If you enjoy catching a variety of fish from your kayak and want more consistency catching fish during your West Coast kayaking adventures, branching out into deeper water to target rockfish species can salvage an otherwise unsuccessful fishing day.
Consider that a total of fifty seven different species of rockfish are listed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. There is a very wide variety to catch. The most common types in the San Diego coastal areas are starry rockfish, vermillion rockfish, boccacio, and copper rockfish. Along with these common rockfish, we often find that lingcod, sheephead, and ocean whitefish are plentiful in these same areas. The huge assortment of deeper bottom dwelling fish provide a consistent fishery in California’s nearshore coastal waters – all within easy reach of a MirageDrive® outfitted Hobie® kayak.
By following a few simple tips, you can increase your catch rate of larger ‘keeper-sized’ rockfish and leave the smaller rockfish in the depths to grow!
Be sure to check your local regulations for open rockfish months and closure areas. Since Marine Protected Areas have been implemented on the West Coast, make sure that you know these areas well before you fish.
Rigging for Rockfish
When targeting rockfish, I use a 6 ½- to 7-foot medium action rod rated for 30- 40-pound line with a medium saltwater reel the size of the Avet MX. I always use 30- to 50-pound braided line as mainline connected to a 4-foot leader of 30- or 40-pound fluorocarbon line. Adding a swivel above your hooks will help minimize line-twist during the long drops and retrieves.
For general rockfish fishing I prefer to use large squid strips, large mackerel strips, or even Berkley Gulp baits. With these baits, I prefer to fish with a simple one or two hook dropper-loop rigs and use between 5- and 8-ounce torpedo sinker to keep in contact with the bottom.
To keep the smaller fish from getting hooked, I find that using a larger circle hook is a big help. While you will catch fewer fish, you will spend less time reeling up small fish, leaving more time for keepers. Smaller rockfish are not heavy enough to hook themselves easily onto a 4/0 or 6/0 circle hook, and the circle hook reduces the chances of snagging fish. In addition, I have learned to be very patient when getting bites. I will always wait for a big headshake before putting pressure on.
Simply ignore the tap-tap-tap of those little bait pickers, and wait for the thump of a larger fish. Using braided line and a graphite rod allows you to feel absolutely everything happening with your bait, even 200 feet away.
There are times of heavy current that I may increase the weight to 12 or even 16 ounces – whatever is necessary to keep the bait in the fishing zone, right on or near the bottom.
When fishing larger baits like live mackerel or whole squid for lingcod or larger rockfish, I will use a three-way swivel rig with a heavier leader to the hook, and a lighter breakaway three-foot leader down to the torpedo sinker.
Avoiding and Releasing the Little Guys
I’m a very firm believer in protecting our fisheries. Conservation is important, especially releasing any small rockfish unharmed. Occasionally, I will incidentally bring up a smaller fish that I need to release. Most rockfish when reeled to the surface cannot return underwater due to the pressure changes which inflate their swim-bladders with air, and these fish will float away to die if not released properly.
Accidentally hooked small rockfish are easy to release with the right technique. I’ll rig an upside-down barbless hook on my line just above the sinker, and then use this extra hook to “pull down” and release the little ones at depth. Once underwater about 60 feet or so, they will be able to swim off of the barbless hook and back to the deep unharmed.
Finding Fish – Hard Bottom, Current, and Food
The key to catching rockfish from a kayak is finding and targeting rocky hard-bottom areas in water deeper than 100 feet, and keeping your offering very near the bottom. Finding hard-bottom is simpler during the early weeks of March, as many productive rockfish areas are still marked by deep water commercial lobster buoys. I prefer to set up drifts starting from the lobster buoys and it usually works out well.
Other ways to get started finding productive rockfishing spots is to use topographic fishing maps found at local tackle stores, or, even searching around on Google Earth for productive-looking rocky fishing areas.
My shallowest rockfish areas in the San Diego region are in the 120 feet deep range. I only occasionally fish deeper than 200 feet. For those less experienced, fishing shallower is easier.
When there is a good current running up slope from deeper water toward the beach, schools of rockfish will stack-up on rock piles, high spots, and canyon edges where the current acts like a food conveyor belt for deep-water forage including krill and pelagic red crab.
While sport boats fishing the islands or offshore banks will target rock pinnacles or high-relief spots, kayakers inshore have many choices of flatter hard rock bottom areas, and those canyon edges. Scattered large rocks and rock piles can be drifted across with baits near the bottom until biting rockfish are located.
In these same areas, besides rockfish, you will also often catch lingcod, sheepshead, whitefish, and may even hook into a tackle-busting, hard fighting yellowtail.
Unlike many summer species that kayakers target, rockfish tend to enjoy feeding in cooler water. When there is a cold, green-water upwelling that shuts off the calico bass or surface bite – rockfish can still be on the chew in the depths nearby.
The beginning of March is currently opening day for rockfish in Southern California from Point Conception to the Mexican border (check current regulations). Since these fish are off-limits with no fishing pressure during the months of January and February, I generally find that early March to be great fishing, and March and April have always been very successful months for rockfish, but they will bite year-round.
Winter and Spring Weather Windows
Southern California offers up occasionally beautiful warm weather in winter and spring between storms; there are usually periods of two or three days of nice weather. Some years during the recent drought conditions almost every day were pleasant for kayaking on the open ocean. I’m patient and resist the temptation to launch into rough ocean conditions, but you’ll find me charging out on my Mirage® Revolution each time a weather window permits.
The MirageDrive Advantage
Drifting with your bait near the bottom is traditional method of covering ground in search of schools of rockfish. But if there is very little current, the fish can be scattered around and less concentrated. On these slack days, I often slow-troll baits using the MirageDrive to cover more area than a very slow drift would provide.
On the most productive days there is a current pushing up from deep water which seems to focus the fish into more concentrated feeding areas, and allows the kayak angler to zero-in on the feeding fish once those productive spots are located. Biting fish are usually found along with the deepwater baitfish schools that are easy to spot on your sonar.
After drifting a targeted area and finding the biting fish, I will secure my catch and return up current to target the very same spot. Upon a good hookup, I mark the bite spot on my GPS. Then, swinging the kayak back around from the down-current edge at the end of my drift, I follow on my GPS until my kayak is positioned directly over the spot.
With the bow of the kayak pointed up-current, I can pedal slowly up-current watching the sonar and sending the bait right down into the hot zone, which often results in instant rewards with a big vermillion headshake telegraphed on the rod tip. Aggressive fish will often grab your sinking bait on the way down, so be prepared for a quick hit. Sometimes they’ll even eat the torpedo weight as well.
If my hook set on a great thump bite comes up empty, I’ll put the reel into free spool and drop that bait right onto the bottom as if the bait was just wounded or killed. The next thump is usually a good sized, very aggressive fish – so set that hook!
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