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It’s Bass-O-Matic : Fishermen Are Excited About Big Catches of the Big Fish, Particularly Since No One Is Sure How Long It Will Last

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With conditions on the ocean fair and the bite described by most at the landing as “wide open,” Bob McCord’s charter aboard the Pacific Dawn figured to transpire a little differently than his previous trips.

The directors’ chairs that his group always brings along--to make angling for bottom fish more relaxing and, at times, downright comedic--could not be placed on the deck, he was told by the crew. The action would be too fast, they said. The fish they were after would be too powerful to battle from such a chair.

“We always bring the chairs,” McCord said, admitting they get in the way, kicked and tripped upon by anyone chasing his hooked fish up and down the rail. He did not protest the matter, especially when told the fish he would be catching are much larger, faster and physically demanding than any rockfish he was used to plucking from the bottom.

Destination: the south end of Santa Rosa Island, the latest of the Channel Islands in which white sea bass have recently appeared in large schools. The area had become clogged with squid, on which the sea bass were gorging.

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As had been the case earlier in the month off Santa Catalina Island, the sea bass had taken the sportfishing landings by surprise. Since Steve Kelly of the Island Tak first found the fish on June 17, when his 13 passengers loaded up their sacks with 17 sea bass to 50 pounds, landings from Port Hueneme to Santa Barbara were abuzz with activity.

Fishermen were stepping off boats with tales of battles against the large and powerful croakers--and carrying bags full of delicious filets as proof. Others were inquiring if what they had heard was true--that huge sea bass were there for the taking!

“The phones have been ringing off the hook; it’s been crazy,” said Rick Grant, manager of Cisco’s Sportfishing here. “People were calling Western Outdoor News trying to verify the bite.”

Nearby Port Hueneme had reported 169 fish taken in three days. The Sea Hawk out of Santa Barbara, with Merit McCrea at the helm, had taken 48 in a day.

Now, however, John Shull, the Pacific Dawn’s owner and skipper, was angry. His boat was fresh from drydock, where it was re-outfitted for his annual summertime tuna stint out of Fisherman’s Landing in San Diego.

McCord’s group was late, and Shull explained that an early start was necessary if this was to be a successful trip.

“They don’t know it’s important to be here early,” he said. “There’ll be a lot of boats going out and they’ll scatter the squid.”

Catching enough squid for bait turned out to be the least of Shull’s worries. Shortly after departure, a bright glow appeared in the darkness.

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“Those are the seiners,” Shull said. “They’re going to scoop out all the squid.”

The commercial purse seiners had found the squid. And the gill-netters had found the sea bass--a combination that can devastate a bite as fast as it begins.

Soon, lights from the Pacific Dawn and at least a dozen other charter vessels shone brightly into the water, but turned up little in the way of squid, which are attracted by light.

The squid that weren’t caught in the seiners’ nets were scattered and spooked. The passengers, using special lures to pluck the cephalopods from the water and release them unharmed into the bait tanks, managed only a few dozen before dawn’s light indicated that it was time to fish.

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As expected, the sea bass weren’t cooperating either. The Pacific Dawn took only one--of about 40 pounds--after several hours of fishing. Most of the other boats reported similar results.

It became apparent there would be no big counts of white sea bass on this day, and a move was made to a nearby location known for its variety of bottom fish. As for McCord and his group, they went straight for the directors’ chairs.

Lines were dropped to the bottom, and compliance by the fish was almost instantaneous. Red snapper and rock cod were brought over the rail. Blue bass and ocean whitefish were stuffed into sacks. A 15-pound lingcod dragged one angler halfway around the boat before being plucked by the gaff and sliced into filets.

Bags were filled, and chartermaster McCord was content with attaining his objective of merely getting away from business at his Sagebrush Cantina in Calabasas.

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“It doesn’t matter,” he said when asked if he was dissatisfied at not catching any white sea bass. “You eat, you sleep, you fish--it’s totally relaxing.”

That night, more squid moved into the area, and the white sea bass followed.

Shull reported catching several during a 2 a.m. run. “We even caught a few black sea bass,” he said. “One of them weighed about 200 pounds.”

But the seiners were still in the area, and as Shull said: “There was gill-net gear spread all through the area.”

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Another bite has since come to an end.

The white sea bass is noted for its sizzling first run on hook and line, and stubborn resistance thereafter; for its size and strength--the all-tackle world record is 83 pounds 12 ounces--and for the taste of its flesh.

It has always been a favorite target among the Southland’s saltwater fishermen. It would roam the kelp beds along the coast and just off the nearby islands. Divers tracked the large fish by listening to them croak. Fishermen using sardines would await the season eagerly, their gear and hearts ready for the species’ springtime arrival.

“It used to be that we could really count on a white sea bass run in several areas,” said Charlie Davis, author and prominent fisherman. “At the Huntington Beach Flats area, and at the San Onofre kelp. And in the spring . . . you could bank on a run of fish at Catalina every spring.”

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However, that was in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Since then, the species has fallen victim to fishing pressure from gill-netters, to the decline of California’s kelp habitat and to pollution in local waters.

But skippers and landing operators are calling this spring and early summer one of the better seasons in recent memory.

“This has been one of the best years we’ve had in over 10 years, or 15, and the longest,” said Ray Province, manager of L.A. Harbor Sportfishing in San Pedro. “Usually for sea bass, it’s one or two days and they’re gone. We had sea bass counts here for 10 days or so, and on every day we had a count. And they’re bigger fish this year. Last year, if you got a sea bass 18 pounds or so, why you had something to brag about. Now they’re bringing 40- or 50-pound fish in.”

Gary Norby, a skipper with 20 years’ experience, was one of the first to locate a large school of sea bass earlier this month off Santa Catalina Island. The passengers aboard his boat, the Outer Limits, had caught their limits by 7:30 a.m. “They were the biggest fish I have seen since 1974, when I had a similar bite in the same area,” Norby said.

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Included in some of the catches off Santa Rosa have been giant sea bass--a threatened species often referred to as black sea bass--weighing up to 200 pounds. And though they have had to be released, their fairly regular showing would appear to point to their revival.

Still, biologists are quick to point out that it would be premature to start calling the white sea bass’ recent resurgence a “comeback,” and some say the successful season merely coincides with the abundance of squid making their way into Southland waters this year.

“That’s the main reason there’s been such a good bite in the last several days,” said Dave Ono, a Department of Fish and Game biologist based in Santa Barbara. “It’s the fact that their favorite food (squid) is really concentrated out there. And I guess if the purse seiners were taking a lot of squid, it would affect the bite.”

Bob Read, a fisheries biologist based in San Diego, has been keeping track of sport catches of white sea bass for several years and said there is nothing special about this season in comparison with others.

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“That’s kind of typical of the last few years that we’ve looked at it,” he said. “You’ll have a big bite in one area, for maybe two or three weeks, then it disappears, then they’ll pick it up somewhere else. I don’t think anybody at this time knows whether white sea bass are coming back strongly. They’re in an area for a short time, then they disappear. Then they’ll show up somewhere else.”

Davis, nevertheless delighted by the excitement the white sea bass have generated throughout the sportfishing community this season, put the phenomenon in perspective: “I think it’s one of those cyclical things. Finally, Mother Nature stepped in and gave us a heckuva batch of fish.”


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