Friday, January 6, 2012

California Dreaming

My brother Gavin and his wife Gail moved from Connecticut to southern California about 12 years ago. While we hate not having them around here, it gives the rest of our family a great excuse to visit sunny San Diego as much as we can. This year, for the first time, the whole clan spent the week between Christmas and New Years on the West Coast together.   

We stayed right on the water in a laid back community called Pacific Beach. The stretch of coastline in front of our condo for the week was rich in marine life with boats fishing over kelp beds and pods of dolphins greeting us daily along the surf line. The waves were big enough to draw dozens of surfers everyday in thick neoprene wetsuits for the 58-degree water. Like it usual is there, the weather was beautiful throughout our stay and each day peaked around 70 degrees--not bad considering it was 11 degrees when we landed back home.  

Having the whole family together again was awesome. We enjoyed the perfect mix of relaxation and excursions, including trips to the Holiday Bowl football game featuring California vs. Texas, a San Diego State men's basketball game, Torrey Pines State Reserve, Cabrillo National Monument, and San Diego Zoo's Safari Park. Naturally I was also hellbent on doing a little fishing. Being the trooper that she is, my wife joined me early one morning for a half day of bottom fishing off the coast of La Jolla.
A view of the Pacific Beach pier from our balcony.

A small subset of the Pacific Beach surfers waiting for the right wave.

La Jolla surf
La Jolla harbor seals staying alive out of the water. 

La Jolla surf

A blanket of fog rolling in over Point Loma at Cabrillo National Monument. 

An eroding plateau at Torrey Pines State Reserve, one of only two places where the Torrey Pine grows. 

My brother's backyard is infested with Anna's Hummingbirds (see video below). 

Pacific Beach sunset

Fishing the La Jolla Kelp Beds

I had only fished twice before on the West Coast. Once on Lake Poway, which is known for trophy largemouth bass that feed on stocked rainbow trout. The other time was an August saltwater trip where we caught Pacific barracuda and yellowtail on a party boat. By late December the barracuda and yellowtail have long since left the area for warmer water, but plenty of angling opportunities remain especially over deep water kelp beds just north of San Diego. 

Mosey and I settled on a half day trip aboard aboard the 85-foot vessel, New Seaforth. Next to its dock was a fully outfitted tackle shop with its walls adorned with heavy, colorful jigs that we don't see much of back in Connecticut. We rented conventional rods and reel combos there and picked up one-day California fishing licenses. An employee gave us a bag of hooks and six-ounce lead drail weights to get our baits to the bottom in a hurry. The party boat included about 60 other anglers on board that morning, not my preferred manner of fishing, but an affordable way to get on the water.

A slew of colorful jigs hung on the wall of Seaforth's headquarters
There was a gorgeous false dawn on full display as we steamed from Mission Bay to the kelp beds off La Jolla. One of the mates sliced up whole squid into strips for our bait while another rounded up the first-timers to give us a primer. We were fishing for anything that was hungry on the sea floor and that could include a wide variety of species. I had been checking online for boat's recent fish counts leading up to the trip and the most common catches coming over the rail had been rockfish, California sheephead, Pacific mackerel, and kelp bass, all of which Mosey and I had never seen in person. Our rig was pretty straight forward and much like a "bounce rig" that I use while nymphing in trout streams. It consisted of a long leader of monofilament with our weight tied to the bottom. About a foot and a half above it was tied a dropper loop for our hook. Some anglers chose to add an additional dropper loop and hook, but it increased the chances of snagging kelp or tangling with other lines, which can happen often in an environment like that. 

Mosey's ready!
We enjoyed one hell of a sky that morning.
Conventional rods and reels resting in notches along the rail. 

Although there were sardines and anchovies too, squid strips were the bait of choice on this trip.

As we approached the fishing grounds, the surface came alive with migrating gray whales, pods of dolphins and harbor seals popping up around the boat. There were juvenile pelicans everywhere too and, though cool to see at first, turned out to be a major pain as they tried to steal our bait or fish, sometimes successfully.  We grabbed a handful of squid strips and a piece of real estate on the port side of the boat. When the Captain dropped anchor, we followed suit and dropped our rigs 95 feet to the bottom. The crew was extremely helpful in giving newbies an idea of how to present our baits properly. There was no jigging involved; we were to keep the sinker right on bottom and our baits steady above it, raising and lowering the rod as needed with the swell. Most of my reels at home are spooled with sensitive braided lines, which would have made it easier determining subtle bites from nearly 100 feet down. Mosey soon showed everyone how it was done and put us on the board with a nice California sheephead, which has many similarities to our tautog back home.   

There was a good crowd on board, but everyone played nice and caught some fish. 
Mosey with her catch of the day, a nice buck-tooth California sheephead. 
Each angler was given a number when they signed-in that morning, which coincided with a burlap bag on the boat to put the fish we wanted to take home. Mosey's sheephead was put in our bag for an afternoon cookout later that day. Everyone on board also chipped in $5 for a shot at the heaviest fish caught throughout the outing, known as the "pool fish" that adds a little competition to things. Over the next few hours, we landed the occasional fish and enjoyed the sights and sounds around us. Seeing the barnacle-encrusted gray whales migrating passed was worth the price of admission alone. Mosey and I both landed some feisty mackerel, which were sliced into bait strips when the squid ran out. Another wild looking fish we encountered was the rockfish, which is a loose term for a number of species in the Sebastes genus. Eventually, I brought in a respectable sheephead that temporarily had us in the running for the pool prize. We later grilled the rockfish and sheephead fillets wrapped in foil with olive oil, butter and onions. The whole family got to try these fish for the first time, which proved to be very tasty. All in all, the half day fishing trip was an excellent time and further added to a memorable week spent in California. We already miss the company and top-notch weather!

Rockfish sure love the taste of squid.
One of the mates aboard the New Seaforth filleting a rockfish.

My California sheephead, which resemble blackfish back east. 
The patience and knowledge of the New Seaforth's Captain and crew helped us have a very enjoyable experience. 


  1. My old stompin' grounds!

    (Next time, give me a heads up and I'll send you to some places to fish the surf.)

  2. Nice report. Yes, lots of good surf/bay fishing around those parts (my old home as well).