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.



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



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.



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.




Regulator 34 Center Console

April 2015The New 34 – Clean Lines and Built to Tackle Any Gamefish

My first Regulator boat review was on their legendary 28 Center Console–a stable fishing platform with classic sportfishing lines and everything you need to fish the West Coast. So when I first laid eyes on the new Regulator 34 Center Console, it was one of those moments where you just stand motionless on the dock for five minutes and admire her beauty …

She looks fast and can reach a top speed of 57 mph with a pair of Yamaha F350 four-stroke outboards mounted on an Armstrong bracket off the transom. I have nothing but good reviews on these big Yamahas; my dad owns a set of Yamaha four-stroke outboards and they have performed flawlessly and raise fish into the trolling pattern almost as well as my single inboard. The factory specs at 4,000 RPMs give the Regulator 34 a cruising speed of 36 mph with a burn rate of 27.5 gallons an hour. While I am not a Yamaha expert–I like 3,800 RPMs on twin Yamaha 350s–it seems to be the sweet spot on both fuel burn and speed. With a fuel capacity of 380 gallons, an overnight tuna run out to the Cortes Bank on a good weather window would be possible without the need for additional fuel.

April 2015 #2The Regulator 34 is 33 feet, 10 inches LOA with a 10-foot, 11-inch beam. When sitting on the helm seat looking forward this boat seems much larger than other center consoles in its class. There is something about a Carolina-flared bow and a wide beam that just make these boats feel much roomier than the other production boats. The transom area is squared up and roomy enough for three or four guys to be pulling on fish. The outboard bracket that doubles as a swim step opens up the cockpit area with a large oval live bait tank centered on the transom gunnel and a 272 quart fish box for chilling a boat load of gamefish on the port transom. The only thing I would change for our West Coast-style fishing is a removable bait tank lid instead of the hatch that folds open for easy access. On the starboard side there is a dive door much like the lifeguard boats but with a secure hatch that folds down onto the transom. For the diving community this is a huge plus—as well as for that once-in-a-lifetime goal of loading a swordfish or giant tuna onto the deck.

Then there is the WOW factor: While examining the tackle center I flipped up a stainless steel hatch that revealed a state-of-the-art gas BBQ grill! Not one of those small portable oval models, this one allows you to throw four big rib eyes on it and have plenty more room to grill veggies. Standard options included tackle drawers, rigging sink with fresh water and a cutting board. Everything needed to fish and eat well in the evenings is on this thing.

Regulators are built like no other with a reputation for solid engineering and being overbuilt to the highest standards. Their manufacturing process uses only premium-grade products and a unique four-part design that give Regulators a “custom” boat look and ride. While I was taking photos, several bay cruise boat pilots passed by asking, “What kind of boat is that?” It just screams custom built to perfection. With a deadrise of 24 degrees, flared bow and Teleflex Optimus power steering assistance, this center console cuts through the slop and swells with ease.

Walking up to the bow, the 10-foot, 11-inch beam comes into play. There is plenty of room for easy access 360 degrees around the boat–even next to the console with its set of large padded helm seats. Forward of the console is a padded bench seat with a massive open bow area with padded seating on both port and starboard sides. The bow area also doubles as an open air lounge area or even a sleeping arrangement for two. I was expecting to find a couple bikini models up here sunning themselves during my boat tour–it had that look of being anchored up in a cove on a summer day!

The fiberglass T-top has a molded electronic box overhead, LED spreader lights, outriggers and a set of rocket launchers behind the helm seats. The console window is curved to match the lines of the T-top and provides protection from wind and spray. The console has flush mounted 14 inch electronic display screens and drink holders and storage areas in all the right places.

April 2015 #3The port side entry door leads down into what I would call the master stateroom. I am 5-foot-9 and had plenty of room overhead–at least another foot or more. The fresh-water sink and head are set into a beautiful Corian countertop. Behind the Corian counter is a cabinet with easy access to the electronic panels and battery terminals. The vee berth sleeps two very comfortably with LED lights and several storage compartments for personal belongings. The console vee berth would be an ideal place to keep fishing outfits locked up after a trip, and this particular model had a vertical rod rack for additional storage. Being able to store your fishing outfits on a center console is a HUGE time saver and keeps anglers from having to make multiple trips up and down the dock loading gear.

This particular Regulator 34 was custom outfitted with a navy blue hull; Regulator offers a full range of color options for the hull. All the aluminum on the T-top was powder coated white to match the decks and padded console seats. The anchor windlass was mounted inside the bow coupled with a stainless steel Bruce anchor. Four stainless steel rod holders in the cockpit for a proper trolling spread and absolutely no clutter are examples of everything being well organized and serving a purpose.

April 2015#4If I had to build a West Coast center console in the 34-foot range set up to tackle any Pacific gamefish, I would save myself the time, money and effort and just call Pete Giacalone at Kusler Yachts. The Regulator 34 is “that” boat plus it is set up just right for family and friends to enjoy boating along with a safe and smooth ride. Pete can be reached at (619) 992-8194 or by email at

And please let me know what the ride is like at 3,800 RPMs!


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.



Ballyhoo Pay the “Bills”

ballyhooleadI love marlin fishing. There is something about sitting in a fighting chair with a fresh cup of hot coffee in the early morning hours over a calm, glassy sea. The sun’s rays cast a warm glow to all points of the compass and you’ve got four lines properly set and ready for instant action. It’s the best.

We rarely use marlin jigs. We use ballyhoo with circle hooks. Why? Because in my humble opinion, ballyhoo gets bit more often than do jigs. Indeed, I recall fishing one fall day off Dana Point and we got five strikes on ballyhoo within 60 minutes. How many of those fish did we catch? Only one. And herein lies the subject of this column. Yes, ballyhoo will attract strikes, but it’s all about what happens in the first three to 10 seconds that will determine if the fish stays on. After many trial by error attempts, here’s what my learning curve has taught me. The following assumes you are trolling about 5 knots, are using circle hooks and have the rod in the holder, line in a release clip with just the clicker on and the drag all the way off.

On the strike and hook-set: I like to pick the rod up out of the holder, take the clicker off (I think the fish can sense the vibration of the clicker) and count to 10 before putting the lever in the full strike position. I try to take two or three seconds to move the lever so as not to move it too fast and pull the hook. Why a 10 count? Why not a five count? Because the fish, of course, will first squeeze the bait thinking it is killing it (of course the ballyhoo comes frozen and thawed for deployment).

It will then usually make a turn and when it does, it generally picks up speed after it swallows the bait. I’m still in free spool. So I find waiting to 10 makes sure the hook has time to enter into the marlin’s mouth and that marlin is not still holding the bait sideways with the hook not yet in its mouth. I have lost too many fish applying the drag too soon. Even at a 10 count, the circle hook ends up where it is supposed to be, in the corner of the mouth, but, of course, not always. The longer you wait, the more you risk gut hooking the fish, which, of course, decreases its chance of surviving after release.

Other anglers have different variations to this. I asked a few to share how they like to fish ballyhoo.

Bill DePriest (One Hot Tuna) on the strike and set: If the angler is someone without much ballyhoo experience, I tell them to set the hook with the rod in the holder. If the angler has experience, I tell them to take it out of the rod holder. The best way is to put the reel in gear once you feel the fish turn and really take off … meaning it has swallowed the bait. I would say between 3-5 seconds after the rigger pops. I then slowly put the real in gear when using a circle hook.

Chase Offield (Kelsey Lee) on the strike and set: I always take the rod out of the holder, let the fish eat for about four or five seconds then drop the rod tip down and move the lever drag to just below the stroke. Once the fish has settled, I go to strike or just on the button.

Steve Behrens (Joker) on the strike and set: Treat it like a live bait. I point the rod tip at the fish and advance the drag slowly. When using a J hook, the rod position is not as critical but the hook-set is sooner, like three seconds. For a circle hook, maybe five count.

With all the time and money you spend in pursuit of your game fish, doesn’t it make sense to have the very best kill bag onboard? Bleeding your fish immediately and keeping them on ice properly chilled can make all the difference in how the meat will taste. I use a Reliable kill bag for several reasons. First, it is very well insulated and keeps the ice from melting, especially important on overnight trips. Second, the zipper is thick and seems to last and work longer than other bags. And third, to paraphrase Donald Trump, “The bag is very, very, very strong. It is probably the strongest bag in the world.” And it is. We’ve had two guys on each end lift well over 180 pounds of fish inside the bag without the handles breaking. Buy Reliable and you’ll put the very best quality meat on the table.


Aboard A Long Ranger: What to Expect of a Trip

Lead A Long RangerYour time aboard a long-range boat isn’t like it is on a day boat. No, sir. First and best, you’ll sleep in a stateroom with one or two other anglers, not in bunk-room racks with 30 or more.

When you awake to fish will be up to you. Chefs (they’re not cooks) are up around 5 a.m. or earlier to prepare breakfast, served at your table over a period of an hour or two. You might have eggs cooked to order. Breakfast includes coffee, tea, milk, cereal (including cooked oatmeal), fruit, biscuits, toast, bacon or sausage, hash browns, pancakes, French toast or something like omelets or Eggs Benedict. It won’t be coffee, a burrito and a hustle to the rail—unless they’re biting hard, and you’re in a hurry.

Three meals and two snacks are served each day—standard. If you get off the boat lighter than you got on, the chefs will be disappointed. However, they’ll accommodate special diets or a request for fish or vegetables in place of meat. Soda pop, bottled water, coffee, tea and beer are handy, hot or cold. There may be a charge for beer or pop on the honor system: sign a sheet when you take one. These things are explained during the first passenger seminar, shortly after leaving port, when safety procedures and gear are also described.#2

Preparation& Fun

Since you’ll be fishing for days on a big comfortable boat, the pace is truly relaxed on the way to the first fishing grounds. However, if fishing is very good near port in summer or fall, the skipper may want to take a shot at fish just a few hours from the harbor.

Most often, there’s time to prepare your tackle, tie wahoo leaders, service a reel (crew members can help), read a magazine or book, watch a movie in your stateroom or on the big screen in the galley, or just relax out of the wind on the upper deck. Long rangers are big, from 80 to 126 feet, so you won’t be stepping on another angler every time you move. The reason long rangers spend so much time and effort on tackle and rigging is revealed in Toni Lo Presti’s online remark from Royal Polaris in December of 2014:

“We can only hope tuna fishing can come remotely close to what we’ve had the last few days with these wahoo. On another happy note, we should make much better time in the coming days after lightening the load a hundred pounds or so from all the jigs we lost!”

Added to that was the capper, “Well worth it!”

3Formerly the tackle shop manager and now a co-owner at Fisherman’s Landing, Doug Kern suggests anglers “… must first be acutely aware that each and every trip will present different conditions. As such, different tackle, rigging, equipment and fishing methods will be needed for each trip. … It’s crucial for the long-range angler to gather as much quality and pertinent information as possible, and to plan tackle and other gear accordingly. A good long-range angler never forgets that each step leading up to a trip and the trip itself are supposed to be fun.”

On the Boat

Having a wide stern and fewer anglers means less crowding at the rail (a must for dealing with multiple hookups on big fish), with room to move.

Jigcasting on long rangers is like it is on day boats: Do it forward of the bait tank, so you don’t wind in bait fishermen on the square end. Jigcasting along the side, watch out for overhead deck lights when you swing (a lesson I learned the wrong way).

A welcome shower and fresh clothes at the end of a fishing day leads to a fancy dinner in a comfortable booth. Sleeping in your air-conditioned stateroom is heavenly for tuckered fishermen. The boat may move at night, allowing more fishing time in daylight. Waking up in a new place, where fishing possibilities start before dawn, is exciting.4

Cruising during the day, you’ll be welcome in the wheelhouse when the skipper’s not busy. Don’t bother the skipper or crew when they have binoculars up to their eyes—they’re on duty then. Otherwise, they have answers for fishing inquiries and will provide assistance if needed. Most skippers are cordial to passengers in the wheelhouse when they’re just covering miles.

Long-range boats are long, wide fishing platforms carrying hundreds of scoops of live sardines and anchovies. Tackle, expert advice, a workshop, satellite phones, Wi-Fi and first aid are all available. Hundreds of gallons of fresh water are produced daily by reverse osmosis water-makers. Comfort and safety aboard are powerful reasons to fish long range.

It’s a Seasonal Game

Fishing can be broadly categorized in two types: spring and summer. Summer fishing means rod-slamming action can be less than 30 miles or as much as 300 miles south of San Diego. From Colnett to Cedros and the San Benitos Islands and offshore, you may find very good fishing for yellowtail, yellowfin and bluefin tuna. The tuna in some bluefin schools may run well over a hundred pounds, bigeye as well. In 2015, 200-pound bluefin were both caught and speared near San Diego in July, so be prepared with some heavy gear. The summer game has changed.

5Multi-day boats include long rangers and larger day boats and charters that stay out for up to a week or so. Two- to eight-day trips are offered in summer, with an occasional longer run. Generally speaking, that means they’ll be making excursions of 50 to 450 miles from San Diego. Fall multi-day boats tap superior tuna fishing. Super yellowtail fishing and excellent white seabass and kelp bass fishing at the San Benitos/Cedros archipelago, The Ridge and many other spots mean a 100-pound yellowfin tuna or a 60-pound yellowtail are always possible. If tuna are biting outside, your trip may stay offshore, trolling from one school to the next.

No Experience Required

 “An absolute novice can do well,” asserted Vagabond skipper Mike Lackey, “because the crew will help you. You don’t even have to bring your own tackle. We have loaner tackle, too.

“Other anglers will help you, too. There’s good camaraderie on the boats. Fishing is primary, but the whole experience is what it’s about. Sightseeing, enjoying the variety of the passengers; we get everything from rocket scientists to hod carriers.”6

Skipper Buzz Brizendine came to San Diego from Oceanside many years ago and has been running his Prowler (Bill Poole’s first purpose-built long ranger) for decades. Buzz has fished long range and has as much experience running one- and two-day trips as any man.

“I deal with lots of new anglers,” he notes, “and for them I recommend monofilament line with a San Diego Knot to the hook. I use the John Collins Knot or the Albright to connect spectra to mono or fluorocarbon.

“I do like my anglers to use fluorocarbon, and when it’s used with mono I go for the Uni to Uni Knot to connect them.

“To flyline with bait, I suggest 25- to 40-pound line and a sardine with a 2/0 to 4/0 hook. I use the nose hook for the most part.”

All Day, All Night

You can fish at night. A particular Alijos Rocks trip was a whiz-banger for skipper Randy Toussaint and his Royal Star anglers.

7“You know the fishing has been good,” noted Toussaint, “when 25- to 40-pound yellowtail are biting full speed at 0400, and only three passengers get up to try for them. With limited effort, we still landed 53 throughout the night. Tuna fishing was a little slower today, but the overall grade was better. We ended up with 65 for the day, and I would say 70 percent were 50 to 80 pounds.”

That trip’s best was a typical Alijos 100-pound yellowfin, a sardine fish. You can handle such on a 4/0 hook and 40-pound line, but 50- or 60-pound would be much better. You might need any gear from 25- to 100-pound strength on a given trip. Rods and reels used on short trips are as varied as the catch. If tuna were the only fish caught, an angler might bring a couple of rods and reels and have plenty of gear. But in spring/summer, kelp and reef species are included, and a major yellowtail bite could go off anytime, at the surface or 300 feet down.

Jig Fishing

You might need long and short jig sticks for 30- to 50-pound line class for surface and yoyo jigging. Use a trolling outfit of 60 to 100 pounds, and medium and heavy bait rigs in the 30- to 60-pound category. Most boats have plenty of rod space alongside the deckhouse and in rocket launchers forward of the tanks.

“I’ve seen a lot guys do well deep jigging yellowtail with a short rod of six or six and a half feet,” said Andy Cates, Red Rooster III skipper. “It might take a few drifts, but you can be successful on yellowtail by using the yoyo method, especially when you’re drifting over shallows.8

“You can use a longer rod of seven to nine feet with the surface iron. When fish are up breezing, not biting close, you can reach ‘em with the skip jig and the surface jig. We also had this experience at Clipperton Atoll, on bigger tuna. … Rod length gets you a longer cast, and the action of the jig coming across the surface. Skip the jig for tuna, and wind it for the yellowtail, swimming the jig.

“A good skip or surface jig would be a Salas 7X or a Tady 45. The 7X is best for tuna; the 45 best for yellowtail. When you cast either, when it hits the surface, put it in gear fast.

“For yoyo jigging yellowtail, I like blue and white and scrambled eggs in the 6X Jr. size. For deep-jigging tuna I like chrome, chrome and blue jigs, and the glow in the dark Tady 15 or all-white jigs.”

Fall & Winter Fishing

During the months from October to May, boats fish the waters from Alijos Rocks and The Ridge to Cabo San Lucas, the Revillagigedos archipelago and even Clipperton Atoll on trips of 10 to 20-plus days. The fish sought are the apex of the food chain, tuna of 80 pounds up to 300 or more, and wahoo. On some trips no tuna under 100 pounds are kept.

During warm water years, some winter fishing may be on the inside, off the Baja coast, but the usual area is near Clarion Island and on the Hurricane Bank, far southwest of Cabo San Lucas. Trolling is for wahoo, but early all tuna come on bait.

When you’re fishing more than two days from San Diego, down below Cedros Island, you need stout gear. You can use 30-pound line as your lightest gear, but most of the fishing will call for at least 40-pound topshots or mainline. Many winter long rangers use 150- or 200-pound spectra mainline, topshots or leaders. Most of the fishing is with bait on hooks sized 4/0 to 8/0, but kite fishing and trolling also produce some fish, on bigger hooks.

I’m not kidding. Be prepared for tuna from 30 to 300 pounds or more. First-timers are well-advised to confer with the crew on the way south, so they’re ready when the first stop for big boys comes up.

Burned into my own memory was a first stop when I mistakenly cast a sardine on 40-pound line into a spot of boiling tuna. They were 200 pounders, I learned shortly, as the last of that full reel whizzed out and snapped off at the spool’s end. That sound and the look I got from the skipper standing next to me serve as permanent reminders of the need for proper gear.

Tip: Angles Fight Giant Yellowfin

“Use the angles, use the leverage against the big fish,” says Accurate’s Jack Nilsen as he plays a big one in my video, Driftfishing Big Tuna. “You can’t beat the fish; the fish has to beat himself. You just have to be patient, let it happen, keep your adrenalin rush down and let the fish do what it does best, and that’s fight for size.

“When the rod straightens out a little bit you get one or two turns on the reel handle. Get what you can. Let it load up and when it straightens out, get another one. You don’t have to think about it, just get one at a time, that’s plenty.

“Keep a bend in the rod, let the rod do what it’s designed to do. It’s a shock absorber.”

Jack is a firm believer in saving just a little bit of your energy for the end of the fight, when you’re gasping and the deckhand asks you to lift one more time so the prize can be gaffed. That’s smart advice.

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 most Southern California fishing stores.