King calico: Fourteen indispensable tips from a successful trophy hunter

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SAN DIEGO — In the pitch black, Bill Hokstad’s Pro-Line center console bucked wildly in time with the steep swells that passed under the boat before smashing into the shoreline in great bursts of ghostly white foam.

We were sitting within scraping distance of a point off one of the Coronado Islands. Hokstad confidently fired off casts, flinging his swimbait into the foam, but it was all I could do to keep my feet. While I stumbled around the deck, he caught calico after calico, countless 3, 4 and 5 pounders. They looked big to me, but by Hokstad’s standards they were little more than schoolies.

That was over 15 years ago, and while I adapted to fishing the boiler rocks for big calicos after a years-long internship on Hokstad’s boat — I’m stuck on 9 pounds — this story isn’t about me. It’s about a man on a single-minded mission to catch a world-record calico bass.

By his own account he has, a 13-pound, 1-ounce monster he roped at the Coronados. Don’t look for it in the record books, it’s not the heaviest calico ever caught. The IGFA all-tackle record belongs to Thomas Murphy. He nailed his magnificent fish off Newport Beach in October 1993, a fat 14-pound, 7 ouncer.

The ever-confident Hokstad gives credit where credit is due, but claims his 13-pound, 1-ounce fish may be the largest ever caught on an artificial lure with rod in hand. Excepting mystery fish of course, those caught and never publicly reported. I couldn’t verify his claim, but it doesn’t really matter. Thirteen pounds is plenty of credibility in my book.

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Life took us in different directions, but I reconnected with my old friend and calico mentor at the 2020 San Diego Anglers Open Bay Bass Tournament. He generously invited me over to his Santee home where we spent an hour looking at two decades of photos of big bass all caught on his boat — my first 8 pounder was in there — before finally sitting down at his kitchen table to sip iced tea and talk about his obsession.

THIRTEEN AND CHANGE — Bill Hokstad with his 13-pound, 1-ounce calico caught at the Coronado Islands. He’s still chasing the world record.

He was just back from a trip to coastal Ensenada with his brothers Dave and Doug Hokstad — they’d caught an army of bass to 7 pounds on a winter weekend. Hokstad heads to northern Baja every other week on average (his first trip was in 1992), either overland towing his boat or by driving it from San Diego Bay to his beloved Coronados.

Given that Hokstad’s game has evolved since I regularly fished with him, I was eager to hear what he had to say. I had some idea of where he’d start his hard-earned dissertation on how to catch trophy calico bass. Some of what he said was old hat to me, but there were new nuggets of wisdom. The story goes something like this:

Foam is home

If the intro wasn’t enough to convince you fishing boiler rocks for trophy calico bass isn’t for everyone, you might need to seek help. It’s highly adrenalized at times, a perilous game of hide and seek with the ever-changing waves. Hokstad wrecked his Pro-Line on the rugged coast of northern Baja years ago. He was lucky to escape with a busted leg. The boat was a total loss. Now he fishes from a Kencraft 206 with a trolling motor. It doesn’t have a T-top. Serious calico anglers never have one.

Yet everyone who chases big calico bass is instinctively drawn to foamy boilers like moths to a flame. There’s a good reason — the foam is home to trophies.

TROPHY HUNTER — Devoted calico chaser Bill Hokstad with a good but not great one. PHOTOS COURTESY BILL HOKSTAD

“Foam creates cover, a way for the calicos to camouflage themselves,” Hokstad says. “A predator such as a sea lion or osprey can’t see through it.”

The foam is a supercharged environment. “It’s like getting out of a stuffy house and getting some fresh air,” Hokstad explains. “Foam is oxygenated. Calicos enrich themselves by living there.”

He didn’t state it explicitly, but the foam is also an outstanding ambush spot. Calicos seize unlucky baits that find themselves in the disorienting impact zone, where powerful surges of water overcome them. Throw a lure with color and vibration and noise in there and it’s sure to be noticed.

Kelp against stone

Structure is paramount in the hunt for trophy calicos. Calicos use it to orient themselves, as protection and ambush spots for prey.  You’ll find calicos in the kelp, around underwater stones, along drop-offs and points and shorelines.

The alpha dogs of the saltwater bass world claim the best spots for themselves and chase smaller competitors away. “Bigger fish are usually solitary fish,” Hokstad explains. “They own a whole section of shoreline and have one rock they like to swim around. Power fishing a shoreline for a trophy requires a lot of casts, and if you don’t give him the exact look he’s not going to bite it.”

Of all the types of structure that hold calicos, Hokstad first looks for kelp against stone. He likes to cast along the narrow channel or seam between boiler rocks or the shoreline and the kelp. Even better is when ribbon kelp clings to the rocks — he calls those situations money.

BIG BAITS, BIG FISH — Stop me if you’ve never heard this one. However, it is a truism in trophy calico fishing.

The real skinny

Hokstad says most big calicos live in shallow water. Really shallow.

“They live in 2 feet of water. You have to throw baits you can work on the surface,” he says. Big topwaters and twitch baits stay in the strike zone, as do Slugs, Flukes and Sluggos. Then there are wakebaits and shallow running crankbaits. They work too, but require a deft touch to maneuver through the obstacles. It’s one reason Hokstad says trophy calico fishing is an art form.

Big bait, big fish

This is such a truism in fishing that it feels redundant to mention it, but there you go. It’s absolutely the gospel when it comes to targeting jumbo calicos. While elephants eat peanuts (another tired phrase), trophy calicos are drawn to larger meals that provide a great reward for the effort.

“Big baits increase the odds,” Hokstad says. “It doesn’t mean you can’t catch a big fish on a tiny bait, but overall you’re more likely to get trophies on large baits. Little ones get the big baits too, sometimes you wonder how they got hooked up.”

Hokstad then spread his hands a foot apart to show how big he goes with his baits. “I use some swimbaits that weigh 7 ounces. You can’t even cast them, you just lob them out there. It’s a big meal, if a giant calico is going to use the energy it better be worthwhile.”

The magic hour

The last two and 1/2 hours of the day is a special time for trophy calico chasers. It’s ideal for tossing topwaters. It culminates when the sun is on the horizon at eye level.

“We call this the magic hour,” Hokstad says. “I stole the term from cinematography. It’s really good for calico bass fishing. We like to go out after work and fish until sundown.”

FINESSE WEAPON — The Gordo by Western Plastics.

If you can, use mono

Monofilament fishing line, 30-pound to be exact, has the necessary abrasion resistance to hold up to the boiler rocks. At times during a fight, the line will sweep over multiple jagged stones. If you must use braid for its sensitivity and lack of stretch, it would be a good idea to use a fluorocarbon leader if you can tie a low-profile knot that slips easily through your rod guides.

Big fish need a heavy, stiff rod

It’s all about seizing control when you hook a big calico. These are desperate close-quarters battles. “You have turn the head!” Hokstad emphasizes. “As soon as you get bit you have to pull the fish away from any structure.”

And if you’re wondering about reels, Hokstad prefers Daiwa Lexa 300s in 6:1 or 7:1. 

Finesse older, wiser fish

Hokstad’s brother Doug ignores the big bait, big fish dictate. He’s an expert at finesse fishing the boilers and gets more than his share of trophies.

“He puts a lot of fish on the boat when they’re really finicky and won’t hit the reaction baits,” says Bill, who is too impatient to rely on the technique — he’s exclusively a power fisherman.

“Sometimes the bass want it low and slow and you have to stitch the bait like in freshwater,” he adds. “The lure barely moves. That’s hard to do, you need a 5:1 reel and you can’t crank that fast.”

In fact, Hokstad adds, only the rod is used in the presentation via a lift and drop technique. The reel is only for pulling in slack line. “It’s all in the rod tip, he lifts the bait and it pops up and then falls. It gets hit on the fall. It takes some practice.

“I’ll be throwing a big X-Rap up on the bow and Doug will be in the back and he’ll put a big 8 or 9 pounder in the boat,” Bill says. “Doug doesn’t say anything, he reels them in quietly. I’m up there yelling ‘Big one! Fish on! Giant!!! Net!’ I turn around and he’s got a 7 pounder in his hand and nobody’s heard a thing, and he’s throwing it back before anyone can get a picture. He says, ‘Dude, it’s just a 7 pounder, you seen a lot of them.’”

Doug spent years refining the technique, and he’s very specific when it comes to the tools. The bait is a Western Plastics Gordo and it’s threaded onto a particular Tackle Warehouse leadhead that comes with a skirt and weedguard. Doug removes the skirt. Although Spectra is susceptible to nicks in the line caused by jagged rocks, he uses straight braid for the extra sensitivity.

Fish where there are calicos

This is self-evident, right? If there are no bass in an area, you won’t find a trophy calico either.

“Fish where there is a (big) volume of calico bass,” Bill Hokstad says. “Local areas are fished out.”

By local, Hokstad is specifically referring to Point Loma and La Jolla. He might as well be talking about Dana Point and Oceanside and Catalina and other well-known calico areas as well.

He’s not saying there are no big bass in these areas, just fewer than there have been. “If I knew back in 1992 what I know now, what could have been!” he says. Hokstad is also making a comparison.

The Coronado Islands, where red tape and related costs deter many trophy calico hunters, is relatively unpressured. Northern Baja is another step up on the remoteness scale. Many anglers don’t want to deal with a border crossing or the even more complicated bureaucracy, and some of the distant places Hokstad hunts require a bit of a ride to reach.

For Hokstad, it’s well worth the trouble. Remote areas and islands such as San Clemente or Todos Santos simply produce bigger numbers of bass, and that means more trophies.

Don’t overlook spots

Hokstad is going to cover the importance of current shortly, but it isn’t always critical. When he told me this next bit, I was slow to believe him.

Sometimes, the most sheltered coves where it looks like everything is dead hold giant calicos. No current, no problem. Give it a try.

Time it right

May is Hokstad’s favorite time of year. It’s just before the calico spawn. “The fish are eating prolifically to fatten up,” he says.

On a daily basis, water temperature and clarity are also important. Gin is good in your glass but not as a water color.

“Gin clear water is tough,” Hokstad says. “It doesn’t mean you won’t catch fish but it will cut down the numbers.” Structure is always important, but when the water’s clear it’s even more critical.

Dark water is ideal. “The calicos feel like if I’m not seeing a lot, nobody’s seeing me either.”

Master boat positioning

If you can’t put your boat in the right position to make casts that count, you’ll never catch a true trophy calico unless you’re exceptionally lucky.

A trolling motor is essential equipment. “The wind blows your boat all over the place,” Hokstad says. “You’re at the mercy of the wind and the current. A trolling motor keeps the boat working the right angles. You want the boat broadside to the shoreline. If it’s just me it’s not a big deal, I’ll just keep the nose in.”

Hokstad usually fishes with 3 people on the boat. The company is nice, but it also helps with costs. “We use the trolling motor to work down the shoreline and everybody can fish.”

Know what you’re getting into

“Where I fish would scare the heck out of lot of people,” Hokstad says. “We’re bouncing around inches from the rocks. It’s got a lot of pucker power. I’m yelling somebody take the wheel I’ve got a fish on. We’re dodging waves, sometimes we have to put the hammer down and get out of there. Everybody’s watching all the time, always looking over your shoulder for that wave that’s going to catch you.”

Fish often

This last tip might be the most important. “More time on the water yields results,” Hokstad says. Of course it does. For Hokstad, that means fishing year-round if, like this year, the water never really got too cold. “The fish were still biting in 60-degree water,” he says. “All these years we never went down in February. We thought we’d be too cold. Actually, it’s not.”

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