(Being the ultimate fly fishing tourist in southern California…)
One of my best fishing memories is from a family trip to southern California as a 13 year-old. In between Disneyland and Universal Studios, my dad took me on an overnight party boat to Catalina Island. I caught calico bass like crazy with my spincast rod. (Side note #1: I spent the remainder of the vacation unsuccessfully pestering my parents about sending me on a 3 day long range boat to Mexico.)
Calico bass are the size of freshwater smallmouths – about 14 pounds is the all-tackle world record. They love structure like rocks and kelp. I’ve never been able to get them out of brain; “fly fishing for calico bass” has been a popular Google search with me for quite awhile.
The weird thing is that calicos garner minimal web exposure. (Side note #2: Surf perch seem to have a fair bit of web notoriety.) Nevertheless, there are pockets of enthusiasts giving calico bass the attention they deserve. One such enthusiast is Captain Vaughn Podmore – a guide from Huntington Beach, California. So when my daughter and I started planning a trip to Los Angeles, I immediately booked a charter with Vaughn.
We actually stayed in Santa Monica, which has great beaches and teenager-friendly shops. Our calico bass adventure was sandwiched between a day of exploring Hollywood and day of surfing lessons. (Side note #3: Got pummeled by several waves during the latter.)
We were supposed to meet Vaughn in total darkness at 5:30 AM but a freeway snafu delayed us. What trip to Southern California doesn’t include at least one freeway snafu? Regardless, we pulled up to the desigated boat ramp south of LA around 6 AM.
In short order, Vaughn had us along a rocky breakwater that ran for miles along the outer harbor. Directly in front of us, stands of kelp grew close to freezer-sized boulders. Beyond the breakwater was the open Pacific. Behind us, across the harbour’s expanse, we could make out massive cranes and container ships. But the kelp and the rocks held the most intrigue; they screamed the calico bass of my past.
Vaughn set my daughter up with a spinning rod and a plastic grub. I was using an 8 weight with a type 6 shooting head. To about 4 feet of fluorocarbon leader, Vaughn attached one of his custom flies. It looked incredibly fishy, with big lead eyes and a rabbit strip tail poking out from a collar of spun deer hair and Silli legs. It was predominantly orange and tan and my first thought was how good it would look in my largemouth box.
The fly’s real magic, however, lay in its twin weed guards of 40 pound Mason mono. “Throw it right up against the rocks,” said Vaughn. ” Give it a couple quick strips and then let it sink. The weed guards will take care of the kelp. If you can get it into the lanes between strands, that’s great… But don’t stress over it.”
The fly worked exactly as advertised. But only after my daughter stung a couple quick fish. I felt fatherly pride with the first but a tinge of “daughter outfishing me” panic with the second. (Side note #4: As she gets older, I find the panic replacing the pride at an alarming rate…)
Being early March, the water was fairly cool and the calicos would often seductively nibble at the fly. But more often than not, it was a solid and decisive grab. Then the rod would double over…
And it stayed doubled over. There was no getting these fish on the reel. If they got 6 inches of line, they would be wrapped around a rock or some kelp. A typical fish was between 12 and 15 inches but they consistently pulled the rod tip down to the water. Calico bass are definitely tug-of-war champs.
The fishing was very steady and we made our way to the ocean side of the breakwater. Vaughn used an electric trolling motor to keep his 28′ center console in a rock-solid casting position. The Pacific swell was widely spaced and hardly noticeable. My daughter and I were slightly shocked to see the swell almost cresting over the breakwater. The bite continued and a whale even blew close-by…
Around 11 AM, the wind came up and Vaughn ran to the sheltered, “business” side of the harbor. On the way, we stopped for a look at some resident seals – plump and lazy and not concerned with us at all.
By this time, I had boated about 15 calicos. My daughter had actually quit after 7 or 8. She said she just wanted to enjoy the sun but maybe the idea was not to make me panic anymore?
“Welcome to the Southern California back country,” announced Vaughn as we pulled up beside some concrete pilings. There was a parking lot just off our bow and a container ship about 400 yards off our stern. I like pristine wilderness, but – truth be told – urban fishing has its own charm. Maybe it’s the idea that I’m getting away with something that I shouldn’t be doing?
After several casts and a couple grabs inside this industrial fishing haven, it was time to head back to the ramp. By 1 PM, my daughter and I were on the freeway headed toward the next tourist item on our agenda – downtown LA.
Calico bass are definitely a low profile fish in a high profile place. But they are worthy targets. Vaughn also mentioned something about a top water bonito bite in the summer… Rats, the bucket list never seems to get shorter.
Maybe when I go back I’ll hop on a Mexican long range boat as well? And maybe I’ll get up close to the surf WITHOUT a surf board; I’ll bring a pair of waders and chase surf perch instead? For sure, I’ll chase after those bonito.