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 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 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 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.”



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 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 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!



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 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 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

for photos, videos

and instruction.



Destination: Panama Big Game Fishing Club

jan feb panama leadI never thought that trolling a dead black skipjack on the surface just 20 feet from the transom and rolling over like a plug-cut sardine would entice anything. Especially when run next to some precision-rigged, bridled livies swimming strongly below the surface where they should be. Yet, at 10:30 a.m. on this September day at the Hannibal Bank in the calm Gulf of Chiriqui, Panama, this all changed as a huge “whooshing” noise and foaming swirl startled a crew from the Panama Big Game Fishing Club.

panama jan feb 2The bait disappeared and then popped up again. Mate Michael Rios quickly dropped it back, free-lining it as if it were falling naturally. The spool started to spin again and Florida angler Ralph Collazo set the circle hook and was pulled to the transom and finally made it to the fighting chair of the 31-foot Bertram. “This isn’t like the sailfish I catch off Ft. Lauderdale,” he yelled out.

The black marlin, with a quick estimate of 350 pounds by Captain Antonio “Chombo” Isazas, would take nearly an hour to bring alongside for a release.

Collazo enjoyed every minute of it.

“I always wanted a black marlin and now I’ll probably want more!” he said excitedly. The case for big dead bait was brought up again. “Marlin, especially black marlin, are not boat-shy and get lazy and want an easy meal which the dead bait offers. Why chase fish and waste energy?” reasoned Capt. Chombo.

panama jan feb 3The Republic of Panama boasts a wide variety of gamefish, and visiting anglers have doubled in number since 2001. A unique combination of oceanic currents, islands, seamounts and a meandering continental shelf creates a year-round habitat for gamefish that respond well to a variety of fishing techniques—exactly what an angler wants in a fishery. Whether you like to cast surface poppers, deep jig, troll bait and lures or fly fish, Panama is a good place to hone your skills or try new techniques where the fish are more likely to respond to your presentation.

Offshore, yellowfin tuna ranging from 20-pound schoolies to over 300-pound cows provide most of the action from January to July, although the calendar has been changing in recent years with more fish showing at the beginning of the wet season (April to July).jan feb 4

That doesn’t mean that early season fishing is not good—it’s just not as good as Panama can get. Last March, Lorton Mitchell and Tom Christiansen, two West Coast “bait and iron” guys from San Diego, were introduced to Panama by fishing at the Big Game Fishing Club for five days. The butterfly jigs and live bait made easy work of tuna from 40 to 100 pounds the first day, but I encouraged them to cast poppers using spinning and conventional outfits as I wanted some action photos. As we were trolling for marlin at the Hannibal Bank we passed through small areas of spotted dolphin, bait, birds and tuna before Mitchell couldn’t take it anymore and made his way to the bow for some surface casting with a Shimano Saragosa spinning reel. After a few tries, a big yellowfin leaped on his Orca lure and he struggled to get back to the stern. After an hour and 35 minutes, Capt. Chombo and mate Rios gaffed the tuna that weighed 168-pounds at the dock scale. pena jan feb 10jan feb 5

“Unbelievable!” said Mitchell. “Did you see that fish jump on my lure? That’s some crazy fishing. I’ll never forget that!”

Adding more tuna, sailfish, cubera snapper, amberjack, cherna (snowy grouper) and other species to their list of gamefish just padded the experience.

“Panama Big Game has spoiled us forever,” said Christiansen. “We’ll be back for sure.”

As tuna sometimes thin out after September, they are often replaced by wahoo which can be taken closer to shore. Both blue and black marlin (striped marlin are rare in these warm waters) remain a year-round species but vary in abundance on a weekly basis. Weather-wise, the dry season is dominated by calm seas, blue skies interrupted by short period thunderstorms, 95 degree air temperatures, 82-86 degree water temps and high humidity. During January to March there can be a few days of strong north winds that occur after the full moon.jan feb 6

On March 4, the winds were blowing up the sea so we opted to fish the calm lagoon system with live sardines netted by Capt. Chombo. Anchoring the super panga in the tidal surge we caught juvenile goliath grouper, mangrove snapper, cubera snapper and some oddities such as round flatfish. At times snook and large orange mouth corvina can be taken as well. The wet season is fishable but you may lose a day or two with larger storm cells moving through, occasional rough seas but with cooler air temps of 65-80 degrees and sea temps of 78-82 degrees. Most anglers visit during the dry season but some lodges, such as Big Game, are now staying open longer as fish migrations change and there is angler demand for a longer season.

jan feb 7Marlin and tuna may have put Panama on the international map but the inshore and island game fish are the backbone of the year-round fishery. It’s not unusual to record 20 to 30 species during a week if you try different techniques and a variety of habitats. As in other world-class fisheries, Panama is concerned about sustainability of the resource among competing interests. The Big Game Fishing Club is a supporter of the newly formed Panama Marine Resource Foundation under President John Maynard that seeks to have a stronger voice in the politics of fishery management. The PMRF has put together a draft of “common sense” rules for sportfishing that include the release of all marlin, sailfish, roosterfish, grouper and cubera snapper while creating a size and species limit on dorado, wahoo and other species.jan feb 8


Return of the Halibut

Return Of the Halibut leadWith the approach of summer, California halibut are slowly moving into the medium water depths to fatten up before working into the shallows to spawn. This fishery has made a huge comeback and now 40 pounders are fairly commonplace throughout the state—so maybe you’ll get to check that one off your bucket list.

Many of today’s fishermen never experienced good halibut action when they were younger, so they pretty much have written off the game as something not worth their effort or attention. But today, with the gill net regulation modifications keeping the commercial nets outside three miles off the coast, halibut fishing seems to continue improving every year.

Those regulations, incidentally, were passed in the early 1990s and went into enforcement in 1994 as the Marine Resources Protection Act, which is still in place today. This proves that some regulations really work. And those that may not appear beneficial immediately begin to bear fruit with time. The improvements in the halibut fishery we are seeing were decades in the making so understand that recoveries take time, decades in some cases.

“The fishery has certainly made a comeback,” California Fish and Wildlife marine biologist Travis Tanaka confirms to PCS. “There has been an abundance of squid on the coast and more so in the last six years than ever, so as always with good feed fish are bigger and there are more breeders.”

He explained the current bag limit for recreational anglers north of Big Sur is three halibut per day but that it has been expanded to five halibut per day south of Big Sur. Another fact Tanaka shared was that the males do actually get bigger than most people think.halibut 2

“We have tagged males that were as large as 25 pounds; although that is an exceptionally large male, they do get big,” he says.

These big males have played a large part in the comeback of the species as they are able to fertilize many more eggs than the younger males. With gill nets gone, larger brood stock are available to help sustain the fish populations.

Study of the species turned up that one tagged 22-inch California halibut moved from Manhattan Beach all the way to Morro Bay. The main stock is concentrated from Bodega Bay south, according to Tanaka, though some may be found all the way north to Washington. More data can be found by going to the DFG website (, clicking on the “Marine” tab and then looking under “Marine Regional Projects” for the studies of interest to you.

Getting Located

From an angling perspective, as spring moves into summer we typically find the fish slowly moving into shallower water and therefore grouping up a bit more. This gives us a much better shot of connecting on this sometimes illusive quarry. The females will feed heavily on baitfish waiting for just the right conditions to spawn. Specifically, these are conditions where the water is above 66 degrees (at least in San Diego, but likely cooler to the north) and a somewhat off color water with low visibility to keep predators from their eggs.Halibut 3

They will come right into the shoals in as little as 10-foot depths to lay their eggs. When in this pre-spawn stage there are a couple things to look for. Keep an eye on the meter, especially if you are fishing an exclusively sandy area. The bait balls travel and the halibut travel with them. If you can find an area that is holding multiple bait balls spend some time and make several different drifts crisscrossing the zone as much as possible. When you get a bite hit the MOB (Man Overboard) or mark the waypoint on the GPS.

Keep in mind halibut do group up. There will likely be many smaller male fish around the bigger females so if you catch one chances are he was not alone. I like to think when I catch a small one there is likely a big one somewhere in the close vicinity and so I will spend a lot of time right there, trying to find her—and believe me I have.

halibut 4As noted, for the last few years we have been blessed with a huge influx of squid to the California coast and a boon to the recent comeback in the halibut population, adding to the forage base of various fin bait. This has really produced a bigger volume of these larger model halibut which grow into the breeders that produce huge amounts of eggs. The widespread availability of the cephalopods gives us many different areas to target. The market squid that bed up on our California coast can land just about anywhere, typically bedding up in 60 to 120 feet along the coast.

Not all squid beds will be holding fish, however. The likelihood of halibut being present on these beds seems to be toward the middle to end of the spawn out on these squid beds. I have seen it time and time again where the fish just have not located the new beds. There is an abundance of squid present but no fish … yet!

You may have to try several beds before locating the flatties—the only downside to having so much squid in our waters.

Rigs and Rods

Many halibut fishermen have employed the sliding sinker set-up and still go to it. But I choose the triple swivel rig while drifting. On long soaks while drifting the bottom, a slider will collect eel grass and send it straight up to the hook and bait. The three-way swivel does not allow this to happen as the weight sheds the grass instead of collecting it.

Another benefit of the three way swivel rig is that it keeps the bait elevated, which is imperative for halibut in the general vicinity to be able to spot it. The slider tends to drag baits to close to the bottom, yet these fish are looking up and have very limited visual range across the bottom.halibut 5

Some anglers prefer to let the fish run with the bait and the slider allows this, and I can’t argue that. However, you are also putting excessive slack in the line while they run, often making for a weak hook-set. Halibut are ambushers so there is no need to let them run with the bait. Many times it is already in their gullet and should they feel resistance, they are very good at regurgitating bait and sending you back a bait that has big rakes across it.

Although many people think this is evidence of a “short bite,” my feelings are that many of these baits actually did reach their mark but were simply spit out when the fish realized there was something wrong. I always go for quick hook-sets on halibut.

halibut 6This brings up another long-debated subject among halibut fishermen: the trap hook. Many add a treble hook to the tail end of the baitfish, be it a mackerel, sardine or anchovy. This in an attempt to get those aforementioned short biters. But let’s play out a halibut bite in words: Your bait comes across the top of a halibut sitting along the sandy bottom. When the fish strikes it is with a powerful aggressive maneuver and will normally go straight back to the bottom.

In water with decent visibility, I believe that a natural presentation will out-fish an unnatural presentation at a ratio of 3:1. That would mean I am afforded three times the chances and likely more big fish bites. By adding a treble hook to the back of your bait you not only create an unnatural presentation, but one that is spinning and one more likely to kill the bait prematurely. A secondary issue with the trap rig is it does not conform to IGFA angling rules, meaning it is not a legal rig for most fishing club anglers.halibut 7

With suitable equipment there is a huge array of rods and reels for halibut and they all have specific purposes, but for the most part an eight-foot rod rated anywhere from 12- to 25-pound test is a good call. When bay fishing, I prefer to use a medium eight-foot trigger stick with a short 12- or 15- pound fluorocarbon leader straight to spectra backing. Matching that would be a small lever drag or larger levelwind reel. While fishing the outside I will go up to a light eight-foot jig stick with a smaller lever drag reel such as the Andros 5 II speed. In the deeper water I would go to a lighter action graphite eight-foot jig stick and maybe step-up the reel one size. Regardless, the graphite is a key for all halibut rigs as you want to be able to set that hook cleanly.halibut 9halibut8Return Of the Halibut lead



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 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 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 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.”



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 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.



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, 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.



Ghostbusters: Yak Style

Yack July 14 LeadThe Gray Ghost. A lot can be said about a fish by the nicknames we choose to give it. These elusive croakers slide in and out of coastal areas, only subtly making their presence known. One of the only clues we have, especially this time of year, is when the market squid finally starts to float and bed in our warming coastal waters. Whether you made it out to the islands on a mothership, or are beach launching your kayak from the mainland, the white seabass is one of the inshore trophies you don’t want to miss.

The season typically runs from as early as March to as late as August. During these months the fishing is far from steady. There can be constant reports from spear fishermen seeing them cruising through the kelp, but not a one has been taken on rod and reel. Then all of a sudden the coast looks like the 91 Freeway at rush hour. Persistence is going to be key, but on the bright side some of the best sunrises I’ve ever seen have been while fishing for white seabass. Just don’t forget your flashlight. Getting onto the water and making bait before sunrise (or sunset) will allow you to fish during the gray light and increase your chances at landing the big one.Yack July 2014 #2

Several years ago I remember sitting in on Captain Mark Wisch’s seminar on catching and using live squid to target white seabass. While the information was priceless and helped me better understand the fishery, the frequency in which I, as a kayaker, could get my hands on a small scoop of live squid was few and far between. On the few occasions that I did manage to get a few live squid for my kayak, chances are the bait quickly fell victim to a calico or a barracuda, and the ghosts were nowhere to be found. Fin baits and hard baits are the tried and true, most-accessible baits for the kayak fisherman.

Greenback mackerel seem to be the go-to fin bait for me when it comes to targeting the larger inshore species. They are extra slimy and extra hearty, and no matter how careful I am when handling them, the sharp spike near their anus always seems to find its way into a finger. Sabiki rigs are a great way to put some bait in the bucket. If the mackerel aren’t really reacting to the sabiki, small chunks of fresh dead squid put on each of the hooks is usually enough to get them motivated.

Yack #3I like to use one of my kelp cutter rigs for this style of fishing. Since we’re mostly fishing on the edge of the kelp, 60-pound braided line tied to a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader will help you saw your way out of the kelp, while also putting the line-shy white seabass at ease. Some guys like using mono here, but their sharp gill plate can really start to grind away at the leader, so the more abrasion resistant the better. Nose hook the mackerel with a 2/0-4/0 sized circle hook. It’s nice to have a second rig here to tie in a sliding sinker. There’s no telling what part of the water column the white seabass will want to bite so be prepared to change if the conditions tell you to.

La Jolla, Dana Point, San Mateo and other southern coastal hotbeds for white seabass will usually see a lot of spear fishing action. These guys can be your eyes under the kelp and are generally more than willing to pass on information. Don’t be afraid to ask if they happen to pop up nearby. Even knowing what part of the water column these tanks are hovering at can make a huge difference.

One key advantage we have as kayakers is our stealth. The only sound we make is from a little bit of swell against the hull and from our paddles or pedals gliding through the water. This also allows us to get into areas of the kelp that power boaters can only dream of. Stay near the edge of the kelp, but keep an eye out for boiling bait. Another thing to look out for is dirty water. Fishing Catalina, the areas of cloudy, milky water are easy to spot, but our onshore waters can be a bit more difficult. White seabass like to ambush their prey, so moving through an area that has lower visibility adds another chip to the pot.

Fly-lining mackerel near the kelp can be incredibly frustrating. The second you toss that fresh greenback out, they bolt straight into the kelp. To help in making them cooperate, I like to cast them out toward open water, let them tire some and then start my troll. Even if the bait is still swimming out toward nine o’clock, as you slowly start your troll down the kelp line they will eventually settle in. Don’t be afraid of soaking these guys for too long. The longer they soak, the more docile they get, and that in turn makes it an easier meal for the opportunistic white seabass.

Yack #4Fresh dead squid is another good option for kayakers. If I decide to dead stick a rod, I will pin two of them onto an iron and set it just off the bottom with a light drag. The natural rocking of the kayak will bring those dead squid back to life as they lift up and fall back down.

Whether it’s the dead stick or the fly-lined mackerel that gets bit, be patient in setting the hook. Let him sample the bait for a bit and once you feel the weight on the line, give it a solid five count and wind down and set the hook. They will try as hard as they can to bully their way into the kelp. Pressure is going to be a balancing act. Their soft mouths require finesse, but trying to tow a 50-pound fish from inside the kelp takes some muscle. Keep the rod tip up, back off the drag a bit and let the spectra do the work. Once they’re free of the kelp, tighten back up the drag and keep it tight until you have the gaff in them. They tend to make a few very strong runs filled with plenty of head shakes, but eventually tire themselves out and often end up floating upside down by the end of the fight, making for an easy landing.yack #5

The elusive gray ghosts that we catch off our coast are made possible because of the efforts of the Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program (OREHP) and, most notably, the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute (HSWRI). Just this year, they released their 2 millionth white seabass into our waters. Their efforts over the past 50 years have made for a lot of great stories, and full bellies.



El Nino? Maybe so, Maybe Not

Local Knowledge June 14After the past three years of poor offshore fishing up above the border I’m ready for a change. We’ve suffered through some of the worst marlin years ever, minimal kelp paddy fishing for yellows, short-lived bites on dorado and a dearth of yellowfin on the dolphins. And this year, even though a vigorous, late season weather front is pushing through right now with a huge amount of northwest wind, remember it’s still spring and there is good reason for optimism about the summer/fall and beyond.

 Anecdotal evidence points to some longed for change on the horizon. All winter the water temp at the San Clemente Basin Buoy has stayed several degrees above what it has been in past years. Even when the big winds blow it briefly dips and then pops right back. Clarity in many locations is far improved over what we’ve seen recently. The squid is virtually MIA from all the normal seasonal haunts, some of the yellows caught at the Coronados have had red crabs in them and schools of Spanish jacks rolled through the area around the outer rigs on the drop-off.

Proof positive proof? Hardly. Natural signs that conditions are beginning to trend warmer? Absolutely!

Past these signposts in the sea, which I’ve often found to be accurate forecasts of the shape of things to come, is the highly objective scientific data that has the news media all stirred up. There has already been extensive speculation and prognostication about a pending warm episode. It all sounds good but it’s a bit too early to be so optimistic.

Even though there were a series of westerly wind bursts earlier this year that created a very large Kelvin Wave (a subsurface pool of warmer water) that is moving across the Pacific and is likely soon to surface off the coast of South America and (if it happens) begin the actual process for the formation of an El Niño, there is one major hurdle yet to be surmounted: the “Spring Unpredictability Barrier.”

That phrase is a mouthful but what it means is the predictions made in the late March/April/May timeframe are often waylaid by Mother Nature, herself. Conditions can look perfect and then, “Pffft,” just like that, things change and we’re back to square one and wondering what happened. So like I said … it’s a bit early. But as it stands now and if all the signs stay on track, the predictions you’ll see by late May/early June will be the real deal and are likely to be quite accurate.

If the pundits do get it right and we are headed for a big El Niño, like most things in this world there are two sides to the coin. As far as our fisheries are concerned there are typically major disruptions in the bait supply. Most of the time the squid situation can get very tough and there have been warm water years when we just don’t have much around at all. The warm water also can get our staples, the anchovies and sardines, pushed way up above us or out to the west on the cooler, nutrient rich edges.

We might see all the kelp beds take a heavy hit or die off completely; many of the rockfish species head either north or deeper to find the cooler waters they prefer and the coastline gets rearranged by the bigger swells from a far more active storm track. This year we had 5 or 6 inches of rain; next season there might be five times as much.Local Knowledge #2

I’ve had the good fortune to have fished through many El Niño seasons. The less notable ones bring us some good fishing, a smattering of tropical exotics and warmer, wetter winter weather. But it’s the heavy hitters like the 1982/’83 and ‘97/’98 that bring the most profound changes to our local waters and create so many of our most cherished memories of those special times on the water.

At the start of the ‘82/’83 El Niño, we didn’t have as much knowledge about the process as we do today. So to be fishing on a local trip in January and see purple/blue 62 degree water and have our bass stuffed with red crabs was an interesting sidebar to the day but nothing more. But a few months later when the whole surface of Alamitos Bay was literally covered with millions of them, it began to register a powerful and very different scenario was in the works.

From then on it was game on … with another weird addition to the mix almost every week. Sailfish caught just below the Coronados, 84-degree water inside Clemente, wahoo clipping off marlin jigs rigged on heavy mono leader, frigate and tropic birds putting us on the early schools of tuna and some of the best-ever marlin fishing up on the Osborn Bank once we cracked the code of drifting on the deep bait schools.

If ’83 was amazing then 1984 was nothing short of spectacular. The water never got cold that winter; the first marlin of the season was caught on Jan. 1. A handful of others were caught throughout the month and even one in February in the 61-62 degree water off the east end of Clemente. The conditions warmed early and the main schools swarmed up the coast and lingered awhile on the stock spots before pushing way out west. One morning off the East End of Catalina we tagged and released four fish: three stripers and an estimated 150-pound black. Its short, heavy bill, a smaller dorsal fin, no stripes and wedged out pectorals made it look noticeably different from his cousins and pointed out the obvious fact … here we go again!

For me, 1984 was an all-time classic “Big El Niño” type season in Southern California. I know the pundits claim that scientifically the ‘97/’98 event measured bigger but in the real on-the-water world ’84 was one for the record books. We followed the fish up past the West End of Catalina, up the ridge across the 17 and then up to Anacapa and then across the lee side of Santa Cruz out to the rugged edge of the famed Santa Rosa Flats.

The fishing was nothing short of fantastic. Early on we had stellar fishing for quality albies below San Diego but that was just a teaser for what was coming later. The marlin fishing was the best I’ve ever seen in SoCal and mixed right in with them were tanker-grade yellowfin tuna. We ran on one bird school thinking it was marlin only to find it straight YFT … big ones. I put a mackerel right in the foamer, came up bit and watched a marlin come up jumping and I was so bummed.Local Knowledge #3

We spent the summer and fall on those schools racking up impressive scores. And in the late season we followed the fish back down and ended up right outside the rigs off Long Beach. The huge albies had settled in on the big bait schools and provided outstanding opportunity to catch a trophy or a world record. I was proud of my 65-pounder but we caught others much larger. We finished off the year following that spot out around the West End, down toward the 499 and Ron Howarth capped it off with a state record 239-pound yellowfin on 40-pound during a late November cloudburst, an outstanding catch that stands to this day.

At this point there’s just no telling what may happen with the weather, the water and the fish later on in the year. But if the current predictions come to pass … we’re going to have a chance to make some spectacular catches. And those who make the best of the opportunities presented will have all their gear perfect, tested and ready to be pushed to the redline and beyond by a grade of gamesters seldom seen in our local waters.

Capt. Mark Wisch’s next book Way Out West is about offshore fishing. It’s based in part on the history of private boat fishing in blue water and many of the stories came from countless trips captained during many of our warm-water events.



Good Old Woodie

July 2014 lead photoIf there’s a trolling jig that’s a universal soldier, it must be the cedar plug. No other jig seems to match its strong kicking action, which looks like a sardine in a serious hurry to reach safer parts. All tuna, even the jig-shy bluefin, will bite it, and so will marlin, wahoo, yellowtail, bonito, dorado, grouper, cabrilla, snapper and ambitious mackerel.

Probably no lure still in use pre-dates the cedar plug. The late Ed Ries, one of the Southland’s great fishermen and an enduring storehouse of saltwater knowledge, wrote in his 2011 book, Looking Asstern, “When albacore first became a desirable commercial catch around 1910, many fisherman whittled lures out of wood and bone, but it was not long until they were replaced by factory-made cedar jigs…until 16-year albacore drought that began in 1926 stifled demand.

“I remember seeing dust-covered bins full of them and marveling at the simplicity of their design. A single, lacquered black hook jutted from an unpainted, cylindrical wooden body weighted with a lead head and eye for attaching line.

“… [L]ogic suggests the following: the unpainted cedar body was drilled through its length, pressed onto a long-shanked, eyeless hook and placed in a mold. Lead was poured around the protruding end of the hook shank, and the remainder formed an eye. The result was a very strong, solid lure suitable for horsing in tuna on a hand line. A few had double hooks, and there were some with bone bodies.

“Modern versions are drilled lengthwise to slide on a leader, and many sport a coat of paint. … Cedar jigs are said to have originated 150 years ago with the ‘tunny trawlers,’ yawl-rigged sailboats trolling the Bay of Biscay from the Brittany coast of France.”

A Century Old But Still Hot

In the late 1980s word came to the Southland about anglers using cedar plugs to catch Atlantic tuna. I was intrigued, and requested and then received the first cedar plugs available on the West Coast. It didn’t look like much more than a wooden cigar with a lead tip, but it swam with a great kicking motion that reminded me of a sardine in a panic. I found that it out-fished the skirted jigs for yellowfin; albacore were gone then from our waters.

Fishing that summer with tackle maker Russ Izor and his manager John Rowe on a Carl Newell charter aboard Excel, I touted the cedar plug, but crusty old Russ pooh-poohed the notion that anything could out-fish his favorite skirted jigs.

“Watch this,” I told Russ.

July 2014 #2We put a cedar plug behind the boat with four hot, skirted jigs from different makers. For two days, the plug caught as many tuna (mostly albacore, but we trolled up yellowfin and some bluefin as well) as the rest of the jigs put together, no matter if it was fished in the corners or in the middle of the stern. We alternated location after each fish-producing stop.

Once he got over his consternation, Izor was so impressed with the cedar plug’s performance he nabbed a distributorship for it, I discovered the next time I talked with him. Thanks in part to Russ, today most offshore anglers know what the cedar plug is, and a majority own one.

The design, as noted by Ed Ries, is well over 100 years old. The cedar plug appears be the oldest lure still in consistent use. Now, with the return of the bluefin tuna fishery, this plug and other hard jigs are accounting for more tuna than ever.

They Eat the Plugs Better

“We’ve found that the diving plugs get bit a lot better by big bluefin,” skipper Randy Toussaint remarked one day. “They usually won’t touch the skirted jigs.”

What is there about hard jigs that bluefin tuna find so appealing?

The obvious differences are in the shape and movement of the jigs. In the case of the cedar plug these aspects seem paramount. The cedar plug is now available in all the usual favorite colors: blue/white, red/white, green/black, green/yellow, etc., and also with various types of heads, skirts and other afterthoughts, but the one that gets bit most often still seems to be the natural wood color, my personal favorite. This leads me to believe that shape and movement are as important as color in drawing tuna strikes.

It may not matter, but I used to select my cedar plugs by looking for a light/dark color combo that might indicate a light belly and dark back, like a natural bait.

A problem with other hard trolling lures is making the plug run straight, so it doesn’t tangle with the other jigs being trolled. Jigs with a bendable bill especially must be monitored to make sure they don’t spin or run off to one side, tangling other jigs in the trolling spread.

Joe Chait, owner of the charter Conquest, loves the cedar plug.

“The Cedar plug never gets tangled,” he said as a guest on Let’s Talk Hookup. ” And you can troll it really fast. It never spins in circles, and everything eats it. We troll the cedar plug and it does just fine.”

July 2014 #3We can hope this year for another bluefin bite like we experienced over the past three seasons, each of which was better than the previous one. Last year was the best I can remember for shortfin. But even if the water warms so fast and so much this year that bluefin and their cool-water brethren the albacore make an early departure, you’ll still be making a smart move to bag yellowfin tuna or dorado, if you pull a cedar plug along with your Zukers and other trolling jigs.

Like Joe said, “Everything eats it.”

Bill Rocker owns, 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 most Southern California fishing stores.