Finding & Catching Shallow Water Rockfish

Finding & Catching Shallow Water Rockfish

With the availability of advanced cartography on both our plotters and phone apps, it’s easier than ever to find deep water structure spots. While knowing exactly where to go will cut down on time spent driving around looking for places to fish, even in the best areas that knowledge alone usually isn’t enough to translate into consistent angling success.


Sure, you may get lucky and stumble into a wide-open bite, but if you don’t understand what was happening when the fish bit, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to repeat your success again.

Take for example this reef that lies off the east side of Santa Rosa Island. I’d found this reef on my Navionics app prior to departing on my trip and decided it would be as good a starting spot as any. While it may not look all that big on the chart, the reef stretches a quarter-mile in length and stretches from 160 to 200-feet of water. Not exactly the type of spot you can pull up to and say, “let them go here!” with any certainty of success. Instead, you’ll need to take a systematic approach to find which part of the reef is holding feeding fish.

This being Santa Rosa Island, you can stop on just about any spot of hard bottom and catch smaller lingcod and copper rockfish, so if you just stop in a random spot along the reef you’re going to catch just enough smaller fish to waste your entire fishing day catching mostly short lingcod and filling your cooler with 2-pound rockfish. Having done that enough times to know better, I’ll pull up to the shallow up-current edge of the reef and meter along from shallow to deep. The fish aren’t always on the up-current edge of spots, but it’s usually the most productive edge.

This screen shot represents what you’re going to see when you pull up to a random rock in deep water while driving in the same direction that the current is flowing. Looking from left to right, you can see that the the red line on the screen increases in thickness and the blue fuzz below the red line gets thicker. This means that the bottom is getting hard and the change in depth at the center of the screen indicates that the rock has some significant relief but there are no fish marks on the up current edge of the rock. Directly under the “R” in “Rock” you can see what looks like fish marks, but that is simply bait hanging out on the down current edge of the rock. This bait continues on to the right as I drive across the rock. The separation between bait marks and the bottom is usually a good indicator that nothing exciting is happening fishing wise.

This photo was taken on a different section of the same reef where the big reds were biting full speed. Looking at the screen from left to right, you can see that the marks are quite a bit taller, more spread out and now making contact with the bottom. When metering at this depth, the transducer beam is too wide to show individual fish, so what you’re seeing is a composite that gives you an idea of the volume of fish within the transducer’s cone. This tall fuzz usually indicates that there are bigger rockfish, like reds, feeding on the bait fish and the schools that had been hovering just above the bottom are now spread as far as 30-feet off the bottom as they’re getting chased around by reds.

This large-scale feeding activity creates quite a commotion and will draw in fish from other parts of a large reef. That means you’re not only going to be catching reds but the lingcod and rockfish that would otherwise be scattered randomly around the reef. There will always be smaller fished mixed in but you can cut down on your small fish by-catch by fishing larger lures.

Erik Landesfeind
Erik Landesfeind is BD's Southern California Editor and has over 30 years of experience saltwater fishing for a range of species in both California and Mexican waters. Erik is also an active freelance writer and the author of the weekly column So Cal Scene, which BD publishes every Friday. In So Cal...