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March 13, 2006

Stalking the Phantoms

Ron Eldridge

Fat and round, the full moon scuttles out from behind a dark cloud as you pin three squirming squid onto the treble hook of a white, 4-ounce iron jig. With a prayer to the god of the silver phantom (a.k.a. California's elusive white seabass), you send the offering plummeting into the inky depths below.

Slowly jigging the lure just off the bottom, you watch through heavy-lidded eyes as your friends bait up and drop down. It's 4 a.m., you're bone-tired and thinking about grabbing a nap. Suddenly, a bump travels up the line. In a heartbeat, the mental cobwebs give way to razor-sharp concentration. It wasn't much, but could it be ... ? Before your weary mind forms the question, the rod tip slams down. Taking three cranks into the fish, you hit him with a quick jab. You're on!

The high-pitched notes of melting drag transform into a staccato beat as a 50-pound white seabass slows from its first great run and begins shaking its massive head, the fish's gill plates flaring during the beast's violent fit. Only now do you notice that both your friends are on, too. A school of seabass has swept through, and the reward for being on the grounds before dawn is a three-way hookup.

If success were guaranteed, this white seabass game would be easy to understand. But that's hardly the case. Long hours. Lumpy seas. Damp, often cold and windy weather. Uncertain results. What's the attraction?

"Seabass have an aura - a mystique," asserts Capt. Mark Wisch, one of the West's leading seabass fishermen and owner of Pacific Edge, a tackle shop and marine outfitting complex based in Huntington Beach, California. "Certain things in life are magic. Catching white seabass is one."

Although catches have skyrocketed and the increasing volume of 50-pound trophy fish has raised a tidal wave of interest in recent years, white seabass have always been an important game fish along the California and Mexico coasts. More than 60 years ago, marine biologist Tage Skogsberg wrote, "This species has a special allure for anglers, probably due to its potential size and elusive nature. Because of its erratic habits, large sport catches of white seabass take place only occasionally, at irregular intervals and at scattered localities."

"Allure." "Elusive." "Magic." Perfect words to describe one of the West's largest and tastiest coastal game fish.

Private Boats Zero In
Landing estimates from the California Department of Fish and Game support anglers' claims that they're catching more whites. From a low in 1978 of 284 seabass, catches climbed to more than 40,000 in 1999. Although the evidence is largely anecdotal, this may be because of a cyclical upswing in the fishery augmented by increasingly successful hatchery efforts and California's outlawing of nearshore gill nets.

Either way, the boon has drawn special attention from private boaters. Although outgunned by the partyboats in bait and chumming capacity, as well as number of lines in the water, private boaters find that they can compete equally - and sometimes even have an advantage - in this fishery. Because they're able to focus exclusively on whites and can maneuver in the rocky, kelp-filled shallows where seabass prowl, smaller boats effectively raise their odds of success.

True to this species' mysterious nature, fishing is often a boom-or-bust proposition. When the bite is on, anyone can score, as these fish can go really "stupid." It's when fishing is picky - which is most of the time - that true expertise comes into play. Yet, even when the fleet goes dry, a handful of experts seem to be able to catch whites almost at will. What are their secrets? To find out, I talked with some of California's top seabass fishermen.

Catching White Seabass
While it's true that Southern California's partyboats often rack up catches of white seabass, and the fish sometimes swarm the central California coast, your best bet for scoring seabass is to book a charter boat. Chartering allows you to zero in on the species, raising your chances of success. Here are a few of SoCal's top charter boats for white seabass:
Huntington Harbor
Pacific Edge

Long BeachDreamer




Rail Time




Island Tak

It's a Squid Thing
Right or wrong, in the minds of most anglers white seabass fishing is directly linked to the availability of live squid for bait. For the most part, it has been a January-through-June fishery for California and Northern Baja, although in some years, the squid and seabass have shown up earlier. And, on occasion, bites have popped up during the warm-water summer months (especially in the northern Channel Islands).

Dr. Michael Domeier, a marine biologist and president of the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research based in Oceanside, California, points out that we know little about the movements of adult white seabass. "But it does seem that as soon as squid show up, the boats start getting them," he observes. "This may be due to skippers' mind-sets, since it's definitely been a 'squid-or-forget-about-it' fishery."

Domeier concedes, however, that "squid probably concentrate the seabass, making them easier to locate and catch." Since squid gather at night to spawn and the whites move in to feed, it makes sense that nights, along with the hours directly before and after dawn, are devoted to fishing seabass on the "squid grounds." Captains generally catch squid in 60 to 120 feet, which means most nocturnal seabass action takes place in those depths.

To find the better concentrations of bait, inquire at tackle shops or partyboat landings before you leave the dock as to where the squid have been caught lately. While the squid's comings and goings seem erratic, once they pop up, the schools often remain in the same place for several days.

Once on the water, it's usually easy to find the bait: Look for a concentrated fleet of partyboats and private boats, especially if they're grouped around commercial light boats and seiners. If you don't already have a tank of live squid from the bait receivers, you can "make" (or catch) your bait there and begin fishing either by drifting or on anchor.

Call Me the Drifter
Although areas such as Marina del Rey, Palos Verdes and Long Beach's Horseshoe Kelp have kicked out some really big fish, Catalina Island, because of the quality and consistency of its white seabass fishery, is widely regarded as the sport's epicenter. And Two Harbors, near Catalina's west end, sits close to some of the best spots. Doug Oudin, harbor master at Two Harbors and one of the island's leading seabass fishermen, staunchly recommends drift fishing.

"I think you get more consistent action that way," Oudin explains. "You simply get bit more often. Secondly, you don't lose fish to anchor lines. And third, if you're anchored and there's any appreciable current running, you'll have to use heavier gear, and that makes it tougher to feel bites."

As in all forms of fishing, however, opinions differ. For example, another seabass top gun - Capt. Allyn Watson of the Dreamer, a six-pack charter boat that operates out of Pierpoint Landing in Long Beach - likes to fish on the anchor. "The boat closest to the main nest [where the squid are laying their eggs] is usually the one with the best bite," he claims. "I like to park right on top of the squid if I can. In the morning, I fish where the squid are spawning. In the afternoon, I hit the beaches."

White seabass appear to congregate near masses of sex-charged squid, but when the spawning groups begin to break up shortly after dawn, the seabass wander off in search of other pursuits. Often these large croakers (the family Sciaenidae's nickname derived from the deep, reverberating sounds they emit) turn up again in shallow water - sometimes in only a few fathoms - hunting along structure, such as ridges and kelp beds.

Tackling Whites 

Tackle approaches for white seabass break down into two distinct situations: targeting deep water (usually 60 feet or more) and fishing shallow "seabass beaches."

When fishing deep water, sliding-sinker rigs, dropper loops and "iron" jigs such as the classic Salas 6X Jr. make top choices. Lightweight surface irons such as Tady 45s work when fluttered through concentrations of squid.

White lures produce well - they're thought to resemble the spawned-out bodies of dead squid that collect on the bottom. The iron can be fished "straight" (naked) or tipped with up to several live squid. Gently twitch the lure just off the bottom, or leave it in a rod holder with the reel in gear so the boat's rolling imparts action.

Sliding-sinker rigs using 1¼2 to 4 ounces of lead usually hold bottom; pin the squid to a 1/0 to 3/0 live-bait hook. But because slider rigs can cause anglers to lose touch with their baits (and miss soft pickups from seabass), many top sticks pin their squid directly to a lead-head jig.

Another rig that's extremely effective for keeping in touch with your bait is a dropper loop. Rather than a traditional dropper loop, however, consider using a spider hitch, which is a much stronger knot. Tie the spider to create a loop about 2 feet long, and cut the loop so you have two tag ends - one at full length and the other about 8 inches long. Tie your hook to one and a torpedo sinker to the other. (Most people tie the hook to the short line, but it's your choice; it works either way.)

To increase their chances of success, savvy anglers will also deploy baits at various depths (including near the surface) to intercept fish cruising at various levels in the water column.

Twenty-, 25- or 30-pound test work best for deepwater seabass, and while many anglers prefer 6- to 7-foot, fast-action rods, another camp touts the benefits of 8- or 9-foot rods that remove slack faster when attempting to set the hook. Graphite or graphite/glass composite rods with ample sensitivity help anglers detect soft pickups.

Long rods definitely get the nod when fishing shallow beaches. The experts mainly use 15- to 20-pound line, and will generally bump up when the bite turns on. "In shallow water, I firmly believe in using 8-foot rods, and the reason is you've got a fish that likes to shake its head, back up and flare its gills to spit the bait," says white seabass authority Capt. Mark Wisch of Pacific Edge tackle shop in Huntington Beach, California. "A long rod with a soft tip makes a good shock absorber."

White seabass have soft mouths, and it's easy to pull the hook or get sawed off if you use too stiff a rod or pull too hard on the fish - especially when it's shaking its head.

If you're fishing in shallow water, fly-lining your squid (sans weight) is an option, but otherwise we'll pass along this insider's tip: Stick with squid-and-lead-head combinations. "It keeps the bait and hook together so you have constant contact," Wisch explains. "About 90 percent of the time I use a 3¼8-ounce Arkie-style lead-head fitted with a 3/0 hook. I may go up to a 1¼2- or 3¼4-ounce head, but never more than that because junk fish can tear off your bait too easily.

"And fish a light drag," he cautions. "Set your drag at 20 percent; when you want slightly more pressure, 'double-thumb' the line by pinching it against the foregrip - but don't thumb the spool. When a really big white seabass is running or shaking its head, you've got to lighten up or you can kiss her goodbye."

The Late Show
The trick is knowing when to switch from the deeper squid grounds to shallower haunts. Or, if you've already moved in, when to give up on an apparently "dead" spot and try another. One tip comes from Wisch, who confesses he's "way too hyper to sit on a spot for very long. If I'm not bit in the first 15 minutes, I figure the fish aren't there and I'm gone.

"You want to have at least some action going on; bites from calico bass, perch, bat rays - all that activity is a good sign. It's rare that you'll catch whites if nothing else is happening," Wisch says.

Although most fishermen think of the wee hours and gray light of dawn as prime white seabass times, Watson and Wisch are both adamant that late afternoon and dusk are the real prime times.

"The late bite seems consistently better," observes Watson. "Boat traffic can make mornings tough. If it's been happening for a couple of days, everyone's heard about it and a whole mob scene is there. By the afternoon, the little boats are out of bait, and the sport boats have gone home. That's the main advantage of being a private boater or six-pack [charter]. You can be there for the late bite if that's what it takes, or sit on a spot and be in prime position when the fish finally start feeding."

During the afternoon, the bite often can be found tight to the beach, meaning, coves, kelp lines and shallow structure spots known to hold white seabass. In this situation, off-color green water is a potential indicator of good "seabass conditions." Some outrageous bites have been found in shallow, puke-green water - and because it's so visible, the right conditions are easy to find and target. But just because you've discovered a patch of milky green doesn't automatically mean it's Limit City.

"Targeting green water," muses Wisch, " ? people have gotten obsessed with it, but there's more to it than simply nuances of color. It's a complex set of factors that determines where to fish. Finding the right conditions depends on a particular spot, what kind of day it's been, current direction - all kinds of things."

No one knows why the bright, silver and lavender-hued white seabass has an affinity for murky water, but every authority agrees that's accurate. True to the fish's mysterious nature, even the one attribute that seems to explain the white's apparent hunting prowess under conditions of poor visibility, doesn't hold up to scientific scrutiny.

According to biologist Domeier, "The seabass' grunt seems to have a communication purpose, especially when whites are schooled in murky water, but it doesn't appear to have any special purpose or advantage when feeding."

Best Fishing Times

White Seabass Catches

Based on partyboat logs, "creel surveys" and projected private-boat harvests, recreational catch figures from the California Department of Fish and Game indicate that white seabass landings reached an all-time low in 1978, when only 284 were caught. The counts have shown a remarkable upswing, beginning in the early 1990s and really ramping up in the '98-'99 season. (Per the department, each "season" runs October 1 to September 30.)

Recreational Catch Figures
1996-97 8,700 white seabass
1997-98 7,400
1998-99 21,600
1999-2000 40,900
2000-01 25,300
2001-02 51,400*
2002-03 30,300
*DFG officials say this figure may be overstated.

Biologists say it takes five to seven years for a white seabass to reach 28 inches, which is the recreational minimum-size limit in California waters. California regulations stipulate a daily bag limit of three white seabass, except for March 15 to June 15, when the daily bag drops to one fish. (At press time, 2005 regulations could not be confirmed. Please check for updates.)

When asked whether white seabass hatchery efforts and the removal of nearshore gill nets (out to 3 miles) have had a significant effect on angler success, DFG biologist Steve Crooke said that while the evidence is anecdotal, that appears to be the case. California outlawed nearshore gill nets in the early 1990s, and the DFG-funded Hubbs-SeaWorld hatchery in Carlsbad, California, opened 10 years ago. Officials believe that removing the nets allowed better recruitment from wild spawning stocks that, in turn, were augmented by releases of 8- to 16-inch hatchery seabass.

The increasing tides associated with the period from the quarter moon to the full moon, and last quarter to the new moon, make these the optimum times to plan a white seabass trip.

Watson feels three to five days before the full moon offers the most consistent fishing - but, at the same time, he and other authorities emphasize that time on the water is probably more important than moon phase. For example, Oudin agrees the full moon is best, but says that when squid are around in good numbers, the fish are likely to bite regardless of moon phase.

Wisch recommends either of the two prime moon phases, but points out, "If you're planning to make [or catch] your own squid for bait, you're better off fishing the last quarter to the new moon when moonlight is minimal. If you're going on the full moon, you've got to get your bait right at dark, or you're likely to have trouble because the squid are not as easily attracted to your bait lights."

Watson believes the best bites occur at slack tide. "High or low, it doesn't much matter," he says, "but high tide is my favorite, I guess."

Oudin also prefers to fish white seabass at high tide. "Try to get set up a half-hour before the high tide," he advises, "and then fish it through the slack and as it starts to ebb."

As a general rule, you want some current or water movement for the fish to bite, but Wisch points out that it really depends on where you're fishing. "Certain spots are totally dead without current," he explains, "while others will fish OK. You bring together a set of conditions, that's the heart of it."

Successful Adjustment
As the best white seabass fishermen will tell you, success hinges on your ability to react to changing patterns, as this is a species that seems to alter its habits at whim. "You can't always fish the same way on the same spots and expect to do well," Oudin warns. "You've got to be flexible."

White seabass certainly are. How else can you explain the mysterious comings and goings of the elusive silver phantom? No matter how hard you study this species, it's difficult to discern a consistently predictable pattern. Fortunately, at least for now, sport catches are up - way up.

That means more chances to battle one of the West's most prized coastal game fish. A silver bully that swims in the backyard of one of the most densely populated urban centers on the planet, and one that gives anglers a legitimate shot at tying into a trophy of perhaps 50 pounds or more. And that, my friends, is a proposition West Coast anglers are totally hooked on.

When he's not squandering his time surfing or snowboarding, author Ron Eldridge of La Sierra, California, likes to chase white seabass from his Winner 2280 walkaround.