Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
Rockfish just don’t get any respect. They are always playing second fiddle to sexier species like salmon and stripers. Rockfish even take a backseat to their arch nemesis the lingcod.
If you tell your fishing buddies that you caught a limit of stripers or a 12 pound salmon they’ll look at you like you’re some sort of hero. But if you tell them you busted a limit of rockfish, you might as well tell them you caught 10 bluegill down at the local duck pond, because both achievements will generate a similar level of excitement.
Heck I know plenty of downright enthusiastic saltwater anglers that absolutely will not target rockfish. They sneer at the mere suggestion of going on a bottom fishing trip as if rockfish are strictly the domain of old timers wearing suspenders and high waisted pants or youngsters that really don’t know how to fish.
Where does this rockfish prejudice come from? I think it stems from a couple different avenues. First I think a lot of folks associate rockfish fishing with the heavy unresponsive tackle and primitive tactics that were once the mainstay of the sport.
Back in the old days rockfish tackle consisted of a stiff rod matched with a huge low speed reel spooled with 30 or 40 pound mono. A couple 5 hook leaders would be connected to the end of the line, the hooks would be baited with squid strips and the rig would be dropped into water 300 or more feet deep with a pound or two of lead attached.
Using this tackle you wouldn’t actually feel the fish hit. Instead the line would get heavier and heavier as the hooks filled up with fish. When it felt heavy enough the cranking started and a while later you’d haul 5 or 8 or 10 bloated fish over the rail. It was a great way to fill the freezer, but offered little in the way of sport.
A second factor that has taken the shine off rockfish fishing is the fact that the DFG and federal government have been churning out propaganda about the dire state of rockfish populations for the past 20 years. These dire pronouncements are always based on the “best available science”. In reality there is little science at work but rather lots of guessing and assumptions.
This is done in an attempt to justify fishing closures and depth restrictions. The powers that be would have the casual observer believe that the entire West Coast rockfish population is hanging on the brink of extinction and that numbers are so low that if you go fishing for them the action will be second rate at best.
I’m not a scientist or a biologist, but I have been fishing the coastal waters of northern and central California for 30 years. What I read in reports about rockfish and what I see first hand are two different things. The depiction of the rockfish population as put forth by government mouthpieces is so different from what I observe it makes me wonder if said “mouthpieces” ever actually venture out on the ocean or if they spend their entire existence in a cubical sipping government Kool Aid as they plan out the next generation of MLPAs and depth restrictions.
I can honestly say that the rockfish fishing I see today is as good or better than the fishing I experienced when I first started targeting rockfish back in the early ‘80s. The fish are large and plentiful in most locations and even species that we are restricted from harvesting due to supposed low numbers, such as canary rockfish, seem to be thriving both in terms of size and numbers.
Anyway I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I do get out of my cubicle once in a while and when I do I see a strong rockfish population that stands ready to provide plenty of sport and good eating for all.
I think one of the few positives that have come out of widespread depth restrictions is the fact that being forced to work shallow water, combined with innovations in tackle, has changed the way we fish for rockfish for the better. The days of super heavy tackle and the focus on bringing up multiple fish on each drop is gone forever.
These days we target our rockfish with light nimble gear that sacrifices nothing in terms of strength. When we switched over to lighter gear and shallow water fishing, we quickly learned that rockfish are ready strikers and hard fighters. From a broad perspective I can make the case that rockfish are one of our best sportfish. They are almost always biting, they fight like tigers, the table fare they provide is second to none and the 10 fish limit is generous.
Clearly I’ve taken the long way around the barn, but what I really want to do in this article is discuss the tackle and techniques that we use to target shallow water rockfish. My hope is that if you’ve never been out after bottomfish or if you haven’t been out on their trail for a number of years that you’ll get out on the salt this summer and give them a try. You’ll enjoy the action they provide on responsive gear and the enjoyment will continue at home when you starting cooking those snow white fillets!
Whenever you head out for rockfish, you should have a pair of rods. One rod should be relatively light in saltwater terms. I’m thinking of something along the lines of a flipping stick if you are a black bass guy or a rod you’d use when bait fishing or trolling for Delta stripers. Basically I’m describing a graphite medium fast to fast action stick ranging from 7 to 8 feet long that can handle weights ranging from 2 to 6 ounces. This rod should be matched with a level wind baitcasting reel capable of holding 200 yards of 50 to 65 pound braided line.
Your second rod or your “heavy rod” should be capable of handling weights ranging from 8 to 16 ounces. It too should be matched with a level wind baitcaster spooled with 50 to 65 pound braid. In a perfect world you won’t be using this rod too much, but when the drift is fast and you need to use beefy weights you’ll be glad to have it. We’ll talk more about weight selection in a bit, but first let’s go over the benefits of using braid.
Braided line is expensive on the front side and a lot of guys ask me if it is really necessary. Well it is absolutely necessary and since it lasts far longer than mono you’ll actually be saving money by spooling up with braid.
If there is one thing in terms of tackle that has really changed the face of bottom fishing it’s braid. Braid has almost zero stretch and has an impressive strength to diameter ratio when compared to mono. The fact that braid is thin allows you to use less weight than you would have to use to do the same job with mono.
The low stretch properties of braid, make it extremely sensitive. This sensitivity gives you outstanding feel for the bottom and this translates to better control and less lost gear.
Rockfish hang out in snaggy craggy territory and if you drag your gear along the bottom you’ll get hung up quickly. The sensitivity of braid allows you to feel the bottom instantly, avoid dragging and thus avoid snags.
Rods and reels and braided line may be the corner stones of rockfish gear, but it’s the end tackle that’s fun to talk about and play with. If you fish out of Bay Area ports or other ports that boast live anchovies or sardines, hooking rockfish is often as simple as dropping down a three way live bait leader with a lively baitfish pinned on the hook, but there are a lot of other ways to go if you don’t have live bait or even if you do.
The long time favorite rig for tempting rockfish is the shrimp fly rig. These days we favor rigs that sport a pair of flies. The leaders are about 36 inches long and come pre-rigged out of 30 or 40 pound mono. They have a swivel on the top end, a snap swivel on the bottom and two flies rigged on droppers are evenly spaced in the middle of the leader. To set up for shrimp fly fishing, simply tie your main line to the upper swivel, attach an appropriately heavy weight to the bottom snap, pin two strips of squid on the flies and drop the rig over the side. Shrimp flies come in a variety of colors. All white and yellow/orange tend to work the best most of the time.
I tie a variation of the shrimp fly rig that is very effective at times. I tie my rig with the same materials and dimensions of a shrimp fly rig, but instead of sporting flies I construct it with a pair of 4/0 octopus hooks. I arm these hooks with either 3 or 4 inch curly tail grubs or 3 inch Gitzit style tube baits.
Some days they like the tubes, other days they like the grubs and some days I’ll slip the grubs inside the tubes and then pin them both on at once to create a bulkier offering. My favorite colors for these plastics include white, glow pearl, chartreuse, purple and root beer.
Speaking of soft plastics, when the conditions allow you to use lures from 1 to 3 ounces in weight a single or double tail 4 to 6 inch grub rigged on a 1 to 3 ounce jig head can be dynamite. In addition to rockfish, this is one of the very best offerings for tempting cabezon. Root beer, smoke, purple or white are all great color choices.
Working metal jigs is one of my passions. Rockfish will hammer jigging spoons that range from 3 to 8 ounces. When rigging up with metal jigs or a soft plastic on a jig head you never want to connect them directly to your braid.
The fish will hit them with vigor when they are attached to the braid, but if you get snagged breaking off the lure will be tough and you’ll also loose a section of your expensive braided line. For this reason you’ll want to run a mono leader. Simply take a swivel and attach it to your braid via a Palomar knot. To the other end of the swivel attach a 36 inch section of 30 or 40 pound mono and then tie your jig directly to the end of the leader.
Understanding the various rigs is part of the story, but fishing them correctly is often the difference between a good day and a great day. The first thing you want to do no matter what sort of rig you are using is to employ the proper amount of weight. You want to use as little weight as possible to get your offering down, but you want to be using enough weight to keep your line close to vertical.
Whether you are jigging, dropping live bait or working a shrimp fly style leader you don’t want to allow a lot of angle to develop in your line. When angle develops you have much less control and you will almost always begin dragging and when you drag you snag.
I always like to position myself such that I’m on the side of the boat facing into the drift. If I dropped my gear straight down in this position I would get several seconds, perhaps a minute or two of vertical fishing time, before my line started angling under the boat and I’d have to retrieve it and re-drop. However being on the leading side of the drift allows me to make a short underhanded cast in the direction the boat is drifting. Having done this, once my gear reaches the bottom my line will be beyond vertical. As the boat drifts my line will become vertical and then start angling under the boat. By making the cast I get more quality time on the bottom and that means more opportunity to hook fish.
All the lures and rigs we’ve mentioned will catch fish spread throughout the water column, but something to keep in mind is that in most cases the best quality largest fish will be holding pretty tight to the bottom. You can catch lots of school fish such as blues and olives that range from 1 to 2 pounds suspended at various depths. But to catch large hardheads like vermilions and browns that consistently weight in at 3 to 5 pounds or more your gear needs to be down near the rocks.
When using shrimp flies or live bait rigs all you need to do to hook fish is drop your gear to the bottom, engage the reel, retrieve two or three feet of line and wait for a hit. When using jigs you’ll want to allow your lure to hit the bottom and then yo yo it up and down.
If you don’t hook up with a live bait or shrimp fly rig before it starts to sweep under the boat, retrieve the rig slowly and steadily and you will often pick up a school fish on the way up. When it comes time to reel in a jig, burn it up off the bottom 20 or 30 feet quickly and then stop and yo yo the jig a few times. Lot’s of times this will pull a fish off the bottom that has been watching the jig and when the jig stops the fish will nail it. Not only is this a great strategy for hooking big rockfish, but it is also deadly effective on lingcod too.
As a final tip whether you are using a jig or a conventional sinker, if you do get snagged using braid you can often get your gear loose. As soon as you get snagged holding your rod in a horizontal position hammer the snag with three or four fast sharp jabs of the rod tip and then drop the rod tip creating slack. It is amazing how often your rig will come free once you tighten the line again. I try this hammer and drop approach two or three times before I give up and let the drift of the boat break the leader.