- 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.
The marine waters of the West Coast were once teeming with the tasty bottom dwellers commonly known as rockfish. Rockfish, known scientifically by their genus Sebastes, encompass more than 60 distinct subspecies, of which some 30-plus are known to inhabit Pacific waters. Unfortunately, many of the best rockfish haunts in the Puget Sound area have been decimated by overharvest. Yet excellent rockfish angling can still be had in select ocean fisheries from northern California to southeast Alaska.
The rockfish's relative naivete as been one of the principal causes of its downfall. When I began fishing in the early 1950s, there was never any problem catching as many rockfish as we wanted. In fact, most anglers disdained the lowly rockfish as simply too easy to catch to be worthy of a serious angler’s efforts.
Once considered a nuisance fish, the many rockfish species are being pursued by more West Coast anglers than ever before.
For many years sport fishermen recognized no limit on rockfish. Later, limits were imposed but only after populations were in decline. Even so, the concerted effort of sport anglers was of little consequence when compared to commercial trawlers, which measured their catches in tons. The net effect of the persistent exploitation of rockfish has been a severe depletion of stocks. Though a lucky angler can still take a few rockfish in Puget Sound, the good old days are gone, perhaps forever. Fortunately, it's a different story in our ocean waters.
As salmon seasons shrink and more anglers become aware of the pleasures of rockfish fishing, each year seems to bring more rockfish anglers. Some simply want to bring home some tasty fillets, while many of us want to experience the childhood thrill of not knowing what we will pull up next. Now, from northern Baja to southeast Alaska, rockfish are quickly becoming the favorite target of saltwater sport fishers.
California anglers find good numbers of nearshore rockfish from Santa Cruz Island north. South of Santa Cruz Island rockfish are available only to anglers willing to venture far offshore. Oregon and Washington anglers find bountiful populations of rockfish in nearshore bays and as far offshore as they dare to venture.
The rockfish family tree is wide and diverse. As mentioned, there are more than 60 distinct subspecies of rockfish, including the common quillback, copper, yellow eye, chili pepper, and vermillion. Many others varieties are seldom seen by sports anglers.
Ask any West Coast angler what their favorite bottom fish is and odds are the answer will be "red snapper." It's easy to see why. The red snapper (often known as yellow eye rockfish but not the true red snapper found in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico) is among the largest of our rockfish, as well as one of the loveliest. In addition, these tasty bottom dwellers are consistently cooperative when it comes to the catching part of fishing. Yellow eye, and most other rockfish, are what computer afficionados would call “user friendly.”
Tricks And Tactics
Simply put, what works for one rockfish species works as well for most others. So while we may be targeting the yellow eye, by day's end the larder will likely contain a variety of tasty rockfish.
Most rockfish share some common attributes. The most endearing to young and novice anglers is their willingness to bite almost any lure or bait; so they can hardly be called finicky eaters. Rockfish have two criteria when in comes to selecting dinner. They must be able to catch it and they must be able to swallow it. If both criteria are met, rockfish are satisfied. Even so, they aren’t always easy to catch. There are a few tricks that pay big dividends for the serious rockfish angler.
The first rule of rockfish angling is to fish where they live. There are exceptions, but most rockfish are found in, or over, rugged rocky terrain. (Perhaps that's why they call them rockfish?) Ideal yellow eye structure will be from 150 to 400 feet deep with steeply sloping ridges, rocky spires and deep crevasses. Many rockfish dwell in even deeper water.
Rockfish will not survive a rapid ascent from deep water, so once a limit is caught, it's a good idea to stop fishing unless the fish are found shallow.
California anglers have recently begun fishing depths as great as 250 fathoms in search of rockfish species never before targeted by sports anglers. Blackgill rockfish are now common catches for those willing to explore depths of over 1,000 feet.
When prospecting for rockfish, look for dramatic variations in depth, either by closely watching your depth finder or by previewing the area you intend to fish on a NOWA chart. For best results, use a chart that gives the greatest amount of detail. A chart labeled 1:20,000 will provide four times the detail of a 1:80,000 chart.
Before you begin fishing that likely looking structure, take a minute to figure out which way the wind and tide will cause you to drift. Tackle losses will be limited if you plan your drift to work your bait or lure down the slopes, rather than up and into the crevasses. Good yellow eye structure will be grabby. You can count on losing tackle if you are fishing where these bottom lovers live.
Your choice of terminal tackle is less important with rockfish than it might be for other species. Remember our second rule—rockfish must be able to swallow the bait or lure. The goal here is simply to place the bait in front of a rockfish, and to keep it there long enough for the fish to be able to grab it.
Rockin’ Lures And Baits
Successful rockfish tackle includes rubber-tailed jigs, minnow-imitating jigs, flutter spoons and a variety of live baits. Sonic jigs that rotate freely on the line, such as Buzz Bombs and Zzingers, add sound to the equation that provides an added attraction.
The best rockfish lures are those that get down fast. For that reason, jigs and heavy jigging spoons in the 8- to 20-ounce range are ideal. The technique is simple. Lower your jig or spoon as rapidly as possible, until slack line shows you have hit the bottom. Once you hit bottom, quickly reel up 3 to 6 feet of line to keep your lure away from those grabby rocks. Every few seconds, play 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. In fact, superstition aside, keeping the rod tip a few inches under the surface often works best. With the rod tip low you can quickly raise your lure off the bottom the instant it makes contact. Speaking of which, banging the bottom may have more benefits than simply letting you know when its time to reel up. Avid bottom-fishing anglers swear they catch more fish when they purposely bang their metal jigs on the rocks. Clanging the jig on the rocks gets the fish's attention just like ringing a dinner bell.
For a less strenuous form of rockfish angling you might want to consider bait fishing. Most bait anglers prefer herring or anchovies for tempting rockfish. These will definitely do the job, but I favor pennant baits. To make a pennant bait, fillet a small rockfish and divide the fillets into triangle-shaped baits. 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.
The possibility of catching a specimen of this size is a major reason rockfish anglers are growing in number.
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, you wont lose your entire outfit.
Ninety percent of rockfish angling should be done on or near the bottom, but you need to stay alert for schools suspended in the water column. Several species, including green tailed, canary, black and blue rockfish, regularly feed near the surface or suspended between the surface and the bottom. Often, you will see black or blue rockfish splashing on the surface near kelp beds. If you are fortunate enough to hit one of their feeding sprees, you are in for a treat, as they will readily attack anything you throw their way. Fly casters have a ball flipping streamer flies to surface-feeding "blackies."
Go Deep, Go Heavy
If your target is deep-water rockfish, time your fishing to coincide with a light current flow to get your offering to the bottom and keep it there. Even then, weights up to 5 pounds may be needed. You can use lighter weights if you switch to lighter lines, or use the new microfilament lines such as Berkley Whiplash. This thin-profile line in the 50-pound test rating has a smaller diameter than traditional 20-pound test monofilament line.
Perhaps the most important tackle choice facing the rockfish 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. My favorite rockfish rod is a Lamiglas Puget Jigger, a two-piece, seven-foot, graphite rod.
When it comes to taste and attitude, no other West Coast sport fish can compete with the yellow eye. As far as fighting ability goes, rockfish do quite well until decompression ruptures their swim bladder. Many novice rockfish anglers mistakenly assume they have lost their fish when the battle suddenly stops. Not so—the rapid ascent from the bottom is often fatal to rockfish. Somewhere on the way up their swim bladder ruptures, effectively ending the battle and their lives. For that reason, rockfish are not a good choice for catch-and-release angling. When you are lucky enough to find a good rockfish hole, take a few for dinner, then move on. These beautiful fish are easily overharvested, and it would be a shame to overharvest our most user-friendly fish.