The morning started off foggy and wet with a thick marine layer, but it didn’t stop us from getting to the boat on time. After all, we had been looking forward to this oceanic adventure all week. Intimidating at first (a bit gender skewed), the folks on board the Stardust were friendly and helpful straight away. The seasoned anglers showed us the ropes. We were given numbers which coincided with an empty fish bag and galley tab. We were asked if we wanted anything for breakfast, set our backpacks down, grabbed a seat, and journeyed out of the surprisingly active harbor.
Rockfishing in California is one of life’s simple pleasures. It’s easier and less intimidating than other deep sea fishing such as marlin, albacore, salmon, or carcharodon. Rockfishing is a fabulous place to start if you have never been fishing, if you have never been salt water fishing, or if you enjoy eating fresh fish! Rockfishing is accessible, practical, challenging, rewarding, and irresistible for neophytes and experienced anglers alike.
March 1st through December 31st marks Rockfish season in southern California from Point Conception (Santa Barbara County) to the U.S. Mexico border. Rockfish, like the name indicates, tend to gather around rocks and other underwater structures in the lower part of the water column. Typical depths range from 80 – 300 feet (50 fathoms) of water. Our first drop was in about 250 feet of water, so we had to let the line out for what seemed like forever. We followed instructions and waited for the line to go slack (which indicated the bottom), then we reeled in slowly to tighten the line. Within seconds people began cheering and yelling. Sharon was among the loud vocal bunch. She had fish on!
You’re gonna need a bigger bag. The daily limit is 10 fish in combination of all species within the RCG Complex (includes all species of Rockfish, Cabezon, and Greenlings) per person with a sublimit on bocaccio (salmon grouper) (3 per person, also included in the 10 fish RCG Complex aggregate limit). There is also a size limit on some fish including Lingcod (posession limit is 2 within the 10 aggregate limit and size is 22 inches.) The 70 or so fish in the rockfish family range from the Bering Sea to Baja California. Some take their common names and nicknames from their skin colour (green, brown, blue, black, copper, olive, red and so on). The deeper they live the brighter their coloration.
Rockfish can range in size from 1 to 40 pounds, but 2 to 5 pounds is most common. Rockfish are extremely slow growing, making them susceptible to overfishing. Some people refer to rockfish as rockcod or cod. Some common fish caught rockfishing are vermillion rockfish (red snapper), copper rockfish (chucklehead), olive rockfish, calico bass, sand bass, halibut, cabezon, lingcod and sheephead.
I had fish on too! I reeled for what seemed like an eternity and then…when the fish finally surfaced, there was something very odd about their appearance. They were not unlike a fish from an episode of The Simpsons (minus the third eye). Why do they look like Marty Feldman?
One fish, two fish, red fish, weird fish. Rockfish are prone to pressure-related injuries called barotrauma (similar to the bends in humans). Every rockfish has a gas-filled organ called a swim bladder that allows the fish to control its buoyancy. By deflating its bladder, a fish can descend. By inflating it, its ascent is assisted (much like a B/C a diver wears for SCUBA). When a fish is caught and reeled in from depth, this mechanism for moving vertically in the water column is disrupted (much like a SCUBA diver who ascends too quickly). Bottom line (pun intended), they’re weird looking.
The sportfishing boats (aka party boats) are rigged up to help you catch fish. They want you to catch fish and the captain and crew make it easy, fun, and affordable (about seventy five bucks). The more fish you catch, the more people you’ll tell (just like I’m doing here). We reserved space on a 3/4 day trip offered by Stardust Sportfishing in Santa Barbara, California.
The 65’ Stardust is located in the Santa Barbara Harbor. Select a sportfishing company that is reputable. Ask friends for referrals. Look for a boat that limits their load. You don’t want to be shoulder-to-shoulder with a beginner who’s ready and willing to throw a hook your way. The Stardust offers plenty of space (about one arm’s length in both directions so you have lots of reel room).
Our 3/4 day trip put us out to the Channel Islands and everyone caught their limit. The captain of the boat tries hard to put you right on top of fish. All you have to do is bait your hooks (the friendly crew is eager to help), listen to the advice of the crew, and avoid tangles with other people aboard. The crew likes anglers, not tanglers!
Ask your reservationist if you can rent gear. If so, it will typically cost about twelve bucks. If you are heading out for the first time, don’t worry about purchasing a bunch of new equipment. Just show up, meet new friends and enjoy the day.
Enjoy your trip to the fishing spot. Keep your eyes peeled for pelagic wildlife. Depending on the time of year, you could see gray, blue, humpback, or minke whales, orcas, common, risso, pacific white-sided, or bottle nose dolphins, dall’s porpoise, or fin whales. Also be on the lookout for seabirds as you venture through the rich nearshore waters. Watch for petrels, tropicbirds, auks, murrelets, murres, shearwaters, and gulls. Mine. Mine. Mine.
In California, you can fish two hooks at a time and the double dropper loop setup is rig preference. The deckhands can tie them for you if you need assistance. The Stardust has live bait tanks on board (so you can catch a fish before you catch a fish) along with fresh-cut squid bait (be careful of the ink). It is best to bait the upper hook with squid (pin it on to one end and let a piece dangle from the other end so it dances in the current) and the lower hook with live bait (anchovies). The deckhands are also available to show you how to bait your hook with live bait. Listen for directions from the captain – he’ll tell you what bait is best for the depth and habitat being fished.
When you feel a little tug, that means you have a fish on. Start reeling. A slow steady wind is best. Don’t jump your rod up and down because you’ll lose your fish that way. When you jump ‘em, you dump ‘em. Ask the deckhands for help if the load seems heavy or if you are unsure what to do. They’re there to help you catch fish!
Some boats have a galley which means there is food, snacks, beverages, and beer available. The Stardust kicked up a killer cheeseburger that blew us out of the water. It was tasty, well-deserved and paired well with ice-cold Coors Light.
At the end of the day, the deckhands asked if we would like our fish filleted or gutted. It cost about $1 per fish, but worth every “scent” when it was all said and done.
Filleted means cleaned so that only meat is exposed. Gutted means you’re getting the head, skin, tail, etc. too. Great if you’re making fish soup or cooking it whole. If you request filleted you’ll notice some skin left on the fish after you get home, that’s so you can identify the fish type. These deckhands think of everything!
Rockfish has a delicate, nutty, sweet flavour. The meat is lean and medium-firm in texture, with a fine flake. If you’d like recipes, check out The Chubby Spoon.
Lastly, remember to tip the crew! If the crew worked hard and did their best (without a cranky-pants attitude), tip 15-20 percent of what you paid to get on the boat. The Stardust guys worked super hard all day. They were poked by poles, punctured by hooks, covered in fish gurg, and detangled endless messes of line to make sure we had the best opportunities to catch fish.
The crew keeps you safe in a dangerous place. Make them happy.
The day was absolutely incredible. Escorted by playful seals, the sun finally peeked out as we came into the harbor.
Everyone caught their limit and would soon be sharing the bounty with good friends and family. We were physically exhausted (in a good way) and looked forward to telling fish tales about the big one that got away. “Show me the way to go home, I’m tired and I wanna go to bed…”
Ready for an oceanic adventure of your own? Here are a few ideas for what to bring in your small backpack:
- Bonine or Dramamine (if you think you may be prone to sea sickness)
- Saltine crackers (if you think you may be prone to sea sickness)
- Fishing license
- Layers of clothing
- Cash for food and tipping
- Empty cooler in the car for the ride home