SAN DIEGO — Shore caster Brandon Dawson of San Diego does his best work at night. That’s when he stalks jumbo spotted bay bass. His best one to date was 18 inches long, and he has the measuring board photos to prove it. That’s a chunk of a spotty, estimated at some 3.75 pounds by renowned fisheries biologist Larry G. Allen’s length-weight table.
Spotties bite best in the dark of the night, Dawson says. They are more active and out of their holes, and that includes the big fish. Structure is key.
“They are along the rocks and docks, especially the docks,” he says. “Some have been there for decades. Whenever someone drops something it stays there.” Debris makes for safe little hidey-holes for the alpha bass.
Fishing danger-close to structure requires a stiff hookset. It’s critical to immediately fight a big spotty away from structure.
Dawson prefers to start fishing two to three days before the new and full moons, when the tide swings are larger. But he’ll go any time — he fishes no fewer than four days a week and often all seven.
This spotty catcher relies mostly on swimbaits, surprisingly large ones. “I use up to 8-inch baits for large spotties,” he says. “They inhale them. If I use a 5-inch swimbait, most of the bass are 10 inches.”
Bigger baits draw a lot of tail bites, and that’s one reason Dawson fishes mostly durable Zman ElaZtech baits. “That way I don’t lose all my money on plastics,” he quips.
There’s another advantage to the Zman swimbaits, particularly the Diesel Minnow. He says they come to rest tail up when hopped along the bottom. That draws extra bites.
“They are pretty much standard swimbaits with nice paddletails and a weedless slot,” he says. “You can Texas rig them or set them up weedless. I’ve been going very realistic to fool big spotties. They eat everything but in my head I want something realistic and it seems to be working.”
For a shore, pier and dock angler, 2 ounces of leadhead are plenty for an 8-inch bait worked in 20 feet of water or less. Warbait heads fit the bill for Dawson. He removes the weed guards. Otherwise, if you get stuck in a trap you can’t get the bait out. Without the guard, you just have to wiggle it out, he says.
What about line? Dawson says he is motivated by the well-being of the big spotties he catches. “If they break off, they have a big ‘ole swimbait in their mouth and they can’t get it out,” he says. It’s likely fatal. For the same reason, he often pinches the barbs on his hooks.
Dawson uses 65-pound braid. He’ll fish it straight to the lure when it’s dark. Then he can pull hard enough to straighten a hook. If he’s fishing around lights or during daylight, he’ll add a length of 25-pound fluorocarbon.
When he’s not around structure, Dawson will go with 12-pound mono. Spotties can nick lighter line with their teeth, he says.
Dawson feels boat anglers have huge advantages when it comes to fishing spotties, for instance, for covering water or working casts parallel to a rocky shoreline. Yet shore-bound anglers have an edge when it comes to thoroughly working every inch of a dock.
“You can fish every piling,” he says. “If you know a dock well you can remember where you got snagged. You can pick apart a dock more easily from shore.”
He drops his big swimbaits straight to the bottom and works grid by grid. If you’re dropping on a piling, he says, three-quarters of the time you get bit it will be as soon as the bait hits the bottom or on the first twitch of the retrieve.
“Baitcasters make it easier,” he says. “With spinning gear you just see your line stop going out.”
After the initial drop and wind, Dawson saws you can work the bait up and down. When it hits the bottom, jiggle it, give it fast twitches, or just let it sit on the bottom for a second.
Finally, Dawson says dock etiquette is very important. “If you’re told to leave, leave. No smart remarks,” he says. Pick up trash, your own and others’. Leave the area better than you found it.
There’s more, “Try not to look shady,” Dawson says. “Leave your hood down. Sure, it’s night, it’s cold. Try not to war a backpack, they look suspicious to boat owners. Just look like a fisherman.”
Dawson looks the part. He’s hunting the next record spotted bay bass. That record is muddled in mystery. The IGFA all-tackle record is 4 pounds, 15 ounces, caught by Paul Weintraub out of Mission Bay in July 2003. The California state record is larger, 6 pounds, 12 ounces, by Matt Bergherm at Newport Bay in 1994. Reporting standards vary between the two records.
“It’s frustrating,” Dawson says of the record weight discrepancy. “I want to see it and believe it, that’s my goal.” There’ve been rumors of even larger ones caught but not documented. If his time comes, Dawson will be ready.
“That’s just my style,” he says. “I have documentation. I like looking at the stats. Every 17- and 18-inch bass has a story behind it.”