Lighten up on Shallow-Water Rockfish

Over the past fifteen years I’ve enjoyed refining my shallow-water, light-tackle techniques, predominately from northern California ports such as Pillar Point and Santa Cruz. These skills I developed on both sides of the fence -- as a recreational angler and as a deckhand for captain Bob Ingles on his vessel Queen of Hearts. The amount of information I gleaned from this renowned industry pioneer of SWLT rockfishing has been invaluable. For the purpose of this article, I define shallow-water to mean a maximum of 160’, although for the most part, 40’ – 120’ is what I consider to be the major playing field.

In my opinion, the Department of Fish & Game made one smart move when they reduced the number of hooks to two. Just how sporting was it to use multiple shrimp fly gangions with a couple of pounds of lead weighting it anyway? Where’s the skill, not to mention the thrill? Keep your 2 pound salmon weights for catching… well, salmon! Fighting each fish one by one makes for a much more enjoyable trip. And for those of you who are still set on two hooks, I’ll show you how to build a better mousetrap by using one hook as a teaser.

Rods and Reels -- The Inshore Advantage

As I’ve already ruled out some of the heavier gear historically used to catch rockfish, let me elaborate on what “light tackle” is considered to be today. Start by thinking 20# and under. How far under is something you will discover for yourself with time and practice. Although I employ a two-outfit system, feel free to start off wherever you are comfortable.

An example of a primary set-up would be a light to medium action rod in the 7 to 7 ½ foot class with a line rating of 10# to 25#. Match this with a conventional or spinning reel loaded with 15# to 20# monofilament line. (For those of you who just said, “What, no backing?” hold your horses, I will cover that later.) This is the rod I will generally use for a variety of reasons. A fast drift on a rough ocean requires getting to the bottom quicker. Experienced anglers with a preference for casting jigs will often use a 4 to 6 oz offering to accomplish this, giving the jig a chance to work the bottom before the boat reaches the spot. Another use for this choice of rod and reel is to set up a teaser rig, which I will go into detail in just a bit.

Let’s say the forecast is for calmer seas. Under these conditions it is not out of the ordinary to see a few of my buddies packing a trout or bass rod along. While you may try this, my suggestions for secondary set-up would be a fast-action, inshore rod. Many excellent rod manufacturers have a nice selection in the 7’ range. Keep in mind that you will have to scale your lure size down, so lean towards a moderate to heavy power rating. Line rating gets tougher here too. If you feel pretty confident, make a choice in the 8# to17# class. However, if you had used your favorite tuna stick the last time you went out for rockfish, then maybe 12# to 20# might feel like a more familiar place to start. Whatever you decide, pair it up with an equally matched reel. One of my all time favorite combos is an older, but much cherished, Sabre pro series gx197 rod, paired with an equally aged Newell G-220F reel.

Lines, Rigging, and a Little Tease

Let’s get the controversial stuff out of the way first. Braided line or monofilament? Again experience will dictate here. If you are a novice on a party boat, stick to mono until the right opportunity comes along to practice using braided line (Yet another reason to support a two rod system; one combo monofilament and the other braided.) When I made the conversion to braided line, I spooled about 100 feet of mono topshot onto my reel and gradually shortened it while getting used to the difference in how it felt and handled. Even if you choose to use braided line, be sure to have a topshot. The length can vary from a few feet to several yards. One thing to consider is your skill at tying on your own topshot if you bust it off. Some skippers who are still somewhat anti-braid may give you a variety of excuses to avoid helping you attach a new topshot. Also consider how often you change your jig? Will you be putting a dropper loop in your line? Things like this will whittle down the mono end, leaving you helpless if you’re not prepared. As far as terminal tackle lost, I’ve seen equal results of “farmed” gear on both mono and braided line.

Speaking of being prepared, rig at the dock or while under way to the first stop. There’s nothing more frustrating than hearing “fish on” while you’re still combing through your gear. Ask ahead of time where you are heading and at what depth you might start. What are other conditions that may have an impact on your tackle selection? Big swells? Lots of current?

On a typical trip I’ll have my lighter outfit set up with a 1½ to 3 oz. jig or plastic. Generally the weather will be better early in the day. Less wind means less drift. These are the perfect conditions for light tackle to work properly. The 8# to 15# rigs will allow you to battle feisty rockfish as well as the other species you may encounter, such as cabezone, kelp greenling, sand dabs, starry flounders and prize fighters like lingcod and halibut.

My second outfit will usually have a dropper loop with a teaser hook, followed by a jig or swimbait. A good dropper loop should be perfected, unless you want to follow the crew around and wait until they can tie it for you. Try it with and without the hook incorporated into the loop for diversity. Many theories abound on why teaser hooks work. Personally I subscribe to the big-fish-chasing-smaller-fish scenario. 2/0 to 3/0 is a good size hook to start with for a teaser. When using a teaser, make sure it is within 6 to10 inches of your other piece from your arsenal. This will allow you to be able to cast it without putting your teaser into your rod tip. Armed with 15# to 20# line, I can now specifically target the big lings. (I have also nabbed numerous trophy vermilions this way.)

If you choose to exclude the dropper loop, a large swimbait or other plastic rigged with a 4 to 6 oz. leadhead can be directly tied (an improved clinch knot is my knot of choice) and bounced over the bottom as the boat drifts. Since this has a “weedless” advantage, it works particularly well for anglers in the center section of the leeward side.

Braided line fans, start working on those special knots. The Tony Pena knot, uni-to-uni splice and Stren “J” are just some of the acceptable knots that will work to add your topshots. One more critical item regarding braided line, make sure it’s wet before you make your first cast of the day. It’s not a bad idea to wet monofilament either.

Put the Squid Down and Step Away From the Bait Tank

With “artificial only” tournaments becoming more popular, and years of listening to the mantra “death before bait” aboard the Queen of Hearts, I will say that, for the most part, you won’t need bait. But I have a few exceptions. My top three picks for lunker lingcod are baby octopus, sand dabs or a small whole rockfish. Lingcod are well-known to hitchhike on rockfish! Just make sure to leave the ling at the surface, with his head under water, and get a gaff into it pronto.

When choosing your iron or plastics, consider the water clarity and amount of sunlight. In shallow water, colors and silhouettes come into play. I’ve found that cabezone tend to favor crawfish type plastics in natural shades of red to brown, perhaps because they resemble pelagic red crabs. On cloudy days or in murky water, try glow-in-the-dark, white or other light colors. Change strategy when the fishing slows by switching from iron to plastic or vice versa. Sometimes it isn’t color that triggers a bite. Pack an assortment of shapes. Curly tail grubs, scampi tails and B-2 squids are all proven rockfish killers. Beware of color bleeding with plastics. Treat them like laundry; separate the lights from the darks and be especially careful of chartreuse and pink. On the iron side, try crippled herring lures, small diamond jigs or a Megabait live jig. Plain old chrome has saved the day for many an angler. Keep in mind that if you decide to use a “stinger” on a jig or a “trap hook” on a swimbait you are using the maximum number of hooks allowed and you won’t be able to use a teaser hook.

Another option to try before reaching for that icky box of frozen squid is to apply some scent to your lure. Again, your variety is virtuously endless, with gels, sprays and tubes in assorted flavors. Berkley’s Gulp line of saltwater baits is also very effective, and being 100% natural, they are environmentally a good choice to use.

All lures and hooks that make contact with saltwater should be stored away from clean or new tackle to prevent premature rust. I like to use a gallon size plastic bag to toss wet gear into. Upon arriving home, the contents can be quickly rinsed and left to dry overnight, before storing again. Please be cautious of where you leave your lures and hooks. They should not be accessible to children or pets!

Increasing Your Odds on Specific Species

One of the intriguing things about rockfishing is that you never really know what you’re going to catch, but you can help increase the odds of targeting certain ones. Besides the clue I gave earlier about cabezone, here are a few more. Go to a single hook on your iron and make it bigger. A 5/0 siwash crimped on or a hook attached with a split ring will reduce bites from fish with smaller mouths. Iron rigged this way is also subject to far fewer bottom snags than treble or double hooks. Try threading a small plastic worm or grub tail onto the hook for extra appeal. Heavier iron also makes more of a disturbance when it hits the bottom, which will get you more bites from lings, especially when they are protecting their nests.

Getting through the “schoolies” can be a challenge at times. If you don’t want to load up on black, blue, olive or yellowtail rockfish, drop through the “school zone” fast! Most of these fish will suspend at a certain depth between the bottom of the boat and the bottom of the seafloor. The good news is that rockfish show up very well on the fish finder. The skipper can give you a good indication of where and at what depth these guys are hanging out. Of course, I’ve also had plenty of fun just fighting and releasing schoolie rockfish at shallow depths. Blues are very resilient when caught, and yellowtail rockfish are one of the few species that do not suffer from decompression problems.

Another trick that works like a charm is to pay close attention to what might happen to pop out of the mouth of your (or your neighbor’s) catch. Did your last lingcod hurl up an octopus? Did a gopher rockfish spit out a small crab? Don’t just gawk at it… grab it and put it back on your hook, or browse your lures and play match-the-hatch. Who knows… you might just serve up the treat that the jackpot fish has been waiting for!