Last week’s interview with John Curry got me fired up to catch some rockfish and the weekend’s weather forecast looked great, so John and I decided to fish Santa Rosa Island on his 20-foot Robalo. Our plan was to launch out of Santa Barbara on Sunday and run up to the west end of Rosa to fish reds and lings. I spoke with Captain Larry Heron of Calico Hunter Charters late in the week and he said that the west end of Santa Cruz had been kicking out steady rockfish and lings on swimbaits fished in shallow water and he expected the fishing at Rosa would be better.
That plan fell by the wayside when John sent me a text at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday morning to tell me that he’d fished cod locally and was already done with limits of four to six pound reds. Catching reds and lings on bass gear in 60-feet of water is a lot of fun. But there was no way I was going to drive five hours and then take an 80-mile round trip boat ride to catch them when there were big reds biting fifteen miles from my front door.
John, his brother Travis and I launched out of Davies in Long Beach on Sunday morning and we headed for the South East Bank. First thing out of the gate we realized the light offshore winds that had been forecast were blowing harder than expected and by the time we made the ten mile run, the ocean was already whitecapped. The wind made it tough to stay on the fish for the first few hours but it eventually laid down enough for us to fish effectively. Though John characterized the fishing as slow by his standards, by noon the three of us managed to fill the kill box to overflowing.
One of the biggest advantages of fishing on someone else’s boat is that it gives me the opportunity to sit back and observe not only their fishing style, but their strategy and decision making process when searching for fish. While John’s freshwater influenced fishing strategy is slightly different than my own, it’s very effective and allowed him to stay on the fish throughout the day’s changing conditions.
Here are some of the things I took away from our trip that might help you catch more fish the next time you’re on the water.
Targeting rockfish on a bank, like the South East Bank or the 150, is different than targeting them on a particular spot, like a reef or a wreck. The fish aren’t always going to be where you left them the previous trip and it’s probably going to take some looking before you find them again. The area that we fished on Sunday covered a quarter mile and the reds were chasing bait schools, which made them highly mobile and difficult to stay on top of.
Reds are notorious for biting full speed on the first drift and then disappearing when you try and get back on them, so you really need to pay close attention to what they’re doing when you catch them.
The only way to do this is by using your meter in conjunction with your chart plotter. On Sunday, all of the reds we caught were puking up fresh squid so we were able to establish that was the bait they were chasing around down there. Throughout the area we fished, there were scattered meter marks of light blue fuzz marking twenty feet of the bottom, which we guessed to be bait. Every once in a while we’d mark a spot where the small line of fuzz on the bottom reached up and connected with that bait mark. This connection was followed by an area of slightly heavier readings inside the bait school and almost always resulted in bites from big reds.
Due to the fast drift, we’d get thirty seconds on the fish before we were off them, so we’d have to run back up and find them again. The problem is that the biting fish were moving fish so they’d rarely be in the same place when we came back. This is where the chart plotter came into play. Rather than run directly back to the spot that bit, we would zig zag across our track line and stop on the first marks we found. Throughout the day, the schools we encountered seemed to be tending towards the west, so we would push a couple hundred feet west every time we’d look for a new batch of fish.
Another thing I noticed is that while the bank we were fishing was huge, the bait schools that were holding the big red’s attention were confined to a small area of the bank. So, after finding the edges of the bait zone, we were able to concentrate our efforts on taking that sector apart inch by inch instead of covering the entire bank in search of fish. It’s always better to look hard at a small area than to hardly look at an entire bank.
In closing, I’d like to break down what not to do when you fish rockfish. Since we got an early start we had the bank to ourselves for the first hour but as usually happens, other private boaters showed up and ran straight to where we were fishing. Within a couple hours there were five or six other boats fishing around us and we assumed that they were on fish too because every time we’d run up to make another drift one or more of them would do the same.
At the peak of the morning wind, we decided to run in and look around in shallower water so we left the other boats at the spot we’d been fishing. The shallow stuff didn’t bite so we ran back out to the previous area. When we arrived, we saw that the boats that had been fishing around us in the productive zone were now drifting in the same group a half-mile away (probably in an illegal depth).
The mistake these private boaters made was to pull up to a boat that was catching fish and assume they would get similar results by drifting alongside them. While I’m sure that each of those boats probably caught a couple of nice reds to go along with the countless sand dabs I watched them throw back, that’s just not a productive way to fish. Especially considering that once we left the area, the boats ended up following other boats that were only drifting in that area because they saw us catch fish there. And since none of them bothered to pay attention to their chart plotter they just drifted off into nothingness once we left because they no longer had a visual reference point to follow.
When it comes to rockfish, the questions you’ll need to answer in order to be successful are as follows. Where are the fish? Why are the fish there? What are they eating? Are the fish staying or going? If they’re staying, where else might there be similar stationary schools? If they’re going, which way are they headed and how fast are they moving?
These questions may seem difficult, but if you pay attention while you’re on the water you’ll find them surprisingly easy to answer. It’s like John said on Sunday after he pulled up on a textbook mark, dropped down and immediately hooked a big red, “These fish really need to get smarter.”