The artificial arsenal
SANTA BARBARA – Capt. Jason Diamond is one of the best interviews in the Southern California sportfishing fleet. The owner of Stardust Sporting in Santa Barbara, he’s an enthusiastic fellow, always eager to talk fishing.
On a recent call, Diamond was all abuzz about dangling artificials for rockcod. Bottom dwellers are a mainstay in his local and nearby island waters, and when it comes to catching them, he’s all-in on using plastic and iron.
“We have a lot of guys who exclusively fish plastics,” Diamond says. “The rockfish they catch are big, 2 to 6 pounds, good ones that fight really hard when you hook them on a plastic. These fish have big fins, they’re made to swim and they’re beefy.”
Diamond says anglers who fish plastics for rockfish often don’t get as many bites as bait anglers, but the ones they get are better. “You’ll find yourself catching a lot of nice quality stuff and your bag of fish will be a lot heavier much of the time,” he says.
It’s also fun. “It’s almost like fishing for calicos,” Diamond says. He is a believer in keeping the baits light. For a swimbait on a leadhead, he feels a 1.5-ounce to 2-ounce head is ideal for a 5- to 6-inch plastic.
The key, he says, is to keep your bait clean and nice-looking, like a fish that would be down there. “That’s the way to go,” he says. “You don’t need anything extravagant.” Or too big, you’d tie on in Alaska.
But what about current? If it’s strong, Diamond has a solution and it’s probably not the one you’d expect. “Bite the tail off,” he says. Also, he’s a believer in adding a barrel sinker just in front of the leadhead. It adds some weight, but it also makes an enticing clicking sound. “It works pretty good too,” he says.
Diamond often uses straight braid on his reel, but he’ll also break out a short length of topshot. He says the results are nearly identical.
Swimbait color doesn’t make much difference so long as it’s not too far-fetched. Diamond uses the same plastics he deploys for calicos. Channel Islands ‘chovie is a mainstay, as are browns and oranges. “Red works well too, and clear with red flake works really well,” he says. “White works good.”
Some anglers sweeten their plastic offerings with a small squid strip. Diamond goes au naturel. Others go tandem, tying on two swimbaits, with the smaller and lighter one on top. Diamond says it works great.
The retrieve, once the bait hits the bottom, is a slow grind. “You’ll catch all kinds of cool stuff, Johnnies, blues, and lingcod love plastics,” he says.
Lingcod can be silly for longer plastics such as the 8-inch Big Hammers or MCs, but there’s an important rigging trick to increase the odds of a hook-up. Make a trap rig.
“We’re big fans of the trap rig,” Diamond says. “We tie a little piece of line and a treble and hook it near the back of the swimbait. If you’re worried about snagging, put a single hook back there.”
If you’re new to the trap rig, Diamond says his Stardust and Coral Sea crews are happy to tie them for anglers. “A 2/0 or 3/0 treble is just fine, they’re really sharp too. Really sticky!”
What about tube baits such as Hookup Baits? Oh yes, says Diamond. “They work awesome, amazing, we catch great white seabass on them, calicos, sandbass and rockfish. “I like the 5/8-ounce for fishing shallow water calicos, but for rockfish I go up to 1 ounce,” he says. “They’re very easy to use and don’t take much effort. You can just let the boat drag it and keep contact with the bottom.”
Plastics really shine at night when the boat is on the hook in shallow water in decent weather. “You catch amazing stuff on plastics,” Diamond says. “It’s game-on all night on all kinds of stuff.” The quality is good, but maybe not as solid as in deeper water. This is particularly true at San Miguel or far up the coast. You can catch a fish every cast.
Jigs also tend to weed out smaller rockfish. It’s a more selective style of fishing the bottom. “You don’t catch everything that swims by your line,” Diamond says. “Our quality is amazing and a lot of fun too, you’ll get some big ones, personal bests on reds and chuckleheads and lingcod.”
No matter how deep you fish, Diamond likes to use 4- to 6-ounce jigs. Nothing larger. “If it’s too heavy it will just drag on the bottom,” he says. The action won’t be right. You want it to dance up and down.
“We fish just shy of the depth limit,” he says, “right to 75 fathoms.”
Jigs used to catch rockfish should come with triple teeth – a treble hook, not an oversized siwash. With that long single hook, Diamond says you’ll miss almost all of your bites. “Look at surface jigs, they all have treble hooks,” he says. “Singles don’t stick as much.”
But what about Flat-Falls and other jigs that come with wickedly sharp J hooks? Those work great, Diamond says. “Two smaller sticky hooks work amazing, but if there’s a giant hook on there with a big shank, it’s hard to get the hook in the fish.”
For rockfish, Diamond prefers his jigs to come fish-colored. “Something with orange and white and red in it, sometimes purple and black,” he says. “I like orange with a copper back on it, but nothing too big. Big jigs just don’t work properly.”
Diamond’s favorite rockfish jig is the Megabait. “Those are the best,” he says. He drops them to the bottom and then starts working them once he feels the thump of the bottom. “I hop it along,” Diamond says. “But if there’s a lot of current give it up, it isn’t going to work. If you cast up current, you can get a few bumps. In extreme conditions it’s important to know your limitations.” When conditions are too rough for artificials, it’s time to revert to bait. Still, many of his regulars stick with plastics and jigs and wait for the conditions to change. “Then they start conking them,” he says.