Guide to Catalina Island

Guide to Catalina Island

Catalina Island. A backyard adventure paradise that lies just 20-miles off Southern California’s coastal shores.

Remarkable as all the islands in the Channel Islands are, none has as rich and deep a history as Catalina Island. The traditions, techniques, and legends of modern sportfishing are intertwined within the island’s lore and the fantastic access to world-class saltwater angling around the island continues to produce epic catches.

The island was first discovered by the Spanish in the 1500s. Starting in the late 1800s a series of wealthy owners focused efforts to create a tourist destination on two prime harbor areas on the front side (mainland facing) of the island, especially in the protected cove of southeastern corner of Catalina that is home to Avalon and its famous Tuna Club, Casino and Green Pleasure Pier. 

The Two Harbors area towards the West End of the island (all the Channel Islands trend east to west) was first developed by the Banning brothers as a hunting and fishing destination, with a stagecoach line connecting to Avalon. The brothers’ Catalina Island Company also developed Avalon beaches and built the city’s Green Pier, which is still weighing fish.

William Wrigley, Jr. used his chewing gum fortune to buy the company and the island from the brothers in 1919 and he and his family invested in island infrastructure and Avalon as the focus of Catalina tourism. In 1972 the Catalina Island Conservancy land trust was created, steward to 88 percent of the arid island’s habitat – although that includes a watery interface with 62 miles of undeveloped coastline studded with pristine coves and beaches.


Frontside, backside, east end and west end are the parameters that define Catalina Island fishing. At about 22 miles long and 8 miles wide, the island seems much larger when fishing up close for calico bass, white seabass and yellowtail, smaller when offshore trolling for marlin or out at the Farnsworth.

The best part is that Catalina also feels completely removed from the millions of people who inhabit Southern California. Sit on the anchor on the backside and only a slight glow etches the inky black night, the ocean ablaze with squid lights, the sky with stars.

The resurgence of bluefin tuna fishing along the coast of California that has followed nearly a decade of stricter regulations for all forms of fishing the game fish brought the tuna back to the island in recent years, with schools of the big tuna showing along the backside in the fall.

Catalina is an extremely seasonal fishery, much like the mainland pinning a season to a certain time of year can be highly variable. Bait availability best defines the season, with the appearance of spawning squid aggregations part of the late fall/early winter and the late winter/spring fishing for white seabass and yellowtail. Warming waters bring migrating schools of yellowtail, followed by the swordfish and eventually – late July and August maybe – striped marlin and yellowfin and bluefin tuna just offshore.

YETI Bucket rockcod

Fishing success depends on conditions no matter where you are and the extremes of that fact are in evidence at this island like nowhere else in the Channel Islands. Catalina can go completely calm under a clear hot sun with 40 feet of water visibility and no current – and no bites. A giant south swell from far away in the tropics can blow up what were perfect conditions.

The best conditions are found on either side of the tops and bottoms of the tides when uphill and downhill current set in. You can watch water color change from clean to a perfect seabass green with the change of the tide. An afternoon breeze in line with a downhill current can lay down a kelp bed and bring the yellowtail and calico bass up chasing bait. You want to fish into the grey of morning and into the dark of night.


Starting on the East End just below Avalon’s Lover’s Cove closed area and around the corner to Church Rock (1) there are excellent edges, beaches and drop-offs that hold bass barracuda, bonito, yellowtail and white seabass. The Ridge (2) that extends east off the island is an excellent area to look for floating kelps and pelagic fishes.

From Church Rock up to the closure above China Point (3) is a mixed reef, point and sand environment that offers everything on the California fishing plate, with squid grounds outside and sand bass and halibut in the sand off Silver Canyon (4).

Above the closure that ends near Ben Weston Point (5) is another multi-environmental mix of hard bottom structures and sand beaches that includes Little Harbor (6), which has a campground, and Cat (Catalina) Harbor (7), which itself has protections, but is surrounded by great fishing spots that stretch all the way up to the West End. Names like Iron Bound (8), Ribbon Rock (9), Eagle Rock (10) and West End High Spot (11) come to mind. This top area usually gets the worst of the weather – and the best of the conditions.

Around the corner and you are on the front side and the Johnson Rocks (12) is just that, a good stretch of fishing hard bottom. Down the line to the Arrow Point (13) closure there are beautiful beaches and kelp beds (14), as is the case below the closure. During the summer this stretch is very much a reminder that mainland Southern California is so close – the rest of the year not so much.


As with all the Channel Islands you’ll need to research online and refer to your chart plotter while fishing to avoid the areas of Catalina that are closed to fishing as part of California’s array of Marine Protected Areas.

The Catalina array of closures is particularly difficult. Those designated as Marine Reserves are easy to interpret – you can’t fish anywhere inside the lines.

The Marine Conservation Area encompassing the Farnsworth Bank allows the use of lures and baits fished on the surface, spearfishing and round haul seining in the outside section, for example, but on the inside the hook and line crowd is restricted to trolling for certain species.


Many years of fishing Catalina Island has resulted in a proven strategy. First, load up the YETI Tundra coolers with plenty of food, beverages and ice and leave the dock in time to arrive at your chosen Catalina fishing destination before dark. (If you have acquired a Multi-Day Fishing Trip Permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, you must leave the dock before noon for that day to qualify as a fishing day.)

Arriving with plenty of daylight left helps you not only get set up safely for the night, it can also allow you to pick up on visual cues as to conditions and bait availability. Navigating Catalina at night is tricky for even the most experienced boaters with the best electronics, so be safe.

Be sure to keep your night spot honest with a couple baits deployed and the reels on clicker in the rod holder when you fix up dinner and catch some shuteye. Definitely be up at least an hour before dawn and start fishing hard. What you do after light is a big decision, i.e. stick on the squid grounds through the tide or run to another spot tighter to the beach that might have the right conditions.

The hunt is on!

There is also the chance that Catalina was just a good place to fish and spend the night before you head for offshore opportunities or another island.

Either way, may good luck and good conditions await you.


Catalina Island is a dream destination for private vessels of all kinds. Protected by a location deep within the Southern California Bight, an east/west orientation and many points and coves, the island is perfect for a day trip and offers safe overnight anchorages for a variety of conditions. The north/northeast Santa Ana winds most common in the fall are potentially dangerous.

Daily passenger ferry service to Avalon is available from Marina del Rey, San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach and Dana Point. Catalina Express in Long Beach offers trips to Two Harbors.


Catalina Island has a network of hiking and bicycling trails, several campgrounds, dive instruction and outfitting, hotels and rental units, restaurants and bars, kayak and paddleboard rentals, and 700 rental moorings. A closely managed hunting program keeps that heritage going. A network of roads webs the island. The majority of reservations, permits, etc. are accessed through these two entities:



Outdoor journalist Rich Holland has spent his life chasing the next bite and offers a fisherman's perspective on any topic.