The Off Season

Fish or no fish, it’s good to get out and see the sunrise

I have not posted anything in a while for one simple reason: I have had nothing to post about.

I have fished in the Pacific Ocean off and on for nearly 40 years and to date, this is the worst fishing season I can remember after last season being one of the best. I guess the fish don’t know my schedule.

I still go out because, for me, while catching fish is my primary objective just being outdoors in the sun, wind, fog, and even light rain comes in a close second. I could be outdoors doing many other things like riding my bike all over town (which I do when I am not fishing) but riding a bike does not replace the thrill of the strike, the fighting of the fish, or the challenge of trying different tactics to get fish to bite.

So I go out and I will continue to go out even as he seasons turn bringing in colder weather and cooler ocean temperatures. If anything remarkable happens before the next season comes around, you’ll be able to read about it here.

Until then, keep the bait fresh and the lines tight.

Neither wind, dense fog, churning seas, or screaming maniacs…

Skate Ray – Stearns Wharf

…will stay this fisherman from making his rounds.

And that is what I was up against yesterday when I paid a visit to Stearns Wharf.

I didn’t think I’d be able to get out to the ocean this week because of prior commitments but when a full day suddenly opened up yesterday, I decided to go up to the wharf, which is quickly becoming my favorite fishing venue.  There was a small craft advisory issued for the channel by the national weather service so I knew it would be wet and cold but when I finally arrived at the wharf just before 7 AM, I found a few more factors in play.

The wind was howling, the sea was churning wildly, and a screaming maniac was pacing around in one corner of the wharf apparently having a conversation with the mariner’s warning light which was not on at the time.  The wind and the wild sea is something you learn to deal with if you fish in the ocean but nut cases are not.  This person’s issue seemed to be with the light standard and nothing else but his constant howling was a distraction which I had to check on in case he decided he wanted some REAL trouble with me.  That never happened and as more and more fishermen, joggers, and tourists came around, I stopped paying attention to him since he was not bothering any of them.  I kept expecting the Harbor Patrol or the city police to show up and take the guy somewhere where he could get help but that never happened and after a few hours, I saw him wander away.

As he did, the sun broke through for a while and the fishing which had been slow until then suddenly picked up.  I caught 6 Smelts which was a surprise since I don’t fish for them but these fish were all larger than the usual ones that hang around the wharf.  The same was true about the 9 Mackerel I caught, all of which were over a foot long and all fierce fighters.  I kept 4 of the biggest for bait and released the rest.  Then, I caught something with my ocean bottom. 

It was a large Skate Ray and at 33” in length it was easily one of the biggest I have ever caught.  There were no other fishermen near me when I finally brought the ray to the surface but an Asian lady had come over when she saw me fighting the fish and clapped happily when she finally saw it.  So I asked her if she wanted to help land it.  Despite the language barrier between us, I managed, by pantomiming, to get her to understand my question.  She was thrilled when I handed her the pole and indicated that she needed to hold on tightly.  Then I got out my gaff, lowered it into the ocean, hooked the ray, and brought him onto the pier.  This got another round of clapping and dancing.  As I was unhooking the animal, a young man came over to us; he was the lady’s son who spoke better English than I do.  When I told him was happened he gave his mom a high-five, took some pictures of her and ray, and passed on my thanks for her help.

After that, I moved to the corner of the wharf where the screaming maniac had been holding court with his demons.  The wind had come up again and the ocean continued to churn but I kept catching a fish now and then and all were larger than usual. I began to wonder if the active ocean bottom had anything to do with the presence of these larger fish? I make a note of it if this happens again when I am out.

When it was time to go, I heard someone talking on his cell phone as I packed up.  Looking over at the guy, sitting not 10 feet from me, I saw that he had no phone and no one was near him.  He was talking to the wind.

You sure get a lot of odd balls on Stearns Wharf.

Drift Lining

My time to get out to the pier, the wharf, the shore, and a planned boat excursion, is going to be limited for a while due to prior commitments so I thought I’d explain what I mean when I mentioned in many of my posts that I fish with a drift line.  The concept is simple but actually fishing this way can be a challenge.

As I mentioned in an early blog post, my grandpa always advised me to take a fishing pole and what he called a “wishing pole” with me when I had a chance to do so.  The wishing pole is one that I would weight down, bait up, and cast out to the deepest part of the lake, ocean, or river that I could reach.  Then I’d set my drag so it would alert me when a fish is on the line.  This pole would be used to fish for all the bottom feeding fish that tended to be larger and put up a better fight than fish who do not feed this way.  Submarine size Carp and Catfish are examples of freshwater bottom feeders while Rays and Sharks are examples of saltwater bottom feeders.    

Going after bottom feeders with your wishing pole is simple and easy to do and I think it is the way most people fish even when they use live bait.  However, going after the rest of the fish out there with your fishing pole rigged as a drift line takes more effort than simply setting your drag.  For one thing, you should never set your fishing pole when practicing this method especially when there are hard hitting fish like Mackerel and Bass in the water. 

A drift line is simply a line with no weights or bobber on it.  You can have multiple hooks if you want a greater challenge like catching three Mackerel at a time, which I have done many times.  Your fishing pole should be as light weight as you dare use and the lighter the better, I say, since I like a good fight and I like to give the fish a chance.  I always use my old ultra-light rig when I drift line so there is a 50-50 chance that I will either haul in my catch or it will get away.  Since I only fish for sport, this doesn’t matter to me.   

Whatever you use, it should be easy to cast with only the weight of the bait on it since no lead weights are used in this method.  Using a bobber is close to drift lining but it is not the same since your bait is being held in place in the water, at one level.  Though your line can drift anyway it wants, it cannot drift down which is key element in drift lining.

Drift lining is used to fish for all the rest of the fish out there besides bottom feeders though you can occasionally hook one.  In drift lining, you cast your bait into the water and let it drift where ever it may go.  As it sinks to the bottom, your bait can attract any fish at an water level.  In the ocean, you often have Smelt sitting just below the surface, with Mackerel beneath or mixed in with them.  As your bait drifts lower, it can attract Perch and Bass.  If it hits bottom and you are content to let it sit there for a while, you can pick up a bottom feeder but since you are using light tackle, you have to hope it is not too big.

One day while I was fishing at Stearns Wharf, the Smelt that are usually around had moved off to another area which allowed me to catch 33 Mackerel in a few hours.  One time, my bait made it through the horde of Mackerel that were lurking about and my line drifted closed to the pilings just beneath my feet.  Suddenly, I got a hit that I knew was not that of a Mackerel, it was stronger, but slower and after a pretty fierce battle, I reeled in a nice size Calico Bass.  Until that time, I didn’t know there were bass under the wharf.  So I started fishing for them.  Six more times my bait made it through the school of Mackerel and I ended up with 7 Calico Bass on the day.  A total of 40 fish in about 3 ½ hours.  I was very busy and I owe it all to the drift lining method.

As I said at the start, though, fishing this way can be a real challenge due to the following reasons:

  • First, you have to be aware of where your line is at all times, especially if fishing in a area where others are also fishing since you do not want to cross their lines.  This means paying close attention to what you are doing. 
  • Second, since you should be using the lightest tackle you dare use, you will feel every little nibble and the temptation will be to yank your line up on each one but as I wrote about in a previous blog, grandpa always said that patience is the best bait.  This is what he was referring to.  If you are an experienced fisherman, you most likely know a hit from a nibble but when drift lining, the nibbles can multiply greatly so you have to be patient.  When a real hit occurs you’ll know.  The same is even truer for beginning fisherman and it is something you will learn over time so don’t give up on the method.
  • Third, I always recommend that you keep your pole in your hands at all times when drift lining and you have bait in the water.  The reason is that since you are using light tackle, it would not be that much of a challenge for a good-sized Calico Bass or speeding Mackerel to pull your rig into the water and since you are looking for hits as soon as they happen, you need to be ready to set your hook at any time which you can’t do if you are not holding your pole in your hands.
  • Fourth, since your bait starts at the surface and drifts downward, it will eventually hit bottom where you can leave it if you wish, but since you may have another pole baited for bottom feeders it is a good idea to keep your drift line moving which means a full day of reeling in and casting out.  I like this because it keeps me busy and because I like to have bait in the water at all levels of water as much as possible.
  • Fifth, wind can really affect fishing this way.  When the wind is blowing so hard that you are having trouble keeping your bait in the water, you can add a small weight to compensate for it.  If you choose not to use one, you have to be just that much more vigilant about watching where your line is at any given time.

So, that is the drift lining method.  I have caught thousands of fish this way even when others around me were being shut out.  Though I have told and shown many fishermen this method, I have not seen that many actually use it because of the attention needed to be successful when using this method.

Stearns Wharf III: Big Mac Attack!

Plenty of Big Macs today

After my amazing day yesterday, I decided to visit Stearns Wharf again to see if the fishing is really is as good as it has been the last two times I was there.  I can now say that it is since this time I caught 33 Mackerel in 4 hours. 

When I arrived at the wharf just before 7 AM, the wind was howling, and a low fog lay on the water which drenched the wharf.  Because of the wind, and the way I fish, I had to cast my line in on one side of the wharf that I had not fished off before.  At the Ventura Pier, that is the “bad” side of the pier (as I see it) but it made no difference at the wharf.  Though I didn’t catch anything on my ocean bottom pole, I had plenty of BIG Mackerel to keep me busy.  In fact, after a few hours, I stopped bottom fishing and rigged my Shakespeare Contender reel & Shimano FX 2803 rod so the line would drift since by that time the wind had abated, and the sun was shining.  I put on a larger hook and used larger chunks of salted Mackerel for bait and sure enough, I started getting even bigger fish.  They were not as large as the “submarine” Mackerel that I used to catch off the Goleta Pier, those were all 24 inches or longer, but most of the Mackerel I caught today were around 15 inches each.  I wound up keeping 14 of them for bait and threw 19 back in with instructions telling them to send me a Halibut.

They must have ignored my orders since no flat fish were seen by me today. 

Today I was ready for anything…

I was ready, the big fish were not…

I have been having some issues with the line on my Wishing Pole which I keep on the ocean’s bottom hoping to lure in a big fish.  The line on my new reel was the 35-year-old line that I had on my old reel.  It was getting fragile and I did not have enough of it left to fight a big fish if necessary, nor could I find any of the 80-pound test Tuf Line Braided Dacron line I wanted locally so I had to order it from Amazon and it took two weeks to get to me.  Well it arrived yesterday so today I loaded up my Shakespeare ATS 350 reel with it, grabbed my Shimano Saguaro rod and went fishing which is rare for me on a Saturday.  I had also added 10-feet of rope to my pier gaff.  Nothing was going to get away today.

The action was slow at my home base, the Ventura Pier, but I did manage to catch 2 Mackerel, 1 Smelt and 1 six-inch Croaker.  My now totally new Wishing Pole outfit only got a few small tugs on it, but I did catch one fish—the six-inch Croaker which swallowed a chunk of bait almost as big as it was.

I will be hitting the road for my next few outings.  On Monday, I fish Santa Barbara. 

Stay tuned.

Memory: Encanto Park, Phoenix, AZ

The massive lagoon in Encanto Park (Phoenix)

I was born in Flint, Michigan.  It was there that my grandfather taught me how to fish, but when I was seven years old, my father decided to move the family to Phoenix, AZ.  I don’t really know why because he fled the scene, his wife, and three young kids shortly after the move.  I never saw him again.

So, I was two thousand miles away from grandpa and a seven-hour drive away from the Pacific Ocean which I could only dream of seeing some day. 

My family was dirt poor, we had no car, we moved often, and sometimes we didn’t know if there was going to be a next meal or not.  Most of time, I only had one pair of shoes and most of the time they had holes in them.  Knowing that my unskilled mother would have to work all she could just to make ends meet, I rarely asked for anything that was not essential like a bicycle or a fishing pole.  So, I had to be resourceful. 

I found an abandoned bike and with the help of a friend’s father, we made it rideable.  Then, the same friend, gave me an old Zebco spin cast rod and reel in payment for helping him with his homework.  All I needed now was a can of corn because I knew where I was going to go fishing: Encanto Park, a large inner-city park that had a huge lagoon with branching waterways that were filled with Carp, Bass, Perch, and Sunfish.    

Some of my happiest pre-adolescent memories revolved around the mornings when I would get up, open a can of corn, grab my fishing rod, then jump on my bike and ride the 2 or 3 miles to the park.  I would stalk submarine size Carp and snag small Perch and Sunfish.  The latter two often went home to be a dinner for me and my mom who loved pan-fried fish.  The Carp I gave to our landlady who knew just how to cook them. 

So for many years, my time at Encanto Park kept my love for fishing alive when I didn’t have much else. 

The same park later became a meeting place for the “turned on” generation of which I became part of as I looked to meet young ladies while worrying about being shipped off to Viet Nam.  On many warm summer nights while my new friends and I sat around on the hill above the bandstand, I would tell them about all the times I’d been fishing in the lagoon.  They were surprised to learn that there was fish in it.

As I grew up, got a job, and a car, my fishing venues grew, but those stories are for other memories yet to be told.