Hunting the Elusive Grey Ghost - The Art and Science
About the White Seabass
The white seabass (Atractoscion, nobilis) is not a bass but a member of the croaker family and is related to the California corbina. White seabass (WSB) occur from Juneau, Alaska south to Baja California. They are usually found in areas of rocky bottom and around kelp beds. White seabass are present in California waters all year long. They spawn in kelp beds in the spring and summer. In the fall they form large schools and feed on spawning squid. In the winter they head off-shore following the squid and other baitfish. They can swim 300 miles in 2-3 months. White seabass feed on anchovies, pilchards, herring, and other fish, as well as on crustaceans and squid. The average weight of a 28-inch fish is 7 1/2 pounds. The all-tackle record is 83 pounds, 10 ounces.
The white seabass is a fish that has been much sought after commercially and by anglers. Its dense flesh is white and tender and highly valued, but it spoils quickly without proper care. White seabass landings have fluctuated considerably over the past century, with the commercial take ranging from a high of 3.4 million pounds in 1959 to a low of 58,000 pounds in 1997. The white seabass are making a tremendous comeback after years of pollution and gill netting took their toll. United Anglers assisted in getting legislation passed which now prohibits gill nets within three miles of the coastline. The Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute operates the white seabass hatchery at Carlsbad. The researchers and volunteers have raised, tagged and released approximately 413,000 juvenile seabass into the waters of Southern California since 1986.
2011-2012 California Ocean Sport Fishing Regulations
28.35. WHITE SEABASS.
(a) Minimum size: Twenty-eight inches total length or twenty and one-half inches alternate length.
(b) Season: Open all year.
(c) Limit: Three, except that only one fish may be taken in waters south of Pt. Conception between March 15 and June 15.
Where to Fish
Most WSB are caught in the “white triangle” in Monterey Bay which is from Lovers Point to Tioga Street (Sand City) to the yellow buoy and back to Lovers Point. Most fish are caught from 60 to 200 FOW. Launch points include Monterey Bay Kayaks, the Coast Guard station and Lovers Point. Other locations include the Pajaro area north of Moss Landing, Capitola (cement ship to Pleasure Point) and Half Moon Bay (south and west of the reef). All launch points are protected to some degree. The paddling distances can be as far as 7 miles one way and some of the paddling will be in darkness so this is a sport for experienced ocean kayakers. If you are going to fish into the afternoon, factor in the wind speed and direction with regard to your paddle back. There were a few instances in 2010 where kayakers needed to be towed in because of the wind.
When to Fish
The Monterey Bay season for market squid, traditionally occurs from April through November. White seabass catches have peaked from August to October the last 2 years in Monterey. Many seabass anglers believe that the best time of the month to fish is the dark of the moon and again during the full moon. These phases of the moon produce the highest tides and the most water movement. Squid activity peaks with the full moon. The two best fishing times are dawn and dusk. Another good time is the four-hour period that falls two hours before and after the high and low tides. When these four-hour periods coincide with early dawn (4:00 to 7:00 AM) or dusk (7:00 to 10:00 PM), fishing can be very good. The position of the moon can also affect fish activity with increased activity with the moon directly overhead or underfoot. Predictions based on the position of the moon can be found at http://solunarforecast.com.
Getting good fishing report information can be really helpful when deciding whether to head out for a ghost hunt. There are several websites including the Santa Cruz Sentinel and http://www.usafishing.com/ which can provide useful information. Word of mouth reports can sometimes be helpful also, particularly if you hear the same thing from multiple sources. WSB are notorious for being in one location one day and gone the next day, hence the nickname the “grey ghost”. Once you launch there are several different ways to locate the fish.
- Monitor VHF 69 for reports and intel
- Study the fleet and look for fish being caught, commercial boats, 6 pack charters and Hobie AI’s.
- Keep and eye on your sonar to look for squid (faint blue dots) or WSB (horizontal worms)
- Look for bird activity
Most use 3-4 rods or more and there are 2 basic types of rigs, fly-line and bottom. Most WSB in Monterey are caught on the fly-line so you will want to bring 2 or more of these rigs.
Rods: 7-8’ moderate/parabolic action rated 10-25# or 12-30#
Reels: 4-5:1, smooth carbon fiber star or lever drag, 250-300 yards of 30# spectra with 20-25# test top shot 50-100 yards (copolymer or fluorocarbon)
Bottom Fishing and Kelp Cutting:
Rods: 7-7.5’ moderate/parabolic action rated 15-30# or 15-40#
Reels: 4-5:1, smooth carbon fiber star or lever drag, 300 yards of 50-65# spectra backing with 3-6’ 30# fluorocarbon leader
Copolymer Top Shot: Izorline or P Line
Fluorocarbon Top Shot: P Line Fuoroclear, Seaguar Invis-X
Fluorocarbon Leader: Seaguar
Hooks: 3/0-7/0 Owner Mutu Light Circle, 6/0-8/0 Owner Aki Twist
Weights: 1/4 - 1 oz sliding eggs, 5-8 oz banana or torpedo, 1/2 - 1 oz rubber core
Lures: white/glow Sumo Jr or Salas 6X or Tady 4/0 “Seabass Special”
Kayak Rigging and Gear
Many use 4 or more rod holders, 2 forward and 2 aft. Depending on the angle of the drift, the rods can be deployed in different configurations. A configuration developed by SCxfactor and used by the Sur crew is shown below. Fishing 4 rods from a kayak is a challenge so you may want to start out fishing only 3 rods. In addition, you may want consider a mast light and navigation lights. You will also need a gaff and lip gripper (Boga preferred). WSB missions are often long paddling distances and many hours on the water so bring enough food and water. Of course you should take all of the standard safety precautions http://www.norcalkayakanglers.com/index.php/topic,27534.0.html.
Live baitfish can be used like green back mackerels, however, in NCAL squid is the predominant bait because that is what the WSB are usually feeding on. The general recommendation is that the order of squid preference is live, fresh dead then frozen. Others say that fresh dead is better than live. You can catch market squid on large sabikis but squid jigs work better. The smaller squid jigs which come daisy chained together can be particularly effective with market squid. If you see squid on your sonar or see other boats catching squid, try to jig some up. Use a heavy 8-10 oz weight so your squid jigs won’t tangle with your bottom rig and drop it all the way to the bottom then work it back up to the surface. Fresh dead squid can sometimes be purchased at the end of the old Monterey pier on weekdays and some of the Monterey markets. They can be larger and less expensive than frozen squid so use them if you can get them. Frozen squid comes in 3 pound boxes for human consumption and 1 pound boxes for bait. The squid in the 1 pound bait boxes tend to be more uniform in size but tend to float on the surface whereas the squid from the 3# boxes tend to sink. If there are birds around, a squid floating on the surface won’t last very long so an egg sinker may be needed. Personally, I have caught the majority of WSB on frozen squid from the 3# boxes so if that is all you have, use it with confidence. Two pounds of squid are usually enough for 6 hours of fishing. If you are going to fish in the afternoon also, bring 3# of squid.
Techniques and Bait Rigging
Tie a Mutu circle or Aki Twist hook to your line with a Palomar or San Diego jam knot. Hook size is dependent on the size of the squid and whether you will be fishing one or two squids. I like bigger hooks so I mostly use 5/0 circle hooks and 8/0 J hooks. Circle hooks have the advantage of getting a lip or jaw hook set and are less likely to tangle with seaweed, jellyfish, birds and seals. The Aki Twist hook has the advantage of having a higher hook rate because hook point is closer to the middle of the body and has a wider hook gap. You can also use two circle hooks spaced 5-6” apart or a single hook. I prefer using a fixed snell knot for the upper hook. I have seen others use a treble hook for the second (stinger) hook like a halibut stinger rig. I don’t use treble hooks very often for big game fishing except on jigs but I have seen a lot of WSB caught on them. If you do use treble hooks use really good ones which are at least 2X strong. The downside of 2 hook rigs are that they introduce more complexity and possible sources of failure. The Aki Twist hook doesn’t need a stinger hook because of the long shaft. If you are running 3 or more fly-lines or if the drift is fast, add a ? - ? oz egg sinker to one or more of your lines Texas rigged. Pin one or 2 squids on the hook. For circle hooks you can double pin the squid through the mantle or single pin them if the squids are alive. For the Aki Twist hook, thread the hook shaft down the center of the squid body from the mantle penetrating the quill. I use a gentle sidearm cast to get more spread between the baits but others just drop the bait into the water to avoid attracting seagulls or seals. Set your baits at 40-50’ and 75’-100’ back. If you are not fishing close to other boats you can set your baits as far as 100-200’ back. Set the drag at 25-33% of breaking strength and put the clicker on. Balloon rigging is sometimes used by boats but never used from kayaks that I am aware of.
If there is a drift, figure out the drift direction and set up the drift to cover 60-200 FOW. Set up your drift at least 50 yards from the nearest boat or yak being careful to stay clear of other lines. Some boats run lines 200 feet back so give boats a wide berth when paddling up drift. Once your lines are deployed, you need to be very quiet and avoid talking. Turn down the volume on your VHF. WSB have an excellent sense of hearing and are easily spooked when feeding near the surface. Stealth is the kayaker’s advantage so use it.
Current and drift are important to finding and catching fish. If you are not moving, you will need to create your own drift. You will need to paddle very slowly to keep your baits below the surface and usually add a 1/2 - 1 oz egg sinker to your fly lines. An alternative rigging for slow trolling is to thread a J hook through the mantle and down the whole length of the body exiting behind the head. Then attach a 3/4 - 1 oz rubber core sinker about an inch or 2 above the hook eye. Then pull the rubber core into the body cavity and up to the mantle. You can troll from 0.5 – 1.5 MPH but WSB are lazy so slower is better than faster. You can troll moving forward or in reverse. Reverse has the advantage of seeing your lines. Usually only 2 lines are used when trolling.
There are 3 different techniques to fish the bottom: in line weight, dropper loop and jig. WSB feeding on the bottom are often eating squid in combinations due to the mating activity so using 2 squids can be more effective than 1. The in line weight is one of the more common rigs in NCAL because many target halibut also. I use a 4-5’ 30# fluorocarbon leader with two 5/0 circle hooks spaced by about 5” apart tied to a 5 oz mooching weight. I use 2 squids, the first double hooked through the mantle with the stinger hook the second double hooked through the mantle with the upper hook and hooked through the head with the stinger hook. If I am getting short bites, I stack 2 squids together both single pinned through the mantle and head. A long 2-3’ dropper loop is a common rig for fishing live and dead squid. The dropper loop knot is an 80% strength knot so you may want to use a 40# leader. Another technique is the use of a white iron jig in combination with two live or dead squid pinned on. The iron jig is fished just off the bottom or 10-40 feet above the bottom. Use a 30# fluorocarbon leader about 3-5’ long with an inline swivel connecting the leader to the mainline. The jig is fished on the dead stick usually in a rod holder. If you have a lever drag, set the drag on strike with the clicker on. The kelp cutting rig with 50-65 # spectra mainline and a short fluorocarbon leader is preferred if fishing near kelp.
Fighting and Landing White Sea Bass
Your clicker will let you know when you have a fish on and the first run and drag setting will usually set the hook. If you are using J hooks like the Aki Twist hooks you can give a hook set at the end of the first run. Circle hooks don’t need a hook set. Not a particularly powerful swimmer, the white seabass reserves its power for short ambushing strikes. Once hooked they will make a few very strong runs and eventually tire themselves out and often end up floating upside down by the end of the fight. They are also notorious for strong headshakes which can result in the hook pulling out if adequate pressure is not maintained. Their mouth is soft compared to a yellowtail or tuna so too much pressure can result in pulling the hook. When they are running, let them run and when they stop, try to get line back. Be patient, keep the pressure on, and don’t adjust your drag and the victory will be yours. When the clicker goes off bring the bottom rig up first then remove the rod with the fish from the rod holder and bring in the other lines. You can leave the longest fly line in the water if it is more than 100’ from the boat since it is less likely to tangle or cut your line. I have had a double hookup by leaving the long fly-line in the water. If you are close to another boat or yak let them know you have a fish on so they can pull up their lines or move further away from you. There is an etiquette to fishing in the fleet which we need to be aware of and respect. If you have a rudder or Mirage drive, you may want to lift them out of the water. When the WSB gets tired it often comes up belly up but don’t be fooled, it may have a little fight left. The mouth is usually slightly open but not enough to get a gaff in easily so I usually back off the drag, then grab the leader and pull the fish close then get them on the Boga grip. The larger WSB have sharp teeth around the front of the upper and lower jaw so if the fish is gut hooked the line can be cut by the teeth so try to keep the line to the side of the mouth. Once on the boga grip I gaff the fish through the mouth or lower jaw and pull the head out of the water then thread the game clip through the gills and out the mouth. Once on the game clip I cut the artery at the bottom of the gills and slide the fish into the cockpit or tank-well depending on the size of the fish and pop open a beer. Game over!!!
If you are going to keep fishing, bring a burlap bag or towel to keep the fish cool. Mortality after being hooked is high so catch-and-release is not recommended for WSB. Although the WSB fishery is considered a "best choice" by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which monitors the health of fisheries worldwide, only 15 years ago they were a very rare catch in Monterey. Like all fishing, take only what you need so that our children can have the same experience that we do.
How much does my WSB weigh?
If you don’t have a 50-60 pound scale the graph below can help you estimate the weight of your fish. So here are some approximate weights: 54” = 50#, 49” = 40#, 44”=30#, 39”=20#.
Cleaning and Cooking
I scale the fish first because it makes it easier to cut and the skin is delicious. You can take the fillet off in one piece like you would on any other fish but the size of the fillet can be cumbersome. I like to make a diagonal cut right behind the gill plate then one dorsal cut the length of the fish up to the spine with a 10” scimitar blade. Then I use a 6-8” fillet knife to dissect over the spine and ribs. I start at the tail and remove the fillets in 2-4” sections which are 2-4 person servings. WSB freezes well if vacuum packed and frozen soon after being caught. The dense white meat is similar to halibut but doesn’t dry out as easily. Common cooking techniques include grilling or broiling, sear roasting and deep frying. A good marinade for grilling is shown below.
3 tablespoons soy sauce
4 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/2 lemon, juiced
What are White Seabass stones?
The WSB stones are actually called otoliths. They are used as gravity, balance, movement, and directional indicators. Scientists use them to determine the age of the fish, by counting the rings (just like counting the rings in a tree). If you get a white seabass about four feet long, the stones will be roughly an inch long. You can get them out by splitting the head down the middle with a hacksaw and picking around the cavities behind the eyes. Some people make jewelry out of them.
Lessons from the Journey
I lived in San Diego for 4 years and caught many WSB from boats in and around the kelp using live bait. From late 2009 to the end of 2010 I made 10 trips to Monterey and Half Moon Bay for WSB and didn’t hook a single fish. I did learn a lot about WSB fishing from Ken (SCxfactor) and research on the internet and in 2011, I was 3 for 6 outings including a personal best 57” WSB. Here are some things I learned that helped me turn things around:
Preparation – Many people hook WSB and lose them because the line breaks or the fish gets unbuttoned. Preparation can reduce the chance of losing a fish to almost zero. Fresh line, sharp hooks and good knots can reduce the risk of fish loss. I use a glued double uni or bimini-albright to connect the spectra to the top shot. I change the top shot and re-tie leaders after every fish. Your reels need to be in good condition. I like Cal’s drag grease and clean and grease the drag every month as well as lubricating the bearings. Presetting the drag with a scale is a good thing if you are not used to fishing 20-30# test. This is a 2 person job or you will need a rod holder. The rod should be loaded to set the drag. http://www.fish4fun.com/reel.htm#Setting%20The%20Drag%20On%20Your%20Rod I have had really good luck fishing 20# fly-line rigged with an 8/0 Aki Twist hook and set back 75-100’.
Patience and Persistence – It’s not uncommon for a complete newbie to catch a WSB on the first outing because there is some luck involved. However, people who catch them regularly put in a lot of hours on the water. I can’t tell you how many times I got there at 7 AM and found out it was a grey light bite or left at noon and then the bite turned on at 1PM. The Hobie AI team launches before 5 AM and they often stay out well into the afternoon. They also slay a lot of ghosts. I know guys who fished for years before catching a yellowtail or sturgeon. WSB are no different and you have to keep learning, trying different things and getting out there.
Positive Mental Attitude – After 10 skunks I was not very confident that I would catch one. Ken told me you have to believe you are going to catch one every time out and that is what I do now. So throw a beer in the Plano box or crate and pop it open when you catch your ghost.
There are many different ways to do things and this article summarizes what is already on the internet as well as things I have learned over the last 3 years. The intent is to give newbies a reference on where to begin. Catching the grey ghost is the pinnacle of the NorCal kayak fishing experience. I hope that all of you will catch at least one.
Tight Lines! Scott