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Wednesday, August 16, 2017
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Tuesday, August 29, 2017
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Hunting giants
The black seabass is known to fish geeks as the giant seabass. Just as our beloved calico bass is somehow immortalized as a kelp bass — despite its clear preference for weedless, rocky reefs over rockless weed beds. Yet, if there is a rock with kelp, the calico living there will sneak up the stringers rather than rise through open waters. By the same token, black seabass truly are giants in the realm of seabass.

A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE just for scale. WON Saltwater Editor Merit McCrea hangs on to the top of a pinnacle, while Katelin Seeto captures the moment. Although some say a black's spots fade with age, we've seen them flash between all silver or all dark and spotted, in a few seconds.

In recent months, Love Lab up and coming marine scientists Katelin Seeto and Conner Jainese set about discovering whether spot patterns on giant seabass were unique between fish and whether computer image processing software could make comparisons between images and identify individuals. The answer to both questions seems to be “yes.”

Those two are on the job collecting GSB profile pictures from any source they can find. So, we decided to go get a few photos ourselves. Heading over to Catalina Island, we used the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies as a base of operations, and dove various sites all along the lee side, from Eagle Reef to The Quarry.

Interestingly, over the course of three days, we never missed, never had a dive where none were seen. On one dive we missed the reef entirely, swimming out over sand. We still spotted at least four individuals.

Although recovery of GSB numbers was slow to start, it seems to be going great guns now. I recall long ago being distinctly upset over the number of sea lions, thinking, that for every one of those fish burning monsters, the ecological economy could support several blacks instead. And how cool would that be?

As we dove near the Quarry, the Western Pride pulled up, and drifted on a shiner of bonito, hooking several. Instantly, the dogs were on them, perhaps four of them set to work grabbing over half the fish hooked. Soon there were bonito bodies being slung around like whips, as gulls picked at the flying bits being shaken off.

One big dog attempted to down a headless bonito body in its entirety, getting about 2/3-down before it wouldn't go any further. Waldo then coughed it back up and slung it around a little more.

But below, we had just seen at least 6 giant seabass, all as big as those dogs. I was pleased to see it. Of course, we had chosen the most likely sites we could get info on. Nevertheless, we never got to one of those best known for giants, among locals. My impression was, when these giants move in, they patrol every major rocky reef and steep slope.

FIVE AT A TIME — The three in front are perhaps a buck-seventy-five or 200 pounds, while the two to be seen dimly in the background, lower right, are closer to 300.

Over the course of the three days, we spotted two fish with tags, yet saw none that bore telltale signs of having been hooked and broken off, no monofilament whiskers — no obvious hardware, jewelry or piercings.

Here are some other observations. First, the conditions were clean 71-degree water on top, with greenish, mid-60s, bit-filled water from about 30 feet on down to 80 feet. Below that, it was 61.

Big shiners of bonito skirted the shores of the island just about everywhere, and some smaller spots of barracuda too. We got schooled by 500 to 1,000 bones, and a batch of perhaps 300 barries came through as well.

Calicos were everywhere. On one spot, what appeared to be bottom turned out to be a solid wall of bass, all waiting for red crabs to waft through. Even a few Garibaldi were hanging mid-water waiting to join the blue perch in ripping apart any hapless red crabs drifting too near the reef.

There were areas where green abalone was absolutely thick. They were as shallow as six feet, on down to 70. It was great to see after the massive abalone meltdown two decades ago.

Looking like glowing hot dogs, pyrosomes seem to be the latest macro plankton boom, edging out red crab. They glow brilliant blue in the dark too. If you've been out at all, you probably have noticed them floating by in the tide.

We also witnessed crevasses jammed full of lobster, sometimes hundreds, elbows to elbows.

However, like those calico bass, the vast majority looked smaller than keeper sized.

FEE-FI-FO-FUM… Mr. Giant's face fairly fills the frame as the photographer imagines a pair of swim-fins sticking out of his mouth like a frog's legs from a black bass's.

Speaking of which, there were oodles of ocean whitefish too, even out over the sand. Most of these were also on the small side. But soon, if we can keep our greedy fillet knives off them for a few more months, there could be a true OWF bonanza coming our way.

I had heard plenty about the Asian Sargasso seaweed invasion at Catalina, and its march across the rock-scapes at Anacapa Island more recently. Currently, this seasonal rock weed was just emerging from dormancy. The 5- to 10-inch high algae coated almost every exposed rock surface already.

Growing to be several feet high, it was clear. In a few months one won't even be able to see rock at all. Instead, there will be a vast expanse of Sargassum waving in the current.

This is a game changer, but it's not clear exactly how the game changes. Certainly, the bass and other fish will have a lot of cover to hide in. Crawling a swimbait along the bottom will not be an option.

I have one final note regarding our undersea exploration of one of the most heavily visited islands in the SoCal archipelago. There was no shortage of fishing line draped over the rocks. Perhaps most obnoxious were a few major spider webs of lost braid draped from ridge to ridge.

I see this not so much a result of fishing, as much as a result of newbie naivety. If you snag bottom, you don't need to cut your line off at the reel. Save yourself some money and help keep the evil finger of blame for "marine debris" off us. And yes, I am aware the only difference between marine debris and marine artifacts of cultural and historical significance is 50 years on the bottom.

Snagged? Shake it! Shake like crazy between slack and taught. If that doesn't work, just sunset the drag, hang on to the spool with both thumbs, and break it off at the knot. You don't have to cut off and lose a huge hunk of line. We'll be glad to come back and gather up your Flat-Falls, yo-yo irons, leadheads and swimbaits and add them to our collection!

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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat 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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