For those fishermen who aren’t native to California or those new to the sport, it’s likely your familiarity with trophy Calico Bass is limited. Well, here’s the 411 for those not in the know. Calicos are every bit as aggressive as fresh water Large Mouth Bass, but fishing for them includes the excitement and challenges of fishing in turbulent ocean conditions. Imagine tossing a 9 inch swimbait into churning water as 6 foot waves break mere feet behind the transom. You wind your swimbait through dense kelp stringers as a monster Calico blows up on it. You swing hard and the fish dives for the bottom. It’s a tug-o-war, the calico trying to get to its rocky home and you winding to prevent him from him getting there before he breaks you off. If you’re lucky the fish doesn’t make it home and you land a fish of a life time. This is Calico fishing at its best; taking the risk of fishing precarious conditions for a shot at a trophy Bass to brag about for the rest of your days.
This is one of my favorite types of fishing and I have quite a few big Calicos to my name. That said, there are tournament fishermen who take the sport to a whole other level. I’ll give you my 2 cents here, but there’s a lot to learn. If this sort of fishing interests you there are plenty of resources online to further your education.
What kind of gear will you need?
Just like Large Mouth fishing, Calico fishermen prefer to use low profile bait casting reels. In recent years many reel manufacturers have caught up to the sport and now provide larger reels with higher line capacity and stronger drags necessary to battle big bass. My current reel is the Daiwa Lexa HD 400HS-P. This reel has a fast 7.1:1 gear ratio, holds 300yds of 55# braid, and has an awesome 25lbs of drag. I love this reel as it has every feature I could possibly want in a Calico reel.
Other reels to consider for Calico fishing are the Coastal also from Daiwa; with a 7.3:1 gear ratio, it holds 145yds of 55# braid, and boasts 15.4lbs of drag.
The Shimano Curado; with a 6.3:1 gear ratio, it holds 120yds of 50# braid, and 12lbs of drag.
The Shimano Tranx 300; with 5.8:1 gear ratio, holds 190yds of 50# braid, and has a hefty 22lbs of drag.
For a rods most anglers prefer an 8-9’ MH-H with a fast – extra fast action tip. Currently I’m using the Phenix M1 Inshore 8’2” H rated for 20-45lbs. This rod has plenty of backbone to fight the biggest of Calicos up to Medium sized Yellowtail. This rod will get your fish out of the kelp and away from rocks in a hurry.
Other rods to consider are the Shimano Terez Waxwing and Daiwa Proteus Inshore rods.
In years passed many Calico fishermen fished straight mono line from 15-25#. Those days are over. Today tournament fishermen don’t mess around. They back their reels with 50-80# braid and connect a 4 foot fluorocarbon leader from 40-60#. It might seem like over kill for 5-8lb fish, but remember, these are mean fish that live in churning water and fast currents. They are strong, as anyone who’s ever been rocked by a big Calico will attest. Taking your chances with light line just isn’t worth wondering, “what if?” For braided line I like both Daiwa J Braid and Power Pro in either Moss Green or Red. For fluorocarbon I’ve had the most success fishing Blackwater.
What lures and bait to use?
The most common and productive technique for Calicos is the plastic swimbait by far. I like to fish 5-9 inch swimbaits from Big Hammer on a 1- 1½ oz leadhead in either red or yellow with red eyes. I also like to add scent from Edge Products called Hot Sauce. Swimbaits can be fished in shallow water or deep water, weedless in Kelp, or with a plain lead head over reefs and boiler rocks. These are some of my favorite colors.
Another productive bait is the surface Iron. Tady 45’s in scrambled egg color seem to be a favorite. These are fished over shallow reefs or Kelp that is submerged. Note, if you have never fished a surface iron, it takes some practice. Casting one on a conventional reel can be difficult for a beginner as well as the retrieve. Each brand and every specific iron has a sweet spot in the speed that you want to retrieve it. Too fast or too slow and the lure won’t swim properly. I suggest going to a dock in a harbor and practicing until you get it right. Once you get it down, this lure can be deadly for bigger Bass.
Shimano’s Waxwing lure has become very popular with Calico fishermen as well. It has awesome side to side action and fishes relatively weedless with the double hook set-up. Fish these over shallow reefs, boilers, or laid down kelp. Popular colors are scrambled egg, mint, and bone.
Just like Large Mouth Bass, crank baits entice big Calicos out of their cover. Swim these over shallow reefs and next to boiler rocks for some grumpy toad Calicos. Daiwa’s Salt Pro minnow Bullet is a perfect bait for this application. It’s a 6″ 2 1/8 oz sinking bait so it’s easy to work the water column with it. Again scrambled egg is a must have color.
When the water gets cold and the Bass are holding on deep reefs and in the Kelp some anglers have adopted the LMB technique of slowly working a creature bait acrossed the bottom. Pair a swim jig from Warbaits with a plastic craw or swimbait in brown or red to mimic crustaceans. Cast, let it sink to the bottom, and slowly drag it across the ocean floor for winter time hog Calicos.
Where to fish and when?
When and where to fish can be a science all its own. Weather, Tide, Current, Season, water color and clarity all play a role on where you’ll want to fish. General wisdom says during late Fall through early Spring fish deeper water (30-100 feet). Late spring through early Fall you want to fish in 30 feet of water or less. Less can mean right up to the shore. More specifically for Calicos you’ll need to find structure. In deep water structure means Kelp forests, wrecks, or reefs. In shallow water structure is Kelp Forests, Reefs, and especially Boiler rocks. I’ll go over each area explaining how to fish them.
Deep reefs and wrecks.
When fishing deep water your techniques and lure selection are much more limited than shallow water. For this scenario the most productive approach is to drift over the reef while either throwing swimbaits with a 1 – 1 ½ oz leadhead or fishing natural bait like squid, Sardine’s, or Anchovies on a sliding egg sinker rig or a Dropper loop. I much prefer fishing swimbaits than natural bait as it tends to weed out by catch, is more active, and I believe more productive. You can also fish a creature bait slowly dragged across the bottom mimicking crabs and lobster.
In deep water be aware that the natural structure off of the California coast is made up of jagged rocks and sharp pinnacles. Once hooked up it’s imperative to wind quickly to get the big Bass out of there A.S.A.P. A slow reaction to a bite means the difference between being broken off and landing a Jumbo Calico.
Fishing Kelp Forests is one of the more productive areas for Calico Bass (AKA Kelp Bass). You will land larger numbers of school sized 1-3lb fish here than in the boilers, but the steady action is fun nonetheless. Look for an area with slightly dirty, blue green water as clean clear water is the kiss of death for Calico fishing. Next look for an area with good current running through it where the kelp is laid down below the water in parallel rows in contrast to randomly strewn masses. See below.
Calicos feed most aggressively when there is good current as it churns up both sediment and forage foods providing food and cover. Position your boat perpendicular to the direction of the stringers and cast down current in the lanes between the kelp with a swimbait. Count the seconds it takes to let your swimbait sink to the bottom then work it at a medium rate back to the boat. If you don’t get bit on the drop or retrieve, on your next cast begin your retrieve a few seconds before the swimbait hits bottom and slow down the retrieve. If you still don’t get bit continue to work shallower and shallower in the water column until you do get bit. If this fails it’s time to move locations.
On occasion circumstances won’t allow you to fish parallel with the Kelp stringers. In this case look for holes in the Kelp mass and cast into them. Let your swimbait sink into the hole and wait to get bit on the drop. If you don’t get bit work the bait back over the Kelp dropping it back into holes as you retrieve.
Don’t stay in an unproductive area too long. Often times covering lots of water is the name of the game.
Boiler rocks hold some of the biggest and grumpiest Calicos. The Bass on these rocks live in turbulent fast moving water much of their lives and are stronger for it. They also receive more forage allowing them to grow larger. In order to access many of these rocks you must also dare to brave rough waters. The risk of being caught in a dangerous situation here is not to be ignored. Before maneuvering your boat into a precarious location, first wait outside the area in a safe location and observe the surf pattern for 10 minutes. Pay attention not only to the size and direction of the surf, but to the larger set waves that roll through at given intervals. Although this type of fishing is hazardous, it can be accomplished with foresight and constant awareness to the changing conditions. Once you have noted the conditions move your boat into position, bow facing into the direction of incoming swell. Keep the motor running and an eye to the horizon and you’ll be just fine.
Now that the safety issues have been addressed, here’s how to fish the boilers. A good boiler rock is worth a mile of open ocean. They are almost guaranteed to be holding a monster Bass. The hard part is getting your swimbait in his face. To make sure that you do, work every angle of the rock that you can. You never know which side of the rock he’s on or which direction he’s facing. Work the front, sides, and as far back as you can.
Note the first diagram illustrates the proper way to work boiler rocks and the second diagram is exactly what not to do.
You can find good Calico fishing nearly anywhere along the California coast. Every Kelp line and boiler rock will hold fish. That said some locations are better than others. Coastal areas that tend to be productive are the La Jolla Kelp, Dana Point, the Long Beach Break Wall, and the Palos Verdes area. Note: See MPA restrictions to avoid fishing in a closed area. For the best fishing go off shore to the islands. San Clemente Island, Catalina Island, Santa Barbara Island, and Santa Cruz Island all have awesome Calico fisheries. For your chance at a toad Catalina is your best bet. For consistent action on 5lb + fish go to San Clemente Island.
I understand not all anglers have their own boat or a boat to safely get them to the islands. For you folks I highly suggest hooking up with an experienced Captain who specializes in fishing Calicos at the islands. In the Santa Barbara and Ventura area contact Captain Larry Herron at Calico Hunter Charters . I’ve fished with Captain Larry a few times and he is one of the best Calico fishermen in the game. He runs a 24 foot Hydrasports with a 350hp motor which will get you to Santa Cruz Island in no time. He’s not just a great fisherman, but a great personality and I highly recommend fishing with him.
In the Los Angeles/Orange County area contact Captain Ben Florentino at https://www.fishcoastalcharters.com/ Ben is an experienced waterman, and an avid Saltwater bass tournament angler fishing the SWBA & SBS series. He runs a Ranger 2510 Bay Ranger powered by a Mercury 300hp Verado. He fishes Catalina Island and San Clemente Island.
In the San Diego area contact Captain Evan Salvay at http://salvaypacific.com/ . I know Captain Evan from his numerous youtube videos. I’ve never fished with him, but if you’ve seen his videos you know that he is probably the most enthusiastic fisherman on the planet. Because of this, I mention him here. He runs a Crystaliner RS 29 equipped with twin Cummins diesel engines and fishes off shore, San Clemente Island and Catalina Island.
Calico Bass fishing is a unique and awesome experience. These voracious fish eat nearly anything that crosses their path with an aggressive attack not seen in many other species. Because of this they are simply put, a blast to catch. If you’re new to fishing or live outside of California, I sincerely recommend chartering a boat and chasing after these beasts. I promise you that your trip will rank among one of the most memorable trips of your life.
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