There are very few saltwater fisheries on the west coast that hold the same draw and mystique that white seabass do. Ghosts, chromers, and white gold are just a few of the titles used to define these elusive gamefish, and it suggests how frustrating and time consuming this style of fishing can be. However, at certain times during the Spring and Summer when the squid beds stack up near the inshore waters of the Channel Islands, these fish will turn on and the bite will go wide open for those lucky enough to be there and armed with the right gear. I have been fortunate enough to have been a part of this epic fishing to understand the trends in tackle, techniques, and conditions that will help you separate yourself during a tough bite and land that tanker seabass if and when the moment comes. This article will tell you everything you need to know for fishing island seabass. (Above) Capt. Shawn Steward of the Aloha Spirit holds up John Leary’s new personal best 55lber.
Tackle and Rigs
There is a vast number of outfits that could work for white seabass because frankly, unless you hook a really big one, these fish don’t pull as hard as other large gamefish like yellowtail and tuna. A 30 pound live bait setup has always been my starting point but I’ll drop down to 15 or 20lb during a scratchy bite. Regardless of line size, the first thing you want to check is your drag. Seabass are known to have thin, papery skin around their mouths that rips easily if your drag is too tight. Keep a light drag and choose a rod with a sensitive tip that can absorb the classic seabass headshakes as they try to throw a hook or jig.
Typical seabass setups. Photo courtesy of John Leary
When live squid is available, there seems to be no better rig than the classic dropper loop. I’ll admit that at times, this type of fishing can feel completely up to luck, as everyone is using the same exact rig right next to each other, and the bites seem to come at random. However, over the years I’ve learned that there are some subtle tricks you can use to make your bait stand out above the rest.
This starts with the way you tie up your rig and the leader you use. Fluorocarbon is an absolute must when it comes to seabass fishing. There must be something about the way it looks or presents the bait, because I have been on trips where over 100 seabass have been caught and the only guy struggling was the one person using straight mono. I like a long leader, usually about twice the length of my rod which makes it 14 or 15 feet. The brand of fluoro doesn’t seem to make much difference but I have noticed that some tinted lines seem to get bit more than the typical clear. I was on a trip once where the fishing was scratchy and the only fluoro I had was this pink stuff I won at a random raffle months ago. I put it on thinking it was better than nothing, but didn’t have much confidence. By the end of the day, I had caught three of the six seabass landed! This has shown itself to be more than a single-trip anomaly and the Seaguar Pink Label fluoro has become my go-to seabass leader.
I like to have at least three feet of line between my hook and sinker, and then make the loop for my hook five or six inches long. The most consistent way I’ve found to create this is to first tie the appropriately sized sinker onto the bottom of your line, then step on it with your right boot and stand with your legs shoulder-width apart. Follow the line up from your boot to your knee (or about 24 inches) then form a loop that spans the distance of your legs. Tie that 5-6in loop with either a spider hitch or surgeon’s loop and you’re ready to go. This keeps your bait slightly elevated off the bottom which is typically the zone that the bulk of the fish swim through.
Seabass tend to cruise just off the bottom. Photo courtesy of Bight Sportfishing
For hooks, I have always used the classic bronze Mustad O’Shaughnessy live bait hook (94150) in a size 4/0 or 5/0. Captains still recommend this hook, as its barb is much more pronounced than some of the more expensive forged hooks, and the soft mouth of a seabass doesn’t require the lazer-sharp point that some tuna hooks advertise. One hook to avoid is a circle hook of any brand. One captain I know tells everyone before the boat leaves the dock that circle hooks are a main reason why some anglers either don’t hook fish or lose them. Again, listen to the crew when it comes to rigging, they see what works and what doesn’t. Weight is based on current but given that you’ll be mostly fishing 60-100 feet of water, an 8oz torpedo is generally where I start and I bump up if the current is strong to keep my rig straight up and down.
Bait and Lures
When squid are in the tank, I have seen the fully live ones and the fresh dead work to about the same level of success. It largely depends on the day. One technique I have used is the “stunned squid” approach. Take a squid out of the tank and throw it hard down on the deck, then pin it on and send it down. The squid will go through a series of color changes and is less active on the hook, which seems to set it apart down there amongst all the other baits.The one takeaway I can mention when hooking squid is to not over-do it. They don’t pull around like fin bait, and when people double or triple hook their squid, I feel like it loses most of its natural action. The way I’ve always hooked squid is that I do a single pin through the top of the nose and send it down. The barb does its job keeping that bait on there and it looks as natural as it can. (Image courtesy of Xavier Schwarm)
The fluke gets bit! Photo courtesy of John Leary
I have also seen a number of artificials produce good fish when the bait isn’t as easy to catch. Recently, white flukes on leadheads and dropper loops have been producing incredible amounts of quality fish and it’s showing to be just as good if not better than live bait in certain bites. Another method people catch them on lures is to bait up a white heavy Tady 4/0 with two fresh dead squids and slowly drop it to the bottom and then wind up a few turns and wait. The lure plus the squids hanging beneath mimic a hanging column of squid which can sometimes fire up the wary fish into biting.
Fighting the Fish
From my experience, a seabass bite is very similar to a lunker calico or sand bass. You feel a sudden thud, then two or three more as your rod starts to load up and bend over. At this moment, the worst thing you can do is channel your inner Bassmaster and set the hook. You want to do it, but so many fish have been lost right after getting picked up because guys rip the hook straight out of the fish’s mouth. The proper thing to do is to start winding into the bite and your rod will continue to load up as the hook finds its spot and the fish is on. Check your drag one more time and make sure its set light, as the first big run usually happens right now. Let it take as much line as it wants, but stay on top of it. These can be squirrely fish, and keeping your line in front of you is imperative to staying out of tangles and maintaining order on deck. Keep your rod tip high, and steadily wind without doing too much pumping. Once the fish settles down, continue the straight grind and you begin to start a rhythm of long, steady lifts and winding down the slack. If you stay calm, most of the time the fish will cooperate and start swimming with the pressure. Don’t lift too hard at color and soon you can bring the fish into gaff range. (Above) BD team member Kindra King scoring big with this early season trophy.
Who To Go With
Full limits on the Graylight. Photo courtesy of John Leary
There are a few operations that target seabass more than others, and it’s important to book early if you want a spot on some of the prime dates. For party boats, you can go out of CISCOS Landing in Oxnard, where the Aloha Spirit runs full day trips to Santa Cruz and the Mirage can take you on an overnight or two day trip to fish Santa Rosa or San Miguel Island. Ventura Sportfishing is another great option with the Endeavor and Pacific Dawn both being leading boats fishing the outer islands.
(Right) Bight Sportfishing literally wrote the book on big seabass. Contact Brandon for a shot at a trip like this.
Most of my seabass fishing has taken place on these larger sportboats, and like you would expect, the priority is to look for the best score and focus on the smaller grade that can fill the boat. If your goal is to go on a hunt for a single trophy-sized fish, a small 4-pack charter is likely the way to go. Brandon Hayward and crew at Bight Sportfishing and Shawn Steward on The Graylight offer specialty trips where you can go out and specifically target the biggest fish in the area. These are truly some of the best fishermen around and even the knowledge you gain from going out with them can make the trip worth it.
As for when to go, some believe that moon
phases in the spring and early summer are the key to a good trip. This theory works a lot of the time, but not always, as seabass will bite whenever the water temperature and bait are to their liking. The best thing you can do is pay attention to when the fish bite relative to the moon and weather and plan to go the next time similar conditions pop up on the forecast.