I first fished for rock cod trip when I was 10 years old and I’ve been in love with the fishery ever since. At some point over the last 30 years, people stopped calling them “rock cod” and started calling them “rockfish,” but I don’t care what they call them, they are still one of my favorite species.
I got serious about fishing rock cod, sorry rockfish, in the early 90s when my friends and I fished them commercially at the Cherry Banks, approximately 100 miles off the coast of Long Beach, California. To a bunch of kids in our late teens and early twenties, it was heaven. Leaving the rest of the world behind, we’d fish offshore for multiple days, dropping 50-hook gangions (a long series of hooks) to great depths, sometimes more than 900 feet in the hopes of catching giant cod.
Sadly, the amazing fishery in those waters, like a lot of the California’s fisheries, has become nothing more than a fond memory due to the passing of draconian laws, similar to those that the anti-fishing groups are currently using to implement the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). But, short lived as my chance to enjoy the fishery was, I learned an awful lot about targeting rockfish.
When battling cod back then, our strategy was to carpet-bomb the schools of fish with an overwhelming show of baited hooks. Current laws only allow two hooks per rig, so that tactic has been replaced by something more akin to a tactical strike. It’s certainly more challenging to get the right bites when you’re limited to fishing two hooks, but with the proper gear, a little prep work and a sound fishing strategy, you can catch plenty of big fish and getting on a sport boat is one of the easiest ways to enjoy this fishery.
The first step to success is to equip yourself with the right gear. I fish a Shimano Trinidad 20 full of 65-pound Spectra matched with a Seeker Ulua 93H rod. You don’t need a $400 reel to fish for rockfish in California, but the high-efficiency gearing on a top-shelf reel makes it a lot easier to turn the handle when you’ve got a heavy fish on the line. Just about any heavy jig stick will work for fishing cod, but ideally you’ll want one that is somewhat parabolic, which will provide a cushion that’ll keep the fish from ripping off the hook as you wind them in.
If you’re still fishing mono for rockfish, you need to stop.
Mono stretches and the more line you have out, the more difficult it is to detect what’s happening at the business end of your line. Spectra’s lack of stretch allows you to feel every bite and get a positive hook-set no matter how deep you fish. Equally important, the thin diameter of braided line has less water drag than mono, so you can get your bait to the bottom faster with less weight and keep it on the bottom, even during fast drifts.
The next step is to make some rigs. If you’re fishing with the ones they sell in the tackle stores, you need to stop that too. Sure, they look great hanging from a shelf, but once you take them out of the package you’ll find that they’re nothing more than a tangled mess of swivels, beads, hooks and more hassle than they’re worth.
To read more about making your own rockfish rigs, visit www.bdoutdoors.com/article/rockfish-bottom-rigs.
With the prep work out of the way, it’s time to jump on your favorite sport boat and catch some fish. Choosing a spot at the rail is of utmost importance, so get down there early and take first dibs on a good spot.
Captains usually drift with all of the anglers lined up on one side of the boat, so ask a crewmember which side of the boat you will be fishing during the trip, then claim a location in the bow on that side.
The bow is the place to be. The fish finder’s transducer is usually directly under the wheelhouse, so you’ll be dropping on the marks that the captain is seeing rather than 60 feet behind them — that’s where the boys positioned in the stern will end up. Being in the bow also gives you the first crack at new fish since most boats drift bow first.
When I used to fish with long gangion rigs, I learned that not all rockfish hang out near the bottom. A 50-hook rig stretches almost 75 feet and is a pretty good indicator of where fish hang out in the water column. On a good drop, the top 20 hooks run 40-plus feet off the bottom and would get loaded with chili peppers and bank perch. The next 20 hooks (20 to 40 feet off the bottom) would catch salmon grouper or reds and the bottom 10 (right on the bottom) would either snag big cows and lings or small starry eyes and assorted what not. Unless you’re targeting big fish with big baits, you don’t necessarily want to fish with your baits sitting directly on the bottom. Down there, you have a much better chance of catching a little “what not” than you do of hooking a big fish. You’re only using two hooks, so you need to make them count.
To decide on how far off the bottom to fish just ask the captain… He’ll most likely be right behind you, sitting in the wheelhouse with his head sticking out of the window, and he’ll be more than happy to tell you how many turns of the reel handle you should fish off the bottom. You’ll be surprised at just how high rockfish will come off the bottom to feed.
The Southern California rockfish season ends on December 31, but the Mexican rockfish season is just getting started.
In the next So Cal Scene I’ll be interviewing Capt. Jaime Thinnes of Seasons Sportfishing about targeting rockfish south of the border.