Click here for Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

Gearing up for rockin’ the opener
Usual bottom fishing gear consists of a conventional reel spooled with 30- or 40-pound mono, or with that on top of a base of braid. However, more and more we see folks bringing out smaller reels and longer rods to fish small chrome, swimbaits and combos — and not just for fishing the shallow stuff, but even out in 300-plus depths.

The truth of the matter, especially along the SoCal coast, is a vast majority of our rocky bottom turf occurs just back of, or right along the shelf-break. This zone is mostly in roughly 50 fathoms of water, or about 300 feet down.

If you’re new to party boat angling, bottom fishing is a best bet for success — it doesn’t take a lot of new skills or special tackle to start, and success is about as guaranteed as fishing gets. Although rockfishing can be done with a spinning rod and reel, much preferred is medium weight conventional gear.

And while fishing straight mono works, fishing a 50-foot length of 30-pound mono on top of a spool of 50-pound braid allows one to fish faster on the drop, more straight up and down on the drift, and feel the bites and bottom much better. It also facilitates using much, much less weight to hold in the zone.

Back in the day, anglers fished 4 hooks at a time, Dacron line and 2 pounds of lead most commonly. Since then, regulations changed to no more than two hooks per line and one rod per angler.

High strength, low stretch braided lines changed the game, and attitudes changed. Today most anglers start out fishing 8- to 10-ounce sinkers on double dropper loop gear, with squid the bait of choice. This is seconded by live anchovies or sardines — sometimes both.

Up out of Port San Luis (Avila) and Morro Bay, the first-timer tackle uses a 1-pound sinker most commonly and rockfish flies — popular coast wide — are de-rigueur.

The basic strategy is to be ready to drop when the captain calls “Let ’em Go!” and send your terminal tackle to the bottom quickly while the school is right under the boat. Often, there will be a drift of several “stones” in a row and the boat will drift over all before winding back up to run back up drift for a repeat run or new stone.

That braided line really helps in this. However, fishing straight braid can lead to fish lost to tearing the hooks out due to its lack of springiness.

A bit of shock absorbing mono, or at least being sure to use the rod to minimize the direct-connect effect of fishing straight braid to a rod-length only fluorocarbon or nylon monofilament leader really helps keep fished hooked.

As far as hook size goes, it all varies with the zone being fished, typically with smaller fish being found on harder hit local spots — where the average fish is a pound or two, and larger fish being caught on the outer island and outer banks adventures. There the average fish caught weighs 3 to 8 pounds and there is a high likeli­hood of tying into a major ling or sheephead.

A light wire circle hook is a great bet when fishing double dropper gear — just drop, hold bottom and wait for fish to hook themselves. Swinging hard and grinding fiendishly on braided line is a sure way to tear your fish off the hooks and end up seizing defeat from the jaws of victory.

But more experienced ang­lers fish jig and fly, large swimbaits and such. Big swimbaits in 6.5-, 7- and 9-inch sizes paired with 2- to 4-ounce leadheads are very effective and popular choices fishing island waters in 200 feet and less.

Fishing small chrome jigs has gotten popular and these can be paired with a swimbait above them on the leader. Flat-Fall type jigs, knife jigs, Shimano’s Coltsniper, Ahi Assault and Daiwa SK jigs are great choices.

What has made this gear really fun is the newer, larger level wind reels and matched lightweight high modulus graphite rods available. Fishing bottom biters with this “bass tackle” is a blast, as you can feel every little twitch down there, even at 300-plus feet.

The ones I have are Daiwa’s Lexa 300 and 400 reels. They’re spooled with Izorline’s Brutally Strong braid in 50- or 65-pound and I fish just a short leader of fluorocarbon — less than a rod length.

Set-ups like these are what the Stardust and Coral Sea crews hit the rail with on their days off. Daiwa’s Proteus rods pair nicely and I’ve found their 810 paired with a Lexa 400 a great all around stick for this.

In fact, I’ve fished that stick successfully for everything from yellowfin tuna to bottom biters and even heavy spoons for largemouth bass now.

Another rod that’s surprised me when a heavier set-up is required fishing deeper waters with bigger terminal tackle is United Composites’ Delmar 1000. For now, the reel on it is an old-school (antique actually) Newell 300 conversion on a Tiburon frame.

It’s basically a hardened Penn 99 and it holds a ton of 65-pound braid. However, I’m looking to upgrade to a similar sized modern 2-speed of some sort.

While bottom biters is not what I intended to fish with it at all, bottom biter fishing is a great way to try out just about any new tackle because almost all of it will work and bites are easy on the bottom. So you get to test drive your latest acquisitions with a live head shaker on the line.

In this case, the long rod makes easy work of tending bottom as the boat rises and falls with the swell. It’s a little tough when working a tangle and passing other anglers uncrossing lines of course.

A long jig stick can make a 5-pound whitefish torque like a 15-pound yellowtail with all that length and power. Just hold the rod tip high and you can pull for all you’re worth. And if you get tired, just drop the tip a bit or go to the rail and wind the poor critter in.

A shorter rod with a softer tip is a much better bet for anglers looking to give their quarry less of a fighting chance however.

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Merit McCrea is a saltwater columnist for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Dr. Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at:

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