California is known for many things, but its stellar offshore fishery is an under-appreciated prize.
While California is known for being the home of movie stars, Mickey Mouse, Shamu and countless palm trees, it’s not often thought of as a great offshore fishing destination. Nothing could be further from the truth. SoCal is home to the largest fleet of modern sportfishing boats in the world and a fantastic offshore fishery that is fueled by one thing – live bait.
Here in California we are blessed with a fleet of bait companies that fish tirelessly to provide the lifeblood of our sportfishing industry. These bait boats locate schools of anchovies and sardines along the coastline using side-scan sonar, and then employ a purse seine net and a skiff to “wrap” the bait. Once wrapped, the baitfish are pumped into holding tanks below deck and transported to a bait barge to be pumped back out.
Bait barges are located in the calm waters of our bays and consist of a series of “bait boxes.” These boxes look like a section of dock with folding lids. Below the surface they feature a wood bait cage that holds the bait until it’s ready to be sold. This leaves a box full of hearty and healthy baits for anglers to take offshore. Nearly every trip, from an 18-day long range or a run to the local kelp beds, starts at the bait barge.
To accommodate and care for all this prime bait, most of our sportfish boats feature large cockpit-mounted bait tanks. These tanks are designed here on the West Coast and feature a special baffle that directs water into a slow, steady swirl to keep bait healthy and swimming in an organized circle.
ONE STOP SHOP
The California offshore season typically begins in early June with schools of yellowtail migrating north. These yellowtail will take up residence under floating mats of kelp that have broken off the Northern California coastline and attracted bait and other sea life as they drift southward. Yellowtail are a hard-fighting jack similar to their cousin the amberjack, and average about 15 pounds in our local waters, although fish close to 40 pounds are not uncommon.
In late June, the yellowtail will be joined by bluefin tuna or albacore tuna (in cooler water years). As the season progresses, the bluefin and “albies” are replaced by yellowfin tuna, dorado (dolphin fish or mahi mahi) and striped marlin. Our local tuna range anywhere from 12 to 60 pounds, with the average fish being sporty, 20-pound models.
This great mix of fish will typically hang around through October giving SoCal anglers a solid five month season of excellent offshore action. Early or late in the season we typically make runs of 40 to 80 miles one way in search of the bulk of the offshore migration. These longer runs are usually made at 7-10 knots, departing the night before. As the season progresses, the fish will swarm our local banks and a normal day consists of a 15- to 40-mile run, usually departing the same morning.
The west coast fishery also differs from other locations in the techniques we use to catch our quarry. A typical day of offshore fishing begins at grey light with crews deploying a spread of trolling lures or jigs. The average spread might consist of two or three tuna feathers, a cedar plug and diving plug like a Rapala CD18.
Once the lures have been deployed, the crew will begin trolling areas that have nice looking temperature breaks or around an offshore bank. Our “banks” are actually underwater mountains that rise out of the extreme depths (3,000-6,000 feet) to within roughly 2,000-feet of the surface. While the tops of these mountains are still deep, the upwellings they create drive nutrient-rich water upwards and attract an entire food chain of life.
While trolling, anglers will scan the horizon for any sign of life. Promising signs are similar to those of most offshore fisheries – pods of dolphin, bird activity, flotsam and our unique kelp paddies – and can all be prime indicators or attractors of bigger fish. To help spot these signs, many boats have a “tuna tower” or “belly hoop” to help get anglers elevated for a better vantage point. On larger sport-fishers and big charter boats, you’ll often find the crew using “Gyros.” These are high-dollar, high-performance binoculars that have an internal gyroscope that stabilizes the image. This stability allows anglers to use higher power optics and still pick out even a single bird at nearly two miles away.
Once the fish are located, the captain will usually troll the area hoping for a “jig strike.” Once one rod is bit, the captain will leave the boat in gear for about a five-count, hoping to load up more of the rods. While this is happening, a designated crew member will immediately toss a scoop of live bait behind the boat to draw the school in closer. Many times this causes instant eruptions of fish in the corners of the boat. While the troll fish are being fought, other anglers will “drop back” live baits into the fray that are often inhaled as soon as they hit the water.
If the fish are cooperative and the chumming is steady, it’s possible to keep the fish under the boat for hours. Many times a single jig strike will turn into a 10 or 15 fish stop. When the fishing is really hot, you might be lucky enough to have a “one-stop-shop” where every angler catches his limit without ever moving the boat.
GET IN ON THE ACTION
The gear used for this kind of fishing is fairly basic. Trolling rigs consist of lever drag reels with a 40- to 60-pound top shot. Bait rigs are usually a 7- or 8-foot rod with a 16-class reel loaded with spectra and a 20-40-pound fluorocarbon top shot attached to a 2/0-4/0 circle hook. While the fish will readily eat an “iron” lure (another SoCal staple) or a popper, most anglers stick to live bait.
To get in on the action, you can fish with friends from a private boat or take one of the excellent charter boats in the area. Our charter fleet is made up mostly of larger “party” boats ranging from 50- to 100-feet in length, and a trip will cost between $100 and $400 depending on the duration of the trip. To get more info on party boat fishing, check out Seaforth Sportfishing (WWW.SEAFORTHLANDING.COM) or Fishermen’s Landing (WWW.FISHERMANSLANDING.COM). These landings post all the trips available, as well as the latest fish counts from recent trips, on their websites.
If you’re looking for a more private experience, we have a fleet of great six-pack charter boats that will take smaller groups. A couple of the top six-packs boats are The Impulse (WWW.DANALANDING.COM) and El Gato Dos (WWW.SEAFORTHLANDING.COM).
All of these boats will provide the necessary gear, coaching and fish processing to make sure you have a great trip. Next time you’re headed out this way, carve out a day or two and take advantage of our unique and awesome fishery.
Capt. Ali Hussainy caught his first fish, a trout, with his grandfather at the age of 3, and that sparked a fire in him as he chased the next bite all over the Sierras. He now chases saltwater fish wherever they swim. His passion for fishing led to the creation of the fishing forum www.Bloodydecks.com, which he co-founded with Jason Hayashi in 2003. In the wintertime, you can usually find Ali in the field or a duck blind, pursuing upland game or waterfowl. Ali is president of BD Outdoors – contact him at Ali@bdoutdoors.com.