2011 Catalina: By Land or by Sea Part I

2011 Catalina Part I: By Land

This write up is a few months old, so please understand it is not a current conditions report. Keep in mind my reports are mostly to maintain a personal record of fishing trips, so I apologize if it is far too long for the average reader to remain interested in reading. As always, all fish were carefully released unless otherwise noted.

Day 1: Holy “Moley”

An ashen pall was settled over the world at 830am, muting the views and creating a dull stillness. Lulled by the quiet calm, my girlfriend and I yawned as we settled in the short line to board the Catalina Flyer. I had hoped for glorious weather on the first day that I would set foot on the famous island just 22 miles off of the coast of Los Angeles, but my excitement to fish the shore overwhelmed any disappointment brought about by the dreary Autumn weather.

With the boat only 1/2 full, there were plenty of seats throughout the boat, and my girlfriend and I chose to settle ourselves near the bow. While she played on her phone, I began to tie a few setups. 25 lb fluoro sliding sinker with sz 2 hook for anything big, 15 lb fluoro hi lo with sz 8 hooks for fishing the kelp and looking for species count.

The ride was quick, smooth, and uneventful. The catamaran really flies across the ocean, and as it picks up speed, it’s quite a thrill to watch from the rear as huge columns of water shoot up behind the large ferry. As the boat maneuvered to dock at the Avalon Mole, I peered into the crystal clear green blue water that abruptly contrasted with the brown Newport bay water that we left just a short 60 minutes ago. Splashes of orange were scattered in almost every direction, as the California state fish lazily grazed among the abundant kelp fronds.

Upon disembarking, my girlfriend and I headed directly over to the railing that faced the open Pacific Ocean. Within 5 minutes of walking off the boat, we had already baited up with squid on the hi lo setups with 1 oz weights, and dropped the rigs into the water. After a full 10 seconds, my girlfriend struck first blood, as usual. She quickly pulled up a small kelp bass. Unhooking it, she released it and dropped it back in, only to pull up another small kelp bass within seconds. Soon, I joined in and found the calicos literally unstoppable. They would pounce on your bait the moment it hit the bottom.

Using polarized lenses, I could see a cloud of dark colored fish in the midwater region and curious to see what they were, I rigged my lighter 20-50 gm setup with a single sz 8 mosquito hook on a 6 lb fluorocarbon leader and a light 1/8 oz bullet sinker. On the hook, I slid on 2 green peas from the 1 lb bag that I had brought. Lowering the rig carefully to the water surface, the cloud of fish immediately descended on my bait. Unfortunately, the peas were ripped off the hook with their voracity. So I rebaited and lowered the setup back into the water, this time carefully watching for the right moment to strike. One larger fish grabbed the bait and I watched the bright green pea dissappear near its mouth and I struck. The fish responded by accelerating into a frenzied zig zag as it fought to escape my hook. Quickly overpowering the fish, I raised it over the railing to find a blacksmith. Not my first, but my largest and an absolutely stunning individual, with a fluorescent blue streak across its shoulders.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend had managed to pull up a saltwater goldfish! Somehow a garibaldi was able to suck up her squid bait before a calico got to it. Illegal to possess, we were quick to return it back into the water, but my girlfriend was happy to have caught such a beautiful creature.

Eager to see what other species lay near the bottom, I switched back to my squid outfit and let it sit on the bottom. This time there was a set of sharp knocks as something fast pecked at my bait. Timing my strike carefully, I struck into a fish that zig zagged with surprising speed. Bringing the fish up, I found a senorita wrasse! A common nuisance fish throughout Southern California, but my first of the species so on the list it goes!

For about 3 hours we fished the Mole with absolute constant action on the blacksmith, tiny kelp bass, senoritas, and rock wrasse. In preparing for fishing in Catalina, I had perused through the detailed journals of Mahigeer and Ken Jones regarding fishing at this island and found them to document the action superbly. Fish near the top and you will find blacksmith and opaleye. Fish near the mid level and you will find the different wrasse species. Fish at the bottom for near constant action from the juvenile kelp bass. Interestingly, during all this constant action within the kelp bed, I had a heavy rod rigged with shrimp on the sliding sinker that got absolutely no interest when casted out about 65 yards out from the Mole. Equally interesting was how accessible deep water was, as with only a 60 yard cast I felt the water was easily already 25-30 meters deep. I would guess that with proper water temperatures, shark fishing would be quite ideal.

Soon my girlfriend got tired of the constant action from the little ones (how quickly we get spoiled, don’t we) so we headed in towards the town to check into our hotel. We stayed at Hotel Atwater for a shamefully low price, and the location directly off the beach was great for accessing the fishing quickly and conveniently. Unfortunately, I must not have read the amenities list very carefully, because upon entering our room, we realized that there was no freezer/refrigerator! This was going to be a slight issue, with my 1 lb bag of frozen peas, 2 lbs of frozen squid, and 1 lb of shrimp that was supposed to last for 3 days! Luckily, the ice machine was close by our room, and using a large trash can, I sandwiched the bait between bags of ice. Refilling the bags with fresh ice every 10 hours or so produced pretty good results, and the bait lasted relatively well until the end of the trip. Luckily the plentiful and naive fish were not too picky regarding the quality of bait they were presented with!

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and exploring the quaint town of Avalon. A light breeze from the ocean coupled with the gently lapping turqouise sea up a soft sand beach created an atmosphere of relaxation, a nice change to many LA beaches that get choked with boisterous beach goers. Of course, being in the fall, there was probably much less traffic to the island than the summer might bring. Interestingly enough, the crystal clear waters of the bay belie a tragic danger, emphasized by the signs that warned of contamination in the water. Apparently, the proximity of the sewage outflow to the bay made it contain unsafe levels of harmful microorganisms. Hence, fish from the bay should probably not be eaten either (not that it mattered to me, since all fish would be safely released save for one rock wrasse that accidentally met it’s demise in an extraordinarily aggressive pelican’s beak and a few jack mackerel used for bait).

Day 2: Seeing Green

Daybreak the next morning saw me at the Mole rigging up for some bonito action. Checking water temps before heading out gave me little hope with sub 60 degree SSTs, but it’s always worth a try. So on went an iron and out it went. Another fisherman using a splasher rig and a bonito feather soon joined me. Both of us plugged away into the cloudy morning, but as suspected the bonito had migrated to warmer or deeper waters. On my classic “last cast,” however, I felt a little tick on my iron and felt the slight pulsing of a hooked fish. However, the resistance was minimal as I reeled in, and I watched my line as I retrieved, curious to see what I had hooked into. A flash of greenish silver and dark bars at the water surface confirmed the identity of the attacker. Swinging it onto the pier, I found myself looking at a Pacific mackerel, albeit a huge specimen! It was probably the largest I had ever caught, measuring over 16 inches. After returning it back to the water, I returned to my species hunt, using my hi lo amongst the kelp gathered at the base of the Mole.

Interestingly, the fishing seemed to have slowed, and bites were much more sporadic than the day before. Upon seeing a group of fish gather around my bait then disperse, I began to suspect that my 15 lb line was the cause of their hesitance. Switching to 6 lb fluoro, saw the bites pick up once again. Unfortunately, the nuisance fish today had switched from the tiny kelp bass to blacksmith, who had taken over throughout the water column, and were mercilessly ripping bait from hooks.

Without very many other species of interest to me latching onto my hooks, I decided it was late enough in the morning to wake the lady and spend some time with her lounging around the town. Today a cruise ship had docked slightly offshore, and the streets were more alive with tourists as they frolicked within the town. Golf carts and bicycles began to zip among the little streets. We took the short walk along the bay to see the stately casino that rested on the far northern shore. A set of beautiful murals decorated the entrance, but we decided not to enter for a tour.

We continued further down the path and found another delightful protected cove, Descanso bay. As a seperate bay from the harbor, this beach welcomed swimmers and snorklers and we saw a handful of people frolicking in the surf. It was a surreal moment, watching the tanned bodies slither in the crystal clear aqua blue water, silhouetted against beautiful orange brown cliffs, and realizing that this exotic location was only 20 miles away from the smog laden and population jammed Los Angeles.

After spending much of our afternoon soaking in the sun that had burned through the morning cloud cover, we decided to fish Green Pleasure pier. At first glance, I had dismissed this pier as a subpar location to fish due to it’s location directly among the busy boat traffic and lack of deep water access.

However, as I looked into the azure waters, I saw a thick cloud of small fish flickering in and out of the shadows created by the setting sun. Curious what the fish were, I rigged up a small shrimp sabiki and cast it parallel to the side of the pier. Within two casts, something had taken the hook and I was quickly reeling up a small California Jack Mackerel! This species of fish is as common as the Pacific Mackerel in Southern California, especially at Catalina, yet this was the first time that I caught one. Although not commonly regarded as a gamefish, I was proud to finally catch one because this fish would be the first member of the Jack family of fish known as Carangidae that I would be able to put on my species list.

The action at this little pier soon proved to be just as prolific as the Mole, and in fact the calico bass here seemed to be slightly larger on average despite the constant boat and foot traffic. Using our normal variety of bait, my girlfriend and I were soon catching a colorful selection of Catalina fish. Using a small sliver of squid, I cast out among the pilings and was rewarded by a strong tug within seconds of the bait settling. Upon setting the hook, something on the other end went absolutely berserk, careening wildly through the water in all directions. Reeling up, I found what looked like the familiar silhouette of an opaleye. However, the fish was fighting in a dramatically different fashion from an opaleye, which preferred to take powerful lunges towards cover. Swinging the fish up onto the pier, I found my first Catalina blue perch! At less than ½ a pound, the little fish put up an amazing scrap for it’s size. An absolute pleasure to catch on the 6 lb line.

After a couple of hours of absolute non stop action, my girlfriend decided that we had caught enough fish here, and retired to get some shuteye. The sun slipped over the horizon as we walked the 1 block back to our comfortable beds, and we watched as the gentle surf glimmered under the emerald lights along the pier.

Day 3: Off the Beaten Path

Upon rising on the last day we would spend on this little paradise, I decided to do some exploring of the island for lesser fished places that might offer some fish. Traveling on foot, I began walking past the harbor and onto the rocky cliffs that surrounded most of Catalina. Fishing from shore, however, required a confident knowledge of the patchwork of protected marine preservation zones that bordered Avalon, and I had carefully determined accurate landmarks which would prevent me from fishing illegally.

With the sun rising over a cloudy sky, glare on the water was minimal and I could make out every fish that swam among the fronds of kelp that waved in the water. While there were essentially fish scattered throughout Catalina in prolific number, the crystal clear water allowed me a glimpse the universal truth that all fishermen know: fish will always concentrate among certain landmarks. Points that jut into the water, pilings, islands of rock or kelp, sudden changes in substrate or depth; all of these variations in topography would yield an increase in concentrations of fish and quality of fish.

Finding one of such highly concentrated areas of fish, I chummed a small amount of shrimp/pea/squid mixture (now getting quite soft and unpalatable due to lack of refrigeration) and soon had a small crowd of fish in a frenzy working the bait. Flylining some bait into the crowd made for some absolutely exciting moments as I watched fish attack my bait. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as a reddish fish with enormous and beautifully patterned fan like pectoral fins suddenly materialize from the seafloor and engulf my bait in a single bite. Setting the hook, I quickly found an angry California Scorpionfish at the end of my line. Imagine that, watching a scorpionfish as it attacks your bait! Never once did I imagine that they would fan out their pectoral fins in the exact same fashion as lionfish do in aquariums when they charged bait. Exquisite!

After releasing the scorpionfish back into the water, I had barely tossed my bait back into the water when a streak of silver and brown flashed across the water surface and sucked my bait in. I set the hook and was rewarded with a hard run back towards the rocks. Maintaining pressure, I was soon able to bring up a large calico bass, probably the largest one that I would see on this trip (and possibly my PB). After a quick picture, it was released and jetted away with an angry splash.

Dropping some more chum into the water, my attention was immediately drawn to a quad of large fish that overshadowed the other smaller fish in the area. These were thick fish, swimming with their pectoral fins in quick and powerful strokes. If it weren’t for the distinctive pink color, I would have almost mistaken them for overgrown rock wrasses! Yes, these were a small group of California Sheephead! The absolute number one fish that I was hoping to catch during this trip to Catalina. While I know that adding this fish to my species list via partyboat would probably be the easiest way, I was hoping to catch one via shore to allow for it’s safe release as I had heard they were very susceptible to pressure changes.

Quickly putting some squid on my hook, I gently tossed the bait into their vicinity. Shockingly, they did not even pause to look at it, and quickly swam past my offering to root among a nearby rockpile. Instead, my squid was quickly torn into by a cloud of rock wrasses and blacksmith. Knowing that sheephead generally prefer shelled prey, I switched out my tattered squid strip to a nice thick piece of shrimp and tossed it back into the midst of fish. One of the sheephead turned to examine my offering. Surprisingly, it was extremely wary, something that I did not expect from a wrasse species. It slowly nosed forward to the bait, before turning around. I was in shock, wondering what was wrong with my bait?! However, the sheephead abruptly flipped back around and proceeded to engulf my bait! I struck hard and felt the fish’s weight as it immediately bolted for cover. However, as quick as it had happened, it was over. The hook had pulled!

Shaking my head in frustration, I continued to try to tempt the remainder of the school of sheephead. Over the next hour, the cycle continued: sometimes the fish would shun my bait completely, especially if it wasn’t drifting properly with the current, while each time a fish did manage to suck in the bait I could not get a solid hookset!

As the sun began to burn through the cloud cover, the fish began to become more wary and I was becoming more desperate. The group of sheephead were slowly beginning to disperse, becoming less and less interested in my bait each time a member of their group disappeared, spooked by the prick of my hook. Finally, it was down to a single sheephead, not the largest of the group, but very solid and healthy looking. I gently dropped the bait down and guided it so that it would wave naturally in the current. The sheephead approached nonchalantly… then a blacksmith flashed in front of it, mouthing the bait. Perhaps it was the competition, but without warning the sheephead attacked my bait. I struck, and felt a solid, successful hookset! Wham! The fish immediately responded and burned off on a blazing run, runningly raggedly through rocks and kelp! Luckily, I had tightened my drag to just about the limit of my 6 lb line and was able to stop it before it was too entangled. The speed and ferocity of the run amazed me though, and I was extremely lucky that my line had not broken as it abraded against the rocks that the sheephead had immediately dove for.

Interestingly, the sheephead tired itself out in a much shorter time than I had imagined and was calmly lying at the surface treading water, after I had extricated it from all the debris it had ran through. I was still nervous though, as when I wrenched the fish through the cover, a large mass of kelp had tangled around my fishing line. I walked to the water’s edge, and gently scooped the fish up. Success! Sheephead sight fishing with 6 lb line! It doesn’t get much better than this! At 18 inches, this was no baby catch either!

Upon removing the hook from the fishes mouth, it became somewhat more apparent why I was having such a difficult time getting a solid hookset on the fish. Sheephead have an extremely tough palate and their mouth is ringed by a set of strong thick teeth. Given how wary these fish were, I would not be surprised if they were simply mouthing my bait each time they were biting, and those gnarled teeth were probably constantly deflecting my hook upon the strike. Also interesting was how the fish almost instantaneously changed coloration. After first bringing the fish up, I noticed it was a deep purple pink coloration which immediately changed to the pale yellow pink shade that is seen in the pictures. Anyone else notice the ability to change color in sheephead?

After a quick picture with the fish, it was returned gently to the water. Without hesitation, it dove once again straight into the rocks, probably deciding never to forage in such shallow waters again.

Now approaching midday, I decided to join my girlfriend back within the Avalon harbor for some last minute fishing. Chumming the remaining bait, we began to see a group of opaleye approach us. While most of the opaleye throughout Catalina were pretty hefty individuals, this group had a few really thick bruisers. Completely ignoring all offerings except for peas that were flylined, we were soon able to have an opaleye on each cast, provided that we could get the flylined weightless pea far enough on a cast. Each of these 2-3 lb fish would react violently to each hookset and go on absolutely powerful surging runs on our 6 lb test, making our drags sing. Absolute music.

Eventually my girlfriend hooks one of the larger fish in the group, and has immense fun battling it. With their broad fins, and powerful squat bodies, these big opaleye were just a blast to catch. I help her pull it out of the water, and she poses with it for a quick picture before dropping it back into the water.

Using the last little pieces of bait left, I decide to cast out to the outskirts of the opaleye pod to see whether there are any other interesting species. The bait settled for just a second when wham! A good strike, and frenzied fight ensued, but I could tell it was a small fish. Dragging it up, I see a flash of vermillion. Quickly, I see that I have caught another sheephead! Oh, the irony. This one, however, is a very small juvenile, at less than 10 inches long, and sports a handsome pinkish red coloration, along with blood red eyes. After admiring its brilliant garb for a moment with a camera, it was released and dashed away.

With the bait depleted, and our hands slimy from landing fish, we decide that it was time for this epic fishing trip to wind down. We got back to the hotel to finish packing our luggage and clean up. Alighting our aquatic shuttle to get back to the mainland, we gazed across the sunny skies and the looming island as the tropically colored garabaldi gently loitered in the emerald waters under our noses. A cloud of juvenile topsmelt were gathered around the boat, and I watched as they sparkled through the water.

The engines begin to hum, and we begin to slowly back out of the harbor. As the boat speeds up, the waves begin to kick up behind us and salty mist fills the air. In just a few moments the island begins to recede in the distance and we are soon in open sea with sunlight gently streaming through the windows. 5 new fish species for me, hundreds of fish caught, and all the time enjoying the company of my beautiful girlfriend in a sun drenched gorgeous setting.

We will meet again, Catalina.

To be continued…

End Note: Shore fishing in Catalina is highly limited by physical access, private property, and MLPA zones. The landscape pictures throughout the report may not represent areas where I fished.

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