10X How to Fish Catalina Island, CA

10X Guide to Fishing Santa Catalina Island, California

Tanner Boston

LOCATION

Catalina Island is located 26 nautical miles across the sea from Orange County, California. The island is home to many people as well as many different types of fish. Catalina’s waters consist of mostly kelp and deep rock structures. Every year thousands of weekend warriors and charter fishing boats take the trip across the Pacific Ocean to fish the beautiful waters of the island. There are three main harbors on Catalina. On the East end of the island is the city of Avalon. Home to about 3,000 people, Avalon is a tourist paradise. The calm beautiful water in the harbor houses a special type of fish, called a Garibaldi and it is an ocean goldfish. They are bright orange and swim in shallow water. As beautiful as they are, Garibaldi are an endangered species and are protected in California waters. Avalon is also home to a vibrant bar scene, with an amazing board walk that is packed 24/7. To the East we would find Two Harbors. Two Harbors got its name because it is the thinnest part of the island; only half a mile of land separates Two Harbors and Catalina Harbor. There are very few restaurants on this side of the island. However, this side of the island is home to an unnatural heard of buffalo. Movie produces back in the day brought the buffalo over to film a movie and never brought them back. Catalina Island is one of my favorite places to fish as well as party.

BAIT

  • Mackerel
    • The largest of the baitfish used at Catalina. Most anglers use mackerel for Marlin, Swordfish, and Yellowtail.
  • Sardine
    • Sardine’s can range in size from 3 inches to 8 inches. They are the most abundant bait in the Southern California waters. On the right day you can find schools of millions up on the surface being chased by other fish, dolphins, and birds. The baits can be used whole alive, stripped out (filleting the fish), or chunked.
  • Anchovies
    • These are the smallest of the fin bait in Southern California. They range in size of 3-5 inches and only weigh as much as a paper clip. Calico Bass and Rockfish love anchovies because of their size.
  • Squid
    • Squid are the absolute bottom of the food chain. Everything in the ocean easts squid. You can target and fish at Catalina with squid. They are the candy bar of the ocean.
  • Soft Plastics (fake baits)
    • Soft plastics are exactly what they sound like. They are molded out of rubber to look like other baits that are found in the water. People who fish with plastics like the challenge of making their fake bait look real.
  • Hard Plastics/Iron Jigs
    • These are some of my favorite baits to fish. My number one reason is because they do not have to be rebaited or re-attached. There are a million different colors and shapes to use. My tip is to find the one that you like and fish it until it either works or fails. Pick a new color/shape and get back out there!

TYPES OF FISH

            There are a lot of different species of fish in the water surrounding Catalina Island. Yellowtail, White Sea Bass, Calico Bass and many, many more. I am going to break down a couple fish as to their habitat, feeding patterns and types of rigs you can use to target them. The one thing that is the same for every fish is that I always fish 40lb line because you never know what is going to grab that bait.

CALICO BASS

That said, I will start small with the Calico Bass. They are called this because their skin has a brown and green plaid pattern. They range in size from 6 inches to 25 inches. The biggest I have ever seen caught weighed 8 pounds. They are a very ferocious fish that hits the line harder than you would think. Calicos are one of the most common fish at Catalina. My captain and I have an inside joke calling them “elusive” because they are so easy to catch. I say that with a bit of caution because when you are not targeting a species, they seem to bite every cast, but the fish you want to catch never shows up. Calico Bass eat pretty much everything they can. From very small sand worms to 8-inch swim baits. This is a type of fish that eats fish way bigger than its mouth. They are technically called Kelp Bass because they live mostly in kelp beds. You can find them just about anywhere there is kelp or rock cover on the bottom. My go to setup for catching Calico Bass is called a dropper loop. To tie a dropper loop you take your hook and slide it up the line about a foot. You then double the line behind the hook, and then double it again. Twist the line three times and pull the hook through the loop you just made. Wet the line with some spit and pull the knot tight. They key to being successful is leaving a 3 to 4-inch loop between the knot and the hook. This allows the bait float around more naturally on the bottom. To finish it off you tie a torpedo weight to the tag line of the knot. (The tag line is the part of the line that comes out of the knot.) Typically, the tag line is very short, but in the case of the dropper loop we want it to be long so that the weight sits on the bottom and the bait is floating above. The knot that I prefer for the weight on the tag line is the basic Fisherman’s knot. This is a very simple knot to tie. To explain, you run the line through the eye hole of the weight and wrap it around the main line 5-7 times. You then take the tag end and bring it through the loop closest to the eye of the weight. Wet the line and pull the knot down to the eye of the weight. I typically don’t cut the tag end of the weight knot because it does not affect the chance of getting a bite. A shortcut to tying this knot is once you bring the line through the eye, bring it up about 3 inches and spin the weight. Spinning the weight does the same thing as wrapping it around by hand. The best bait use, in my opinion, on your dropper loop is anchovies. You’ll want to use a smaller hook for anchovies because they are very fragile and small. If you have a lot of anchovies, you can chum them (throw a lot into the water) and get the bass more excited to eat. If you can start a feeding frenzy, I would ditch the dropper loop and tie a fly line. Just line and hook. Toss your ‘chovie out there and you’re pretty much guaranteed to catch a fish.

YELLOWTAIL

The next fish I will discuss is the California Yellowtail. This is my absolute favorite fish to catch. Pound for pound they fight harder than almost any other fish in the ocean. In my opinion, they are the tastiest fish too. They range is size from 6 oz to 90lbs. If you are to read anything about California Yellowtail fishing it will talk about their fighting ability. This is the reason I said in the beginning that you should never fish anything lighter than 40 lb test when you are at Catalina Island. These fish do not nibble on your bait. When a Yellowtail bites they inhale. Typically, the smaller fish around the island nibble on the bait and then it will feel like your bait got stuck on a rock or kelp. When you set the hook, you’ll know immediately that you have a yellowtail on the line. The rod will double over (bend hard) and the fish will immediately run towards cover. They do this to attempt to break your line. Yellowtail also live around the kelp beds and deep rock cover. Unlike Calicos, Yellowtail tend to make rounds around the island or the cove. This is very dependent on the current around the island. Fish swim up current looking for food that is moving down current. Catalina has many different spots around the island that are famous for Yellowtail. A very popular one is the Farnsworth Bank on the backside of the island. It is about a 2-mile long reef, about a mile off the island, that is only 60 ft under the surface. This spot is very particular because it is illegal to catch Calico Bass here. It is illegal because a marine survey found that the Calico Bass population in the area was dwindling. One of my favorite ways to catch Yellowtail is to throw an iron. When I say throw, I mean cast. A piece of iron shaped into a long diamond and painted different colors. When fishing for Yellowtail I like to fish with 65lb braided line and an 8ft 40lb fluorocarbon leader. Fluorocarbon is very important because it is a sinking line that is almost invisible in the water. The invisibility is very important because Yellowtail have very good eyesight.

The knot that I tie to attach the braid and the fluorocarbon is called a Tony Pena knot. I will try my best to describe this with words because it is a difficult knot to tie. To start the knot, I tie a double over hand knot in the fluorocarbon. This is simple. Make a loop and wrap the tag end around the loop twice. You then pull the braided line through the loop about 8 inches and pull the overhand knot tight to the braided line. The next portion is more complicated. You bring the braided line backup the main line and make a small loop next to the overhand knot. This loop is very important because it is what makes the knot as tight as possible. After making a loop with the braided line, you want to wrap the braid up the fluorocarbon 12 times. It is very important to make sure that the original loop stays loose from the fluorocarbon. Once you have gone up the line with 12 wraps, you wrap back down towards the loop 12 more times. To make this knot successful, the 12 wraps down should fall in the spaces between the 12 wraps up. When you get to the 11th wrap (coming back down) you bring the tag end around and the 12th wrap ends through the loop created at the beginning. This next step is the most important when tying a strong Tony Pena knot. Wet the line, as always, wrap the braided line and the fluorocarbon around different hands. This allows you to get a grip on the line when pulling it tight. Personally, I put both the tag end of the fluorocarbon and the braided line in my teeth. Biting down hard on the line and pulling in opposite directions with both hands, the knot should slide down and come tight around the double overhand knot. Once the knot is tight, I re-wrap the line around both hands and pull as hard as I can to see if the line is going to break. Once the knot is tight and tested you must cut the tag ends as small as possible to ensure the knot does not catch on any guides that are on the rod. After tying  your leader, you must tie on the iron. My go-to knot for irons (or any jig for that matter) is called a uni knot. This knot is much simpler than the Tony Pena. To tie this knot, you bring the line through the eye and bring it back up the main line. You make a loop in the tag end of the line and make sure the tag end of the loop is still running up the main line. You then take both the loop and the main line and wrap the tag end around the main line and loop 5 times. Unlike other knots, the uni knot gets pulled tight away from the hook. Once tight, you wet the rest of the line, between the knot and hook, and pull the knot down tight. We cut the tag end short on this knot because the tag end can be visible on the bait. As soon as you are rigged you are ready to catch fish. I try to cast the iron as far as possible up current. Yellowtail like to chase their food so after letting the iron sink for 5-10 seconds crank the iron back in at a moderately-fast pace. If you get a bite, it will feel like you snagged something because the bait will just stop. Set the hook and prepare for one of the most fun fights you will ever encounter with Pelagic fish. This is just my personal favorite way to target Yellowtail. You will cast more times than you will hook up, but if you do hook up, it will be a bite like no other.

Other ways to target Yellowtail are very similar to Calico’s. Dropper loops work very well, the only difference is that you want about 5 feet between the weight and the bait. Also, you want to use a whole sardine hooked through the nose. They are hooked through the nose because yellowtail eat the bait headfirst.  You can also fly line for Yellowtail. There are many ways to hook a sardine or small mackerel to the hook. My favorite way to hook a bait fish for fly lining is through the “shoulders” of the fish. The “shoulder” is part of the fish that meets the gill plate and head. Sardine have a large green stripe that goes head to tail. In order to bait the hook without killing the fish is to put the hook a little more than halfway up that green stripe. Gently work the hook through the fish and make sure there is enough meat between the hook and skin so that the bait does not come off when casting. You will want to let this bait swim as far away from the boat as possible. They key to being successful is to keep the line tight enough to feel a bite but loose enough to let the bait swim naturally. In most cases, you will feel the bite in the reel. This means that the line will start coming off the reel very fast. A rule of thumb when fly lining is that if you cannot stop the line with your thumb, click the reel in gear and set that hook! You don’t even have to land a Yellowtail to get hooked on Yellowtail fishing, the fight and excitement of the hook set are enough to get anyone addicted. I know I am!

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