Guide to Channel Islands: The Crown Jewels

Guide to Channel Islands: The Crown Jewels

Crown Jewels of the Channel Islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel

Strung like an offshore necklace across the Southern California Bight from Point Mugu to Point Conception and recognized for beauty and ecological diversity with the designation of Channel Islands National Park, the islands called Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel offer an unmatched opportunity for boat-based adventures.

Positioned at the north end of the Bight, the mainland facing (generally north-facing) sides of these Channel Island are much more exposed to the weather than islands to the south, thanks to the west to northwest winds and swells that move the through the gap off Point Conception. A calm morning often turns into a stiff afternoon blow in the Santa Barbara Channel that separates the island and mainland. Steady winds to 30 mph are common at Rosa and Miguel. While weather always must be accounted for, let’s just say the northern Channel Islands call for more accounting.

The challenges facing the private boater only increase the rewards. National Park boating concessionaire Island Packers ferries out people and even kayaks, yet nothing matches a trim sportfisher when it comes to unlocking the secrets of these islands, especially when an inflatable, kayak, or paddleboard is added for easy beach access. What is called for is planning and the best of gear, like the trusty YETI Tundra hard cooler(s) or Panga series waterproof duffels and backpacks. And there should always be enough food, beverages, and water in the YETI coolers to overnight if necessary – if that’s not part of the plan!

The seafaring Chumash lived on and fished these islands long before Europeans appeared. This northern portion of the Channel Islands has both the largest islands, an island that is three islets and the closest distance from the mainland shore. The wealth of habitat and sea life above, below, and in between the island and surrounding ocean is an amazing heritage well worth preserving.

And enjoying. These islands have it all: kayaking, surfing, diving and fishing. Lots of fishing. The March 1 rockfish opener kicks off the annual fishing season. Rockfish, whitefish and sheepshead fill a lot of coolers, so bring the big YETI. Generally, the northern islands are a month or two behind the spring-summer schedule for spawning activities and migrations compared to those in the warm water of the Southern Bight. For instance, the first full moon closest to July 1 usually sees the white seabass action turn on. From spring to fall yellowtail and calico bass fishing can be epic for big fish, especially when the squid is around, although sardines, yo-yo iron, surface iron, and soft plastic swimbaits. The late summer/early fall sees all the migratory predators like bluefin tuna and marlin pile up against the natural boundary formed by the islands and their associated underwater banks. Needless to say, there are huge great white sharks (protected from taking and targeted fishing) and mako sharks. The entire food chain is present.

Get out there!


Anacapa Island misses out on being the smallest Channel Island thanks to Santa Barbara Island. Since both are of volcanic origin, the two islands have been more susceptible to erosion over millions of years. Yet a case could be made that Anacapa is the three smallest islands since it actually consists of three islets called East, Middle, and West.

An island by any name is just an island. Or is it?

From the water, Anacapa can look much larger than barely a square mile of land stretched 4 miles from tip to tip. Get up close to West Island in the Cat Rock area and the rocks loom large, at East Fish Camp the island tails to the east into infinity. Approach straightaway from a coastal port and the cutaway coves triple the size of the island, head towards Cruz or Rosa and Anacapa could be a single sea stack. The Chumash call the island Anypakh or Anyapax, which translates to mirage or illusion. It is the only Channel Island without a Spanish name, eluding discovery until George Vancouver marked the chart with a sounded-out spelling that evolved into the current usage of Anacapa.


Anacapa Island is bursting with life, from sea lions and seals to the largest nesting populations of pelicans and Western gulls in the world. Although the entire northern side of the island is protected to varying degrees by no-take, partial-take, and seasonal no-entry closures, excellent fishing opportunities abound around the island. Be sure to visit the Dept. of Fish & Wildlife’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) page to brush up on the regulations and boundaries to stay legal and avoid a ticket.

Yellowtail fishing can be excellent all around the island, including in the State Marine Conservation area (SMCA) on the north side of West Anacapa from Frenchy’s Cove (1) to the west end. White seabass are also regular visitors and will sometimes bite in big numbers in the late spring into early summer below the East End Light (2) and famed Arch Rock.

As for the southern side of the island, hard bottom structure, shelves, ledges, and kelp forests run the length of the backside (3) of Anacapa and hold reef fish and bigger gamefish alike. When the current runs downhill (towards the east) in the same direction as the wind, the place comes alive.


Santa Cruz Island is simply a magical place and as the largest Channel Island (and largest in California) has drawn attention from humans for ages. Any island that has a Smuggler’s Cove obviously has a history, once including a village of 2,000 to 3,000 Chumash. Restoration, preservation and recreation is the modern reality. The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service share ownership of the island.

Well-protected Scorpion Anchorage on the front side of the island draws a steady stream of visitors from the mainland via Island Packer’s vessels. Hiking and kayaking are the big draws for the non-anglers, with the many sea caves a big attraction. Scorpion is a no-take Marine Reserve.


The large size and hooked shape of the island provide good anchorages on both the north and south sides. Starting west from the Scorpion closure line near Potato Harbor (1) and into Chinese Harbor (2) and up to Prisoners (3) is an extremely fishy area.

On the far eastern side of the Scorpion closure San Pedro Point (4) beckons, and from there on around through Yellowbanks (5) all the way to the Gull Island (6) closure there are kelp beds and hard bottom that hold potential for white seabass, yellowtail and calico bass.

Unlike the steep drop-offs close offshore along most of the island, the westernmost tip of Santa Cruz composing Kinton Point (7), Fraser Point (8), and West Point (9) work with adjacent Santa Rosa Island to create a shallow fishbowl hosting world-record size California halibut to go with great fishing for other game fish species.


The second-largest of the Channel Islands, Santa Rosa has more of a ‘traditional’ shape and orientation, rounded with distinct compass points. Boaters have been visiting Rosa for at least 13,000 years, the carbon dating of the Pleistocene skeleton unearthed on Santa Rosa Island called the Arlington Springs Man. At that time – during the ice age – the theory is coastal waters were a migratory path south from Siberia.

You want to migrate yourself out to Santa Rosa Island. Incredible white sand beaches, shallow water rockfishing, Torrey Pine studded hills, giant halibut, cliffs and bays, monster white seabass, hiking, amenity (drinking water) accessible camping, and backcountry beach camping, surfing, diving are all on offer. Just don’t go with the idea that Rosa is unexplored or even ‘uninhabited’ territory. Go with respect. Locals have been hanging out here for a long, long time.


Becher’s Bay (1) on the northeast side of the island has good anchorages in both corners, a white sand beach suitable for shore landing in the right conditions, and a pier to access the campground. There is potable water available onshore. The fishing can be very good at times for halibut and white seabass, usually when the squid are nesting. Once again, be sure to check the MPA regulations to stay outside the closed areas. Fishing can also be very good from East Point (2) to the boundary of the South Point Marine Reserve (3) for calico bass, yellowtail, and white seabass.

The north side of Santa Rosa Island has excellent shallow water rock fishing, with Talcott Shoals (4) a well-known location. But there are many. Rockfish, sheephead and whitefish are abundant. Sandy Point (5) on the west end is, well, sandy and another halibut spot. Do you recall it often blows 30 knots out here, with nothing to block most prevailing wind swells and groundswells except island contours? Nature takes care of its own, one way or another. Take care of yourself and your passengers, be safe and have fun.


San Miguel is an island where you can see a calico bass and a vermilion rockfish hovering in the same kelp strands just below the surface, hike to where five species of pinniped haul out and breed, spot a fossil forest, witness the recovery of native plants on once overgrazed land and take part in a waterman’s array of sports. It’s beautiful, raw, exposed and at the same time surrounded by life.

The westernmost and wide open bare-chest exposed of the Channel Islands, Miguel also has perhaps the best natural anchorage – Cuyler Harbor – and is the closest island to Point Conception and correspondingly within reach of Santa Barbara Harbor (also a popular start point for trips to Rosa).


If you get out to San Miguel and the conditions are fishable, just fish where there isn’t a reserve and you should catch quality rockfish. If fishable means some wind and a sea running, then meter the deeper spots and drift for big reds and lingcod. If the swell is down and wind manageable, the inside shallow stones and kelp are accessible and light lines and lures will get lit up. There is a sand and stone interface and that means halibut, with some of the best of it away from the sea lion and seal rookery beach closures around Point Bennett.

San Miguel Island is a journey well worth taking.


Two excellent resources are the National Parks App — get the app, search the Channel Islands in the find park section and download what you need – and the Island Packers Cruises website Also be sure to review the DFW’s MPAs page to know where you can and can’t fish.

Island Packers Cruises provides transportation to all the Channel Islands in the National Park, and will take you and your kayak (depending on size and construction) to Santa Cruz Island. The rub is they drop you off in an area where you can’t fish and it’s a long paddle out of the Reserve. On the plus side, while the above sources focus on non-fishing activities, the information provided makes it much easier to understand where you need to go if wetting a line or dropping into the water with a spear gun or lobster bag is your ultimate goal.

Don’t worry. Your goal is in reach.

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