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A Guide’s Guide to San Clemente Island

lead photo sc isalndPut plainly, running to San Clemente Island is a commitment that many private boaters are reluctant to make. The main reason is that it’s a pretty damned long run from any launch ramp, the shortest being the 55-mile crossing between Newport Harbor and the west end. Factor in unpredictable naval closures and a general lack of private boater fishing intel coming from the island and you’re left with a pretty strong argument to fish closer to home.

But this article isn’t about staying closer to home. It’s about fishing San Clemente Island. So I asked some professional guides, who fish the island regularly, to share some pointers on how to make that long run pay off.

The island’s calico bass fishery seems to get the most coverage these days, but there are still plenty of opportunities for those who consider calicos a by-catch. Captain Brandon Hayward is definitely one of those guys and he does plenty of non-calico damage on his 23-foot Parker Pilot House. “I’m usually pegged for the coastal white seabass thing, but Clemente is my favorite place to fish, especially early and late in the season; February and October,” Hayward explained.

“My earliest memories of Clemente were fishing yellowtail at White and Purse Seine rocks on the anchor on sportboats; usually with squid, usually in March and April. Classic post-gray swim-throughs where the fish would come up the ridge; we were anchored and on bite before continuing up or down the island. I spent a lot of time in that zone this past fall on charters, but the seals made it impossible to fish on the anchor.”

photo 3While seals are a problem at the island, Hayward suggests that by modifying your techniques you can work around them.

“We troll a lot these days because it gives us a better chance against the seals,” he explained. “But we’re not just randomly dragging baits around, we’re trolling along those same ridges that we used to anchor on. So instead of waiting for the yellows to come to us, we bring our baits to them.”

PRACTICAL PLOTTING

“Clemente is one of those places you can fish off your plotter,” Hayward observes. “There are both shallow and deep ridge lines running along most of the island and the irregularities, like knuckles and offshoots, of those ridges are what aggregate bait and attract fish. If we were going to fish deep water yellowtail and someone told me I could only use my meter or my plotter to work with, I’d choose my plotter; a Furuno NavNet TZ9. If you are just dipping your toes into Clemente, look at topographical charts on your plotter. See all those ridge lines, and how they stack up close to each other, especially on the ends of the island? These are the areas that you’ll want to investigate.”

The eastern part of the island’s backside is another one of Hayward’s favorite zones.photo 4

“Clemente’s squid nests pretty much always hold, especially from May on,” he notes. “While getting on one by yourself, or with a light crowd is great and sounds good on paper, most of the times they are going to get crowded. If you come racing through Pyramid Cove at 6 a.m., good luck on getting a decent spot.

“A couple years ago I made my June fishing Clemente. I’d always be there in the afternoon, sometimes getting a pick on the seabass, but having the opportunity to motor around at night and find the best concentration of squid. Instead of anchoring in the middle of the nest, I would always try to get on an edge of it. If you can sew up a little edge, or an entire bottom or top of the leading edge, you are not going to get surrounded.”

In closing, Hayward had this to offer: “There are not that many private boaters who really know the backside of Clemente, outside of the bass world. I am certainly not one of them. I just do what I do local: Sit and wait and soak it out if I know that the fish are there. Other times you have to look and find them. The best way to pick up on Clemente is through osmosis. Working on sportboats and fishing with different skippers helped lay my foundation. Then when I became a ‘skiff guy,’ I started using recall—and trying some stuff that just looked good on the plotter.”

BACKSIDE BOILERS

Speaking of bass fishermen who really know the backside of Clemente, Captain Benny Florentino has spent decades getting to know every inch of the island and fishes it regularly on his 24-foot Ranger Bahia.

photo 5“I love fishing bass in shallow water and the backside east end of the island is one of my favorite spots to do it,” Florentino says. “There are so many good boiler zones between Pyramid and China Point that you could fish there the entire day and not cover them all.”

The boiler zones that Florentino is referring to are areas where the water meets a rocky shoreline and the swells create turbulent water, which calicos use to ambush prey.

“Fishing tight in an area with a lot of surge is a dangerous proposition if you’re unfamiliar with the area,” Florentino warned. “I always tell guys to err on the side of caution when fishing a new zone. If you’re unfamiliar with the layout of a reef or rocky shoreline, you should watch the area for a while before pulling in. It might take 10 minutes out of your day, but it’s better than pulling in and finding out that every five minutes a big swell rolls through and wipes out the entire reef. Most of the guys that have wrecked their boats doing this have gotten caught inside in an unfamiliar area when a big swell rolled through.”

Florentino says that even when he is fishing a zone he is very familiar with, he will always leave the main motor running and never fish with his back to the water.

“Always keep an eye out and be ready to take evasive action if necessary,” he advises. “I’ll also keep the boat angled in a direction that will allow me to run safely out of the zone if necessary. I see some less experienced guys pull in, drop the troller and fish with there boats pointed at the beach and their backs to the water. That’s just a recipe for disaster.”

With the safety precautions covered, Florentino broke down his approach to fishing the island.photo 7

“All of the fishing that I’m doing is in one to 20 feet of water and I’m doing most of it with just a couple of setups. If I’m fishing a swimbait I’m going to go big and use a 9-inch Big Hammer Sledge Hammer rigged on a 1- to 1 ½-ounce Warbaits Slayer Head. I like darker colors and will usually fish the Toast color or the Red Calico Hunter on a similarly colored head. Since I’m trying to pull fish out of structure, I only use heavy gear. My go to setup is a Shimano Curado 300EJ matched to a 711H Teramar rod, with 65-pound Power Pro Spectra and a 50-pound fluorocarbon leader. When I’m not fishing the swimbait I’m throwing a Tady 45 on a 90H Teramar and a TranX 500 with 80-pound Power Pro and a 60-pound leader.”

Regardless of which bait he’s fishing, his presentation is basically the same.

“I’ll position my boat in a way that will allow me to cast my bait up into the turbulent water, then I’ll retrieve it at a medium to fast pace,” Florentino says. “A lot of guys slow their presentation down during the winter, but I fish the same all year long. If there are bass up in the surge, they’re actively feeding and will have no problem chasing down your bait.San Clemente Island lead

“There is no set formula for which areas are going to produce the most bites, but I’ve always had good results in areas that have rocks with rag kelp around them and lots of surge with some foam that’s next to clean water. If I find a zone like that I’ll usually fish the surface iron parallel to that dirty water edge. I’ve caught a lot of big bass that were using that dirty water as an ambush point.”

DECKER DIARIES

photo 8When it comes to ambush points, the kelp beds that span the backside of the island provide some of the best calico action you’ll find on the coast. Captain Jimmy Decker is no stranger to those beds and had some pointers for targeting calicos in the kelp.

“I fish completely opposite of the way Benny does,” Decker said after I told him about my interview with Florentino. “I’ll always start at the west end of the island and fish my way down the back. I’m also not in a big hurry to get there first thing in the morning. I know that the stuff Benny fishes bites best early, but the kelp never seems to bite well before 9 or 10 in the morning, so I’ll leave the dock at dawn and cruise over.

“Once I get to the island, I’ll spend a few minutes looking at conditions before rigging up my tackle. I’m checking for water color and clarity and also light conditions; if it’s a cloudy day with off color water I’ll start with a darker bait. If the sun comes out or the clarity improves, I’ll go to a lighter colored bait.”

Decker’s bait of choice is an LK Lures weedless swimbait.photo 14

“I’ll fish either the 7-inch or 9-inch LK on an Abu/Garcia Revo Inshore full of 40-pound Berkley Pro-Spec Braid and a 40-pound Pro-Spec fluorocarbon leader,” he reports. “I’ve got a couple different rods that I like for this but I usually fish my Volatile 80-6 (which is an 8-foot heavy action rod). The gear I fish is a lot lighter than what most guys are using these days. I believe in fishing the tackle you’re comfortable with instead of changing just because that’s what everyone else is doing.”

The same holds true for how one fishes an area, Decker notes.

“You need to find your own rhythm. Kelp beds basically fish the same wherever they are, so I’ll start casting and let the fish tell me what they want on that day. Sometimes they want the bait coming with the current, other times they’ll only bite if you fish against it. Could be a fast wind bite or they might want it slow. Just keep trying different things until you start catching fish and fine-tune it from there.”photo 9

DETAILS, DETAILS

The devil is in the details when fine-tuning a bite, and Captain Duane Mellor of Seasons Sportfishing is one of the best at quickly assessing and assembling the puzzle pieces. “To fully take advantage of a bite, you need to be able to understand what’s happening, why it’s happening and how you can exploit it,” Mellor explained.

“But before you do any of that you need to find areas that have a high probability of holding biting fish. The first thing I’ll look at is the conditions. If I’m fishing a kelp bed I’ll look for current that has the stringers running up or down the island. You can get bit when the current is running toward the beach or out to sea, but it usually makes for tough fishing. You’re kind of stuck with the water temp, color and clarity that the island has on any given day, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Once you’ve found some kelp with current, you’re going to want to find where the food source is in relation to the bed.”

photo 13He advises looking to birds as the best indicator.

“If you see birds flying around or diving on a particular part of the bed, that’s probably where the fish are biting,” Mellor says. “If there are birds sitting in a group near the kelp there’s a good chance that there was something biting there earlier, so it’s worth a look. If there aren’t any birds around I’ll look for bait. If the bait looks relaxed I’d keep looking but if it’s darting around looking scared then you’re in the right spot. If you can find an area of kelp or shallow reef with current, birds and bait it’s pretty much a guaranteed that you’re gonna be tight on big bass at the island, all day long (or until the conditions peter out).”

photo 11Mellor’s weapon of choice when targeting calicos at San Clemente is the surface iron.

“I’ll fish a Shimano Terramar 90XH or Calstar GG90J paired with Shimano Trinidad 20A filled to the top with 65-pound Power Pro and four to five feet of 50-pound fluorocarbon. I recommend fishing whatever jig stick you’re comfortable with, just make sure you get the right jig. I fish Tady 45’s and Starmann 112’s. Getting bit is a combo of matching the hatch and using the best swimming jigs you can find. Mediocre swimmers just don’t get bit as well. If it comes down to it I’ll sacrifice color for a good swimming jig. I’d rather fish a neon green jig that swims good, than a jig painted just like a sardine that swims like crap. But if you can get the best out of both worlds, prepare to have some sore arms by the end of the day.”

 

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  1. […] Fortunately, halibut fishing has been exceptional this year from San Francisco Bay to the Mexican border with many three fish limits the rule. A non-migratory fish, the California halibut grows to over 60 pounds. Best Places to Find Halibut Boat fishermen love to target halibut but fishing for them from the surf is also productive. Open beaches offer a challenge when looking to target halibut. Pacific Coast Sportfishing Magazine – A Guide’s Guide to San Clemente Island. […]

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Wahooooo

Wahoo LeadSo the first wahoo are starting to be caught in our local waters. A Marauder (or similar style bait) seems to be a part of every sportboat’s spread while trolling the tuna grounds. A few boats are having a shot a day, which is incredible considering we are in Southern California not Cabo San Lucas. The chances of catching a wahoo up here this year are as good as they will ever get!

Just as I am writing this, The Helena out Dana Wharf had to get out of the harbor due to the threat of a tsunami from the large earthquake down in Chile. They headed out and put some diving plugs in the water and caught a pair of wahoo in the morning and lost a third. That is crazy!

Likewise, Bill Seiler went out and caught himself one this morning. The great part about the bite this year is that these are really nice fish. His went 58.4 pounds.

I have fished wahoo in a few different locations around the world and it’s funny that almost every place you target them, they are an inshore, deep-structure fish. So when we fish them in Panama, we are very close to shore—like a stone’s throw away (in green water, by the way).

When you troll them in Hawaii, it’s inshore, off some structure. In Mexico, the same seems to be the status quo. Wahoo are considered an inshore fish most places south of the border. Even when we fished them in Australia, they were tight to the reef. On Hurricane Bank, it’s the same deal.

Once the fish get above Mag Bay, they seem to be offshore on floating structure. They are generally seen on kelps up this way, but remember last year? Wahoo stacked up somewhat inshore, off the hard bottom above Oceanside. The 300-foot (or so) hard bottom structure held them and for a week or two, and the guys were able to get a few. We need to remember this when targeting them as going way offshore is not the way to get one. Quite the opposite, actually.

If I were to go looking tomorrow (and I might), I would pull a few deep diving plugs like a Rapala, Yozuri or a Marauder. The plugs don’t need to be far from the boat. Many of you that have fished long-range boats will remember many of the wahoo taken on the troll are taken right in the prop wash.

Another trick that worked like gangbusters for us in Panama was a very large size, natural cedar plug. For some reason, when trolled a little farther back, the wahoo loved them. Any shiny marlin lure—particularly the jet heads or bullet shapes—also seem to get bit real well. If you are willing to take a chance on losing some tackle, you can try to troll without the heavy cable and use some larger mono for leader. Just be prepared that you may lose tackle but will probably gain a few more bites. I would work high spots like the 267, 14 and the ledge from Laguna down to Oceanside in rockfish-style, hard bottom zones. Heck, you may catch your first SoCal wahoo!

 

 

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Understanding Multi-day Bag Limits

lead3Did you know that if you plan an offshore fishing trip lasting more than one consecutive calendar day, and intend to keep bag limits for multiple days, you must file a multi-day fishing trip declaration form with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife before your trip?

A “Declaration for Multi-Day Fishing Trip” form may not be filed for a trip unless the trip is continuous and extends for a period of 12 hours or more on the first and last days of the trip. Also, no berthing or docking are permitted within five miles of the mainland shore during the trip. This is applicable to both private vessels and commercial passenger fishing vessels.

The form must be submitted to the nearest department office for any person aboard such boat to possess more than one bag limit of saltwater fin fish, abalone, lobster and rock scallops. If mailed, it MUST be received at least 48 hours prior to departure. The fee for filing a multi-day declaration is currently $5.92.

With this permit, anglers are allowed to keep full limits for each day of their trip. The only exception to this deals with the new bluefin tuna regulations. Anglers are allowed two fish per day with a maximum of six fish per trip on trips lasting three or more days.

Who is in Charge of MPA Education?

According to a recent press release, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and California State Parks have teamed up to teach California students about the state’s network of marine protected areas (MPAs). Through the wonders of technology, like live videoconferencing and online interactive lessons, thousands of students will now learn about California’s MPAs. The lessons are intended to teach the important role that individual MPAs, and the MPA network as a whole, play in safeguarding California’s marine resources.

The collaborative project is part of California State Park’s PORTS (Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students) program. A free distance learning program, PORTS helps schools meet academic content standards in the context of California State Parks. The program features 10 different state parks and reaches roughly 50,000 students each year.

While this educational outreach was part of the MLPA master plan and looks like a positive thing on the surface, my cynical side couldn’t help but wonder exactly what they were teaching. Well, a quick Google search showed that the program, “Science of Habitat Protection and Restoration,” was designed with the help of the Crystal Cove Alliance. For those unfamiliar with the CCA, they are one of the groups heavily involved with the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition, whose stated goal is to “allow all activities except the killing of marine life.”

While this may sound like an anti-fishing sentiment, the good news is that the CCA has plans for us fishermen. According to their website, their solution would be to ban fishing but “create a partnership that would further conservation efforts as well as provide fishermen with new opportunities for sustainably keeping boats on the water with non-consumptive educational K-12 field trips.” I’m not going to comment on this other than to say that sometimes I really wished I lived in another state.

Reporting Illegal Fishing Activity Just Got Easier

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has made it easier to report illegal fishing activity. Along with their toll free number, they now have a texting option as well as an app.

If you witness a poaching or polluting incident or any fish and wildlife violation, or have information about such a violation, the CDFW recommends immediately reporting it. You can do that by calling the CalTIP number (888) 334-CALTIP (334-2258), 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Another option is to submit anonymous tips to CDFW using tip411. This Internet-based tool from CitizenObserver.com enables the public to text message an anonymous tip to wildlife officers and lets the officers respond back creating an anonymous two-way conversation. Anyone with a cell phone may send an anonymous tip to CDFW by texting “CALTIP,” followed by a space and the message, to 847411 (tip411).

Finally, you can download the free CALTIP smart phone application that operates similarly to tip411 by creating an anonymous two-way conversation with wildlife officers to report wildlife and pollution violations. The CALTIP App can be downloaded for free via the Google Play Store and iTunes App Store.

Be prepared to give the fullest possible account of the incident including the name, address, age and description of the suspect, vehicle description, direction of travel, license number, type of violation and when and where it occurred. You do not have to give your name.

Information from the call is relayed to the CDFW region where the offense occurred and an investigation is undertaken locally. If the information supplied by the caller results in an arrest, the caller becomes eligible for a reward. (Rewards up to $1,000 have been paid.) The case is then reviewed by a volunteer citizen’s group known as the “CalTIP Rewards Committee.” CalTIP rewards come entirely from donations, no state funds are used.

 

 

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Trolling For Trophy Bass

Yack May 2014 LeadWhen it comes to trolling there is much confusion to the everyday angler. Trolling is something that I recommend to all anglers, even the ones who compete on a tournament level. But the technique is more than just putting a bait in the water and dragging it behind your kayak. It’s using the right gear, controlling vessel speed and assessing immediate conditions.

As we look at the art of trolling consider the conditions that you’re experiencing. Are you fishing open water or in the bay? Because fish need structure food and current, you can’t ignore these in your approach. The great thing about trolling is that you’re always moving, and always looking for that reaction bite. Ripping a bait through the water, you are trying to elicit a strike.

As you’re moving, it’s important that you know the ground you’re covering and that first requires a fish finder. And when it comes to these units, it’s vital that you have the option of color and GPS to better interpret the terrain and cover. Bigger bass love hard and structure bottoms like clam beds. These will appear in bold on your sonar as will bait balls and kelp in open water. Inside, when fishing in the bay, it’s important to know where the grass is and how high it rides off the bottom. Knowing those conditions will help you with lure selection.

The right tool for the situation will change your success rate. yack may 2014 #2Everybody has his or her favorite lure, but sometimes that lure is not right for your conditions. When trolling in a kayak you have to use a little horse sense. For instance, in an area with grass where the depth is 10 feet, but the grass rises up four feet off the bottom, you don’t need a 10-foot diver, you need a bait that barely gets down to six feet.

Also, when it comes to color, light penetration in the water affects how bass see your offering. I like to troll dark in the morning and bright during the day. I’ve had particular success with dark crawdad colors in the morning, then changing to a perch or fire-tiger during the day when trolling in the grass. Everybody has his or her favorite color for the different bays that trigger calico bass, but if it does not dive to the required depth, the only thing you will catch is grass or the bottom.

The speed of your kayak will actually determine the depth of your lure. Baits have a depth range, but the longer the line and the faster the speed, they typically run deeper. This is why a GPS is a critical accessory. Your ideal speed for most diving baits is trolling 1.5 to 2 mph. Watching your GPS reading as well as how your lure is performing, you can dial in the right bait for the conditions.

There is some trial and error in the process, but take a DT-6 from Rapala, as an example. You know the depth of your bait selection is 6 feet so at 2.5 mph you will get to that depth. Stay at that speed and the bait will stay right at the tops of the aforementioned grass growing up four feet above the bottom.

The only time speed is not a factor for me is when I’m using a Rapala countdown or ripping bait that sinks. For these I like to “flicker” the baits. You do this by making short paddle strokes or short kicks in your Hobie. When flickering it’s good to have a rhythm pattern to maintain, whether it’s paddle-paddle-stop or short kicks in your Hobie. Bass don’t always respond to a straight retrieve or troll, and putting a little sinking movement to it will make it come alive. But having a baseline rhythm lets you duplicate what’s working, or adjust from what isn’t.

One of my favorite lures to use is the old Berkley Frenzy in the FM10-M series in fire-tiger or perch. This bait has been off the market for some time now and eBay is the only place you can find them, but if you come across some, buy them at all cost! The only problem with this bait is that it dives to 12 feet. For the bay that is a little much, but this bait is perfect for flickering in your kayak on a troll.

I like to swim this bait to about the 8-foot mark. I do this by trolling at a slower speed, something around 1.5 mph. At the full 2.5 mph this bait will reach its maximum depth in seconds. Paddle this bait a few feet and stop and let it float up. If you find that you’re getting hung up too much, slow your troll speed down.

Deep divers also work well in open water for calico bass and sand bass. I see lots of anglers using them in San Diego Bay and the Newport Harbor Channel to get to the depths of those clam beds. Not only are you able to cover lots of water, but it’s also a good way to key on groups of fish holding in structure areas. When in open water kayakers often troll swimbaits for calico bass and when we find one we find the whole clan. When we hook a fish, we mark it on our GPS and then throw finesse baits at it, or make some additional troll passes at it.

I’m often asked what is the best situation for trolling, and believe it or not, it’s a full moon. We hear the fish don’t bite as well at that time of the month because they are foraging through out the night and don’t want to feed. Yet, it’s not so much that they are full but more that they are used to a pattern of eating, from the full moon. Trolling on a full moon gives you the pattern that the fish want, which is a reaction bite. If they are up all night chasing bait duplicate that pattern.

Depth control is more than just lure selection. You might need to switch over the leadcore line to get your bait down into a key zone. Lead core is a way to get away from the downrigger, using a swifter method that’s not so big and bulky. Just remember that with leadcore you need a top shot of no more no less than 30 feet of fluorocarbon leader.

 

 

 

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Finding & Patterning Coastal Yellowtail

Ocotber Yellow tail leadWhether you credit El Niño, blame it on Alaskan high pressure ridging, or think that it’s a byproduct of the warm water blob that’s been lurking in the northeastern Pacific the past couple years, one thing is for certain: 2015 is going to go down in history as the year of the giant coastal yellowtail. I think that a friend of mine summed it up best when he said, “It’s like someone took all the yellows from Cedros Island and delivered them to my doorstep.” In his case that doorstep is the waters off Long Beach, but the amazing part about this year is that it delivered these giant yellows to every doorstep from San Diego to Santa Barbara. During the summer months it was pretty simple to catch one of these trophy yellowtail. Just line up behind the 30 other boats at the bait receiver on Saturday morning, then follow the string of boats to the area that had been biting for weeks, find your spot in the crowd, and commence downloading of fish. Though not my cup of tea, this pattern worked extremely well for thousands of boaters every week.yellowtail 2

But summer is over and as we transition into fall and winter, there’s not always going to be a crowd of boats around to show people where the yellowtail are biting. In my opinion, that’s a good thing! The fish are still around and unless something drastically changes, they should be here through next summer. So why not use these off-season months to fine-tune your fishing techniques? That way when things do start to get crowded again, you’ll have the confidence to drive away from those crowded areas and find your own fish. Here are some simple steps to get you pointed in the right direction.

Pregame Preparation

Before you can make an accurate prediction as to where fish might be biting, you need to understand where they were biting and the reason they chose that particular location to bite. Using this year’s hot August yellowtail bite off Long Beach as an example, let’s break down the where, when and how.

This bite started out at the 150 spot, which is a hard bottom area that lies between the Horseshoe Kelp and the deepwater rockfish areas off Long Beach. The 150, like almost every spot along the coast that has produced big yellows this year, is a large hard bottom flat adjacent to deeper water. It’s impossible to say for certain why these spots have been holding yellows, but I’d venture a guess that it has something to do with upwellings.yellowtail 3

These upwellings are the result of deep-water currents running into the coastal shelf. This impact results in all of the plankton and other nutrients these currents carry getting pushed up toward the surface. These plumes of nutrients attract bait fish, which tend to school near the deep water edges of the flats, and the aggregations of bait fish in turn attract the attention of any yellowtail cruising along those same deep water currents.

This year it seemed that most yellowtail bites started around the new or full moon. I’m venturing another guess here, but those lunar periods also have the largest tide swings and strongest currents. Stronger currents mean increased upwelling and larger plumes of nutrients. Theoretically this would lead to increased baitfish activity and greater drawing power for the yellowtail that are passing by in deep water.yellowtail 7

As the lunar cycle moved away from the extremes, the yellowtail tended to spread out this summer. In the case of the August bite, the fish that had been biting on the 150 spread out and started biting on the Horseshoe Kelp itself. It’s interesting to note that the two best bites were around the 105 area and the Rockpile. The 105 area is a no-brainer as it lies directly adjacent to the 150, but the move to the Rockpile isn’t as easy to explain as the fish would have to swim a good distance to get there and pass plenty of prime habitat on the way. The story becomes a lot clearer if you look at a chart of the area. While similar in depth and topography to the rest of the Horseshoe Kelp, the Rockpile area has one thing the rest of it doesn’t: deep-water access. With Fermin Canyon abutting it to the west, the Rockpile has the same potential to upwell and aggregate baitfish as the 150. So it makes sense that the fish would show up there as well.

yellowtail 8If you fished for yellowtail during the first half of this year, you know that we had a huge influx of red crabs in many areas. Well, those red crabs are carried by the same currents that carry nutrients, baitfish and yellowtail. So it’s no surprise that they first showed up in the exact same areas that have produced the most yellowtail this year. So, how is my long-winded explanation supposed to help you figure out where to catch yellowtail? It’s actually pretty simple. The first step is to get a chart and look at the bottom topography of areas where you know that yellows have been caught this year and then look for other areas that have similar features. These features include water depth, terrain, orientation to the coastline and whether or not they are adjacent to deep water. Once you’ve found a few areas like that it’s time to get out on the water and start looking.

Game Day

Things can happen really fast when you’re prospecting for yellowtail away from the fleet. Hours of fruitless searching can turn into seconds of opportunity and if you’re not ready, you might miss your only shot of the day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been driving, saw a couple birds starting to act right, pulled back the throttle, grabbed my rod and got a jig in the air just seconds before a big yellow came up crashing on bait. Those casts don’t always result in hook ups, but if I’d have waited even 30 seconds longer, I probably wouldn’t have had any shot at all.yellowtail 4

To keep things simple, I’ll forgo a stop at the bait receiver when targeting yellows, as I’ve found they’ll bite the jig just fine when they aren’t getting run over by a fleet of boats. By the same token, yellows that pop up on bait fish don’t seem to be too picky about what jig you’re throwing. So, I’ll normally have a yo-yo jig, like a Tady 4/0 heavy, tied on my jig stick. This lure gives me the flexibility to drop the jig on deep meter marks or fast wind it on the surface if the fish pop up. If it seems like it’s mostly going to be a surface bite I’ll trade out the yo-yo jig for a Tady 45 light.

Now that you’ve got your tackle and an idea of the areas you’d like to check out, it’s time to get to work. The first thing you’ll want to do when you arrive in your zone is to attempt to locate and identify a food source. Yellows will eat just about anything, but the ones on the coast this year have been keyed in on three basic things; red crabs, anchovies and sardines.yellowtail 9

If you find any of these three in an area that you believe has the potential to produce yellowtail, you can get a good idea of whether or not there is any predation occurring by observing the posture of the baitfish. I’d immediately rule out any area where the baitfish appear to be completely relaxed as happy bait fish are not usually conducive to good fishing. If you can see the baitfish in the water and they are doing anything other than running for their lives, the yellows probably aren’t around. The same holds true for the baitfish you’ll see on the meter. Evenly spread and fuzzy schools of bait are no good, nor are long strings of crab that meter like a wide thermocline. Baitfish that are having a bad day show up as small tightly grouped balls or broken and sporadic lines of crab. Find that and you won’t even need to meter the yellowtail to know that you’re in the right zone as the harassed bait schools have already told you everything you need to know.yellowtail 5

Another extremely valuable tool in the war on yellowtail is the common tern. These birds, more than any other species, are the ones to watch when looking for fish. Find some terns spiraling and picking over a specific spot and you can be sure that there is some sort of feeding activity occurring below them.

It’s going to take some time spent observing tern behavior before you’ll get a good understanding of what these birds are telling you, but the basics of it are pretty simple. Despite being small and hyper looking, terns are actually very relaxed and efficient birds. So, if you see a group of them that are just cruising around and occasionally diving down to pick something off the water, those birds are simply biding their time while waiting for something to happen.

yellowtail 10One thing I’ve noticed is the higher the tern is flying, the deeper whatever it’s tracking is in the water column. So, if those lazily high flyers suddenly get low and start flying urgently, it’s time to get that jig in the air. The yellows are about to pop.

Once you’ve located fish, these birds will also help you to keep track of their direction of movement. When yellows are feeding on the surface, they’ll usually attract seagulls, pelicans and cormorants, as well as terns. But when those fish start moving, it’s going to be the terns that are on the front edge of the assault. So, you’ll want to remain off to the side of those birds while running well ahead of them and then shut down and wait for them to come within casting range before firing a jig.

Post Game

One of the biggest mistakes we make as anglers is to attribute our success to our own awesomeness rather trying to figure out exactly why we caught fish. To improve as anglers, we need to look past that and spend a few minutes breaking down our trip and looking at what worked and what didn’t. This isn’t as much fun as patting yourself on the back, but done properly, this post mortem will lead to theories as to why things turned out the way they did. Your job on the next trip is to put those theories to the test and see if you’ve actually figured something out or if you just got lucky.yellowtail 11

They say that good fishing never made anyone a good fisherman. But this year’s opportunities for success on the water are as good as they’ll probably ever be in Southern California. So, why not get out there, catch some yellowtail and focus on building confidence in your ability to go out and find your own fish? You’ll be way ahead of the game when the fishing goes back to normal.

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Chasing Ghosts on Fin Bait with Mackerel in the Tank, Treat Seabass to Ham & Eggs

lead photoEarly June 2011. About 10 miles off Newport Beach. Headed on a course to the east end of Catalina Island.

It is late afternoon and I have my boat Prospector running on auto pilot when my iPhone beeps from a text coming in. Surprised that I still have cell coverage, I check the message and instantly pull back the throttles. My friend Rob Stewart sent me a photo of his son Shane with his first white seabass, a beautiful 30-pound class fish.

While I am excited for his catch, I am even more excited when I further examine the photo. The text reads: “Shane got his first one on fin bait.” Looking closer, I see in the background a clear outline of the AES Huntington Beach power plant, one of the stock spots for the commercial bait boats out of Newport Harbor.

On our run back to the beach, we take a look around the area in front of the power plant and find it stacked from the surface down to five fathoms with schools of anchovies. Another positive sign is it’s swarming with mackerel and short barracuda that are herding the fin bait to the surface. After a few unsuccessful drifts and mapping out the west and east edges of this zone, we anchor up on some structure just down the beach and decide to hit it again at first light.

As we slide into the area in the dark, Rob Stewart on the All In is back on his numbers from the day before and into fish—big white seabass. It doesn’t take long for us to get wired; jigs, live sardines and mackerel are all working on a hungry school of seabass. The fish are keyed in on the bait schools and biting. Within an hour, all three of us have a limit of seabass on the deck and are headed back to Newport by 8 a.m. Better yet, we have caught all of our fish on 12-pound tackle while competing in the annual Tuna Club Seabass Tournament, which we end up winning from that single text from Rob Stewart. Gracias, amigo!

While many of us associate seabass fishing with squid or using live or fresh frozen squid, February through May these past few seasons were tough months to locate squid. Under these conditions, if you’ve got the itch to hunt for whitey, here are a few tips on how to turn early season fin bait into trophy croaker trips.photo 1

Time of Year

Nobody knows for sure when and where these “ghost” seabass make their annual migration back down into Northern Baja—possibly far offshore. As days roll into spring, scattered schools of white seabass migrate north in pursuit of food. Similar to the Atlantic bluefin tuna swimming north to feed on shoals of herring and mackerel in Nova Scotia, white seabass are opportunistic feeders and will migrate north to feed on schools of anchovies, sardines, mackerel and even barracuda to fatten up for spawning season.

And when squid show up along the coast and islands (and there is a great chance for this to occur from the spawning that occurred this past winter), we will have even more opportunities to target seabass. But, for the days, weeks or months of fishing without squid, anglers need to find the fin bait to locate seabass.

One of the best and easiest places to start is to check the reports on Fishdope.com. Not actual seabass reports, if you’re reading about it it’s likely too late, but the “Live Bait Updates” posted on the first page. When I start seeing reports such as “fresh batch of 4-5-inch anchovies in Newport,” that tells me the local bait boat has something to work with close. Anchovy updates are my favorite and sardines would be my next best option.

Making Bait

Whether you’re a private boater with a receiver at your boat slip or merely launching that day, the first order of business is to catch a tank of mackerel. Although live sardines have caught plenty of seabass, when fishing with live mackerel you eliminate most of the smaller coastal gamefish and can fine tune your game to white seabass or bust.

photo 2Catching mackerel is the easy part, if you time it right and bring the proper bait-making tools. The first order of business is to buy seafood flavored cat food in bulk quantities. Cat food is your chumming source and without it your mackerel catching will be limited. Next, have onboard either a bag of Gulp! or a frozen pack of squid or anchovies. I cannot stress this enough: mackerel get picky just like other gamefish and will not commit to the sabiki rigs without a little piece of bait or scent on the hook. Countless times I have watched other private boaters next to us trying to catch bait. They had plenty of cat food and mackerel around the boat but without some “flavor” or flesh on the hook they got no bites.

While every harbor has their stock bait (mackerel) spots, if you have a friend or contact that has been out the day before, ask the important questions for catching mackerel. What time? What depth? You want to narrow it down. Some trips mackerel will only bite right at gray light while other days the job (making bait) is done in a matter of minutes.

All the more knowledge you can gather is to your advantage.

Size does matter fishing for the ghosts, and the best mackerel are the 10- to 14-inch greenbacks. White seabass have extremely large mouths and have no problem inhaling a foot-long mack. Even short barracuda see their lives cut short by a trophy seabass. Have a hook release tool ready and drop them right into the live bank tank from the sabiki rig.

Tip: If the macks are super finicky, try fly lining a small piece of squid on a No. 8 hook and 6-pound leader (a Stotesbury tip from 1991 marlin season). For a morning of seabass fishing, plan on having 15-20 baits. Sure, you can catch fish with only a few, but it’s proven the boat with fresh baits gets the bites when white seabass fishing.

Signs & Strategy

There are several ways to locate fin bait such as anchovies or sardines. Based on where you’re fishing along the coast, in my usual haunts from Oceanside to Huntington Beach I like to stitch back and forth along the 15-20 fathom lines. Your plotter will look like a bunch of “Ws” as you work along this depth range. I put my Furuno Nav Net on a split screen with both plotter and sounder screens. While the captain is monitoring the electronics, the crew should be glassing around the boat for bird life—think pelicans and terns, a dead giveaway to anchovy or sardine schools. If the water is flat or glassy, look for nervous water spots or patches of water that is rippled from schools of fin bait.photo 3

Strategy is also key in your seabass hunt. I am a believer in early morning and late afternoon seabass bites, so middle-of-day hours are a good time to make a move or call it a trip and head into the office. If the morning bite doesn’t work out or you are unable to locate any sign to work with, run to a new area or switch tactics to maybe target structure spots for the afternoon tide—and maybe time to check the menu.

Ham & Eggs

I first learned about this technique maybe 12 or 15 years ago while fishing out of San Quintin. Our panga guide stopped on a patch of fin bait on the way to fish a pinnacle for yellowtail. As we approached the school of anchovies being terrorized by mackerel, the guide nose hooked one of our live mackerel baits onto a large Krocodile and let the Kroc and mack rig flutter down into the depths. I was thinking lingcod or chucklehead rockfish when he swung and came tight. After a few short powerful head shakes and some decent runs down the beach, I sunk the gaff into his 30-pound plus white seabass with the front ring of the Krocodile barely showing from its jaw. Ham and eggs, baby!

photo 4While there has been a few modifications to ham and eggs or “the cheeseburger” (another pseudonym) over the years, the technique and concept remain the same. Along with the 2 ¼-ounce Krocodile, other good ham and egg jigs are the chrome Tady 9 and Salas Christy II.

All chrome is popular, and some of the local Newport seabass slayers swear by green/white on bright days and blue/chrome on overcast days. Support the industry: Buy a dozen of various colors for every condition.

On all these jigs, there is a must-have hook conversion for both function and holding power. I still have nightmares from my green horn days of losing what was quite possibly the biggest seabass (60 pounds-plus) of my fishing career. It won its freedom when the treble hook straightened out on my Christy II at color! Ouch. That being said, I use bolt cutters to cut off the stock treble hook.photo 9

Tip: Wear eye protection if you do it because the hook or parts of it occasionally fly back at you.

Next, take a Mustad Siwash 7/0 hook and secure the eye of the hook in the jaws of a vise. The stainless-steel eye is easily bent open just enough to slide the back ring of your lure into the eye of the hook. Then, slowly bend the gap closed in the eye and the lure (ham) is ready for the eggs (mackerel).photo 5

Tip: On Tady 9s and Salas Christy II’s, the point of the hook should ride out, perpendicular to the flat side of the jig body for the best jigging action.

The tackle needed for this technique is very basic. I like a Penn Squall 30 lever drag reel with 30-pound Big Game line. I am not yet convinced that white seabass are two-speed reel gamefish, but knock yourself out if you want to use your two speed tuna tackle for this type of fishing. Matched to a seven-foot medium action rod, something like a 700M graphite stick or a glass 670 or 870 style rod, and the ham and egg stick is ready for action.

Many trophy seabass captains like Brandon Hayward stick to their big guns with this fishery and have their clients fish 50- or 65-pound spectra on fin bait schools. Big guns equal big seabass.

Then, likely on the same school of fish, top light tackle anglers like Vic Summers on the Sleeper will regularly catch 40- and 50-pound plus seabass on 6- and 8-pound tournament monofilament. When fishing bait schools over a sandy generic bottom, the success rate is high since these big fish can be played out on both heavy or light gear.

Whether you are using braid or monofilament, tie on a small barrel swivel to the main line and a five-foot section of 40- or 50-pound fluorocarbon leader to the lure. The swivel prevents line twist and the fluorocarbon leader is for protection against the small sharp teeth of trophy seabass.photo 6

Deploying the ham and eggs rig is all about zone coverage. Visual and electronic signs show anglers where the bait schools are in relation to the bottom. Next, grab a live mackerel from the tank, gently nose hook it across the nose, and free spool it down into the depths. If you see “worms” or sausage looking marks on the sounder, those are the ghosts. Try to count off fathoms of line to place the ham and eggs in the same depth.

If you are marking schools of bait but not gamefish, then drop it down to the same level as the fin bait. Stagger a few outfits at different depths (another reason for bringing a tankful of live mackerel). The ham and egg rig is fished in free spool and on the bite I like to lower the rod tip down toward the surface, count to three, go into gear and swing and come tight on the fish. It takes the fish a couple seconds to turn a big mackerel head first and down its hatch.

Tip: If you miss the fish or feel the fish drop the bait, drop into free spool and very likely the fish will come back for another bite.

photo 7Sometimes while fishing solo, I like to fish two ham and egg rigs and will work one outfit and leave the other one in gear with clicker on and drag set at 25 percent of line strength. If the unattended rod bounces, lower the rod and drop in free spool then swing. When I am marking scattered bait but no real concentration of depth, I like to drop the ham and eggs rig down until I cannot see it or any flash and then put the reel in gear. With a couple outfits deployed off the stern and a slow drift on the fin bait, you are clearly setting yourself up for a coastal slab (Charlie Albright version for large seabass).

As I said before, the beauty of fishing live mackerel pinned onto a jig is there are only two local gamefish that really eat the ham and eggs: thresher sharks and trophy seabass. The thresher sharks are usually identified right away from the “whack” on the bait and then they will swim back around and eat. Only once have I caught anything other than t-shark or seabass, and it was a black seabass that was out chasing anchovies in the mud. For true trophy hunting on schools of fin bait, it’s arguably one of the best rigs along our coast.photo 8

 

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Giant Bluefin Tuna: The True King of Game Fish

Lead Giant BluefinSteaming out of the North Lake Harbour on Prince Edward Island, your mind can only imagine what you may encounter. Articles you may have read, videos you may have seen and stories that sound like pure fiction fill your thoughts. Could this place be everything that you have been told it is? You’re damn right!

The sound that a 130-size reel spooled with 200-pound Dacron makes when a giant bluefin tuna takes the bait only feet from the transom is almost impossible to describe. As is an initial run of 300 or 400 yards of line effortlessly stripping off the reel by a fish that is so large it’s hardly bothered by 40 or 50 pounds of drag. Then there’s the throbbing tail beats that lift you out of the fighting chair with the fish straight down at color. The vision ends, watching the fish of your lifetime swim away after a clean release.

At the island we chose to fish with Tony’s Tuna Fishing on this adventure. I fished with Capt. Tony MacDonald’s fleet back in 2012 and was extremely pleased. MacDonald was the first to bring the catch and release charter idea to the island. He runs a fleet of six boats, all equipped with fighting chairs and high end tackle. Each craft is a converted lobster boat in the 45-foot range—and is built like a tank.

The tackle ranges from 130 reels on large, bent butt rods to 80-size reels and stand-up rods for the daring angler. A key to his operation’s success is that his fleet works together. They are constantly on the radio or cell phone finding out who is hooked up or where the school of fish is located.

All of his captains fish the same areas and follow the same protocol. We have fished with three different boats in the fleet and have had great experiences on each. My favorite part of the trip is when the fleet breaks out the bag of mussels and cooks them right there on the boat to enjoy. After a whole morning of eating lobster sandwiches, “making room” is tough, but I had no problem! These are just a couple of the added perks with Tony’s fleet.photo 1

This particular trip included Scott Dahlem from PCS and my buddy Joe Zammit from Australia. Both had heard the stories and viewed the videos and photos. They had seen the mount of the 900-pounder at the office, but nothing takes the place of seeing things first hand. Anticipation was high as Scott and Joe prepared for the trip; weekly emails from Joe were filled with questions of how things would go down. Daily conversations with Scott and viewings of the last trip kept the excitement in the air. But three weeks before the trip, Scott had an accident and fractured his leg. Because it was a fracture and not a full break, the doctor gave Scott the choice of a hard cast or a soft brace. Scott chose the soft brace knowing that this was his only shot he would have at catching a giant in his condition; there was no way to fight in the chair with a hard cast on.

We decided to stay in one of Tony’s well-appointed cottages just a mile from the harbor. There are three, each equipped with stove, refrigerator, microwave, barbecue and all the utensils and dishes. They are two bedrooms—one with a larger bed and one with two smaller beds. You can also sleep a guy on the couch. The price is comparable to a smaller room down in Souris, but then you would have to drive a bit to the boats each day. These were literally right down the street from the boat.

A great feature that the cabins offer is that Tony and Bradley’s mother will make you a lobster dinner with potato salad, scallop bake, coleslaw and a dessert for a minimal fee. Let me tell you, there is nothing like a home-cooked meal! One night we grabbed some mussels and steamed them up at the cabin as well. The town of Souris is a short 20-minute drive away and has a few restaurants to enjoy if you want to head out to dinner instead.photo 2

When we arrived at the island, we headed up to North Lake to see the boats return from the day trips. We talked with a few of Tony’s deckhands and captains and found out the fishing that day had been nothing short of outstanding, with all six boats in his fleet catching two giants apiece! The docks were hopping with a nice 800-pounder that was weighed in by one of Tony’s boats. To put it lightly, sleep was tough with the anticipation of giants the next day.

Let the Games Begin

Capt. Bradley MacDonald had us meet him at the boat for a 7 a.m. start. When we arrived, his deckhand Matt had everything ready on the boat so we shoved off to the grounds. The winds were light and the day was off to a great start. Shortly after leaving the harbor we arrived to the live bait grounds to catch mackerel. After jigging for a bit, we had a tank of large mackerel and were ready to head over to the area of the herring fleet, just a short mile away. Once we arrived we got word that it had blown pretty hard the night before and the fleet had just recently set their nets. They were not marking giants like the day before so we moved a half mile or so away and started a drift.

Here they typically will fish three live bait rigs while blind drifting. One is fished deeper, rubber-banded off to a water bottle as a float a short way from the boat. The next one has a water bottle as well but is a bit more shallow and closer to the boat. These are rigged up with 180-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon and a Mustad circle hook on a Okuma Makaira 130 or a PENN International 130-sized reel since we chose to use the fighting chair. The last rig is flown off a kite. One great part about the kite is that you can use a larger hook and larger leader such as the 400-pound we were using since the line isn’t dangling in the water. This also gives the bait lots of action as it thrashes on the surface.

The deckhands will typically cut herring and mackerel chunks for bait and toss a couple every few minutes on the drift. When they mark a tuna they will then begin to throw whole fish as chum. As you watch the meter you can tell if the fish responds to the chum as he will move up in the water column. Early on we marked a couple fish but they were not interested in what we had to offer. As the day went on it became apparent that the fish had moved off the feeding grounds for the day.

As Capt. Bradley called around, we learned the other boats weren’t even marking fish. After finishing up our mussel snack we actually marked another fish and shortly afterward our short rod got smashed. Unfortunately, the fish didn’t eat the bait down far enough and we never came tight.photo 3

I am pretty sure we were the only boat in the fleet to have a bite that day and that situation is a prime example of why you always want to book a minimum of three days when going on a big game fishing trip. There are many factors that come into play when chasing monsters, including weather, migration and feeding schedules. If you book the minimum three days, you will make sure you get your shot. Also try and keep it to three guys or less per boat to ensure that everyone gets their shot over those days. Piling six guys on a boat for a couple of days will not get the job done. Knowing that the fish had been there the day before and that they moved in and out of the feeding zone, it was obvious things could change on a dime. And boy, did they!

A Brand New Day

Day two started off with the typical bait catching, which was done very quickly, then off to the herring fleet. Unlike the previous day, however, fish were being marked. The baits were set out in the same fashion, but this time the marks were frequent. Still, they weren’t responding to the chum too well so minds began to wander. Then all of the sudden the kite rod got crushed. It looked as if someone had dropped a car in the water!

Joe quickly jumped on the rod and climbed in the fighting chair. His fish made a huge run out to sea showing no sign of slowing down. Bradley then jumped on the throttle and started the chase. The Australian had battled a giant 800-pound black marlin on the Great Barrier Reef, so he was no novice to the fighting chair. Once the fish settled down, he was able to gain ground and work the fish toward the boat.

The fish was tough and made some head shakes that pulled Joe around like a rag doll. After the first 30 minutes he pushed the drag forward, driving the pressure upwards of 45 pounds. The fish succumbed and within 15 minutes we had the fish boatside. We got a clean measurement and judging from its giant girth, they estimated the fish at around 850 pounds, a personal best. It was a great feeling seeing a friend experience something for the first time. After some photos Joe cut the fish loose and it swam away to battle again.photo 4

Later in the day it was Scott’s turn on the rod. The captain set us up a bit outside the herring fleet to avoid the risk of losing fish. Fishing near the herring nets can be dangerous as the fish tend to run straight for them, tangle and break off. Just outside of us a commercial boat was doing battle with a giant and just inside of us a charter boat was hooked up for a time but hung up in a couple of nets.

While we gawked at the boats around us doing battle, Matt noticed a few marks on the meter. He started chumming heavily while Capt. Bradley carefully let out a live mackerel to get a natural look. Within seconds the line ripped from his hands and we were on!

Scott jumped on the rod, but at first the fish didn’t do much, pulling a little line then shaking its head in succession. The guys briefly thought we were hung up in something, but eventually the fish started peeling line. Scott handled the fish remarkably well in the chair even with the busted-up leg. The fish was tough and did a lot of fighting on the surface in the final minutes.

Once we got the fish to leader, it was the perfect size to harvest and the boys brought out the gear to keep the fish. Each commercial boat is given one tag to harvest a bluefin for the year. The fish was quickly lip hooked and let out behind the boat to calm down. We then slowly maneuvered into the harbor to weigh the fish. I am guessing this was a first to have a guy with a broken leg catch a giant bluefin up there. On the scale the fish hit 649 pounds, nice and round, just the way they want them.

In Pursuit of a Grander

On the final day, with my guests having landed the fish they had come for, it was my day to try and hang the grander. Dad let one go last trip that was well over 120 inches and way over the mark, and I had one that was 113 inches. It looked as if it may have made it, but without hanging it on the scale we really couldn’t call it. (We were prepared, though, as Capt. Tony had a tag and would use it on this voyage if the fish was over the mark.)

We caught bait quickly and jetted off to the herring fleet. Tony had got a call from his uncle that the bluefin were feeding right off his starboard side. We slid up and watched an amazing show of power while we fed giants boatside. Most were in the 500- to 800-pound range, but one big one stood out and looked to be well over the thousand-pound mark. We tried to lure the bluefin away with chum but could not get them to budge.

photo 5Eventually, Tony got the okay from his uncle and we dropped a bait. Our fingers were crossed as the fish would have to swim away from the nets to be landed. For our respect for the herring fleet, if the tuna went toward the nets, we would have to button the drag and break off the fish.

Our deckhand Cory slid a herring with a hook in it over the side along with a few free swimming baits. Right away the big one ate our offering and we were on. We knew the chance we had taken. Unfortunately, the brute ran right at the fleet and Tony gave the order to lock down the drag.

Sometimes you get lucky and the fish respond and come with you, but when you are talking about granders they don’t walk on the leash well and we broke it off. Still, we slid back up for one more shot at the tuna. We were on again instantly, but the same scenario played out quickly.

Our captain was frustrated and made a move outside the herring boats so we could get our fish. The move worked out and we were bit quickly. And this time the fish ran the right direction and gave us quite a show with some outstanding runs. We pushed the drag up quickly and it fought straight up and down for a half an hour. Cory grabbed the leader when the fish was boatside. It was another beautiful giant but not the one we were looking for—maybe 600 pounds—and it was released.

High fives went around and we gave it one more effort seeing charter boats are allowed to release two per day. We ran over to Tony’s herring net and tied off for a spell. We started marking quickly but they were not responding.photo6

About an hour went by and we saw a small swirl under the kite bait. We ran back with the cameras and started filming. We witnessed one explosive strike after another but it just wouldn’t stick. Then as we watched a fish swirl on it one more time, our short rod got bit. We were literally seconds away from having a double hook up on giants!

The fish started peeling line and I jumped in the chair. This fish fought the entire time on the surface, which can be a sign of a big one. We inched the drag farther and farther up as the battle went on and the bluefin swam around on the surface, almost taunting us to catch it. After 50 minutes it came to leader and Cory pulled it alongside. It was a monster, but not a guaranteed grander. The call was made to let it go, and after photos the fish swam into the depths.

Clearly, this was another amazing trip with Tony’s Tuna Fishing. A life-changing experience is one way of putting it, but I am still wanting more. I cannot say enough about his captains and crews. They are the most professional and courteous people in the business, and I wouldn’t choose to fish with anyone else. I will be back next year in pursuit of a confirmed grander.

Note: The season runs from the end of July to well into October and fish are present the entire time. To book your own adventure of a lifetime, log onto www.tonystunafishing.com and book your dates for next year before they are sold out.

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Man Against Monsters

The Story of Legendary Sword Fisherman Ted Naftzger, Jr.

Man Against Monsters May 2014Men often fight monsters, both in fairy tales and in real life … sometimes by fate and sometimes by choice.

R.E. (Roy E.) “Ted” Naftzger, Jr. and the monsters he chose as adversaries were swordfish in Southern California, black marlin at Lizard Island and giant bluefin tuna on the East Coast.

A California native, Naftzger graduated from Stanford in 1946, received a degree in history from the University of Southern California in 1948 and ultimately a master’s in 1986. A cattle rancher, as well as a highly respected numismatist of some 60 years and a world-class angler, he passed away on Oct. 29, 2007. He was 82. Naftzger was survived by his wife, Pauline; three daughters, Natalie Davis, Sandra Dritley and Nancy; plus six grandchildren.

His contributions to recreational angling were extraordinary. He was inducted into the IGFA Hall of Fame, was an IGFA trustee from 1979 to 2002 and served as IGFA board secretary from 1986 to 2001. In 1994, he received IGFA’s Elwood K. Harry Fellowship Award in honor of his lifelong contributions to recreational angling.

He still holds a Tuna Club record set in 1970 for a 503-pound broadbill swordfish on 80-pound Dacron line, and he remains in the record books in Massachusetts for a 131-pound white marlin caught off Nantucket in 1982. Naftzger was president of the Tuna Club of Avalon, and was a founding member of the Channel Island Broadbill Tournament as well as the Lizard Island Fishing Club. He was a member of the U.S. team at the International Tuna Cup Matches from 1967 to 1970, capturing first place twice.

And though Ted Naftzger has successfully fished for exciting game fish all over the world, spending many seasons on the Great Barrier Reef, it’s his sword fishing skills that are legendary. He caught 49 swordfish on  California boat or crew, let alone single angler, who managed to accomplish such a feat. However, one man, Roy E. Naftzger, Jr., or “Ted” to his friends, did just that.

“I remember Ted as the ultimate gentlemen’s gentleman,” said Michael Leech, IGFA executive director from 1983-1993. “He was definitely one of our sport’s true legends. Once we lost Ted, the art of surface sword fishing seems to have been lost. His kind of sportsmanship is hard to find in this day and age. I miss him.”

Naftzger’s angling accomplishments aboard his Rybovich locally, as well as internationally, are remarkable examples of tenacity and dedication to his sport.photo 2

It was more than a half-century ago when he purchased his first Rybovich and his passion for catching swordfish on rod and reel began. Shipping her to Los Angeles, he renamed her Hustler and hired Captain Art Cherry to run her. At that time, most West Coast anglers ignored swordfish, preferring less difficult, more common, striped marlin. However, his new captain possessed extensive knowledge on baiting broadbill on the East Coast; Ted Naftzger decided to apply similar techniques in the Pacific and the rest is history.

Beginning in 1963 until he stopped his quest, he baited those 49 swords on the surface, catching this most difficult saltwater sportfish during daylight hours, earning him the title of “Master of Daytime Sword Fishing.” To Naftzger, sword fishing was a passion, and he had few peers in this often humbling and frustrating sport.

Speaking with his friends, associates, peers, and admirers not only provided a glimpse into Naftzger but, on a grander scale, a subtle overview of the anglers, techniques and resources that existed in an era that many claim is lost forever.

When Naftzger, along with Al Carlton and Jerry Garrett, teamed up with Bud Smith (Mr. Oxnard) to put on the first Channel Islands Invitational Broadbill Tournament in 1972, the first year’s statistics reflect what an immense fishery it was compared to now. Results included reports of 300 broadbill spotted, more than 75 baited and approximately 50 hooked up. Yet only 16 swordfish were landed, the largest weighing 454 ½ pounds.

photo 3The swordfish was notoriously difficult to tempt with baits on the surface and extremely hard to hook; when hooked, its strength, determination and fury are legendary. Stories abound of anglers battling swordfish for entire days and then of it turning mid-fight and attacking boats. Naftzger’s passion for swordfish grew precisely because of the degree of difficulty and challenge of the fight. These were the things that legends were made of.

He ran a no-nonsense operation with little radio chatter and he seldom invited anyone aboard his beloved, very-fast, gas-powered, 37-footer. Cherry, his captain for decades, and his crew always wore khaki uniforms. It was as though they were dressed for battle. Single-purposed, he ignored marlin for the most part, often calling one of his friends close by if his crew spotted a marlin.

Though his close friends understood his intense determination, some of his contemporaries were confounded over the years by his passion for privacy. Many revealed their ignorance of the man, preferring to use a variety of adjectives describing him as a loner, aloof, odd, interesting and unusual.

Shy, he seldom shared his on-the-water adventures with outsiders, preferring to save those stories for the close circle of fellow fishermen he admired. He reveled in their fishing conquests and many still have cherished personal hand-written notes commending them for their angling accomplishments.photo 4

After a day of fishing Southern California waters, Naftzger often stayed on a mooring at Avalon. He would visit the Tuna Club, going upstairs to his favorite corner room overlooking the harbor, preferring not to mingle. Naftzger jogged daily whether from his home in Beverly Hills or in Avalon, often before departing for the day’s fishing.

Always prepared, he had several sets of Daytona gasoline engines stashed in three different ports in case the Hustler’s failed. He did not want to miss a day’s fishing.

Once, Naftzger spotted Don McPherson, who was alone aboard his Boston Whaler on the 499, hooked up to a two-finner. Naftzger immediately ran to his friend, remaining with him for hours until the foul-hooked fish unfortunately pulled free.

The last time Dave Denholm, friend and fellow Tuna Club member, spoke to Naftzger was when he caught his 452.5-pound sword near the 499 one morning; this is the standing California State Record. Apparently records were not being maintained during Naftzger’s earlier accomplishments.

Dave proudly admitted, “My first call from the Espadon was to Ted at his office in Beverly Hills. He graciously congratulated me and wanted to hear the blow-by-blow details. I felt I wanted to talk to Ted at that moment as our ‘sword’ bond was truly a rare link of mutual respect for an unusual passion and sharing that success with my mentor seemed essential. Ted followed up with a congratulatory long-hand note as was his custom.” 

photo 5Jerry Garrett, another friend and Tuna Club member, proudly displays a similar note in his trophy room in New Zealand!

Every November, Naftzger would journey to Cairns, Lizard Island, Australia, to fish for black marlin. Over the years, he and his friends caught and released many “granders.”

Denholm recalls those trips fondly. “Both of us had a number of ‘granders’ to our credit and another friend, Kay Holland, caught one on 50-pound test line. He also fished Ted’s other boat in the Azores with great success.”

As Naftzger’s swordfish count grew, speculation of his methods and techniques grew among Southern California anglers as well. As is often the case, the conjecture exchanged via obscure VHF radio channels became more ludicrous with each new catch.

Naftzger advanced a few “presentation” approaches he liked when eyeballing a sword, but there were very few absolutes that he knew of or could rely on in his search.

However, that didn’t deter the “wannabes” searching for some “secret sauce.” When the Hustler would appear on the horizon, Ziess binoculars turned toward her. Anglers who spotted her were gratified, believing they were in the right zone. “Look’ their riggers are longer,” they would state. “What is that they are trolling? Is that a bent-butt rod in the rod holder on the chair?” And so on …

According to Denholm, the long outriggers were typical of many East Coast Rybos and Merritts. All but one of his swords was caught on presented rigged squid baits. Naftzger played with a lot of twists to the presentation but at the end of the day, the answer was focus, patience and dedication with tunnel vision.

Drive by the marlin to get to the swordfish areas, bait as many as you can find, in any way you can, and some will eat.

Bill McWethy tells a story of fishing with Naftzger and Felix McGinnis many years ago aboard his C Bandit. In the gray light, they spotted a group of sleepers. McWethy hollered for the two anglers to go to the bow to cast. Both admitted that they couldn’t cast … so they slow-trolled the baits to the sleepers.

This would explain why Naftzger chose to present a bait from an outrigger. The sword could eat from behind instead of chasing down a squirrelly, live mackerel, resulting in a higher percentage of mouth-hooked fish versus foul-hooked fish. Then, if all worked out, Naftzger was already in a fighting chair (no stand-up) with bent butt working for him. He was an excellent angler (maybe the best) using that set up. Hustler could spin on a dime, completing the perfect combo to do battle with a top-notch crew to boot. 

photo 7Obviously, to accomplish catch numbers in the double-digits, there were many losses along the way. There is a story of Naftzger hooking up in the lee of Clemente one afternoon only to lose the fish off the Tijuana Bull Ring the following afternoon, which accentuates Naftzger’s stamina and tenacity, his ability to hang in there regardless.

Ted Naftzger’s 48th swordfish came after a nine-year drought between the 47th and 48th.

“I’ve been out several times a year,” he lamented, “once or twice a week in the summertime.”

Naftzger finally broke his slump on Sunday, Nov. 21, 1993, when he took his 48th monster on the west side of Santa Monica Bay about 10 miles off the beach. He had taken his boat to the Channel Islands to look for swordfish over the weekend and after a fruitless, two-day search headed home in a cold, miserable, flat-calm drizzle.

 photo 8About 2 p.m., as the boat approached one of the deepest spots in the bay, the 503-Fathom Spot, Naftzger’s boat captain, Tom Furtado of Florida, spotted the sword cruising on the surface. Naftzger snatched the Spanish mackerel he had in his live well for three weeks.

“I hooked it on a 50-pound outfit and the swordfish ate it,” Naftzger said. “The fish was very active … jumped several times and made one real long run, which was thrilling to see. It cleared the water doing a scissor-jump, where they almost touch their bill to their tail.”

Within 45 minutes, Naftzger had it to the boat. A triple-flag fish: first of the year caught by one person for the Avalon Tuna Club, the Balboa Angling Club and the Newport Harbor Yacht Club. The sword weighed 234 pounds.

“I’ve been hitting them for 30 years, every chance I could,” he remarked. “But it’s like big-game hunting, except on the ocean. You’re hunting for one individual fish.”

photo 10Records of the Tuna Club, the oldest sportfishing club, showed that this was only the second swordfish caught by a member since 1986 and the seventh since 1978.

“They’ve been depleted pretty heavily by commercials,” Naftzger said, “especially the driftnets and longliners.”

Over the years, with more sport boats, stick boats and airplanes in common fishing grounds, presenting baits from an outrigger that requires “room to maneuver” also required some sense of etiquette from nearby fishermen to give an angler some room.

“Between curiosity seekers, stick boats and other traffic, it has become much harder and harder to manage a proper outrigger presentation … hence, the preferred approach of casting live mackerel to ensure at least a few clean presentations,” Denholm observed. “We had our learning curve and do present a cast bait a certain way that we believe produces the best results.”

“We were good pals; Ted was the epitome of the Gentleman Angler,” Denholm remembered. “A rare breed indeed.”

When inducted into the IGFA Hall of Fame in 2002, Naftzger’s 49 swordfish, according to the organization’s website, was a record that has never been duplicated on the West Coast.photo 11

When Naftzger died in 2007, his dream of that 50th broadbill had never faded. His true passion for swordfish on rod and reel remained with him until his death. In his own words: “The hunt for swordfish is absolutely magnificent. You take your boat and search the surface of the ocean for your quarry, constantly testing your mental ability to solve one of nature’s closely guarded secrets. It’s precisely this challenge that keeps me coming back. If it were easy, I just wouldn’t do it.”

 

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Deep Water Yellowtail From a Private Boat

March 2015 Yellow Tail leadRed sky filled the horizon to the east as we slowly motored down the 40-fathom ridge. The Furuno split screen was set on both plotter and depth, and I was looking for “the corner” on the southwest side of the ridge where the hard bottom area turns toward the beach. The 63-degree, clean, blue water confirmed what the SST (sea surface temperature) and chlorophyll (plankton) charts reported the previous night. There were just a handful of private boats this early and about 90 percent of them were following a couple sportboats around that were making their first tacks with the sonar.

Stopping momentarily in the dark, my boat drifted uphill, which was a good sign for the area we were fishing that day. When the current is pushing uphill, this particular corner concentrates all sorts of fin bait on the up-current side of the structure. All this food also attracts gamefish, especially big, fat, wintertime yellowtail.

Slowly circling the corner of the ridge, I started seeing clouds of bait right off the bottom. As soon as the bait marks ended, I marked our first yellowtail on the sounder and quickly put the throttle in reverse and bumped the boat back five yards. I then hit the MOB (man overboard button) and grabbed my jig outfit. My friends had already reached bottom by the time I was at the rail, and eight cranks off the bottom the first blue/white Salas 6x was stopped in its tracks–”Fish on!” After a short pause, the heavy tail beat and bend of the rod confirmed we found what we were looking for–big wintertime yellows.

Do Your Homework

The wintertime yellowtail fishery we experience along the Southern California coast is something unique. It’s almost as if the yellowtail schools that used to spend their winter deep along the Baja coast have shifted west and chosen new spots of deep structure and ridges in Southern California as their winter home. Enjoy it while you can because—having fished here since the late 1970s—in my lifetime I have never witnessed such quality yellowtail fishing along our coast.

First, and most importantly, the key to being successful in this fishery on a private boat is to do your homework. Start by researching the area you plan to fish. This winter, schools of yellowtail have been foraging in 30 to 50 fathoms on hard bottom areas with structure from San Diego on up to Santa Barbara. Especially productive are the dozens of rockfish spots and ridges in this depth range.

Before choosing an area to fish, study the water near your home port. Two things that you are looking for is water temperature over 60 degrees and clean blue color. Since the water has not dropped below 60 degrees this winter, I can’t give you an honest answer if they will bite below that or move on. As for water color, in deep water I prefer clean blue but have also had some epic trips in clean green along the coast.photo 2

Next, try to get an update on how the bite was the day prior to your trip. Ask the proper questions: time of day for bites, what depth, water temperature/color for bites, jigs or bait, what part of ridge or structure was best, where was the boat pressure, seal problems and any other useful info that will help you be successful.

Private Boat Tactics

It is much more rewarding to find your own fish than follow a sportboat around that is typically using sonar to locate schools of yellowtail. My advice is if you want to fish with sonar, buy a ticket on a sportboat and enjoy being an angler and learn from their crew how to catch more fish. I always learn something new when I ride a sportboat.

It’s a great way to also see what not to do from a sportboat captain’s perspective. The deadliest sin of all is to run along out in front of a sportboat, which disrupts the craft’s sonar screen and ability to mark fish. A close second would be to cut in front of a sportboat when they mark fish on the sonar and go into their chum circle. Very bad idea on all fronts and it ruins the bite for both boats.

On a private boat, once you mark a school of fish on the sounder, without sonar we have no way of knowing which direction the school is headed and lack the live bait capacity to chum the school up the water column. With that being said, on my private boat we are strictly a “mark, drop and hook” kind of program.

photo 3If you have done your homework on an area, being able to read the contours and find small isolated stones or structure within a hard bottom area is the key to success. I keep my eyes glued to the plotter and sounder and hit MOB anytime I mark an area of interest. As you slowly work up and down an area, it’s like connecting the dots on the plotter and eventually you are going to stumble over a school of fish. If you are not marking fish but seeing good signs of bait and structure on the sounder,consider a blind drift. My boat partner did just that on a recent client trip and put two fat yellowtail onboard on his first drift.

I have seen it many times where a sportboat can lead a school of yellowtail on the sonar while shoveling sardines into the circle and, like magic, the fish rise from 40 to 25 fathoms and start blowing up on surface baits. I have never witnessed a private boat without sonar perform that same task. However, what private boats lack in bait capacity they make up in being able to cater our fishing time to the best bite times. For example, if it’s a late afternoon or early evening bite, the private boats can stay on the area and fish through the tide or bite time when most the sport fleet has already gone home.

Another tip for a private boater is prospecting the inner part of the ridge in the morning during an offshore or northeasterly wind. Many times the fish will leave the area at night and migrate back into the hard bottom areas in the morning to feed. Many times they will move inside to feed around a squid nest at night and then move back out to deep water to forage during the day. Prospecting along these transition areas is a good way to locate fish early.

Gear for Deep Water Yellowtail

These wintertime deep water yellowtail are much stronger and smarter than the summertime fish you find under kelps or at the islands. They got big for a reason: They have eluded capture by humans and predators and know every trick in the book.

On deep water trips, I tell my fishing buddies to bring three outfits: one 40-pound outfit and two 50-pound outfits—and all with braid backing and short 50- to 75-foot monofilament top shots. Sure, you can occasionally land a big one on light tackle, but if you really want to land these deep water fish leave your light tackle at home. I don’t recommend fishing anything less than 30-pound test line if you want to land a couple fish.

The fishing techniques are very basic–you will be either fishing the yo-yo jigs (more on this later) or a dropper loop rig with a live mackerel or sardine. A couple other key items to have along for the trip are some back-up iron jigs, torpedo weights, circle hooks in sizes 3/0 to 6/0, a proper gaff and a fish bag with 20 to 40 pounds of ice for a day trip.

Yo-Yo Techniques

My favorite way to fish deep water yellowtail is with the yo-yo jig. For deep water, my two go-to irons are the Salas 6x heavy and the Tady 4/0 heavy. White, blue/white, scrambled egg and even white/orange (rockfish) have been productive. For whatever reason, I have not had good success with chrome, though I have seen plenty of nice yellows caught on this color. These heavy iron jigs work best in the 40- to 50-fathom range, plus they get down into the zone quickly. If there is heavy current or fishing deeper than 50 fathoms, try a Salas PL68. It’s deadly on the bigger fish, too!

For 30 to 40 fathoms, I like the Salas 6x Jr and the Tady 9 in the same colors. When on my boat, I also bring a spinning outfit rigged up with a Salas Christy II, which I can fire out into breaking fish or schools of yellows that respond to chum and rise up to the middle in the water column. Since I get asked all the time about this particular spinning outfit, my Penn Spinfisher 4500 on a Penn Carnage 20-50 Jigging rod has boated dozens of yellowtail to 30 pounds. Try it, you might like it!

I use either a San Diego jam knot or four turn Uni knot tied to the front ring eye of the iron jig. Occasionally, if I am fishing the yo-yo jig all day long, I like to put a small black barrel swivel six feet in front of jig to help prevent line twist. This will not affect the action of the lure and gets bit just fine with the short leader.photo 5

As for reels, I recommend a tall and narrow reel for yo-yo fishing. Along with a reel that has a range of gear ratios from 4.3:1 to 6:1, a tall and narrow spool will increase your inches per a crank when compared to reels that are shorter and wider when you are fishing in deep water and one third or more of your line is out to reach bottom.

I am a Penn guy and my favorite reel for this application is the new US Senator 113N (Baja Special); it’s a narrow and tall 4/0N star drag reel with a 4.3:1 gear ratio and a big handle to crank jigs all day. When combined with a seven-foot heavy action graphite rod (700MH or 700H), you have yourself an outfit that will get the job done. When I fish on a sportboat, I switch the seven-foot rod out with an eight-foot model (800ML or 800M)–with the extra foot of length helping work fish around the bow and up and over passengers when following a fish.

Fill your reel with a quality braid and then add a 50- to 75-foot top shot of clear, abrasion-resistant monofilament. I use white 50- or 65-pound test Berkley Pro Spec Braid for backing. As I said before, make sure your mono top shot fills the reel to the top of the spool, which will help keep the spool diameter full on deep drops.

For top shots, I started using Berkley Big Game 40- or 50-pound monofilament for two reasons. First, the abrasion resistance of monofilament helps protect the line on the initial bite when the yellowtail runs for the nearest structure. Secondly, a monofilament top shot also allows you to apply extreme pressure on the fish when the yellowtail is straight up and down under the boat without pulling the hook. Monofilament has a slight stretch to it and it can play into your advantage on the end game.

Keep your jig in the bite zone! Depending on what depth you mark fish on the sounder, on a private boat you want to cast your jig 10 to 20 feet off the down-wind stern corner. As the jig sinks and the boat drifts your line angle will be straight up and down off the stern. Be ready to put the reel in gear and wind for bites on the sink.

Once the jig hits the bottom or the depth marking fish, put the rod butt under your left arm pit and wind fast for 15-20 cranks. Drop the jig back down into zone and repeat. The key is to keep working the jig in the depth zone with fish until the line angle is close to 45 degrees and then come all the way up and repeat. When your arm starts to tire from winding the yo-yo jig all day, either switch to bait or downsize the weight of your jig. Go from a Tady 4/0 heavy to a Tady 9 or Salas 6x to Salas 6x Jr.

Finally, at these depths, a deep water yellowtail bite simply stops your jig in its tracks and the rod doubles over. Just keep winding! Reel until line is pulling off the drag and apply as much pressure as possible in the first couple minutes of battle.

Live Bait Rigs

We use the same outfits for live bait as we do for yo-yo fishing deep for yellowtail. First, start with a tank of 8- to 12-inch live mackerel or a scoop of cured sardines. During the wintertime many of the bait receivers have cured sardines due to the lack of demand–pay the extra charge and take the cured ones every trip. When fishing deep with live bait, I feel the automatic set of a circle hook works better than a J hook. I use Mustad or Owner non-offset 3/0 to 6/0 circle hooks. You will also need a handful of torpedo sinkers from six to 12 ounces.

photo 6There are several ways to rig live baits for fishing down to 50 fathoms. On a sportboat, the reversed dropper loop is best at these depths and the standard dropper loop rig works well in the shallower spots (20 fathoms or less) where there is less of a chance to hook rockfish.

Personally, on a private boat, I use the “Loreto Yellowtail” rig, which is basically a torpedo sinker tied to the main line and a six-foot leader attached to a snap swivel, which is attached to the bottom ring of the torpedo sinker. As this rig is lowered into the depths, a nose-hooked mackerel or sardine will swim freely behind the sinker until it is tracked down and inhaled by a big yellowtail.

We use a snap swivel to the torpedo sinker to prevent line twist and this can be pre-rigged and left in the live bait tank until the boat marks fish. With the bait already pinned on the hook, you simply swing the bait from the tank and down into the depths (or the same timing as the jig fishermen).

NOTE: This rig doesn’t work with more than four guys in the cockpit because the bait has too much freedom.

On a private boat, when the captain wants to make a move or not marking fish, wind the Loreto Rig up slowly to the surface and be ready for a bite on the retrieve. I like to hook my live baits from inside the mouth and up through the top jaw. The bite at this depth is just a steady pull; wind in the slack until you come tight with the fish.

Preparing Your Fish

Yellowtail is delicious when prepared properly. If not bled and iced down immediately, this member of the jack family takes on a gamey flavor. It all starts when the fish is up alongside the boat ready for the gaff; take your time and try for a head shot when the timing is right. A head shot will preserve the meat and keep the fish from thrashing on the deck.

Next, I like to take a pair of dikes and cut a gill raker on each side of the fish to help bleed the fish. At this point, I either place the fish head first into a running live bait tank to help bleed out, or I quickly transfer the fish into an insulated fish bag and cover the body with ice.

A fish prepared this way will provide tasty filets and world-class sushi. Finally, while there are all sorts of techniques, rigs and opinions being discussed here, the best tip of this article is get your time in on the water. Get out there while you can and connect with a big, old deep-water yellow!

 

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Fishing the Hard Bait

Lead Photo July 14 Fishing Hard BaitMy first exposure to fishing the hard bait, or jerk bait as it’s known in fresh water, came while targeting largemouth bass at Pyramid Lake some 10 years ago with Marc Higashi of Performance Tackle in Los Alamitos. “It’s a simple bait to fish,” Higashi explained when we arrived at our first spot that morning. “Just cast it out and retrieve it using a wind, wind, jerk, pause cadence.” To illustrate this, he cast the lure along the shoreline and, using a combination of sporadic turns of the reel handle coupled with well timed twitches of the rod tip, made the bait swim enticingly just below the surface.

After making a couple casts to make sure I’d got “the rhythm down,” he passed me the rod and told me to give it a try. Apparently getting “the rhythm down” takes more than watching a couple of casts, because I spent the next several hours flailing around, twitching and jerking at all the wrong times and frothing up the water so bad that any fish that might have been in the area had surely left or at least decided against eating any time in the immediate future. I eventually wore myself out, the forearm on my rod-jerking arm so cramped up I was forced to resort to jerking the entire left side of my body to get the rod tip to move. After pointing out that my modified rod twitching style made me resemble the Frankenstein monster chasing villagers down a hillside, Higashi suggested I take a break and maybe give drop-shotting a try.photo 2

And take a break I did. For the next five years I completely avoided even thinking about using the technique. The memories of that horrible day were so vivid that I cringed every time I heard the words “jerk” and “bait” used in combination.

But like with most things in life, as we move on and get older, our bad memories begin to lose their power. By the time I’d bought a saltwater bass boat and gotten into tournament fishing, that particular memory had fogged over sufficiently for me to decide that fishing the jerk bait for calicos would be a good idea. So, I headed over to Performance Tackle to get stocked up.

“You’re sure you want to try that again?” Higashi asked as he leaned against the counter with arms crossed and a suspicious look on his face. “You do remember what happened last time, right?”

After convincing him (and myself) that I’d evolved as an angler and wouldn’t be having any of those kinds of problems again, I loaded up on several sizes and colors of Lucky Craft jerk baits. I headed out the next morning, armed with approximately $200 worth of hard baits and a plan to put the smack down on some Palos Verdes calico bass.

photo 3I’ll spare you the details of my day, but will say that after several hours of jerking, twitching, lurching and much frothing of the water for not a single bite, I again admitted defeat. Several days later, and once the muscle spasms in my right arm relaxed enough for me to use my hand, I picked up the phone and called my friend and Lucky Craft pro-staffer Chris Lilis for help.

“That sounds about right,” Lilis responded after hearing my story. “Marc told me that you were one of the least coordinated people he’s ever fished with.”

In response to my audible groan, Lilis countered, “I’m joking about that part, but it can be tough to get the right cadence on the smaller baits. That’s why I mostly fish the big baits. They’re easier to present and they tend to get the bigger bites.”

The small and big baits that Lilis is referring to are the Lucky Craft Pointers and Flash Minnows that range in size from 110 (mm) to 190 (mm) or 4 1/2 to 7 1/2 inches in length. These long and slender baits have a small bill that causes them to dive to between 1-3 feet before swimming with a side-to-side action that can be augmented with jerks of the rod.

“I’ll fish all of the baits, except the 190, with the same ‘wind, wind, jerk, pause’ retrieve that Higashi uses,” explained Lilis. “But when I’m fishing the 190, I’ll just use a medium to fast retrieve with occasional pauses.”

photo 4He continued: “One of the biggest parts of fishing any of these baits effectively is matching them up with the right rod-and-reel combo. The smaller baits I fish are the Pointer 128 and the Flash Minnow 130, and my go to color is American Shad. Both of these baits can be fished on a 7-8 foot medium heavy graphite rod; I fish a Performance Tackle 707MH matched with an Abu Garcia Revo Inshore full of 50-pound Spiderwire braid.

“When throwing the 190, I’ll use a Phenix 703XH, which is a 7-foot extra heavy graphite rod matched with a Revo Toro 50 NaCl reel full of 65-pound Spiderwire braid. This bait comes in both freshwater and saltwater versions. While both of them work fine, the saltwater version has some better fin bait colors. In the saltwater series, I like to fish the Zebra Sardine or the Aurora Green Shad when the bass are keyed in on fin bait. When fishing the islands, I’ve had better luck using the darker colored freshwater baits like the Parrot Shad, Red Musky and Cream Yellow Perch.”

Once you’ve procured a selection of sizes and colors, Lilis recommends some modifications to get them ready to fish.

“The first thing I’ll do when I buy a new bait (excluding the 190), is to replace the hooks with Owner 3X trebles,” he says. “The baits come with trebles that are designed for freshwater use and they just don’t hold up to the abuses of calico fishing. Next, I’ll remove the split ring where the bait gets tied to the line. Whenever I’m fishing hard baits I’ll connect them to my line using a Decoy Egg Snap. On the smaller baits I’ll use the #3 size and on the 190 I’ll use the #5 size. This snap not only makes it easier to change baits but the large ring gives the bait better action than it would have if you tied your line to the small split ring the bait comes with.”

As I’d learned in my previous attempts at fishing the jerk bait, getting geared up is the easy part, so I asked Lilis to take me through how and where he likes to fish the bait.

“Like I said before, it takes some practice to get the smaller baits to swim properly,” he replied. “The good news is that calicos are a lot less picky than largemouth, so you don’t have to have perfect form to get bit. If you’re new to fishing the hard bait or if your technique still needs some work, I recommend fishing the 190.”

The mechanics of fishing the bait aside, Lilis explained that presentation is particular to which type of structure you’re targeting.

“There are three basic scenarios where I’ll fish a hard bait: in the kelp, around boilers or shallow water reefs and over deep water reefs. Let’s start with the kelp.
Regardless of what bait you’re fishing, the first step in catching fish is to find areas in the kelp bed that are likely to hold biting fish. When I approach a kelp bed, I’ll start off by making casts across the leading edge as that’s where feeding bass are most likely to be. If I get bit or even just see a fish, I’ll fish the bed more thoroughly. If there is a side of the bed that is lying parallel to the current, I’ll make a few casts along that side, because that’s another good ambush point. Finally, if the bed has sparse stringers or open lanes, I’ll cast down the lanes and try to bring my bait past any obvious ambush points.”

It’s been Lilis’ experience that you don’t need to make long casts to get bit when fishing within the bed.

“A lot of times I’m practically pitching the bait 20 or 30 feet to just past a particular target and bringing the bait back past it,” he says. “These shorter casts not only cut down on getting hung up in the kelp but they increase your chances of hooking fish because you can see your bait the whole time. Regarding that, if you’re retrieving your bait and see a bass tracking it, try giving it a couple faster winds and then pausing the bait. A lot of times the bass will speed up with the bait and then slam into it when you stop winding. If you hook a small fish and see a bigger follower, stop winding for a second and give the bigger fish a chance to try and steal the bait out of the smaller one’s mouth. There are two treble hooks on the 190 and we get a lot of doubles, with the bigger fish usually being the second one to bite.

“Fishing shallow water reefs isn’t all that different than fishing in the kelp except for the fact that you’ll be fan casting rather than targeting particular stringers. The natural tendency is to position your boat in a way that allows you to cast into the shallower water toward the beach, but at Catalina and Clemente some of our biggest bass have been caught when someone turns around and casts out into deeper water. Just try casting in different directions and varying your retrieve until the fish tell you what they want on that day.”

Lilis calls boiler fishing with a hard bait “pretty simple.”

“Position your boat just close enough that you can make it to the rocks with a long cast, that way you’ll have room to fish the bait on the retrieve. I’ll normally cast out and burn the bait a few cranks once it hits the water to get it to dig down into the surge. Then I’ll pause for a few seconds and let the bait float around like a stunned sardine. Most of the bites will come during the pause, but if I don’t get one I’ll burn the bait into clear water and then slow down to a normal retrieve. Your bait is going to get hung up in the rocks from time to time when you fish this way but you can almost always get it back. If you feel it hit a rock, do not swing, instead throw the bait some slack and the motion of the surge will usually float it free of the snag.”

The final scenario for fishing calicos on the hard bait is Lilis’ favorite.

“A few years ago, my tournament partner Brian Marshall and I started using the 190 when fishing calicos over deep water structure and I love it. Last year, we had a 19-pound bag of calicos during the SWBA season finale and caught them all off of bait schools in 60 feet of water.photo 5

“This type of fishing takes some work to figure out because there isn’t any visible surface structure like kelp or rocks to reference. Instead, you’re relying on your fish finder to tell you where the structure is and birds or bait to tell you where to cast. During last year’s tournament, we ran down to an area of hard bottom off Huntington Beach and metered a lot of bait schools high in the water column.”

They found good current and birds flying around, “so it definitely looked fishy,” Lilis recalled. “We set up the boat over the structure and made fan casts until we’d get a bite. Then we’d keep casting until the fish stopped biting in that area and we’d go back to fan casting. There were a lot of smaller bass in the area, but we figured out that if we didn’t swing on the small bites, they usually wouldn’t get the hook, and the action would attract a bigger fish that would slam the bait and hook itself.”

Given my lack of coordination, I’m not sure that I’ll ever get proficient at fishing the smaller jerk baits. But after talking to Lilis, I’m going to stock up on some 190s and hopefully use them to try and shake my bad memories of fishing the hard bait. For more information on using Lucky Craft jerk baits in saltwater applications, Lilis recommends checking out

www.thedailyflashminnow.com

for photos, videos

and instruction.

 

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Long Beach Harbor Riprap

rip rap april leadTrusting our preconceived notions is one of the biggest stumbling blocks we face as developing anglers. To make matters worse, the more we develop as anglers, the more likely we are to trust our preconceived notions and in turn, trip ourselves up. While this vicious cycle can take a variety of forms, all of them result in the same: missed angling opportunities.

When it comes to preconceived notions, my biggest fault lies in overlooking potential fishing areas based on the assumption that I know what is (or isn’t) there to be caught. This shortcoming was brought to my attention on the first day of last year’s Salt Water Bass Anglers (SWBA) season finale. The tournament format required us to fish the inside of Long Beach Harbor in search of a five-fish bag of any species of bass.rip rap april 2

After giving the inside of the breakwall a shot for no bites, I tried dropping on some deep water structure I’d previously found. After coming up empty there as well, I was driving through the harbor and saw several other teams fishing riprap, the rocks that line the inside of the harbor to protect against water erosion.

My tournament partner Matt Kotch suggested we try fishing one of the rocky shorelines, but I was reluctant to do so because I carried the preconceived notion that these were small fish spots and not worth fishing during a tournament. But, not really having any other options, I agreed to give it a try.

rip rap april 3Things started off just as I expected, with tiny calicos biting the small swimbaits we were throwing. But as we progressed along the wall and got our baits and presentations dialed in, the fish started getting bigger. Once we had five fish in the tank, we further refined our presentations and began to cull out our smaller fish.

At one point we hit a spot of fish that were so big that we weren’t able to keep them out of the rocks with the tackle we were using. Despite breaking off our biggest bites, we were able to manage an almost 15-pound bag of bass for the day. Even more surprising, our bag ended up only being the sixth biggest of the day. All of them, including the 22-pound leading weight, came from spots that I’d been driving by my entire life because I assumed they didn’t hold big fish.rip rap april 4

With my eyes opened to the potential that those miles and miles of riprap hold, Long Beach’s inner harbor has become my go-to zone for after work fishing trips. It’s a simple and fun fishery that’s close to the ramp and offers plenty of spots to fish while being sheltered from the afternoon wind. As I frequently do on Friday afternoons, I invited a couple of buddies out for a few hours of fishing and asked them to share some of their tips on catching bass in Long Beach Harbor.

rip rap april 5Joining me on the trip was Eric Bent, tournament director of the SWBA and an avowed embracer of “old school” fishing techniques. As a counterpoint to Bent’s conventional style, I invited Abu Garcia pro staffer Chris Lilis, who is always on the forefront of tackle and bait technology. As for me, I just brought my camera and left my preconceived notions at the dock.

Gearing up

When it comes to fishing riprap in the harbor, your boat and tackle can be as simple or as involved as you want. Regarding a boat, basically anything that floats and has a reliable motor will work. Bent normally fishes a 15-foot Whaler and though Lilis stepped up to a nice Crestliner, he used to fish in a 12-foot aluminum boat. Having a trolling motor helps, especially when you’re fishing in a bigger boat, like my Robalo 226 Cayman, but you can get by without one if it’s not too windy.

Tackle varies by presentation, but you can get by with just about any salt or freshwater bass rod. Bent’s arsenal consisted of a very light action Seeker Inshore rod with a spinnerbait tied on it and an extremely heavy graphite rod with a creature bait. This rod was dubbed the “Texas Rake” and used exclusively for pitching baits into the rocks and occasionally pulling on giant sculpin, but more on that later.rip rap april 6

Lilis brought several custom rods, each designed to best fish a particular bait. These included an Alabama Rig rod, a crank bait rod, a jerk shad rod and a spinnerbait rod. Each was matched with the new Abu Garcia Revo Beast, which is basically the beefed-up version of the Revo Inshore.

Breaking down the waters

While all of the riprap in the harbor looks similar, there are actually several different types and they all fish differently. As we cruised past the oil islands in the east end of the harbor, Lilis explained the differences. “The two basic types are what you’d call outer or inner harbor riprap. The outer harbor stuff is anything that’s inside of the breakwall but still exposed to the open harbor. The inner harbor rock is any riprap that’s protected from the open harbor by other riprap or land.”

rip rap april 7Lilis continued, “In the outer harbor, you’re basically looking for riprap that’s getting surge or has wind blowing against it. This stuff fishes very similar to how the break wall does. Bass are going to be around the areas with surge, looking for baitfish that are getting pushed against the rocks or crabs that are being knocked free.

“When you’re fishing the inner harbor, or any sheltered outer harbor riprap, you will need to fish more thoroughly and cover different parts of the water column. The fish can be anywhere along the length of the rock. They can also be shallow, or deep, so you’re going to need to run some different baits at different depths to figure out where the fish are biting.”

Technique

Specifics

Our plan for the trip was to try and catch all three species of bass, so we agreed to start in the outer harbor to try for a calico and sand bass, then move to the inner harbor in search of a spotty. We started out fishing an area of riprap on the harbor side of the old naval base. The wall is comprised of boulders with the occasional concrete slab and it sits in approximately 20 feet of water.rip rap april 8

In the shadow of an abandoned watch tower, Lilis and Bent took to the bow and began fishing. While Lilis made long casts parallel to the wall with a Picasso Alabama Rig that he termed “the chandelier,” Bent made short pitches with a Texas rigged green crawdad bait. The new school quickly won out over the old as Lilis connected with several sand bass within the first few minutes.

After working through the first section of wall we moved a short distance to fish a section that lay perpendicular to the one we’d fished before. Bent switched to the spinnerbait at this spot and immediately connected with a sand bass. “The last area we fished didn’t have much surge, so I thought the creature bait would be a good choice,” Bent explained. “I just cast it up shallow, let it sink to the bottom and then hop it down the wall by lifting my rod tip and giving it slack during the sink. They didn’t bite it today, but it’s still my favorite presentation in that situation.”

rip rap april 9After catching another sand bass on the spinnerbait, Bent went back to his previous technique; this time with a purple Texas rigged tube. “There are some big spotted bay bass in the outer harbor and I’m hoping I can get one to bite this slower presentation,” Bent said moments before swinging on a heavy fish. The fish pulled hard, but ended up being a jumbo sculpin, instead of a spotty. Bent managed several more plus-sized sculpin over the next few minutes before eventually getting broken off by something that fought like the spotty he’d been looking for.

Lilis, in the meantime, was hammering smaller sand bass and calicos on the spinnerbait and while my attention was focused on him in the bow, I heard, “Oh! There’s a good one!” from Bent in the back of the boat. As he swung a nice calico aboard I noticed that Bent had put down the “Texas Rake” and picked up Lilis’ Alabama Rig. “Hey, I just wanted to make a couple casts to check out the new Abu reel,” he said with a sheepish grin before going right back to fishing the Alabama Rig.

Once we’d worked through that section of riprap, we decided to hit the inner harbor in search of a spotty. We spent the next few hours working different stretches of riprap for not a whole lot of action, save a couple more jumbo sculpin on Bent’s purple tube. As we fished, Lilis switched to a crankbait to try and elicit a reaction strike.

“Sometimes a crankbait banging around in the rocks will get bit even if the spotties aren’t actively feeding,” Lilis explained as he cast a Lucky Craft crank parallel to the rocks. “You want a deep diving bait that’s rated for 12 to 16 feet even though the rocks aren’t that deep. This allows you to get the bait down into the rocks and let it bang around. If you get hung up, just stop winding for a second and let the bait float up. A lot of times, the spotties will bite it during that pause.”

Not even the crank bait was producing as the afternoon’s slack high tide seemed to have put the fish into a funk. But Lilis and Bent kept casting in the hopes of finding a sundown bite. As the sun rode lower on the horizon, Lilis switched to a Gulp! Jerk Shad fished on an owner Sled Head. “Fishing the jerk shad isn’t as fun as the other baits,” observed Lilis. “You just kind of drag it along and hop it over the rocks. But sometimes the fish will bite it when they won’t bite anything else.”rip rap april 10

Almost on cue I watched as Lilis’ rod tip jumped and he swung hard on a healthy spotted bay bass. Deciding that this was about as high of a point as we were going to find to end our trip, we cruised back to the ramp with several dozen mixed bass under our belts and smiles on our faces after spending a fun afternoon away from preconceived notions.

 

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Great Escape, and Catching Cows & Skins

jan feb photo leadThis season the first two trips deep into southern waters were made by Polaris Supreme and Intrepid, in early October. The fish were there, at the Hurricane Bank and the Buffer Zone, and both boats had success catching wahoo, big tuna and numerous cows, tuna over 200 pounds.

One risk of going into those waters so early is encountering tropical storms, and Intrepid was touched by one as the boat made its getaway.

“We have traveled since Friday evening,” wrote skipper Kevin Osborne on Oct. 15, “leaving the great fishing on cows in order to get ahead of the developing storm system.

“The safety of our passengers and vessel is always top priority. Saturday was decent weather with good speed, but Sunday was a day of increasing winds and sea state with our speed dropping off considerably. We knew at that moment it would be closer than we like as far as getting up ahead of the storm. Early Monday morning we were caught by the North East Quadrant winds of Tropical Storm Octave before we could get clear. At daylight I made the decision (with Capt. Billy by my side), to turn back into the South East and take on the waves and wind head on, as there were no other options.

“For the next five hours we battled through 50 mph winds and 20-foot waves before coming out into the clear to the South East. The crew did an amazing job during this ordeal as Billy and I took turns at the helm keeping our bow into the wind and waves. The Intrepid is a very sea-worthy vessel (as any of you who have been on her know), and she worked hard with us getting out of the storm and into a peaceful, surreal scene as we left it behind. We have spent the night anchored down here on the lower banks and will be fishing again today, although the current and conditions are not ideal, we’ll take it!”

Intrepid returned with 19 tuna over 200 pounds. The best fish, at 263.8 pounds, was caught by Bill Bennett, a Los Angeles County plumbing supervisor.

jan feb photo 3Winter Wonderland

It’s a different world down there at the Hurricane Bank and the Buffer Zone in winter. While San Diego may bake in a Santa Ana or slog through a series of winter storms, the tropics are enjoying warm water in the 70s or even the low 80s. Big tuna and wahoo down there may act like it’s still summer, feeding on all manner of local and pelagic bait like fat grizzlies making ready to hibernate.

How big is big? 2012 saw three more 400-pound tuna join the ranks begun with Mike Livingston’s 405-pound behemoth. Two were taken by private boaters. One of them, at 445 pounds as you will recall, was taken by John Petruescu, a rookie who lost his chance at an IGFA world record and who knows how much money in endorsements, etc. when he handed the rod he was fighting the fish with to Excel skipper Justin Fleck. Why? To light a cigarette.

John said he pinned his skippie to a 12/0 Mustad 7691 hook and a BHP wind-on leader of 130-pound Momoi. His backing was 130-pound Line One spectra on a Tiagra LRS 50 W reel and Seeker Black Steel 6460 XH rod. He also had a cow that weighed 201 pounds. There were 42 tuna over the 200-pound mark aboard Excel.

Petruescu was lead electrician on the San Vicente Dam project. He came from Romania, after his father, brother and 11 more family members are now here. Interviewed on the dock, John may still have been fishing.

“I’m 33,” he remarked, “and single.”jan feb photo 2

Sticking Skinnies

Tuna aren’t the only game in town down south. Also highly targeted by long rangers, wahoo may stage strong bites in both areas. Excel skipper Fleck offered these tidbits for fishing skinnies.

“Where wahoo are is where tuna will show up,” he said. “Late in the afternoon, I’ll try with the kites and balloons for tuna, when they decide to bite.

“We get lots of wahoo on Yummee Flyers. Jason Fleck [Justin’s twin brother, chef on Excel] is addicted to fishing the big plastic baits. He gets up to 75 percent of those plastic-caught fish on the kite or with a balloon.

“We slow troll in unison at three to five knots, with the kite up and the flyers skipping along. When I’m doing this, we may troll live baits, bombs, or just go along dragging the flyers.

“One most effective, best-kept secret is this: fluorocarbon is so strong and abrasion-resistant we go to it because the wahoo bite it so much better. We use 100-pound fluoro and circle hooks for wahoo on 30-pound line, with 5/0 Mustad Demon hooks when we want stealth. When you don’t want to use wire, fluoro works best; 18 to 24 inches of fluoro is my preferred leader length.

“We also use sardines under a balloon when the skinnies are thick. The wire we use then is 60-pound Sevenstrand.”

Independence skipper Jeff DeBuys remarked, “Wahoo are very unique fish, as they can be aggressive at times, and pretty wary at other times.

“What comes to my mind when they’re aggressive is there’s more around then, and they’re not boat-shy by any means. When trolling, we set the jigs right outside the first wake, about 20 to 25 feet back, for a boat of 90 to 110 feet. Our speed is about 8.5 knots.

“I’ve seen ‘em land on the boat, and I’ve seen eight or 10 hit the side, bang and fall back in. I’ve seen so many caught on casting lures, bombs or jigs. They come right up and eat it below the scuppers! The guy who winds the fastest gets the most bites. The most horsepower gets the most fish.

“You’ve got to stop your jig at the surface before you bring it up,” cautioned DeBuys. “Wait about five seconds, or you could get a helicopter ride to intensive care.”

Bill Roecker owns FishingVideos.com, where he posts daily reports from the long range fleet and other sources, and Oceanic Productions, which published his book At The Rail: Long Range Fishing. The book Bill’s Sportfishing Calendar and his Standup Fishing DVDs are for sale on his website and in many California fishing stores.

 

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