"Experts Tips From San Diego to Marina del Rey"
Clearing the rock jetty protecting the Shelter Island Launch Ramp in San Diego Bay, I braced myself against the console and tightened my visor as I anticipated the rush of G-forces while getting on plane before racing into open bay waters. Instead, Barry Brightenberg shifted into neutral while announcing, "We're here." The big outboard had barely warmed up and Brightenberg, owner of Fish Trap Lures, was already making a cast. "Too many guys think the fishing will be better the further you go and pass up one of the most reliable stretches of bass water right in front of the launch ramp," says Brightenberg. "Of course, we'll work our way around the north Bay, but I like to try this spot first. I've caught sand bass up to eight pounds here, so it's worth a try," he added.
Soon everyone onboard, from veteran angler Bob Fletcher, President of the Sportfishing Association of California, and first-timer Sabrina Williams were catching one-to three-pound sand bass almost non-stop. "There's a good clam bed here and sandies somehow are able to feed on them especially during a good tidal movement like now," offered Brightenberg. To prove his point, one of our bass had a freshly-caught razor clam in its mouth. I use to dig for these elusive clams for bait and how these bass can get to them is a mystery to me.
SOUTH TACTICS: BARRY BRIGHTENBERG
As we drifted with the current, Brightenberg gave us a rundown on his favorite technique. Actually, he attributes its discovery to Gary Brown, the founder of Fish Trap Lures and a mistake he once made. Brown made a cast and had a bad backlash, the kind that run deep and take time to work out. As he dug out the line he kept dumping more into the water until he had half the spool out. As he was reeling in the slack line he discovered a nice sand bass had picked up the plastic tail and was firmly hooked just by cranking steady. He repeated the same method of letting out lots of line and kept getting bit. A new technique was born.
Basically, you cast up-current and then let out lots of free-spooled line, maybe two-thirds of a small bait-casting spool. Brightenberg will also simply drop a lure overboard, put the rod in a holder and let the line free-spool out while he tends to other chores. Once enough line is out, simply retrieve the lure at a speed that is slightly faster than the current. A straight, direct retrieve works best with these tails and you don't have to bounce the jig or make fancy maneuvers. When a bass hits it usually feels like a subtle snag. Keep cranking until locked up before lifting the rod tip high. Avoid trying to set the hook with a violent yank the moment you feel something because you'll miss the fish on most tries.
As with most bay fishermen, Brightenberg likes a good tidal movement. "Incoming is best, but anything moving will produce fish," he says. Case in point: we were working the bay on a strong outgoing tide and doing quite well. Big, four-feet plus tides are optimum with the first two hours rated the best by Brightenberg. With big water movement it's necessary to adjust the lure weight to keep on the bottom where the strike zone is. Also, check the lure carefully after each retrieve for grass or other debris. If the wind picks up opposite the current direction Brightenberg will deploy one or two sea anchors which will help keep the boat drifting at the same rate as the tidal flow. This is important because you want to keep the lure near the bottom and moving just slightly faster than the current.
Typical bay forage includes anchovies, smelt, queenfish (herring), tomcod (white croaker), crabs, razor clams, and pencil clams. Brightenberg likes to mimic some of this natural food with his plastic tail colors. Dark blue and silver for anchovy; green for grunion; brown and yellow with an orange stripe in the belly for razor clam; yellowish tan for perch; and brownish green with a key lime stripe and golden belly for smelt are among some of Brightenbergs creations. Standard tail sizes for water deeper than 30-feet is five inches. For Mission Bay where maximum water depth is about 15-feet, a three and one-half inch tail is preferred. Leadhead shape is not a critical factor and a one and one-half ounce size will fit most situation. Brightenberg prefers the smaller 3/0 hook size than the larger 5/0 found on many leadheads because the larger hook shanks extend too far back onto a plastic tail and interfere with optimum swim-action. Smaller hooks are easier for most fish to take as well. One thing about head design: Don't use eyeball-style leadheads with a clam-color plastic tail. "I've never seen a clam with eyes before," says, Brightenberg.
Balanced conventional light tackle is well suited for fishing San Diego Bay. Two outfits that Brightenberg uses is a Shimano Calcutta 250 reel spooled with 8-to 15-pound line matched with a Calcutta 815XFA fast taper rod and a Catala 300 reel and Calcutta 715XFA rod. When fishing Mission Bay just a few minutes northward, Brightenberg will use lighter tackle in addition to smaller lures since Mission Bays shallower confines produce more spotted bay bass than the brutish sand bass commonly found all year in San Diego Bay. Peak season for sandies is September thru June as the bass usually migrate to the ocean during July and August to spawn. Plastics will also score well on kelp bass, white seabass, halibut, barracuda, bonito and mackerel that frequent the varied habitat provided in San Diego Bay.
This winter day the current started picking up steam and we started catching more Pacific mackerel near the mouth of the Bay which will happen when you retrieve a plastic tail through the water column in range of the surface fish. As we were trying to avoid mackerel attacks, Williams was quietly working on a backlash that took half a spool to clear. Reeling in slack line the rod seemed to straighten as if snagged on the bottom and then started bouncing under the weight of her largest bass of the day. What technique.
NORTH TACTICS: BEN SECREST
You can forget pretty much what you learned about bay bass the further north you go. "San Diego Bay is unique unto its own for having a big, deep water fishery and lots of big sand bass," says Ben Secrest, Sales Manager of Blue Water Wear at AFTCO. "When you fish Dana Point Harbor, Newport Bay, King Harbor at Redondo, Huntington Harbor and Marina del Rey the habitats change radically and you have to change techniques," adds Secrest.
The north waters are shallower, the habitat is more structure-oriented and the smaller spotted bay bass is the dominant species. Lures and tackle are all scaled-down in size to be effective. The fish are found in different spots as well. "It took me about ten years just to figure out Newport Bay and where the fish were holding," points out Secrest. Unlike San Diego Bay you won't find large groupings of fish in the main channels. Key spots include the sides of channels around pilings, navigation buoys, moored boats and other structure.
A strong tidal current is critical. "I like an incoming tide about an hour after the low when the water starts rippin' ," says Secrest. Anglers need to pick out areas where they see the most current, such as near a buoy, and cover the water column with at least five or six casts to find out where the fish are holding. Bass will have their "nose" into the current waiting for forage to be swept by. "A good technique is to "flip" the dock pilings by casting plastics with the tidal current while "back trolling" with the motor to hold your position," advises Secrest. It's also a good idea to fish at night around the dock lights because they attract lots of fish. You can also simply drag a plastic bait on the bottom from a drifting boat and catch fish. Occasional pops will attract attention, but it's important to keep the bait on the bottom. "As long as your bait is on the bottom you'll catch fish. Wind a little bit, let it sink to the bottom or change angles. You'll get bit when you start to do something different 60 to 70 percent of the time," says Secrest. Clam beds are good spots to fish and they are often found under moored boats. Simply wind the lure slowly over a bed to attract a bass attack.
Think small. Don't use large five-inch tails up here. A good maximum size plastic tail is three inches matched with a one-half ounce leadhead and 2/0 hook size. "Keep the hooks small because bass will get stuck on a long shank and just keep biting the bait in half," says Secrest. When there is little current scale down to 3/16 to 1/4 ounce heads and smaller tails. Strong currents may require 1/2 to 5/8 ounce leadheads to keep in the strike zone. Lighter heads will give a slower fall rate which can be enticing to bass hanging around vertical structures.
Secrest likes to use a variety of plastic tails and grubs such as Fish Traps, Kalins and Salt Grubs with colors that look like what the bass are feeding on. Favorites include Green Grunion, Tennessee Shad, Brown Bait and Anchovy patterns. With split tail and single tail grubs, Secrest favors the Smoke with Red Flake, Irish Whiskey (greenish brown with green flake), Clear with Red Flake (all-time favorite), Rootbeer with Gold Flake, Brown with Sparkle and Tomato Pepper.
This is light tackle country. Typical outfits include Shimano reels such as the Curado 100 and Calcutta 50 spooled with six-pound line and the Calcutta 100 with eight-pound. These are matched with five-foot six-inch to six-foot trigger sticks. For spinning, the Shimano Sahara 1000FA with four to six-pound line paired to a six to six and one-half foot rod is a good choice. When the water is very clear Secrest will add a six or eight-pound fluorocarbon leader to the main line to get more strikes. Otherwise, the lures are tied directly to the main line without a leader.
Spotted bay bass, sand bass and some calico (kelp) bass are found in these "northern" bay waters all year. Based on years of experience, Secrest has found that the peak season is March, April and May. You may also be surprised by halibut and white seabass as well.
RIGGING A PLASTIC TAIL
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