New Fishing Opportunities for Rockfish

Relaxed depth limits open up new areas to catch rockfish in Southern California

Rockfish off the SoCal coast
SoCal anglers can now fish at greater depths, boosting the odds of hooking bigger bocaccio and other rockfish.Richard Herrmann

Northwest winds howled as Capt. Mike "Dog" Nickerson positioned the party boat Pacific Dawn over an oceanic ridge that parallels the southern shore of Santa Rosa Island off California's Ventura County coast. The drift would carry the boat over depths of nearly 400 feet. As baits and lures reached the bottom, all 11 anglers ­immediately hooked up. Bent rods lined the windward rail as anglers battled lingcod and rockfish.

Nickerson repeated the drift two more times to ensure that each angler landed his two-fish daily bag limit for legal-size lingcod. Each trip over the ridge—a spot that the captain calls “Jurassic Park”—resulted in a flurry of hookups.

The waters surrounding California’s Channel Islands archipelago (of which Santa Rosa is a part) offer some of the world’s best bottomfishing, but this deep ridge proved particularly productive. It’s the kind of wide-open action SoCal anglers label “automatic” and “unconscious.” Indeed, the rocky bottom seemed carpeted with fish. That’s largely because, for the past 17 years, this ridge had remained virtually untouched by anglers—not by choice but because of the law.

However, thanks to recent changes in California sport-fishing regulations, Nickerson can now legally fish here. And this ridge isn’t the only such spot. An incalculable number of erstwhile off-limits bottomfishing areas between Point Conception and the Mexican border (a stretch of water known by regulators as the Southern Management Area) are now legally accessible.

The upshot: Now, SoCal anglers have greater opportunities to catch more and bigger lingcod, ­rockfish, California sheephead, ocean whitefish and other bottomfish than any other time since around the turn of the 21st century.

New bottomfishing areas offer rockfish opportunities
The new angling regulations for the ocean waters off Southern California have opened up an incalculable number of bottomfishing areas that have not seen a hook for 17 years.Jim Hendricks / Sport Fishing

Trend Reversal
The new regulations were made ­effective by the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council and the California Fish and Game Commission on March 1, 2019, stemming a trend that has witnessed more and more of California's ocean water set aside in the name of conservation.

Since the 2002 season, anglers have been prohibited from bottomfishing in depths beyond 360 feet in the Pacific waters off Southern California; in ­special Cowcod Conservation Areas, the depth restriction was even ­shallower, set at 120 feet.

Big lingcod caught bottomfishing
New bottomfishing areas include lingcod habitat in depths ranging from 360 to 450 feet.Jim Hendricks / Sport Fishing

The long-standing depth restrictions were established to protect dwindling stocks of rockfish and other deep-dwelling species (known collectively by fishery managers as groundfish) from steadily increasing commercial- and recreational-fishing pressure. Particularly hard-hit was one of the largest of rockfishes—the cowcod—and this led to the establishment of the CCAs with even shallower depth restrictions. At the same time, cowcod—along with bronzespotted rockfish, yelloweye rockfish and, until recently, canary rockfish—were designated as protected species and illegal to retain.

Adaptive Management
Based on scientific stock-­assessment surveys, these efforts were deemed so successful that state and federal agencies decided to relax the ­restrictions for the 10-month 2019 season, expanding the depth limit to 450 feet in most recreational bottomfishing areas (known as Rockfish Conservation Areas) and 240 feet in CCAs.

This season effectively ends on December 31 at midnight. Yet, with no major stock-assessment study looming in the near future, signs point to a continuation of the current regulations for the 2020 season, which begins on March 1 after a two-month closure. However, the recreational groundfish regulations are adaptive and based on the latest and best-available scientific information about the fishery. Therefore, regulators have the ­authority to change the rules at any time.

Midseason changes have occurred. For example, in 2012, the RCA depth limit was temporarily shifted to 300 feet for the last two months of the season. Yet not all midseason changes negatively affect anglers. On June 1 of this year, for instance, the lingcod daily bag limit was increased to two fish. It had been set at one ling at the beginning of the season.

Collection of rockfish
More than 40 varieties of rockfish inhabit the ocean depths off Southern California, adding an element of wonder to this fishery with species such as (clockwise from top left) sunset, bank, bocaccio and vermillion rockfish.National Marine Fisheries

New Species
One of the magical aspects of bottomfishing in this Pacific region lies in the variety. Anglers never know what they might hook from among more than 40 species of rockfish ­available to anglers here—all of which make for great eating.

"That's the reason I got interested in studying rockfish," says Sport Fishing Fish Facts expert Milton Love, professor of marine biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and author of Certainly More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast.

Love first went bottomfishing with his father on the Linbrook out of Malibu, California, in 1956, and he caught 14 species of rockfish on one spot. “That hooked me for life,” Love says.

Rockfish names are as exotic as the deep, watery realms in which they dwell. Boccacio, chilipepper, china, copper, flag, freckled, greenstriped, harlequin, pinkrose, olive, square­spot, starry, tiger, and vermillion are just a few examples of names that stir ­wonder and imagination.

Greater depths magnify the variety factor. For instance, anglers now stand an increased chance of hooking one of the deeper-dwelling rockfish such as a bank rockfish, greenblotched rockfish or sunset rockfish.

Since the relaxation of depth limits this year, anglers are also catching fish they rarely see, including the bizarre red brotula, prized star-studded ­grouper and the malevolent-looking wolf eel. Some species are so unfamiliar that many anglers have a hard time identifying them.

Not only are anglers more likely to catch more fish, but they also have a better chance of hooking bigger fish. “As rockfish grow, the bigger individuals tend to head out to deeper water,” Love reveals.

Big California sheephead caught bottomfishing
Big, brutish California sheephead represent one of the hardest-fighting bottomfish in these waters.Jim Hendricks / Sport Fishing

New Spots
Many old-timers who were around before any depth restrictions existed have a good idea of where to go to find fish in deeper water. Others, however, who never fished beyond the previous limits, face a learning curve when it comes to finding deeper areas to fish off the coast of Southern California.

Fortunately, new tools can help boating anglers shorten the curve. This includes electronic charting and sonar features that allow skippers to quickly recognize and home in on productive bottom areas—technologies that were not available back in the day.

For example, BlueChart g3 Vision charts on Garmin models, the Reveal feature on C-Map Max-N+ charts, and the SonarChart Shading function on Platinum+ charts from Navionics all offer detailed relief shading based on hydrographic surveys by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The three-­dimensional representation of this data on the electronic charts can quickly lead astute anglers to the rocky bottom structure, wrecks, and ledges that lingcod, rockfish, and other ­bottom dwellers love.

In addition, fish finders and ­transducers have advanced mightily in the past decade, with features such as chirp technology offering the power and processing capabilities to paint highly detailed bottom images with less interference, even at great depths.

Ocean whitefish caught off Southern California
A Pacific member of the tilefish family, ocean whitefish fight with surprising ferocity—and also rank as one of the tastiest fish you can catch in SoCal waters.Chris Lowe

Staying Legal
While depth limits are generally ­identified in terms of feet, RCA and CCA boundaries are officially defined by lines that connect a series of latitude and longitude coordinates—connect the dots, so to speak. The lines are intended to roughly follow depth contours, but the key to staying legal is to avoid fishing on the seaward side of the lines.

The easiest way to obtain the ­current coordinates is to visit the website for the Sportfishing Association of California (­california​sportfishing.org/rca​‑­waypoints). Once you plug into your chart plotter all of the waypoint coordinates for a particular area, you can connect the points with the plotter's route function. This provides a graphic representation of the depth restrictions.

However, things can get even more complicated. Keep in mind that the RCAs and CCAs cross over a number of marine protected areas in Southern California, where fishing might be ­prohibited altogether. For example, within the CCA that surrounds Santa Barbara Island is a large state marine reserve where fishing is banned. Boating anglers can find a ­complete list of California MPAs and the boundaries for each at wildlife​.ca.gov/Conservation/Marine/MPAs/Network/Southern-California.

How to create the Rockfish Rig
Rockfish Rig Rig Components
A: Main line
B: Swivel
C: Rigging beads
D: Crimping sleeve
E: Swivel and 4-inch leader
F: Snap swivel
G: Sinker
H: 3/0 to 5/0 circle hook
Kevin Hand

Gearing Up
While using traditional tackle will ­suffice in some cases, fishing ocean depths in excess of 400 feet might call for fresh thinking and new gear. Veteran bottomfishers plied these depths with 5-pound sinkers and Penn 6/0 Senator reels spooled with low-stretch Dacron line and equipped with oversize handles for extra cranking leverage. Stiff rods fitted with plates allowed anglers to rest the blank on the rail or gunwale while winding up fish.

Today, thinner-diameter braided line allows for the use of smaller reels. Braid’s no-stretch quality gives anglers a better feel for the bottom and bites. The reduced drag of super-thin braided lines can also cut down on the amount of weight needed to effectively fish at such depths. Most anglers spool up with 50- to 65-pound-test braid for rockfishing.

While it is too early to predict any trends, some Southern California anglers have borrowed a page from deep-drop anglers on the East and Gulf coasts, employing electric reels from companies such as Daiwa and Shimano to retrieve heavy sinkers and big fish from the depths. Some are cross-purposing electric reels originally purchased for offshore kite-fishing for Pacific bluefin tuna.

“I know some people are using their kite reels for codding (local term for rockfishing), but I don’t think it’s a big movement yet,” says Dave Pfeiffer, president of Shimano North America Fishing. “With regulations moving deeper, it could generate some new interest in electric reels for that type of fishing.”

Though it might not be ­considered the most sporting way to fish, flipping the switch on an electric reel such as the Shimano Forcemaster 9000 sounds a lot more appealing than manually winding up a pair of 5- to 10-pound rockfish, along with a 12- to 20-ounce sinker from 425 feet while standing on a ­heaving deck. For those inclined to reel in the fish on their own, the Forcemaster reels have manual-­crank handles that let you bypass the ­motorized function.

Rods need to be beefy to handle heavier sinkers and bigger fish that anglers can anticipate catching at the new depths. While just about any trolling rod will work, a model such as the Daiwa Tanacom Dendoh 5½-foot deep-drop rod is specially designed with a heavy-duty bent butt and ­swiveling roller tiptop for this kind of fishing.

Current rockfish regulations for Southern California limit the number of hooks to two per leader, and most anglers use 3/0 to 5/0 circle hooks designed to automatically lodge in the corner of a fish’s mouth, negating the need to set the hook.

Tough Baits
Strips of squid, sardines or mackerel (with the hook pinned through the skin) help keep the bait on the hook. Also, baits tend to spin, as do fish when being cranked up, and this can result in twists and tangles. A common twist-resistant leader setup consists of 60- to 80-pound-test leader material through the eye of a barrel swivel with one or two beads on each side of the eye. Squeeze single-barrel crimping sleeves on the leader to secure the beads and swivel.

Place two of these assemblies, about 18 inches apart, on the leader. Then tie a 4- to 6-inch-long 30- to 40-pound‑test leader with a hook to the free eye of each swivel. Use a snap or another swivel at the top of the leader (about 12 inches above the top hook) to attach the main line, and another snap swivel at the bottom (12 inches below the bottom hook) to attach a deep-drop, sinker or bank sinker.

The amount of weight needed to fish effectively will hinge on the current, wind and depth. A selection of sinkers ranging from 12 to 48 ounces should be sufficient for fishing the greater ­allowable depths down to 450 feet.

Some anglers also use a short leader of 25- to 30-pound-test line to attach the sinker to the bottom snap swivel so the weight will more easily break free should it snag on the bottom.

While the regulations allowing greater rockfishing depths might not last forever in the waters off Southern California, for now, the relaxed depth limits create new angling opportunities for boating anglers in this region who are up for the challenge of making a deep impact.

Saving fish from barotrauma
Successful recompression helped lead to the expansion of fishing depths.Jim Hendricks / Sport Fishing

Barotrauma Basics
One of the factors influencing the regulatory decision to expand depth limits in Southern California are studies on how small rockfish suffering from barotrauma can be successfully released, says Chris Lowe, professor of marine biology at Long Beach State University, who collaborated in this research.

“Studies indicate that 70 percent of rockfish that are properly recompressed are still alive after two days,” Lowe reveals. “Even fish that are ‘popeyed’ can survive and can see well within four days after recompression.”

Devices such as the Blacktip Catch & Release Recompression Tool, RokLees, SeaQualizer, and Shelton Fish Descender allow anglers to quickly return small rockfish and other species suffering from barotrauma due to rapid decompression after being reeled up from great depths. For more on these tools, visit sportfishingmag​.com/fish-descender-devices​-release-fishing.

Speed is of the essence, Lowe has discovered. “The quicker you can recompress the fish, the greater its chances of survival,” he says.

Another key is angler cooperation in actually using the tools and techniques of recompression, Lowe points out. “Recreational anglers have been more than receptive to recompressing bottomfish,” he says. “Putting small fish back is good for fishing, but educating anglers on how to do it properly is critical.”