Catalina: By Land or by Sea Part II

Catalina Part II: By Sea

The diversity of attitudes among anglers is wide and varied. There are those who consider fishing a method of providing sustenance, and there are those who find fishing an art. Anytime you find a congregation of anglers, you are likely to encounter any number of people with different personalities and opinions. One of the situations where close encounters with other anglers are guaranteed is on a party boat. Generally, there is a negative view of party boat fishing, with amateurs and experienced anglers mixed together, tangles galore, time wasted, and low fishing flexibility all combining to create “interesting” experiences, to say the least.

Despite the negative connotation often associated with party boat fishing, there are also the positives that are often overlooked. The most obvious, of course, is the chance to fish for pelagic or deep water fish for the financially challenged. Seasoned veteran fishermen who are often the first to fill up their sacks can also be an invaluable source of information and an endless supply of entertaining fishing tales of the past. Lastly, party boats generally fare well when it comes to producing fish for the table and can be a great introduction to the sport of fishing for newcomers who aren’t knowledgeable enough to avoid being skunked when fishing on their own.

Generally being a fan of shore fishing for it’s blend of flexibility, freedom, and necessary skill, every once in a while I will board a party boat to chase after species that may be found in deeper water than readily accessible to shore anglers. In Southern California, a number of landings and boats cater to anglers who wish to experience “deep sea fishing” but the majority of ¾ day boats tend to congregate on the famous Catalina Island, only a short 1 hr boat ride away from much of the coastline.

The following is a summary of the different landings that I boarded over the winter that eventually all ended up at or near Catalina Island. Southern California is famous for it’s summer and fall fishing trips that target the hard fighting pelagic species that migrate into our territory as the water warms, but winter time fishing can be just as entertaining… for the prepared angler!

Note: Any fish that were caught in waters deep enough to sustain barotrauma were quickly dispatched and taken home to eat. Species that are not susceptible to its effects (swim bladder-less fish) were released.

22nd St Sportfishing Landing:

Having never fished out of this landing, I was interested in seeing what the experience would be like. The schedule called for a departure at 6AM, and I arrived at 5:10AM to find a line waiting already. Taking advantage of the Wednesday special, it was only $45 to fish from 6AM until 5PM on the Pursuit. Upon buying the tickets, I found that unlike other boats that I had fished on, you were assigned a number which determined where you would fish along the rail. Of course, the spots most in demand lined the rear of the boat and each spot was eagerly snatched up by the regulars who had been waiting even before I had arrived.

With a very light load for the size of the boat, we quickly filed on board and were off in the blink of an eye. A glorious sunrise blazed over the harbor and I wondered what the day would hold for us. According to the captain, the plan would be to fish for the typical winter fish scattered around Catalina: rockfish, sheephead, and perch.

Interestingly, along the way to Catalina, we passed an enormous cloud of birds diving for bait. I rigged up an iron just in case anything looked promising enough to toss at it, but instead of actively diving for bait, the birds actually looked like they were simply scooping something off the surface. Squid spawn, perhaps?

We chugged on towards the islands… and chugged on… and chugged on. I began to realize why there was a $45 special. In order to save gas, the captain was not going full speed and the normally 1 hr trip to Catalina was extended to over 2 hours! By the time we had reached the islands, the sun was well up in the sky, and all the anglers were antsy to get their gear into the water!

Finally, coming around to the backside of Catalina, the captain metered for his spot for a moment before anchoring down and announcing that we could get our lines down. Live anchovies and frozen squid were on the menu today, so I pinned a pair of lively anchovies onto my reverse dropper and sent them into the inky darkness.

I generally fish spectra lines on all my outfits, and in these deep drop fishing trips where we fish in over 100 ft of water I could not imagine using mono. Not only is the sensitivity exponentially increased at increased depths, the thin diameter of spectra also allowed me to use slightly lighter weights and overall increasing the pleasure of the fishing experience. However, on the downside, spectra tangles are no joke and cutting off $15 of spectra in a hopeless tangle is no fun, nor is the wasted time trying to undo it. Thus, when I fish in deeper waters, I try to maintain my distance from other anglers and also be careful to fish near more experienced anglers who are more likely to keep their lines straight in front of them.

As is the usual case with rockfishing, the weight had barely hit bottom before the rockfish bites began. Tap tap tap, wham! Unfortunately, this spot was producing dink after dink for me, and each fish that came up was under a pound. However, after a short flurry of activity, I felt something of a better size take my bait. Reeling up, I found a beautiful new species on my line: A flag rockfish! The gorgeous colors glowed in the late morning sun and I quickly knocked it on it’s head and put it into my gunny sack.

Others were pulling in boccaccio or salmon grouper, but none were of significant size. Once the boat had limits of the famously worm laden fish (2 per angler), the captain decided that we should move to a different location for some more inshore species.

Pulling the boat into a kelp laden cove, the captain backed right into the shallow water. Here, the action was also fast and furious but again I was into the dinks. Apparently the blacksmith were still following me from Avalon! I switched from a reverse dropper to a double dropper and used small #2 hooks with small strips of squid. After hooking multiple bait stealing blacksmith, something of more heft took my bait. After a brief tussle (not much, with my 50 lb braid), a familiar shape came veering up through the water. A nice female sheephead! Since we were fishing in shallower water, these fish didn’t suffer from barotrauma, and I was able to release everything here safely.

One mistake that I made was in my desire to avoid tangles, I stayed away from the rear of the boat, where people were casting directly into the kelp. Unfortunately, later I would learn that almost everyone fishing the rear of the boat had pulled in sizeable sheephead including the jackpot winner.

On the positive side, by fishing the deeper water near the stern, I found another willing species. Ocean whitefish! Although not a new species to catch for me, the delicately cream colored fiesty guys are always a pretty sight to see. These guys were much smaller than the ones I had caught out of San Diego’s party boats and were probably only 12-13 inches.

After the action began to lull, the captain decided to move again to another location to target sheephead, this time in the middle of a turquoise colored bay. Once anchored, I let my double dropper down again only to find some fast moving fish had inhaled my bait on the drop. I quickly reeled in to find two Pacific jack mackerel, also locally known as spanish mackerel, on my line, albeit huge thick specimens that stretched well over a foot. Getting my bait through them to get to the bottom was a problem, but these hard fighting fish were actually quite entertaining to catch.

Once on the bottom, another species of fish was also quick to bite. Upon hitting the bottom, only a few seconds went by before something tapped on my rig. Upon striking, I was dealt a vigorous battle, one that was strongly reminiscent of a sheephead. I had been eagerly hoping to catch a sheephead in male coloration for my album and fought this strong opponent for a few minutes before getting it up near the boat. Surprisingly, I was not met with pink or reds at the water surface but instead a deep steel blue. This was a halfmoon (often called a Catalina blue perch), but like the mutant jack mackerel, this was a huge specimen that easily reached 16 inches. What a great fighter!

At this location, I continued to pull up more of the hard fighting huge blue perch when I could get past the voracious jack mackerel. However, no other species seemed to be in the vicinity and soon the captain decided that it would be again time to change locations.

Three more location changes and it was already 2:30pm. Still early, you may say, but not when you are running at only partial speed to try to make it back to the mainland! In order to make it back to the docks by 5pm, we essentially left the island at 3pm!

Although I was unhappy with the 4+ hour boat ride, the overall experience of fishing on the Pursuit was a good one. The captain and deckhands were all eager to get the passengers on some fish, and we definitely got into some good fish during early winter.

Channel Island Sportfishing Center:

Somewhat out of the way for the angler local to Los Angles, I had heard great reviews from the boats that left from this landing especially for the winter rockfish species. Hoping to share the experience of fishing with classmates, I decided to invite a few along to bring some fish to the table.

We had planned to board the ¾ day boat and arrived at the landing at 6AM to find it essentially deserted. Despite me calling the night before to confirm that the boat had booked enough people to go out, the landing decided last minute that the load was too light to warrant a trip and cancelled in our faces after our 2.5 hour drive! This was not shaping up to be a great experience to say the least, especially with a gaggle of neophyte fishermen accompanying me on some of their first fishing trip!

We decided to sit around for another hour so that we could board the ½ day trip instead and soon found ourselves on the Gentleman for the day.  Again, another disappointment from the administrative portion of the landing when they promised that live bait would be available, yet we boarded to find our bait to be frozen squid.

Here, we ended up fishing with 12 oz weights in about 250 ft of water for most of the day. With a relatively light load, the captain decides to drift over the reef instead of anchoring. Having experienced the higher variety of species that drifting can produce, I was excited to see what rockfish species would lay in wait for us.

The targeted species for the boat was what is locally known as bank rockfish, a small mouthed yellow rockfish species that is morphologically similar to blue rockfish and also similarly prefers to school midwater. Due to their small mouth, we were using size 4-6 hooks with small strips of squid!

While the midwater would often yield a bank rockfish or hefty boccaccio, I quickly found that if you left your rig on the sea floor for too long, it would quickly result in green spotted rockfish. These little fluorescently green striped fish were quite pretty, but always very small. Nonetheless, a great new species to add to my list.

After getting into the groove of slowly reeling my rig through the midwater levels to find the schooled species of rockfish higher in the water column, soon I had my first “bank rockfish” in the boat. Almost stereotypical in appearance, the deep body and small mouth almost gave the rockfish a perch like appearance. (Upon further inspection, I realized later that although the deckhands referred to these fish as bank rockfish, they are actually speckled rockfish).

On one of the drifts I also managed to pull up a tiny specimen of Chilipepper rockfish, my first of the species! Unfortunately, being such a small specimen meant a tiny filet, but that was the problem with fishing small hook sizes while rock fishing.

Upon the conclusion of the trip, it appeared that very few people had gotten the highly desirable vermillion rockfish, myself included. It seemed like this highly sought after species was avoiding me on these deep sea fishing trips! Nonetheless, another 3 new species were caught by me on this trip and I was quite happy with the result.

Despite the utterly unsatisfactory experience with the front desk representatives at the landing, I would say that the fishing experience on the Gentleman was great. The captain came down to fish with my friends and I and he is a great guy. We had a wonderful time joking with him and learning from his stories. If this landing was not such a hefty drive away, I would definitely like to fish it more often.

Newport Landing:

Normally, I don’t go out on party boats more than a handful of times per year, but this winter my loving gf had purchased a pair of discounted vouchers to fish on ¾ day trips out of Davey’s Locker. Unfortunately the expiration date was fast approaching on one of them, so I needed to go back out on another party boat. Upon redeeming the voucher, I was directed to Newport Landing due to the excess number of customers. Point of advice: if you are fishing with Davey’s locker or Newport Landing, make sure you confirm their fishing plans the night before you go out! It was only the previous night before my scheduled trip that I found out that I had been redirected to fish with Newport Landing instead of Davey’s. Granted, they are only a few blocks apart on Balboa Island, but it demonstrates the importance of confirming fishing trips before the morning of departure in case of last minute changes or cancellations.

The plan for the day was sculpin and sand dab fishing. Arriving at 630AM for the 7AM departure, there were already a few people ready to board despite the cloudy skies that seemed to threaten rain. In fact, as the departure time steadily approached, the boat began to fill until we were almost at full capacity! 80 people fishing on a tiny boat! This was definitely going to be an interesting experience.

This time instead of even attempting to fish the stern, I decided to take up a spot near the bow, where the crowds seemed to thin down just a bit. Here, I ran into what some people consider “dead heads” of party boats. Friends of captains, old deck hands, mates off duty, or just regulars who are in good relations with landing employees, these fishermen often ride for free on boats in search of jackpot winning fish and also work to boost fish counts for the boat. While there is a mixed opinion about them by various fishermen, I usually consider them extremely valuable sources of fishing information and techniques.

The current was running hard today, and it took quite a bit of weight to secure our baits to the bottom. Using a 12 oz weight, I was finally able to stop my rig from bouncing along the bottom. With a crowded boat, people lining the sides were definitely not having a good time with many neophyte anglers using only 6 oz of weight and tangling up a handful of people downstream from them. Even worse were the people who continually let out line along with the strong current, essentially letting their rig bounce along downstream and literally causing tangles among dozens of people. Since the current was moving from bow to stern (as usually happens when anchored), fishing the bow shielded me from most tangles. While we had a choice of cut squid and live anchovies to target sculpin, it was immediately clear that the sculpin were preferring the anchovies. Any cut squid was quickly attacked by clouds of sand dabs. While it was fun to have the constant action provided by the sand dabs, the sculpin were a real pleasure to tangle with.

Despite fishing in 150 feet of water, California scorpionfish or sculpin have no swim bladder, and will put up a short, fun tussle for a fish that is largely just a pair of enormous eyes, a cavernous mouth, and a set of beautiful pectoral fins. When the larger ones attack a bait, using spectra will let you feel each angry strike and is quite exciting. Also, being a largely catch and release angler, it allowed me to release every fish caught, which was nice for my personal convictions.

Although the more experienced fishermen aboard were enjoying relatively non stop fishing, the majority of this party boat load happened to be less seasoned anglers and many people were not having luck catching any legal sized fish (10”+ for sculpin). After spending the majority of the morning catching (or not catching) small sculpin, I decided to change tactics and see whether I would be able to target the larger specimens with artificial lures. Changing to big hammer swimbaits tipped with squid, I bounced them slowly off the bottom on a reverse dropper rig with a single teaser above the weight. Although I managed to get one or two sculpin, the interesting thing was the sand dabs that were attacking the swimbaits! Even a 5” fluke was not safe from the voracious sand dabs!

In an unexpected move, the captain decided that we would make a quick stop in some deeper 180+ ft water for some rockfish before heading back in to dock! Doing that type of fishing with a boatload of 80 amateur people was normally avoided due to the impossible tangles that would result, but with the little luck that some of the people aboard were having catching the sculpin, the captain wanted to just get some sacks filled with any kind of fish.

Upon anchoring, the regular fishing next to me fishing with a double dropper and a pair of lively anchovies almost immediately hooked up with something big. His 30 lb class Calcutta rod was bent over hard before “pop” something on his rig gave up. Shaking his head, he reeled up and found the 40 lb mono leader had been snapped! Seeing as how he was using new leader, and tied his knots with decades of experiences, I can only wonder what beast of the deep had taken his hook.

On my first drop, my rig was hit just after I had hit bottom and started to reel back up, and up to the surface came a nicely sized chilipepper rockfish, it’s pearl pink coloration glimmering in the sun. A much more satisfyingly sized specimen of this than the one I had caught out of Oxnard.

Eager to continue fishing, I dropped my rig down deep again, but it was only a few seconds before I had the first tangle of the trip. And oh, what a tangle it was! Spectra with 14 oz of weight makes for one mother of a tangle. Minutes wasted ticked by as I furiously attempted to make sense of loops and twirls and knots. Finally, I got the line freed and taken care of and dropped my double dropped with anchovies down. The rig hit bottom and I slowly reeled up a few cranks. Unfortunately, the captain blared over the loudspeaker and said time was up! The tangles were just getting too bad along the sides of the boat, and it was about time to head it anyway.

I began the slow retrieve back to the surface when my rig was hammered hard by something. My lighter 20 lb class rod arched over as something tried to scurry back to the depths. However, my hook set held and I slowly brought some weight back up to the surface. Peering into the clear waters, I catch a glimpse of a bright almost fluorescent orangish red color appearing through the water. Boccaccio or salmon grouper tend to have a dark brownish red color but the fish at the end of my line was simply glowing as it was hit by the sunlight. Quickly bouncing the fish onto the deck, I was pleased to see my first documented Vermillion rockfish! Ubiquitous among most deep water rockfishing trips, I found it interesting that I was never successful and capturing one until now! I admired the black fringed fins and mottled orange along it’s sides before bonking it in the head and sliding it into my fish sack.

With that last fish, we headed back in to the landing. While sculpin and sand dab fishing is most likely generally the same from landing to landing, I definitely admire the captain’s attempt to get more people on fish by targeting new species and locations.

Davey’s Locker:

With one more voucher to use up, I chose to go to Davey’s locker for the rockfish opener in 2012. Having not fished during the rockfish closure season, I was excited to see what new species I might find gathering in the deep. However, yet again party boat fishing throws in another surprise. Upon arriving at the landing at 6AM for the 7AM departure, I say hello to the deckhands that I am familiar with and find out that the boat is fully booked! 90 reserved spots!

I don’t know how many of the people were there for the rockfish opener, but if they had my expectations, they were about to be disappointed. Again, the captain was not going to risk deep dropping with 90 people, so we were headed out to Catalina Island instead, to fish the inshore kelp beds for sheephead. Although sheephead can generally be found in much shallower waters than other rockfish, they are still classified as groundfish and thus have a closed season during the rockfish closure. Although a prospect of catching new species was more of an attractive option for me, I was definitely not opposed to catching a few hard fighting goats!

As we steamed to Catalina, we rounded the south tip of the island and found the water alive with baitfish, seals, and dolphins. I had a heavy slide iron just in case anything pelagic was on the prowl, but the water temps must have still been too low for them to be present at the island. As was characteristic of Catalina, the first stop over thick kelp beds was met with a variety of fish being pulled up. A few big “sugar bass,” or grass rockfish were pulled up with the cut squid baits that we were using as well as a plague of blacksmith and Catalina blue perch. All fun hard fighting fish, but nothing that would match a solid goat.

Another stop produced the same variety with a couple of “micro” sheephead pulled up, but nothing legal sized. However, the third stop finally yielded some action as someone on the bow of the boat almost immediately had a rod arched down to the water as they fought to prevent a solid fish from diving into structure. One by one, the people around me pulled in sheephead when they could keep their bait on the bottom and away from the blue perch for long enough.

Soon I had a sheephead up as well, but it was the female/juvenile pink coloration that I had plenty of photos of. I was after a good picture of that characteristic male black and red color. I had initially started with a sliding sinker but found that it was snagging too easily and switched to a single dropper loop. I would eventually regret this decision, however, as I found later that every single big sheephead that was caught was caught on a sliding sinker rig.

Finally, after some more hefty Catalina blue perch, I connected to something that bulldogged along the bottom in a goat like fashion and found a darkly colored male sheephead at the end of my line. What a gorgeous specimen! A short time later, a light colored male joined in my species photo collection.

Eventually, the bite slowed and the captain moved again. However, he could not regain the sheephead bite so he decided to fish some slightly deeper water and see whether or not any rockfish were around. Interestingly, as we drifted from the deeper water into some shallow kelp beds, someone next to me caught a strikingly colored treefish. I was jealous as I had been trying to catch that species for some time and immediately dropped my rig down. Moments later, I felt some very light taps and was surprised when I pulled up my own miniature treefish! A great new species and one sporting a wonderfully delightful pattern. Interestingly, the fish seemed to be less susceptible to barotrauma than other rockfish species as another person plucked a tiny bloated green spotted rockfish from the same depth yet this treefish easily darted back down with no problem at all when I released it back into the water.

Afterwards, the tide must have slacked because the bite completely shut off at this point and nothing was biting. No matter though, because time was up and bags of fish still had to be cleaned while making our way home from the fishing haven known as Catalina Island. The jackpot sheephead ended up being taken by a young latino man fishing next to me with his close friends. While young, the trio had immense experience fishing and used absolute top of the line outfits. All three had matching Curado EJs or Avets with custom wrapped rods. Chatting with them, I learned they were regular thresher shark hunters at local piers, and I was able to learn a great deal of their techniques and experiences hunting those unique sharks. Yet another species to add to my list to target, here in sunny southern California!

With that last trip, my winter time party boat fishing streak ended. Until the summer species arrive, it is unlikely I will be boarding any more party boats. The unique experiences, species, and boat mates on each trip makes me thankful to have been on each trip and the deckhands and captains were all great in making each trip memorable.

Southern Californian sportsmen are definitely blessed to have resources such as Catalina Island so easily accessible that even a $35 ticket can have you fishing along it’s massive cliffs. Next time you feel the winter time doldrums, hop onto one of these ¾ day trips out with any of these landings scattered along the coast. While catching isn’t ever guaranteed, I promise you will learn something new, see something interesting, and perhaps even catch a hard fighting fish or two.

Fishy Trivia:

Among my recent party boat forays, I caught these two species of fish that I could not identify off the top of my head. I believe I have them ID’d now, but lets see what you guys think they are…

Mystery fish #1

Mystery fish #2

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