Figuring Out a Zone That’s New to You

I live in the last of Southern California’s beach cities that can be debated as being a town. Not to be confused with a city or the island, San Clemente has a unique position in the little Bight between Dana and San Mateo points. To the southeast starts Camp Pendleton, the only swath of coast below Gaviota that has the feel of old California, thanks to Camp Pendleton being a buffer zone that has kept ocean view homes and golf from connecting the counties.

I knew nothing about fishing this zone nine years ago when I moved here. In fact, I made a few way-off rules based on what happened in 2005. Cliff’s Notes: this zone gets a lot of yellowtail in the fall. It took nine years to see yellowtail fishing like 2005.

While now I primarily skiff fish, small boat fishing never really was of interest to me until this past La Nina cycle (RIP). Coming from a sportboat background, and endlessly dealing with skiffs anchoring up too close, driving through chum lines, setting up in chumlines and doing what skiffs do, small boat fishing wasn’t an activity that went beyond dabbles with friends. I wanted to be on a big boat, with plenty of chum and a sonar if I was going fishing. On the flip, I really respected the skiff guys that were there own entities; the types of guys who you always hear about getting bit, after the fact, but rarely see.

When the First String came to San Diego I started working on it. Occasionally, when I needed a break from Isla Vista weekends, I’d work a weekend in San Pedro. Captain Bradley Phillips always talked about seabass bites on the beach from his Whaler. This piqued my interest when I moved to his town.

So I had to figure out how to fish the coast here. While one well-know kelp line I learned about a corner of while fishing with Tim Husband, and knowledge towards a certain artificial reef got started with a numbers trade (name withheld to protect innocence), everything else I learned from missing as much as catching.

In hindsight, I cherish the process. In reality, there was a lot of banging the head against the steering wheel. Things started clicking eventually. But even now, I do not think there is such a thing as “having a spot figured out.” Too much changes. A mind with that type of plumbing is probably backed up or propped up by ego.

Speaking of, what started as a spot, has turned into 12. That’s how many structure spots I consider “seabass producers” that I have caught more than a few fish off of on charters. Bait grounds/zones are not counted.

“Don’t you worry about people finding ‘your spots’” you ask? No. After writing a book on the coast, sans GPS numbers, doing a couple hundred seabass charters, seminars, and writing articles like this, I have pulled up on the 12 spots I love and only three, maybe four of them, have had me pull up and move on because there are other boats. (Think Salt Creek.) Why? There are just so many variables. Most try a few times and then just go back to their comfort zones.

Putting in the time is a huge undertaking. It’s easier to just fish the squid grounds, or fish the spots that have always produced, or go offshore, or fish whatever spot has boats on it that day. And all that is cool.

BUT if you want to put in the time and add spots to your GPS here is my 12-step program (12 of 100’s). This is stuff you have to do yourself. Two things we can’t buy are time and fishing spots that hundreds or thousands of other people don’t have.


Take trips where it’s all about recon and learning. Tell yourself and the gas buddies that this trip isn’t about catching. It’s about putting in the legwork to learn something new—and cross duds off the list.


Lighter crowds mean you can meander along entire kelp lines, marking stones, hard bottoms, and little step-offs. A surface studded with lobster pots can guide you.


Fishing means you mark the spot—like where you want the lines to go—and you set up on the spot based on the conditions. You can also mark where you anchored, but you’ll have to hope for the same exact conditions next time around.


There are some spots, for whatever reason, where you can fish during the day until you are blue in the face and not catch much; but fish it in the dark, and it shows its potential, in season. Vice versa applies.


Thinking there is an Alpha—when never trying to figure out if it’s really Bravo or Charlie—is a bad play.


If you steadfastly decide where you are fishing before even seeing what the conditions are doing, it could be a long day…it changes fast.


Tides are so huge, especially for the seabass. Learn what spots fish best on what tide(s) and you can really have some fun, calling out conditions and bite times and jockeying around.


Few spots fish equally whether the current is uphill or downhill. A huge stride for me was when my uphill experiments started showing results.


Lines will guide you. Fingers, tight lines, flats, little nipples—try them.


Once you get above La Jolla, the deep-water world is gone until you get past Dana Point. Fishing deep water and fishing shallow water structure are two games with few parallels.


A chum bucket or chumming with chopped squid can bring an entire reef to you—when you’ve sussed out the current.


There’s not really any new spots left, it’s about figuring out new ways to fish them/spots that are new to you.

Brandon Hayward splits his time between serving as editor/publisher of The Bight ( and guiding throughout the Southern California Bight from his 23-foot Parker through his guide service, A graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Brando...