Heading out for rockfish success

Santa Cruz - Santa Cruz, CA

Heading out for rockfish success
Tuesday’s trip aboard the Miss Beth resulted in full limits of deep water rockfish such as these yellows, green-spotted and vermilions.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Michael B. Nelson

by Allen Bushnell

All the hype about deep water rockfish is true! The California Department of Fish and Wildlife approved bottom fishing beyond the historical 300-foot depths for this year and the payoff is big. Since the opener, weather and sea conditions have not been the best, with significant swells rolling through. Persistent swells do not affect fishing so much in the deep waters, but daily high winds and resultant chop and wind waves can make tings very uncomfortable, if not impossible. 
I finally got a chance to get out there this week, hopping aboard the beautiful Miss Beth from Go Fish Santa Cruz, a six-pack charter boat operating out of Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor. Skipper JT Thomas has made numerous forays to the deep this month and on Tuesday we hit one of his favorite rockpiles right on the edge of a 350 to 800 foot drop off. I was very pleased to see Michael Nelson from the Harbor staff and one of my favorite fishing companions for more than twenty years was also aboard for the day’s trip. 
Deep water is not that far out from the harbor but Thomas also headed uphill, nearly to Davenport to hit his hot spot. Skies were overcast and the seas were gray. The ride out was a little rough, but anticipation of good fishing made that nuisance immaterial. After 40 minutes of cruising we reached our goal, and set out the sea anchor to slow the wind drift. Then it was time to drop.
Using two-pound weights and fairly large reels loaded with braid, results were immediate. As soon as the weights hit the bottom, all six anglers aboard the Miss Beth were getting bites. We used regular shrimp fly jigs tipped with squid strips. Winding up from 350-400 feet takes a while but a few techniques are helpful. Using the rail or simply putting your rod into the rod holder and crank, crank, cranking was my approach. These fish do not ned any pumping action to bring up, we are basically winching with the strength of the reel itself. A fairly tight drag setting is necessary. 
A few of the fish caught were very familiar like vermilion and ling cod. But the majority that were biting at that spot on Tuesday were rockfish types I’ve not seen in decades. My favorite were the chili peppers.  A reddish orange rockfish, the chilis have a smooth aeronautic shape. The heads are smaller than most rockfish and the yield of meat from each fish is high. Also on the bite were green-spotted and greenstriped rockfish. The greenspots are mostly orange but have a nice spot on their cheek and speckles of green along their sides. Greenstriped are also mostly orange colored with a lateral line that has a greenish hue, and green patches along the side. 
All these fish were hefty, weighing from three to five pounds. Reeling two fish at a time up from 350 feet can put the hurt on your winding arm. Every single drop resulted in a bite if not a hooked fish. It was like an assembly line: drop, bite, hook, reel, lift the fish, catch your weight, rebait and drop again. It did not take long for the entire boat, to collect their limits of ten fish each, including limits for the skipper and deckhand. These deep water rockfish, especially the chili peppers, filet out cleanly, providing big filets for the fridge, freezer or frying pan. 
With the wind and waves at our back, the return trip to Santa Cruz Harbor was quick. I couldn’t help but reflect on this week’s foray being much like the first charter fishing trips I would take in the 1970s. Back then the advertisements called it “Deep Sea Fishing.” It has a special type of enjoyment all its own. 

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