- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
As a youngster growing up on the Pacific Coast, I often turned to bottom fish – rockfish, lingcod, cabezon and flounder – when the salmon weren't cooperating. Often, I would loosen my drag and lower my bait to the bottom. The excitement would build as I waited, knowing that in a few moments some willing bottom fish would start nibbling. Once I had a hook-up, the anticipation would mount as I reeled in my prize, always eager to see what I had hooked. Would it be a brilliantly colored rockfish, a lingcod, a flounder or maybe a halibut?
Scores of other saltwater anglers young and old have discovered the joys of bottom fishing, either to fill the fish box or just to experience the thrill of not knowing what they’ll pull up next. Now, from the northern Baja Peninsula to Southeast Alaska – and virtually everywhere they exist – bottom fish are quickly becoming the favorite target of many saltwater sport fishers.
One reason is that bottom fish can hardly be called finicky eaters. They have two basic criteria when it comes to selecting dinner. They must be able to catch it, and they must be able to swallow it. If both criteria are met, most bottom fish are satisfied. Even so, they are not always easy to catch. There are several tricks and tactics that pay big dividends for the serious bottom fish angler. Some subtle variations can be employed when targeting one species over another but, in general, whatever works for one will work for all. So while we may be targeting rockfish, by day's end the larder will likely contain a variety of other tasty bottom-dwelling species.
Find The Habitat, Find The Fish
The first rule of bottom fishing is to fish where they live. There are exceptions, but most bottom fish are found in or over rugged, rocky terrain. Ideal bottom fish structure will be from 150 to 400 feet deep, with steeply sloping ridges, rocky spires, and deep crevasses. When prospecting for bottom fish, look for dramatic variations in depth, either by closely watching your depth finder or by previewing the area on a NOWA chart.
Before fishing that likely looking structure, take a minute to figure out which way the wind and tide will cause the boat to drift. Tackle losses will be limited if you drift the bait or lure down the slopes, rather than up and into the crevasses. But most good bottom fish structure will be grabby – count on losing tackle if you are fishing where these bottom lovers live.
Bottom Baits and Lures
Your choice of terminal tackle is typically less important with bottom fish than other species. Usually, all that’s needed is a bait or lure they can find and swallow. The goal here is simply to place the bait or lure in front of a bottom fish, and to keep it there long enough for the fish to be able to find it. Successful bottom-fishing artificials include rubber-tailed jigs, minnow-imitating jigs, flutter spoons and a variety of natural baits.
The best bottom fish lures are those that get down fast. For that reason, jigs and heavy jigging spoons in the 8- to 20-ounce range are ideal. Sonic jigs that rotate freely on the line such as Buzz Bombs and Zzingers add sound to the equation and provide an added attraction.
The technique is simple. Lower your jig or spoon as rapidly as possible, until slack line shows you have hit bottom. Once you hit bottom, quickly reel up 3 to 6 feet of line to keep your lure away from those tackle-grabbing rocks. Every few seconds, pay out a little more line. The instant your lure touches down, quickly reel up again.
It helps to keep your rod tip near the water. With the rod tip low you can quickly raise the lure off the bottom the instant it touches. Speaking of which, banging the bottom may have more benefits than simply letting you know when its time to reel up. Avid bottom fish anglers swear they catch more fish when they purposely bang their metal jigs on the rocks. It’s a bit like ringing the dinner bell.
For a less strenuous form of bottom fish angling, consider bait fishing. Most bait anglers prefer herring, anchovies, squid or chunk baits for tempting bottom fish. These will definitely do the job, but I favor pennant baits. To make a pennant bait, fillet a small bottom fish, and divide the fillets into triangle-shaped pieces. The best size is about 2 inches wide tapering to a point with a total length of about 5 inches. Simply slip your hook through the skin on the wide part of the triangle, and you are ready to fish.
If your target is deep-water bottom fish, time your fishing to coincide with a light current flow to get your offering to the bottom, and keep it there. Bait is usually fished beneath a spreader bar or as part of a sinker-on-the bottom ganion rig. California anglers prefer the sinker-on-the bottom rig with as many as 10 hooks above the sinker. Northern anglers often choose spreader bars to get a single bait down quickly. One tip that will save you money and time is to attach your lead with a leader having a breaking strength at least 5 pounds less than your main line. That way, when the lead hangs up the entire outfit won’t be lost.
Tackling Bottom Fish
For probing the typical bottom fish depths, weights up to 5 pounds may be needed. You can use lighter weights if you switch to light lines, or use the new thin-diameter “superlines” (I like the Berkley Whiplash). These thin profile lines in the 20-pound test rating have a smaller diameter than traditional 12-pound test monofilament and create far less drag, allowing you to reach bottom with less lead. Lines of 10- to 20-pound test are more than adequate to handle most bottom fish. If you target larger species such as halibut, grouper or big snappers, you will need to beef up your tackle appropriately.
Perhaps the most important tackle choice facing the bottom fish angler is that of which rod to use. Whether jigging with lures or bait fishing, a short stiff rod can save you a lot of work. The short rods will impart much better action to your offering than a long whippy rod.
When it comes to taste and attitude, no other sport fish can compete with bottom fish. As far as fighting ability goes, bottom fish do quite well until decompression ruptures their swim bladder. For that reason, most bottom fish are not candidates for catch-and-release angling.
When you are lucky enough to find a good bottom fish hole, take a few for dinner, and move on. These beautiful fish are easily overharvested, and it would be a shame to jeopardize the numbers of our user-friendly bottom fish.