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March 15, 2012

California Rockfishing Guide

How to improve your score on West Coast rockfish

Complicated restrictions on rockfish have become a fact of life for Southern California ocean anglers, but that has not stopped them from pursuing the numerous, colorful and tasty species that inhabit these coastal waters. March 1 marks the opening of the rockfish season, closed since the end of last year, from Point Conception to the Mexican border. Anglers eagerly anticipate the reopening, as the magic of rockfishing is irresistible: You never know which of the 57 species listed by the California Department of Fish and Game you might hook. Plus, you might catch lingcod, California sheephead or ocean whitefish.
Look to Structure
No matter what the species, the key to finding rockfish is structure, particularly rocks. Species such as vermilion rockfish, copper rockfish, starry rockfish, flag rockfish, bocaccio and chilipepper are all structure-oriented and usually dwell very close to the bottom, though some species, such as olive and blue rockfish, will suspend over structure.
Low-relief hard bottom areas can be just as productive as rocky, snag-infested spots. This is particularly true around offshore islands like Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Catalina, San Clemente, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, San Nicolas and Santa Rosa.

“I like to fish broad, relatively low-structure areas,” says Santa Barbara-based Capt. David Bacon, whose WaveWalker Charters targets the Channel Islands, as well as the coasts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties — a region he calls the epicenter of rockfishing.

Whether you’re fishing the islands or coastal areas, the
larger the structure area is, the longer the drift and the more time you have to fish productive bottom, Bacon points out. That’s not to say that smaller structure spots can’t produce fish, but it’s tougher to stay over the fish in typical rockfish depths of 120 to 360 feet, especially if there’s wind or current.

Which depths Bacon fishes for rockfish depends on two factors. One is the experience level of his crew, and the other is the amount of fishing pressure an area receives.

“With kids and novice anglers, the maximum depth is about 150 feet,” he says. “That allows the guests to have a better feel for hooking fish. At the same time, the fish tend to be a bit smaller than those you find at greater depths.

“With more experienced anglers, we’ll fish 250 feet or more, where you get bigger rockfish,” Bacon explains. Maximum legal depth for catching rockfish is generally 360 feet, but in places such as Cowcod Conservation Areas, the maximum depth is 120 feet, and the number of species you can take is limited.

Bacon has found that the outer islands, such as Santa Rosa and San Miguel, receive less fishing pressure, so you don’t have to fish as deep. He sometimes has great success on rockfish in water as shallow as 60 feet. Getting out to these islands, however, is not always possible due to strong winds, particularly in spring.

Boat-Handling Tricks
When you’re rockfishing in deeper water, anchoring is not usually practical. Drifting over productive structure is the traditional method for targeting these fish.

“Many boating anglers motor up to the structure spot, and once they see the rocky area on their fish finder, they stop and drift fish,” says Bacon. “But this is not the most productive method.”

Bacon points out that rockfish tend to congregate on one particular side of a structure zone, so you should use the fish finder to locate the concentration, which is often on the up-current side of the rocks.

“Once I have zeroed in on fish, I find it productive to use a method I call motor anchoring,” he says.

It’s a simple technique. Bacon remains at the helm and uses the throttles of his twin outboards to keep the boat positioned over productive bottom while his guests fish.

Not only does this allow anglers to fish in the strike zone longer, but it helps keep fishing lines as vertical as possible. This enables better bite detection and reduces the chance of lines snagging the bottom, which is more likely when they are streaming behind a drifting boat. However, you have to be careful to avoid tangling fishing lines in the propellers.

On small, deep structure spots, this technique is especially useful, but it is important that crew members are ready to drop on the captain’s command, says Bacon. “The anglers need to be baited up, standing at the rail and ready to fish when I say drop. On a small spot, if you don’t get the bait to the bottom immediately, you might as well wait till the next go around, because you will have missed the fish.”