Early June 2011. About 10 miles off Newport Beach. Headed on a course to the east end of Catalina Island.
It is late afternoon and I have my boat Prospector running on auto pilot when my iPhone beeps from a text coming in. Surprised that I still have cell coverage, I check the message and instantly pull back the throttles. My friend Rob Stewart sent me a photo of his son Shane with his first white seabass, a beautiful 30-pound class fish.
While I am excited for his catch, I am even more excited when I further examine the photo. The text reads: “Shane got his first one on fin bait.” Looking closer, I see in the background a clear outline of the AES Huntington Beach power plant, one of the stock spots for the commercial bait boats out of Newport Harbor.
On our run back to the beach, we take a look around the area in front of the power plant and find it stacked from the surface down to five fathoms with schools of anchovies. Another positive sign is it’s swarming with mackerel and short barracuda that are herding the fin bait to the surface. After a few unsuccessful drifts and mapping out the west and east edges of this zone, we anchor up on some structure just down the beach and decide to hit it again at first light.
As we slide into the area in the dark, Rob Stewart on the All In is back on his numbers from the day before and into fish—big white seabass. It doesn’t take long for us to get wired; jigs, live sardines and mackerel are all working on a hungry school of seabass. The fish are keyed in on the bait schools and biting. Within an hour, all three of us have a limit of seabass on the deck and are headed back to Newport by 8 a.m. Better yet, we have caught all of our fish on 12-pound tackle while competing in the annual Tuna Club Seabass Tournament, which we end up winning from that single text from Rob Stewart. Gracias, amigo!
While many of us associate seabass fishing with squid or using live or fresh frozen squid, February through May these past few seasons were tough months to locate squid. Under these conditions, if you’ve got the itch to hunt for whitey, here are a few tips on how to turn early season fin bait into trophy croaker trips.
Time of Year
Nobody knows for sure when and where these “ghost” seabass make their annual migration back down into Northern Baja—possibly far offshore. As days roll into spring, scattered schools of white seabass migrate north in pursuit of food. Similar to the Atlantic bluefin tuna swimming north to feed on shoals of herring and mackerel in Nova Scotia, white seabass are opportunistic feeders and will migrate north to feed on schools of anchovies, sardines, mackerel and even barracuda to fatten up for spawning season.
And when squid show up along the coast and islands (and there is a great chance for this to occur from the spawning that occurred this past winter), we will have even more opportunities to target seabass. But, for the days, weeks or months of fishing without squid, anglers need to find the fin bait to locate seabass.
One of the best and easiest places to start is to check the reports on Fishdope.com. Not actual seabass reports, if you’re reading about it it’s likely too late, but the “Live Bait Updates” posted on the first page. When I start seeing reports such as “fresh batch of 4-5-inch anchovies in Newport,” that tells me the local bait boat has something to work with close. Anchovy updates are my favorite and sardines would be my next best option.
Whether you’re a private boater with a receiver at your boat slip or merely launching that day, the first order of business is to catch a tank of mackerel. Although live sardines have caught plenty of seabass, when fishing with live mackerel you eliminate most of the smaller coastal gamefish and can fine tune your game to white seabass or bust.
Catching mackerel is the easy part, if you time it right and bring the proper bait-making tools. The first order of business is to buy seafood flavored cat food in bulk quantities. Cat food is your chumming source and without it your mackerel catching will be limited. Next, have onboard either a bag of Gulp! or a frozen pack of squid or anchovies. I cannot stress this enough: mackerel get picky just like other gamefish and will not commit to the sabiki rigs without a little piece of bait or scent on the hook. Countless times I have watched other private boaters next to us trying to catch bait. They had plenty of cat food and mackerel around the boat but without some “flavor” or flesh on the hook they got no bites.
While every harbor has their stock bait (mackerel) spots, if you have a friend or contact that has been out the day before, ask the important questions for catching mackerel. What time? What depth? You want to narrow it down. Some trips mackerel will only bite right at gray light while other days the job (making bait) is done in a matter of minutes.
All the more knowledge you can gather is to your advantage.
Size does matter fishing for the ghosts, and the best mackerel are the 10- to 14-inch greenbacks. White seabass have extremely large mouths and have no problem inhaling a foot-long mack. Even short barracuda see their lives cut short by a trophy seabass. Have a hook release tool ready and drop them right into the live bank tank from the sabiki rig.
Tip: If the macks are super finicky, try fly lining a small piece of squid on a No. 8 hook and 6-pound leader (a Stotesbury tip from 1991 marlin season). For a morning of seabass fishing, plan on having 15-20 baits. Sure, you can catch fish with only a few, but it’s proven the boat with fresh baits gets the bites when white seabass fishing.
Signs & Strategy
There are several ways to locate fin bait such as anchovies or sardines. Based on where you’re fishing along the coast, in my usual haunts from Oceanside to Huntington Beach I like to stitch back and forth along the 15-20 fathom lines. Your plotter will look like a bunch of “Ws” as you work along this depth range. I put my Furuno Nav Net on a split screen with both plotter and sounder screens. While the captain is monitoring the electronics, the crew should be glassing around the boat for bird life—think pelicans and terns, a dead giveaway to anchovy or sardine schools. If the water is flat or glassy, look for nervous water spots or patches of water that is rippled from schools of fin bait.
Strategy is also key in your seabass hunt. I am a believer in early morning and late afternoon seabass bites, so middle-of-day hours are a good time to make a move or call it a trip and head into the office. If the morning bite doesn’t work out or you are unable to locate any sign to work with, run to a new area or switch tactics to maybe target structure spots for the afternoon tide—and maybe time to check the menu.
Ham & Eggs
I first learned about this technique maybe 12 or 15 years ago while fishing out of San Quintin. Our panga guide stopped on a patch of fin bait on the way to fish a pinnacle for yellowtail. As we approached the school of anchovies being terrorized by mackerel, the guide nose hooked one of our live mackerel baits onto a large Krocodile and let the Kroc and mack rig flutter down into the depths. I was thinking lingcod or chucklehead rockfish when he swung and came tight. After a few short powerful head shakes and some decent runs down the beach, I sunk the gaff into his 30-pound plus white seabass with the front ring of the Krocodile barely showing from its jaw. Ham and eggs, baby!
While there has been a few modifications to ham and eggs or “the cheeseburger” (another pseudonym) over the years, the technique and concept remain the same. Along with the 2 ¼-ounce Krocodile, other good ham and egg jigs are the chrome Tady 9 and Salas Christy II.
All chrome is popular, and some of the local Newport seabass slayers swear by green/white on bright days and blue/chrome on overcast days. Support the industry: Buy a dozen of various colors for every condition.
On all these jigs, there is a must-have hook conversion for both function and holding power. I still have nightmares from my green horn days of losing what was quite possibly the biggest seabass (60 pounds-plus) of my fishing career. It won its freedom when the treble hook straightened out on my Christy II at color! Ouch. That being said, I use bolt cutters to cut off the stock treble hook.
Tip: Wear eye protection if you do it because the hook or parts of it occasionally fly back at you.
Next, take a Mustad Siwash 7/0 hook and secure the eye of the hook in the jaws of a vise. The stainless-steel eye is easily bent open just enough to slide the back ring of your lure into the eye of the hook. Then, slowly bend the gap closed in the eye and the lure (ham) is ready for the eggs (mackerel).
Tip: On Tady 9s and Salas Christy II’s, the point of the hook should ride out, perpendicular to the flat side of the jig body for the best jigging action.
The tackle needed for this technique is very basic. I like a Penn Squall 30 lever drag reel with 30-pound Big Game line. I am not yet convinced that white seabass are two-speed reel gamefish, but knock yourself out if you want to use your two speed tuna tackle for this type of fishing. Matched to a seven-foot medium action rod, something like a 700M graphite stick or a glass 670 or 870 style rod, and the ham and egg stick is ready for action.
Many trophy seabass captains like Brandon Hayward stick to their big guns with this fishery and have their clients fish 50- or 65-pound spectra on fin bait schools. Big guns equal big seabass.
Then, likely on the same school of fish, top light tackle anglers like Vic Summers on the Sleeper will regularly catch 40- and 50-pound plus seabass on 6- and 8-pound tournament monofilament. When fishing bait schools over a sandy generic bottom, the success rate is high since these big fish can be played out on both heavy or light gear.
Whether you are using braid or monofilament, tie on a small barrel swivel to the main line and a five-foot section of 40- or 50-pound fluorocarbon leader to the lure. The swivel prevents line twist and the fluorocarbon leader is for protection against the small sharp teeth of trophy seabass.
Deploying the ham and eggs rig is all about zone coverage. Visual and electronic signs show anglers where the bait schools are in relation to the bottom. Next, grab a live mackerel from the tank, gently nose hook it across the nose, and free spool it down into the depths. If you see “worms” or sausage looking marks on the sounder, those are the ghosts. Try to count off fathoms of line to place the ham and eggs in the same depth.
If you are marking schools of bait but not gamefish, then drop it down to the same level as the fin bait. Stagger a few outfits at different depths (another reason for bringing a tankful of live mackerel). The ham and egg rig is fished in free spool and on the bite I like to lower the rod tip down toward the surface, count to three, go into gear and swing and come tight on the fish. It takes the fish a couple seconds to turn a big mackerel head first and down its hatch.
Tip: If you miss the fish or feel the fish drop the bait, drop into free spool and very likely the fish will come back for another bite.
Sometimes while fishing solo, I like to fish two ham and egg rigs and will work one outfit and leave the other one in gear with clicker on and drag set at 25 percent of line strength. If the unattended rod bounces, lower the rod and drop in free spool then swing. When I am marking scattered bait but no real concentration of depth, I like to drop the ham and eggs rig down until I cannot see it or any flash and then put the reel in gear. With a couple outfits deployed off the stern and a slow drift on the fin bait, you are clearly setting yourself up for a coastal slab (Charlie Albright version for large seabass).
As I said before, the beauty of fishing live mackerel pinned onto a jig is there are only two local gamefish that really eat the ham and eggs: thresher sharks and trophy seabass. The thresher sharks are usually identified right away from the “whack” on the bait and then they will swim back around and eat. Only once have I caught anything other than t-shark or seabass, and it was a black seabass that was out chasing anchovies in the mud. For true trophy hunting on schools of fin bait, it’s arguably one of the best rigs along our coast.