Maximizing Rockfish And Lingcod Success
Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
There are a lot of saltwater anglers out there, you know who you are, that look at rockfish and lingcod as the quarry of the unsophisticated and unskilled.
They look at us bottom fishing aficionados in much the same way as some freshwater enthusiasts view bluegill and crappie anglers. Basically we get no respect! Yet consistently catching quality rockfish and lingcod takes skill and the proper tackle. Let’s take a look at how to maximize your effectiveness the next time rockfish and lings are on the menu.
Success in the salt, whether marlin or surf perch are the target depends on forethought and preparation and the same is true when it comes to rounding up rockfish or landing lingcod.
It doesn’t matter if you choose to fish from a charter boat or your own boat, finding willing rockfish is seldom a problem. The variable that we deal with when targeting bottom dwellers comes in the form of the conditions, namely the depth, the breeze and the speed of the current. These three factors largely dictate the type of tackle we must use if we are achieve maximum results in any give situation.
Over the years I’ve found that in order to meet the widest range of situations while targeting rockfish and lingcod that I need to arrive at the boat armed with a pair of very different rods.
My first rig is the one I like using when the going gets tough, the boat is drifting quickly and I’ve got to pile on the lead in order to stay in contact with the bottom. It consists of a 7’ Fenwick Saltstik 1870 rod teamed with an Abu Garcia 9000 Big Game reel spooled with 325 yards of 65 pound Berkeley Fireline Super Braid. Using this rod, I can confidently snap on a pound or even two pounds of lead, if need be and still drag a bad tempered 20 plus pound lingcod out of the rocks in excess of 100 feet of water. This combination gives me pure power, which is exactly what the doctor ordered when conditions are less than perfect.
Now a lot of old school anglers out there probably have their eyebrows raised over the fact that I choose braided line. “I’ve been using 30 pound mono for the 472 years and I’ve caught plenty of fish on it,” they say. Well, in principle I agree, but I also agree that a horse and buggy will get you to the super market just the same as a car will! The bottom line is that where rockfish and lingcod are concerned, braid will do everything mono will do except braid will do it better.
First of all braid is much stronger than mono while maintaining a much finer diameter. Depending on the brand, 65 pound braid is the same diameter as 14 to 17 pound mono. By being finer in diameter, braid cuts through the water cleaner than mono and this gives you more direct contact with the sinker.
Another major attribute of braid is the fact that it exhibits almost no stretch. Stretch is bad! It deadens sensitivity and makes for unreliable hook sets when using heavy weights in deep water. With braid every tick and tap is telegraphed back up to you. This allows you to avoid snagging while detecting even the lightest bites. Finally when you do get hit the low stretch properties of braid allow you to slam the hook home with total confidence.
Now when you go to the tackle shop and look at the price of braid, you might just get sticker shock, but what if I told you that over time braid is far less expensive than monofilament? Well it’s true. Monofilament breaks down when exposed to U.V. light and has to be replaced regularly if you want maximum reliability from you line. This isn’t the case with braid. Based on my observations, braid resists just about everything. I’ve got some braid on one of my Abu Garcia Big Game reels that is going on 5 years old and it is just as strong and as reliable today as it was the day I put it on the reel. Two weeks ago I battle a 50 plus pound sturgeon on it with total confidence.
Okay, so we’ve established that you’ll need one power fishing rig spooled with braided line that is capable of dropping a pound or more of weight with horsepower left over to trade punches with a big hard charging fish.
Your second rig should be significantly lighter, yet it still has to display a good deal of backbone and resiliency. We’ll, call this rod your “jig stick”.
I absolutely love dropping metal jigs for lings and big rockfish. I’ve experiment with a number of different rigs over the years. My current set up is the best I’ve assembled so far. It consists of an 8’ Lamiglas XC 807 Big Bait Special rod. In reality the B.B.S rod is designed for throwing swimbaits at big largemouths, but is more than up to the challenges of light to moderately heavy saltwater jigging. I’ve combined the rod with an Abu Garcia 7000 ICS Pro Rocket level wind reel spooled with 325 yards of 65 pound Spiderwire Ultracast braided line.
I got this rig last season and on my third drop I nailed a jackpot winning 20 plus pound lingcod that just could resist a 7 ounce Megabaits jig. On my very next bottom fishing trip, I used a P-Line Pulse Raiser jig to tempt a 14 pound ling out of 20 feet of water while fishing near Point Reyes to win my second jackpot in a row. Based on these experiences it is little wonder that I consider the Lamiglas B.B.S. to be my lucky stick!
My B.B.S. rig personifies everything you should look for in your jigging stick. The graphite rod has a sensitive tip that immediately transitions into middle and butt sections that offer extreme power. The Pro Rocket reel is fast and features an exceptionally strong carbon matrix drag, while the Spiderwire Ultracast line that it is spooled with is soft and supple allowing me to make 40, 50 and 60 foot underhanded casts in order to stay ahead of the drift.
Okay, now that we’ve discussed the rods and reels needed for successful bottom fishing, it’s time to focus on the basic end tackle and technique used at most locations up and down the California Coast.
Basically there are two kinds of ports that dot the California Coast when it comes to targeting bottom fish. There are live bait ports and jig ports. Boats departing from live bait ports have access to live anchovies and as a result they are the number one bait for tempting both rockfish and lings.
When fishing for bottom fish using live anchovies the same type of three way rig that is employed for halibut or striper fishing is used. Depending on how fast the current and drift are, you’ll typically be using from 4 to 8 ounces of weight, but in extreme situations the skipper might call for you to use a pound of weight or more. Whenever possible you want to use your light rod for this work, but you’ve got to use your best judgment.
Among my friends and family I have the achieved the reputation of being a bit of a ringer when it comes to winning jackpots on rockfish/lingcod trips. The reason for this is simple. I avoid fishing for school fish and spend all my time targeting bottom fish. Now you are probably wondering what the difference is.
At the rockfish grounds there will be huge schools of 1 to 4 pound fish suspended at various depths between the surface and the bottom. These fish are fun to fight and great to eat, but if you want to land the big boys you’ve got to discipline yourself and ignore the school fish. Big rockfish and monster lings are found right along the bottom and that is where you want your offering, if catching the biggest fish possible is the goal. Yet, for the inattentive angler working the bottom can be frustrating since it is snaggy down there and if you’re not careful you’ll spent the day donating tackle to Davy Jones.
When I’m fishing live bait along the bottom, I want to know exactly were my gear is in relation to the bottom. If it is too far off the bottom, my chances of catching a big jackpot quality fish diminish greatly, but if my rig drags across the bottom it won’t be long before I become helplessly snagged. In most fishing situations you want to use the minimal amount of weight possible to get the job done. This advice doesn’t really apply to working live bait for bottom fish. In this situation I almost never use less than 8 ounces of weight and as often as not I’ll switch over to my heavy rod, so that I can drop a pound of weight.
The approach to working the bottom with live bait goes like this. Quickly free spool your gear to the bottom to avoid having your bait eaten by school fish on the way down. Once you feel the sinker hit, waste no time engaging the reel and retrieving a few feet of line. As you drift, gently lift and lower the rod. You want to feel the weight tick the bottom on the down stroke. If the bottom comes up, retrieve more line. If the bottom falls away let more line out. The better job you do of keeping the bait near the bottom without snagging the more big fish you’ll hook.
When working the bottom, your drag should be set very tight. In fact it should border on being locked down. When a big bottom fish or ling is hooked, its first line of defense is to try to bolt into a rocky crevice. If it succeeds you’ll almost never land the fish. With a tightly set drag, you want to really go to work and crank vigorously the moment a fish is hook to draw it up away from the snags.
Fishing with live bait is all fun and games, but for me the reel excitement comes when the conditions allow me to drop metal bar jigs. A lot of guys like to use rubber swimbaits teamed with leadheads. These lures work great, but I prefer working metal. My whole game revolves around getting to the bottom quickly and staying there until I hook up. Metal bars sink quicker than swimbaits and I think they are just as effective at catching fish. As a result you won’t find any swimbaits in my gear.
Fishing metal jigs is simply, but if you want to achieve maximum result you’ll need to follow the steps I’m about to outline. First of all you’ll need a selection of baitfish shaped jigs in the 6 to 10 ounce range. Color isn’t a big consideration. My favorites are blue and silver or purple and black. I do well with these color combinations, but they are the only ones I ever use. I’ve got a few jigs that have almost no color left on them and they still work well, so that’s why I believe color isn’t a big factor.
When you buy a new jig the first thing you want to do is replace the hook with a moderately priced oversize bronze treble. The hook is going to take a beating in the rocks, so don’t waste your money on premium quality hooks. You want to use bronze hooks because you can usually bend them out when they snag and then you can bend them back into shape when you bring them up. It is smart to carry a small hook file in your pocket when fishing, so you can touch up the hooks between drifts.
Okay, let’s pretend we are at the bottom fishing grounds and you decide to drop a jig. You want to select a jig that is heavy enough to reach the bottom quickly, this usually means you’ll be using a 7 or 8 ounce model when fishing from a charter boat. You can often go lighter from a private boat.
To rig up, attach a large swivel to the end of your braid and then knot on a 24 inch 40 pound test leader of abrasion resistant mono. I prefer P-Line CXX or Trilene Big Game. The jig is knotted directly to the end of the mono leader. If you become snagged and can’t get the jig free, the mono leader will break before your braid and you won’t loose any line.
Once you’ve got your jig attached to the rod it is time to step up to the rail of the boat. You want to be on the side of the boat facing toward the direction the boat is drifting. While thumbing your reel take it out of gear, drop the rod tip toward the water and pitch the jig out directly in front of you. Start out with a short 20 foot flip. If the drift is moderately fast to fast you’ll have to flip the jig out farther.
As soon as the jig hits the water allow it to sink. When you feel the jig hit the bottom, Retrieve the slack and started working the jig up and down using 2 to 4 foot strokes of the rod tip. As the boat drifts toward the jig you’ll have to keep retrieving line. Most anglers are right handed and most conventional reels have the handle on the right side.
To retrieve line, don’t waste time passing the rod from the right hand to the left hand. Simple hold the rod sideways, reach across and crank the reel with you left hand while you continue working the bait. You want to feel the bait tick the bottom on the down strokes, but do not allow the jig to drag across the bottom. Before long the jig will be directly below you and then it will sweep under the boat. Once it goes beneath the boat reel it up and start all over again. If you leave the jig under the boat you’ll snag up in short order.
Speaking of snagging, when your jig snags, immediately hammer it with the rod 3 or 4 times on a tight line, as if you are trying to set the hook and then give it some slack. More often then not the jig will come loose when you tighten the line. If it doesn’t, repeat the procedure once or twice more. If the jig still fails to come loose, put your reel into free spool and feed out some slack. Next wrap the line around the rail or a rod holder and allow the drift of the boat to either break the leader or straighten out the hook on the jig.
When using mono I would routinely loose 6 to 8 jigs per trip. Now that I’m using braid that number is cut to an average of 1 or 2 and many times I don’t loose any.
A lot of anglers that are new to jigging wonder what a strike feels like. Well suffice to say that when a fish strikes you’ll know it. Picture how it would feel if one of your buddies grabbed your line and gave it a mighty tug. Big bottom fish are not dainty. It‘s a tough neighborhood down there and they typically hit like a ton of bricks.
Your job is to crank for all you’re worth when a hookup occurs to keep that potential jackpot winner out of the snags!