BY CAPT. BILL SCHAEFER
SAN DIEGO – Time sure flies by doesn’t it? It seems like the season for rockfish angling under 75 fathoms just ended. Well, on March 1 you can start loading up your freezers again with that tasty rockfish for tacos and other delicious dishes.
If there’s one fish I love to bring home and cook up, it’s rockfish. There are so many ways
to enjoy it. I know a lot of other great fishing usually starts to happen this time of year as well, but the rockfish are still hanging out on all those artificial reefs as well as natural contours on the bottom, and they will continue to until the waters get too warm.
Rockfishing can also be a fallback for when the target fish you first went out for aren’t biting. If you go out for yellows and they don’t want to play, make sure you have your bass
rods to try a little deep-water bassing and shallow-water rockfishing. If your mapping unit has contour lines on it, this can help you locate the fish as well. Look for where the lines are close together for drop offs or round pinnacle high spots. Mapping cards can also be bought to enhance any sonar/ mapping unit. Use your down time from fishing to look around a little before heading in every time you go out. There are a ton of natural spots you can find just off the entire Southern California coast.
A good sonar unit, like my Lowrance HDS 12 Live, will show you those spots, but even the middle and lower end units of today have such high resolution and a very detailed picture. And, a lot include mapping so you can mark those spots find with waypoints. You will be able to return to them year after year to score. If you want to get ahead of the curve, then search the Internet as well. Many of the hot-spot local reefs are mentioned online in articles, along with giving you the exact GPS numbers to find them. Some of the mapping charts on the newer sonar units even have fishing areas already marked on them.
When searching for your own spots, start just outside the visible kelp line and work a zig-zag pattern moving out towards deeper water. Don’t drive too quickly or the detail will go down on your sonar. Maybe keep your speed at about 5 mph for better clarity. If you see a cloud of fish, take notice of the bottom. Is the spot a harder bottom than all around it? Is there a rockpile that’s maybe man-made; or just a natural bump on the bottom holding the fish? Mark it on your mapping unit and drop on down and try fishing it. Nothing like discovering your own secret spot and catching fish off it.
When setting up for a drift, I usually go up wind and drift over the spot, either long-lining the lure or vertical jigging. Long-lining is dropping your lure on one side of the target and letting line out until you have passed it, and then retrieve your lure over the spot and through the cloud of fish you see down there on your sonar. Vertical jigging is to drop your lure straight down on the spot and reel up through the cloud of fish. If you don’t get a bite you free spool your reel and drop into the cloud of fish again. Watch your line coming off your spool as you will be bit on the fall much of the time.
If the wind or swell is pushing you along too quickly, cast to the spot ahead of the boat and by the time you arrive the bait should be on the bottom. In some cases of wind, current, and depth, your sinker or jighead will have to increase in size and weight. If you are lucky enough to have a trolling motor with Anchor or Spot Lock, you can hold yourself right over the area to fish it vertically.
Again, the rockfish season is March 1 through December 31, but the Department of Fish and Wildlife has been known to change regulations on rockfish at a moment’s notice and it is smart to go online and read up on the newest rockfish fishing rules every year just to make sure. I try to carry the current regulations booklet with me in my boat each year, since I can’t remember all the different rules for all the species you can encounter. You don’t want to ruin any trip by getting a citation.
At about 90 species of rockfish out there, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife website, you never know what you may catch. The great white meat that comes from most of them makes for some excellent eating, no matter the recipe. Some of the other fish you may catch are cabezon, California sheephead, lingcod, and the sculpin. Watch out for the spines on the sculpin as it can inflict severe pain if it pokes you with one. Don’t panic, it really hurts, but you’ll be fine.
Right now the calicos and sand bass are still out on deep structure as well, and you can fish for all three with the same tackle. If you prefer using bait, then a simple dropper loop will do with the appropriate size hook and weight for your bait. There is a variety of bait you can fish with such as squid, anchovy, or sardines, but think about using plastic swimbaits and large grubs, as they will work just as well.
Medium saltwater rods and reels to heavy freshwater trigger sticks are perfect for this type of fishing. You can use the same tackle you use in the kelp for the calicos for this fishing
as well, since most of us saltwater bass fishermen run braided line. The braided line lets you feel the bite better at those depths of 80 to 160 feet of water. It makes it easier to reel and set the hook on the fish with no stretch in the line.
As I mentioned, you can get away with using your bass gear for many areas. Nowadays with everyone stringing up with braided line, and with the no stretch characteristics, you are already set up to fish without going out to buy new tackle. For example I use a Daiwa Proteus WN or DXSB swimbait trigger stick with Lexa 300 or 400 reels loaded with 50- to 60-pound Daiwa J-Braid 8 and the new Daiwa fluorocarbon leader.
For those baits that will get bit, your favorite swimbaits or extra large curltail grubs, in dark colors, from Big Hammer, MC Swimbaits, Reyes Swimbaits, Reebs Lures, or LK Lures will do. You may need 1- to 3-ounce jigheads to reach bottom, depending on the depth or the current, but I’m talking 80 to 160 feet of water on average. Heavy iron jigs, spoons, and rockcod jigs will also work well as long as they
can make the trip to the fish. Tipping any of the above with a squid strip or a coating of Uni-butter can also help attract the fish. Sometimes all it takes is to get one to bite and all the fish go off.
If you’re out looking for yellows or fishing bass in deeper water, take a little time to me
ter around and find some new spots to fish. If you find some, mark them and fish them. If they don’t bite, then you can always return to try the spot another day and it may go wide open for you. If you’re already a fisherman who fishes shallow rockfish, then you may want to add fishing for bass as well to your repertoire. Bass fishermen, I know you already have incidental catches of rockfish, so take them home for dinner.
As I mentioned, shallow water rock fishing can be a great way to end the winter with some great fish and eating. As we head into spring, then you will have to decide what to fish for and what direction to go in as you leave the bays and head out. If you can’t decide between species, then you will probably just have to go out fishing more often.