There is a lot of information that anglers simply accept as fact; without ever questioning its validity. One of these accepted facts is that the calico bass along the coast always feed in the lower part of the water column during the cold weather months. While this fact has been proven time and again by anglers catching calicos by fishing jigs along the base of kelp stalks, one has to question if they are catching the bass because they are deep or if they are catching the deep bass because that’s where they’re fishing.
The reason I ask this question is because while everyone on the coast is fishing vertically for calicos in the winter, the guys fishing the islands are getting into full speed surface bites. So, what’s different between the bass at the islands and the bass on the coast? The simple answer is not a whole lot. They both live in kelp and rocks, feed on the same baitfish and crustaceans, and experience similar winter water temperatures.
Based on this information I couldn’t come up with a single reason why bass shouldn’t feed on the surface when the water is cold along the coast.
In hopes of testing my theory, I talked Matt into heading up to PV last Saturday to fish for calicos using the same techniques we employed during the warm water months. Joining us on his own boat was my friend Chris Oakes who, along with his tournament partner Scott Smith, planned to fish the same areas using more conventional wintertime presentations.
Saturday dawned cold and foggy and when we arrived at Pt Fermin, were met with slack conditions and water temperatures in the high fifties. After a brief stop to rig our rods with 7” weedless and 9” Viejos Series MC Swimbaits, we headed up the line looking for conditions that might produce fish. My game plan was to start off fishing shallow to take advantage of the low light conditions and the fact that even if the fish were feeding on the bottom they’d still see our offerings swim by close overhead.
Finding off color water but slack current on a beach spot where we’d caught fish during the summer, I positioned the boat in ten feet of water and we made casts into the surf line. The spot didn’t produce a single bite, so after a few casts I let the wind blow us off the beach and into the adjacent kelp bed that sits in 15-20 feet of water. After blind casting for a few minutes, Matt got his first bite of the day on the 7” Weedless MC and although the fish was small it was a sign that we were on the right track.
Once we’d fished through that area I bumped the boat ahead and found a similar bed that had the advantage of having some current. Sliding up to the kelp, I threw the 7” Weedless MC across the leading stringers and after only a couple turns of the handle, I watched an eight-pound class fish blow up on the bait. I could lie and tell you that I hooked the fish, fought it valiantly and lost it at the boat, but the truth is that I was so surprised to get a bite that I basically jerked the bait out of the fishes mouth. I got a chance to make up for my mistake a few casts later when I hooked a five pound fish that I lost respectably when it wrapped me on a kelp stringer.
At this point I was beginning to wonder if we were even going to catch a bass to prove that they were actually biting the surface baits during the winter. Luckily Matt came through on the next kelp bed we fished and put a couple of big calicos in the boat on the 7” Weedless MC. The bigger of the two actually came off at the boat after he fought it through the kelp, but for some reason didn’t swim away when the hook pulled. After losing the fish, Matt dropped his bait back in the water and the fish swam up and ate it again. This time it made it into the boat. I guess that fish just really wanted its picture taken.
Matt had to work that afternoon, so we called it a day at 11:00 a.m. and headed in having hooked six fish in the five to eight pound range and landing two of them. We’d also gotten another dozen bites from smaller fish that didn’t stick. While this may sound like a slow day of fishing by most peoples standards, the numbers were right on track with a typical summertime day of trophy hunting with big baits at PV. In fact, I’d say that we had more shots on that day than we’d get on the average early summer day.
Chris and Scott, who were the baseline for our experiment, caught several bass using standard winter presentations and a couple on the Weedless. But the winter presentations, which employ smaller baits, produced smaller fish for the most part. Since smaller baits usually produce smaller fish at PV, the peninsula basically fished the same on January 4th as it does on June 4th. It’s impossible to draw any definitive conclusions or develop long-term patterns from a single trip, but I’m hopeful that I will be able to repeat these results during future trips this winter.
If you’re looking to try and catch summertime bass during the winter months, there are a few factors that will improve your odds of success. First, you’ll want to fish during periods of stable weather and water temperatures. You can learn more about these by reading my previous column. It’s also important to choose your spots wisely. To find bass willing to feed on the surface in cold water you’re going to need to find bait schools that might attract those bass. Birds are the best indicator of feeding activity in the kelp, so learn to look for them and pay attention to not only what you find, but also what specific types of birds are related to that activity.
Figuring out a new fishery, or a new take on an old fishery, isn’t easy. It takes commitment, planning and follow through to implement a strategy and then extrapolate limited results into something useful and repeatable.
The good news is that every time you figure something out it makes figuring out the next thing that much easier.
So get out there and force-feed the fish something they shouldn’t be eating at this time of year.