“San Diego’s White Seabass are Big and Tricky”
Just when you think you have white seabass figured out, they change the rules on you. On an early fall trip just south of the U.S. - Mexican border, we set up a drift targeting halibut using live sardines with egg-sinker rigs on the bottom 75-feet below. The calm seas, clean, 68-degree water and light fog were ideal fishing conditions and we anticipated some good halibut action at this year-round hotspot. Sure enough, we soon started picking up some nice legal halibut mixed with the usual sculpin and sand bass.
After re-positioning the boat for a new drift, we dropped our baits to the bottom simultaneously and a wave of bites swept though the rods. Screaming reels, bucking rods and lines going in all directions are not exactly anticipated on a halibut foray. These were big, fast fish. Some of our small reels were getting emptied. We couldn’t follow or concentrate on any one fish in particular because we had three lines running in opposite directions. Plus, skipper Al Ross was hooked-up and no one was on the bridge. The first deep color showed after 20 minutes. They were white seabass. Our fish box went from nearly vacant to fully occupied with two fish in the 40-to 50 pound class. The third one got down to the last knot on the spool and broke the line before we could drop a gaff and reach the controls.
Running back up the driftline to the original contact spot, we continued to hook more whites which surprised us. White seabass around San Diego move a lot and are notoriously hard to driftfish on. Even more surprising was the consistency of this fall bite which lasted for nearly two months with no more than a handful of private boats aware of it. Additionally, this area is known more for occasional spring flurries of white seabass than fast fall action. These hefty whites, ranging from 35- to 57-pounds, were contradicting behavioral and fishing rules for time of year, abundance and availability. Having fished this region for over 30 years I had never seen anything like this.
THE MORE YOU KNOW
Trying to profile white seabass is a tough proposition. Comparing notes with Barry Brightenburg, owner of Fish Trap Lures, helps create a composite picture of these elusive characters. “Whites are tough to target but are definitely big in San Diego,” offers Brightenburg. Anglers that are geared to fishing white seabass Catalina style had better switch gears if you want to succeed in San Diego waters.
Off Catalina and the Santa Monica Bay region there is a far more consistent fishery associated with an abundant and consistent squid cycle. Tapping this fishery is hard work with night time squid catching on dark moon phases, chilly winter nights and a flotilla of competing boats to contend with and no guarantee of a hot bite. Yet, the fish are there on a much more reliable basis than the San Diego population. Off San Diego, white seabass tend to “move through” areas pursuing a variety of forage. In more northerly water they settle down around squid beds and their feeding habits slow down as well, leisurely feeding on dying squid without having to burn much energy in the process.
Since San Diego doesn’t have the large squid spawn of past years, except for winter flurries near La Jolla Canyon, there is usually no large concentration of white seabass that can be worked on a daily basis. Anglers need to experiment more with a variety of baits and lures, techniques and locations to intercept their movements. The encouraging news is that the white seabass cycle is way up and more anglers are encountering big fish every year. Some speculation attributes the rise in this fishery to the hatchery programs, however, Brightenburg discounts this notion because the fish are too big to have come from this source. A rise in the sardine biomass is probably a better reason to account for their abundance today.
WHERE TO GO
White seabass may be elusive but there are certain areas to concentrate your efforts that will improve your chances of landing one of these trophies. Obviously, the coastal shelf about four miles south of the border has been productive recently, as noted, and is worth a careful look. Brightenburg holds the Imperial Beach - Tijuana Bullring area in high regard. “Last May an angler caught a 58- pound white on one of my Fish Traps off I.B. and this was not an isolated catch. There seems to be lots of big fish down there, maybe because of the good amount of bait available. The commercial bait haulers work that area pretty good,” says Brightenburg. Spring is usually the best time to fish for whites south of Point Loma but a good bite can develop anytime, given the right balance of forage, water quality, tides and other variables that might hold schools for awhile.
Brightenburg’s second choice is the La Jolla region from Bird Rock to Scripps Pier. “Squid spawns in the canyon can start a bite but this is an area where kayakers trolling mackerel have made some big catches,” notes Brightenburg. The challenge here is trying to get big fish out of the kelp as opposed to the Imperial Beach area where kelp is not a big factor. Lots, if not most, big white seabass are lost due to cutoffs in this structure - laden region whether on a party boat, private skiff or kayak. Yet there are so many large whites that roam this region its worth the effort. The northern Baja coast from Descanso to Salsipuedes rounds out Brightenburgs selection.
WHAT TO DO
Anglers have a choice of options. Fish for your favorite species such as halibut or calico bass and hope some white seabass come along or pursue them as a first choice. Probably most anglers that show up at the dock with a crowd - gathering white weren’t looking for one to begin with. Brightenburg, for example, is a calico bass guy who catches white seabass incidentally using pretty much the same techniques. Whatever you choose, there are some general fishing strategies to consider. First of all, you won’t find too many mega-sized white seabass chasing down a fast-trolled bait or lure. “Big whites are usually sluggish feeders and ten to hang below bait balls waiting for injured prey to drop into their strike zone. All of the aggressive feeders like yellowtail, barracuda and bass may be busting bait on the surface while a big white seabass may be holding patiently in the depths,” advises Brightenburg.
Live bait is probably the most effective entice but both plastic tails and iron jigs score well. Of all the bait types usually available in San Diego, the Pacific mackerel is a top choice. Mackerel are very plentiful, easily caught with four-fly bait catching rigs and are strong baits. Occasionally they may be available at the commercial bait barges located in San Diego and Mission Bays. Slow-trolling mackerel is a top technique that has been refined by the sea-going kayak anglers. Dropping mackerel deep below bait schools or drift fishing near the bottom are also winning strategies. Besides mackerel, squid are considered a “candy bait” for whites but are not readily available in San Diego waters. Sardines and anchovies are also part of a white seabass diet.
It can be frustrating working a school of anchovies or other forage that is being ripped by predators such as bass and barracuda. Constant hookups with these smallish gamefish or aggressive mackerel will waste valuable time and effort if you feel bigger fish are around. A good way to be more selective is to use bigger baits. “If there’s too much of a surface bite going on to get a bait through to a lurking white seabass, I’ll switch to a big live bait like mackerel or work one of my seven-to eight-inch Fish Traps. Most of the small stuff won’t try to eat such large items which clears the way for a big white to grab it,” advises Brightenburg. This technique is especially effective on the Imperial Beach flats where bait balls are routine fishing targets.
When using lures there are some additional refinements to consider, all geared toward taking advantage of a whites sluggish feeding habits. “Whether using plastic or iron, most of the hits will occur on the sink rather than the retrieve, especially around structure such as rocks or kelp. The lures therefore need to perform better on the sink such as giving off a life-like flutter and sinking slowly. You can achieve this by using a light leadhead combined with a large plastic tail. A one-and one-half-ounce leadhead, for example, carrying a five-and one-half to six- and one-half-inch plastic tail will sink very slowly and still provide some enticing movement,” says Brightenburg. There is no magic color preference but sardine, grunion and smelt imitations are generally favored.
Iron jigs come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and many choices are effective. However, to maintain the “slow sink” strategy it’s best to use those “iron” or metal jigs that are designed for surface work rather than bottom jigging. That’s because the surface jigs are light weights compared to the three-ounce or more deep jigs. They also have a larger surface area-to-weight ratio which means they will sink slower and flutter more which is exactly what you want to achieve when targeting white seabass. Again, color is not an overriding factor but anything with green in it is generally favored, such as the scrambled egg pattern or green sardine variation.
Fishing for white seabass is not a science but there are a few adjustments anglers can make to improve your chances. Keep experimenting and you may be the one to unlock the key to catching big white seabass on a regular basis. In San Diego waters we need all the help we can get.
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The Roving Angler