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October 26, 2011

Calico Country

Southern California calico bass are a winter specialty

As winter sets in, the Pacific off southern California often turns to glass for days, while at the same time, calico bass feed aggressively below. With fewer anglers on the water, this is a great time for king-size calicos.

“The biggest bass I have caught came in winter,” says calico specialist Ben Secrest. In the mid-’90s, he and partner Greg Stotesbury were the victors in one of the first Calico Classic tournaments, staged out of Dana Point Harbor, with a two-day, 10-fish total weight in excess of 54 pounds. All of the fish caught that day by Secrest and Stotesbury were released after weigh-in.

Today a tournament organization known as the Salt Water Bass Anglers traditionally stages one of its biggest events — the California Offshore Challenge — in January. With headquarters on Catalina Island, the tournament has had 10-fish weights reaching nearly 46 pounds, with individual bass approaching 7½ pounds.

“As long as the water stays 58 degrees or more, you can count on pretty good fishing in winter,” says Secrest, whose home waters include those off Santa Barbara, Ventura, Palos Verdes, Laguna Beach and La Jolla, as well as the Pacific coast of Mexico’s northern Baja California. As director of sales and marketing for Accurate Reels, Secrest gets around, and in the course of his product testing, he’s built a reputation for catching (and releasing) monstrous calicos in a variety of locations.

“You get greater numbers of fish at islands such as Catalina, San Clemente and Santa Barbara, but you can find all the fish you want — and more opportunities for 7- to 9-pound fish — along the coast,” he says.

Structure Sense
Whether you’re fishing the islands or the coast, structure plays a pivotal role in calico behavior. In winter, big fish hunker close to rocks and kelp in water ranging from two to 24 feet in depth.

“Once they get to 5 or 6 pounds, calicos don’t venture more than 25 yards unless someone moves them,” says Capt. Jimmy Decker, a professional guide and winner of the SWBA 2009 California Offshore Challenge.   

“When targeting big calicos, we fish tight to shore,” he explains. “Rather than fishing the deeper outer edge of kelp beds, we fish the inner edge and shore rocks. This is where the big fish live.”

Secrest says that a key element in finding calicos around shore rocks is the presence of thick, swaying fronds of feather boa kelp, a species that lives largely in intertidal zones.

Current Affair
Another key element of successful calico fishing is moving water. “Magic time for me is the middle to high part of a big incoming tide,” says Secrest. The flooding tide pulls bait into shore structure and also submerges intertidal rocks, creating fresh hunting areas for big calicos.

Longshore currents run up and down California shorelines, and Secrest prefers those that run down the coast versus up. In addition, surges and waves generate moving water near shore, and big calicos often feed amid the agitation and foam. Waves can dislodge or disorient forage such as a surfperch, blacksmiths, topsmelt, grunion, crabs, shrimp, octopuses and even small lobsters. A hungry calico will pounce on any of these.

Water Clarity
When you’re calico fishing, the water can be too clean. Big bass become wary and hesitant to strike, so Secrest avoids clear water. “You want greener water in order for big calicos to react to a lure,” he says.

Calicos are also light sensitive, and a sunny day can put a damper on the bite. “On a bright day, the best fishing occurs an hour before and after sunrise and sunset, when the light levels are relatively low,” says Secrest. What’s more, cloudy skies and fog can reduce the ambient light, and on these occasions, you might experience excellent calico action throughout the short winter day.

When all the conditions are right, casting a metal jig such as a Tady 45 Light or a Shimano Waxwing 118 or 138 as a “search lure” is a good technique for locating feeding calicos.

“I like to throw these types of the lures in a broad pattern as I am maneuvering the boat with a bow-mounted trolling motor, working the lure in the top three feet of the water column until I get a fish,” says Secrest. “Then I switch to swimbaits, sometimes slowing down the presentation to get the big, finicky bass to bite.”