Go Micro When Rockfish Develop Lockjaw!
Rockfish always bite right? Well they almost always bite, but just like any other species of fish there are times when rockfish shut down and hooking up becomes challenging.
If I’m looking specifically for a limit of rockfish, I generally rely on a 3 to 6 ounce metal jig. If that isn’t working and live anchovies are available I’ll run with small anchovies pinned on a three-way rig. If anchovies are not available or if they aren’t working that great, I’ll break out the tried and true yellow and red shrimp flies.
But alas there are times when I’ve been out when all of these offerings failed me. Sure at these times you can catch the occasional fish, but when I can feel my jig literally bouncing off school fish and I’m only hooking one every tenth drop it’s time for a change in tactics.
My top solution for solving tough rockfish bites is downsizing my offerings…Going “Micro” if you will. I stumbled on this tactic about 10 years ago and it has seldom failed me.
I was on a Golden Gate charter boat and we were way up the north coast near Point Reyes. The conditions were flat calm and the drift was minimal.
Conditions like these look great and at times outstanding fishing can be had, but based on my casual observations the calmest days can also provide exceptionally tough fishing at times. First I believe that it takes some current to stimulate the bite and second, without current you just won’t be covering much ground on your drifts. If you are covering less ground you’ll be exposing your offerings to fewer fish and due to the lack of current the fish that do see your baits just aren’t in an enthusiastic mood.
At any rate we were up at Point Reyes. We’d been fishing for quite a while and it was slow. I only had about a half limit of rockfish in my bag and I was one of the guys that was doing well!
While I was digging around in my backpack looking for a spool of leader material, I came across a Sabiki rig. For the uninitiated a Sabiki rig is a series of small “flies” or jigs attached to a central leader. The rig is used for catching sardines and other baitfish.
When I saw that Sabiki, I immediately thought, “When the going gets tough, downsize your bait”. Ripping the package open, I had the rig tied on my light rod within a minute. The rig had 5 hooks on it, so I cut three of them off to be in compliance with the regulations. I snapped a 4-ounce weight to the bottom of the leader and free spooled it down about 50 feet.
Putting the reel in gear I started to slowly retrieve line and instantly the rig got slammed. For a few seconds the fish put up a good fight and then everything went dead and the line got really heavy. Cranking down and lifting up I worked the fish toward the surface.
About 20 feet down I spotted a grayish form that slowly materialized into two 2 pound black rockfish each looking like the kid that got caught in the cookie jar with a comically small gold hook imbedded in each of their mouths!
Now you are probably thinking that I carry Sabiki rigs in my tackle arsenal to this day specifically to deal with tough bites. If that’s the case you are partially right. I don’t use actual Sabiki rigs because they are too lightly constructed. They are intended for use on baitfish. If you drop a Sabiki down and hook a 6-pound vermilion on it, which is a possibility, you’ll likely loose it to a snapped leader or a bent hook.
This being the case I construct my own super effective “Micro” rockfish rigs and you can too. My rigs will save the day when the going gets tough and when the conditions are calm the rigs are just plain fun to use no matter how good or poor the bite may be.
A Sabiki rig basically consists of small flies and you can construct one using flies and beads, but that’s a pretty labor intensive way to go. My goal was to come up with a rig that was strong, featured small baits and that was easy to construct. To make a long story short I ended up at the kitchen table with rolls of line, boxes of saltwater hooks and a bunch of kokanee size hoochies. The two rigs I came up with work just as good today as they did a decade ago.
The first rig is about 40 inches long and is constructed of 25-pound fluorocarbon line. Two-inch dropper loops are tied along the length of the leader at regular intervals. At the top of the leader there is a swivel where you attach your main line. At the bottom there is a snap for attaching the weight.
For hooks I use No. 1/0 or 2/0 ring eye live bait hooks. If you use premium quality hooks you can find lightweight hooks that are exceptionally strong. You want the strongest lightest hook possible. A light hook give the hoochie life, but a strong hook ensures that you’ll have a realistic shot at landing what you hook, even if it’s a 25 pound ling that you hook by accident!
To rig up take a 1.5 to 2 inch hoochie, double one of the dropper loops over and shove it through the head of the hoochie going from the nose toward the tail. With the hoochie on the loop drop a hook through the loop, snug the loop down on the hook eye and slide the hoochie back down to the hook…Simple!
The second rig is equally as simple but it’s more fun to fish…To set it up take your main line and pass it through a sliding sinker sleeve. Slip on a bead and then attach a swivel. To the swivel attach 30 inches of 25-pound fluorocarbon. To the leader slide on a hoochie followed by a bead or two and then tip the leader with a 2/0 live bait hook via a perfection loop. Snap a 1 to 4 ounce weight on the slider and your ready to get wet.
This year, the hoochie I use on Rig No. 2 has been replaced with a “hoochie hybrid”. It’s call an Ace Hi Jr. Fly and it’s made by the folks at Silver Horde. The Ace Hi Jr. is a hoochie that employs a hard head flashabou and a traditional hoochie skirt. The end result is an outstanding 1.5-inch baitfish imitation that boasts lots of fish catching flash!
Fishing The Rigs
Rig No. 1, the multiple hook rig can be used on a heavy rod with heavy weight if need be, but both rigs are best worked on a fairly light high performance high strength graphite rod. A light swimbait rod or light flipping stick works great. You want a rod that is at least 7 feet long that has some play in the tip that quickly gives way to power and backbone. Pair the rod with a high speed baitcaster spooled with 30-pound braid.
As far as the actual fishing goes, remember that less is more when it comes to these rigs. You are imitating a small baitfish or a small squid or shrimp. These things don’t move very fast. I like to lower the rig to the bottom as quickly as I can without tangling. Once I get bottom contact, I drop the reel into gear and bring the rig up a crank or two. For the next several second I GENTLY wiggle the rod tip. If no strikes come, I simply start retrieving line, SLOWLY. Sometimes I stop and do a bit of rod shaking.
When you hook a fish using the multiple hook rig, you want to keep pressure on the fish by slowly reeling, but don’t be in a big hurry to bring the fish up. The struggling of the first fish will usually cause a buddy of his to jump on the remaining lure. That’s how you boat a limit of rockfish in 5 or 6 drops!
Okay the bite was tough, but you broke out one of the micro rigs I’ve recommended and now you’re hooked up…Man this is great!
That’s awesome, but remember that those fish aren’t yours until they hit the deck. All to often I see folks reel fish up too close to the tip of the rod when using light tackle and then try to use the rod to crane the fish into the boat. I’ve done it myself and the result usually isn’t good. Lot’s of times the fish will flip off the hooks as they hang in space and it’s a wonderful way to break a rod.
The best approach is to stop reeling when the top of the leader reaches the surface of the water. At that point grab the line, set the rod aside and hand line your fish over the rail and into the boat. Watch those hooks. If you get one in your hand it’ll ruin your whole day.
If you’ve got something like a lingcod that is too big for the hand line approach, call for the deckhand and he’ll show that big ‘ol ling the gaff!