Guide To Channel Islands: Outer Islands

Guide To Channel Islands: Outer Islands

The Outer Limits: Outlier Channel Islands San Clemente, San Nicolas and Santa Barbara feature rugged and remote on the water adventure

Clemente, San Nic, SBI are nicknames for the Channel Islands on the edge. San Clemente Islands is the setting for the most strategic military training complex in United States waters, San Nicolas a missile tracking/proving ground and Santa Barbara a rookery for pelicans and sea lions. All three provide good anchorages and access to great fishing for everything from rockfish to yellowtail and billfish – not to mention the outer banks of the Southern California Bight.

All three islands are perfect for loading up the YETI bags and coolers with gear, beverages, ice and grill-bound proteins and pointing the bow for yet another adventure into the briny Southern California wilds that make the freeways and teeming masses of the mainland as meaningless as a well-swatted mosquito. Let’s take these gems one by one:


How rugged is San Clemente Island? Clemente is where Navy SEALs come to learn how to blow things up both under and above the water, where warships send missiles from far beyond the horizon to blast the island’s southeastern hills, nuclear submarines prowl, sonars ping and the afterburners of fighter jets blare thunder as they shoot towards the stratosphere after launching from the island’s airstrip.

While you might glimpse the simulated city built for millions of dollars, what you won’t see are condos or seaside mansions. The population of the Navy-owned island rarely tops 1,000 residents. There’s a whole lot of nothing – and the fish like it.

The aspect of San Clemente Island you’ll see from your vessels is soft blonde quickly rising hillsides acting as backdrop to indentions and points large and small sweeping eastward along the south shore from West Cove down to China Point. Massive Pyramid Cove buttresses the eastern end of the island, with Desperation Reef offshore. Swing out and around iconic Pyramid Head and up the front (mainland facing) side and the terrain turns sheer with rockslide beaches and steep ravines highlighting the cliff walls up the coast past Purse Seine, White Rock and Gold Bluff and slopes lower nearing the permanent closure abutting Wilson’s Cove and up and around into Northwest Harbor and Castle Rock, with The Nine just offshore of the tip of the island.


San Clemente Island is 21 miles long and both sides are fishy. Run the 50 plus miles from your SoCal port and shoot for one end of the island or another to start on.

Head for Northwest Harbor (1) and you can catch big calico bass in tight along the kelp or make a run out to the The Nine (2) for yellowtail or tuna. Be aware the area from Castle Rock out to The Nine (3) is an active shooting range and is often closed to boat traffic. Around the corner into West Cove (4) and The Runway (5) you will find a mixture of kelp beds, islets and beaches that can produce white seabass, halibut and calico bass, with yellowtail on the outer edges. Deeper water reefs kick out reds and lingcod. That’s the reality all the way down the backside as you work down past Eel Point (6), Seal Cove (7) and Lost Point (8). Anchor or motor/drift along many kelp edges, points and submerged reefs. Keep an eye on depth and look out for shallow boiler rocks. Always keep an eye toward the big water outside for swells – and birds working above the yellowtail schools.

If you want to head southeast along the front of Clemente, you have to skirt the Wilson’s closure clearly marked on your chart. It’s almost like the hand of nature took a cake knife and sliced cleanly down Clemente’s front side. What the stretch down to Pyramid Head (9) offers is subtle topography and quick drop-offs into deep water that hold lots of bait and bring schools of yellowtail in tight to areas like Gold Bluff (10) and White Rock (11). The marlin, too, come in close and the Mackerel Bank (12) is just one of the many offshore high spots that lurk just back into the waters of the Gulf of Santa Catalina.

Pyramid Cove (13) might be the best natural anchorage in all of California. Stretching from Pyramid Head to China Point (14), Pyramid is protected from all but storms and swells that push from the south. The Cove is the perfect jumping off place to hit the bluefin tuna on the 381, Cortez and Tanner Banks, or head down the San Clemente Canyon or to the inner banks for yellowfin, swordfish, marlin and kelp paddies holding dorado and yellowtail. Fishing in Pyramid Cove itself is excellent at times for seabass, yellowtail and calico bass. It’s not unusual for the squid to float under the lights just after the last steak is pulled from the barbecue.


SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND IS DANGEROUS! San Clemente Island is first and foremost a military installation where billions of dollars of equipment and manpower are put to the test in live fire training. Closures and restrictions are posted on and updated regularly. Some boaters choose to give the island a try despite posted closures. They are often turned back by patrol boats and helicopters. Heed all requests to leave and remember you are simply burning your own tax money – besides fuel.  


San Nicolas Island is the king of isolation, a 22.73 square mile touch of grey on the edge of the North Pacific, the most remote of the Channel Islands. Operated by the Navy and part of the Pacific Missile Range, San Nic is a weapons testing and training facility with an airstrip and a cluster of buildings. The indigenous tribe living on the island for thousands of years was removed by missionaries a century ago.

There is one Marine Protected Area, a State Marine Reserve surrounding Begg Rock nine miles from the island. Before that Begg Rock was a target.


Want to get away? Consider this desolate, stark beauty of a Channel Island an outer bank out of water. San Nicolas offers shelter and easy access to excellent rockfish action that has been boosted by regulation changes that opened up deeper waters to fishing. (Anglers should consult California Department of Fish and Wildlife regulations for current status. Waters surrounding San Nic are part of the Cowcod Conservation Area.).

AsAs seemingly small as the island is, San Nic is the iceberg above the surface of a shallow water shelf that attracts bait and everything from whitefish to tuna. Yellowtail can be found along the drop-offs (1) on dropper loop and yo-yo rigs, and calico bass fishing along the kelp beds can be excellent with the right conditions, so of course white seabass can be found. A sandy shelf off the East End (2) is prime halibut habitat. Bluefin and marlin get up in the San Nicolas Basin (3) below the island, with the Tanner Basin adjacent. Anchorage is in the Dutch Harbor (4) area on the East End of San Nicolas. Be aware of military restrictions that currently require vessels to anchor one mile offshore except in approved emergency situations.  


Call beautiful Santa Barbara Island the eye of the tiger in the Channel Islands chain. There are times when all the aqueous life in the Southern California Bight seems to be within range of SBI. And the island and surrounding waters (which famously includes the Osborne Bank) are within range of every port in SoCal. Boats headed out of harbors from Santa Monica Bay on up to Ventura have the straightest shot. This is important, since the ocean gets big around Santa Barbara Island, and not having to run straight into the swell going home or on the way out is a major factor in fishing plans.

Once arrived, the southeast corner SBI offers ample anchorage in waters protected from prevalent winds and swells. Most of the anchorage is also located in the State and Federal Marine Reserve that takes up fully a quarter of the island. Santa Barbara Island is part of the Channel Islands National Park, and all islands within that designation have MPAs with corresponding regulations in adjacent Federal waters.


From Sutil Island (1) up to the northwest corner (2) of Santa Barbara Island you will find a variety of coves, exposed rocks, rock/kelp combos and underwater ridges that hold white seabass, halibut, calico bass and yellowtail. Sometimes the bite is a well-kept secret, other times it’s a zoo. When you’re the only boat there and the bite is going off – well there is no better feeling.

Danger often lurks with beauty and the many shallow hard bottom extensions above and below the waters of Santa Barbara Island and its satellite Sutil Island are both fish magnets and navigational hazards. Rogue waves can and have taken lives of mariners in these waters. The loss of protected fishing waters removed by the island’s MPAs has been felt by the fishing community, yet there are plenty of opportunities to be found at the island and conservation of our natural resources is paramount to anglers.

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