Must Have SoCal Islands Rod and Reel Setups

As Spring rolls around here in Southern California, it is time to ensure your gear is in tip top shape and your fishing setups are ready to go to fish the extraordinary islands off our coast. Heading out and catching a glimpse of the islands off in the distance brings excitement and anticipation to any angler, as these islands can be rich in fishing and good times. I always jump at any opportunity to fish Catalina Island, San Clemente Island, or any other island for that matter as they provide a sense of being in their own world, away from the ever more crowded nature of California. These remarkable islands, as well as the Coronado Islands to the South, are home to many prized game fish such as yellowtail, white seabass, calico bass, and halibut just to name a few. While these fish require different techniques and approaches, outlined in this article are the must have SoCal islands rod and reel setups that will cover any species you might encounter at the islands.  

Light Live Bait Setup 

A live bait setup is crucial to have on the boat no matter where you are fishing off the Southern California coast (unless you are an artificials die hard), and this is especially true when fishing the beloved islands off our coast. I prefer to bring along a lighter 20lb bait stick when fishing the islands. When anchored up on a spot, this setup is primarily used for fly lining live sardines for calico bass, bonito, barracuda, and even yellowtail. My personal light bait stick that leaves the house with me is an Avet SX, a small single speed lever drag reel, paired with a Seeker 270-8, which is an 8-foot composite live bait rod rated 15-25lb. I have the reel loaded with 50lb braid and tie on a few feet of 20lb fluorocarbon, just enough so the knot does not slip through the top guide when casting. A small star drag reel such as a Daiwa Saltist 15H or Penn Fathom 12 paired with a light bait rod will also make an exceptional setup for this style of fishing. 

Calico Bass caught on a live sardine at San Clemente Island.

Yo-Yo Iron / Dropper Loop Setup 

(Left) A quality Yellowtail caught at Catalina Island.

Whether you are fishing from a private boat or party boat, a must have setup to bring to any of the islands is a Yo-Yo Iron setup.  Yo-Yo jigging is essentially dropping down a heavy iron jig such as a Tady 4/0 or a heavy brass jig like the JRI 66 close to the bottom then winding the jig back up the water column with a fast retrieve and repeating this process until you are hooked up, hence the name Yo-Yo. This is a relatively simple yet extremely effective style of fishing for yellowtail when they are stacked up near the bottom. You’ll want this setup to consist of a shorter stout rod with enough pulling power to turn a big yellow’s head and a reel that has good line capacity and a high amount of inches of line per crank. The Yo-Yo Iron setup I currently fish with is a Seeker 6470H, a 7-foot rod rated 40-60lb and an Avet JX 6.0 full of 65lb braid topped off with a 50lb mono topshot. With a line capacity of 400 yards of 65lb braid and 46 inches per crank, the Avet JX 6.0 suits my needs for this type of fishing. There are many great reels for this application such as the Shimano Trinidad 40 or even the 2 speed Penn Fathom 40N Lever Drag which can be nice if you need to bump it down to low gear for an easier fight. This Yo-Yo Iron Setup can also serve as a dropper loop setup when you need to change things up. I prefer to run a mono topshot on this setup as it makes it easy to tie on a couple dropper loops and a weight when needed. Every angler headed to the islands should carry a dedicated Yo-Yo Iron / Dropper Loop type rod and reel combo as it will be a workhorse setup, especially during those early season Spring months.  

Read Next: Kelp Paddy Fishing Setups

Surface Iron Setup (Jigstick)  

(Right) A beautiful California Yellowtail that fell for the blue and white JRI-7 surface iron.

The final setup every serious angler should have in their arsenal to fish the islands is a surface iron setup otherwise known as a jigstick. Fishing the surface iron is a Southern California staple and is one of the most popular methods here for targeting yellowtail. There are numerous rod and reel combos you can match up to comprise a serviceable jigstick, but most anglers prefer a rod in the 9 or 10 foot range to achieve a longer cast, paired with a star drag reel. If you’re fishing from a private boat, an 8ft rod can also get the job done if you prefer, but if fishing from a party boat a longer 9 or 10 foot rod is recommended. My current preferred setup for fishing the iron at our local islands is a Penn Fathom 25N star drag mounted on a United Composites RGP 900 9E, which a 9ft jigstick rated 30-60lb. With this setup being so light it makes throwing the iron all day easy and without fatigue, making it a personal favorite. I also enjoy switching it up and throwing the iron on an all glass Seeker PH Ulua 93H for island yellows. For the Penn Fathom 25N, I load it up with 65lb braid and about 100 yards of 40lb mono. Other tried and true star drag iron reels on the market are the Shimano Trinidad 20A, Accurate Tern 500, and the Daiwa Saltiga 40HA to name a few. As far as dedicated surface iron rods there are too many to list with all the different ratings and length size, but other crowds favorites tend to be the Calstar 90J, Calstar 100J, Seeker 7X, Seeker 540, and the United Composites RCE900 Del Mar. Regardless of the endless brands and types of surface iron rods and reels, every angler planning to fish the islands should have a dedicated jigstick that they are comfortable using, as catching slug yellows on the iron is an ultimate Southern California experience. 

As the season starts up and gets into high gear, ensure you have a light live bait setup, a Yo-Yo Iron setup, which can also function as a dropper loop setup, and a jigstick to round out your quiver for fishing the islands off Southern California. There are a couple other optional setups to bring to the islands depending on the season and your preferred style of fishing such as a squid leadhead setup and a crankbait / plastics setup for calico bass enthusiasts. If you can get your hands on fresh dead or live squid, a dedicated setup to fish the leadhead is very effective for those early spring white seabass and yellowtail. A medium size star drag reel and medium heavy action rod is exceptional for this style of fishing. As far as fishing the plastics or crankbaits for bass, you will want a small to medium size baitcaster with an 8-foot casting rod.  Otherwise, the three setups outlined in this article will cover any species encountered at the islands and is a great starting point in regards to what fishing setups to bring on your next trip to the Coronados, Catalina, San Clemente, or any other magnificent island you may be headed too next.  

Kevin White grew up in Southern California and became an avid angler fishing both freshwater and saltwater. His passion for fishing stems from a young age fishing for Northern Pike and Largemouth Bass in Upper Michigan with his father and grandfather. When he is not working as an engineer for one of...