2010 Socal Fall Species Hunt

I’m beginning to like this report writing business. Quite therapeutic in nature.

Part I: Down but not defeated

Having met my last goal of catching that silvery fanged piscine of the back water bays, I decided to further my pursuit of new species in my new home slightly north of the border. One species that had intrigued me ever since I first read Mahigeer’s Catalina reports, was the bonito. Beautifully patterned, ferocious, and blazingly fast, these fish seemed like something created for the sole purpose of sportfishing pleasure (or so I had read).

If there was one thing I learned through my species specific fishing quests, it has been that targeting a single species to catch can be both exceedingly frustrating, as well as remarkably rewarding. There is a complete different satisfaction that arises from setting your bait out just to see what lurks below the surface, and researching a quarry’s preferred seasons, haunts, diet, and mannerisms in order to capture one. It is this concentrated and whole-hearted effort that cultivates my respect for fish to the point where I only catch and release unless the fish has been regrettably damaged beyond recovery.

So with the experience that specific species are sometimes simply impossible to encounter due to seasonal migratory patterns, I set off with a new goal of catching a bonito. Using the knowledge of my newfound local fishing friends, I discovered that there were a number of places that bonito had been caught recently. Unfortunately, none of the places had been pushing out bonito in appreciable numbers, so I knew it would be a tough pursuit.

So, on a chilly autumn morning, I departed my home much before sunrise in the attempt to arrive at my targeted location for the “magic hour bite.” As always, the drive was filled with visions of vicious surface strikes and peeling drag. After all, when trying to fish for my first corvina, I had discovered that the San Diego area was simply full of fish, from the clouds of smelt that hovered in the shallows, to the hordes of barracuda that exploded into attacks during sunrise and sunset. I did not think that I would be let down by such a rich fishery.

Arriving in San Diego at just around 5:30am, I found I was still slightly early for the sun to rise and the morning slaughter to begin. So, I took my time and rigged up what my local friends had told me was a killer bait: a shallow running 4-5 inch silver plug. Using a fast retrieve, the plug would shudder and weave through the water while enticingly flashing, giving the attraction of a spoon but allowing the sharp eyed bonito to have a more realistic profile to target.

As the sun shot it’s first ray across the horizon, I eagerly awaited for the explosion of surface feeding predators to start. Alas, something was amiss, as the only sight that lay before me was the calm ripples of the bay. Even the usual crowd of morning iron and plastic tossers were not around. As all too common in our hobby, the mood of the fish had changed rapidly, and the predators had moved on. Perhaps it was a change in temperature, a movement in bait, a drop in pressure, an increase in wind. Whatever the cause, the massive morning bite had disappeared. I continued to cast the plug, hoping that the fish would show up late, but there was no interest.

Eventually, a pair of fishermen came to where I was fishing, and started throwing the ubiquitous bonito lure: feather with splasher. I watched them as they fished the area just as unsuccessfully as me, and so I asked if they had any luck recently. Their reply was that bonito had been hitting in the area just 2 days ago, but seemed to have moved on. I gave the shoreline another few casts, just to see if a straggler or two might have decided to hang back.

As usual, my mind was already hard at work, trying to figure out what my next plan of attack would be, when my lure was whacked hard in mid retrieve. I struck hard, to find solid resistance, and slowly worked the fish in. The fish seemed to be bulldogging down lower, and gave the impression of a heavy lazy corvina… Basically, it fought like a barracuda. And as the fishes yellow tail flashed onto the surface, I found myself facing a near legal sized barracuda: a very beautiful and nicely fighting fish, but not my goal today.

I continued throwing lures throughout the area, at various locations that had been entrusted to me by my local friends, but there were nary a predator to be found. Disheartened and disappointed by the lack of attention, I decided that a whole new approach was needed. Just so that my day wasn’t a total loss, I decided to try a technique that I had read about for catching opaleye, using peas as bait. I cracked open a can of peas, chummed them into the water, dropped a hook and landed a decent sized opaleye. Very beautiful fish with it’s light olive coloration and bright blue eyes. If only my quest for bonito had turned out so easy…

I headed back home to see what I had missed in my plans to secure a new species on my list.

Part II: Today is a good day

After doing additional research about Sarda chiliensis lineolata, I found that perhaps I had been looking too far from home. In my excitement of discovering the healthy fishery of San Diego, I had overlooked an equally interesting fishing location directly west of me. I had always assumed that the warm water loving bonito would flock towards the south when the water temperatures began to drop in the Autumn, but found that they also terrorized harbors and inlets throughout Southern California, including the OC during certain seasons of the year.

After reading some more fishing reports and doing some more googlemaps research, I decided that the next day seemed like a good time to find a new fishing location. Not only did this new place in the OC seem like a likely place where schools of bonito might be loitering around, but a sandy stretch of beach nearby would allow me to target another species that had managed to elude me for a while: the highly esteemed California Halibut. During my time in northern California, I had fished plenty, but never thought there would be much hope to catching a fish that even hardened and experienced fishermen seemed to ga-ga over.

I arrived much before daybreak again the next day, in order to scout the area and do some preparation. Luckily there was a tackle store located nearby, and it had just opened up, so I took some time to chat with the people inside about my prospects. As with many hardened fishermen, I found a certain level of resistance and hesitation with sharing information, but what I gleaned was that yes, bonito schools might frequent the area once in a while, and that the splasher and fly rig was supposed to be working well. Not having a rig for that, I decided to buy a set of bonito flies from the store, and go ahead and put on a plastic bubble (the typical bonito outfit, as seen in Mahigeer’s instructional thread).

Upon setting up at the end of the wooden pier, I found myself looking at the darkened still water with some trepidation and thinking that it looked extraordinarily devoid of any signs of life. Slowly the sun peeked over the horizon, and I began my casting for bonito. Gurgle, pop, slurp, pop.. The bobber bounced and danced across the still water surface with a bright chartreuse fly trailing behind it. As the sun’s intensity increased, as did my doubts about the location as the water remained dead calm with no signs of life. I watched a boat slowly float by, and a kayaker launch close by while I half heartedly continued my casting.

Then it happened. The first sign of life was the sound. With the barely audible wave breaking on the shoreline behind me, the stillness of the morning air was pierced by a sharp splash on the surface of the water. Heart rate quickening, pupils dilated, I scanned the water surface for what was happening. Still again… then another splash! I strained my eyes in all direction in the early morning sun, and then I saw it. Boiling water, and flashes of silver, much much too far for me to reach with any type of cast. I cast out, hard, and watched as my lure sailed ¼ of the distance to the boiling water.

Dejectedly, I watched the ripples on the surface die, as the fish moved down below the surface. “Just mackerel,” I reassured myself. “And even if it is bonito, it is far too early to be disappointed because if they are boiling out there, they will probably come closer anyways”. A pier regular came by next to me and asked if anything was biting. “Something is boiling out there, but dunno what it is…” He leaves to get his rod. Another fisherman comes by me just in time to witness the boils in the horizon and then goes off in search of his tackle. Their excitement is contagious, and I have a feeling that today is a going to be a good day.

Without warning, the boils appear nearer to the pier. I cast out and land ON TOP of a boil! YES! It’s going to be a good day! It’s going to be a good day! I repeat it in my head after every swing of the rod to activate the bubble on the surface. The boils are erupting all around the bubble, any second now, any second now! SMACK! Something hit my bobber and knocks it over, but the fly lays untouched in the water. The boil ends just as abruptly as it started, and my virgin fly and bobber now sat on the flat water surface.

My mouth is almost agape in disbelief. The other two anglers now returned with their fishing gear and continue scanning the horizon with me. Again they ask, whats the fishing like? I reply that I got my bubble in a boil, but the fish are not having any of it. They eye my outfit, and don’t say a word, but rig up with something that both surprises me and does not surprise me at the same time. What does it look like?

A silver shallow running plug.

Soon a fourth angler joins us, but is more interested in tossing around a shimano waxwing to see how it swims in the water than actually targeting the boiling fish. The sun has now risen into the horizon and is spreading it’s warming rays across the surface of the water. In the angled light, the boils have now started to spread across our view, and there are periodic explosions as frenzied bait tries to escape the predators below.

I decide that I have had enough of the bubble and fly and revert back to the fishing technique that I am most familiar with: fishing hardbaits. I watch and learn from the anglers next to me as they work their lures with a variety of techniques to mimic frantic injured baitfish. Our concentrated efforts are suddenly rewarded when the angler next to me lets out a whoop of excitement and I look over to see his rod bent over. He quickly reels a fish up the surface where I catch a glimpse of a bluish striped side and a blackened chin. “Is it mackerel?” he anxiously inquires. Nope, I tell him, you got yourself a bonito!

The fish is unceremoniously bounced over the pier railing and onto the planks where our small band of anglers gathers and admires the fish momentarily before resuming our casting for our own fish. The fish is small, only a pound or less, but it is one of the prettiest fish I have seen when alive.

I realize that I have the exact same plug that the other angler had used to catch the fish, so with renewed confidence, I cast out in search of my own bonito. As if on cue, the water erupts directly in front of the pier, and I land a cast directly into the frothy water. A few seconds into the quick erratic retrieve, and it’s a strike! I feel an energetic pulsating tail attached to the end of my line, and I reel the fish in hard. It puts up a short struggle but I get it up to the surface fairly quickly and am able to bounce the fish up onto the pier.

Although I disappointed with the short duration of the fight, I am elated with my first bonito catch, another small one pound or less fish. The growing sunlight illuminates it’s silver green and black sides and the ferocious looking teeth in it’s blackened mouth. Unfortunately, the fish has completely inhaled the rear treble of the plug, and it has destroyed a gill raker. I very very rarely ever kill fish, but this one would not make it if released. I admire the fish for a moment more, before giving it to a fellow angler.

I continue casting the plug along with 2 or 3 other anglers searching for bonito, but the frenzy has died down.  Like any dedicated angler, however, I continue to comb the waters for bites. Minutes melt away, while casual beach goers and pier walkers come and go. The other anglers give up after a few hours go by with no more strikes.

I am not a truly stubborn angler, and my arm is getting pretty sore after the repeated frantic retrieves required for inducing a strike. But darn it if the fish aren’t teasing me! Every few lure changes, I would see a small school of bonito follow my lure in and even swim directly next to it just to eye it and disappear into the deep.

Finally, I am about to give in to my fatigue and am simply casting out my lure without any thought (if you read my posts often, you will start to see a trend here LOL). In mid retrieve, I pause the lure to rest my arm for a second. BOOM! I see a flash in the water near my lure and my rod is bent down HARD. Considering how easily the last bonito came in, I simply began reeling the fish in. No problem, the fish came in relatively easily, with just a few spurts of speed away in protest… Then, it realized it was coming in towards the pier.

My rod suddenly bent over even harder, and my drag simply started to SING. I have not heard my drag scream like this since fishing for barramundi in Thailand, but those fish were near 15 lbs of bulldogging muscle. The fish ran hard and fast down to my right and I simply could not stop it, even with my drag as buttoned down as I was comfortable with. Now, I had a problem facing me. The fish had chosen to run down the side of the pier that had been blocked off by a fence. If I didn’t follow it somehow, it was going to break me off on the pilings. With a split second decision of whether or not to jump the fence, all I could do was hold the rod above my head and walk along the fence hoping that the fish stayed far enough from the pier to keep the line off the pilings. The fish continued to run: my drag was simply not enough to stop this fish!

Here is a time when my 9 ft rod came in handy. Although I despise it’s length sometimes because it makes working lures very awkward, I am 100% sure that I would have been unable to land that fish unless I had a rod that was able to maneuver over that fence. But now I had another problem to face: Once the fish was tired, how was I going to get him up with that fence in the way? Luckily, lady luck was on my side today, and the fish decided to run back towards the open end of the pier. A few more determined runs away, and I finally saw color. Oh, what beautiful color it was. A group of bystanders had gathered around me by this time, and someone was kind enough to find a crab net to try and get the fish up on the pier.

A few quick pictures with the very nice sized fish, and I was ready to release it. A few people asked me if they could have the fish, but with the treble neatly and harmlessly hooking the fish on the corner of the mouth, there was no way I could kill such a beautiful creature. I bring this up, because sometimes I feel C&R fishers are pressured by fellow anglers to give away fish that they catch. However, if the fish is not significantly injured, I encourage people to stay strong in their resolve and respond to catch and kill pressure by reminding people that each fish released can contribute hundreds, if not thousands of offspring for future sporting pleasure.

I ran down to a platform near the water, ready to revive the fish in the water due to the long fight. I took one last look at it’s gleaming sides in the sunlight, and gently cradled it into the water. SPLASH with absolutely no hesitation, the fish sped off into the aquamarine water giving me a farewell drenching.

Today was a good day.

Part III: There is always time for a first

Completely drained from the active and tough fishing of the morning, I packed away my gear and said farewell to the new friends I had made on the pier. News of the bonito catch had reached the tackle store, and the hardened fishermen that I had spoken to earlier were suddenly much easier to converse with and we joked around for a few minutes. Funny, how respect is earned in our angling circles, isn’t it?

Before driving back home, however, I realized that there was still that sandy beach nearby that I had seen on googlemaps that looked so incredibly fishy. An extra stop wouldn’t hurt, would it? I’ll only fish for a little, I swear!

I took the short 15 minute drive down the coast, and found an empty parking lot overlooking the sandy beach. A few people were out walking the beach or playing in the water, but I didn’t see any visible anglers.  I still had an enormous amount of studying to do, so I used the metered parking as a time limit of how long I could fish. Searched for some change, and only found enough to last an hour… Good enough, I had enough fun in the morning that I wouldn’t care if I was skunked anyways.

I changed out of my normal fishing outfit into some swimwear for the beach, and slipped on some sandals. The sun was out, the surf was surprisingly calm, and I was ready to try for my first halibut here.

First cast into the surf, and I was still trying to figure out how to properly work my lure. I was using a 4 inch jerkbait on a steady retrieve, something that many successful anglers were using in the Southern California surf. Luckily, the preferred method of lure action was induced on a steady retrieve, because my arm did not have the strength to actively work a lure anymore!

Second cast, and splash! A silvery bullet of a fish flashes through the surface of the water in an arcing dive. One day, you mullet. One day I’m seriously going to target you guys. Inspired by the fact that fish do indeed dwell in the shallow surf, I continue casting the lure as I make my way down the beach. Over the next 20 minutes, I begin the learn the correct pattern of trying to time the cast and retrieve so that the waves do not stall the lure and kill it’s action.

Near the end of one of my retrieves, my lure is stopped suddenly, and I feel shudders through the line. Anxiously I retrieve the fish in wondering what species it could be. As it nears the shallow water, I see a flash of a white belly and a triangular tail. Could it be? Did I really accomplish two fish species in this one short trip? I let the surf wash the fish up, and proudly admire the halibut laying in the sand before me. I have heard about those vicious jaws on the halibut, and now, the fish was clicking them together and making a terribly intimidating sound. The fish was only about 14 inches, but I could tell it would one day terrorize schools of baitfish.

Wanting to quickly release the fish, I decided to forgoe use of my pliers to release the fish, and quickly regretted that decision as the fish did a quick flip and impaled one of the free trebles into my hand. Luckily, it was shallow enough that I could remove the hook quickly, but it was a serious reminder of the dangers of fishing plugs with multiple trebles. Upon wading into the water to release the halibut, I was entertained when it went straight to the sandy substrate in front of my feet and suctioned onto the sand using those elongated dorsal and pelvic fins. It stayed there, riding out the next surge of waves, and then propelled itself into the deeper water with the push of retreating water.

Completely satisfied with my day, I decided I had almost worn out my meter time and made my way back towards the car. I had one more strike that turned out to be a slightly larger halibut, but it was able to shake my hook near the surf. I finally arrived at my car, completely tired, yet utterly satisfied with my half day of fishing. Just another beautiful day in Southern California…

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