January 31, 2018
The fly line cut the water's surface like a blade in a surgeon's hand quick, clean, and precise. While the yellowtail moved with power and speed it created a mark of linear perfection, and easily burned 90 feet away from the boat without any signs of fatigue. Just a few yards away loomed a kelp forest safe haven for the California yellowtail but a tangle of trouble for me. Keeping a smooth load on the fly rod, I arched the tip low and to my left to make the butt of my rod work against the fish, and pressure it toward open water.
The yellowtail turned back toward me and under the boat I followed by driving my rod into the water. The game morphed. No more surface runs. Only deep-water grinds. It's the kind of connection that tests your gear and your resolve. It's about using your legs. Protecting your back. Using short lifts and reeling back down.
These are lessons every trout fisherman has to learn on a jaunt to Catalina Island, and that's just landing the fish. First you have to find them. Capt. Vaughn Podmore and I were fishing the east side of the island when I hooked that yellowtail. It's a classic collection of coves, rocky cover, flats, deep shelves, and tremendous kelp forests.
Catalina's shoreline environments present a world-class testing ground for all your skills. It's a year-round fishery with four important gamefish: California yellowtail, Pacific bonito, barracuda, and calico bass. Though each species has a premier window of opportunity, there's plenty of overlap, including the chance at a "super slam" in the summer months.
California Yellowtail (Seriola lalandi dorsalis)
Without question this is one of my favorite gamefish. I've been blessed to experience yellowtail from New Zealand to Mexico, and the Catalina population plays second fiddle to nobody. These California yellowtail are robust, consistently accessible, and comprised of high-quality specimens. They're sleek packages of electrifying muscle. In general the population is loaded with firecracker models from 2 to 7 pounds but there are more than enough 8- to 15-pound beauties around to keep it interesting. Yellowtail grow well beyond 70 pounds, so the potential maximum size becomes mind-boggling to fly rodders.
Yellowtail are kin to amberjacks and almaco jacks and they exhibit the characteristic forked caudal fin, which looks like a large sickle. In contrast, their pectoral fins are quite short. The dorsal and anal fins are long and low in profile for dynamic streamlined efficiency.
They are a coastal inshore species and spend much of their time in relatively shallow water. Their migratory movement concentrates them around offshore island habitat. Catalina is a major waypoint in their migratory route that moves up Baja through Southern California. It's a perfect combination of macro and micro habitat not just for yellowtail but also for prey species like sardines, anchovies, mackerel, squid, red pelagic crabs, and more.
The yellowtail migration usually begins to show itself in March and continues a slow build throughout spring, peaking in the summer when major schools inhabit the region through September.
Pacific Bonito (Sarda chiliensis)
Locally known as boneheads or bonita, they belong to the family of tuna and mackerel. While Pacific bonito inhabit a huge range from South America to the Pacific Northwest, the largest concentration is in the stretch from Baja through Southern California.
The Catalina Island population swells in the spring when migratory fish mix with resident populations. The population peaks in the summer but if you want to target the largest specimens, you'll want to concentrate your efforts during the fall after the fish have a full summer of growing under their belts, and the population of smaller fish has thinned.
During the summer, you'll be impressed with the blistering strength of mostly 2- through 6-pound bonito, which are the perfect introduction into the tuna world. They sport a similar body shape and have similar finlets. The blue/green metallic color scheme is accented with a series of prominent dark oblique stripes giving way to a white belly.
Bonito often frequent the same environs as yellowtail and feed on the same forage so every cast has the potential to surprise you.
California Barracuda (Sphyraena argentea)
Imagine a fish shaped like a three-foot-long pipe. It's long, round, and hard-hitting. You'll hear local anglers refer to barracuda as stove pipes but let's add a few critical elements. At the front end you need to envision a long tapering snout equipped with a set of large needlelike teeth. At the opposite end, a compact caudal fin. Though it doesn't reach the overall size of the great barracuda, our California version still brings an impressive punch.
California barracuda habitually patrol the outer edges of kelp forests, and cruise atop shallow flats and reef structure. They feed mostly on smaller fish that stray from this shelter.
As a migratory group, the SoCal barracuda population travels between Southern Baja and Point Conception. The movement northward is during June, July, and August, and then reverses itself in the fall. Catalina is positioned perfectly to experience peak action in June and July.
Most of the 'cudas are 3- to 6-pound fish. Anything over three feet is a trophy fish entering the realm of double-digit weight.
Kelp Bass (Paralabrax clathratus)
Scientific journals list them as kelp bass, but most anglers use the term calico bass or just "calicos." It's an excellent descriptor to the camouflage pattern on the back and sides of this gamefish, which is a cousin of sea bass and groupers.
All of the fish in this family are built like bulldozers. The chest is thick with a short caudal stalk that powers a substantial broomlike tail. These bass can turn on a dime and they love to live in, and power through heavy cover.
Being from the San Francisco Bay Area I was brought up fishing shallow reefs and kelp beds, and I've traveled from Southeast Alaska to Mexico to savor this game. Calico bass aren't a bycatch, they are worth going after.
Unlike barracuda, yellowtail, and bonito, calicos are homebodies that are closely tied to reef habitat. Pinnacles, crevices, caves, and kelp forests are key to their survival. Getting your flies deep into these spots is essential to seeing more and larger calicos, but it's also a zone that causes line and fly abrasion and entanglement. This is the realm for a mega tug of war. You fight tight to cover. You leverage and pry away from structure. You can't fear the habitat, but sometimes it will break you.
The mouth structure of calicos allows them to capture most any edible item they want. Crustaceans big and small, a wide variety of fish, even baby octopi and squid are fair game for these bass. That's a forage base built for year-round sustainability.
Catalina calicos range from 1 to 10 pounds or more. Pre-spawn activity gets rolling from March through May, and spawn takes place during the summer months. Both fall and winter provide fly fishers with access to some of the biggest specimens of the year.
Both 8- and 10-weight rods have places for the variety of species around Catalina. The lighter rod is a match for bonito, calicos, barracuda, and firecracker yellowtail. The heavier outfit lets you handle larger fish and given the variety of sizes you'll find there, I believe a 10-weight is the best all-around outfit.
Your line selection doesn't have to be complicated. In the summer, use any tropical sinking-tip saltwater line or full intermediate line. Floating lines can produce occasionally, but sinking-tip and intermediate lines are better to defeat the coastal hydraulics, and get your flies down to the fish.
Straight leaders of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon monofilament 6 to 7 feet long are common. Tie a Bimini knot at the butt end to connect to your fly line. At the front of the leader, use a no-slip loop knot to connect to the fly. It's not IGFA legal, but it's simple and helps you land fish quickly. If you get into a bunch of small bonito, then 12- to 14-pound-test monofilament is fine.
For barracuda, use a RIO Products tippet ring at the end of the leader and then add another foot of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon as a bite tippet. Podmore believes California barracuda can be "wire shy" and prefers to merely replace the 30-pound tippet after each fish.
I know we all dig flies. We all carry way more than we need. It comes as a side effect of our fly-fishing addiction, but that's another story.
You really only need three types of flies for Catalina Island: a Clouser-â€¨style fly, a Deceiver-style fly, and a heavy streamer with pronounced jigging action. All these baitfish imitations are approximately 2 to 5 inches long on #1/0 and #2/0 hooks. Podmore's versions of these are his own VP Anchovy, the Yak Hair Sardine (olive over white Deceiver), and the Lemon Head TJ Hooker. Drop in a few squid and pelagic red crab imitations and your collection is complete.
Another piece of essential gear is a large landing net. Using one maximizes your ability to control and manage each catch with minimal impact. This isn't the place for "Shoulda, coulda, woulda." If you're a do-it-yourself fly fisher, bring your own net. It's a game-changer.
Catalina is close to Long Beach, Sunset Beach, and Newport Beach, and if you've got your own boat these are logical launch sites. The island is approximately 20 miles off the coast.
I recommend working with a local fly-fishing guide, but if that's not your style, there are numerous DIY options.
The Catalina Express operates a public ferry service out of Long Beach. In the town of Avalon, you'll be able to find lodging, food, entertainment, and boat rentals. Joe's Rent A Boat offers small powered skiffs and kayaks.
Conservation and Adaptation
Back in 1999 California enacted the Marine Life Protection Act. The act created specially designated zones known as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) with different rules and regulations. In the Catalina Island region, there are now eight State Marine Conservation Areas plus one State Marine Reserve that have undoubtedly helped preserve and in some cases restore the fish stocks in the area.
DIY anglers should be familiar with these restricted areas around Catalina. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has detailed information and maps available at wildlife.ca.gov.
It's no secret that California has been in the grip of a major drought these past few years. I've never seen anything like it. It's caused fly fishers to undertake much soul searching on whether they should take another trip to their favorite (but suffering) trout stream, or consider presenting flies to a wider variety of species in new territories. Looking west to the Pacific is a smart option during these drought cycle years.
The topography of the California coastline creates a region known as the Southern California Bight. It's the dramatic curving coastal region from Point Conception down to San Diego and includes Catalina Island. The bight has its own major currents, topography, and wind.
Here's how Alexa Johnson and the Catalina Island Conservancy describe the impact of the currents moving within the Bight. "Just south of San Diego, some of the water from the California Current swings back toward the coast and travels north up the shoreline, creating a small counterclockwise whirlpool around the Channel Islands. This countercurrent, called an eddy, creates a complex and diverse system of environmental conditions. The influence of both the cold California Current and warm Southern California Countercurrent around the Channel Islands allows for some of the richest marine diversity on the planet."
This countercurrent marine ecosystem has an immense biomass of phytoplankton. Historically, it's always been productive, but the past two years have been phenomenal.
It's hard to say if drought conditions on the mainland have contributed to outstanding ocean conditions, or if the Marine Protection Act is starting to pay major dividends, but it all adds up to an outstanding fishery not many fly fishers know about or take advantage of. Whatever the reasons, the Catalina Island fishery is now bursting with opportunity. It couldn't come at a better time.
Ken Hanley is a native Californian, a fly tier, and a licensed guide.