Like most private boaters, I got my start fishing for rockfish as a passenger on a sport boat. So when making the first rockfish trip on my own boat, it made sense to go to the same areas and fish the same way that I’d learned on the sport boats.
That worked to an extent and we caught easy limits, but aside from a couple of decent-sized salmon grouper, the rest of our fish were pretty small — hell, some were barely big enough to fillet.
Based on many of the reports I’ve read on BD’s message boards, I wasn’t alone in having less-than-stellar results when targeting rockfish on my own boat. But there were also reports from guys who regularly went out and clobbered the big rockfish and it was these reports that motivated me to rethink my fishing strategy and strive for better results.
I won’t bore you with the process of trial and error that got me to the point that I’m now confident I can catch big rockfish with some consistency, but I will share three pointers based on the lessons I learned along the way.
1) Your boat is not a sport boat, so stop fishing like one.
Sport boats are like infantry battalions — they’re slow moving and need a large area of operation — preferably one that has lots of targets to engage. Their superior firepower (the amount of fishermen on the boat) gives them the advantage of being able to weed through the secondary targets (small rockfish) while attempting to take out the primary targets (big rockfish). Sure, they may catch 10 small fish for every big one they land, but if they’ve got 40 people on the boat they still have room in their limits to catch plenty of big ones.
Your boat is like Seal Team Six — it’s fast, agile and can pick off high-value targets (really big rockfish) with ease. The problem is you have limited ammo (you’re only allowed 10 fish per angler), so you can’t engage the enemy in areas that have too many secondary targets. Instead you need to find areas that have a good chance of holding mostly high-value targets.
Here are a couple of screen shots from fish finders to explain what I’m talking about:
This shot was taken on a sport boat during a wide-open bite on chili peppers at Southeast Bank. As you can see, the meter is zoomed in on the bottom 16 fathoms of the water column and there is a huge cloud of rockfish marks coming up as high as eight fathoms (48 feet) off the bottom. This is a dream scenario for a sport boat captain as there will be plenty of biting fish for all of his passengers. If you fish an area like this on your own boat, you are going to have limits in about 15 minutes and most of your fish, if not all of them are going to be small.
The second shot was taken on my boat and shows what a big-fish spot looks like. It’s a low-relief spot that’s only about 20 feet in diameter and has most likely never been fished by a sport boat, so it has a good chance of holding big fish. There are obviously way less fish marking on this spot than in the previous photo, but they’re marking as suspended worms, which indicates that they are larger fish.
Fishing a spot like this one gives you the opportunity to target bigger fish without having to pick through a bunch of small ones.
2) Don’t make long drifts. Once you’ve drifted off the spot it’s time to move the boat.
To consistently catch big rockfish you need to focus on the spots that a sport boat wouldn’t fish, which means you’re going to be fishing small areas. Sometimes when the conditions are slack you might get a couple of drops on the spot before you drift off of it, but if there is any wind or current you’re only going to get one shot drop before you need to set up on it again. If you plan to do a lot of rockfishing on your boat, I’d suggest investing in a trolling motor. I have a Minn Kota Riptide on my boat and use its I-Pilot to hold the boat over the spot. The I-Pilot has a GPS-based virtual anchor called Spot-Lock that keeps the boat within five feet of the spot you lock in on regardless of wind or current. I’ve found this feature to be invaluable when fishing small spots in deep water.
3) Use big hooks.
No matter where you fish, there are always going to be small fish in the mix, but I’ve found that if you use large hooks you can cut down on how many of them you’ll catch. When using squid as bait, I like to use at least a 4/0 treble hook. Sure, you’ll still get bites from small fish, but they usually won’t get the big hook into their mouths and will just pick off the bait. The big fish, on the other hand, have zero problem getting that hook into their mouths and with a treble they don’t usually come off when you’re winding them to the boat.
Remember, the first step to becoming a better fisherman is to stop being satisfied with mediocre results.
There’s no reason that you shouldn’t be having the same results as the guys that are always catching the big ones. You don’t need to have a secret spot or magic bait, you just need to use common sense and keep an open mind. To become a better fisherman you’ll need to get out of your comfort zone and try different things. Some of them will fail miserably, but others will work so well that you’ll ask yourself, ‘Why didn’t I think of this sooner?’