Calico bass — aka kelp bass — are biting full speed along the kelp lines and reefs of the Southern California coast, spurred on by warming ocean waters and the availability of live squid. I had the opportunity to sample some of this fishing the past two weekends on reefs off Newport Beach and Palos Verdes, leaving no doubt in my mind that the summer bass fishing season has arrived. We found coastal water temperatures as high as 68 degrees F, and that has sent calicos into full spawn mode.
The big calicos ranging from four to eight pounds have lost much of their inherent caution, and have developed the golden spawn colors along their gill plates. A number of the male fish we landed were milting. We released all of the fish.
To get on a hot calico bite, the trick is to anchor up-current from a reef or kelp bed, cast live squid (available from many of the live-bait operators in Southern California) with a light sliding egg sinker (1/4 to 1/2 ounce) to the structure, and let it slowly drift with the current. Most anglers use 15- to 20-pound-test line with either a saltwater baitcasting or conventional outfit. When the action gets hot, you won't need to wait more than 10 seconds. While many anglers hook the squid through the tail, I found that hooking it in the head between its eyes resulted in a higher hookup ratio.
Once you are catching calico bass, I urge you to exercise restraint. The California state bag limit is 10 bass (combined with barred sand bass and/or spotted sand bass) per person with a minimum size of 12 inches, and there is nothing wrong with keeping a couple of fish for dinner. But please avoid killing your full limit, particularly if you are catching the big spawners. This is a great time of year to get a picture with a big calico bass, but once you do, please release it to help ensure that we will have more calicos to catch in the future. I also urge you take the California saltwater bass survey.