California’s Winter Rockfish Bite

Southern California puts up easy limits of vermilion rockfish in the winter.

California rockfish
Deepwater rockfish are happy to bite squid or mackerel on bottom rigs if you can locate them. Captain Brandon Nelson

“Our last half-day trip produced limits of vermilion rockfish,” reports Captain Brandon Nelson of Lucky B Sportfishing, out of San Diego, California. Nelson was fishing 10 to 40 miles south of the Mexico border. The days start early, but Nelson is often back to the docks by lunch time with limits.

To find fish, Nelson focuses on areas where he can locate his ideal water conditions. He says the rockfish move from one rockpile to another in 150 to 400 feet of water, so proper temperature, current and water color is the first step in locating fish. “Down, in, or down and in are good current conditions, with clean green waters ranging from 58 to 64 degrees.” 

Nelson’s credits his 36-foot Yellowfin center console for his success. He says, “I can move around and fish a lot of places.” Sometimes zeroing in on rockfish is a process of elimination, with today’s electronics helping find new fishing spots. Don’t get stuck on one piece of structure if it’s not happening.

Bottom Fishing for Rockfish

To catch rockfish and lingcod, Nelson uses a two-hook bottom rig with 1/0 to 5/0 Mustad 94150 hooks, weighted with an eight- to 16-ounce torpedo sinker. He attaches the rig to the 65-pound-test braided line packed onto a Shimano Tallica 10II or Trinidad 16a reel. He matches the reel to a 7½-foot medium-heavy rod.

Bait choice is critical to catching rockfish. Nelson prefers cut squid to avoid bycatch. He also uses a small- to medium-size greenback mackerel. “Mackerel weeds out smaller fish and offers the chance of catching a lingcod,” he says.

Nelson says winter is a great time to fish Southern California. “There isn’t a lot of coverage because everyone is in the boat yard,” he points out.

Tuna Bite Heats Up

In addition to bottom fishing, he reports excellent action on bluefin tuna around Tanner Bank and off the Mexico coast. “The water temperature is hovering between 50 and 60 degrees, so everything is lining up for a good winter.”

As the season progresses into spring, Nelson expects tuna and yellowtail to move closer to San Diego. “I look forward to spring and summer when the fish are concentrated close to home.”

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