Wintertime Fishing Heats up the SoCal Coast

By Capt. David Bacon, a.k.a. "Capt. WaveWalker"

Southern California winters are warm but the fishing gets hot. If staying comfortable and keeping hard-fighting fish on your line are high priorities, the SoCal coast is your kind of place. Storm fronts come roaring down the coast periodically, but quickly give way to the sunshine and palm tree weather we've built a reputation for. Then it is time to go fishing for a surprising variety of fish.

Some of the best tasting fish are wintertime warriors. Red snapper are popular table fare in restaurants everywhere. There are actually more than a dozen similar species (most are members of the sebastes family) of fish which are generically called "red snapper" in fish markets and restaurants. In fishing circles we collectively call them "rockfish", because they congregate and feed near rocky structure and we catch them all with the same basic techniques. We commonly catch our limit (15 rockfish) from late Autumn through early Spring. They can be found and caught year-round, but we usually target them from November until about April.

Another magnificent winter warrior is the lingcod. These big mean prehistoric-looking fish have plenty of sharp teeth and a very bad attitude. Any lingcod over ten pounds that comes aboard my 6-PAK charterboat, the WaveWalker, I call a "lingasaur". You'll understand why when you see one come aboard. By the way, lingcod are one of the best tasting fish in the sea. Any fish that fights well and tastes great ranks very high on my list of favorites.

Tackle and technique for catching rockfish and lingcod is fairly standard all along this coast. In deeper water, say over 100 foot depths, we drift over rocky areas and drop a line down as we pass over concentrations of fish or perfect fish-holding habitat. Three terminal rigs will cover most situations:

Multi-hook gangions with a weight at the bottom are the most common rig, and tend to fill out a bag limit fast since multiple fish are commonly cranked up from the depths. For best results, decorate the hooks with plastic tails or feathers and then add strips of cut squid. The fish can't resist them.

Some fish catch the prettiest people! This colorful Barber pole rockfish couldn't resist a line anchovy presented by Eden Gyers while fishing aboard the Wave Walker out of Santa Barbara.

PHOTO: Capt. David Bacon

Jigs are deadly for the larger rockfish and also for the mighty ling cod - the master of the deep rocky terrain. Lingasaurs are known to have a fatal attraction to chrome. That makes a big shiny jig, like a Diamond Jig, a perfect choice for this kind of fishing. Just drop it to the bottom and jig it actively within a couple feet of the rocks. The biggest fish on the reef will out-muscle the others and jump all over it.

A teaser hook on a dropper loop about eighteen inches up from the jig is a productive variation, especially when the hook is spiced with a plastic tail and a strip of squid. A medium-size rockfish will commonly take the bait. The best bet is to ignore the rockfish and keep working the jig. With the action of both the jig and the rockfish, a big lingcod will be sorely tempted to get in on the action. Occasionally one ling will swallow the jig and another will mouth the rockfish and come all the way to the surface because it doesn't want to let go of that rockfish. We call that ling a "hitchhiker". Always gaff the hitchhiker first because it may not actually have a hook in it. The ling on the jig will probably be stuck well and stay around until you're ready for it..

A single large live bait is the third logical choice for a terminal rig. When the bait receiver personnel are selling large lively sardines, or when I can jig up some 5 to 6 inch mackerel, then this is the rig I like to advise my passengers to use. Tie a 2/0 to 4/0 hook one the end of the line and hang a torpedo sinker from a dropper loop a couple feet up the line. Pin on a big lively bait and send it right down into the rocks where it can get into lots of trouble.

The best live bait in the world for a lingcod is a live sanddab. These small halibut-like critters can be caught on sand or mud bottoms at depths beginning at about 150 feet. After drifting over a rocky area and then out over an open flat bottom, I'm always glad to see a few sandabs come up. On the next drift over the rocky structure, the sandabs go right back down as live bait. That sometimes results in the biggest lingcod of the day.

These three basic techniques are used in waters up to as deep as anyone would possibly want to fish. Some folks enjoy sending a rig down 600 feet or more to some rarely fished deep structure zones, and boy do they come up with some great fish - and plenty of them. Personally I don't like fishing over 350 to 400 feet, and most of my charters are in water under 200 feet deep.

In shallower water we have the option of anchoring once a big stack of hungry rockfish are found. This makes it easier to fish a concentrated school of fish than making repetitive drifts, however the possibility of not being able to free the anchor from the jagged reefs makes it a potentially expensive practice, so drifting is the common technique over shallow structure as well. I do carry a "sacrificial anchor" aboard my charterboat for when I find a mother lode of rockfish suspended over a rugged reef where I don't want to risk my expensive Bruce anchor.

Capt. David Bacon, owner/operator of the Wave Walker smiles right back at a big angry "lingasaur" (ling cod) caught on a live bait near the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast.

PHOTO: Capt. David Bacon

Rockfish and ling cod certainly aren't the only saltwater game along the SoCal coast. What sets SoCal apart from the rest of our US Pacific coast is the variety and the quality of our wintertime fishing opportunities. Perhaps the best example is our year-round calico bass fishery. This is one of the most popular fish along our coast. They're not huge - a ten pound calico is rare, but they can bulldog you down into the kelp and leave you wondering how a bass could possibly do that to you. Calicos are beautiful fish, fight well, and taste great. Those qualities probably explain their popularity.

When big squid spawns occur out near our offshore islands, white Seabass can frequently be found feeding on the concentrated squid. They bite best at night. Sitting at anchor and fishing all night is hardy duty, but the result can be a truly magnificent powerful fish which ranks right up with the best fish you've ever tasted.

If exotic fish is what you live for, catch a long-range trip out of one of the San Diego landings and spend a week or more aboard a modern luxurious boat exploring southward along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico for tuna, Wahoo, dorado, yellowtail, and grouper.

Any level of fishing action you desire can be found along the beautiful SoCal coast at any time of year. Wintertime is no exception. My personal favorite area is the stunning Santa Barbara Channel and Channel Isles. This is where I live and charter. But wherever you find yourself along the SoCal coast, I highly recommend you save a full day for sampling our quality fisheries and magnificent scenery. It's a prescription for the soul!