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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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.

Planning Trips Around The Moon (Phases)

Did you know that you can sit down with a calendar and plan when the fish are going to bite, months in advance?  Well, you can!  It’s especially accurate with inshore and island species like white seabass and yellowtail.  Believe it or not, it actually works with trout too.  Really.

The idea of fishing around the tides has finally taken hold after years of old timers saying it’s all poppycock.  Certain things are a given and old sayings even point it out: “The early bird gets the worm.” I.E.  Fishing at dawn is a very productive time.  We all know that.  Slack tides are also productive, more and more people are beginning to recognize that.  So if you had a slack tide at dawn what do you get?  Good fishing!

During each lunar cycle there are two periods where, for about a week, the tidal movement increases each day.  Between the 1st quarter moon and the full is one of them.  Between the last quarter moon and the new is the other. Now look at this tide calendar, from the 10th to the 18th.  See how the low tides get lower, and the high tides get higher each consecutive day?  That my friends, is a prime moon phase.  The fishing is (almost) guaranteed to be good during that time.  Weather and other factors can override it, but not so much this time of year.  Conversely, the days from the 3rd to the 10th you can see the tidal movement decreasing each day, and these tend to be less productive times in the lunar cycle.  I call these sub-prime moon phases.

In my experience, high tides tend to be more productive than low tides, and evenings better than mornings.  So let’s pick a day with a high tide in the evening during the prime moon phase.  I like the 1st and 2nd, and the 15th and 16th.  These days have already passed, and  absolutely WERE productive times.  Not only did the seabass bite at Catalina on these days in the afternoon, but the twilight boats also enjoyed great sand bass fishing at these times.

Your experience may be different, and you can taylor your trips around the tides.  Like to fish calicos on the rising tide, but need to be home on time for your kids baseball game?  Check out the incoming tides on the mornings of the 2nd and 3rd.  Both days are during the prime 1st quarter moon phase, and have a big difference between the low and the high.  Tide only means current in places where water rushes in to fill a void, or drain a void (like a harbor).  Otherwise, you can’t equate tides to currents, it just isn’t the same thing.

If you were to take a stack of old newspapers with fish counts and match it up to a set of tide calendars, you’d see a much higher “fish-per-rod” ratio during prime moon phases, than you do during sub-prime moon phases.  I have done this, and it’s amazingly accurate.  I even plan our annual family vacation to the Sierras around the prime moon phase, and it works.  Not only do we catch more trout, but bigger and a higher percentage of native trout as well.  Over the years I have done several trips to the Sierras for 3 weeks or longer, and the prime moon phase was WAY better trout fishing than sub-prime moon phases.

From here it gets much more complicated, and controversial.  The whole “Astro” side of moon phases and “moon overhead, sun under foot” deal comes into play, and it’s a topic for a book, not an article.  Just know that there are some guys that know where to be, and WHEN to be there, for a reason.  There is a time to fish whitefish and sheepshead, and a time to fish yellows and seabass.  It all has to do with the tides and moon phases.  Try planning a trip during a prime moon phase, and see what happens.  If not, at least track the fish counts and match it up with a tide calendar.  You’ll see, it’s spot on, and has been since man first gazed into the sky,  put pen to paper, and fished for food and fun.

Spring Seabass 101

Conditions, late afternoon, quality tackle and lots of chumming at high tide got Dennis his 1st ever seabass.

   10 Tips on How to Catch Your First Seabass on YOUR Boat.

White seabass are regarded as one of the hardest fish to find (and catch), thus earning the nickname “Ghosts.”  Here are some basic guidelines to follow that can improve your chances if you have been trying without success.  Like a golfer or baseball player, the fundamentals are a guideline for constant improvement and necessary for any angler trying to reach the next level of his or her ability.

#1 Conditions   A basic knowledge of what conditions to look for can help you stay out of the crowd, a key factor in being a successful seabass angler.   When studying an area you’ll want to look for life.  (Birds, bait etc.)  Then look for that often talked about off color water.  Once you’ve found those you can narrow it down by studying the structure.  Seabass live in the kelp and around hard bottom (rocks, reef, wrecks and ridges) and spawn/feed on the edges of these areas, often under the cover of dirty water.  The line where the off color water meets the cleaner water is often referred to as the “edge”.

Defined “edge”.

This edge is the highway seabass use to travel from hard bottom to kelp, and into shallow the water beach where the off color water is coming from.  Where to fish that hard edge can be defined by where the birds are, and the bait.   The spot where the beach meets the kelp, or maybe the kelp meets the rocks (or maybe just the kelp itself) forms an undeniable “pocket” for your boat to sit in.  So, for example, you see a beach puking green dirty water and the current is pushing that water through a spot of kelp stringers and then it washes out and over a rocky outcropping on the island.  You now have all three of a seabass favorite places linked together with a highway, and you’d set up where the birds are (an indicator of where they’ve been feeding) and start chumming and fishing hard.  The conditions discussed here pertain mostly to Catalina, for coastal seabass fishing see tip #6.

Near perfect conditions with kelp, rocky structure and the beach producing the off color water. Look carefully and you’ll see a color spot of bait on the left side of this “pocket”. The hard edge is out of this photo, but right where the stern of the boat is. Only thing missing here? Birds.

#2  Tides and Time Of Day  Keep a tide chart with you, and fish hard during slack tide times.  If the conditions described above occur during slack tide, you may be blessed with a seabass bite.  Furthermore, seabass are more active at sunup and sundown, so add that to the equation and your odds improve even more.  The high slack tends to fish better than the low tide for seabass, but not always.  There is more to this tide and moon phase deal, but that is for another whole article.

Dusk is a prime time for seabass, and just as good as the “grey” in the morning. Most important reason for this is less boats.

#3  Chumming  Bring along as much frozen squid as you can.  Good quality frozen squid (not pink and smelly) can be hard to find.  The best stuff is what you bagged live last trip and froze immediately.  Chop squid into small pieces and toss behind the boat so it will drift back into the kelp and draw the seabass out.  If perch and small bass become a nuisance, you can throw smaller tidbits off the bow, to keep those pesky bait stealers out of where you are casting your baits.  A steady flow of chum is key to getting seabass to bite, so no breaks.

The green “snack tray” is filled with chopped squid for chumming constantly. You can design your own gadget for chumming and keeping the boat clean at the same time.

#4  Keep Your Baits Moving  A lot of seabass are caught on dropper loops, and the main reason is that this rig keeps your bait off the bottom where sharks and rays will reek havoc and waste time.  When casting into the “pocket” of conditions, use the lightest weight you can get away with, and slowly pump your bait back to the boat.  A 3/4oz leadhead, cast out with 3 squid on it and then a rod placed in the rod holder will NOT do you any favors when trying to catch a seabass.  These are not catfish, and do not feed off the bottom often.  Place dropper loop rigs in rod holders midships, pointing straight off the side of your boat, the the rocking motion keeps your bait moving (if you want to sit down).

#5  Fish With Quality Tackle  New line and sharp hooks are necessary.  Check and double check knots, and retie after every fish.  Smooth drags and longer rods help keep the line from raking across the sharp teeth of seabass, as they do shake their heads to try and spit the hook often during the fight.  When you hook that first seabass is NOT the time to figure out that your equipment needs to be serviced.

#6  Fish Where the Squid is  This is a different tactic altogether than the conditions described in tip #1.  Seabass swim through the bait grounds, near the bottom alot of times, eating the spawned out squid that are dying after their voracious last sexual encounter.  (squid die within 3 days of spawning).  Anchor at night and fish dropper loops and/or heavy iron jigs (white works) with squid pinned on.  Fresh dead or frozen sometimes works better than live here.  Productive squid beds will be in 75-120′ of water most of the time, and rarely shallower.   Late afternoon into the evening, at night and early morning (grey light) are prime times.

Catching squid is actually a lot of fun, and increases your chances at a seabass by putting you directly over their source of food.

#7  Catch Your Own Squid  Putting the lights out and catching squid is a great way to get the seabass to stack up under your boat and bite.  Fish while catching bait and you may be rewarded with what we call a “free one”.  That’s when the rod goes off and you hardly notice, because you are working so hard at catching squid.  It’s almost like a break. Some guys like to leave the lights on after they have caught your fill, unless the sealions become too plentiful.  This rings the bell for mealtime as there is a huge ball of squid right under your boat.  Others prefer to go dark and be more stealthy on the squid grounds, and have great success.  This is one of those times when you’ll have to make a decision on the spot, but both ways work.

#8  Fish During the Week  All the stuff I’ve discussed above means nothing if 30 boats are pounding the spot you chose to fish.  It’s no secret that it’s easier to catch a seabass in less boat traffic, and during the week is the best way to make that happen.

#9  Go the Extra Mile  So the wind is blowing a little on the back of Catalina, but that is where the seabass are.  Tough it out.  If the seabass are at San Clemente Island, that is where you need to be.  No excuses, no moorings, just fish where the fish are until safety becomes a factor.  This is probably the most common reason guys don’t catch a seabass on any given day.  Pay the price and when that beauty hits the deck, you’ll forget about being cold and wet instantly.

#10  Fish More than One Day Trips  As you spend time in an area, you begin to take in all it has to offer.   Conditions usually come and go during the day at nearly the same time, for days on end.   Trust me when I say, that the more time you spend in an area (without leaving), the more in touch you’ll be with where the seabass are, when they are biting (and not biting), or if there is just not enough volume to justify you being there.  On multi-day trips you can make a move to a different zone if need be, and still have time to get dialed in on an area.

The truth is, seabass are easy to figure out, and easy to catch.  This is by no means the “whole puzzle”, but enough to help you get your first fish.  Booking a trip on a boat with a reputation of catching seabass will teach you more than you can imagine about what to do on your boat.  The same holds true when you have an experienced seabass fisherman on your boat with you, either as a guest, or hired as a guide.

 

 

 

 

Kelp Paddy Fishing from a A Private Boat

That’s close enough!! Too close and you spook most of what you’re trying to catch. Don’t worry, the fish know your bait is there, trust me.

If you have read this far I applaud you, because there have been kelp paddy articles written over and over, each and every year.  The information here will sound redundant, but the idea is to pound some basic information into the heads of those who just don’t seem to grasp the concept.  Some guys piss others off so bad, that verbal battles on VHF channel 72 near the point of death threats.  Others simply can’t buy a bite.  Maybe they never read any kelp paddy articles.

If you’ve ever fished on a long range boat out of San Diego, you know how they fish kelps.  The captain or a crew member spots a kelp and word gets spread around the boat.  30 anglers, awakened from their naps, froth with anticipation as the charter boat approaches the “salad”.  Most armed with long jig sticks adorned with heavy metal jigs.  The bow of the boat passes the kelp first, and those up front cast at the flotsam as if to be trying to sink it with missiles.   A few guys hook up, but the boat is still sliding (and turning at the same time).  As the anglers in the stern pitch a live bait towards the kelp, the hooked up guys from the bow come barreling down the rail and either saw off freshly hooked baitfish or get tangled.   Some land their fish while causing some, less assertive passengers to throw in the towel.  If the kelp is holding some tonnage, then the boat drifts off while the bite gets really going.  A more organized, steady pick continues as the kelp disappears from sight.

I can see why long range boat skippers fish a kelp this way.  They have a boat full of paying clients, and a responsibility to give each angler the chance to hook a fish.  I also know first hand, that if (as a captain) I do not position the charter boat close enough for passengers to actually HIT the kelp, I will have old timers givinging me a piece of their mind.   If I repeatedly begin a drift far upwind from a kelp, I do believe a mutiny may begin at some point.  I have done this and the passengers simply waited until the boat was close enough to the kelp for them to be able to hit it with a well casted bait, and hit it they did!  Insanity.

That’s about as close as you’ll ever see me on a kelp. On this day, the fish were smaller and biting heavy line, so distance was not as much if a factor.

On a private boat we do things quite differently.  I like to set the boat upwind of the kelp, and begin a drift that will allow the stern to pass the kelp and leave a distance further than a long jig cast.  There are reasons for this.  First off, we do not have the chumming capabilities of a long range boat loaded with 100 scoops of bait, so I don’t want to spook the fish we’re trying to catch.  Secondly, private boats can fish lighter line that gets bit better, because we are not battling 29 other anglers lines to land a fish.  By being further away from the kelp, the chances of landing a yellowtail or tuna is far better if hooked away from the structure on lighter line.

Small fish on kelps can be a blast on light line, especially when hooked from far enough away (from the kelp) that you still have a chance to land them.

I keep fishing long after we’ve passed the kelp, as history has shown that some of the best bites I’ve ever seen, started after drifting a ways past.  While running the charter boat “RailTime”, I had become used to the Furuno CH250 Sonar, and could give a play-by-play for anglers as fish followed the boat far off the kelps they tried to sink with jigs.   Sometimes the fish simply won’t leave the kelp, and I will re-set for another drift when the bite stops and meter marks go away.

If there are fish still on the paddy and the bite has either tapered off, or stopped altogether, I will begin to slow troll live baits past the kelp.  3 anglers max to avoid tangles, I have clients nose hook a live bait and then motor past the kelp as slow as the boat will go.  Again, NOT TOO CLOSE!  A tuna or yellowtail can swim from under the paddy to your bait 50 yards away, in a matter of seconds.

Once the bite tapers off, it’s time to get back to looking. Trolling while looking for paddies saves on fuel, and blind jig strikes add to your score. These albies were caught after we’d drifted far off the kelp, and were enticed to the boat with rubber core sinkers.

If there are other boats in the area, it’d be best if all followed the same routine.  That will never be the case.  Start your drift closer to the paddy when other boats threaten to try and share your find.  You’ll need to be more selective about which kelps to fish hard, because you’ll have to throw more chum to keep the fish at your boat, and not go to the poachers rig.  If there is a paddy holding and biting for 3 or 4 boats, I will watch the birds and fish them instead of the paddy itself.  Back to when I had a sonar at my disposal, the fish were under the birds and I could see that on the meter.  Boats fishing the paddy would trip out when I got the bite going 1/2 mile away from where they were.  Birds are key, especially when it’s dorado we’re targeting.

To summarize, please resist the urge to drive right up to a paddy and cast your baits (or jigs) right into the salad.  You ABSOLUTELY WILL catch more fish off kelps if you stay away from them.  That is, unless you are actually fishing for the kelp itself. ( I hear it makes an excellent hair care product.)   I personally steer clear of paddies with boats on them, or one that has a boat just leaving it.   A fresh kelp, that has not been fished by another boat that day produces much better than one that has been hit hard, even if you heard on the VHF how wide open is “was”.