Freshwater bass angler’s rejoice! There are even more bass to chase out there! California saltwater bass fishing is big, especially Southern California, and all of you freshwater bass fishermen who haven’t experienced it yet need to get off the couch and try it. Whether you chase spotted, smallmouth or largemouth bass, have I got some fish for you. And, the best part about it is you don’t have to go out and buy any new tackle to try it.
Don’t let an earlier experience on a party or cattle boat get you down. You need to try this fishing as you know how, just as if you were to head to your local lake. I have been preaching, lecturing, and writing about this for 30-plus years and I know you will be able to adapt in seconds. You may have to get past the thought of putting your boat in saltwater but, as long as you wash your equipment well after each trip, you will be fine. I have always said that if a freshwater bass fisherman was told that a bay of saltwater was a lake and to just go fishing, he would score with no problem and wouldn’t even know it was saltwater until he hooked the first bass.
Let’s take a look at the three inshore bass that Southern California fishermen love to chase. They are the calico bass, which can reach a size of close to 15 pounds, and is probably the favorite. The barred sand bass, which also can reach the teens, is nearly as popular with bass fishermen. Finally comes the spotted sand bass or spotted bay bass, cousin to the barred sand bass. The record for this fish is almost 7 pounds; not giant but they can fight! The best part is that you can fish them year-round. Once their patterns are figured out, just like freshwater bass fishing, you will score.
SPOTTED SAND BASS
For all you smallmouth fishermen out there, the first fish on the list will peak your interest. I like to compare these fish to a river-run smallmouth. Living in constantly moving coastal tidal waters, the spotted sand bass or spotted bay bass are all muscle and fight like little freight trains. This bass also is shaped like its freshwater cousin, with the smaller mouth not running back past the eyes. It is an exotic-looking fish with coloration that ranges from olive green to brown spots and gold accents.
Mostly confined to the bays of Southern California, they can be found from Santa Cruz to deep into Mexico. Rarely taken from Santa Barbara north, the populations grow larger the further south you travel, with San Diego Bay holding the largest population in California. San Diego’s Mission Bay holds the IGFA record of 4.95 pounds. The California State record is 6 pounds, 12 ounces, and came from Newport Harbor.
If you freshwater bass fishermen fished the bays just like you would your local lake, you would catch fish. Let’s say that you don’t even change anything on the rods in your boat’s rod locker. You launch, and before taking off you move your rods to the deck. Finesse drop-shot rod, maybe a darter head set-up with a grub, a crankbait rod, jerkbait rod and spinnerbait rod. Oh yeah, don’t forget the flipping stick! Now you’re ready to fish for spotted bay bass.
The bays are full of sandy banks, granite boulder-lined jetties and more docks than you can imagine. There are also weed beds that the spotted bass love to hide in. Every bait you can think of will work for these fish. All of those baits that never seem to catch freshwater bass will work for these fish. Whether you like to fish spinning tackle with 6-pound test and a grub or 10-pound test and a crankbait or spinnerbait, or flip docks with a flipping stick and 25-pound test, you can do it for these fish. This fishing kept me in tune for freshwater tournament bass fishing when our finicky largemouth would go dormant in the winter months.
Some of you freshwater fishermen, say like from around the California Delta, know about tidal movement. It plays a key role in how the fish are biting in the bays as well. The tidal current will stir up the entire food chain and get the spotted bass feeding. If I had to pick a tide to fish, it would be an incoming tide. The fish are more in a feeding mode when they move up into the shallows, rather than in a “get the heck out of here” mode as when the water drops on an outgoing tide.
BARRED SAND BASS
Next on our list of fish is the barred sand bass, cousin to the spotty. Called the barred sand bass for the black, grey and white mottled bars on its sides, the only traits it carries from it’s cousin are some tiny spots on the face and a hard-fighting attitude. Found from Santa Cruz to Mexico as well, I have taken them as far north as Morro Bay. With this fish you always have a chance of catching a giant as the record is a whopping 13 pounds, 3 ounces! More common trophy fish are in the 8- to 10-pound range, with 4- to 6-pound fish very common.
The barred sand bass can be fished exactly as their spotted cousin when in the bays of Southern California. They will also eat all your favorite bass baits. You can fish them on regular bass gear or, if targeting larger fish in the winter, you may want to go to a trigger stick and round-type reel such as a Daiwa Millionaire for more line capacity and more backbone to your setup. Half of the year, March to September, when the waters of the bays are warmer, there are usually only smaller sand bass in the bay, say 1 to 3 pounds, with an occasional larger 4- to 5-pounder. Larger fish usually move in around October and stay until waters warm up.
When the sand bass move in and are located in deeper water in the bay you will have to try either vertical jigging with plastics or spoons or the popular long-lining method. With this method you can use plastics or spinnerbaits and you let about half of your spool of line out behind the boat as you drift with the tide. You then start to retrieve. To scope your line out like this keeps your bait on the bottom longer in the deeper water before it wants to come up to the boat. A bite will feel like a heavy weight on your line. You cannot just set the hook. You need to wind like mad; the heavy feeling will increase; this is you making contact with the fish as the line stretches out. Now set the hook!
Whether in the bay or in the ocean, these fish relate to structure just as will any other bass. When hunting the sand bass in the ocean, they can be found on everything from natural contoured structure of the bottom to man-made reefs. In this setting they can be caught on bait such as anchovy or sardines, or on artificial baits such as swimbaits, spoons or even spinnerbaits. Have you ever tried slow-rolling a spinnerbait in 60 to 80 feet of water? It is an experience.
In June through the end of August, depending on water temperatures, sand bass spawn. All up and down the coast they head for about 100-foot deep water. They school up by the thousands in every area to start their spawning dance. The difference with these bass is that they spawn up in the water column, usually 40 to 60 feet up off the bottom. The good news for the fishermen is that they feed voraciously to keep up their strength for spawning. It can be absolutely wide-open fishing at this time of year if you find a big school.
Since you are out in deep water and away from any structure, the sand bass can be played with lighter tackle for the most sporting enjoyment. Everything from swimbaits to spoons to larger crankbaits to spinnerbaits will work. Huntington Flats, Oceanside Flats and the Silver Strand are just a few of the areas where you can find this hot action. The dance goes on from Morrow Bay to south of the Mexican border and everywhere in between.
Lastly, the calico bass is definitely the most popular of the three salty bass. Built like a largemouth with twice the muscle, and with the record fish weighing 14.70 pounds, it is the goal of every calico bass fisherman to break the 10-pound mark. Calico, plaid or checkerboard bass, as they are known, are very slow to grow, so most let them go once photographed. They, too, can be taken from the bays to the ocean. They love structure and can be found around natural contours in the bottom, grass beds, docks, rocks and in the kelp forest.
In the summer, the calicos move into the shallows of the bays and all up and down the coast of California and Baja. In the bays they can be fished with all the same lures as the other two salty bass. That’s the best part about these fish is that in the summer you can chase the grand slam of saltwater bass with all the same gear. These bass love to eat crankbaits, jerkbaits and spinnerbaits, as well as an assortment of plastics.
In the summer months the calicos also move into the inshore kelp beds. These forests grow up from the bottom and form a canopy on the surface. You can throw cranks, jerkbaits or plastic swimbaits down the isles formed by the stringers. There are a number of great companies out there, but Big Hammer, FishTrap, MC Swimbaits and Western Plastics all make custom, hand-poured swimbaits in a wide variety of colors and shapes. They have all designed the thump of the tails to attract fish, so it’s good to have a variety. Just change it up until the bite starts.
You can also move to the thicker matted kelp areas and do some frogging. Do I have your attention now? A YUM Money Minnow, for example — a weedless unweighted swimbait — can be thrown out across the matted kelp just like frog fishing. In fact, you could also use a freshwater frog bait. Race it along over the matted kelp and pause it in a hole. Bam! The calicos will explode on the bait. You would want to use a flipping stick with some superline for this action; if you hook a giant, you will need that edge. You can also flip this thick, matted kelp with a creature bait.
In the fall, the calicos tend to start their journey to deeper waters and reside there for the winter. The bulk of the fish tend to migrate from the shallows to the deeper reefs and structure. You can fish calicos all year, but most anglers just don’t take the time to learn where they go. It can be just as exciting pulling one up from 100 feet of water as 10 feet. They are a hard-fighting fish and will test any tackle.
Most anglers who chase the checkerboards will use a medium to heavy trigger stick with 12- to 25-pound test, depending on what type of structure they are fishing around. The line should be strong and abrasion resistant, like Maxima fishing line or your favorite superline, and be able to handle rubbing across all types of rough surfaces. Whether it is kelp or rock, the calicos will charge back to the safety of their cover once hooked and you need to pull them out.
As with the other salty bass, ocean current plays an important part in fishing for them. When the current is moving it stirs up the entire food chain. Usually, the best current for the calicos is a down and in current. You can tell that the current is running this way in the kelp as all the stringers will be lined up with their tips pointing to the beach. The current drags baitfish into the kelp and the calicos go wild. It is very common to see them boiling and you can throw topwater baits at them then.
Calicos also like to hang around jetties or natural rock in the shallowest of water. Shallow rock, called boiler rocks, are usually right in the surf line. The surf can knock crabs and the like off the rocks to the waiting bass. Fishing these rocks can be dangerous and should be done with care. The smart thing to do is first fish an outside safe area, watching the inside surfline area as you do to see if the waves are breaking where you want to fish. If they do not, then proceed with caution, because a rogue larger wave could toss you onto the rocks.
Remember to go up in line size when fishing the boiler rocks, because of just that — you are fishing around rocks. You can use bait, swimbaits, jigs or crankbaits; everything works well when the fish are here. Getting bit is not usually a problem. The problem is getting the fish out of the rocks and they will try to run through every crack and hole down there. You need to set the hook and wind!
As I mentioned, the calicos can be fished for year-round and in the fall and winter they tend to head out to deeper waters. Man-made or natural structure will hold them and it is just up to you to find them. A lot of the time you will catch the barred sand bass along with them in the deeper water. Fish the same way you would for the sand bass and you will also score some calicos. Try slow-rolling a one and a half-ounce spinnerbait in 80 feet of water and catching a calico. It’s great fun!
All three of these bass will test you and your tackle. Remember, you don’t need anything new. So when you’re in Southern California and need a new species to satisfy your fishing urge, take a look at saltwater bass. They will not let you down. Heck, you already know how to fish for them.