This cluster of rocky islands south of San Diego has probably spawned more fishing memories and epic tales for veteran Southland anglers than any other easy-to-reach fishing spot. Daybreak yellowtail bites have been recorded in epic proportions here. Hordes of husky yellows chasing jigs to the boat only to get sidetracked by fly-lined anchovies meant bent rods all around the railings. Yellows thumped their tails on the grainy decks because the deckhands were so busy gaffing fish they didn’t have time to stuff the “gunny” sacks of anglers. All manner of lures caught fish. The late Joe Zarolla, a waterfront character of renown, revealed a pet lure in the sixties called a “vivif” which was a funny french version of today’s plastic tails with a broad paddle similar to a porpoise. After the laughter settled down Zarolla proceeded to catch a limit of yellows to 29 pounds on a June 28, 1968, half-day run on a party boat that operated from the Imperial Beach pier. Zarolla helped pad the boats catch of 123 yellows that morning because he led infuriated, hard charging yellows bent on killing his gyrating surface lure within reach of baited hooks.
Squid pile-ups were common on the flats near South Island which led to some impressive fishing action. Nighttime squid-catching under bright lights was like viewing an aquarium display. White seabass, bat rays, blue shark, giant “black” sea bass, halibut and a variety of marine organisms cruised near the spawning biomass. Live squid in the tank was like a guarantee on a limit of yellowtail. On one particular trip on July 7, 1974, I got a late start which meant we were too late to catch squid. As we approached the middle grounds we spotted the usual cluster of sportboats before I was distracted by a brief color change we passed by. Circling back, the dark spot rose upward and a huge ball of squid broke the surface as they were being harassed by predators from below. We quickly scooped up a tankload of squirters in a rare daylight opportunity and soon had rods bending on big yellowtail without moving from the spot. As the bite wore on more boats were drawn to the action until we became the center of the fleet that was once anchored more than a mile away.
Stories never seem to end regarding these islands. Archival photos of turn-of-the-century anglers displaying an array of huge “black” sea bass caught with “knuckle-buster” reels, poachers raiding the flats hauling in white seabass using simple “mouse traps” consisting of a single white jig tied to a line and float (on calm-water days you could see them gunning their skiffs so that the wakes would help activate the yo-yo lure) and tales of striped marlin being caught inside of North Island are but a few examples of a colorful past. But what about today? What can anglers expect to find at a legendary fishery that was so productive in the past?
THE CORONADO’S TODAY Captain Buzz Brizendine has been running the “Prowler”, a full day, limited load open party boat to the Coronado Islands since 1979 and has a good viewpoint of what’s happening there. “The fish stocks are in pretty good shape overall,” says Brizendine. “Yellowtail still show pretty good beginning about April and there are lots of trips with fast action on white seabass, barracuda, bonito, kelp bass, halibut and the exotics like yellowfin tuna and dorado that come in close along the Coronado Canyon,” he adds.
The key to good fishing is getting favorable sea conditions. “Yellowtail at the islands can be pretty sensitive. They usually want warm, clean water at about 60º or more for them to work up an appetite. The direction of current is very important. It should be running from west to east or at least northwest to southeast before the bite gets going. The water should be clean green to blue and tide is not as important as current. Sometimes there will be surface debri like pieces of kelp, scumline or trash which makes some people think the water is dirty which often is not true. If the overall conditions look okay then drop anchor and fish through it”, advises Brizendine. Conditions can change quickly and that’s why you will see sportboat skippers checking on their favorite spots throughout the day to monitor the current and other factors that may get a bite started.
The Coronados’ are famous for turning on and off like a light bulb. The adage, “There’s nothing as cold as yesterdays hot spot”, could have originated here. A real turn-off is an upwelling that brings cold, dirty water to the surface. Hardly anything will feed on an upwelling which will scatter the fleet as well. Fishing pressure is greater today and a flotilla of anchored, trolling and drifting boats not only creates more competition but can put breezing fish down. “Sea lions have also become a tremendous problem up and down the coast”, says Brizendine. “It’s not what they eat but what they scare away. We’d gladly give them what they want to eat if we could but what they do is set up a picket line around the chum circle and the fish won’t come through them to get to the chum and baited hooks”, he explains. That’s one reason why the party boats have joined the private boat technique of chasing breezing yellowtail without the need to anchor. By the time sea lions show up the boat is underway looking for more signs of surface fish or metering deep schools that you can drop a yo-yo jig or bait on.
SEASONAL OPPORTUNITIES Water temperature is a good barometer of fishing activity at the islands - ranging from the cold winter doldrums to a summer peak. Except when massive squid spawns develop that may attract hold-over schools of yellowtail as well as other prized gamefish such as white seabass, the November to March period focuses on the rockfish found at the North Island pinnacles, kelp bass, halibut, sculpin and roving schools of semi-migratory yellows. A mild winter may keep some of the yellows from heading further south and these will usually hang out in deeper water near North Island. “Recently (February 2002) we’ve had good yellowtail fishing chasing breezers with iron jigs and sardines because the sea temp is holding up “, observes Brizendine. The white seabass are a different story unlike their relatives in the Catalina region where there is a reliable winter and spring bite. “There is a pretty good population of whites at the Coronados’ but they are very opportunistic feeders and don’t take hook baits very well. They want live squid. A boat can catch 50 of these guys one day and zero the next day”, says Brizendine.
A mild winter and plentiful bait supply usually makes for a good spring bite. By early April there is usually an influx of yellows coming up from Baja to join the holdovers. Their build-up in numbers are reported first by the long range fleet until they turn at Cabo Colnett and eventually make their way to Punta Salsipuedes, Descanso Bay and the Rockpile seven miles below South Coronado Island where the entire sportboat fleet may camp for a few weeks until they spread to the Coronados’. Spring yellowtail fishing usually means chasing fast-roving schools or “breezers” that feed on fragmented schools of sardines and mackerel. Diving birds give away their position and skipper’s lean on their throttles to get on the spot first. Unfortunately, many schools are driven down by reckless boat handling when a more careful and cooperative approach may be more productive. Larger sportboats tend to rely more on metering fish and they will park their vessels over a deep reading and rely on deep jigging or live baiting to get results. Yellowtail settle down by May or June and offer peak action.
Spring also means the arrival of barracuda usually in the three-to seven-pound range. At times they will leap clear of the water and are easy to spot while feeding. They often congregate in the Middle Grounds and South Kelp. Big halibut move in to spawn at the lee of South Island and along the South Kelp ridge. Several I.G.F.A. Line Class World Record halibut have been caught at these venerable South Island grounds.
By summer the yellowtail may have spread outside to kelp paddies and to coastal areas to the north but good quality fishing can still develop at the islands. Barracuda are found just about everywhere during summer and they are joined by aggressive bonito. Some jumbo bonito exceeding then pounds are often encountered at the Middle Grounds, the lee of South Island and the South Kelp Ridge. School size bluefin tuna will drive anglers crazy as they raid the chumlines but avoid their hooks. Use light line, small hooks and a lively bait drifted far astern to have a chance with these eight to 15-pound torpedoes. Good kelp means good kelp bass fishing and there is a healthy kelp forest now off the south tip of South Island. Kelp cover has also improved at the Middle Grounds and the Ribbon Kelp on the lee of South Island.
During warm water years the exotics like dorado, yellowfin tuna, bigeye tuna and oceanic skipjack may pass very close to the islands along the deep-water canyons to the west and south. In any year it’s not unusual to hook striped marlin within a few hundred yards from the weather (west) side of North Island. According to Brizendine, both dorado and marlin occasionally venture to the inside of the island surprising more than one angler fishing the relatively shallow water.
Some of the largest yellowtail are caught during the fall months as the crowds have departed after Labor Day and fish that have fed heavily throughout the summer pass the Islands on their way south. “Indian summer conditions may hold tuna until the sea temperature drop below 65º by early November. Barracuda are also notorious for staging a late fall bite. If the glamour fish aren’t cooperating, anglers always have a chance with resident species such as halibut, sheephead, rockfish, whitefish, kelp and sand bass, sculpin, lingcod and jumbo mackerel.
“WHITEWATER” BASSING ISLAND STYLE Casting lures and live bait tight to the weather side of these islands is an extreme side-sport replete with rewarding catches of big kelp bass while risking life and limb in often challenging sea conditions. This sport is not for everyone. Even successful practitioners have been known to take a wave over the side occasionally or even worse- a sinking. “I’ve been doing this for years”, says Barry Brightenburg, owner of Fish Trap Lures, “and it’s exciting fishing but you can’t relax for a second or a swell might get you. This is a very safety-conscious style of fishing”, emphasizes Brightenburg.
The reason for all the concern is that the anglers are usually working from small, maneuverable boats within a short cast of rocky slopes covered in breaking swells and whitewater. The weather side of all the islands and rocky outcroppings are good targets with the middle section of South Island the best producer of kelp bass overall. “My best fish here was an eight and one-half pounder so it’s a quality fishery”, says Brightenburg.
Turbulent water is best when using plastic tail leadheads because you don’t want bass to get a good look at the lure. “This is a reaction bite which means the fish may not be actively feeding or searching for food but will instinctively strike at a surprise bait without observing it first and possibly rejecting it. Clean, calm water gives bass a longer time to watch the lure, that’s why some turbulence is needed with plastics. Live bait does better in clear water”, advises Brightenburg.
This is a year-round fishery and the best conditions are overcast sky, moderate current, light swell, no wind and off-color green water for plastics or clear blue water for live bait such as sardines or mackerel. This is strictly a small boat or skiff style of fishing where one person casts and one person runs the boat and watches for a rogue wave or otherwise keeps the skiff in a safe position . Small boaters can “hunt and peck “ to find quality fish while party boats must anchor far from the rocks and chum heavily to get results.
It can take years to find productive spots. “There’s a lot of trial and error involved. I like a high sun just to check out the crags and outcroppings to remember for later reference”, says Brightenburg. “This habitat is real rough so when you cast a lure to the steep shelves you can’t bounce the lure down the rocks or you’ll get hung up. It’s better to give a steady, slow retrieve just in front of the rocks but close enough for a reaction strike”, advises Brightenburg. “If the waves are too big its better to stay further back and make longer casts with surface jigs such as Ironman, Tady 45 or Salas 7X in order to reach the strike zone more safely. Even so, always keep your anchor ready and trolling motor in position to help out if the main engine goes down”, says Brightenburg. If you’re not frightened by breaking swells or not safety conscious come back when you’re more experienced or have had a few accidents under your belt so that you’re not relaxed around an unforgiving sea.
Kelp bass can also be caught from the calm lee of the islands. The water is usually cleaner and the bass more wary. “The lee side bass move to deeper water as the sun gets higher and you’re usually bouncing bottom jigs in 40- to 90-feet of water or more”, says Brightenburg. Since the kelp forests are getting thick again they offer a good opportunity at SKR (South Kelp Ridge), Ribbon Kelp, south tip of South Island and the Middle Grounds. Fishing the kelp is more current-dependent with a west to east flow favored. On a good current the kelp will “lay down” and point away from the water flow which will indicate current direction. A good technique is to drift along the edge and cast plastics or surface iron between the stringers.
Whatever style of fishing you prefer, the famed Coronado Islands usually have something to offer today’s angler even after all these generations of productive fishing and wild tales.
A BRIEF HISTORY On September 27, 1542, an expedition commanded by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo making its way up the Baja coastline, found an uninhabited group of barren islands and found a good anchorage in the lee of the largest island. With little food and no fresh water to be found anywhere, Cabrillo called these islands Las Islas Desiertas (Desert Islands) before making a better landfall several miles north at San Diego Bay. On November 10, 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino, on another survey ordered by the Viceroy of New Spain, sighted the same islands and called them Islas de San Martin which he noted on his chart. However, the expeditions log was kept by father Antonio de la Ascencion who apparently preferred calling them Los Cuatro Coronados which has prevailed. Other names that have been used include Dead Men’s Islands, Sarcophagi and Cortez. A particularly appropriate name for North Island was Corpus Christi because it resembles a body draped in a shroud even today.
Although pirates allegedly ambushed merchant vessels from these islands, there isn’t much excitement or cultural background to be found here. The harsh environment is home to wild flowers, sea birds, sea lions, seals and occasionally sea elephants. Sea otters were common during the early 1800’s. North Coronado Island attracts most of the nesting birds and it has no rattlesnakes. South Coronado Island, which is larger, hosts fewer birds and has a healthy population of rattlesnakes. There is a small “lobster shack” on the lee side of North Island that can provide short term shelter to local Mexican fishermen. The only activity on South Island is at Puerto Cuevo or Smuggler’s Cove on its lee (northeastern) side. The Mexican lighthouse keeper and a small army contingent are garrisoned here, along with some chickens, goats and donkeys. In the early 1930’s, a gambling casino in the guise of a resort hotel known as Los Coronados Yacht Club, was constructed above this picturesque cove. It was closed by Mexican law enforcement and now serves as barracks for the local inhabitants. Although the cove and nearby shorelines are interesting to view, it requires special permission to access the islands.
GETTING TO THE CORONADO ISLANDS Los Islas de Coronados (Coronado Islands) include a group of four high, rocky islets about five miles inside the territorial waters of Mexico. They are situated about seven miles offshore at their nearest point and ten miles southwestward of the International Boundary Monument near the Tijuana Bullring. The islands extend about five miles in a northwest to southeast orientation. North Island is about one mile long and rises to a height of 467 feet. Its sheer drop-off on the westerly side is famous for producing a “roll back” wave effect and a sloppy sea surface. This spot is informally referred to as “Pukey Point” for good reason. The Middle Grounds are two central islets rising to 101 and 251 feet in height about one-half mile westward of South Island, The Middle Grounds are known for subterranean caves, sheer cliffs and heavy kelp growth. South Island is nearly two miles in length and reaches a peak at 672 feet. On a clear day the islands are visible from San Diego vantage points.
The most convenient and closest departure point to the Coronado Islands is San Diego Bay. The charter and open party sportfishing landings are located in the America’s Cup Basin near Shelter Island. Point Loma Sportfishing (619-223-1627), Fishermans Landing (619-221-8500) and H&M Landing (619-222-1144) all fish the Islands on a daily basis. Private boaters depart from marinas or by launching at several public ramps. Shelter Island Launch Ramp is closest to the open ocean while Coronado, National city and Chula Vista also provide good launching facilities at no cost. Everingham Bros. Bait Co. (619-696-6673) maintains live bait receivers immediately north of Ballast Point close to Point Loma, as well as Mission Bay. Just follow the procession of boats to it or ask for directions at the ramp. Upon clearing the mouth of the harbor, North Island is 12.6 nautical miles on a magnetic heading of 184º. South Island is 16.1 nautical miles and 168º (refer to appropriate navigational aids).
All Mexican boat permits and individual fishing permits for everyone onboard must be obtained before entering Mexico. In San Diego, Hook, Line and Sinker (619-224-1336) and Fisherman’s Tackle (619-221-8506) can provide the necessary permits for purchase. Their cordial and experienced staffs can also give you the latest “hot bite” information.