Click here for Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

Wednesday, August 29, 2018
Where are them keepers?
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Let’s go deeper, skipper!

Name that spot
When it comes to the spots anglers like to wax knowingly the names of, it sounds like number babble — shibboleths uttered to elevate the utteror to that rarified level of knowledge of all pursuits piscatorial. Was it the Butterfly? ‘Shroom? 43 or Cross or Corner. Maybe the 60? Or was it south, perhaps the 295 or 213. Maybe the 101 and out to the 425 was the hot spot. Some names are easy to see the source of, like the Tanner Bank or Cortes Bank, but what about The Nine on the Cortes? Or was it The Nine on the Tanner? And where did these names come from?

First there are the number and shape names. Then there are the mileage names for banks. There are the chart named banks and rocks, many of which are “misfortune” names. Then there are some which defy sleuthing entirely, or are sourced in humor. How many Castle Rocks, Bird Rocks, Seal Rocks, Deep Holes and White Rocks are there anyway? And what about “Ship” Rock — was that really what the first sailors who encountered its dew drop covered facade called it?

Names by number and shape

With regard to the number names and shape names, like the Butterfly, most all stem from a common single source. It started in fish boat wheelhouses over the VHF back in the days before GPS. It was way back somewhere between the course and time days, the ancient ADF, the LORAN A followed by the LORAN C era.

U.S. Charts charted U.S. waters. But there was one which stretched far into Mexican waters at a usable resolution — NOAA paper or raster chart number 18022. The NOAA ENC versions won’t work for this.

As far as tuna go, within a mile or 3 will put you in the right area to start looking. Of course, modern weekend warriors have gotten it all out of context, plug in coordinates and zoom to the dot, then sit there wondering what’s next. Drop ’em boys, we’re here!

It’s 18022 we all had, and that’s where the numbers came from. It was just easier to pick out the nearest depth record and relay that over the radio or on the dock — shoot past North Island, about 180 degrees from Point Loma at about 40 miles by the “425” on “The Chart,” — “we started on the 101 inside of that and finished up there yesterday.”

Then somewhere toward the latter part of the LORAN C era, some recognized much larger scale shapes cast by the 500 fathom curve. That chart has isoclines drawn in at 100, 500 and 1,000 fathoms. Thus the Butterfly and Mushroom were coined for the image the 500 fathom curve drew on NOAA chart 18022. Some stuff was easy on the chart, like the Dumping Grounds, aka The Dumper. It was a violet square labeled “ CHEMICAL MUNITIONS DUMPING AREA DISUSED (see note E)

A look at the Cortes Bank shows a 9 fathom high spot to the north west of the main reef, but other larger scale charts may show a 7 instead. Indeed, a few of the number names come from other charts, whichever one was in the most prevalent use for the area, back in the time of paper.

Names by misfortune

The Cortes Bank was named in 1853 by Capt. TP Cropper of the side-wheel steamship Cortes. However, it was surveyed some few years later and recorded incorrectly as the Cortez Bank, which it remained for some years until corrected.

The high spot on the bank breaks in most sea conditions, being covered by just a few feet of water — a condition the crew of the clipper ship Stillwell S. Bishop discovered quite by surprise and to their dismay when they struck the rock in 1855, lending the ship’s name to that rock for posterity.

It was gold rush era boot maker Nathan Richardson, who hauled himself out on an outcrop west of San Miguel Island in 1851 after the ship he was sailing on sank nearby. Being one of the very few who survived the sinking, the rock was named in his honor.

Names by distance and fictitious features

There are a number of banks named for their distance from the port who’s fishing fleet were most likely to visit, like the 60-mile, 14- and 9-mile banks. In addition, there’re names like The Cross, which is a San Diego name for where the intersection of the 32 and 118 lines meet.

Of course, there’s no specific persistent fish attracting feature to that. It illustrates the relevance of the other hot spots too. Many of the open ocean names are simply a shorthand for passing on where the fishy waters were most recently. Most often there’s nothing intrinsically special to the fish about the named zone and you’re a fool to sit there and soak on nothing just because you’re on the numbers. You need to start your looking 5 miles or more before you get to the promised land. Those pelagics may move daily as they follow bait and good water.

Another example of this is The Corner, which is simply where the line equidistant from the nearest Mexican and U.S. landfall makes a sharp turn to the southwest near the 43. The 43 actually is a fish attracting physical feature. It’s a very tall seamount coming within a few hundred feet of the surface.


While the origins of the names of the Rodriguez Sea­mount and San Juan Seamount seem to remain a mystery, it’s worth noting that many banks have dual names. They have a their fishing seafaring name and a name given by seasick academics out for our 3 weeks at sea each summer. South, offshore of Baja the academics gave every bank they charted the name of some famous historical mathematician or scientist, or maybe that of a revered scientific explorer. Thus the Shimada Seamount is the same place as the Hurricane Bank.

While the Potato Bank looks like a potato on the chart, the Cherry Bank, not so much like a cherry. It seems to me, as one of the last major virgin rockfish zones, not heavily fished until perhaps the mid 1980s, that’s how it got its mostly misogynistic name. As I recall, it was those mid-winter San Pedro/Long Beach long distance rockcod specials which popularized that name for the previously too-far-to-bother-with deep drop high spot. And it stuck.

Maybe naming offshore banks after Leibniz and Einstein and Johannes Kepler is preferred to the names conjured by folks who named the fish we caught like Dr. Suess did — one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.

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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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