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.

 

WINTERTIME BASS They were always here…..

 

January bull bass

January bull bass


Things have changed with our regulations, not our fishery.  For many years the end of our summer fishing season meant putting all the fancy gear up and breaking out the rock cod tackle.  Local landing boats and privateers headed out to deeper water for some fish taco meat like whitefish, sheepshead, vermillion (reds) and ling cod, and a few even got excited for a bucket full of tasty sand dabs.  That all changed in Southern California when new regulations were put in place to close rockfishing during its prime season (closed from December 31st to February 28th this year).

While a few savvy anglers have always fished wintertime bass and kept it relatively quiet, most had no idea such a fishery even existed or how good it can be.  As groundfish closures were implemented, some sportboat owners began to seek alternatives to rockfish and were pleasantly surprised.

Wintertime twilight

Wintertime twilight

Wintertime twilight trips tested the waters and the word began to spread that there is a viable alternative to 1/2 and 3/4 day “freezer fillers”.

 

Cold water bass are fished completely different than summertime bass.  With a drastically slowed metabolism these fish feed less often, and will make little effort to eat a bait.  Lighter line, smaller hooks and a slower presentation make the difference between getting a bite, or thinking there are no fish at all.

Where to fish changes too, as these bass will stay close to rocky structure, wrecks and reefs.  So tight to the structure as to make local tackle store owners happy with all the lost hooks, leadheads and leader.  Island bass will be right in the kelp, making kelp cutter rigs a necessity more than an option.  Summertime bass will often be suspended above and way up current of structure, and sand bass spawn over soft muddy bottom.  That is not the case with wintertime bass.

Taking the time to set up perfectly make all the difference

Taking the time to set up perfectly make all the difference

Fishing coastal wrecks, reefs and structure will require setting up perfectly on a spot, and all butt the most experienced at this will struggle.  It cannot be expressed enough how important it is to practice and perfect the skill of proper anchoring on structure.  When fishing winter bass this skill will mean the difference between catching a few bass, or catching nothing at all.

Bait fishermen will have much success with live or fresh dead squid fished on a leadhead.

Slow twitch squid/lead head combo bass

Slow twitch squid/lead head combo bass

Rubber chuckers  get bites slowing down their presentation, and fishing right on (and in) structure.  While the bites will be less frequent than times when the water is warm, the size of the catch will be consistently bigger on average during the winter.  Bites will be lazy, but with the bass so tight to the structure you’ll need near perfect timing to pull fish out before they cut you off on the reef they live in.  Other critters will be here too, and remember to release all fish that are restricted by current regulations.

Rebounding rockfish stocks made for good fall fishing.

Rebounding rockfish stocks made for good fall fishing.

Rockfish closures appear to be working, and catches of lingcod, reds and other species were great this past December.

Now the real danger is the new focus on wintertime bass, and only time will tell if more and more anglers targeting them will damage the fishery.  Please be responsible and release what you don’t plan on eating, or release all  bass except those mortally wounded while being caught.  Being part of the solution, and not part of the problem will help ensure this fun winter alternative will continue for generations                       to come.

Fishing Long Beach Harbor

Stormy day halibut inside the breakwall.

I cut my teeth fishing inside Long Beach Harbor.  I was taught how to use visual bearings and line-ups to find hard bottom areas, high relief and even wrecks, and took that knowledge into all the nearshore fishing I do today.  I learned how to figure current and wind directions for a specific spot, and set up on that spot so the transom sits perfectly in position to be able to chum and fish effectively.  This basic principle is instrumental to fishing just about everywhere one might anchor.  Not only did I learn the basic fundamentals here, but I also learned that there are lots of fish to catch in LB Harbor, especially halibut.  Boy, are there a lot of halibut.

Lots of smiles if you learn where to fish.

 

In the early 1960’s the City of Long Beach decided to clean up all the oil derricks along the coastline and build oil drilling islands off the coast (1/2-1 1/2 miles off the beach).   The idea was to construct these islands in a way that not only tapped into one of the biggest oil fields in North America, but make it beautiful as well.  Edge rock was barged over from Catalina Islands now closed West Quarry, and that rock was strategically placed in circular shapes to create and outline four separate islands.  Then, seabed sand was dredged and pumped into the shapes to create the islands that stand today.  Architect Joseph Linesch was hired to design these islands to be both beautiful and functional, and each island was given their names to honor the 1st four astronauts to perish in the US space program.  (Grissom, White, Freeman and Chaffee).  The islands were completed in 1966, but its the way they were dredged and filled that created the dynamic fishery that exists today.

Obviously the constructing of island barriers with quarry rock from Catalina had its follies, and numerous rocks fell short of their mark.  This creates rocky structure we already know makes a fantastic fish haven, and some of these rocks are not on the charts or fished very often.  What really contributes to this fishery is the deep areas and high spots created by the dredging process.  Dredges sent their suction apparatus down and sucked the mud, sand and rock off the bottom, then pumped it through hoses into each of the islands interiors.  As the mud and sand flowed through the dredge hoses, it would create weak spots in that hose for the rock to penetrate and pour out.  The high spots you see on the LB Inner Harbor charts are what happened when the rock poured out through holes in the dredge hose and stacked up in piles on the ocean floor.  Nothing better than a hard bottom high spot next to a deep dredge hole.

These high spots are out away from the islands, and most are on the numerous charts available to the general public today.  They are small, but still easy to find.  An amazing amount of halibut live on the tops of these high spots, waiting for bait to wash over for a quick meal.  I have in the past anchored on these small spots and fished for halibut, with amazing success.  I learned early on that drifting simply does not keep your bait where the fish are long enough to be as effective as anchoring, yet bounce ballers today have great success covering the large flat areas outside of these dredge holes and high spots.  Light tackle works best here, along with the baits that are indigenous to the area and the halibuts favorite foods.  Smelt, herring and tomcod are favorites, but sardines work well too.  Anchovies will get you lots of bites, but a large lizardfish population will frustrate you with small baits.  I have had some success with plastics, but nothing compared to live bait when it comes to big halibut.

There are wrecks in here to find and learn, with opportunities for sand and spotted bay bass, halibut, and even some really good lobster for those who are into hoop netting.  Up against the Northwest, long side of Island Freeman there is a sunken submarine right up against the middle of the rocks.  Its from an old TV show call “Operation Petticoat”, featuring a pink submarine.  Hence the common name for the spot, “The Pink Sub.”  This gets fished a lot, but some good halibut scores come out of here still, especially in the spring and fall.  Another wreck is the “Belmont Wreck”, and this one is even on the charts. I searched extensively for the history of this wreck and found nothing, but what I’ve been told is that it is a small wooden hulled ship that sunk due to a fire.  This spot gets fished heavily and bites are few and far between these days.  Its a great spot to practice setting up however, and the lobster guys do quite well here at night with hoop nets.

Jerry and his son Matt with a “Belmont Wreck” lobster.

I took a client here a couple years ago for lobster and we did very well, but now there are guys on it every night, so the secret is out big time.

LB Harbor is extremely tide sensitive, and during slack low tide times it can be very hard to get a single bite.  Shallow areas and narrow channels get a lot of water movement with the tides, and the openings in the Federal Breakwall are prime spots when the tides are moving in or out.  Bass, halibut and even the occasional legal white seabass can be taken here when the water is moving and bait is present.  The same afternoon winds that can chase you off the Izors or Horseshoe can be very helpful inside the Harbor, creating drifts along productive rocky areas such as Pier J and the Navy Mole.  Again, study the charts to see where quarry rock has tumbled off when the jetty was constructed, or find new ones by metering around on your own.

My mom and I with halibut caught at the Navy Mole, late fall.

 

So take the time and study those Long Beach Harbor charts, its worth your while.  For such a small area geographically, you’ll be amazed to find there is a lifetimes worth of knowledge and possibilities in here.  You can use it as a backup plan for windy days, or take it to the next level and find some great fishing close to home.  We all know the breakwall itself holds millions of calicos and the possibility of a real trophy, but the inside offers as much if not more.  One could write a book on how to fish the Long Beach Inner Harbor, and it would be a thick and comprehensive guide.  I found it very rewarding and productive to learn it on my own, so I will suggest you do the same.  Take the time and explore areas new to you, catch the bait these fish are feeding on, and find out what you’ve been missing all these years.

My sister Marti with an afternoon halibut

One final word on eating the fish you catch from the Long Beach Harbor area.  Tagging studies on halibut and white seabass have shown that these species migrate often and cover long distances.  I have no problem keeping these fish, and feeding them to my family.  Bass however are in question, and this is not the cleanest water in the world to fish in.  I personally release all bass here and inside other harbors such as Huntington and Alamitos Bay.  I don’t have a problem eating the lobsters either.  In a world where we drink too many beers and eat double chili cheeseburgers, a few harbor lobsters are not going to be the food that kills us.  You can use your own discretion.

 

 

 

How To Catch More Fish With YOUR Boat

I used to work at a tackle store that was near the launch ramp in Huntington Harbor, and the shop I worked at catered to private boaters.  So much so, that Rich Holland from the Western Outdoor News (WON) called every monday morning to get what intel we had compiled for the week for the WON “Private Boaters Report” from guys coming back from the ramp.  We were very well connected, and even had a VHF radio on in the store at all times.  Basically, we were information central and knew even the most guarded secret bites at any given time.

The tackle store owner had a 26′ Blackman, I had an 18′ center console, and my parents had a 42′ Uniflite Sportfisher.  To say I fished every time I had a day off is an understatement.  Each week when Rich Holland would call, I’d give him the reports from guys that came by the shop to show off their catch, and the report from what I did on one of the 3 boats mentioned above.  As soon as WON came out on wednesday, my phone would ring from friends and family that saw my name in print, yet again.  They’d ask me the same question every week, and I’d give the same answer.  The question “how do you manage to catch SOMETHING every singe week of the year Jeff?”  And my answer “because I fish for what is biting.”  Seems simple enough, right?

Years later I was hired to run the “RailTime” 6-pak boat out of Huntington Harbor.  Nine times out of 10 the clients would get on the boat and ask me where we were going, and what we were going to fish for.  Those were successful trips.  The other times guys would get on the “RailTime” and TELL me what THEY wanted to fish for.  “We want to catch albacore” they’d say.  “That’s great!  But the albies are not biting, the seabass are.”  I seriously had trips where the guys were so set in their ways, that they’d demand that we go albacore fishing, even if they were not biting.  “We booked and paid for this trip last year, and paid for an albacore trip!”  “Fine.”  Then we’d go catch nothing, and I’d be a “lousy captain” at the end of the trip because we caught nothing.  Starting to see my point here?

These days being able to have all the latest fishing information is as easy as ever, and I still hear from guys that go looking for fish that are not biting.  I’ll get a call from a guy that wants to know what is biting and I’ll tell him that the seabass are biting good up at the Channel Islands, and ask for him to give me a call after his trip so I can hear how it went.  The next day I get the call “well, we went thresher fishing off Dana and never got a bite!”  Seriously?  “How did the seabass dope I gave you turn into a thresher trip?” I’d ask.  Then I get the “my buddy is a great thresher fisherman and he said he gets them all the time where we went.”  Epic fail.  If a guy just fished for what is biting every time he went out, he’d have photo albums filled with smiling faces and big fish, from cover to cover.

Even the simplest of details seem impossible for some to adhere to.  Again I get a call from a guy that wants to know what is biting.  I tell him “the seabass are biting inside Eagle Reef, Catalina Island.  Set up in front of Howlands Landing and fish all night, in 90′ of water and put out your squid lights, even if you have a tank of squid already.  Then, fish jigs tipped with squid off the bottom and dropper loops with 2 or 3 squid pinned on.  Then, call me when you get back with a report.”  Next day the phone rings “when we left the mooring in Avalon at 7am and headed for the spot…………”  I am always amazed at how these guys are surprised that they caught nothing at all.

If you really want to catch more fish on your boat, just fish for what is biting, where it is biting, and when it is biting.  I KNOW, it sounds SO simple, yet it remains impossible for most guys to do.  There is always an excuse:  “my buddy was seasick” or, “it was rough and windy.”  These are the 3 things you need to know before you plan a trip, and leave the dock.  Not what the water temp was, or what pound line the fish are biting.  Just what, where and when.

This summer we had stellar sand bass fishing on the Flats, but mostly in the afternoon and evenings.  During the day it was hard to even get a bite most days, yet I heard over and over how bad the fishing was for sand bass.  Really!?  “Did you fish at night?” I’d ask.  “No, we fished from 8am til noon, when the wind came up.”  No wonder you never got a bite!   Same goes for the guys fishing the kelps offshore for the phenomenal dorado fishing we’ve had this year.  I’d tell guys to “get out early and find the right kelp by yourself” only to get the call after their trip saying it was too crowded at the bait receiver when they were in line for bait at 7am.  Amazing.  You might as well fish without hooks.

As I write this there is some really good fishing for tuna, yellowtail and dorado on the 1010 Trench.  A simple evening departure and a slow (fuel conserving) trip out to the grounds puts you there at dawn, and you can be done with a full fish hold and some great photos before 8am and on your way home, with still more chances of catching a fish on the way back.  Yet I keep hearing of guys that traveled the same mileage upon inner waters for nothing, and too many boats.  How hard can it be to fish where the fish actually are, and where they are biting?

Today I still get the same phone calls from the same people asking the same question.  “Man, you are on fire!  How do you do it!”  I give the same answer “simple, I just fish for what is biting.”  Now you try it, and see what happens.