Being a white seabass fisherman this decade — as in literally Jan. 1, 2010 to present — has been like no other cycle this century.
La Niña (2010-2013) posted different rules. Her winters and springs were long and held few prospects. Kelp thrived. Squid nests sprouted and regenerated what seemed like endlessly up and down the coast. Winter nests held nothing, in terms of game fish. But come May all it took was a fresh nest to kick out huge white seabass and legit homeguard yellowtail. What the Southern California Bight lacked in terms of offshore exotics was made up for with these coastal pelagics. It was the best (read: easiest) white seabass fishing the coast has ever seen. The islands gave up some great fishing, yet never in the March and April timeframe that many still consider the time for croakers. Seasons started late. But they also went late—falls are not made for seabass, but October and November gave up some fun sample, often on huge, non-spawning fish.
TIDES AND CURRENTS are what guide those who give seabass the respect they deserve.
2014 was this weird blend. It was the last season the coast held squid nests and white seabass bites. Many have been chasing this ever since. But the squid hasn’t been around.
The two years of El Niño (2015/2016) saw a quantum shift away from the La Niña styles, and old-school definitions. Whereas during that La Niña cycle there was squid everywhere — the commercial fleet hit its quotas for the first times — lightboats and seiners sat at the docks. There was literally no squid going to market. Islands like Catalina and Clemente were barren of not just commercial volume of squid, but also the favorite habitat of white seabass: kelp. The new water structure had local anglers’ brains plumbed more around quality tuna, wahoo, and blue marlin than white seabass and halibut and dropper-loop yellowtail. (Let that sink in for a second.)
Enter this season: the kelp is back, squid has shown signs of trying to rebound, and, for the first time in recent history, Catalina gave up late winter fishing on seabass. Those who appreciate white seabass for the challenge are cautiously optimistic for a great season. Part of the reason is because contemporary history (think late 90s, post 97/98 El Niño) has set a precedent of the backside of El Niños being good for not just catching white seabass, but also recruitment. These 55- to 65-pound tankers that have been around were larvae in the early 2000s, according to Mike Shane of the HUBBS white seabass hatchery.
TRADITIONAL DEFINITIONS ARE that of March being “the month” for Catalina’s white seabass. This season was the first this decade where the croakers decided to put on a March bite. Rob Webster scored this 32 pounder while fishing on the author’s 23-foot Parker. To get an extra style point he did caught it on 12-pound Dacron.
While I’m not going to give away the answers as to where to go and exacts on our biggest local game fish, this should help re-route your brain around what questions to ask when it comes to the only local game fish we have as a year-round, year-in, year-out, target.
When I wrote for this section last year, I wrote, “The game will change again next season [as in 2017], with NOAA predicting a fall whip-in to a major La Niña, skipping ENSO neutral altogether. Or will it?”
Turns out La Niña never really happened. The game hasn’t changed, so much as gone back to the way it was in the late 90s, post 97/98 El Niño.
Some Things Never Change
If you wait to hear that white seabass are biting, it’s too late; chasing bites and reports is part of the reason why people have skewed perceptions of white seabass; you might get bit in the crowd, but you’ll never experience what seabass fishing is all about — getting bit with a beautiful backdrop and not having to worry about getting tangled in anchor lines and big egos.
Don’t buy into the notion that seabass fishing is always like fishing for catfish. This is a fish that has multiple personalities and styles to create puzzle pieces out of.
Pay attention to moons and tides and keep great notes (mostly for skiff anglers, but it also applies to booking charters); seabass are an incredibly tidal and lunar fish; season to season they go through different phases — move in, feed, spawn, go off the feed, try to fatten up — based on the lunar cycle, but no two seasons are the same, so far as what they are doing in correspondence to the moon.
Go on sport boats known as seabass specialists; book private charters with buddies so you can vote to focus on seabass.
DAY AND NIGHT are both prime times to get shots at the big local fish. Keeping notes of past catches, water temperature, moon phases and spawning cycle can serve as a season-to-season guide. Josh Levine, left, and the author, show off a couple of good ones taken 12 hours apart.
Think about where you are casting, where your bait is going in terms of the structure and how the seabass relate to it. Look at your chart plotter (skiff) or ask the captain where he would be casting (sportboat).
My summary on the way fishing information — especially seabass info — spreads in modern times: “Where you might get bit the day after you hear about the bite, or after getting waved in from a buddy or some sort of pay-for-information online service, but why and how is what gets you bit for a lifetime.”
The biggest tip is to go as often as possible.
Book your seabass trips in advance, during prime windows, be it carving out vacation days for skiff trips or getting groups together to charter a boat that focuses on seabass. Look at seabass fishing as being like big-game hunting. Nobody goes on a one-day hunting trip for big game. They put days in to sit in a tree stand, or spot and stalk their big game. There’s no such thing as flying to Idaho for a one-day elk hunt on public land. Fishing for white seabass should be viewed through a similar lens.
Before I started my charter business and before the coastal fishery took off in 2009, I used to try and do at least six trips a season on the six packs. In over the course of those trips I figured one would get wide-open fishing, one or two would pick a fish or two, and the rest would probably face tough conditions. When that wasn’t enough, I started filling in as second captain, so I could make money, learn more about Catalina, and rod and reel fish at will.
Rod and Reeling
Enter one of my few steadfast beliefs (aside from that big seabass don’t have soft mouths): if we were less concerned about “the perfect” rods and reels and terminal tackle, and more focused on mastering the basics of fishing with conventional gear — casting, putting baits in the right spots based not on randomness, but where the fish are swimming in relation to the structure, and having a reason when fishing any given rig — we’d catch more fish.
PERSISTANCE PAYS OFF when it comes to fishing white seabass — it’s one of the few steadfast rules to the game. Cathy Needleman scored the first gamefish of the season for the LA Rod and Reel club with this January, 2016 tanker.
Don’t fish randomly. Have a reason for using the rig in your hands. Sliding sinkers should be picked based on the conditions (read: current, or lack thereof), and where in the water column the fish are feeding. This comes from thinking about the conditions, or seeing how others are getting bit, or trusting your electronics, or knowing how much current there is and where it is taking the lines in relation to the structure. There can be hundreds of seabass swimming behind the boat 20 to 40 feet below the surface, but if all the baits are getting bulleted to the bottom, they are diving right past the fish. On the flip, if it’s strong current and the fish are under the boat, but your sliders aren’t getting you baits to the bottom until you are 100-plus feet behind the boat, you are not going to get bit.
Don’t use a rig just because it produced in the past. Fish a rig, be it a sliding sinker, or a leadhead, or a squid under a balloon, because it seems like the best way to get bit, based on the conditions.
For many fish — think tuna, marlin, any offshore game fish, really — they essentially fish the same no matter where in the world you try for them. There are nuances, but in the end, trolling and fishing live bait works for tuna anywhere in the world. White seabass are different. To fish them effectively, different approaches are required based on the location.
Typically, those who love fishing seabass find offshore fishing tuna fishing boring and not much of a challenge; conversely, offshore anglers think white seabass fishing is the most boring thing in the fishing, mostly because the nuances and hunting aspect is lost on them.
Dropper loops, jigs and squids, sliding sinkers, lead heads and “conventional” approaches work in most places for seabass. When it is a squid grounds bite, it all plays the same, be it along the coast or at an island. Yet, there are often huge difference in approaches when it comes to fishing islands versus the coast, especially the last two years. Float and balloon fishing, the jig and mackerel “hambergesa” rig, and fishing the upper water column when the water hits a certain temperature and the seabass are in certain phases of the spawn, or post-spawn, are some of the nuance plays for fishing the coast. At Catalina, if it is structure fishing, you need specific sets of conditions to get bit. Milky green water and edges don’t play along the coast or at Santa Rosa or Santa Cruz islands — the zones that have dominated the seabass scenes in recent years — but it’s the stereotype of seabass fishing at Catalina.
From a personal standpoint, my success increased when I started looking at seabass as being more like a salmon — they travel a huge swath of coast and are listed as a coastal pelagic — at times, and like a grouper, or structure-based at other times.
Think “why?” before “how?”
Here’s quick mental checklist for any fishing that involves using an anchor: What water column do I think the fish are swimming in? How can I fish to keep my bait in that exact water column as much as possible? Is structure an issue, in that I need to worry about having to first keep a 45- to 60-plus-pound seabass out of the kelp, and get it out of the kelp if it buries me? Do I need to make long casts and work my bait, or is it more under the boat fishing (like when sitting on a high spot or winter squid nest) and I just need to fish under the boat? Is it time to switch terminal tackle, and use a lighter or heavier sinker or leadhead because the current has increased or decreased or I don’t think I am staying in the zone?
A BEAUTIFUL GRADE of seabass has been available at the islands this spring. This one was caught on a live squid fished on a 3/8 ounce slider to a 6/0 Owner Aki Twist.
White seabass are misunderstood. My basic way of trying to understand what is going on in real time is to go through something like the checklists above.
I ask myself all of the above questions, think about the current, time of the year, water temperature, bait concentrations, successful trips and moon phases and seasons past, previous failed attempts, and what’s been going on leading up to the next cast.
From there, it’s up to the seabass if they are going to give you a shot… all you can do is fish the conditions at hand, and not let past trips influence you too much unless recall is telling you that you’ve seen this situation before.
Only with success can you put together different puzzles with the pieces of seasons past. This time around, the 20-year-old puzzle is going to be the one that you’ll want to piece back together….
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Brandon Hayward is a former Saltwater Editor at WON. These days he owns and operates his charter business, www.onemancharters.com, in between dipping his toes into the editorial pools.
THE ART OF THE 1-2-3-4-5 APPROACH
1) Look at white seabass as different animals based on what island or section of coast you are fishing them.
2) Keep your bait moving. That could mean pumping a leadhead and squid back to the boat, along the bottom (Catalina/island fishing). Or endlessly casting a flylined squid, even though it’s only you and the moonlight and a passed-out buddy at 2 a.m. (local fishing).
3) When rod holder fishing, cover water columns.
4) Never (one of the few rules to this game) let a squid sit on the bottom. White seabass do not swim on their sides to slurp squid out of the sand and mud; sharks, bat rays and any fish with scientific names including Chondrichthyes does. If you are casting sliding egg sinkers and leadheads and fishing in freespool, in the rod holder, give me 20.
5) White seabass eat more than squid. Experiment with different baits and presentations. (Interesting fact: the Catalina white seabass fishery started with Tuna Club members having big hits on huge white seabass on dead flying fish fished on the drift off spots like Eagle Reef and Ship Rock.).
Tackle and gear—and misconceptions
A) White seabass are not line shy. Don’t be afraid to fish heavier line and leaders than usual.
B) When it comes to the Spectra versus monofilament debate, nobody ever says, “Monofilament cuts through the kelp as good as mono.” Fish braid if there’s heavy kelp within a jig cast of the boat.
C) Long rods, call them eight and nine footers, have advantage over shorter sticks. Part of the laundry list below why: longer casts, absorbing headshakes, helping get around obstacles (like other anglers, outboards, rods in holders)
D) Small reels are great for schoolies and long casts into pockets of conditions, but for the 50-plus-pound tankers, have a reel that holds at least 400 yards of line, when fishing with 10 to 12 pounds of drag. (I’ve seen multiple clients get spooled; the cast before I got my first 60 pounder I was spooled on an Accurate 870N.)
E) Fish what you have confidence in. Fish any gear you want. Be able to live with the consequences if you are not fishing proper gear.
BYCATCH OFTEN MEANS big yellowtail and halibut. Captain James Lega picked off one of each off a little dab of coastal El Nino squid in 2016.