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.

 

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.

 

Deciphering the Code

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Stealth Basics

After reading Brandon Haywards “The Local Angler” and how important it is to be stealthy while fishing coastal seabass, I thought a quick guide might be helpful.  Brandon nails it on the head in his description of how different Catalina seabass fishing is than what he is doing along the South Coast.

Generators running and seabass biting at Catalina

Generators running and seabass biting at Catalina

 

At Catalina or Clemente its not nearly as important to be quiet, but it doesn’t hurt when the fish are not biting all that great.  Having the option to go quiet is something every boat needs, and here are a few ideas.

Anchoring quietly is near impossible on a sportboat or bigger yachts, so this is an area where skiffs and small sportfishers have (another) advantage when fishing seabass.  Put a guy on the bow with the chain all on deck when preparing to set up.  When you give him the “nod” make sure he knows to quietly let the chain slip through his hands and not loudly free fall sportboat style.

Hand over hand to be super quiet

Hand over hand to be super quiet

Be sure the boat is idling in reverse, and actually traveling backwards.  Be patient and wait for the boat to start backing, and resist the urge to add throttle create unnecessary commotion.  Dropping the pick with the boat stationary or drifting too slowly may cause the chain to tangle with the anchor.  If this happens you will slide and have to re-set, and there is nothing stealthy about that.

Even before you drop the anchor you’ll need to be careful when picking a spot to fish.  Using your eyes and even a good pair of binoculars is essential to see the life and conditions before you look at things on the meter.  Driving in power circles over a structure spot or hard bottom area looking for seabass marks will spook the fish you are trying to catch.  A quick “one and done” approach is ideal.   Drive up wind and current over the spot and watch the meter for the structure itself, then as you idle forward you will see the perch, bass then seabass and yellows up current of the structure.  Set up on the fish, not the spot!   If you must reset, look at your compass before pulling the anchor and note which way the boat is sitting.  Repeat the steps as quickly and quietly as possible.

These days bait pumps are often mounted directly to the valve on the through hull, making a constant hum that reverberates off the hull underwater.  Try installing a short section of hose from the valve to the pump to isolate it from the valve and the sounds won’t travel as much into the water.  1″ I.D. hose fits perfectly over the often stock 3/4″ male threads on most pump bases.  Just be sure to use a sealant as well as a quality stainless hose clamp when doing your retrofit, and check carefully for leaks when the boat is in the water.  If the pump is mounted to a bulkhead, try using rubber pads or a section of cut clear hose between the hard pump bracket and bulkhead or stringer of the boat.

2KW inverter on a small boat!

2KW inverter on a small boat!

Doing all the things mentioned above and then running a generator is not going to help you (or the guys around you) catch fish.  In fact, its the least stealthy thing of all.  Some amazing advances have been made regarding inverter designs, they are now more efficient and less expensive than ever.  The #1 problem with most inverter installations is lack of sufficient battery amp hours.  6V golf cart style batteries will give you huge battery backup power and are designed to be discharged completely, and recharged without damage.  Standard 12V deep cycle batteries are designed for starting power, not amp hour storage.

a pair of 6V golf cart batteries are the same size as two group 29 deep cycle, but have 3 times the amp hours are are more efficient.

a pair of 6V golf cart batteries are the same size as two group 29 deep cycle, but have 3 times the amp hours are are more efficient.

Don’t let the “Deep Cycle” on the label fool you, these are not the correct batteries for a boat with an inverter.  8D and 4D batteries fall into the category of insufficient, they are starting batteries, period.  Finally, be sure to have a battery switch that separates the 6V batteries from your engine starting battery so you can get home even if the inverter drained your house batteries completely.

Now that you know the basics for how to be quiet on your rig, you must assume that others are not savvy to this approach.  Being super stealthy then anchoring right next to a guy that is breaking all the rules will wreck it for you, so be sure to give a wide berth when setting up in a crowd.  Avoid jumping on deck or slamming hatches, and hopefully the boisterous guy next to you will send the school your way.

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.

Getting Away From The Crowd: Surfing Our Islands

       Just like with fishing, our local hotspots are overcrowded, making time on the water less enjoyable.  Thankfully, not everyone has the capabilities to to go where absolutely no other surfers are, making these long treks offshore worth while.

Risky is putting it mildly, but for those who are sick of crowds, this is paradise.

I have a couple of clients that use my Captain services to run their boats to our outer islands when a large swell is approaching.  Knowing that a 10 hour plus, nighttime run in a big swell is ahead of me can be unnerving, to say the least.  I’m responsible for these guys, and keep close tabs on each and every one of them in the water.  Fearless by nature, they jump off the boat and into dark waters, paddling without a worry in the world for the uncrowded waves ahead.  I try to snap a few photos, and switch back and forth between camera and binos.   Not a single boatload of surfers have ever crossed our path out here.

All alone on a killer wave.

With todays technology, swell forecasting is amazingly accurate.  These kids (they’re kids to me!) call me and let me know when the waves will hit a certain spot, and when the waves will back off.  It still surprises me how spot on these reports are.  It’s almost down to the minute!   WIthout  a second to spare, we load up their gear (sometimes PWC are towed behind the boat) and are on our way within hours of the initial phone call.

I took this photo while driving the boat. Not familiar with this spot (at all) I saw a set coming and had to run to keep from getting creamed.

CLOSE CALL!!! As I crested the wave, the props came out the water and the boats owner was close enough to see I had just barely made it. He later thanked me for being alert.

Experts only.  These guys have surfed their entire lives, and some of their names you would surely recognize even if you didn’t follow professional surfing.  This is not a place for your average weekend surfer to “check out.”  I surfed everyday for nearly 25 years and would not jump off the boat at most of these breaks, even when I was in my prime.  I quit surfing because of the crowds and drama, and admire these guys for what they do to get away from all of that.

“It’s worth it, every time” says this boat owner and avid surfer. “It’s cheaper than a week in Indo, and even less crowded.”

So if you or someone you know is an expert surfer with a boat large enough to venture far offshore in bad weather, give me a call.  I’ll take care of the boat, and keep an eye on you and your guests.  That way, you can focus on the task at hand, having fun in uncrowded, big, perfect waves far from your home port.