Calico bass, or kelp bass, range up and down the West Coast from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula all the way to the Columbia River in Oregon. While they are rare that far north, the species is most abundant in Southern California, thriving in the shallow waters along rocky structure and kelp beds. These slow-growing fish are aggressive feeders and a perfect cast in ideal conditions is almost always rewarded with a nice calico. But like any fishery, there are a few tricks and tips that will help you make every trip a successful outing.
According to bass man Duane Mellor, a deckhand with Seasons Sportfishing, calico bass live for three things — food, current and structure. “Find all three of those elements and you’re going to find calico bass that want to bite,” he says.
Keep it simple for fishing bass and don’t overdo it. “You don’t need a million different baits in your box to catch these fish. Find three or four baits that you are confident in and fish those,” Duane says.
Step 1: Find the Fish
Duane prefers to look for calicos around shallow-water structure. He’s caught bass in water as skinny as three feet and just a few yards off the beach. But the key to finding calico bass is to fish the current.
Accurate’s VP of sales and marketing, Ben Secrest, has been fishing for calico bass longer than he cares to remember, and agrees with Duane about fishing structure and finding current. “Look for the indicators to find fish,” Ben says. “Tide, water temperature, current and presence of bait are the most important factors. Fish the incoming tide. Bass will eat all sorts of stuff, and the flooding tide will create more opportunities for them to feed on lobster and crab. If the tide is right and the water temperature is more than 58 degrees, it’s time to catch.”
Calicos bite actively throughout the summer and fall months due to their spawning patterns. During this time, Duane likes to fish La Jolla and Point Loma, but he says there isn’t a better fishery in the world for calico bass than Baja Norte. “I try to spend as much time as possible fishing for calico down there,” he says. “It’s like heaven for saltwater bass guys!”
While anglers can target calico bass all year, inshore and offshore ace Barry Brightenburg, owner of Fish Trap lures and Always an Adventure Charters, says he catches most of his bass in the winter. And again, water temps play an important role.
“The key to any fishing is the stability of water temps,” he says. “As long as temps remain steady, the fish will go into feeding mode. If you hear that that the water was 59 yesterday and today it’s 55, fishing is going to be tough. If the water gets below 60, use some sort of scent so they’ll hold onto the bait longer. Slow down, fish deeper and use heavy scent.”
A good dose of Uni Butter will help you keep that bass on the jig.
Barry also recommends you take advantage of any slow times in between bites to practice your fundamentals. When the bite dies down, practice your casting accuracy. “When fishing in and around structure and heavy cover, the main thing is casting,” Barry says. “If you don’t have casting down, you’re going to struggle. Try different approaches — you need to be able to present that lure within a hole the size of a five-gallon bucket from 40 to 50 feet away.”
“If bait is present, match the hatch”
Step 2: Choose A Lure
“If bait is present, match the hatch,” Ben says. “Figure out what they’re eating. If you see them feeding on grunions, throw something that looks like a grunion. If it’s squid, fish a white-and-brown bait.”
While Fish Trap makes soft baits in 80 different colors, Barry suggests that you stick to four or five colors and patterns, and don’t fall victim to the hype. “Start with baitfish patterns, such as blue and green,” he says. “To imitate crustaceans, use brown, red and orange. For fishing in low light or in the dark, you want something with a dark silhouette such as red and orange.” He says if he had to pick just one color, it’d be clear with red flake.
Duane is a big fan of Pearl Swimbaits. “These paddle-tail swim baits are real killers,” he says. “They thump real good and displace a lot of water when swimming. Bass pick up that vibration and react to it. If I had to pick three colors, I’d go with #65 Fuzzy Navel, #77 Wenchi and #50 Frozen Chovey — all in size four.”
As a simple rule, fish darker colors in cloudy or dark conditions and lighter colors in brighter conditions.
When fishing with plastics, you also need to use the proper size lead-head. “I’ll typically fish a 3/4- to 1-ounce lead-head when burning the baits across the surface in shallow water, and 1- to 2-ounce when fishing deeper structure,” Duane says. “I also like to use War Baits’ Slayer Swim Jigs when fishing deeper structure, as the extra action from the skirts really entices the fish to bite when fishing slow and low.”
Adjust your lead depending on where you’re fishing. “For a white-water presentation in the rocks, you’ll be putting the boat in a precarious position so I’d say first off, be careful, and secondly use a bigger lead head to get in the strike zone,” Barry says. “The size of the lead depends on where in the water column the fish are. When they’re not in the shallows use an ounce to two ounces.”
To prospect for fish, change it up and start throwing surface irons. “The kick of a well-selected surface iron can really make the calico bass react to your bait,” says Duane. “I like to fling a variety of plugs from the Tady C’s and 45’s to the Salas 7x, but my hands-down favorite is a Candy Bar Starman 112.”
“One of my favorite ways to fish is with surface iron,” says Barry, even though his company produces soft plastics. “Iron fishing has become a lost art. When I was a kid it was all 10-foot jig sticks for calico bass. It can be real touchy because you need to make a good clean cast. You’ve got to find current and clean alleys in between the kelp. You can make longer casts with surface iron, and fishing irons works great as a fish finder. You can cover a lot of water quickly. Most of the big fish I catch are on surface iron.”
When fishing surface irons, vary your retrieve using a steady, moderate pace to give the lure a swimming motion. It sounds easier than it really is, so experiment until you get the speed just right.
Step 3: Pick the Right Rod
With accuracy playing such a huge roll in this fishery, fishing with the right setup can make you or break you. “I fish with alot of 12- to 20-pound straight mono,” Ben says. “When I fish inside for a bigger class of fish, I end up using 20-pound for abrasion resistance. I usually use mono because braid will get wind knots with the offshore winds. If there’s no wind, I end up using braid.”
Ben prefers a 6-foot, 6-inch or 7-foot rod for fishing kelp beds and rocks. Inshore, he uses a 7-foot, 2-inch to 7-foot, 6-inch rod to maximize casting distance. Whatever you do, Ben recommends you reel in any slack in the line before setting the hook on a fish. “If you use mono, wind the slack out and set the hook once you see rod bend. If you don’t, you’ll just get frustrated,” he says.
Duane uses a longer rod for slinging swim baits. He uses a medium-heavy 8-footer with a low-profile bait-casting reel loaded with 50- to 65-pound braid and a short 25-pound fluorocarbon leader. “For bumping jigs around structure and off the bottom, I like fishing a 7-foot, 9-inch, heavy-action graphite rod,” he says. For throwing surface iron, he uses a Calstar 850H and a high-speed size 16 reel, again packed with 65-pound braid and a short 40-pound top shot.
The trick to catching more calico bass is the ability to change it up. You can’t focus on just one application. Try fishing the shallow-water structure. If that doesn’t work, focus on deeper kelp. If swim baits don’t get a bite, try some scent or fire out a surface iron. As Barry says, “You need to be versed on different things so you can get out there and make adjustments if need be. Pay attention to your environment — birds, water clarity, current, and temperature are all important.”