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.

 

 

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.

Anglers and Free Divers: Harmony or Conflict?

No fishing rods plus a bait tank full of spear guns means these are divers, and this is close enough.

Two years ago I ran my first trip with a group of free divers, and learned more than you can imagine about some spots I’d fished for years.  The commentary from the divers after they returned from their dive was fascinating, and I listened carefully as they described the dynamic of a spot in a detail I had never even considered.

Today I did another trip with three free divers, and brought along my rods and reels to get in some fishing time while they hunted their target species, white seabass.  We even picked up a scoop of live squid on the way out.  I thought about the writing of this article as the day went on, and came to realize that I had been wrong in the past about how divers effect a bite for rod and reel anglers.  Last year I enjoyed good fishing while the divers were in the water and I was fishing from the very boat they jumped off of.  I even caught seabass last year, and a free diver from the boat I was on was not more than 30 yards from me.  I did not hook a seabass today, but had very good calico bass fishing.

It’s actually a team effort, as after the divers clear the area behind the boat,  I chum a bit with cut squid.  On their way back to the boat I always get wide eyed looks from behind masks regarding how much life there is in my chum line.  Sometimes they are dragging back a huge white seabass or calico, and sometimes not.  One thing remains constant.  Neither me fishing or them diving affects the other.  Even as a diver approaches the boat and hands me his gear, I’m still getting bites the whole time.  Often to the point of being too much to handle both things at once.

Free divers in the water have no affect on how the fish bite for rod and reel anglers. Here’s proof. 3 divers in the water and nearby, the bass bit good anyway.

Free divers are super stealthy by nature.  Not only in the water, but on shore as well.  I will not post any photos of these guys, or give out their names.  They love to hunt, not be famous.  Their preparations for each dive would be too exhausting for me.  They have camouflage wetsuits that match kelp stringers and different spear guns for different types of fish hunted.  Knives, stringers, float lines and gadgets I do not yet understand cover the boat deck between each dive, and their bodies when they enter the water.  These guys have a small fortune invested in their sport, and take it very seriously.

Most impressive is how they operate when hunting.  So quiet and methodical.  Imagine being able to sneak up to a dear in the forest and touch it before It knows you’re even there, that’s how good these guys are.  With no sense of smell (obviously) and limited vision, they often hear some amazing things.  Spawning seabass croak, and that croaking can be followed to a school of seabass in an underwater void in the kelp divers call a “room”.  Often though, it’s too far away and long, sneaky treks through the kelp bring the hunter no closer to his quarry.  Sounds travels very far underwater, deceptively far.

Safety is a free divers primary concern.  They must spend equal time above and below the water to avoid “shallow water blackout”.   Multiple divers plan carefully (sometimes without saying anything) to be apart from each other.  They hunt in poor visibility often, and don’t want to shoot another diver by mistake.  Obviously they fly a diving flag, but also avoid busy areas with too much boat traffic.  When I asked one diver about sharks he replied “if you are afraid of being attacked by a shark, pick a different sport”.  Well, you won’t catch me in a wetsuit.

I thought hard all day about this last paragraph and how exactly to word it.  Basically it comes down to this.  If you are fishing an area or spot and  a boat pulls up, anchors and puts up a dive flag, don’t get all frustrated.  I can speak from personal experience that these talented watermen will have no effect on whether or not you get a bite.  If a free diver gets in the water and your bite shuts off, it was probably going to end anyways.  Conversely, when a boat with a dive flag is anchored on a spot you want to fish, give them a wide berth for safety’s sake.  These guys are good, and if they are getting fish you’ll know because they’ll be done fast.  Either find another spot close by and wait until they are leaving, or anchor far enough away (after you have taken the time to locate each diver in the water) as to not be a danger to the guys in the water.  Live boating near a diver in the water is against the law for good reason.  Free divers and rod-n-reel anglers should exist in harmony, as neither bothers the other.  Take a free diver with you and find out what is REALLY happening under your boat, you’ll be just as blown away as I am, each and every time.