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.
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.
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.
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.”
Once you cast a lure tight to shoreline structure or around kelp, you never stop reeling, says Secrest. “You crank slowly when the water surges in to shore and crank fast when it surges back out at you,” he explains. “The idea is to swim the bait away from the structure, sometimes slowing it down midretrieve to let it drop slightly in the water column. But if you stop winding, the fish will lose interest and you are likely to get hung up in the ribbon kelp, and that almost always means losing your lure.
“Once a calico grabs the lure, you just keep grinding, and don’t swing the rod,” Secrest advises. “At the same time, use your trolling motor to pull the fish away from the structure and kelp — that’s the way we get the big boys.”
Despite the shorter days and cooler weather, there is little doubt that the winter months are the hot season for king-size calicos in southern California.
Southern California Calico Bass
Before fishing any coastal or island shoreline in the future, check for fishing closures that might be in place as early as 2012 as part of the California Marine Life Protection Act implementation plan for the South Coast region. Log on to saltwatersportsman.com for the latest updates on the MLPA and other critical issues.
What: Calico bass.
When: November through January.
Where: Santa Barbara, California, to northern Baja California, Mexico.
Who: Boating anglers with reliable craft in the 16- to 23-foot range. A bow-mounted trolling motor is helpful. To learn the ropes, consider enlisting the services of a local guide. Here are three who know their stuff.
Capt. David Bacon
Capt. Barry Brightenburg
Always an Adventure Charters
Capt. Jimmy Decker
Fishing with Capt. Jimmy Decker
You need to match the hatch when it comes to lure size and color, says Secrest. He prefers 8- to 9-inch swimbaits from Big Hammer or MC Swimbaits, with a 1-ounce lead head for big bass on shoreline rocks and reefs, though he may downscale to 6- or 7-inch baits with a 3/4-ounce lead head when the fishing gets tough.
“For the big baits with 1-ounce lead heads and the smaller baits with 3/4-ounce heads, make sure the hooks you use are 3X-strong versions, because you are going to need to put a lot of pressure on a big calico near heavy cover,” he advises. Some of Secrest’s favorite colors are green, brown and red — colors reminiscent of forage species such as topsmelt, mackerel, grunion, surfperch, shrimp and octopus.
When it comes to rods and reels, Secrest prefers a 6 1/2-foot fast-taper trigger stick with a saltwater-style baitcaster reel loaded with 20-pound-test monofilament. “The reel should have at least a 5:1 gear ratio, and the drag isn’t too important because you’re locked down,” he says. “You can’t let these fish take any line.”
Rods:_ Fast-taper 6 1/2-foot trigger-style bait-casting.
Reels:_ Saltwater bait caster with at least a 5:1 gear ratio.
Lines: Straight 20-pound-test abrasion-resistant monofilament (with no leader) tied to the lure with a double uni-knot.
Lures:_ Tady 45 Light and Shimano Waxwing 118 or 138 for search lures; 6- to 9-inch Big Hammer and MC Swimbaits soft-plastics on 34-ounce to 1-ounce lead heads with 3X-strong hooks.