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 II: Shark, bass, and mackerel, oh my!

After my last fishing adventure at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, CA where I caught 40 fish in 4 hours, I just had to go back to see if that was the norm or if I had just caught the area on a good day.  So, I went back today and though I only caught 14 fish in about 3 ½ hours, the Tiger Shark’s size and weight made up for a lot of that time.

Because of the wharf’s restriction on overhead casting, I took my Shakespeare Contender reel & 8-foot Shimano FX 2803 rod since I knew I could cast some distance with it even underhanded.  It is equipped with moss green 30lb test Spider Wire line so essentially the rig is better suited for freshwater but then I like to fish with light gear, so the fish have a chance.  That is why, in my mind, it is called sport fishing. 

I arrived at the wharf around 7 AM and was surprised that there were no other fishermen out there.  After about ½ hour of fishing as the Shakespeare’s line sat on the ocean floor with a large hook baited with a big chunk of Mackerel, I started catching fish on my ultra-light rig.  I didn’t have the continuous action like I had last week, but I stayed busy, eventually catching 7 Mackerel and 3 Calico Bass; but more on them later.

A local resident, with his kids and mother and father, saw me catch my biggest Mackerel and, as I do with all kids, I showed them the fish and told them about it. That is when the father told me that I had a fish on my other line.  I turned to see my Shimano FX 2803 bent nearly in half while the drag on my Shakespeare Contender reel hummed as it let out line.  Once more I thanked my grandfather for telling me repeatedly to always secure my pole.  If I had not done that, my rig would have been lost.  So, I put the Mackerel down and took my rig out of its holder.  That is when I knew I had a VERY big fish. 

The way that the fish was fighting, I knew it was a shark as opposed to a Bat Ray or Halibut, the only question was what kind of shark did I have on the line?  It pulled me down from one side of wharf to another which was good for me since that side was in open water away from the wharf’s pilings.  As I battled it, a large group of tourists gathered and several people asked me what I had caught, I could only tell them that I thought it was a shark and that if my line held, we would know what kind it was.  At first, I thought it might be a Shovel nose shark but the more I fought it, the more I thought that is was some other species.  When the Tiger Shark finally broke the surface, people got real excited, including me.  One lady was recording the battle, and everyone was taking pictures of the fish.  Fortunately, the local man had a boat in the harbor and was an experienced fisherman, so I asked him to get my gaff out of my bucket.  He had never used a pier gaff before, so he took the pole while I manned the gaff.  He was amazed at how strong the shark was.  We both figured it to be well over 5-foot-long and in the 150+ pound weight range. 

After a few tries, I managed to hook the shark’s tail and at that point, the beast was played out.  I fully intended to bring the shark on to the wharf but once it left the buoyancy of the ocean water, I realized just how much it must have weighed.  Even with the help of the local fisherman, we could barely budge it and since I was going to put it back in the ocean anyway, I decided to just cut my line and let it go after I took a few pictures.  I managed to work the gaff free then took out my knife while looking at the great fish that I had fought for the last 20 minutes or so, it looked totally exhausted as was I.  I told all the tourists to take their pictures and when they had finished, I cut my line to much applause from the audience who watched it swim away. 

Meanwhile, a Seagull ate the large Mackerel I caught and put down while I was fighting the Tiger Shark which I thought was tacky.  For the rest of the morning, when it came near me, I scared the hell out of it by yelling “Thanksgiving” at it which made the tourists think I was insane and got a few laughs.

My last catch of the day was a Calico Bass which I was sure would be my dinner today but it measured 13 inches long, one-inch shy of the legal limit. 

Still, it put up a hell of a fight on my ultra-light just like the shark did on my heavier gear.

Advice from Grandpa: Patience is the best bait (this worked today)

As a 5 to 7-year-old kid (which were the years I spent fishing with grandpa or just talking about fishing with him), I wanted to catch a fish every time my bait hit the water while not understanding how unrealistic that was.  Grandpa told me more than once that “patience is the best bait” meaning that there are more times that you have to wait to catch a fish then you are actually catching fish.  It took me a while to understand this but I finally did and now, 60 years later, it is still the truth.

Today was a prime example.  I usually don’t fish on the weekends due to the tourist crowding the pier and I especially don’t fish on holiday weekends like this one, but I was feeling very restless so I threw caution to the wind and went to the Ventura Pier.  I got there later than I usually do and I was shocked to see how many people were out fishing today.  There were more anglers than tourists. 

Still, I went out to one of my favorite spots and found it open.  After two hours of no fish, though, I was ready to go in and take a rare shut out home with me.  Then I remembered what grandpa told me and instead of going in, I moved further out on the pier to the deeper end of it.  In about 20 minutes, I caught three large Mackerel and my Wishing Pole started getting a lot of attention. 

Outside of catching a $*@! # bait stealer, my Wishing Pole was very quiet despite getting that attention.  However, I wound up catching seven Mackerel on my ultra-light Fishing Pole not counting two that wriggled off the hook half way to the pier. 

Seven fish in about an hour and half made today a good day but it would have never happened had not grandpa cautioned me about impatience all those decades past. 

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.

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.

Special days…

7 of the 14 Mackerel caught today

From FB posting of August 14, 2019

Today was a very special day of fishing on the Ventura Pier. It was NOT because I caught 14 Mackerel (7 are pictured, the others went to other fishermen for bait or back to the ocean). It was NOT because a huge fish hit my heavy pole so hard that it snapped my 40-pound test leader like it was so much thread (I did play it for about 30 seconds). And it was NOT because of one of the fishermen who I supplied with bait and two very nice Perch insisted that I take a filet knife in repayment even though I showed him that I already had two on my person. No, it was special for a different reason.

A man and his grandson were watching me catch fish after fish then asked me how I was doing it just 10-feet to the left of them while they caught nothing. So, I told them to take all the weights off of their line and use a drift line. Then I gave them a Mackerel for bait since they didn’t have any and I cut up two Anchovies and told them not to use pieces of bait bigger than that. Well, the boy caught a regulation size Mackerel in a few minutes and it was the FIRST fish he had ever caught. He wanted to give it to me but I told him I had enough bait for now so he had to decide what to do with the fish. He chose to put it back in the Ocean and then caught three more fish.

Giving a boy a fish will feed him for a day, teaching a boy to fish as my grandfather taught me, will feed him for life.

Advice from Grandpa: Always use a fishing pole and a wishing pole!

My fishing pole and my wishing pole

In Michigan, in the 1950’s, it must have been illegal to fish with more than one pole at a time, but Grandpa Duffy, who was a very law-abiding man, told me to use two poles “when I could get away with it”.  What he meant by this is that if possible, fish at more than one water level at the same time because not all fish feed in the same way. 

The “wishing pole” was the one that you cast out to the deepest part of the lake that you could reach and weight it so it would stay on the bottom where the biggest Catfish, Carp, and other bottom-feeders dwelt.  If you caught something that you didn’t want to eat, like a giant Carp, you at least had the sport of landing it.  Then you’d throw it back. 

The “fishing pole” was the one that you held in your hand at all time.  You could use a bobber if you liked to keep your bait off the bottom but Grandpa Duffy, and me too, liked to just use what he called “drift lines” where you cast your line out, without a weight, and let it drift so fish would think it is just a floating meal.  Perch, Crappie, Sun Fish, and Bass all feed this way along with many others.

This plan holds true in the ocean as well where Sharks, Rays, Halibuts, and many other fish feed on the bottom and these tend to be bigger fish.  Mackerel, Perch, Croakers, and Sea Bass, among many others prefer bait that is drifting and moving almost as if it were alive.  Using a drift line means staying aware of what is going on, keeping your pole in your hands and watching for every dip in the tip of your rod.  It is a very interactive way of fishing that many fishermen don’t have the patience or energy to deal with which is why I can be standing 10 feet from another fisherman catching fish after fish while they are being shut out.  On many days, I show people how I fish and they still don’t catch anything because they are not interested in putting in the effort needed to fish this way.