Fly fishing rod, reel, and fly

The Seal Incident

And various other tugs of war off Catalina Island…

Motivation…

During a family trip to California as a 13 year-old, I went with my Dad on a party boat to wild and rocky Catalina Island. We caught plenty of pan-sized calico bass, but the star of the show was a big yellowtail that did a couple laps around the boat, picking off the live chum. A huge buzz spread over the boat as more and more anglers caught glimpses of the fish. However, nobody caught it, or any other yellowtail for that matter.

A little while later, my Dad and I were on another party boat out of San Diego. The action was spotty and every now and then someone would hook up, line melting their reel. “Bonito!” they would exclaim and soon hoist aboard a miniature tuna. Eventually, something doubled over my rod like nothing I had ever felt in lakes back home. “It’s a bonito,” said the nearby mate. The line peeled off my reel but then stopped. The hook simply pulled out and I was terribly disappointed.

All that happened back in 1975, well before I ever picked up a fly rod. Since then yellowtail and bonito have been somewhat mythical to me. And I never forgot the rugged cliffs of Catalina Island either.

Catalina Island coast

Guide…

The inevitable Google searches for “yellowtail, bonito, calico bass, Catalina Island” turned up Vaughn Podmore of Salty Flyfishing. Vaughn’s specialty is running charters to Catalina Island, which is south of Los Angeles about 25 miles off the mainland. Vaughn runs a 26 foot center console powered by twin 150 Yamahas and is a great guy to share a boat with. He is also extremely tuned in to the Catalina Island fishery.

Timing…

The summer months are prime time off Catalina Island and I fished with Vaughn for two days close to a new moon in August. Each day we left the Long Beach Boat ramp in the dark at 5:30 AM. After stopping at the bait barge for live sardines, we would make the run over to Catalina in about an hour. To beat afternoon wind, the return trip started at about 2:30 PM.

Fly fisherman holding a fish he caught

Fish…

Our targets were calico bass, bonito, and yellowtail.

Calico bass are similar to smallmouth bass in size and shape. They have a unique brown and cream colored checkerboard pattern on their sides. They don’t jump or run when they fight but they keep a rod tip buried like something bigger than they really are.

Bonito are small tuna with a cool, silvery blue appearance. However, the emphasis in the last sentence should be on tuna and not small! Bonito pull like their larger cousins and the 3 to 5 pound specimens off Catalina consistently – and quickly – expose lots of backing.

Fly fisherman holding a fish he caught

Yellowtail are yellowish green members of the amberjack family. They have tails similar to those on tuna; that says a lot about their fighting ability! The 3 to 5 pound firecrackers off Catalina find your backing as fast as any bonito and they have even more staying power when slugging it out in close underneath the boat.

Although firecrackers might make the most accessible fly rod targets, yellowtail of up to 20 or 30 pounds cruise the Catalina coastline. They have a reputation for destroying tackle on nearby snags when hooked. Regardless of size, yellowtail are generally elusive and finicky.

Lastly, barracuda averaging a couple feet long are available off Catalina Island. They might be skinny but their impressive teeth and scrappy fight make them welcome catches.

Fly fisherman holding a fish he caught

Technique…

We would run and gun along the island’s 20 mile length. Vaughn’s boat has a complete suite of modern electronics to scope out concentrations of fish. We generally stopped within a hundred yards of shore near some type of submerged structure – some rocks, a reef, kelp strands, or maybe a drop off. If the fishing at a particular spot was slow, that wasn’t so bad; it was an opportunity to gaze at Catalina’s spectacular, desolate cliffs.

At each spot, Vaughn would toss out a few live sardines and I would cast in the same general direction. I usually used a sardine imitation on a fast-sinking line, sometimes letting it sink and sometimes trying to keep it close to the surface if there were a lot a fish boiling on our chum.

For the most part, I fished with an 8 weight but if there was a strong possibility of large yellowtail, I switched to a 10 weight. I also threw an intermediate line a few times when the fish seemed close to the surface and the boils were frequent.

Fly fisherman casting off of Catalina Island

Numbers…

Day 1: 3 firecracker yellowtail, 5 bonito, 2 barracuda and about 10 calico bass.

Day 2: 4 bonito and about 15 calico bass, including one with some heft.

Highlights…

The first bonito I caught was psychic, or at least it had incredibly fast reflexes. I launched a cast toward some boiling fish and it struck just as the fly landed. I don’t know how that fish stayed on because I was too shocked to set the hook.

At the same spot as the first bonito, gangs of firecracker yellowtail followed my fly for retrieve after retrieve. The best part is that some of them bit!

Fly fisherman holding a fish he caught

The second day fishing was much tougher than the first. The first few spots were barren but then Vaughn had us anchored off a reef and some 20 to 30 pound yellowtails started crashing our chum. There were a lot of fly changes and adrenaline-charged casts but they wouldn’t bite.

A last ditch effort turned that second day of fishing around entirely. At our last stop, four casts produced four beautiful bonito. If I hadn’t decided to quit, I probably could have had more.

Oh yeah, the seal incident…

Seals were the biggest problem at Catalina Island. On several occasions, great fishing got shut down by a seal appearing boatside. One time a seal eased up to our bow just as I hooked a fish. Vaughn immediately started following the fish so I could fight it on a short line. I could see the fish flashing underneath the boat and the seal seemed to be ignoring it; I was hopeful. The fish made one last short run and I saw the seal in hot pursuit. In short order, I was hooked to both the fish and a few hundred pounds of pinniped. Vaughn wasted no time and grabbed my fly line in his bare hands. The seal soon came up to breath, loosening its grip on the fish. At that precise instant, Vaughn yanked the fly line and the bonito came loose. After a few hand-over-hand pulls on the line, it was in the boat. High fives to the captain for that one! The fish had one tooth mark near its tail; besides that, it was in great shape. Needless to say, we took its picture and gave it a hero’s send-off.
Fly fishing off California coast

Stuff to do besides fishing…

Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Balboa Island are cute places to go for a stroll and admire the pier, the boats, the waves, the sand, and the houses. There are good restaurants and all kinds of shops. Newport Beach is also bit of a hotbed for whale watching.

The nearby Channel Islands are a great place for a day long jaunt or an extended camping trip. They let you see the truly wilderness side of coastal California.

Conclusion…

Get yourself to Catalina Island. It’s a gorgeous, not-too-far-away place where you catch epic fish on the fly!

 

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