I remember growing up being entranced by the stories written by Zane Grey. It was the year 1926, and this legend of the fishing world was enjoying the most incredible summer of fishing Catalina Island had ever seen. Broadbill swordfish and foaming bluefin tuna took up most of their time, but when they went inshore to the island, Grey would recount stories of wrangling black seabass the size of cars with yellowtail and halibut being regarded almost as pests. I read these stories with a twinge of envy. I knew these were the golden days, and that the Catalina inshore scene that I’m familiar with is a shadow of what it used to be. After doing some research it became clear that if I ever wanted to experience fishing on the same level that Zane Grey had, the place to go would be Cedros Island. Never before had I felt like I had gone back in time and experienced what fishing was like before the widespread pressure from generations of California fishermen. It’s what Grey would call “The Angler’s El Dorado”.
Since becoming a Mexican Biosphere Reserve in 2016, the only way to fish Cedros Island is to book a trip with one of the fishing resorts located within the small town and fly over from either Brownfield or Ensenada to stay and fish with the locals on their pangas. It’s a much different experience than being on a sport boat. The fishing is usually outstanding, but the part that makes it truly unique is becoming immersed within the lives and culture of the people on the island and being able to connect with similar passions while coming from such different backgrounds. Every year seems to sprout some new options when looking for places to stay, but the two that have been around the longest and that I have personal experience with are Cedros Outdoor Adventures and Cedros Sportfishing. Both organizations feature comfortable, modern living and dining amenities with expansive views of the town and breathtaking coastline.
The guides who operate the pangas are local residents who have spent years on the water exploring every inch of the island and know it better than anyone else. They are excellent boatmen, and seem more tuned in with the changing conditions of the island since it is their home. That being said, it’s important to prepare yourself to be a self-reliant angler. The guide will keep you safe and put you in the right zone, but the actual fishing is all up to you. Be sure of your knot tying skills, fishing technique, and that you have everything you need to last the entire trip. Some rentals are available, but as I described in my tackle preparation article, part of the overall experience is preparing and bringing your own gear.
Dawn and yellowtail bites go hand in hand. Image courtesy of Ed Smith.
Each morning starts out the same way. There’s an early 5am wake up call and the smell of a fresh breakfast is already waiting for you downstairs. After eating, a quick truck ride through town brings you down to the small harbor. Guides are waiting in queue for groups of 1-4 anglers who quickly load you up into the a 23 foot Panga. Once aboard, the boats are roomy and built for fishing, so gear stowage is easy in rod racks or in the bow. Once you double check you have what you need, especially the homemade burritos for lunch, the guide will bust out for the open water. Heading due South, in 10 or 15 minutes you round the corner from the salt mine and– it’s game on. Bird schools frequently dot the horizon, and if your sharp-eyed guide spots something way out in the distance, he guns it full speed toward the commotion. Squinting through watery eyes from the slapping wind in your face, you start to make out a torrent of seabirds attacking the water with violent swirls and splashes bubbling all around. In a moment the guide shuts it down and coasts right beside the mayhem to set you up with a perfect cast. You don’t get five cranks in before you’re bit.
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This is run-and-gun surface iron fishing at its finest, and it’s what Cedros has built its legendary reputation around. You can expect consistent yellowtail fishing to start in early June and persist all the way throughout the Summer and early Fall. The amount of yellowtail that frequent this area is just astounding. On any given day you’ll see several of these spots all holding a separate, but equally massive amounts of fish picking apart the tonnage of bait that regularly frequent the island. Looking for visual signs and chasing down fish with surface irons is no doubt the most exciting way to target them. In these large schools off the island, most of the fish fall into a similar grade of 15-20lbs with the occasional standout going over 30. They pull hard for their size, but there’s no structure around. Experiment with your bass gear and have fun.
Fishing being fishing, sometimes the fish aren’t as fired up on top. That is when you have to break out the trolling gear and the guide will pull lures through high percentage zones. Having the right lure is critical, as there are no tackle shops once you land on the island. The most popular trolling lure that I’ve seen work down there is the Rapala Husky Magnum in the 25ft depth model and in some kind of baitfish color pattern. Mackerel and black/purple are the best I have seen, but fire tiger can be also productive.
The guides are experts at trolling these around getting scattered yellowtail to bite, and sometimes when the conditions aren’t favorable, this technique can save your day. Often, when you get a strike on the troller, there are followers that will take a surface iron or yo yo jig. Scrambled egg patterns work great in these situations. It’s important to have a shorter 40 or 50lb yoyo outfit that’s rigged up and ready to drop on the slide as soon as your buddy picks up the troll fish, as these yellows are moving around fast.
If hunting down a trophy homeguard is your goal, slightly different tactics need to be in play. The bigger units tend to stick closer to the island and prefer to move in smaller packs rather than large schools. The guides know all the spots, but the kelp and reef off the South end of the Island just past the salt mine has produced some massive yellowtail. Most are caught on surface iron or a live mackerel, and 50lb on preferably a 2-speed reel paired up with a stiff jigstick that’s suited for bluefin is the outfit of choice. These fish regularly cruise in water as shallow as 30 feet where they will always have the upper hand. Come prepared with a tight drag and lots of pulling power and you might stand a chance. Don’t forget your size 4 bait catching rigs and ask the guide to make a few pieces of mackerel right outside the harbor, the boats have small bait tanks for this purpose.
The other fishery that Cedros is well-known for is the ferocious calico bass that inhabit every kelp stringer and boiler rock along the entire island. The diverse habitat and structure paired with the virtually untouched population of resident calicos puts this place at the top of the list for trophy saltwater bass destinations. These aren’t your typical half-day variety calicos, and the proper gear is required for you to land some of the giants that live here. I use a heavier bass rod like the United Composite 711H Swimbait Finatic and a PENN Fathom 400 Low Profile filled with either 65 or 80lb braid. I fish heavy 40 or 50lb fluoro leader and keep them short. No more than three feet so I don’t have to cast through my knot.
The best way to break this down is to go over the three different fishing situations that your guide is most likely going to put you in. The first and most common scenario will be fishing right against a massive wall or stack of boiler rocks with foam and whitewater surging in and out with the rhythm of the swells. Slowly working just outside the foamline, the guide will set you up to cast right into the whitewater and you work it back out with varying speeds depending on what you’re using. My first choice when fishing this setting is the 5in soft plastic with a 1oz leadhead. This has always been my primary confidence bait for calico bass, and through the years I’ve adopted some techniques to use them in all different conditions. MC Swimbaits pours some phenomenal baits and I brought down a big selection of 5in paddletails, slugs, and weedless options to last me the entire week. With the swimbait you’re able to slow down and fish every hole that you see. Most of the bites come on the initial drop where I keep my reel in gear and wait for the *tick* as it sinks down into the rocks. I tend to stick with the red and brown colors as it’s always what I’ve caught my biggest fish on, but down here, I’m convinced that color is a matter of what you feel most confident in. The fish work themselves into the most intense feeding frenzies where anything moving is getting bit, and it’s so much fun to start experimenting with different baits or A-rigs to try and catch multiple at a time. The last thing to mention with regards to plastics is to always be ready for a massive sheephead if you think you just hooked your PB calico. They live in the same boiler rocks as the bass do, and enjoy eating the swimbait just as much.
Boiler rocks are also an ideal place to use hardbaits such as the Diawa SP Minnow to pull a few reaction strikes if you’re wanting to change the pace from soft plastics. I really like the durability aspect, as the hardbait saves me from going through my entire stash of paddletails on the first day. When the fish are fired up, these lures can result in the most incredible visual bass strikes you’ll ever bear witness to in the saltwater. The key to this bait is to keep it moving. Wing it right into the nastiest part of the foam and start burning it back out. You imitate a baitfish that got caught up in the swells, and huge bass are lurking below waiting to ambush. Keep in mind that the hooks these lures typically come with are garbage. Buy Owner 4x strong trebles and land that fish of a lifetime once you hook it.
The next place your guide will take you is the vast kelp beds lying outside the island. Condition is important out here, as the last time I was at the island we had no current and the kelp didn’t bite. However, when the conditions line up, the fishing out here can be a sight to behold. This is where these huge schools of bass group up and you can catch 100 in an afternoon. The same soft plastics and harbaits work grat out here too, but the weedless versions MC makes can be deadly when paired with the proper size Owner Beast Hook. For 5in baits the 5/0 size works well and I bump up to the 7/0 or even 8/0 when fishing the larger baits. I’ve also noticed the Shimano WaxWing works great out at the kelp as its double hook works through kelp like a champ. The senior size in bone color is my favorite.
The last setting place you’ll be bass fishing is the shallow reefs and rockpiles on the lee of the island. Out of the wind and strong current, you can start to relax a little bit. The water is 10-20 feet deep with scattered stacks of rock all around making an incredible habitat for bass living in the skinny water. In places like this, put on a yellow/black or Army-green/red surface iron and cast in the lanes between each rock or boiler if you want to try something different. Keep a slow wind and have your jig lazily kick in the open water. You’ll watch the bass come out of the rocks and attack it right on the surface. If you do end up fishing a zone like this, rig up a natural looking soft plastic and ask your guide where a halibut might be.
During the Spring and Summer months with the best fishing usually taking place in July, the halibut fishing at Cedros can be just as good if not better than anything you’ll experience in the Channel Islands or Bay Area. However, the way in which you catch them here couldn’t be any more different. Up North, dropper loop with live bait is king. These are fish that are pressured year-round, so they typically live in deep water and become extremely wary of artificial presentations. Most the time putting something alive right in front of their face ends up being the only way to get a consistent bite. The halibut at Cedros are not pressured. Likely the only people who target them are the clients who have an unusual desire to spend their time on these tricky fish instead of the usual yellowtail program. Because of this, the fish act differently. Most of the halibut fishing here takes place in shallow water, 20 feet or less. This is where I’ll save the more expensive Coolbaits 1oz underspin and pair it up with a white or natural Viejos swimbait from MC. Cast out and watch until it hits bottom. It’s clear and shallow enough for you to do so. Bounce it up and start a steady retrieve, but don’t watch your lure. Keep your eyes focused on the area right behind it. All the sudden you’ll see a piece of the bottom shoot up and start following your bait. These are extremely curious fish, and they will inspect your bait before eating it. Tease them. Drop it back down then sharply bounce back up. Sometimes this reaction will get them to commit. Keep casting and varying your retrieve until you get one to bite. Repeat that motion and you can develop a pattern to get a good bite going. Make sure you backed off your drag from calico fishing and keep its head in the water until your guide is able to gaff it. It also isn’t necessary to drop down in line size to “finesse” them like you have to in local areas.
Seabass and Grouper
The big enigma that still looms over the island is how to consistently catch the tanker white seabass that frequent the kelp off the South end. There’s no doubt the big units stay at the Island year-round, as they’re seen on dive trips fairly regularly. However, getting them to bite is something even the locals have trouble with. A few seabass are caught each year doing the traditional Mexican method of making mackerel in the morning and pinning one on the back of a silver Crocodile, but its something you may have to devote your entire day to. It’s no secret that this is the best technique for catching trophy white seabass, but it seems like water conditions and time of day play the biggest role in the feeding patterns of these fish. From my experience, the biggest fish tend to bite in the dark or graylight, and without planning something ahead, you’ll miss this window by the time you make bait and are ready to fish.
The last rugged individual you’ll find hiding among the boulders and breakwater are broomtail grouper. The population at the island isn’t especially large, but what they lack in numbers they make up for in size. Back in 2016 Jeff Mariani landed a truly massive 108.6lb broomtail grouper that ate his surface iron mid-column. On a kayak! Read more about this record-breaking fish here. Groupers of a similar grade are caught every year with live bait and dropper loops right outside the harbor breakwater, and also with jigs and plastics by unassuming calico fishermen. I feel like it is something to try at the end of a productive day when you’ve had your fill of bass and yellows. It might become the highlight of your entire trip.
This island is filled with opportunity and it’s up to you what to make out of each day. Have fun, experiment, and revel in the fact that you’re fishing in areas that would make even Zane Grey stop and soak a bait.