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Feature Article: Taco Carnage

‘Taco carnage’ and rockfishing’s cool factor

BY MIKE STEVENS/WON Staff WriterPublished: Feb 14, 2020

SAN CLEMENTE — As an 18-year-old punk working in a tackle shop in the mid-’90s, I used to give rockfish a bad rap, and I admit, it took me a long time to get past that. To me, chasing rockfish was something an angler’s only cold-season option, the only way to fill a sack during the winter doldrums. It seemed like the saltwater version of soaking mackerel for catfish, something else I had no interest in. It would be well over a decade when I saw the rockfish light.

In my defense, there likely haven’t been many 18-year-old punks working in a tackle shop in any decade really fired up about rockfish, or catfish for that matter. That’s an age in which tackle technology meant everything, obsessing over ball-bearing count and getting way too excited over how long a reel will freespool off the water with no line on it — those kinds of things.

lingcodarealmostLINGCOD ARE ALMOST always within the realm of possibility when fishing for rockfish.WON PHOTO BY BOB SEMERAU

Rockfish gear at that time was big and clumsy. In the shop, we’d see a lot of trolling rigs come in during the shoulder season between fall and winter to get repurposed for rockfish duty. Short, heavy sticks, many of which were complete with roller guides, and everything from big Penn Senators and Internationals to TLD-30 2-speeds getting 60- and 80-pound mono getting pulled off after a season of offshore trolling and replaced with Dacron. Old-timers would roll in with those broom handle rods with wooden grips, zero bend and salt-corroded roller guides.

Dacron was what was available that delivered the low-stretch factor required for effective deep-water bottom fishing prior to modern-day Spectra. Unlike today’s braid, Dacron wasn’t much smaller in di­ameter than mono, so those big reels had to be put in play to have enough line capacity to work with. With a tendency to absorb water and rot, it also wasn’t the “investment” today’s braid is, with its ability to stay on a reel as backing for several years before needing replacement.

Rounding out the look back at old-school rockfish gear, we had lead sinkers measured in pounds, “rail-plates” for rods and 5-(plus) hook ganions. It also was pre-rockfish closures and the Marine Life Protection Act, so at least there was that.

Modern tackle is definitely what turned me to the deep side of the Force, and it starts with braid. Its small diameter means a lot of it fits on smaller reels, to go along with the no-stretch factor, as a result, manufacturers responded by beefing up gearing and drags on smaller reels to accommodate the upgraded performance measurable. All of the sudden, rockfish gear wasn’t much different than other gear. When it comes down to it, regardless of the type of fishing, scaling down in size almost always means more fun.

Not long after the rockfish tackle revolution, I found myself on a 6-pack charter with some buddies chasing yellowtail that popped up off Mission Bay in very early spring. The water went cold overnight, and it became a rockfish trip. Fishing was slow, but the deckhand was whacking them.

“Want to know what I’m doing?” he asked, in a very cautious, I-deal-with-a-lot-of-know-it-alls tone. Not being “that guy,” I said, “Yes!”

A MIGHTY VERMILLION aboard the Tomahawk. Capt. Joe Crisci said they caught some of the largest reds they’d ever seen, up to 9 pounds, on their recent Colonet trips. PHOTO COURTESY TOMAHAWK SPORTFISHING

He explained, rockfish (like every other fish, generally speaking) will face up-current, so if I dropped down closer to the bow rather than off the stern with everyone else, and “walked it” back, there would be a better chance of more fish seeing it.

Oh my! Despite fishing for rockfish on the bottom from an anchored boat, I would be essentially covering water. Now fish facing into current is some real “Fish 101” stuff, but that nugget of advice turned me into the hot stick that day, and I’m sure I’m not the only guy on earth who wouldn’t automatically apply it to rockfish.

In trips that followed, I’d do a lot of shallow-water rockfishing, probing the same depths I would for halibut or bass or even yellowtail, feeling every rock and crack along the bottom with that Spectra transmitting directly to a light graphite rod I might otherwise throw iron or fish bass with.

I got to where the subtle tap… tap-tap-tap of a small rockfish was easily read and ignored, waiting for that tell-tale pull of a nicer fish and the head shakes that follow, but even a smaller one feels bigger on light gear and braid.

On Western Outdoor News charters, I got to see how a lot of other guys chase rockfish, too. Even on island voyages with yellowtail in the crosshairs, time was made to shoot out to some rockpile to fill sacks with bottom biters so everyone went home with taco carnage. One in particular — a 2.5-day to San Clemente Island — we kept orbiting the island and picking through a slowed yellowtail bite, but we’d also shoot out to spots like Desperation Reef and just crush them. One guy was dropping a butterfly jig and bringing them up two at a time, another was a construction contractor who used heavy old-school “curtain weights” for sinkers. Then there was the guy who rigged a Craftsman wrench with two hooks turning it into a jig because he saw a YouTube video with guys doing exactly that in Florida for goliath grouper.

It’s that level of willingness to eat all manner of rigging wackiness and experimentation that ranks “miscellaneous rockfish” as a legit everyman’s quarry.

Short version: Rockfishing is cool. Anyone can do it well with gear they likely already own, but at the same time, there are nuances to absorb from those who specialize in it that can take an angler to the next level.

butterflyjigsBUTTERFLY JIGS ARE very productive for rockfish, and don’t be surprised if you wind up a bottom-biter attached to both hooks. This guy smoked them one drop after anther with a Flat-Fall over on Desperation Reef during a Western Outdoor News Charter. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

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