The Ultimate Rod Selection For The Saltwater Angler

Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
Species: Halibut Saltwater Salmon Saltwater Stripers Rockfish Lingcod

The Ultimate Rod Selection For The Saltwater Angler
The Ultimate Rod Selection For The Saltwater Angler

Imagine it in your minds eye…Living here in Northern California you’ve heard a lot about the saltwater fishing opportunities both inside and outside San Francisco Bay. Finally, after a lot of daydreaming you decide that you’ve just got to give it a try. After skimming through the reports in the Fish Sniffer it becomes obvious that top notch striped bass and halibut action is on tap for anglers fishing within the bay. Catching big hard fighting fish that provide great table fare. What could be better than that?

With images of stripers making red hot runs and thick white halibut fillets dancing around in your head, you waste no time calling up one of the ports that dot the bay and book a trip on a live bait boat.

Since you’ve never been out on a charter boat before you ask the fella on the phone what kind of tackle you should bring. He tells you and then adds that the landing has all the end tackle you’ll need and adds that they offer rental rods for a reasonable fee of $10. It sounds like you’re really dialed in. The only thing you’ve got to do keep a lid on your excitement level as you pass the days leading up to the trip, a task that sounds easier than it is!

When the big day finally rolls around you arrive at the marina early, pay the fees for the trip and gear. The rod the clerk hands you is really heavy compared to the rods you use for trout fishing. It is 7 feet long. The tip has some flexibility, but after the first foot or so it gets pretty stiff. The rod is matched with a conventional Penn real that doesn’t feature a level wind. The reel is spooled with 25 or 30 pound test monofilament.

Before you know it the boat has slipped out of the marina, the bait tanks have been filled with live anchovies and the deckhands have made sure that everyone has a 3 way live bait leader attached to their rod. As the deckhand tied on your leader he handed over a 4 ounce sinker and told you to keep it in your pocket until it was time to fish.

After running steadily across the Berkeley Flats for about 15 minutes the roar of the motors changes pitch, the boat slows and the skipper announces over the speaker that everyone should bait their hooks. After snapping on your sinker you pin a lively anchovy through the lips and hang it in the water awaiting further instructions. After a final surge of the throttle the skipper cuts the motor and tells everyone to drop their baits.

Within 5 minutes an angler on the other side of the boat yells, “fish on” and the first keeper halibut is brought aboard. The next thing you know your rod begins to bend as if it snagged the bottom, but you can feel pumps that indicate it’s a fish. Setting the hook, you feel weight and start working the reel.

“Fish on!,” the angler next to you yells and a second later the deckhand is standing next to you with a gaff. After struggling near the bottom for about a minute the fish decides to come up and a dark brown mass appears below the surface and materialized into a halibut. Quick as a cat the deckhand strikes with the gaff and the handsome 14 pounder is thrashing on the deck. Ten minutes into your first saltwater trip and you’ve got a quality halibut in the box. Congratulations!

A slow, yet productive halibut bite continues for about an hour. Once the tide gets going the skipper announces that its time to move into a little deeper water to try for stripers. While the water is deeper the technique is the same. You simple drop your rig to the bottom and drag it along until a fish bites.

The bass bite isn’t red hot, but the action is steady. When the guy next to you hooks up you feel a lot of pressure on your line initially you think the line are crossed, but when you notice that they are being pulled in different directions it becomes clear that you’ve got a fish too. After a good struggle your striper comes to the boat and with another deft swipe of the gaff, your second fish of the day, an 8 pound striper comes aboard.

About time the anglers aboard the boat have half limits of stripers in the box the action dies and the skipper takes off in search of more action. During the next couple hours a few undersize halibut are picked up but that’s about it. Suddenly the skipper tells everyone to reel up the gear. Another boat has radioed him relating that stripers are busting bait at Angel Island.

As you pull in near the rocks you can see the swirls and the adrenaline is really pumping. As you drop you rig in the water you notice that quite a few anglers have switched over to light spinning or bait casting gear and are crowding around the boat’s bow casting weightless anchovies toward the boils. Those anglers are catching fish at a fast clip while the anglers using heavy tackle on the sides of the boat are not doing nearly as well. You contemplate heading up to the bow, but there is no way you are going to cast a weightless anchovy with the rental rig. As a result you stay put, but fail to get hit.

The final stop of the day is over a reef west of Alcatraz. The water is deep and both the wind and tide are brisk. When you drop you rig into the water it balloons out into the current and you loose contact with the sinker. The guy fishing next to you has switched over to a heavy rod rigged with braided line. After attaching a 1 pound weigh he drops an anchovy to the bottom and immediately hooks a husky striper. A while later on the last drift of the day he follows up with a second smaller bass, which he generously gives to you.

On the way back to the marina you ask the angler about the rig he used on to catch those bass at Alcatraz and he explains that the heavy rod combined with a heavy weight and fine diameter braided line allowed him to hit the rocky reef without a big belly forming in the line. In addition, since the braid has virtually no stretch it gave him a superb feel helping him to both avoid snags and feel subtle bites.

As you drive home with several pounds of halibut and striper fillets in your cooler you’re aware that you’ve experience an outstanding day on the water, yet you can’t help but think that you would have done even better with a more versatile selection of tackle. As you nod off to sleep that night your last thought is, “I’ll stop by Fishermen’s Warehouse and check the prices on some saltwater tackle of my own…”

Live bait fishing for halibut and stripers along with bottom fishing for rockfish and lingcod represents about two thirds of the action available to north state charter boat enthusiasts. In years that feature poor salmon fishing that ratio climbs even higher. Can an angler get by with only one rod and reel for live bait and bottom fishing? Sure, but if maximum effectiveness is the goal at least two rigs are needed and a set of three is even better.

This year I’ve seriously revamped my saltwater arsenal. Since my wife is tired of hearing about my new toys, I might as well describe them to the folks out there in Fish Sniffer Country.

The first thing the charter boat angler needs is an all around stick that is assigned the lions share of the duty throughout the season whether drifting for halibut in the bay or jigging for lings at the Faralons. The rod needs to be sensitive, light in weight, posse’s ample backbone and be capable of handling sinkers and jigs from 3 to 8 ounces in weight.

My new all around stick is 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 fishing. I’ve combined the rod with an Abu Garcia 7000 ICS Pro Rocket level wind reel spooled with 325 yards of Spiderwire Ultracast braided line. When not out on the bay and ocean I expect this rod to give me good service while targeting sturgeon in the delta.

The second rig no charter angler should be without is a heavy weight set up. When working the bottom with live kingfish or sanddabs for monster lingcod or when attempting to work deep water reefs within the bay for stripers during periods of strong winds and current a heavy duty rig capable of handling a pound or more of weight can be worth its weight in gold.

The challenges in this type of fishing are two fold. First you need the heavy weight to get to the bottom where the fish spend most of their time. Secondly you need sensitivity to stay in constant contact with the bottom. Lingcod structure and the reefs within the bay are extremely snaggy. You want your sinker ticking the bottom since that is where the fish are, but you don’t want the sinker dragging because that will almost certainly result in a snag.

Now you could certainly hit the bottom while using 20 to 30 pound monofilament, but braid is a better choice for a number of reasons. First it 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 virtue 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.

The one rig I haven’t change this year is my heavy weigh set up. This year like last year I’ll be using a 7’ Fenwick SaltStik SSGC 1870 rod teamed with an Abu Garcia 9000 Big Game reel spooled with 325 yards of 65 pound Berkeley Fireline Super Braid. I can’t say enough about this rig. It gives me ample sensitivity combined with the power to horse the most back tempered lingcod out of the lava!

If you have a good medium and heavy set up you are well prepared for about 90 percent of the challenges that await you. A light weight spinning or casting rod is icing on the cake that can pay dividends in situations where it is advantageous to cast an anchovy with little or no added weight or when the tide, water depth and number of anglers on the boat combine to allow you to long line an anchovy well away from the boat using only a 1 once torpedo sinker.

Most guys using a 7 foot fast action spinning rod spooled with 12 pound test monofilament for this type of work. This year I’m going to break the mold by employing a black bass style bait casting set up loaded with braid.

The rod I’ve selected is a 7’6” Lamiglas XFT 764 telescoping flipping stick rated for a quarter ounce to one once of weight. I’ve matched this rod with an Abu Garcia Revo STX reel spooled with 125 yards of the new 50 pound test Spiderwire Ultracast Invisi-Braid. This line is the same diameter as 12 pound mono while boasting a translucency that boarders on total invisibility. Every time I pick up this rig, one thought dominates my mind…I sure hope I encounter some boiling stripers this summer! Well there you have it, three rigs that represent the dream team for norcal saltwater anglers. Is setting up such an arsenal cheap? No, but is there a substitute for having the right tool at the right time when the bite suddenly goes wide open?

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