Fly fishing the Southern California Ocean.
Fly fishing ocean waters in California have not caught on as much as it has in some other parts of the world. This may be because there aren’t broad expanses of shallow flats as you might find in the Caribbean or Eastern US, but California salt water is definitely fly fishable, as many an enthusiast has come to discover. A variety of species, both native and pelagic can be induced to hit a fly.
The California underwater seascape, like the landscape, is filled with deep canyons, large mountainous subsea banks, and rocky reefs. Obviously, only the shallower areas can be fished, or the deeper areas for surface-dwelling fish. Actually, I used to tie flies and fish them deep back when deep-water rock cod fishing was legal. This of course gave fly fishing purists the vapors when I suggested baiting the flies and sending them deep with a sinker. The sarcasm flew when reviewing my book, The Saltwater Angler’s Guide to Southern California, and can now be seen all over the Internet. Of course, no one seemed to offer any alternatives to getting a fly down 600 to 1000 feet deep, so I just chuckled at the pompousness of the reviewers.
The first general category of fish that can be fly-fished is the reef-dwelling ambush feeders. The king of these is the calico bass. This is a common, popular sportfish that is relatively easy to catch and is excellent to eat. Calicos live near or in structures, whether rocky outcroppings, man-made seawalls, or kelp forests. They eat small baitfish and hunt by waiting for prey to come by, then make a quick dash and gulp. Sand bass, living on the bottom near structure, Sheephead, a kind of wrasse, and ocean whitefish, are a few other types of reef-dwelling ambush feeders that share that habitat with Calicos and may be incidentally caught when fishing for calicos.
Fly-fishing for calico bass required fairly heavy tackle because of their habitat, near structure. You will get caught in rocks or kelp occasionally. An 8-weight fly rod should be considered minimum, and a 9 or 10-weight preferred. Saltwater reels with built-in adjustable drags are important. You can’t simply “palm” most ocean fish, and the possibility that your hooked fish will get taken by a shark or seal always exists. Trust me, you don’t want to be palming a spool when a 1200 lb. California sea lion snatches up your catch and takes off. Sinking fly lines are a must and most fishermen use shooting heads.
Reef-dwelling ambush feeders usually take baitfish imitating streamer flies the best. Lefty’s Deceivers and Clouser minnows are the standard, in blue and white to imitate anchovies, or green and white to look like sardines. These can be quite large, three or four inches isn’t too big. Squid imitating flies also can produce quite well, especially during the winter months when the squid runs are on in California.
To fish for these species, you need to get as close to the structure as you dare and present a nervous, twitchy action to the fly. This will stimulate their strike instinct and they pounce on your presentation.
In the summer months, the Southern California coast often has runs of what is called surface fish. These species, the Yellowtail, Bonito, and Barracuda feed in an entirely different way than reef dwellers. These are fast, powerful fish of the open water that use their blazing speed to chase down their prey. Baitfish gather in huge schools that these surface fish slash through gorging themselves.
Schools of bait are fairly easy to spot. They attract sea birds that gather in great flocks frenziedly diving and gorging themselves on the feast of fish. Underneath are the predatory fish and above are the predatory birds, and so the baitfish have nowhere to go except into the maws of the predators. Fish the edges of these bait schools for best results.
Again, anchovy or sardine-imitating streamer flies are the tickets, but the method of fishing them is different. Long ripping, high-speed retrieves will produce better than slow twitchy ones, as these fish are used to chasing down fleeing prey. A 10 to 12-weight fly rod is appropriate for these species, and adjustable drags are a must. Again, shooting head, and sinking lines make the most sense when surface fishing.
These techniques can also be used for offshore species like Albacore, Yellowfin Tuna, and Dorado (dolphin fish) in the seasons when these are running. A 12 weight should be considered minimum for these species as they are very fast and powerful.
If you want to bring your trout rod out and give California saltwater fly fishing a try, you might want to fish the beaches for such surf fishing species as corbina, yellowfin croaker, and barred surfperch. These denizens of the shallow white water can be easily caught by flies. Green wooly buggers work fine, and in the local coastal fly shops, you’ll find sand crab imitating flies also. Fish the high tides in water knee-deep or so for best results.
Many local fly fishermen target halibut from the shore as well. Stream and river mouths seem to be the favored spot for these ambush feeders. They take baitfish and shrimp imitating flies.
White seabass, the big croakers highly esteemed in Southern California, can also be taken with flies. They come into shallow enough water only during the winter squid runs. They voraciously feed on squid egg casings, so that’s the ticket to trick them into striking. I’d say that most big whites are caught within an hour of daybreak in shallow rocky bottom water. Squid egg casings don’t swim fast but are moved by the action of the surf and tides, so take that as a clue to how to fish them. Whites also eat whole squid and baitfish, but it’s the egg casings that get them really excited.