The Dazzling Santa Barbara Channel Holds a Deep Secret
A Fabulous Fishery
by Captain David Bacon, Southern California Saltwater Editor
The Santa Barbara Channel is the most underutilized fishery on the Southern California coast. That means there's plenty of fat feisty fish just itching to first test your mettle and then dive right into your sack. Just step up to the rail and duke it out, Southern California stand-up style! Besides the fishing, fantastic seascapes and encounters with playful marine mammals offer plenty of excitement and satisfaction. This is the ultimate fun destination, and this article will serve as a formal introduction to a prolific fishery and enchanting Channel. Oh, and when you come for the fish, bring along your non-boating family and friends too. They'll find plenty of fun in the many beautiful seaside communities, while you're out on the water grinning ear-to-ear.
Let's explore the Channel and the myriad fishing opportunities…
Your options are limitless. On the far side of the Channel, the four Channel Isles offer spectacular scenery guaranteed to capture your heart and haunt your dreams, if you find time to enjoy it between stoic battles with hard-fighting fish. The mainland side of the Channel consists of 70 or so miles of thick kelp forests, long sandy beaches, shallow flats, rocky reefs, ledges and drop-offs, and deepwater structure. This is coastal fishing heaven. The entire food chain rattles loudly here, beckoning you to come take your place as the top link.
Captain David Bacon with a keeper halibut taken on a light leadhead and green swimbait from just inside the Santa Barbara Harbor
Photo: CAPTAIN DAVID BACON
The area's friendly sportfishing landings and private-charter operations like mine (WaveWalker Charters in Santa Barbara 805-895-3273), can take you to any destination throughout these fabled waters. The professional fishing skippers of the Channel have intimate knowledge of the topography of the area as well as the behavioral patterns of the various species of sportfish. A trip aboard a sportboat (either open-party or private-charter) gives the visiting or infrequent angler his or her best chance for success.
Harbor launch ramps, pier hoists (at Goleta and Gaviota), and beach launch spots offer plenty of options for fishing from a private vessel, whether it be a custom sportfisher, skiff, kayak, float tube, or personal watercraft. Shore, pier, and breakwater fishing spots with good access are spaced all along the coastlines of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. To find where the best bite is at any given time, just visit a local bait and tackle shop and ask a lot of questions.
The Channel can be logically divided into eastern and western halves. Ventura County lies along the eastern end of the Channel and boasts three public harbors: Port Hueneme, Channel Islands Harbor, and Ventura Harbor. These offer access to undersea canyons and rocky structure zones as well as vast and relatively shallow flats with halibut, sand bass, barracuda, bonito, and calico bass for the taking. The eastern end of the Channel Isles chain of four islands is within a short run from these harbors. Anacapa and Santa Cruz are beautiful islands surrounded by good fishing opportunities for calico bass, white Seabass, yellowtail, barracuda, and scads of shallow water rockfish.
The western end of the Channel lies within Santa Barbara County. One harbor, at Santa Barbara, serves as the jumping off point for exploring the entire wild west end, where fishing improves with every westward mile traveled. The mainland coast between Santa Barbara and Point Conception features stunning vistas, old-growth kelp forests, and enough structure spots to keep an armada of boats busy catching fish. Yet fishing pressure is surprisingly light because of the vastness of the area served by the Santa Barbara Harbor. This magnificent stretch of coast boasts some famous calico bass hotspots such as Naples Reef, Tajiguas, and Hollister Ranch. Halibut are regularly caught off of Santa Barbara, Goleta, Ellwood, and Hollister Ranch. Sand bass, white Seabass, barracuda, and bonito roam as they please.
The westernmost islands, Santa Rosa and San Miguel, are total-quality fish factories which consistently produce incredible catches of lingcod, red snapper and other rockfish, huge calico bass, white Seabass, whitefish, and halibut. Both of these islands are haunted by halibut of barn door proportions. The weather doesn't always allow trips to the western end of the Channel, and even on a good day it is important to keep an eye on conditions and always be ready to tuck your outdrive between your legs and run for cover. But when conditions are favorable, this is the most consistently productive fishing area along the entire Southern California coast.
Let's talk about specific fish and techniques …
Drift fishing with live bait and light tackle is a favored way to target halibut. Working spoons, jigs, and plastics along the bottom will also produce. But an even more effective technique was developed locally by commercial halibuteers who fish both sides of the Channel. We call it “bounce-balling”, and while it takes a lot of effort, the results justify the work. We tie the mainline to a three way swivel, and a light leader to a 2lb ball sinker from the second ring of the swivel. From the third ring, we run a four foot leader to a flasher blade and then a two or three foot leader to a hoochy rigged with a treble hook. We optionally use a sliding hook rig with the hoochy and pin on a whole squid for extra attraction. Then we slow-troll over a sandy bottom at depths up to maybe 70 feet, bouncing the bottom frequently with the ball sinker. This is a dynamite technique for hooking some huge “flatties”.
On halibut charters, I fish Santa Rosa or San Miguel islands. On a half-day trip, coastal all-day trip, or when conditions don't allow an island run, I fish off of Summerland, Santa Barbara Harbor, Goleta, or Ellwood. When I'm way up the coast near Point Conception, I take a shot at the big halibut off Hollister Ranch, which doubles as both a hot fishing area and world-class surfing destination accessible only by boat.
Calico bass rank high on many anglers' favorite fish list, and this Channel is definitely the place to target them. Santa Barbara is California's calico capitol. Those miles and miles of dense kelp forests along our mainland coast are alive with calicos. Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands are home to the biggest bass I've seen. Urchin divers who work the island kelp beds confirm what my fishing experience already tells me. There are double-digit weight calicos aplenty in those kelp beds and along the shallow reefs.
Fishing for calicos is a blast. My usual technique is to anchor my charterboat, the WaveWalker, just up current from a patch of kelp, shallow reef, or boiler rock. Then I begin chumming with live and chunked anchovies, and chopped squid. Commercially available buckets of chum, such as Chunks by Grosse Industries, will also work. Then we begin casting live baits right into the kelp or next to structure where these fish hide. Once a steady chum line is established from the boat to the kelp or structure, the bass will begin to swim up the chum line and into open water. That's when we nail some bragging' size bass on light tackle, say in the 10lb to 15lb range, because in open water a bass has nowhere to go but more open water.
Once that kind of wide-open bite develops, we toss plastic tails on light leadheads. My favorite brands are Fish Trap, AA, and Big Hammer. My favorite colors and body types change with conditions and which natural forage fish are in the vicinity, but I try to use “match the hatch” logic. Hard body lures also work well when the bass are in open water. System Trading, Inc. (STI) offers a highly productive line of darters, jigging spoons and flutter spoons with good action and vibrant colors. UFO Lures “Pro-lite” topwater jigs are also proven producers.
The Channel Islands see some great white Seabass bites. We've caught them to over 70 pounds, and fish in the 30lb to 40lb range are common during a hot bite. Twenty pounders are considered schoolies. These are hard-fighting fish and culinary delights.
A 30 pound white Seabass taken by David Siegel on light tackle off Santa Cruz Island
Photo: CAPTAIN DAVID BACON
Seabass freely roam the entire Channel and seem to change their habits at will, so finding them can be difficult. For advance planning purposes however, there are some general patterns to plan around. On Seabass charters, I like to be fishing at dawn, in an area holding squid, at depths of 80 to 120 feet, over a sand, gravel, or mud bottom. Then by mid-morning I move in shallower and fish in 20 to 40 foot water over a sand bottom, but in the vicinity of reefs and kelp. Those are a lot of factors to put together, but that level of planning is what frequently pays off in terms of grand battles and delicious Seabass filets.
When actively foraging, these fish will eat a variety of offerings such as live baitfish, plastics, and lures. There are two standard techniques used for Seabass: One is a sliding sinker and a large hook with one or two whole live or frozen squid. Soak that bait just off the bottom, and impart a little action if the squid aren't live and active. The other standard offering is a white jig with whole squid pinned on the treble hook. Work this rig actively (and I do mean actively) just off the bottom with an up and down jigging motion.
These are big mean prehistoric-looking denizens of deepwater rocky environs, with an attitude to match the description. They are aggressive, territorial and voracious. Oh, and they taste great! Speaking personally, any powerful fish that fights valiantly and pleases the palate ranks high on my list of favorite fish. In my vernacular, any lingcod over 10 lbs is a “lingasaur”. Once you've caught one, I'm sure you'll agree they deserve that nickname.
During the autumn months, lingcod move up along undersea ridges into shallower water to spawn and feed. They will commonly follow and sometimes attack smaller hooked fish. It's quite a sight to see a huge lingcod shadowing a medium size fish right up to boat side. They waste no time gulping live baits and jigs worked around their rocky structures, frequently hitting just as the bait reaches bottom. On light tackle, these are strong fighters.
For the rest of the year they move back down deep, and we fish for them in 200 to 600 foot depths. I'm sure there are some even deeper, but it's too much work to fish that deep. The key to finding them is habitat. Look for radical rocky structure, because they like to lie at the entrance of a rocky lair and snatch forage fish that happen along.
Large lively baits such as sardines and mackerel catch plenty of lings, but the best live bait of all is a sand dab caught from a nearby deepwater sandy area. Jigs are also a popular way to specifically target big lingasaurs. Large chrome jigs are favored, but patterns to match the rockfish they eat are also productive. Actively pumping a heavy jig in water this deep is hard work. There is a product I like which takes the strain off of your arms and puts it on your shoulder allowing you to fish longer and work the jig more actively. It's called the FishinStrap by Advanced Add-Ons & Accessories Enterprises. Whatever terminal rig is used, it is necessary to put that rig right down into the rocks where these fish lie in wait. Those rocks will snag and claim a few rigs, but the results make it a worthwhile investment.
The lingcod's domain is shared by great swarms of rockfish. That is a generic term for a number of different species, most of which are called “red snapper” in restaurants and fish markets. After targeting lingcod for awhile, one freezer-filling option is to tie on a multi-hook leader (called a gangion), drop down and reel up several of these tasty fish.
The Santa Barbara Channel is as far down the Pacific coast as king (Chinook) salmon travel in appreciable numbers. This fishery is taken quite seriously by anglers along the Ventura and Santa Barbara counties coastline. The reason is obvious as soon as one is boated. These are magnificent fish - chrome on the outside and delicious on the inside. If you close your eyes and pop in a mental image of the ultimate fish, it is probably a salmon.
From March through mid-summer, hardcore salmoneers are trolling or mooching in areas where massive bait balls are present. Trolling is considered the more effective technique, although it takes considerable more effort and tackle than mooching. A complete trolling rig includes a weight release (or use of a downrigger), several feet of leader to a flasher blade, and a few more feet of leader to a lure or bait holder. Mooching involves anchoring or drifting over big bait balls, and soaking baits using light line, a small hook, and a splitshot or sliding sinker.
At the eastern end of the Channel, Mugu and Hueneme canyons tend to hold fish. Most of the fishing action takes place off of Carpinteria and just above Santa Barbara. A number of spots further west hold fish as well, but aren't heavily worked because most folks fish the areas closer to harbor.
SUMMER SURFACE GAMESTERS (BARRACUDA, BONITO, ETC.)
Now this is fun! These fish are best targeted with the “run and shoot” game plan. The idea is to watch for birds wheeling and diving, which marks a spot where these surface feeding fish have driven a big baitball right up to topwater. Then run towards the spot at high speed, slide to a stop at the edge of the action, and fire casting jigs right into the midst of the melee. Let the jig sink for about 5 seconds and use a medium speed retrieve. When your jig stops and your rod loads up, the adrenaline rush begins. These are highly charged fish and fight with wild abandon. You'll see.
Live bait tempts these fish just fine, but it is so much more productive and downright fun to sling artificials such as jigs, spoons, and feathers. A light to medium action rod makes the fight that much more memorable.
These fish will serve well on the dining room table, but preparation is the key. Such highly oxygenated flesh must be properly taken care of aboard the boat immediately after the hot bite. Fillet, or gut and gill the fish. Then put them on ice and keep them there.
An open invitation to visit us…
Santa Barbara is a world-class and world-renowned resort destination in a postcard perfect setting. The Ventura County coast is also a wonderful place to spend some time. Waterfront activities such as whale watching, surfing, jet skiing, and parasailing are always available. The coastal communities all along the dazzling Santa Barbara Channel are quaint and friendly. The sights and experiences available inland, throughout our mountains and valleys, are worth taking a vacation for. So come for the fishing and take time to revel in the rest of what we have to offer, or, come for the rest of what we have to offer and take time to experience the fishing. In fact, bring along the entire clan and let each one follow his or her own instincts. Those who choose to fish will happily discover the deep secret of the Santa Barbara Channel… a fabulous fishery in a truly enchanting setting.