Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce (above); Ron Eldridge (below)
Santa Catalina Island offers vacationing anglers world-class offshore and nearshore action in the cool, clear waters surrounding this ruggedly beautiful fish magnet. Revered as a forerunner in the world of big-game fishing, Catalina may not be the largest of the eight isles that comprise California's Channel Islands, but it is the undisputed queen.
A popular vacation spot since the 1890s, Catalina has always drawn sport fishermen. Back then, bluefin tuna, marlin and swordfish lured tycoons, celebrities and working-class folks to the fish-filled waters around Avalon, Catalina's main town - and the allure remains strong today.
Although Catalina offers year-round fishing, September and early October bring the nicest weather and sea conditions along with the best fishing for the widest variety of game species. The island's rocky coast and dazzling kelp beds serve up hot action for California yellowtail, white seabass and kelp bass; fishing for marlin, tuna, yellowtail and dorado (dolphin) beckons just offshore.
At opposite ends of Catalina, Avalon and Two Harbors - the only two towns in the Channel Islands - offer the only fuel docks and services in the archipelago. Although skiffs and charter boats are available for visitors who arrive via passenger ferry or helicopter service, most anglers run their own boats across from launch ramps and harbors on the mainland. Marina del Rey, Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor, Huntington Harbour and Newport Beach all offer access within 30 miles or less of Catalina.
Though seas normally prove moderate, afternoon winds often whip up whitecaps and, in combination with big Pacific swells, demand seaworthy boats. Properly equipped center-consoles, walkarounds and cruisers of 20 feet or larger generally can handle the crossing. Depending on the size of your rig, Catalina also makes a good jumping-off spot for fishing the outer islands of San Clemente, San Nicolas and tiny Santa Barbara, along with productive banks like Osborne and 181 Fathom Spot.
Can or Hook?
Anglers vacationing at Catalina may book a room, stay on their boats or camp. Avalon offers numerous hotels, restaurants, shops and activities, while the village of Two Harbors is more limited in its services. Though overnight dockage is not available, "cans" (or moorings) may be rented, or you can stay "on the hook" (i.e., anchor). Access shore by water taxi or dinghy.
At 21 miles long by 8 miles wide, Catalina provides plenty of coastline to explore, and you can usually find a hot bite somewhere. The front (or lee) side faces the mainland and remains somewhat protected, while the woollier backside meets open ocean. Most fishing takes place from the surf line out to 50 fathoms, by either drifting or anchoring and chumming.
Live squid, sardines and anchovies are prime baits, but casting or trolling lures can also be productive. Live bait is available from barges in mainland harbors - and sometimes from commercial boats at the island - but otherwise you'll have to catch your own. Anglers target yellowtail and white seabass to 50 pounds or more, kelp bass, bonito, barracuda and bottomfish - including halibut.
Catalina regulars favor rods of 7 to 9 feet and reels loaded with monofilament or braid. A quiver of 15-, 20- and 40poundtest outfits covers most situations, but savvy fishermen also carry a "kelp-cutter" rig - a fast-action, 9foot graphite stick rigged with a small, narrow-spool conventional reel and 50- or 60pound braid topped with fluorocarbon leader. The braid helps cut through kelp when a trophy fish dives into thick cover.
Pelagic prizes such as marlin, swordfish and tuna prowl these waters in summer and fall; it's not unheard of to hook billfish almost within casting distance of Catalina's towering cliffs. Although experienced anglers sometimes use 12- to 20pound tackle for striped marlin that average 125 to 175 pounds, 30- to 50pound gear is more common. Trolling (including bait-and-switch tactics) allows crews to cover lots of water, but you may also sight-cast to finning marlin and swords - a white-knuckle thrill you won't soon forget.
The island's rugged beauty, Avalon's relaxed but hopping scene, and the chance to fish big and small game in the same day surely make any Catalina fishing vacation one for the record books.
About the Author: Ron Eldridge is a longtime Sport Fishing contributor and an expert in saltwater fishing boats and gear. He and his family frequently vacation at Catalina aboard their 23-foot walkaround, Apache.
Launch Ramps and Live Bait: