Rockfishing is all about the meat, right? After all, there’s not much thrill in dragging a fish that fights like a wet sack up from the depths on heavy tackle. It’s more of a means to an end – several varieties of rockfish are extremely tasty, so we endure the undignified labors of the process to get to the fruit.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t always have to fish in the abyss for rock cod. There are tons of completely untapped near-shore shallow reefs al up and down the West Coast that produce incredible action and, since the fish aren’t coming up from deep water with their eyes bulging and their stomachs hanging out of their mouths, the can actually be…dare I say…sporty.
By working the shallows, you don’t need the 16- or even 24-ounce jigs favored by the deepwater crowd. Lures in the 1- to 3-ounce range usually do the trick and that allows you to fish with light, bass style tackle – which is a total blast.
The rod-bending fun is only part of the appeal, though. The variety you’re likely to encounter is also a gas and you just never know what sort of wildly colored critter you’re going to hook next. This style of rockfishing can also be a real day saver when the glamour species like salmon or halibut aren’t on the chew.
While conventional rockfishing typically takes place in 40 to 60 fathoms, I try to do most of mine in water no deeper than 60 feet. By working the shallows, you may miss out on hooking some of the deepwater species like yelloweye, canaries and bocaccio, but there’s still plenty of diversity nearshore – and opportunity to hook big fish.
The largest ling I ever hooked was holding on a rock pile 20 feet below the surface and lived there, I’m sure, because of the schools of smaller olive and blue rockfish that also called the area home. You’ll also occasionally encounter some other bonus species that sweeten the pot like salmon, halibut…and even white seabass if you are fishing in the lower half of California.
Where to Look
While I’ve had some wild days throwing topwater plugs to black rockfish that were on the surface inhaling clouds of larval Dungeness crab, locating structure is the real key to this game. Having a quality graph on board is a real asset – especially one equipped with GPS so you can mark your hot spots.
You’re basically looking for structure like rock piles, reefs, pinnacles, the outside edges of kelp lines and rocky ledges. Rockfish, as their name suggests, don’t spend much time over open sand flats but you will catch them in these areas if there is some hard stuff nearby.
Some of the best rockfishing I’ve ever experienced took place on an apartment-sized boulder that was randomly parked by itself in vast area of sand. The “Rock,” as we lovingly called it, was the only real structure around and it seemed as if every rockfish in about a 5 square mile radius was sitting on it. Any time you dropped in there, our jigs would rarely hit bottom – they’d be inhaled before they got anywhere close to the rocks.
Big “wash rocks” near shore typically harbor good rockfish schools too. You just have to be very alert and careful when putting the boat near them. A sudden surge can put you right on the rock – and in a very dangerous situation.
You will also find big groups of “school” fish like black and blue rockfish suspended well up off the bottom…although usually over some sort of structure. I’ve had mixed success with those suspended schools. Sometimes they bite like wild pirañas and then other days they can be a bit moody. Don’t let that scare you, however. If you see a dense school of fish on your meeter, it’s aways worth a quick try!
By default, shallow water rockcodding requires nice weather. If you’re going to be fishing in tight to the rocks, you can’t have a lot of swell for safety reasons. Plus, the bite is usually a lot tougher when the swell is up. Fish that are close to shore are much more affected by wave action than their deep-dwelling cousins and will often hunker down in holes until things settle down. You can still catch them under these conditions, but you’re going to lose a lot of gear to the rocks.
Ideally, you’d also like to have very little current running and as light a wind as possible when working the shallows. A little bit of a drift is a good thing – it helps you cover some ground. However, if the boat starts moving too quickly, you’ll find it difficult to keep the light lures down near the bottom (more on this later).
As I noted earlier, bass gear is the way to go for this technique. A 6- to 7 ½-foot trigger handle rod with a moderately fast action works well. You want something that’s light enough to use all day yet has adequate lifting power for pulling larger fish out of the rocks. The stick I most often use for light tackle rockfishing is the Temple Fork Outfitters GTS C735-1, which has a nice blend of fisbaility and backbone (and price).
In the reel department, pick something that’s got a durable thumb bar (which allows you to quickly play out more line if the water gets deeper), good cranking power and a tough drag. As with rods, there are lots of companies out there that make a good product and it really comes down to personal taste. I like the good ol’ classic Shimano Calcutta (or the Calcutta TE if you want to spend a little extra cash).
When it comes time to spool up, braided line in the 20- to 60-pound range is really the only choice for several reasons. The thin diameter of braid helps lures sink faster while also giving your reel more line capacity. Braid’s lack of stretch means you get more positive hook sets and better action out of your lure. It’s also much more sensitive than mono so you’ll be better able to feel bites or contact with the bottom.
A hot little tip I can share has to do with your leader. Using a Double Uni Knot, or a Double Albright, attach a 10-foot section of monofilament to the end of your braided line. Go with at least 40-pound test. I know it sounds heavy but thicker diameter monofilament sinks more slowly than does say thinner 20-pound. That helps slow the fall of your lure and gives the fish a better chance at hitting it.
So, before we move on I guess I better come clean. In the interest of full disclosure here, I have to admit that by scaling down your tackle you’re going to encounter a fish now and then that completely kicks your butt. Something huge that nearly relieves you of your rod on the hook set and then, after a couple of massive head shakes, burns a bunch of line off the spool and then leaves you with nothing but a limp line and pounding chest. If that kind of action doesn’t light your fire, maybe light tackle rockfishing isn’t for you.
Another really endearing quality of rockfish is that they have very unsophisticated palates. Unless the fish are getting absolutely hammered by other anglers, they’re usually willing to grab just about anything you drop down on them – which means you can keep your tackle kit pretty simple. All I ever use are metal jigs and soft plastic baits.
Generally speaking, the best jigging spoons have a deep “shad” style body, which enables them to flutter on the drop better than long, skinny models. The more flutter, the slower the fall, which keeps the lure in the strike zone longer. Deep water anglers prefer the slender styles because they get down to the fish faster but that’s not a big deal when you’re fishing in 60 feet of water or less. The only exception to this rule is the wider spoons don’t fish quite as well when there are tons of candlefish around.
I like several spoons like P-Line Laser Minnows, Hopkins Spoons and Crippled Herring. The iron I jig is mostly in the 1- to 3-ounce range because I find that lures weighing 4 ounces or more end up being too much work on small gear. Plus, light lures are easier to impart action into and don’t get snagged as much. A simple rule of thumb is pick a lure that’s just heavy enough to keep down in the strike zone but doesn’t pound the bottom.
There are tons of different models out there to choose from and you can also go crazy buying up 100 different color patterns. Again, don’t over-think it. We’re talking rockfish here and you can get by with the most basic lure selection.
I stock my box mostly with white and silver shades to match silvery baitfish like herring and then a few brighter tones like chartreuse and firetiger to use when the water’s off-color. For a little added meal appeal, I’ll sometimes run a single hook with a small hootchie squid on my leader 18 inches above my jig.
I’m not a big fan of treble hooks and take them off my lures and replace them with Assist Hooks (Read all about them HERE). Assist hooks snag less, hook better and don’t foul up. Plus they usually get a rockfish in the top of the jaw or the corner, where it’s easy to remove the hook…a nice attribute when you are catching and releasing.
Soft plastic baits on lead-head jigs are also dynamite on bottom fish. “Scampi” type tails, grubs and swimbaits fished on lead headed jigs are also excellent bottomfish producers. Rubber squid, Scampi tails, grubs and swimbaits all catch fish. I’ll either fish white patterns to match silvery baitfish like herring, sardines, smelt and anchovies or darker patterns like root beer/red flake, black and purple, which emulate a whole host of critters like juvenile rockfish.
Vertical jigging is the most common technique employed by light tackle rockfishers. The constant yo-yo motion imparts a baitfish in distress type of action to the lure that the fish find very attractive. To get started, simply freespool the jig to the bottom, reel up a couple cranks and then use a sharp upstroke of the rod tip to get the lure to hop. The upswing doesn’t need to be super aggressive – a quick 1- to 2-foot snap of the rod is all you need. Next, drop the tip back towards the water so that the lure will fall back to the seabed.
When the lure’s dropping back towards the bottom, it’s important to keep some contact with it. Let it fall as quickly as possible without having slack in the line. Most bites occur as the lure is fluttering back towards earth and you’ll miss a lot of them if you don’t maintain some tension between the jig and the rod tip.
This technique works best when you can keep the line as straight up and down (perpendicular to the bottom) as possible. If you’ve got some wind, tidal movement or current with which to contend, you may have to use the motor to keep the boat straight over the top of the lures. A little bit of drift is okay, but if the boat starts getting pushed too quickly, the line will start to angle away from the boat and you’ll have to continuously let out more scope to keep in contact with the rocks. This can be a problem because you’ll be dragging – almost trolling – your jigs over the rocky structure and your snag rate will go through the roof.
On days when it’s hard to keep the lines vertical, you can toss your lure downstream and work them back towards you. As the boat drifts towards the area where the jig is, you’ll get a short window when the line is at the proper angle. When the drift carries you past the jig, the line angle will get steeper and you’ll have to crank back up and re-cast. It’s a lot of work, but this technique will enable you to catch fish when the prevailing conditions aren’t ideal.
While I’m happy to throw some tasty rockfish in the cooler, I also release a ton of them. Fishing for them with light tackle is so fun and productive that you’ll catch far more fish than you can possibly eat.
Most rockfish hooked in shallow water on light gear can be released without any problems. However, there are times when a fish comes up with pressure damage – a distended belly is the most common sign, though fish from deeper water may also have bulging eyes and part of their stomach coming out of their mouth. The old school way to release these fish was to poke a hole with a needle at an angle behind the pectoral fin to relieve the pressure. That can more harm than good, though, if you don’t know how to properly do it. Luckily, there are easier and safer methods…
For years, we’ve kept a milk crate on board for releasing rockfish. The crate has a 60-foot line tied to it and some lead sinkers to weigh it down. We flip it upside down, put a fish in it and start lowering slowly. The fish will stay in the crate until the pressure has equalized – at that point, it swims off on its own. Usually, about 30 feet is all it takes.
If you search around online, you’ll also find that here are also some products on the market designed for releasing fish from deep water. One that looks interesting and very simple is the Shelton Fish Descender.
You’ll get Hooked
Give shallow water rockfishing a try this season. The constant action is addictive and with the light gear, you’ll look at bottom fishing in a whole new light.
Take Care of Your Catch!
On party boats, they will often throw your catch into a burlap sack and let it sit out all day…use this a prime example of what not to do. If you want your fish to come out fresh and delicious, bleed it as soon as it comes aboard and then rinse it off. Next, get it directly on ice until its time to start filleting.
I used to hate lugging around a big ol’ cumbersome ice chest but in recent years have switched to the far more convenient soft bill bags. You can load these babies with ice (drain the meltwater when necessary) and then keep your fish cool until you are done. Super handy!
Rockfish, lingcod and halibut have mild, light flesh that tastes great and takes to all sorts of cooking styles. One of my favorites way to prepare bottomgfish is to make Fish Tacos. Or, if you want to get a little more sophisticated, try it Grilled with Sesame & Soy.
That’s a great way for those of us with tiny boats to have fun close to harbor. It’s even more fun if you use a trout rod, but you will lose the big lings…
This season, I’m going to see if I can get a Clouser to go deep enough to catch fish on a fly rod. I don’t know if that qualies as “fly” fishing, but why not try it? Just for the fun of it.
That sounds fun!… I’ve always wanted to try Fly fishing for halibut too
JD thanks for the excellent information, about a seldom discussed subject
Fishing is supposed to be fun, and catching a boatload of tasty rockfish is
You got it Ross!!
LC Ballance says
Thank you. Good article!