BY JON DICKENS
With a new season upon us, many anglers are chomping at the bit to get back on the ocean and fill their bags with tasty rockfish. Some fishermen have honed their skills over the years and usually have no problem filling out their limit, while others struggle to put a few small fish in their sacks. Why?
Well, novices just don’t have the experience, and others are sometimes too set in their ways to try new methods or don’t bother to look around the boat to see what’s working best “today.” As sportfishing captains often say, every day is different out on the water. What worked yesterday might not work today. You have to adapt. Some do, some don’t.
Here are 10 observations of mistakes often made by novice and seasoned anglers alike that you might want to avoid.
1. Not listening to the captain and crew
Even if you’re a talented fisherman, you don’t know what you don’t know. For ex ample, you may not know that the fish have been keyed in on sardines the last couple days, instead of strips of squid. Or that the bigger fish are being caught on the Coltsnipers. Listen to what the guys who are on the water every day suggest and follow their lead.
2. Wrong tackle
Monofilament line is the wrong line for rockfishing. It stretches and doesn’t transmit bites like braided line. Braid will let you feel even the slightest tap and you’re apt to hook more fish when you swing on a bite because of that lack of stretch in your line.
While high-end spinning tackle and the new slow-pitch type rigs are acceptable, leave the spinning outfits at home. You’ll be fighting the tackle more than the fish. A medium-heavy to heavy 7- to 8-foot rod and conventional reel are better suited to bringing up rockfish
from 180- to 300-feet or more of water.
3. Wrong leaders
The standard leader for rockfish is the double dropper-loop rig. (Google it for examples of how to tie it). Errors that some anglers make include using the wrong weight line, not having enough space between hooks, or the right length loops.
Some use monofilament leaders, some use fluorocarbon. I’m a big believer in fluoro. Especially when the bite is scratchy. Using 25- or even 20- pound fluoro will usually get you more bites. If the fish aren’t fussy, 30- to 40-pound mono or fluoro is fine and will hold up better over rough bottoms and with bigger fish.
The next questions are how close together the hooks should be and how long to make the loops on your leader. On average, your hooks should be 18- to 24-inches apart. As far as loop length, there are different schools of thought here. Most use a short 4- to 6-inch loop to which their hooks are attached. Others use a longer loop, especially if fishing a single dropper loop rig, of 8- to 12-inches or even more. The shorter loop is stiffer and tends to keep the loop from wrapping around the main line of the rig, while the longer loop can give a bait more action in the current, which can draw more bites. Pick your poison. If you pre-tie your rockfish rigs, have one of each version at the ready so you can experiment.
And of course, use a swivel at the top of your dropper loop rig to avoid line twist when bringing your fish up from the depths, and to allow you to change rigs more easily.
4. Wrong size hooks
Hook sizes on dropper loop rigs should generally be tailored to the size of the bait more than the size of the fish you’re after. Many people use hooks that are too large, which can reduce the number of bites.
Fishing with squid strips? A size 1 or 1/0 octopus-style hook is sufficient. Even smaller if you’re targeting whitefish that have small mouths. For sardines, size 1 is good for smaller ‘dines and up to a 2/0 hook for larger ones.
If you’re using whole squid, you’ll want something like an Owner Aki Twist in the 4/0- to 6/0 range, so you can thread the hook through the bait two or three times to prevent losing it to the peck-peck-peck of the smaller rockfish and perch.
Two caveats regarding hook size. First, if the fish are really on the chew and biting everything in sight, you can obviously get away with bigger hooks.
QUALITY VS. QUANTITY– Once you have a handful of rockfish in your bag, consider changing up your rig and targeting bigger or specific species. A “sheephead special” — using shrimp or clams for bait, can yield some big ol’ goats.
Second, if you’re fishing the outer islands where the fish are often bigger and receive less fishing pressure, you can also use larger hooks for most baits. But if you’re on coastal heavily fished waters, you’re better off with smaller hooks. When in doubt, ask the crew.
5. Not enough weight
Most of the time, captains will suggest what size sinker to use on your bait rigs. The most common is an 8-ounce torpedo sinker, so long as the current isn’t too strong and you’re not fishing extreme depths. I often go with a 10-ouncer, for a few reasons. The main one being to ensure your line stays straight up and down and doesn’t drift to one side or the other. This can help avoid tangles when there’s someone fishing close to you. Second, you’re likely to get down to the bottom a bit faster than others and get the early bites when drifting a new spot. And if the current picks up you may not have to change your sinker as soon as others and can stay in the water with more opportunity to catch another fish while they’re reeling up and are out of the water.
Make sure you have an assortment of torpedo sinkers with you going from 8 to 16 ounces. Tie a simple loop knot on the bottom of your dropper loop rig so you can easily change out sinkers based on the water conditions.
6. Dropping too soon or too late
Party boats either drift or anchor on rockfish spots, depending upon current, wind, bottom structure and spread of the bottom structure, as well as the number of anglers on board. Typically the captain will tell everyone to have their rigs baited up and ready to drop when he announces, “Let ‘em go.”
If he’s anchoring up on the spot, some over-anxious anglers drop before the boat comes tight on the anchor and the captain gives the okay, resulting in missing the spot, having their line drift in the wrong direction and tangling up others when they drop, or worse yet, tangling their line in the prop. Big no-no.
By contrast, some folks aren’t ready to drop their lines in when they should. Maybe they forgot to freshen up their baits, went to the galley for a beer, or just had a few too many beers. Snooze, you loose. Some drifts over small structure spots demand dropping down on cue, or you miss your opportunity.
7. Wrong bait
Most of the time, the boat will have frozen squid and live sardines or maybe
anchovies for bait. Some days one bait works better than another. Just like you may have a craving for a breakfast burrito on one party boat trip and a bacon and egg sandwich on another, fish have cravings too. Mix up your bait offerings until you find what they want. Generally the crew will tell you what’s been working, but trying something different can be rewarding.
I’ve been on trips where everyone was using squid strips and I used the squid heads and outfished most people. The wriggly tentacles can be a difference maker. Similarly, when fishing whole squid, I like to look for the ones with the longest tentacles because they undulate more and can attract bigger fish.
Sometimes you can get a different variety rockfish or bigger fish by trying a mackerel strip or fillet, or even a sardine fillet with the tail on. And of course live mackerel are notorious lingcod catchers, and sometimes a sand dab or small rockfish will also ring the dinner bell for a ling-o-saurus hiding in the rocks.
8. Not keeping it simple
Generally speaking, less is more when rockfishing. A simple dropper loop with one or two hooks usually outfishes those using offerings that look like a small Christmas tree with too many ornaments tied onto their rigs. Shrimp flies – hooks tied with red or yellow feather-like fluff on them – can be effective however, because you’ve got something to attract fish if your bait comes off. Plastic swimbait tails can do the same. But avoid the three-way swivels, gaudy beads and flashing lights if you want to get bit consistently.
9. Wrong depth
Generally speaking, rockfish hang on or near the bottom. But depending upon the species, the structure or other conditions, they sometimes suspend. Listen to what the captain suggests when he tells you to drop your lines in. He’s looking at the bottom with his electronics and often will see clouds of fish up off the bottom. Vermilion rockfish, aka “reds’, often suspend 10-feet or more above the bottom, as do boccaccio (salmon grouper) and others. If you’re just one or two cranks above the bottom, you may be missing the fish. Even if the captain doesn’t tell you where the fish are, if you don’t get bit on the bottom after a few minutes, try slowly cranking your line up one turn of the handle at a time to locate the fish.
10. Fishing for quantity and forsaking quality
Of course everyone wants to go home with a bunch of fish, but don’t forsake quantity for quality. Consider catching a handful of fish using the typical two-hook setup, then switch rigs to go after better quality or bigger fish. Try single hooks on longer single strand leaders with bigger baits. Or jigs or swim baits, which not only attract bigger fish but can also be a much more exciting way to catch them. There are lots of options in that category to explore. Using a heavy jig by itself, or a jig with a Gulp! grub or other plastic bait on a dropper loop above it can do some damage, as can swim baits on heavy leadheads. And don’t forget a “sheephead special” if that’s your target species – shrimp or clam baits, which are like candy to those big old goats.
A couple final considerations. Remember it’s not a race to see who can get their fish reeled in the fastest. You’ll see beginners pumping their rod and cranking like mad, which more often than not results in the fish tearing loose. Slow and steady is the way to go. I got plunked with a half-pound sinker by an over-anxious rookie when his sinker came flying out of the water because he was winding so fast and didn’t know he was close to the surface. Fortunately it wasn’t the hooks that got me.
And just like on any surface fishing trip, keep your head on a swivel and your eyes open to see what’s working and what’s not. Look for opportunities. I was on a 3/4-day trip not long ago where an angler was reeling in an average-sized red and his rod suddenly bent over. My first thought was “hitchhiker.” The captain knowingly went over to assist but whatever grabbed the fish was already gone and left long scrape marks on the red’s body. I put on as big a sardine as I could find on a single hook rig and dropped it down right next to the angler. I could feel a rocky bottom and got a tap, set the hook, and then thought I was caught in the rocks. Until the “rocks” started to move. Five minutes later the deckhand sunk the gaff into a lingcod just ounces shy of 20 pounds. A big ling for a local trip.
So next time out, consider making a few adjustments to your usual routine and avoid making the mistakes mentioned above. It just might put a few more tasty fillets in your frying pan.