Load up on grubs, swimbaits and intestinal fortitude, boys and girls, the boiler-rock Calico bite is at DefCon 4 this month throughout the Santa Barbara Channel.
While the unquestioned glamour species of the Santa Barbara fishing fleet — white seabass and yellowtail — are on-again off-again visitors here in October, the humble calico is a sure thing…as long as you have the guts and boat-handling skills to keep you and a squadron of chunk-and-winders within a couple of boat lengths of disaster, without becoming part of the landscape.
"Boiler-rocks bassin' is my absolute favorite thing to do, but there's an element of risk and danger to it," admits Capt. David Bacon of WaveWalker Charters. "You're out in the Islands next to magnificent cliffs, with surf exploding off the boiler rocks while you're making hundreds of casts, trying to put a bait into a small little space between two rocks. The most practiced, skilled people that come on my boat are almost calico specialists. It takes some skill."
It also takes some heavos. The best calico bite comes on a strong swell, when calicos are aggressively feeding on bait that's been stirred up by the pistoning hydraulics of waves beating against the rocks, so boat handling is the key to scraping calicos out of their hidey holes without having to scrape yourself off the side of an island.
"It begins and ends with boat positioning," Bacon says. "Somebody has to stay on the helm at all times, because it's dangerous. You have to stay within a couple of boatlengths — sometimes as close as a boatlength — of the rocks, so once I'm on the helm, I never take my hands off. I'm operating stern propulsion, slowly moving the boat along the rocks and allowing everyone an opportunity to cast at every spot."
You'll find calicos around every island throughout the SoCal Bight, typically on the north or west ends of islands, where a strong prevailing northwest swell stirs up a bait boullabaise of anchovies, sardine, perch, squid, etc. Just like largemouth, calicos hunker next to structure until a perceived food source comes into view, at which time they have to make a decision: to eat or not to eat.
"That bass is hunkered down in the rocks, looking up for food, trying to recognize it and make a killing decision," Bacon says. "They'll make the decision to chase a bait down within 6 feet of the rocks, or they'll hunker down and wait for something else to swim by."
Boiler rock fishing is a marathon of casting, so 7 to 9 feet of high-quality, medium-action graphite and a 3000 or 4000-size spinning reel or 30/300 baitcaster spooled with 20-pound braid is as heavy as you need to go. Bacon prefers 4- to 7-inch GULP! Swimbaits or GULP! curly-tail grubs on ¾- to 1 ½-ounce jigheads.
"When the swells are really big and you have a lot of surging water, go with a bigger (swimbait) body," Bacon advises. "The fish has to see the silhouette. If there's a lot of surging white water, a bigger body makes the silhouette easier to see."
Think similarly when you're choosing colors. While green, blue, red and brown are basic can't-miss colors, subtle shade differences can change the way a calico reacts in varying light conditions.
"In low-light conditions like in the morning or when it's foggy, I'll go with a subtle, light smoke-colored bait with a dark back," Bacon says. "As the sun comes up and light penetration increases, I'll use more baits with metal flake. Calicos will be looking up against a bright background, so I like to use baits with something that reflects the light prism for them. We'll go past a spot and send brown, blue and red into the same area, and sometimes they won't react until they see the red one. I don't mind changing up colors often."
Editor's note: Based in North Puget Sound and operating from Alaska to Baja, Joel Shangle has been a news junkie on the West Coast saltwater scene since the 1990s, first as editor of California Fishing & Hunting News' and now as editor of California Sportsman, which hits newsstands in October. He's the host of Northwest Wild Country, a popular fishing and hunting radio show airing throughout western Washington, and has the deepest source list this side of the Library of Congress. In other words: if you're catching fish on the West Coast, just try to get away from him.