Spotted cabrilla (pronounced Ka-Bree-Ya) are fairly common off the southern stretches of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, particularly in the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez. But I had never heard of one of these groupers caught in the cooler waters off Southern California until this past Saturday (Nov. 9, 2023). My friend Aaron Culaciati texted me a photo of an 8- to 10-pound fish he could not identify. I quickly leafed through a couple of well-worn reference books and found the answer—a spotted cabrilla.
I was astounded. But according to Certainly More Than You Want to Know About Fishes of the Pacific Coast by Milton S. Love, Ph.D, marine biology, the spotted cabrilla does indeed range as far north as San Pedro, California. Yet they are not abundant above Baja California’s Punta Eugenia. Spotted cabrilla are caught so infrequently in SoCal that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife does not even list it in the state records of big catches.
Spotted cabrilla inhabit waters ranging from the tidal zone to depths of 350 feet, but Culaciati caught this one in about 90 feet close to the popular and sprawling Bolsa Chica Artificial Reef complex, more commonly known as Izor’s Reef. The fish bit a 1.5-ounce pink-colored Hookup Bait tube lure on a 15-pound-test leader fished near the bottom. The initial powerful head shakes lead Culaciati to think he hooked a white seabass. The fish proved a handful, but eventually succumbed to pressure. As it glided into the landing net, both Culaciati and his fishing partner, Daniel “Boone” Leonard grew puzzled. Unable to ascertain the identity and on the off-chance that the fish was a protected species in California (as are broomtail grouper and giant “black” seabass), the two anglers took a few pictures, estimated the weight and quickly released the fish.
According to the reference books, spotted cabrilla can reach weights of nearly 50 pounds. And like most grouper species, they are delicious. Culciati and Leonard went on to catch and release a few big barred sand bass, but the overall the action was fairly slow. But that factor will likely fade from memory, as the autumn day will be forever remembered for one of the rarest of catches in SoCal, a spotted cabrilla.