Look to mountaintops for bottom fish

Groundfish might be up-chucking pelagiac crab when you bring them in

Juan Cook with vermilion rockfish caught from pinnacle rock off Baja coast
  • Juan Cook with vermilion rockfish caught from pinnacle rock off Baja coast

Dock Totals Mar 18 – Mar 24: 1,457 anglers aboard 64 boats out of San Diego landings this past week caught 5 yellowtail, 3 calico bass, 8 sand bass, 4,617 rockfish, 1,490 whitefish, 9 lingcod, 3 bonito, 207 sculpin, 298 sanddab, 36 sheephead, 84 bocaccio, 1 mako shark, 19 lizardfish, 1 rubberlip seaperch, 1 spider crab, and 33 spiny lobster.

Saltwater: As reflected in the counts, the fishing off the coast in our region, from half-day outings to multi-day runs, is concentrated on the bottom half of the water column. The groundfish complex, including vermilions, treefish, bocaccio, lingcod, sheephead and whitefish, have been gorging themselves on the large spots of pelagic crab that have been blanketing the bottom in spots from La Jolla to south of the border. If the current pushes them up, you will often see an occasional mini-lobster-looking crab swimming near the surface. If holding low, the fish caught will be stuffed full of them and probably up-chucking several as you haul them up.

Usually, the high spots where rockfish are targeted are from eighty to a couple hundred feet below the surface. Near islands and along the coast, rockfish hold close to the edges of the continuation of the drop-off near canyons and bluffs, or to the rocky mounds rising out of sand as the ocean tapers deeper off of flatter beaches. Further offshore, the banks, or mountaintops, that rise from the depths to within a 300 feet or less of the surface is where rockfish are targeted. Drifting is the usual method and setting up to drift along-slope and downhill is the best as uphill, where the baits are climbing, will result in more snags and tackle-loss. Often, an operator will keep the boat running to reduce the speed of the drift or hold to a spot, especially when fishing pinnacles, or when the wind and/or current is strong.

There are several ways to approach fishing the bottom for the various species found on and near the reefs in deeper water. Generally, a multi-hook rig with bait and the weight on the bottom is used. They sell pre-tied rockfish rigs, some even with feathers, but a simple dropper-loop setup allows the angler to spread the hooks and use whatever number of hooks they prefer. Especially in deeper water, some folks fish a multi-hook set-up on heavy broomstick rods and large reels with extended handles so as to catch as many fish as they can per drop. Even battery-powered electric reels, some more akin to wenches than fishing tackle, are used. These heavy techniques makes sense, as current and wind can make fishing the deeper reefs difficult, and heavy weights and multiple fish caught per drop can make for a lot of hard work.

In the 80- to 150-foot range, the angler can get away with a lighter setup and even be more specific in species caught. For example, if targeting sheephead, shrimp works. Squid strips or small chunks of baitfish are common baits, and with multiple hooks the angler can mix it up to see what is working best. Targeting lingcod, I will use a heavy leadhead with a large grub or swimbait on the bottom instead of a weight, sometimes with a couple baited hooks on loops above to up the action. Flat-falls, yoyo irons and even diamond jigs can work but can get expensive as you need to stay right next to the bottom to lure a lingcod out of its den and tackle lost to snags is common.

Whitefish tend to hold above the reds, lings and other groundfish. Their nickname, the poor man’s yellowtail, comes from their bright yellow fins and maybe a little from their fight. Growing to ten pounds or so, they won’t put on long runs as yellowtail will and are not related, but, pound for pound, they will fight harder than most everything else coming up from the bottom. They have a smaller body cavity, less of a swim bladder and will fight to the surface, as will sheephead and lingcod. The reds, bocaccio, and other bottomfish tend to float up, as their swim bladders swell due to the rapid pressure change when they are being reeled to the surface.

Whitefish have very small but powerful mouths, so I use smaller, thicker hooks, usually a size 1/0 live-bait type, with a half inch strip of squid a few inches long pinned a couple times but left to ‘flag’ and attract a bite. They will destroy thin wire hooks, such as the barbed bait-holder freshwater type. Whitefish will hold higher than the other fish on the reef, so they can be targeted by keeping the terminal tackle a couple winds off the bottom, thus reducing snags. As table fare, all the species in the groundfish complex have subtle differences in texture and taste, but are generally white meat, flakey, and excellent for ceviche, or for breading and frying fish-and-chips or taco-style.

Fish Plants: 3/29 — Cuyamaca, trout (1,500), 4/2 – Jennings, trout (1,500), 4/4 – Poway, trout (1,500)

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