Salmon are sexy, stripers have intimidating power and halibut offer table fare that is second to none. Yet, for northern California saltwater anglers in search of consistent fast action nothing beats targeting bottom fish.
Indeed, the only potential stumbling block that stands between you and a heavy sack of lingcod and rockfish is the weather. If the winds and swells allow navigation out to the reefs you’ll almost always going to experience fish after fish excitement.
Way back when I first started fishing from charter boats I either targeted salmon outside the Golden Gate or stripers and halibut inside the bay.
Sure once in a while I got into wide open action, but often I was fishing for one or two hits per trip. Granted at times those hits resulted in fish that weighed into double digits, but sometimes you just want to go out and hammer a bunch of fish. That’s why I booked my first rockfish trip.
As luck would have it the weather for my maiden bottom fish trip was superb and the surface at the Farallon Islands was reminiscent of a placid lake.
Always wanting to learn from the experts, I asked the Huck Finn’s deckhand if I should lower my bait down with one foot pulls as if mooching for salmon, at the start of our first drift. “No, let me see your rod,” he said. After pinning a live anchovy the rig’s hook he dropped it into the water and started to slowly free spool it down. About ten seconds passed before a couple sharp wraps showed on the rod tip. He engaged the reel, waited a beat and drove the hook home. Handing me the pulsing rod he exclaimed, “That’s all there is to it!”
When all was said and done, that trip was one of the most exciting fishing adventures I’d ever experienced. Scads of rockfish up to 3 pounds were holding just below the surface and every time you dropped a bait in the water you’d hook a fish. I’d become a rockfish junkie…
Over the next couple years I took plenty of bottom fishing trips and saw many big lingcod and reds landed, but I spent all my time focused on the fast action the school fish high in the water column provided. All things being equal I gravitate to trying to land big fish whether I’m fishing for bluegill in a pond or stripers in the Delta and so it was with bottomfish. I began buying bar jigs and picking the minds of deckhands about how to catch big bottomfish as opposed to keeper size school fish.
These days, thanks to a lot of expert instruction, reflection and hands on experience I’ve refined my approach to consistently landing lingcod along with big quality rockfish. In reality there are only three keys to landing big bottomfish. The first is attitude, the second is tackle and the third is presentation.
You aren’t going to put the big boys in the bag regularly, until you begin ignoring the smaller school fish. If your focus is on landing keeper lingcod it will open the door to the largest representatives of the rockfish clan as well, since they inhabit the same territory and eat the same prey.
The biggest fish are going to be found holding within ten feet of the bottom. Targeting the big fish means using a medium to large bait and getting it down into the big fish zone before school fish can grab it. This is where tackle selection is critical.
Light tackle fishing is fun, but it isn’t an efficient part of a big fish strategy. My current favorite lingcod rig consists of a 7’ Ugly Stik Tiger BWC220270 rod matched with a Penn Baja Special reel spooled with 65 pound Spiderwire braid.
This rod has a sensitive tip, but beyond that its pure backbone. The Penn reel boasts incredible strength and with it’s narrow spool the rate of retrieve is fairly fast, allowing me to power big fish away from the rocks quickly.
For serious lingcod fishing nothing beats braided line. It is extremely strong, with a fine diameter. The 65 pound braid I use has the same thickness as 17 pound mono.
Braid has virtually no stretch. This results in extreme sensitivity that allows me to feel exactly what my rig is doing on the bottom. Since I started using braid I snag about sixty percent less, simply because I have such a good feel for the bottom. With braid I know immediately when my rig starts to drag. You want your gear ticking across the rocks. If you’re dredging the bottom you’ll get snagged quickly.
The combined components of this rig allow me to comfortably use from 12 to 24 ounces of weight. Heavy weights enable my rig to quickly power down to the bottom. Once on the bottom heavy weights tend to keep your line vertical. A vertical line gives you the best feel for the bottom and also gives you the best opportunity to pump up a big fish before it can dart into the rocks.
A lot of big bottom fish hunters use nothing but bar jigs. There is no denying that these baits catch big fish, but for consistent success natural bait has no equal. Squid, kingfish, small rockfish, sea trout, sanddabs, mackerel, anchovies and sardines are the big eight when hefty bottomfish are my target. Live baits usually out perform dead baits, but dead baits works fine when that’s all you can get.
Most of these baits are either available at bait shops or easily caught by the anglers themselves. I usually buy mackerel at the supermarket. Asian supermarkets are a great source for large squid and mackerel.
All these baits are fished on a three way rig with the same presentation. For all the baits listed whether live or dead, with the exception of live anchovies, I use a two hook leader. On the tip I tie a 2/0 – 9/0 treble hook depending on the size of the bait and about 5 inches above it I snell a 1/0 – 8/0 octopus hook in the leader. The octopus hook goes in the head of the bait, while the treble is pinned lightly in the lower part of the body. Most of the lings and rockfish are hooked on the treble. The octopus hook serves only to keep the bait straight. Dead anchovies can be used on this leader. If live anchovies are available, I fish them on a standard single hook 3 way live bait leader.
Dead sardines and mackerel are two of my favorite baits. They are easy to get and very effective. I brine my sardines and mackerel in Pautzke Fire Brine. It firms up the baits and adds scent. I brine half my baits naturally colored using clear Fire Brine. Of the remaining half, some are dyed blue, chartreuse and red using colored Fire Brine. On my most recent lingcod adventure blue brined mackerel proved to be particularly effective.
After you’ve baited up free spool the rig to the bottom. When you feel it hit, engage the reel and take up a little line. Ideally you’ll be able to drop the rod tip and feel the weight hit the rocks. This way you can keep your bait right over the rocks without snagging. If you lose contact with the bottom let out more line until you feel it again. Big bottom fish don’t usually nibble. They generally hit like a train. Your drag should be locked down pretty tight. When you hook a fish work hard to pump it off the bottom. If you give them line they will dive into a crevice.
I try to have at least two different baits on hand. Generally, big fish prefer big baits, but I have been out a number of times when live anchovies out performed live sanddabs, kingfish and whole squid, so be prepared.