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October 26, 2001

Channeling in Southern California

Great Karma Awaits Anglers Who Fish the Santa Barbara Channel

"East is south and west is north and oft the twain are confused..."

With apologies to Rudyard Kipling, whose original quote made a little more sense, the fact remains that everyone knows the long coast of California runs north and south. But not quite: One section of 70 or so miles is very much an east-west stretch. The Pacific Ocean south of this stretch, between Point Conception and Ventura, is known as the Santa Barbara Channel.

The area can suck wind around from the west, between the Channel Islands and mainland, as if inhaling through a giant straw, but can also be delightfully calm. It attracts some of the state's most spectacular and varied migrations of whales. And it beckons anglers with game fish in both quantity and variety, thanks to so much varied habitat - sand and kelp beds off the beaches, the deep 25-mile channel itself, the productive shallows and shelves around the islands, and the open ocean just beyond (where island shores fall away into steep, mile-deep canyons).

"Santa Barbara Channel is a transition area, where you can practice both the classic Southern California style of stand-up fishing for species like yellowtail, white sea bass, bonito and thresher shark as well as casting plastics for kelp-bed calicos or dropping deep for rockfish and lingcod," says Capt. David Bacon, who operates the only full-time six-pack charter boat out of Santa Barbara, gateway to the channel and its islands (Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and others).
That kind of fishing's what brought - and kept - Bacon here in the first place. "I came to Santa Barbara more than 20 years ago, matter of fact on a fishing trip, and liked it so much, I just decided right then that I would stay."

Fishing the Transition: Where Waters Collide
This diversity is reiterated from a marine biologist's standpoint by Marija Vojkovich, California Department of Fish and Game senior biologist in Santa Barbara. The channel's a mixing ground between two distinct bioregions, she points out. It's the northern part of the range for warmer, temperate fish that inhabit waters down to Baja and below, and the southern end of the range for cool-water species, many of which are found all the way up into Alaska waters. Besides its physical location between northern and southern bioregions, the Santa Barbara Channel's coastal topography means that cold water is swept around Point Conception from the north even as a gyre brings warmer water from the south. "It's a high-productivity area," Vojkovich says.

The channel's also a transition area for weather, according to Bacon. "In this area, at the top end of what we refer to as the Southern California Bight, winds refract around Point Conception, and we end up with a 'windy lane' where winds get pulled right down through the channel. So we really do have to watch the weather here, especially when fishing the islands. I like to say that a good skipper up here has two eyes that work independently - one for the weather and the other for everything else. You just have to watch it carefully, and skedaddle when the weather tells you that you shouldn't ought to be here." In his many years here, Bacon's caution has always served him well.

His mornings usually begin about 4 a.m. when he's online, checking winds and seas in the area. If conditions make the run to fish the islands questionable, anglers can focus on fishing near the coast. Even when angry whitecaps fill the channel farther out, winds and seas often remain very light inside along the coastline. (When the wind comes barreling out of the northwest, the most common direction, Point Conception offers considerable protection along the coastline to the east.) At such times, anglers can concentrate on kelp beds and bait balls nearer home and often do very well for calico bass, white sea bass (which have enjoyed a noticeable resurgence here as all along the South Coast), halibut, bonito, barracuda, rockfish, lingcod and at times thresher and even mako sharks.

Angler Trent Akens of Summerland, a stone's toss east of Santa Barbara, can attest to some great shark fishing. One calm morning last September, I watched from another boat as Akens hooked up several times. After managing to catch just a couple small live mackerel (threshers' favorite candy), Akens - fishing alone - put them out on a drift through an area he'd earlier seen threshers, about a half-mile off the beach. Suddenly a rod went off and, nearly an hour later, he had a 70-pounder in his boat. More appropriately, it lay across his boat, with the 6-foot fish's head and tail hanging over opposite gunwales of Akens's 14-foot skiff, powered by an ancient 9-horse engine.

About an hour later, we spotted him in the distance again, moving erratically about in his boat. By the time we pulled up, we learned that Akens had found himself with a double on threshers, managing to land one and lose the other while fighting it (he'd planned to release it anyway since two threshers are a daily limit). Akens pointed out that while fishing the eastern S.B. Channel alone a week earlier, he'd brought a mako over 100 pounds to his skiff.

Boiler-Rock Bassin
As exciting as shark fishing can be, that's not what most channel anglers want, according to Bacon. First and foremost in most fishermen's crosshairs: calico (kelp) bass. While calico fishing can be excellent along the coast, the rocks and thick kelp around the Channel Islands offer stupendous action for the tough bass. Bacon insists it's some of the best calico fishing anywhere in the state.

He also admits that last year the area endured one of the slowest calico years he can remember. But last year was also a strong La Nina year when - as opposed to warm-water El Nino years - the Eastern Pacific is particularly cold. Summer water temperatures that should have been at least in the mid-60-degree range remained in the low 60s at best. Commercial divers reported seeing plenty of bass all year, but for anglers, getting them interested in biting proved a tough proposition.

When the bass do cooperate, there's no better or more exciting way to fish them than casting into the surf-washed rocks and headlands. This "boiler-rock bassing," as Bacon calls it, is a specialty of his. Anglers cast right up to the rocks against which big calicos wait to clobber any prey they can grab.

While there's no denying its productivity, this technique requires a wealth of boat-handling experience and the right equipment to do it safely. The technique helped shape Bacon's decision to go with his Grady White Atlantic 26 Flybridge with twin Yamaha 200s. "I need to be able to move the boat quickly; when we're fishing the boiler rocks, I'm always up at the helm, maneuvering the boat constantly," he says.

Normally, from late spring and into fall, warm water turns on calicos, and tossing plastics on leadheads (or "swimbaits") into a chum line "is at least as effective for people who know how to work them as live bait," Bacon says. Like many private boaters, some of his regular customers bring tackle just for casting plastic tails - of which they bring boxes stuffed full - and do nothing else all day. Besides the fast pace of the fishing, they enjoy the challenge of trying to react faster than the lightning-quick calicos, which have the habit of grabbing a lure and in a split second disappearing back into the kelp forest or boiler rocks (so named because the surging swell boils over and around them). Calicos can be caught throughout the Channel right on through the winter by fishing live baits deeper and slower.
When big calicos are brought to the boat, Bacon encourages anglers to keep the 3- to 5-pound fish for eating and release larger spawners. Does he find many anglers have a hard time tossing back an 8- or 9-pound trophy bass?

"You know," he explains, "that's changing. More and more people understand the value of the resource. And since calico bass is one species that cannot be caught or kept commercially, it's a real resource for sport fishermen."

Inshore Triumvirate
California halibut and white sea bass make up the other parts of the holy triumvirate of the channel's nearshore game fish. As summer begins, the halibut action heats up, as well. Live sardines or anchovies account for most of Bacon's flatties, but, he says, give him a hand-size mackerel anytime for a big 'but.

Although simply drifting over sandy areas with a half-ounce to as much as 8 ounces of lead does the trick, when truly intent on halibut, Bacon will "bounce-ball." No technique is as consistently effective, but it's not for the weak of arms. With a 1- to 3-pound ball on 30-pound line, the rod must be continually lifted (to "bounce the ball" on bottom) while underway at a slow troll. It's work - but it works.

Lots of halibut can be taken along the coast, but for the big "doormats" that anglers here so covet, the run to the Channel Islands pays off. "There really is some outstanding halibut fishing out there," Bacon confirms, noting that trophies over 20 pounds are pretty common - and the islands produce halibut over 40 pounds every year as well. The current all-tackle record California halibut weighing over 57 pounds was caught last year at Santa Rosa Island.

If that sounds big, try halibut of 70 or 80 pounds! Bacon says they happen most years for a few lucky Channel Island anglers - but, of course, these aren't California halibut. "A lot of people don't realize this, but the islands are in the southernmost reaches of the Pacific halibut's range, and we do get them out there now and then."

White sea bass, a prized member of the drum/croaker family, are resurgent in Southern California waters. (Their successful return will be further explored later this year in a Sport Fishing feature.) Bacon favors squid, live if available, pinned on a 2/0 to 4/0 hook beneath a sliding sinker. Otherwise, he'll put two or three frozen squid on a white metal jig and have anglers work it just above the bottom.

While Bacon hooks sea bass along the coast, several areas around Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands produce particularly well. Also available most of the year, shallow-water rockfish and sheephead can be trip-savers for skippers some days when the "glory fish," as Bacon calls them, aren't cooperating. Several species of rockfish dwell in 50 to 200 feet of water, and a few ounces of lead with baited hooks or shrimp flies will keep anglers busy with the 2- to 5-pound fish. "Fair-size lingcod can fire up the action when they surprise rockfish anglers, also," Bacon says.

While not found in great numbers, sheephead - found in rocky areas up to 120 feet or so - often add to a day's catch and Bacon says the big wrasse (called "goats" locally) are surprisingly popular with his anglers. Crustaceans of just about any species will out-fish anchovies, sardines or squid, and Bacon says, "Believe it or not, the best bait of all for those big red-and-black monsters of 15 pounds or more is a live crawdad."

Uncertain Visitors, Certain Surprises
Late winter doesn't offer the greatest variety for those fishing Santa Barbara Channel waters, but - depending on the year and conditions - it may offer fast fishing for a welcome prize: salmon. "The Channel's just about as far down the coast as salmon normally run in appreciable numbers," Bacon says. "They're all bright chinook (not coho) in prime shape." The runs start moving through in March but peak mid-April through mid-May.

Bacon trolls for them, choosing sinker releases rather than downriggers "since in a charter situation, downrigger cables are things that have to come up out of the way at a very crucial time when I want to spend my time with passengers hooked up on fish." Blue, green or red Luhr-Jensen Krocodiles have become favorites. Some years, it's not unusual to catch limits, day after day, but other years they may not show up at all. Prognostications are hit-or-miss, so it's a wait-and-see game.

While albacore or yellowfin may show up in good numbers, they're usually well offshore of the channel, which means a fair run to the islands then beyond into offshore waters to find fish. But not always, Bacon says. "At times, yellowfin and/or albacore will show up right in the channel! I've seen them in there, thick," and at such times he'll run tuna trips around Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands or up toward Point Conception.

Although more limited to warm-water periods, schools of yellowtail move into the islands to feed, particularly as the summer progresses. Yellowtail can offer some good sight-fishing opportunities, turning up almost anywhere. "I'll look for signs of fish - birds working, bait spraying on the surface, stuff like that," he says, then cast iron into the feeding 'tails. But Santa Cruz may be a best bet with a warm-water plume flowing up the coast right toward the island.

Many game fish visit the channel and its islands for relatively brief periods when the water is either cool enough (such as salmon) or warm enough (tuna or yellowtail) for their liking. It is, then, pretty understandable that serious anglers and skippers spend a lot of time worrying about water temperatures. By spring, it's warm water that most hope for.

"During El Nino years, water in the late summer will hit close to 70 degrees behind the islands. During an average year it will run into the mid-60s," Bacon says. But he points out that in La Nina years, such as last summer, water temperatures seldom climbed out of the low 60s. While 2000 certainly won't be an El Nino summer, anglers here hope it proves a bit warmer.

Given its productivity and location, the Channel and islands often surprise anglers. Bacon cites the whales, for one, noting that, "Santa Barbara Channel has a great concentration of blue whales," the largest of all cetaceans and one many people never get to see. But Bacon says, "I'd say on more than half our crossings (to the islands), we'll see blue whales and/or humpbacks."

Lots of surprises are sprung by fish. Bacon recalls one afternoon when "I had a couple fishing an area we call the Horseshoe. We'd been catching calicos when a mackerel grabbed her anchovy. As she was winding it in, it splashed probably 10 or 15 yards out off the side of the boat and suddenly a huge swirl comes up right behind it. A young black sea bass, probably 50 pounds, chased the mackerel right across the surface, part of its back actually sticking out of the water, for 10 yards or so!" It disappeared into the depths and avoided the hook, Bacon says, "But you talk about an adrenaline rush!"

The possibility of even sighting a white shark, no stranger to this area, can be exciting. "A couple years back," Bacon says, "we had a really unforgettable spectacle right outside the Santa Barbara Harbor. We watched a white shark munch not one but two sea lions." Several boats drifted very close to observe the spectacle (and, Bacon notes, cheering the shark on since sea lions have become a pest to commercial and recreational fishermen here as elsewhere).

The last day I fished with Bacon held a surprise of its own. We'd seen a couple of threshers landed on the tiny aluminum boat that morning and with those in mind (or maybe a lunker white sea bass), we finally managed to jig up a couple of mackerel, which threshers can seldom resist. But after soaking one for a couple hours, the day was waning without a shark bite to show for our efforts. Angler Marc Malkin, a PR guru for Penn tackle, had put down a little anchovy on a light spinner with 10-pound line in the hopes of maybe hooking a halibut, but was catching only little croaker (ronquils - called "ronkees") when he hooked something solid.

After a 45-minute battle, during which time the fish put up a fight like a huge bat ray, we finally saw a shadow 10 feet from the boat. Hardly a ray, it was a good thresher. Just then, the fish finally cut through the light line (without leader since Malkin had never figured on a thresher). But 20 minutes later, he hooked and landed another.

Those who know the Channel and its islands consider it a special place, one full of surprises where cool and warm waters collide and memories are made. Everyone who comes to fish it can't just decide to stay, as did Dave Bacon. But many would like to.