Click here for Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

Wednesday, February 5, 2020
Gearing up for rockin’ the opener

Best guess forecast
It may not look weird from here, but it’s been pretty darned weird oceanographically along our coast this past year. Most seasons the upwelling along the Central Coast, through the western Channel Islands extending south to the outer banks along the Bight’s western boundary backs off in the late summer and fall. But this never really happened in 2019.

Instead, despite warmer than usual waters in general, we saw high-powered primary production. Food-rich green water offshore of the Bight persisted all season long.

This was a continuation of the trend of the past couple of years. The northern and outer Bight saw shallower thermoclines progress, becoming areas of persistent upwelling, which lasted all season long.

Finally up-welled waters pushed out of the northern Bight for the final week of February, yet March 1’s heavy west winds promised a return.

While most wet seasons bring a bit of light rain along the SoCal coast just before Halloween, followed by a dry November, a couple of douses in December, and beautiful dry Santa Ana Indian summer through January, this time it was different.

It was dry until December and then we got soaked — even the deserts inland did. When the January northeasters came they were modest and short at best. Then normally somewhat wet February remained almost completely dry.

The rains that came were the result of ultimate weirdness. Instead of watching a frontal band advance down coast, low-pressure systems materialized out of nothing just offshore and wafted inland on a southerly trajectory. Primary low-pressure systems shunted east much farther north than usual, hardly grazing the Golden State at all.

Weather models that used to be baffled by such “cut-off lows” not only rocked them, but had them timed down to the hour more than a week out. It’s stunning how well modern models now run.

Because of the early-season damp-deserts phenomenon coupled with persistent cool waters in the northern and outer Bight, the drivers of persistent Santa Ana conditions have been week.

The ebb and flow of the jet stream has full control of our weather with little local interference. It’s being steered by stuff happening far to our north and west.

Looking forward, I foresee another whopper of a Channel Islands area seabass and halibut season, and of course, all the whitefish and rockfish one could ever need. But it will start classic, with croakers at Catalina, Clemente, then ’Nic and SBI and for some, along the coast too.

As far as the pelagics go, I’d guess another solid season on bluefin of all grades. However, it may be a little weak on US waters yellowfin, while the San Diego fleet once again rocks the house.

In fact, a few bluefin are already blowing up into the inner Bight waters as far north as Newport.

I’m guessing once again we’ll see a sharp line between the cold green water and the warm blue, but a bit later in its northward progression. The cold water finger extending south outside the Bight may be even a bit more pronounced than it was in 2019.

Outside of it, waters will once again be warmer than the long-term average, yet those waters will again be well outside of where the fleet will fish. The direction to find that offshore blue and warm closer to home will again be southwest and south, as it was in 2019.

Yet my guess is from south Santa Cruz Island, southeast inside the wind line, including Catalina and waters between Clemente and the coast, we’ll see the warm stuff jet into the Bight.

Good surface water is again likely to pool in the San Clemente and Catalina basins, including just offshore of O.C. But it might not be as thick as it has been, perhaps not deep enough to bring those yellowfin tuna with it into the Catalina Channel.

Bluefin are a bit tougher, green water tolerant and have already made a showing. For bluefin, food is a bigger driver and a big bonanza can drag those fish into sketchier waters.

On the bait scene my guess is a three-peat, lots! Plenty of fish food. Better bust out those skills, as primary productivity has been excellent.

Old-school bites on bass could return as mainstay for the local fleet, provided the 14-inch size limit coupled with ample bottom biters doesn’t once again switch 1/2- and 3/4-day strategies almost entirely. Although the bass fishery seems to have slid predominantly into private boater territory, it may finally broaden back out some this season.

As for bottom biters, recovery continues in full swing and in coming seasons, we’re set up to see many restrictions fall off, vastly improving public access. On the table are longer seasons and potentially an end to complicated closures by depth.

This may be a few years in coming as we proceed cautiously. We could see additional relief in 2021 and more in 2023. It would be really cool get the outer banks morning cod-keeping monkey off our backs, allowing fishing pelagics in deeper waters despite having sacked some bottom biters.

For 2020, there should again be an over abundance of ocean whitefish to tap on top of plenty of rockfish. Lingcod availability seems to have leveled off, with the outer island adventures again the best bet for big ’gators.

There may be some regulatory restrictions coming on reds however. If so, these would be driven by how long it’s been since there’s been a successfully submitted stock assessment — coupled with the discovery that there are actually 2 species, not one as previously thought.

As for yellowtail — that’s a tough call. We’ve a legacy of yellows recruited far north into the Bight — but those conditions that brought them have receded a bit since then.

It seems the bite kicked off at the Coronados last week however. I wouldn’t hesitate to make the drive, rather than wait for them to arrive more locally.

Bonito seem to be on the upswing and barracuda continue to gradually gain abundance, so again, some promising old-school local fishing looks to be on tap for 2020.

Deep-drop fishing for swords is gaining in popularity as hooping did a decade ago. I expect to see skiff opah come with it.

As for albacore? Okay boomer.

* * *

Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California partyboat 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:

• • • • •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.

Reader Comments
Be the first to comment!
Leave a Comment
* Name:
* Email:
Website (optional):
* Comment:

Advertise with Western Outdoor News