The Seabass Chronicles

Zane Grey was a legendary writer of some of the best fishing stories ever written. His “Tales of Southern Rivers”, “Tales of Fishing Virgin Seas” and my all-time favorite “Tales of Swordfish and Tuna” are classics in the truest sense and I’m fortunate to have them share a treasured spot in my library. As with all of his books, I never tire of his brilliant discussions and glowing descriptions from back at the dawn of our sport. Although most of his writings deal with the power, glory and heartbreak of big game fishing all over the world, he also spent enough time at Catalina Island to capture the essence of the developing inshore fishery.

I can easily picture one of the crusty Avalon boatmen Zane Grey wrote about. He told how he carried his gear down to the gently surging harbor on a soft May morning, loaded his only passenger and then pushed off. Putting hardened hands to weathered wood and rowing out of the harbor, the oarsman would turn either up towards Long Point and Toyon Bay or down to the fish-rich and storied water’s off the famed East End of the Island. It was early in the 1900’s and sport-fishing was in its infancy.

As they left the harbor a single line would be let out, the outfit hand-held with a thumb on the spool to keep the bait in position and prevent over runs. A rigged flying fish would swim with an engaging wiggle just behind the skiff. The bait might be blasted by a “Leaping Tuna” as they called Bluefin or a “Zebra Fish”, striped marlin to us today, and either were a tremendous challenge. But more likely was steady action from yellowtail or white seabass, their chosen quarry.

I’ve read his impressive stories about “massive schools of white seabass, their backs just rippling the surface like a patch of breeze, shimmering in the sun like burnished bronze”. I’ve seen the old pictures showing huge catches of seabass to back up the stories and the fact their tackle was so crude by today’s standards make them all the more inspiring. I have to think Catalina in the early 1900’s had a bit more magic than exists today…those were special times.

Fast forward 50 years and we face a different world. After WWII the commercial effort for seabass was expanding rapidly and the catches were growing year by year until they suddenly collapsed in 1959. Something had happened to our waters creating profound change to our seabass fishery. It was probably a cumulative effect of many variables; too much pollution from our growing population, too many nets and explosive commercial exploitation of the sardines and mackerel which pressured the food sources for all our apex predators. These are some of the reasons and there are probably more. But regardless of the specific factors, the net result was the seabass population was reduced to just a fraction of its former glory. It would be years before we experienced some sense of normalcy again.

Fortunately, there were still a very few hold-over big fish to be caught at the Island. In the early 60’s there was far less specific knowledge about seabass than we have today but one thing was a given; when the big schools of squid showed up on the backside, off the famed Silver Canyon, the seabass were right there with them. And just like today; when the fish show up the fishermen are right there to target them.

My first introduction to fishing for seabass on the bait grounds came on an inky, black night aboard the venerable “Pacific Queen”, the same one that’s still running today. I boarded the “Seabass Special” about 8pm that night at the old Pacific Landing in Long Beach. We motored across to Catalina, around the East End and up the backside until we were off the two white-topped rocks on the beach, just a little below the Canyon in 14 fathoms. The harsh rattle of the anchor chain made an effective wakeup call as we got setup to start fishing.
The crew had the bait catching gear ready to deploy and shortly after the lights went out the squid came up. And the tankers were right there with it. The first guys with baits in the water started hooking fish and I was shocked by their size. It took a while before I got up the courage to get a bait in the water but it didn’t take long to get bit when I did. I had just cast out, my squid slowly sinking down through the tonnage of spawning squid under the lights when I got the bite.

After a short run I threw my reel in gear and felt those now-familiar headshakes. I watched helplessly as the line ripped out and the small drag howled in protest. But the thrill of victory was not to be mine, quickly shattered by a poorly tied knot. Capt Eddie McEwen was standing right next to me and I so clearly remember the look of disgust as he grabbed my line, held it up to the deck lights and saw the twisted curlicue at the end…sad evidence of excitement, haste and inexperience. Everything landed that memorable night was 40-60 pounds but none of the glory was mine. It was nearly 30 years later before I landed one similar to what I had probably hooked on that fateful trip in the dark of the night.

Through the late 60’s the catch rates continued to dwindle and by the 70’s the great schools were gone. I was fishing hard in those years, usually on the water several times a week, and we never caught a seabass of any size through all of the decade. And then as the years rolled by, the reports finally started to trickle in. I was working at Uniflite Yacht Sales at the time and my boss (and good friend) the late Paul Albrecht had taken out two of our other now departed friends, Charley Davis and Jed Welsh. They had made some bait somewhere, struggled through a tough Catalina day and then because they refused to quit losers tried the proverbial “One More Spot”. And it paid off…big time. They walloped the bass along with a handful of hefty yellows and a couple of seabass from a little known deep-water front side rock.

It was the start of the long road home for our beloved seabass.

By the mid 80’s we were finally starting to see positive signs of a slow comeback. Unfortunately, the gillnetters were also all too aware and the pressure on the fishery from the mesh was intense. I once watched helplessly as a netter pulled his gear that had been set across the mouth of Little Harbor on the back side. There were hundreds of seabass tangled in it, some were still alive and that was one net, one set and the Island was loaded with them. It was sickening and disheartening to watch a whole spawning school get obliterated.

Thankfully the gillnet initiative, Prop 132, was successful and in 1993 the inshore nets were finally banned. All of us fishing today owe a huge debt to our “poster child”, a seal with a piece of gillnet net cut deeply into its neck. That gruesome photo won the hearts (and votes) of non-anglers throughout the state and motivated them to help us rid the inshore waters of the indiscriminate killers. Today we are largely net free due to the hard work of so many from over 20 years ago.

Since the net ban, we’ve seen steady improvements in our inshore fisheries. The seabass were benefactors as well as the halibut, yellowtail, black seabass, sharks and rays plus a whole bunch more. As the recovery started in earnest at first it was smaller fish in shallow water. We scoured the beaches of the Island in pursuit, looking for a confluence of time, tide, current and off-color water. Collectively we called the right set of circumstances “Conditions” and much of how and where we fished was dependent on what we found. At first most of our fish were from 10-20 pounds and a 30# trophy was a standout accomplishment. Those of us on the fish were stoked for the increased availability.

With so many school-sized seabass much of our tackle was geared to the lighter side. For years I recommended a Calstar 800XL with a Shimano Calcutta 400 and 15# mono as the perfect shallow water setup. I even landed what was my personal best seabass at the time (51pounds) on the light stuff. I was very lucky on that special day but the exception doesn’t prove the rule; a point especially true today. Nowadays, in most of the places we fish, I don’t even want the light stuff out of the rod rack…way too many tankers around to tear it up.

Fortunately for us, we have new technology to deal with the recent influx of 50’s, 60’s and occasional 70’s. Today’s gear is far more advanced than even five years ago and the combination of better drags, fluorocarbon, braid, stronger hooks and the all-important knowledge of how to use them has revolutionized how we target tankers.

It was this increase in the average size of the seabass that got us wondering. Right around 2007, something had changed again at the Island. At first it was like “Who cares?” because the change seemed to be in our favor. The weight of the fish went up and why would we worry about what happened to all those school fish we had been catching? I remember one trip on my Parker with some special friends to the famed West Cove when we walloped the tankers in the morning up in 5 fathoms. Then I turned it over to a buddy so we could run over to check out Clemente for a while.

With not much happening there and a fortuitous radio call we came back across at warp speed in the late afternoon. We set up back on the outside “Alpha” spot and they were still biting and even bigger grade than what we had caught earlier. It was straight tankers, no small fish at all, the stuff from which lasting memories are made.

A few years later we were dealing with another new normal…a cold water pattern. The fact was brought clearly into focus at the Fred Hall Del Mar show after mid-March a couple of years ago. I had a customer stop by our booth and ask when the seabass limit would go to one fish per day. I was surprised and had to think about it for a few seconds before it dawned on me; it was already after March 15th and the limit was down to one. But no one had been complaining; there had been no three fish limits because no one had been catching anything.

In a normal year the spawning season would be well underway and the limit would go to one and commercial effort would be stopped to protect the fish while they are ganged up and stupid with thoughts of love. We certainly didn’t see that in 2010, 11 or 12 and most assuredly anything but last season. Since the first of the year there had been less than a couple of handfuls of seabass caught at the Island, a radical departure from what we used to think of as normal.

In the first edition of my Catalina book “In The Gray” I wrote at length about “The Fish of the April Moon” as the dark of the moon in April was the time the real volume of fish would show up and start to bite. The pattern has changed and we’ve not been so lucky the past few years but this is another season so we’ll have to see what tricks Mother Nature has in store for us.

I was recently talking to one of my good friends about fishing seabass. He is very knowledgeable about such things and I asked how he would characterize the past few years. In a second he had a perfect one word answer, “Inconsistent”. And I think that is exactly the right description. It’s hard to say if the reason is the increased light boat/seiner pressure on the squid grounds, the cold water pattern SoCal has been in or the internet providing lightning-fast dispersal of information which increases the boat pressure exponentially. Regardless, fishing seabass is radically different today.

For whatever the reason (or reasons) the schools of fish, when they do show up, don’t seem to be able to settle in and bite steadily for days at a time like they used to. They are constantly on the move, and every season is different, which continues to add to the challenge of fishing seabass. As an example, in 2012 the guys in up Monterey Bay had stellar fishing for tankers on the squid schools in the bay. In 2013 they expected a repeat but the bay loaded up with tonnage of anchovies, there was minimal squid and the seabass pulled a virtual no-show. Our big schools of beach fish went up the coast, cut across through the Channel Islands and then off to never-never land. We lost track of them and they were largely MIA for the fall. It’s that “Here today-Gone tomorrow” scenario is part of what fuels the fascination with the fish.

There is an undeniable but intangible quality about the magical, mystical, mythical white seabass.

Seabass Chronicles

And without question they can stir the atavistic nature of the hunter buried deep within us. Once you’ve tapped into it you’ll have an edge while acquiring the skills to stalk the seabass and ultimately catch them consistently. Then you’ll have attained the pinnacle of accomplishment for an aspiring inshore fisherman. With that enviable success you’ll be able to add your stories to the history of this great fish and the magic of fishing them in both Island and coastal waters.

Capt. Mark Wisch
Well-known California captain, writer, speaker and tackle shop owner, Capt. Mark Wisch has been helping anglers catch fish along the West Coast for decades. As an author, Mark has written three books, including “Between Two and Twenty Fathoms,” “In The Gray” and “Lessons from a Lifetime on...