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One of two 17″ Smelt caught today

I have not been out to the Ventura Pier, my home base, for three weeks due to a vacation at the Grand Canyon, fishing with my son in Santa Barbara, CA, a big slow down in the fishing action at my home base, and a chronic back issue that flared up the last time I was there.

My back, which I injured on the job about seven years ago, is still bothering me but I can do most things if I can deal with the aches and pains. When I go the the Ventura Pier to fish, there is a long walk involved and I have to carry all of my equipment so I have been staying away until I felt I could make the trek. Today I felt pretty good so I went out to see what was going on.

There were only a few fishermen to be seen, so I didn’t expect much action but to my surprise, after I cast my ocean bottom line (my Wishing Pole) out and then cast my over the side line (my Fishing Pole) I started getting hits on both almost immediately. I had not been fishing for more than 15 minutes when I caught the biggest Smelt that I have ever seen. It measured 17 inches in length and must have weighed around 3 pounds. Then I caught 4 medium sized Mackerel in the next 30 minutes. By that time, I knew why the fishing was so good: there was a huge school of Anchovies under the pier. Having a school of Anchovies swimming around can be good, bad, or both for a fisherman. Today, it was both.

It can be good because big fish follow them around looking for a meal and as witnessed by the big Smelt pictured above, these fish tend to be bigger than what you would normally catch because they most likely followed the school from a greater depth of the ocean. It can be bad, though, because these same fish tend to ignore your dead bait, preferring to have a live, fresh, meal instead. Still, it can be both if you get a fish who just wants to eat something, dead or alive, so they go after your bait. If there are enough of these kinds of fish around, you can be very busy for some time. Today, I stayed busy for about an hour, then the school moved on and the action died out. In the meantime, my bottom line was getting a lot of attention though all I managed to haul in was a #$*#$ bait stealer which was the biggest one of them that I have ever caught. These guys tend to be about 4 or 5 inches in length but because of their large mouths, can still swallow a chunk of bait that is almost as big as they are. The one I reeled in today, though, was nearly 8 inches in length.

I was ready to go in early after a few more hours, when I caught my second 17 inch Smelt. There was a large school class outing walking by as I was fighting the fish who hit on my ultra light rig, so after I landed it, I had the opportunity to tell the kids about the fish, the Anchovies, and how the birds that were hanging around can tell you when the fishing is going to be good.

Their teacher appreciated the time I took to talk to the kids.

One other thing about today’s outing that was unusual is that I caught all of my fish on the west side of the pier, a side I rarely fish on due to the normally prevailing winds, but with my back aching and a still wind, I wanted my back to be facing east so it could be warmed by the rising sun. If it had not been for that, I may have missed the school of Anchovies and all of the fish that I caught.

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.

Fishing on the edge of the world…

When I surf fish in the Pacific Ocean , I always say that I am fishing on the edge of the world. If you lake fish, you know the boundaries of the lake and most likely you know the depth of it as well. When you river or creek fish, you know the boundaries of those waterways and you know that their water will eventually end up somewhere, maybe even in the Pacific Ocean .

Surf fishing in a ocean is different. Though you can look at a map or a globe and see where all the water is located on the planet, you don’t really understand the enormity of the oceans until you stand at their edges while watching the endless waves come rushing at you. It is a humbling feeling for a man as you hold your rod and reel in hand hoping that the water will give up some of its bounty while you dance with the waves trying to decide if you are getting a bite or if the expanse is just playing tricks on you.

That was how I felt this morning while fishing at Emma Wood State Beach in Ventura, CA. This was only my fourth attempt as surf fishing and, including today, I have yet to catch anything while fishing this way even though I always catch something any other way be it in a boat, on a pier, or at lakeside or riverside.

If the past few attempts at this sport, I went out trying to snare some Surfperch or Corbina even though I usually don’t angle for that type of fish. Both times I gave up after a few hours of trying to get the trick of fishing in the constantly moving sea which is not the same a river fishing where you stand on the banks and watch the water go by.

Today, though, I wanted to try a new tack, I decided to try to fish on the ocean side of the surf and not directly in it. So, I took my Shakespeare ATS 350 reel & 9-foot Shimano Saguaro rod with me and cast over the incoming surf. My line was baited with a 4-ounce weight, a large hook, and a big chunk of either Squid or Mackerel and still the ocean tossed it all about as if it were nothing. My bait was often missing or torn up when I reeled in but if a fish was after it or not, I could not say. So, again, I left after a few hours with nothing to show for my efforts.

This does not mean that I am giving up on surf fishing, I am just going to try another new tack the next time. Today, the tide was coming in for the hours I was on the beach but since I am not really interested in fish that come and go with the tide, I will go out on a day when the tide is going out and see how that works.

I will keep you posted.

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. 

Stearn’s Wharf I: What a MORNING!

When I moved from Phoenix, AZ to Santa Barbara, CA in 1979, Stearn’s Wharf was not open to the public.  It was closed due to a huge fire that roared through it in 1973.  It finally reopened in 1981 but by that time, the Goleta Pier was my fishing spot of choice so I never fished off the wharf before I moved to Ventura, CA in 1984. 

Over the decades since then, the wharf has been open and closed due to another fire, storms, etc. and I heard mixed reviews about the fishing prospects.  Some said it was fantastic and others said it was pathetic so today I decided to try it and see which side was telling the truth while knowing that BOTH sides could be right, depending on the weather, the skill of the fisherman, having the right outfit, and other factors.

Despite having been to the wharf’s website, I was still a little fuzzy about what it would cost me to park on it though that didn’t really matter since I was going to fish off of it for whatever it would cost me.  I knew that the wharf opened at 7 AM and that the first 1 ½ of parking was free and that after that is was $2.50 an hour.  So, I figured I’d just go in, fish for $5.00 worth of time just to see what was what.  However, when I arrived at 7:15 AM, the gate was up and the ticket machine was not functioning, so I drove in while deciding to deal with any questions when I left.        

My line was in the water for, at the most, 15 minutes when I caught my first Calico Bass.  This is fish that you do not find around my home base, the Ventura Pier, and even though it was 4 inches short of the legal limit, I was thrilled since I figured that where there was one, there would be more and I was right.  I caught 6 more Calicos in 4 hours but all were under the legal limit so ALL of them went back into the ocean..  After I caught the 5th one, I had the feeling that the same fish kept biting over and over again.  Especially since this one winked at me…

When I was not catching Calico Bass, I was catching Mackerel as fast as I could bait up and put my line in the water.  I actually lost count of how many I reeled in, but I know that I caught at least 27 of them with more after that, how many, I don’t know but I know it had to be at least 6  more, so let’s call it 33 Mackerel for the MORNING since I only fished for 4 hours.  When I first started catching them, I kept a few for bait then began to give them to other fishermen for bait but it wasn’t long before everyone had plenty of bait so I started throwing them back in while telling them to send me a halibut.  Not one of the ungrateful little buggers did as I asked them and I wound up getting no bites on my ocean bottom line.  The closest I got to a big fish was gaffing up a Shovel Nose shark for a fellow fisherman.  He’d caught it on the Mackerel I gave him.

I visited the Stearn’s Wharf Bait & Tackle to buy some salted Anchovies and was disappointed that they didn’t have a “Shut Up & Fish” t-shirt in a medium but I will check to see if they have any in stock the next time I visit the wharf because after today, I will definitely be back.   

As I was leaving, fully expecting to have to argue my way into a smaller parking fee, I was surprised that my visit would not cost me anything since the city realized that the ticket machine had been malfunctioning that morning. 

The nice lady attendant, just waved me out.

Advice from Grandpa: Offer a smorgasbord

Always have more than one kind of bait when you go fishing

This is not exactly how grandpa said it since he was a “little Irishman from Minnesota” as he’d always told everyone and big words were not part of his plain spoken vocabulary, but I understood what he meant when he told me that not all fish eat the same things.  So, he regularly cautioned me to take more than one type of bait when I go fishing.   In his case, he’d have night crawlers, Salmon eggs, corn, and often sweetened bread dough for catfish.

This, of course, made sense to me and over the course of the decades has always played true. 

When I fish in the Pacific Ocean I have, at a minimum, three kinds of bait: Anchovies, Mackerel, and Squid.  Sometimes I will take Blood Worms although I don’t like using live bait but I am always willing to change bait on any pole at any time.  This is what grandpa really meant.

Flexibility is a key element in fishing since there are factors that could interrupt your well laid plans for an outing which could limit your fishing options so don’t limit yourself.  The fish you want to catch may not be around so if you have only the bait they like, then you should just go home.  However, if you have a selection, you can change bait, maybe catch some other type of fish, and have a successful day.  A few weeks ago, I was fishing off the deep end of the Ventura Pier using Squid as bait and nothing was hitting on it.  So, I changed to Mackerel and I started getting hits right away.  Eventually, I hooked into a Bat Ray about two feet wide.  I didn’t land it do to faulty fishing line but it was close enough for me to gauge its width. 

If I had not switched bait, I know I would not have had a chance to even look at it.

Shark Bait: It’s Good to be Home

Call me Captain Ahab.  I have been in search of the white whale since last week when one got away due to old equipment that has now been replaced and though I didn’t catch a whale, the 42”, 30 to 40-pound Shovelhead shark pictured above would have defeated my efforts if I had not upgraded as I did. 

My trip to the Goleta Pier was such a disappointment, that instead of going to try Stearn’s Wharf or the Port Hueneme Pier today, I decided to stay on my home pier in Ventura.  I only caught four fish but each one was different and each one was larger than the last. 

Here they are listed in order of appearance:

  1. 6” Croaker
  2. 12” Mackerel
  3. 14” Sand Shark
  4. 42” Shovelhead Shark

Yes I did “catch” two sharks today but the first one ticked me off so much, it was all I could do to keep calm as I, hopefully, saved the little guy’s life.  More on that later.

I had been fishing off the end of the pier while I hunted sharks using squid as bait.  After a few hours, though, all I had to show for my efforts was the Croaker, the Mackerel, and the Sand Shark.  So I decided to move landward and fish in the exact same place where the shark got away last week.  Another hour passed, the wind started blowing ferociously, so my drift lining had to end, nothing was coming of it anyway except for Smelt nibbles.  Then I heard the sound that I had been longing for all week: the screeching of my drag.  Today, though, I didn’t race to my Wishing Pole since I knew I had adequate line in both length and quality to deal with what ever was taking my squid to the deeper end of the ocean. 

I picked up my outfit, looked at the line as it shot off the reel and when the fish hesitated for a moment, I pulled back to make sure the hook was set.  After that, I knew that whatever it was had no choice except to either bite through my 40-pound test leader or come to the pier. 

Once I had the fish to the surface, I knew that I would have to gaff it to get it on the pier, so I called to a neighboring fisherman for help, and as all fishermen will do, he gladly came over and took my gaff out of my bucket.  Then he held my pole as I lowered it into the ocean.  Once I had it in the shark’s tail, he reeled in my line as I lifted the shark over the railing. 

After taking a few pictures, I put the shark back into the ocean, not much worse for wear.  He would survive and hopefully my first shark would do so as well.

The little 14” d Shark that I “caught” was a lucky little thing.  I didn’t really “catch” it, though, what I caught was the line on the jig that was wrapped around it.  If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the red and green beads on this jig.  The line on the jig was anchored by a 2-ounce inverted pyramid weight.  Apparently this little guy somehow became entangled in the jig and broke the line it was attached to then managed to swim away.  I don’t know if it could have fed since several of the 6 hooks on the jig were embedded in it.  If it had been able to feed and grow, the line, anchored in its skin by the hooks and weight, may have eventually killed it due to the inability of it to eat as needed or tearing its skin so it would bleed then get devoured by other sea creatures.  Crazy as it may sound, I think the little guy knew that was trying to help it as I worked the hooks out of it then wrapped it in my fishing towel.  The look in its cold, reptilian eyes seemed to soften just before I put it back in the ocean where it slowly swum away into its future. 

In my opinion, people who jig like this do it because they are too stupid and lazy to fish.  The practice needs to be outlawed because of incidents like this and the fact that so many of those who do this keep what they catch, like this little guy, undersized Perch, Smelt, Mackerel, etc.  Every time I see a someone jigging, I have to resist the temptation to cut their lines and throw them into the ocean.  I mean, if we kill all the little fish, there will be no big fish.    

The man fishing next to me felt the same.  As I worked on the little shark, he said more than once that jigging “ain’t fishin’” as he described just how he wanted to deal with these lazy fishermen.

I could only shake my head in agreement and know that grandpa would feel the same..