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Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

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Tuesday, January 02, 2018
Winter bass
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Winter bass


Wintertime Options
Well, it's the time of year when many landings simply roll in the red carpet. The months of January and February often feature extended periods of excellent weather in SoCal as we pray for rain. Back in the pre cod-closure days, they were two of the busiest months for Santa Barbara Channel boats, with March and April being the slow ones. But, there are some great options.

Indeed, many of the operations now use this time to spruce up the rig and go into maintenance mode. They haul out and get what they can done, even short daylight hours to their days and dodging bouts of wet weather.


scorpionfishSCORPION FISH CARPETED the bottom in 160 feet, dust covered and stacked on one another, until we landed on them with the sub. The ones under us boogied, kicking up a cloud of dust. Long Beach Shelf. LOVE LAB PHOTO, MERIT McCREA


Yet, there are plenty of great fishing options out there. For starters, every season in recent years has seen ever greater numbers of sculpin, actually not a sculpin, but California scorpionfish, aka rattlesnakes, on tap. And this past week it got real, with several regions kicking out local limits of the coveted critters. Basically the zone from Oceanside to Pt. Dume is loaded.


Sanddabs are another regular winter option and at least two boats are offering bucket filling sanddab fishing. Then there are two bonus bites — the best 1/2-day yellowtail action in years out of San Diego, and what seems to have become the new norm, a winter bluefin bite offshore.


San Diego landings have 1- and 1.5-day trips headed out for bluefin fishing and the bite was excellent last week, with fish found on both the 60-mile Bank and some 30 miles west of Punta Colonet, in 1.5-day range.


This past week saw excellent action on Hamachi-grade yellows in U.S. waters San Diego 1/2-day turf. The bite has been going for a couple of weeks or more and has moved around the local area, west of Point Loma to Imperial Beach.


There is Mexican coast bottom fishing coupled with bouts of WFO on the yo-yo, yellowtail. These include both 3/4-day trips to the Coronado Islands area and 1.5-day trips fishing areas around Punta Colonet. San Diego locals tangle with deepwater cods galore on extended 1/2-day trips aboard the Premier, out of Point Loma Sportfishing. Hundred fathom drops? No problem! Big red battles super grouper!


Many 6-packs and some sport boats, including the Triton and Gail Force, (gailforcesportfishing.com) in Long Beach and the Jig Strike out of H&M Landing in San Diego offer hoop-net trips targeting lobster. They depart in the afternoon and fish sunset into the night, returning around midnight.


Then there is wintertime bass fishing, something that I'm predicting will be a much bigger deal this winter than it's been in a long, long time. Classically this is a nighttime lead-head and squid deal, live, fresh dead or frozen defrosted. Sometimes it includes daytime fishing and exotic finbait even.


In the Channel Islands area, Ventura Sportfishing has winter bass trips planned aboard the Amigo. CISCO's has slated daytime bass trips aboard the Aloha Spirit.


Definitely the tastiest fry-fish of all is sculpin. It's local, it's easy, and it's biting better than ever as local 1/2- and 3/4-day boats bagged limits last week. These fish, despite their rather sedentary morphology, are really long-range runners, sauntering from spot to spot, some making seasonal rounds to Mexican waters and back.


For them, it's single dropper loop, double dropper rigs and reverse droppers, using anywhere from 2 to 10 ounces of lead, depending on current and depth. A simple squid strip is the bait of choice most often. Sometimes a heavy leadhead of a couple ounces or more gets it done best, and provides an excellent shot at a sand bass bycatch along the way.


Scully season opened Jan. 1 and will run until the sport quota is reached, or Aug. 31, whichever comes first. They have a 10-inch minimum size limit coupled with a 5-fish maximum daily bag limit and a 360-foot max fishing depth, if you have any aboard.


Their much-feared sharp and venomous spines are the subject of much lore. I've been stuck numerous times by scorpions with little more ill effect than that of a rockfish spine. But then a mere sculpin scratch put me down in agony.


Despite the old deckhand remedies claiming relief using various excrement, household cleaners and condiments, the pain truth is heat relieves as much of the pain as can be curtailed. So the cure is immersing the injury in a hot liquid of some sort until the pain of the burn equals the pain of the sting. But between the two the total pain is less.


The heat cooks the painful poison ever so slightly before the heat cooks you. It's not the coffee or the tea or the vinegar or the pee, it's how hot it is that does the trick. So it's soaking in galley coffee that's the treatment then.


Anglers will find scorpionfish are given a "crew cut" with deckhand dykes before they're sacked. But few crew know to get them all, and the facial spines of skinhead scullies remain worthy of avoidance.


Sanddabs are another amazingly tasty fish, and in the early 1900s were much preferred in the market, despite their diminutive dimensions. On the ’dab boats, Ahra Ahn (Long Beach Sportfishing) and Gentleman (CISCO), regulars have developed some unrivaled dab whacking gear and technique. But basically a burly squid-bit baited Lucky Lura or Sabiki with a 10-ounce sinker will get 'em.


Sport boats recommend 65- or 80-pound spectra mainline and a rod and reel capable of handling a 1- to 2-pound sinker. They string 10 or more hooks per line. The pros rig two such outfits with custom HD dab rigs and alternate them with each drop.


They'll shuck dabs from one and then bait the other setup as the other is down fishing on auto. Then they'll haul the down rod, drop the ready rod and repeat — maximizing the time they have baits on the bottom.


A 200-dab per person haul is a good day, while half that is more usual. By the way, no limit on ’dabs, special deal, but that's Citharichthys sodidus only. Last I looked, regs said nothing about its secret sibling, C. xanthostigma which also makes a minor contribution to the catch, remanding it to California’s regulatory catchall 10-fish rule. But as a practical matter, even fewer people can tell them apart than know there's a difference and no one's the wiser.


Up in Avila Beach, the Patriot runs a ’dab and Dungeness trip, but the dabs get short shrift, as anglers and crews focus their efforts on the delicious Dungeness.


* * *


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: merit@wonews.com.


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