We All Learned Something

Sunset on the season

Sunset on the season

Its been a while since I’ve had the time to sit down and write.  A full tilt El Nino had a lot to do with that, and plenty of time on the water.  I also split with my wife and am still dealing with the aftermath, and some late season health issue scares that ate up some opportunities to be on the water (or write).  Its all settling down now, time to reflect on an amazing year.  My writing is more than a little rusty, so bear with me.

Looking back its great to see so many get a shot at experiencing such phenomenal weather and fishing, and watch as a new batch of book writers and seminar speakers emerge from the pack.  Everyone caught fish, we all learned something, don’t call the publisher just yet.  I’m lucky enough to have seen a few of these El Nino events, and it happens everytime.  Just take in what you learned and try to apply it next year when its back to normal, back to more common to miss than to connect.  That new jig that worked so well this year, might not work at all again until next El Nino.  Shit, I caught tuna this year on an old Jap Head red and white feather that had a Scampi half melted to it when I found it at the bottom of an old baggie of treasures from the past.  A couple events ago you might remember the bait stickers sold for the bottoms of boats, yea, that was a real hit the following year and ever since.

Miles from the pack, deep into Mexican waters.

Miles from the pack, deep into Mexican waters.

Sarcasm?  Are you surprised?  Just remember that next year it goes back to normal, where the guys consistently catching fish are the ones that make the effort.  Leave early and stay late, go the extra mile and find the fish instead of following the pack.  All the bad habits worked this season, but those that stay on that path will go back to wondering how to catch more.   Each bite is started by one guy, typically from a small group of the same guys.  Those close to them reap the benefits, and the rest get the scraps.  That is the sad truth of this internet fishery we have nowadays.

Hooked.  Luke and Robert Elliott will have these memories for life.

Hooked. Luke and Robert Elliott will have these memories for life.

The positive side is immense.  Landing parking lots were full and charter boat docks were empty while unemployed Captains found a ride after some tight years.  Hopefully kids and adults alike were either introduced or reintroduced to our sport, helping secure its economy for the near future.  Boats were purchased, fuel burned, tackle abused and replaced.  Its been a great shot in the arm for the industry.

Just remember to remind your guests from this year that the fishing was exceptional.  Point out the fun time on the water, and explain to them the fun in just getting that chance to be out there.  I’ve seen people get their feet wet on a wide open bite, only to find out on the next few trips how humbling it all can be.

Next year we take the knots we learned and see how they work after the really long soak.  Spots we caught yellowtail on this year might not even have a bass on them next year, or for years to come, so focus on “why’s” and “how’s” and all that gaffing practice.  Its all in the details.  Be aware of how comfortable you are at the helm now compared to last year,  running at night through a polka dotted radar screen is something we all dealt with.  I’m sure we all put plenty of time in this year, and that time on the water and turns of the prop adds up to experience.

My ride this summer.

My ride this summer.

What did I learn?  Lots.  I learned after running “Bongo’s” a few times that I’m too old for that now.  My yacht deal is what works best for me, being with people I know and boats I have spent half a lifetime on.  I learned how much I really love a sundowner bite, and no schedule of when to be home.  I’m even grateful to stay up all night to make bait, and not be at the mercy of the

and the results......

and the results……

receiver on any given day.  I enjoyed my time on the “Bongo’s” for sure, and more than that I am flattered to have been asked to “come aboard and help.”  Huge honor, thats a first class operation.

I learned about tough decisions and disappointment are on the path to happiness, in all aspects of my life.  Life is too short to be unhappy.  I learned about real and false friendships and alliances, and to be a little less giving to those who seem to always take without giving back.  That can be said about fishing information and advice, and other parts of my life.  You noticed I stopped the daily fish reports, yea, that no longer yielded positive results for me or this site.  People griped, took advantage and talked shit.  Like I said, life’s too short.  The core group is now on speed dial, and we all talk after every trip.  What we saw, who we saw, what time the fish bit and all the details that help build that map in our heads on which way to go.  Gone are the guys that called to tell me how great the fishing was for two weeks but its now over, “oh, and by the way, where are the seabass at Catalina?”  I’m done with that, doesn’t work for me.

Relationships that matter.  My son Scott after some deckhand training.

Relationships that matter. My son Scott after some deckhand training.

At 45 I finally decided to stop being a people pleaser and focus more on the relationships that matter.

That old saying about “try not to use the words “always” or “never” in fishing?”  I learned that one again, big time.

So plan those last trips and fish while there are still a few around, learn as much as you can.  Forget the calendar, or that the kids are in school and the World Series is coming up.  Fish have no idea, they just have to eat before leaving for wherever they go during the winter.  Resist the voice in your head that tells you “I’m an expert now”, because we all learned something.  Put down the pen, don’t call the publisher and defer those visions of being a seminar speaker.  It all changes back to where it was in just a few short weeks.

Adapting

DSC04485

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.

 

 

Boat Work Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for some TLC

Time for some TLC

 

 

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

 

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

Replace batteries BEFORE they go bad.

Replace batteries BEFORE they go bad.

 

Plumbing that looks like this should be replaced.

Plumbing that looks like this should be replaced.

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

 

Consider changing 12V bait pumps every season.

Consider changing 12V bait pumps every season.

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

Proper stress crack repair is a full blown glass job.

Proper stress crack repair is a full blown glass job.

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

 

 

Replace leaking portholes.

Replace leaking portholes.

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

 

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

Anchor winch upgrade to the latest and greatest.

Anchor winch upgrade to the latest and greatest.

 

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

COB does re-powers.

COB does re-powers.

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

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

Southern California Rockfishing

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

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

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

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

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

Rockfishmapscreenshot

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

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

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

 

2013 Year In Review

It’s been an amazing year for fishing in Southern California.   After several seasons of bust conditions, sportboats going back to the bank, tackle manufacturers fading away, and endless wind, this one seemed to make up for it in spades.   Some added boats to their fleet and Captains rose out of retirement to fill in and join the bounty.   Fundamentally things had changed and those who took full advantage expanded on new ideas.  Lobster charters and all night seabass trips kept boats busy and helped revive a seemingly dead industry.  Visiting the San Diego Landings it was a relief to see the crowded bustle and excitement that reminded me of years gone by.

January 4th Yellowtail Surprise.

January 4th Yellowtail Surprise.

 

It all started with the yellowtail, and I was pleasantly surprised to hook and land one at Catalina on January 4th on my first trip of this year.  Little did I know this was just the beginning, and in a few short months the forks would transform the Coronado’s into something out of a storybook chapter titled “The Good Old Days”.  San Clemente Island went off to epic proportions, but was inconsistent enough to keep things interesting.   In fact, all the local islands had their share of good yellowtail fishing, and it continues now in October with a powerful cutoff low spinning off the coast.

 

Typically smaller island seabass were not small this year.

Typically smaller island seabass were not small this year.

Of course you know I am going to mention the seabass, and what an incredible show they put on all up and down the bight in 2013.  Epic bites at Tijuana Flats, Huntington Beach, Oxnard and Ventura, Catalina, the Channel Islands and San Nicolas Island.  For me and my Captain On Board clients it was one for the history books.  In the last 6 years I have been able to string together limit style seabass trips and help scores of anglers catch their 1st (and 2nd AND 3rd) seabass ever, but this year it was all about the tankers.  The sheer size of the seabass this year boggled the mind.  There is nothing more satisfying for me than gaffing that first seabass for someone that has been trying for years to check seabass off their wish list, but to have it be a 50-60lb slob is just amazing.   Even my wife got into the action, hooking and landing a coastal tanker on the Huntington Beach bite on light tackle.  She is still smiling over that one.

Even my wife got into the action.

Even my wife got into the action.

In the midst of all this action the bluefin slid up the coast and even I had no idea they would stay and put on such a show.  While some did (and still are) complain about the lack of albacore the bft’s more than made up for it in my opinion.  For a non El Nino year we had an amazing amount of dorado show up locally, and absolute tonnage of yellowtail on the kelps.  Late in the season the yellowfin showed and are still biting today, but is was the shot at a bluefin over 100lbs that kept San Diego landing parking lots full.  I expected the axe to fall at anytime, thinking things were too good to be true, but it never really did.  It would be really good for a while then shut down, only to get good again unexpectedly.   While all of this fantastic offshore fishing was happening, something nobody predicted slid in and took us all by surprise.

Fat bluefin were eager to bite almost this entire summer.

Fat bluefin were eager to bite almost this entire summer.

“Boys, we have a normal billfish season upon us!”  Even as guys were pulling into the harbor with their 2nd and 3rd marlin flags flying most were skeptical, but it kept on going.   Swordfish never really bit but there were plenty around and several hooked.  “Good Karma” got one, and a couple stick boats put up scores.  Certainly not the best marlin season in history but way better than recent years.  Mike “Beak” Hurt released 7 striped marlin on one trip, and Andy on the “Mirage” topped that with 8 releases not long after.  For those still doubting this was a “real” marlin season, I disagree.  As an interesting side note we had short billed spearfish in the mix.  One was caught and I was intrigued, then 5, then 10 and it started to get interesting.  No way to know for sure how many were caught total, as small center consoles and private skiffs were getting them as well as the prominent marlin guys.  No doubt some spearfish were caught that were never reported.

GoodKarmaSwordfish

Good Karma Swordfish

This season saw its share of oddities to go along with the spearfish.  Early in the season an abnormal amount of opah were hooked and landed.  The albacore did show and a couple handfulls were caught.  A giant (and controversial) mako was taken that made headlines, followed by others (over 1,000lbs) that smartly got less publicity.  The big threshers never showed in volume but pups were being caught on piers up and down the coast.  Giant oarfish are washing up on beaches as I write this, more than enough to get the attention of scientists and biologists.  Possibly the most amazing thing has been the abundance of squid almost everywhere, all year long.  This is a trend than has repeated itself for the last several years but I am still in awe.  Launch ramps were full on weekend with private boaters eager to get out and sample the possibilities, and afternoons saw guys telling stories of strange sighting and stellar catches.  A great year indeed.

All the squid you want, all year long.

All the squid you want, all year long.

 

 

 

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………..

Fish Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private Boat Bluefin

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

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

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

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

Breaking Tuna

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

Kelp Paddy

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

Big Fish Light Gear

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Make a Crowder Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowder jig

Crowder jig

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

How I do the corners.

How I do the corners.

 

Sewing the bag edge of the crowder may take hours.

Sewing the bag edge of the crowder may take hours.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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1st pass….

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2nd pass…….

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3rd pass…..Now tie the half hitch.

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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Finished crowder net

Finished crowder net

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

 

 

 

 

When to Swing on Catalina Seabass

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.

Wife Seabass

“It played with my bait forever” my wife said after landing this seabass. A little on the water coaching and she was good to go.

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.

Here you see the rod loading up.  If the fish drops the bait, drop the tip and let it get another look.

Here you see the rod loading up. If the fish drops the bait, drop the tip and let it get another look.

 

Another look, and another bite.

Another look, and another bite.

Rod loads up and the seabass does not drop the bait.  Wind down and SWING while grinding.  HOOK-UP!!!!

Rod loads up and the seabass does not drop the bait. Wind down and SWING while grinding. HOOK-UP!!!!

 

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.

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