2011 Socal Backwater Bays: Cartilage
Most days when I fish, I am in the mood to move, stalk, target, and fight a fish with tactical techniques and specialized lures. For me, the thrill of fishing has much to do with the excitement of feeling a fish attack a lure that I am working with my arms. The tactile sense of being intimately tied to the lure, and eventually a fish, is unparalleled.
However, there are days when I simply feel like laying back, relaxing, and enjoying being at the water’s edge: concentration slipping, mind empty, blue skies, and gentle waves. I’m sure if I drank alcohol, a beer in hand would be great, but instead a cold iced tea quenches my thirst while the world around me seems to pause. Today was one of those days.
Since I rarely fish bait, I was hopeful of catching a new species but also realistic in knowing that when using a bait-and-wait tactic, the chances of targeting specific species becomes much lower. Rounding the highway into San Diego County in the late morning, my plans were to fish the back sloughs and flats of the bays and see what would be lurking in those waters. Since I do not fish bait often, this would also be one of the first times I would be exploring future potential bait fishing locations.
Arriving at the first location, I found simply beautiful conditions. An almost glass surf lapped ever so gently on soft brown sand, a slight breeze whispered across the beach, and the sun’s rays were lightly shielded by a slight mask of clouds that painted their way across the pale blue skies. This is California fishing!
My plan was to fish two bait rods, and true to my nature, I had also brought a lure rod in case I saw any signs of predators in the water. However, I ended up only using one of the rods. I rigged up my first rod with a sliding sinker and a sz 1 mosquito hook, neatly covering the entire hook with shrimp. Ideally, I would have used light or medium light gear to fish in these shallow waters, but the only bait fishing outfits I had were relatively heavy with 30 lb braid. This would come in rather handy later, however…
With my first bait rod rigged and ready, I put out my first cast at around 100 or so feet. I turned around to rig my second rod, but before I could even pick anything up, I watched as the line began to straighten out. I picked up the rod, turned the handle, felt a few gentle shakes and set the hook. Something on the other end of the line responded with a steady spurt of speed away from me, but nothing I couldn’t overcome on my heavier outfit. A steady retrieve brought a round stingray onto the beach in front of me. Not a new species, and by far the most common species I have hooked in socal when I have used bait.
A quick release, and I sent my baited rig back out. Turned back around to put together a second bait rig, but again the line started to straighten out. Pulled in the rig to find another round stingray at the end. Hm, it’s gonna be one of those days, huh? So it began, a steady stream of bites: so much so that I never ended up having the opportunity to rig up a second bait rod.
After about the 3rd stingray however, I had a different sort of bite. The rod tip vibrated with a set of hard knocks, which is a very different bite from the stingrays who suck up the bait and simply keep moving and pull the rod tip down steadily. Finally, I thought, this has got to be a fish.
Reeling in, I feel something thrashing against me, so it definitely did not feel like a stingray. Whew! However, at the end of the line, I find yet another cartilaginous creature. It is a small smoothhound shark. I am not 100% sure if it is a grey or brown: the greys are supposed to be more common in Southern California and have a non-fringed edge to their fins. Regardless, I am happy to see something besides a stingray. A grey smoothhound would be a great new species to add to my list, but I don’t have any pictures of the brown smoothhounds that I have caught in the past, so it was a welcome catch regardless.
Perhaps I spoke too early, because in the next few hours, my bait was steadily depleted by BOTH round stingrays and smoothhound sharks. By the time I only had a few pieces of shrimp left, I had released 8 round stingrays, and 5 smoothhound sharks. A steady bite always beats a non-existent one, but the catch profile left me yearning for something different.
With my last few pieces of bait, I decided on trying a different location. Packing everything up and hopping into the car, I drove a few miles down highway 5 to arrive to somewhat different conditions. A rocky shoreline overlooked a marshy environment. There was clear water over a shallow sandy substrate that gave away to greenish colored deeper water, while a sandbar extended out neatly separating a muddy influx of water from a nearby channel. Numerous people were out enjoying the beautiful California weather, and a fly fisher was probing the shallows.
With only a few pieces of bait left, it was worth a try. I threw out my rig into the transition between the clear shallow water and darker green water and waited for about 30 minutes with no interest. However, the wind had picked up significantly, so bite detection was getting more difficult. Thus, I decided to reel up and move closer towards the inlet where the water was muddier and seemed shallower.
This time, within 10 minutes of casting out, I saw the rod tip vibrate. Good, there is something that is interested out there. I picked up the rod gently to feel for the bite. Another knock, then a surge downwards on the pole. Bang, I set the hook, and whatever I have on the other end of the line is not happy with me. Zzzzzzzz my drag screams as something takes off around the sandbar and towards the ocean. With my heavier outfit, I have my drag set at around 15 pounds, so this is no baby smoothhound!
The first run immediately took off 40 yards of line. This was by far one of the longest runs I have ever had on this rod. With a recent rash of lost fish, I was a little paranoid about the hook pulling on so much drag, so I took down the drag a few notches. The fish responded to this change by taking off on another drag pulling run. This one was shorter however, and I was able to turn him by a well timed pumping retrieve. Now the fish was easily 100 yards away from me. I worked him in with a series of pumping motions, but he stayed down deep even when I got him near the shoreline. When I finally got him close to me, he began a long run parallel to the shore, still stubbornly refusing to surface.
While the fight was rather different from that of a stingray due to the hard runs and quick direction changes, I was really hoping that I had not simply hooked a large bat ray. On one hard pump, I managed to get the fish to surface just enough that the edge of his body showed, and I saw a fish shaped body. Whew! But what was it?
With a fight that easily lasted 20 minutes, I finally got the fish to reveal itself. The waters parted to reveal a diamond shaped body and elongated tail. This was a monstrous shovelnose guitarfish! Behind me, a crowd of people had gathered, and a chorus of questions arose: What is that? Is that a stingray? Are you going to eat it? What did you catch it on? Do you have a net?
I moved down towards the water to tail the beast. However, even though he had allowed me to bring him to the surface, he was not ready to be landed. For another 5 minutes, everytime I brought him near my hands, he exploded and took another short drag peeling run. What an amazing fight! Bat rays will never be the same!
(I am 5’10 for reference, btw)
Finally, I got a firm grasp on his tail, and pulled him onto my lap. Whew, what a fight! Both of us were pretty darn near exhausted and I was panting heavily. Knowing that he was unable to have the pleasure of breathing since he was out of water, I wanted to quickly get his picture and have him back in the water before he was too exhausted to recover.
I didn’t want to take the time to take out my tape measurer, so I used my rod as a guide to measure the length of the animal. Unfortunately in all the excitement, I lost the marking that I used to mark it’s length. So, it is definitely around 50,” but maybe a few inches off. A new PB, and a pretty decent one if I say so myself!
After a picture for myself (and couple for bystanders cellphones), I quickly cradled the guitarfish back towards the water. I was really afraid it would be super tired so I almost fell in the water trying to get it back. However, I had nothing to fear because as soon as it’s head touched the water, it went beserck! It’s tail started slapping me like mad, and it exploded into the water drenching me thoroughly.
Whew, I took a moment to sit down and rest, but true to any fisherman, I quickly rebaited with my final piece of bait and cast out to the same spot where I had gotten bit. I sat back down on my rock, and caught my breath. That was seriously one of the best fights I have had in quite a while. However, it would not be the only one I would have today…
Within 5 minutes of casting out, there was another tap tap on my rod tip. I picked it up, and felt for a solid bite. Another tick tick, then bang, something took the bait. I responded with a solid strike, and my rod tip bent down heavily as something on the other end expressed unhappiness with finding a hook in it’s meal.
With a very similar fight with the previous one, I expected another guitarfish. This one felt smaller because it’s initial run was much shorter. I managed to get it along the shore within 10 minutes, but here was where this fish would hold it’s last stand. I could get it to surface, but trying to reach for it was utterly impossible. Everytime it would get near to me, it would take another run into deeper water and I would have to struggle to regain the line. This game went on for over 15 minutes, with me finally ending it by reaching out and grabbing the fish by it’s tail and manhandling it’s struggling body onto me. This one measured out at around 47” just a few inches smaller than the first despite it’s easier initial fight.
Again, I placed it back into the water within a few moments, and it was certainly not exhausted as it sped away into the murky depths. With my bait depleted, it was time for me to go home. While today had not yielded any of the species that I had hoped to catch (and in fact not a single species in the entire class of Osteichthyes), I was more than satisfied with my day of constant bites and a pair of epic battles. I suppose that is why bait fishing is like a box of chocolates: you just never know what you’re gonna get!