Cashing in on C.I. seabass

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Sportboat fishing tips from Capt. Tucker McCombs of the Endeavor

VENTURA – Capt. Tucker McCombs is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to white seabass at the outer Channel Islands. Last year, his boat Endeavor had the high count for Gold Coast fleet before it headed down to San Diego to fish tuna.

That only scratches the surface of his seabass experience. He came up working with Capt. Joe Villareal of the Mirage¸ and spent time with Capt. Steve Kelly on the Island Tak.

“I worked on the Mirage a long time,” McCombs says. “It was always a top-producing seabass boat on the coast and at the outer islands. I was lucky to work for two of the best seabass guys up here when I was a deckhand and learned everything I needed to know. Subtle stuff most people may not think about.”

He calls his mentors “pure fishermen,” and says Kelly is the best he’s ever seen. “The guy killed it everywhere all the time. He’d get seabass limits for two weeks straight off the kelp at Santa Cruz and the other boats would have no idea what was going on. People would be walking off with giant sacks of seabass.”

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A certain tube bait in a red crab pattern was on fire for seabass at times last year but using plastics to get ‘em is nothing new. Kelly was doing that 30 years ago. “He was fishing plastics and catching them and no one knew they were doing it,” McCombs says. “We also used to catch them a lot on anchovies, but now it’s all about the plastics.”

SEABASS FOR DAYS – Follow Capt. Tucker McCombs’ tips for fishing white seabass at the outer islands and this could be you. PHOTOS COURTESY CAPT. TUCKER MCCOMBS

McCombs struck out on his own in 2015 when he purchased the Outrider, then bought the Endeavor in early 2019. He’s since picked up ownership of Ventura Harbor Sportfishing (VenturaSportfishing.com). The landing always has an overnight seabass open party trip running during the season, and there are local trips as well on the Island Spirit.

The Endeavor is chartered most of the time, but if it’s not you can climb on. McCombs runs his boat out of Ventura for most of the year, heading south for only a couple months at the height of tuna season. He’s very good at that but catching white seabass at the outer Channel Islands is his main game. He shared several tips to maximize your seabass success.

Gear

A good setup goes a long way towards maximizing an angler’s chances. At the outer C.I., the dropper looped live squid is a mainstay. “You want an 8-foot or at least a 7-foot, 6-inch rod, something with a tip on it because seabass have soft mouths,” McCombs says. He’s partial to a Calstar 800L in medium action. “I’ve always been a fan,” he says.

The rod can’t be too light, as much of the time it’ll be fished with an 8-ounce sinker. “Not too light, but something that bends so you don’t pull hooks,” he adds.

McCombs recommends 30-pound line for outer islands seabass. “If you fish anything over 40 you’ll have a hard time getting bit,” he says. “If nobody’s getting bit wouldn’t you go down in line size to get a bite? Understand you’re fishing close to structure, so use a short topshot and pull hard to get them out of the kelp. We catch plenty of seabass fishing 30.”

Around kelp, it’s good to fish straight braid to fluorocarbon. “That’s where the rod tip comes into play,” McCombs says. “It’s beneficial to feel what’s going on down there with no mono on there. When the fish are finicky you can tell if you’re bit and also have a better chance to get your fish out of the kelp.”

McCombs lines his reels with 65-pound braid and prefers PowerPro in green. “It’s waxed and cuts through the kelp better,” he says.

CHUNK! A quality outer islands white seabass.

Fluorocarbon is a must. “I’m huge on fluoro,” McCombs says. “I’ve heard guys poo-poo it, but a lot of guys do very well on pink fluorocarbon. I don’t know if it makes a difference but it seems like it does. Yozuri makes one. It might be something in your head but I think guys who fish the pink stuff do a little better.

Tie that pink fluoro to what McCombs considers the best squid hook out there, the Owner Aki Twist. “5/0 is the go-to size, it works for large or small squid, but sometimes you can fish 6/0 and even 7/0.”

If you don’t want to spend quite as much money, McCombs says you can get by with a Mustad 94150. “Anything with a big barb,” he says. “I’m a fan of the J hook. Some like the circle hook for seabass but I’m not a fan.”

Rigging

McCombs says anglers should offer their baits 3 to 5 feet from the bottom. Where the current is heavy or there are a lot of sanddabs pecking at your squid offering, you’ll want to fish a longer loop.

It isn’t anything fancy. “Seabass don’t pull that hard,” he says. “I’m a fan of the regular dropper loop for the way the hook sits on your line. With a surgeon’s loop, the bait ends up closer to the bottom. Anyway, a regular dropper loop is easier to get out of tangles quickly, and tangles less too.”

The way you put the hook on the line is very important. “Go over the barb of the hook when you’re going through the eye,” he says. “Go through the front, it helps for a solid hookset. You’ll hang more fish when you get bit because of the way the hook sits on the line.”

The leadhead and slider

If the fish are suspended mid-water and if there’s good current, the leadhead and slider rigs can do some damage. The amount of weight to use is dependent on the strength of the current. “You need current to fish. If it’s just a trickle, 1/4-ounce will work. If there’s a lot of current in deeper water, fish a heavier leadhead or sliding sinker,” McCombs says.

For instance, if he’s fishing seabass around the kelp at San Nic., many times they’ll be in just 35 feet of water. You can get by with just 1/8-ounce. “It’s just enough to get it (your squid) away from the birds,” he says. “It’s good to have an assortment of weights, with 1.5 ounces the heaviest.”

Some guys don’t care to fish a dropper loop and prefer a leadhead or sliding sinker in all situations. McCombs says that’s when the heavier lead comes into play. “You can yo-yo the squid off the bottom. It works really well for halibut too, but you have to be committed.”

A NICE ONE caught in the dark.

Plastics

At times when there was no live squid last year, Hookup Baits were the thing in the red crab color. “Seagulls were eating the red crab, and seabass would swim through,” McCombs says. “Local boats were getting their 1-fish limits. We caught a few on Hookup Baits but at the outer islands it was primarily on squid.”

Hooking up

“The biggest thing you can do for white seabass is to let them eat until the rod tip loads up,” McCombs says. “You don’t have to swing on them. A lot of the time they’ll mess with your bait for a couple minutes. I think they don’t like squid biting them in the throat.”

To get seabass to commit a little quicker, McCombs says a lot of anglers stun their squid by throwing it onto the deck until it turns white or opaque. Or they use fresh dead.

“I see guys look for biggest meatiest scariest squid and I don’t think that’s the way to go necessarily,” McCombs says. “Two smaller squid is better than one gnarly one.” Avoid the real hot red lively ones.

When the bite is wide-open, you can put anything down there. “Sometimes we catch them on frozen when we don’t have live squid,” McCombs says. “We drift a lot with dropper loops. The seabass get on the bottom mixed in with rockfish and whitefish. It’s better with live squid but sometimes you just don’t have it.”

Finally, listen to the crew. “Things are different every day,” McCombs says. “There could be something subtle that you have to do because it’s the only way to get bit. The crew are there every day. They know what’s going on.”

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