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Click here for Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

Thursday, June 21, 2018
Lead Masters lives on

Fish science
Back in the day, we would be rolling home on the Condor from the outer banks at Miguel. Bags would be stuffed with giant reds and grouper, sometimes chilies too. The 4-hour we called it. It didn't have a lot of high relief, but there were clouds of fish on it. A little more than an hour from the dock, we'd cross the coastal 50-fathom curve, a sharp edge between the shallower flats and the steep coastal drop off into deep water.

This feature runs all along the SoCal coastline, even around the islands — the shelf break being in slightly deeper waters where it is most exposed to oceanic rollers. It's along this edge and just above it where one finds most of the cod spots along our coastline.

gorgeousgaviotaGORGEOUS GAVIOTA COASTAL reds like these caught this past Wednesday are the primary target when fishing the deeps west of Santa Barbara.

Reds rule the low relief rocky bottoms, sharing with a variety of other rockfish and bottom biters. Most of the SoCal coast is comprised of soft bottom habitat, but it's at that depth where much of our relatively few SoCal coastal hard bottom areas can be found.

One of the larger sections runs from roughly Refugio, east to offshore of Naples, out between the mid 40s and the edge. It's here that we'd cross that edge. I would watch the little ridges roll under on the meter and wonder why that habitat never held like the much similar 4-hour.

I'd tried it numerous times after fishing bass at Naples and mostly all we got were a few very small rockfish, some "scrubs" and stuff. Occasionally, along the inner margin — where the rock really thinned out, I'd find a tiny stone that would be loaded with nice reds, along with numbers of huge coppers. But these bonanzas were rare and short lived.

It was baffling. Never heard it was ever any different.

Fast forward to 2014. It's been more than a decade since the first of the big boom baby rockfish years starting in 1999.

When the west wind's hoot'n out at the islands, mornings here remain calm – protected by our wind blocking coastal range, a 3- to 4-thousand foot wall of rock just 8 miles north. These mountains, the Transverse Ranges as they're called, in fact turn the wind and waves away from the entire SoCal Bight. They define the difference between Central and Southern California.

During these windy days the Santa Barbara SEA Landing based Stardust runs west, fishing these calmer coastal waters. But the big surprise is, unlike the days of old, now these spots are holding – big time. First it was medium reds by the millions, then over time they've grown.

Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise. I'd seen the demise of the 4-hour by then. We'd picked off the gravy as we worked west, and behind us a new gillnet rockfish fleet came. After that, not only was the gravy gone, but the meat, potatoes — and the biscuit too. Only a few crumbs were left and it was a rare day on the 4-hour when more than a few small boscos bit. That was more than 3 decades ago now.

The Gaviota Coast was actually terrific habitat all along. It's just that, long before I ever hit the scene, it had been cleared out, being an easy target with relatively few snags. And now the bite is back.

During this spring's windy weeks out at Santa Rosa Island, the Stardust and Coral Sea fished here in the lee. And those days the catch increased.

It's mostly reds and coppers, low relief reefs at ideal depths. The ling numbers here are less than at the island's craggy ridges but rockfish limits on 3/4-day are the rule.

Wednesday our first drop produces steady nice sized coppers, mostly 2 to 4 pounds. Then we went spot to spot, picking just a few fish off each, occasionally finding a mother load of future season's chilies.

The day before, Capt. Sal had found a huge school of 4- and 5-pound reds, finishing limits late in the trip in a few minutes of wide-open fishing. The bags were brim full with red tails showing out of their tops.

We worked our way west. Along the way we passed over several sweet looking spots, but we were on a mission. When we got to Capt. Sal's zone, a few nice reds, bocaccio and coppers came up. But it wasn't wide open. Getting late, it was time to think about wrapping it up.

But we kept the gear ready to drop one last time. Retracing our tracks, we rolled back to one of the spots passed up previously.

A quick last drop turned into two, as the big redfish and chuckleheads rained aboard. In the end every angler had a full limit, even a few who had hardly fished.

Between nature's return to rockfish production and fisheries management enforced forbearance, these coastal spots are now better than most can remember. Fishing produces the most food for the least alteration of natural systems of any other food production – no clearing, plowing, planting, spraying, canal digging or fertilizing required.

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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California partyboat captain, he also works as a marine research scientist with the Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at:

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