, the exotics just weren’t there.  So we pulled the hook and continued east.

Catalina bison on a ridge line, middle of the back.

    It was a long move down to Freddy’s Kelp, and the conditions were ideal.  Ripping uphill current and the kelp was laid down completely.  The 10kts of wind out of the west could not overpower the current, and we sat perfectly in position.  Again, the bass responded but the exotics just were not there.  This time both Richard and Taylor jumped in, but saw nothing but a large school of barracuda in the kelp.  The bass fishing was off the hook, and nobody complained.

Super clear day. This was our view towards LB from the East End. Smooth seas ahead.

     Still wanting a shot at a yellow or seabass we continued east, looking hard the whole way.  A quick stop at Orange Rocks produced nothing in good conditions.  We poured the chum here and caught nothing.  The last stop was the East Quarry where the guys got the bass biting, Taylor jumped in and finally saw a single yellowtail and I took a short nap.  When I woke up Richard was almost done filleting calicos and sheepshead, and the boys were cleaning the boat like a well trained crew.  I felt bad that I had slept through the cleanup process and offered to relieve someone, anyone.  “We got it” was the response I got so I took the helm for the ride home.  Everyone caught up on a little sleep, then came up to the bridge for more great conversation and laughs.

Ride home sunset.

“Remember that time……..?”

     We’d found some perfect conditions but never hooked an exotic all day.  What we did catch was a lot of fun and it seemed everyone on board was looking for just that.  Back at the dock Taylor commented to me how great it was to have so many guys that know what they are doing on a boat, and I agreed wholeheartedly.   Six guys all together for a good time and not once did I hear a single complaint or disagreement.  Next time I get the call to go with Taylor and Richard on their 37′ sportfisher “Four Day” (they are firemen, and “Four Day” is a reference to a fireman’s days off) I will not hesitate to grab my gear and go.

 

2012 Southern Cal Tuna Club “Stag” Tourney

Mike called me months ago and told me to block out some dates so I could run his 38′ Uniflite “Mundy Mooring” in the fall “Stag” tournament this year.  Its an annual tourney in the Southern California Tuna Club (SCTC) and we have fished it together for the last 4 or 5 years.  Mike is the perfect guy to run a boat for.  He is fun and easy going, yet likes to catch fish and is will to go the extra mile.  For the week leading up to the trip I worked on the boat, doing routine engine and generator service, and getting the tackle and gear ready.  At the same time I was watching the tuna deal very closely, and the weather.  Last minute the weather forecast turned for the worse, but Mike said “go for it” anyways, and boy am I glad we did.

An old friend of Mikes passed away very recently, Gordy Bateman.  Gordy was (I think) 99 years old, and one of the saltiest guys ever the walk the earth.  A member of SCTC, Gordy had a reputation for taking his boat, the “Fighting Lady” to the ends of the earth in these tournaments.  He’d show up for the weigh-ins at the last possible minute, and pull some big, tournament winning tuna out of the hold.  I mentioned to Mike that the tuna were on the edge of our range for the time alloted, he was hesitant.  Then I said we could do it in memory of Gordy, and the idea became set in stone.

Rigged and ready to go.

On thursday, October 4th I loaded up my gear and got things ready.  Mike came down along with his guest Ron and we went to the fuel dock to top off the tanks, then out to see Nacho at the bait barge for our ammo.  Nacho asked me “whacha want?”  I said “Some live squid would be great about now buddy.”  (Not knowing he HAD live squid).  “Okay, its in that well on the other end.”  I was stoked beyond words.  The sardines have been hard to keep alive on long trips this whole year, but I knew the squid would make the trip no problem.  There is a lot of squid offshore right now, and I knew the tunas were keyed in on the squirts anyways.  The tanks full of live squid lifted my spirits, considering the deteriorating weather reports on the outside.

We ran back in to the slip to pick up Tom, Mikes son and one of my good friends from all the way back to grade school.  Tommy jumped on with his gear and we were off in minutes flat.  I checked my voicemail and e-mail for last minute intel, and even got an on the water call from Josh who was just in from the tuna grounds.  With that intel I plugged in the #’s and set our course, only 117 miles to go.  “Its gonna be a LONG night boys”, I said as we rolled our guts out going across the flats in a beam sea.

I took my turn at the wheel, but refrained from overdoing my time like I typically do.  I knew I had to have my game face on when we reached the grounds, so I took my place on one of the bridge bunks and rested as hard as I could.  No way to sleep when you can hardly keep from falling out of your bunk.  It wasn’t rough, but the angle could not have been worse.  I was actually waiting for the axe to fall, but it never did.  Sometimes the weather forecast is wrong, but instead of being worse than they said, it was better.  At 4am I took the helm and looked at the plotter.  We were outside the 1010 Trench, just 5 miles from a 213 spot.  The water was 69.8, and had been for the last 30 miles.  I knew we needed to find the break before we would be in the tuna.  I turned up the gain on the machine and set the depth to 10 fathoms, then set the fish alarm so the first meter marks could be heard as well as seen.

At grey light we were almost right on top of the high spot, and the jigs were out.  From the 213 to the 1010 Trench would be straight downhill, just like I had planned.  Mikes guest Ron is 80 years young, and I wanted him be be safe and comfortable.  I heard the Furuno fish finder alarm go off and looked down to see a nice jag of tuna, then looked over at the Furuno RD30 Sea Temp meter and it read 70.5.  The next thing I heard was the sound of reels screaming.  “Perfect!  I love it when a plan comes together.”  I ran down the ladder and helped clear the jig rods, and at the same time brailed a 1/2 scoop of live squid into our wake as the boat slid to a stop.  Tommy was winding in a hoochie daisey chain right through the chum and got bit on the grind.  The tuna ate the thing not 15′ off the transom, and he came tight on a nicer grade fish.

At deep color I called it out “big albacore guys!”  Mike was stoked.  I gaffed Tommy’s fish and placed it in the kill bag, then went to work on Mikes fish, which was a little bigger model.  The head gaff ended up in the mouth, and the lift into the boat was a little sketchy.   Glad the fish made it in the bag, because it ended up being the tournament winning fish.  As is typical with early morning first bites, we were slow getting baits in the water, and never did get a bait bite on that stop.  No doubt we would have if we had been better prepared.  We transferred the ice from the freezer on the bridge and put in on the fish, then set the jigs and I went back to work.

The jig stops were steady and we began to pick off bait fish here and there.  The albacore turned into yellowfin, and our numbers were getting up there.  The kill bag was getting hard to close.  We found a kelp on the 1010 proper and hooked a dorado, then another.  It sure is fun when the kill bag has several different species in it, especially in a tournament that has different categories for different fish.  With the job basically done and now being 130 miles from Catalina, I made the turn to start heading uphill.  It was still early, and we were still in the fish.  I set a course for the Hidden Bank and expected a break in the jig stops, but it never materialized.  No late morning lull or crew falling asleep.  You gotta love fall fishing.

Ron on a tuna with Tommy handling the deckhand duties.

We came up on another kelp and I got out the first bait.  A very slight backlash when I cast a flylined live squid up wind turned into an instant tuna bite.  The result was a knot on my spool and the tuna getting the best of me with a loud “SNAP!”  The whole thing took all of 3 seconds.  Thats how good it was.  We added some yellowtail to our score on the way up the line, then crossed the break and back into dead waters we went.  It was time to head for the barn.

We ran through the night at 8.5 kts, straight uphill.  Not one drop of water came over the gunnels the whole trip, but it was still bumpy.  You could tell it was blowing hard on the outside, and the weather updates on the VHF spoke of 40kts of wind at San Nicolas Island.  At midnight the weather really laid down, and we bumped it up to 10kts.  After more than 30 hours at 8kts, 10 felt like we were hauling ass.  At 4am I pulled back the throttles as we came up under the East End light at Catalina.  I metered around for some conditions and marks, but found nothing I liked.  So I continued up the front, looking for signs of life.  By now my legs were weak with exhaustion, and I could feel my eyes burning.

Mike with his tournament winning 29lb albacore.

I set us up at Yellowtail Point, and we cast out a few baits.  Then we weighed our catch and began the process of filleting and packaging our beautiful fish.  It was flat grease, and in this club you can weigh your fish at anchor with a certified scale if the seas are calm.   We fished through half the day, knowing it was not going to be anywhere as good as the day before.  I did catch a big calico that I thought might win that division.  It was bested by just ounces, but didn’t take away from our tournament victory in any way.  In every other tournament that Mike and I have ever fished, we stayed out and fished hard til the very last possible second.  Not this trip, we were in 4th Of July Cove and on the mooring at 3pm, with the dinghy in the water and ready to go.  Lines out was scheduled for 4pm, but we wanted to head into the Isthmus for Buccaneer Days, and witness the mayhem first hand.  We ate ice cream and tried hard not to fall asleep standing, then headed for the awards banquet.

At the clubhouse in 4th of July Cove we met up with all 60+ of the other tournament participants.  We all shared stories of our travels, and nobody could believe we had done what we did.  Basically was stayed up for 3 straight days to get down to the tuna grounds and back, but it was worth it.  The traditional swordfish and steak dinner only made me more tired, and as they announce that Mike and I had each won a category (tuna for Mike, and yellowtail for me) we felt the real pay off of doing the trip in memory of Gordy Bateman and the “Fighting Lady”.  I was now so tired I could hardly put together a sentence.  Tommy headed back into the Isthmus for more of Buccaneer Days, and Mike, Ron and I sat in the cockpit of the “Mundy Mooring” sharing some fish stories.

I called my wife and my son Scott to tell them I was safe and missed them tremendously, then laid down.  I fell asleep faster than I could ever remember, and woke up with both a victory and the memory of Gordy fresh in my mind.

Marlin fishing on the way home from Catalina.

 

 

 

BAIT AND SWITCH FOR SO. CAL. MARLIN

This is not marlin 101, but the advanced class for those looking to change things up a little and catch more Southern California marlin.  The technique discussed in this article may sound good when read, but prove difficult to wrap your head around once you are actually on the water, where the marlin are.

You’ll need to start with a set of 4 or 5 soft head marlin jigs.  I like the Moldcraft Standard Wide Range, and the Moldcraft soft birds.  The Wide Range swims good both on the flat line and in the rigger, and stays in the water on semi rough days.  Rig the Wide Range with 12′-15′ of light leader material.  I use 90# Seaguar or Berkley flourocarbon.  I really can’t express enough how important it is to find the leader in the packs that have it wrapped in big coils.  The small plastic leader dispensers give the leader way too much memory, and that memory seriously affects the way the jig swims.  You can (and I sometimes do) go lighter on the leader, as you will not be catching any marlin on these jigs.  Do not rig any hooks on these jigs, just a bead and a perfection loop knot or crimp to keep the jig from being pulled off the leader by a hungry marlin.  (trust me)

Moldcraft Wide Range Standard

 

Moldcraft Soft Bird

For the birds I also use light leader, and rig them with a snap swivel and bead behind the head.  The swivel is for attaching to the Wide Range marlin jig leader, and should be buried inside the skirt.  Keep these leaders short.  I use 6′-10′ for easy storage when you need to get things out of the way quickly.  The length of the lure leader has to do with swimming action, and keeping the swivels out of the water, so don’t try to shorten those.  I also like the squid daisy chains from Moldcraft.  Again, I re-rig these with lighter leader, sometimes flourocarbon.

Once on the water, use those gyros and all the intel you have to find the fish.  I will troll your standard marlin jigs with hooks while looking for the break or weed line I want to fish hard. This will not be a trip where you bounce from high spot to high spot.  You will find the marlin and stay there.  This is where most guys get seriously tripped up.  Understand that when you find the bait, birds and life you are looking for, and have some intel that told you there is marlin there, stay there.  The area of life may sometime be a tiny “postage stamp” of conditions.  Don’t let anything other that those conditions evaporating make you leave where the fish are.  You may even want to turn your VHF off, seriously.

Now deploy your soft heads in a symmetrical pattern.  Flat lines short, and where your boat gets bit short.  Adjust for weather obviously, but you already know that because this is an advanced marlin class.  Set both flat lines perfectly even, and apply the minimum drag necessary to keep line from coming off the reel.  For the flat lines I either use a Moldcraft Soft Bird with a Moldcraft Wide Range attached to the swivel and swimming behind.  It is important that all your leaders are exactly the same length for this.  Getting the bird/jig combo perfectly set so that the bird is “fluttering” and the jig is swimming takes a little adjustment, and patience.  It’s worth it.  If the bird is being pulled out of the water by the rod tip, attach the trolling line to the reel handle with a rubber band, lowering the line and helping the bird do it’s thing properly.

Sometimes I will choose the Moldcraft Squid Daisy Chains on the flat lines.  Same principle applies here.  I never mix them up by putting out one daisy chain and one bird/jig combo.  You’ll find out why later in this article.  For the outside (rigger) lines I use just the Moldcraft Wide Range if the jig is going to be trolled in an outrigger.  Birds get pulled up by riggers, and daisy chains have too much drag for what we are doing here.  On bigger boats I will troll outside lines from the rod holder, and not use the riggers at all.  This condenses the spread, and keeps all the jigs easier to watch.  (and trust me, you’ll be watching the jigs)  The outside lines also need to  be even, whether they are in the riggers or run from the rod tips on the outside.  Run the outside jigs one wave longer than the flat lines, and never held down by a rubber band on the reel handle.  Like this, you’ll be able to maneuver at will without tangles.

Now for the bait portion of this lesson.  Your typical marlin baitcaster is a 7′ parabolic rod with large guides for knots to easily pass through.  I use the same rods for dropbacks as I do for casting on feeders or tailers.  A reel in the shape and line capacity of a Penn 500 (please don’t use an actual Penn 500) filled with either 16, 20 or 30# mono works great.  Don’t overfill the reel, as there will be knots that need to fit on the top of the line.  I wind the line in a “U” shape to accommodate the knots down the middle of the spool.

I tie a bimini twist in the main line to double the line.  Some call this a shock leader, but I do it for the purpose of connecting the 30# to the bait leader (typically 90# flouro).  For the connection to the leader, I use an albright knot.  I will don gloves and pull as hard as I can on both of these knots, EVERY TIME.  When it comes time to pull on a fish, I know for sure the knots are good.  Tie the knots fresh every trip, no exceptions.  This year I have been experimenting with wind on leaders, where the 30# fits inside a section of hollow spectra, and the leader fits inside the other end of the same section of spectra.  That in itself is a whole other article/class.  Finally, for lengths I use a short double line of 5′ or less, and leader length of 12′ or less.  (We’ll add more leader next paragraph)

For the end of the leader I tie in a 150# Berkley barrel (not ball bearing) swivel, then another 2 to three feet of 90# flouro, then the hook.  I like the 6/0 Gamakatsu HD Live Bait hook, but something similar will do just fine.  Since this class if full of marlin experts, I will say that the circle hooks work great if you don’t set the hook when you get a bite.  I do not know the name and numbers of the circle hooks, but any good local tackle store can help you with that.  I use a 4 turn uni knot for the hook, and after pulling the knot tight and testing it, I slide the knot loose at it’s base so the hook can swing freely, like a ringed hook.  I personally do not use ringed hooks, as they tend to foul while in a bait swimming in the bait tank.  Same reason I don’t use ball bearing swivels, they foul and cause the line to twist as the bait swims in the tank.

Once fishing and in an area where you might find a marlin, pin a bait on and keep it in the bait tank, ready to cast or drop back in the blink of an eye.  If you have multiple bait tanks, have every one filled with a bait pinned on and ready.  I pin the hook through the bait on it’s back, behind the head.  Just over the gill covers, down the middle of the back, there is a set of tendons that hold well and keep the bait alive indefinitely when done properly.  You may like to hook your baits differently, and thats fine.  I have tried all the other ways, and through the back of the head is what has always worked best for me.

Dropback rod and bait, ready.

Now you have your hook-less softheads out and your baits pinned on and ready, it’s time to talk about how to do this bait and switch deal.  Assign one of your crew to watch the jigs.  More than one if you have them available.  If you hear a clicker for even just a split second, drop a bait.  If you see a meter mark that looks good to you (yet another article), drop a bait.  With the jigs out the way I described, you can pick up and run to feeders or tailers without worry.  When you hear a rubber band snap, or a clicker chirp, you can look back and see what jig got bit.  Why?  Because all your jigs are set symmetrically and the  one that got bit will be out of place.  Have your crew place the jigs in the exact same spot, every time.

When you get a bite on one of the jigs, do not slow the boat (or stop).  Keep the speed constant and the fish will stay with the boat.  Sometimes, you can have the angler wind the rod with the jig or teaser the fish is on with one hand, and drop the bait with the other.  Basically he’ll be hand feeding the marlin.  I always play it like there is a whole school of fish on the jigs, even if I only see one.  Drop as many baits as possible, and have crewmembers do double duty (winding teasers while dropping back baits.)  Remember, the boat is still moving at trolling speed.  If the marlin just will not come off the jig and eat the bait, I will turn the boat to the side the jig is on (that the fish is keyed in on.)  This puts the jig into clear water, and slows it down a tiny bit.  It also puts the bait in clear water, and more often than not, the marlin quickly switches over and eats the bait.

Now I offer this explanation for those who are asking “why”.  First off, with no hooks there will be almost no chance of the jigs picking up eel grass or kelp.  As all you experts know, marlin are on the bait which is often along weed lines that are next to impossible to troll through with traditional hooked marlin jigs.  Next, we all know that Souther California marlin eat jigs differently that ones in Mexico or Hawaii.  A very high percentage of our jig fish fall off because they just aren’t as aggressive with the jigs here.  Way too many opportunities are missed when a marlin gets hooked on a jig and the crew clears all the rest of the jigs from the spread.  The traditional way of hooking a jig fish is to throttle up and “set the hook with the boat”, thus removing any chance of hooking more fish on dropback baits.   Finally, with soft heads the marlin can whack away at the jigs without getting stung and scared away.  The lighter leaders help the jigs swim better, enticing more strikes.  The whole package will bring more fish where you want them, behind the boat.

Results of the Bait and Switch technique

So give modern bait and switch a try, and see how you like it.  For me, the hardest part is finding a crew that will commit completely to the drill.  For most crews, the thought of pulling jigs with no hooks is more than they can bear.  I do know for a fact that this method works incredible.  You can take the basics I’ve outlined here and do your own twist, like with ballyhoo instead of live baits and softheads.  Many do, with professional, tournament winning results.

The spoils.