Join Date: Apr 11 2009
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San Diego Long Range (A New Twist)
This is a log from an 8 day skiff/kayak mothership trip. Pete Wolf of Big Hammer wrote the log in June and I thought it would be of interest to avid anglers everywhere.
The 2009 Big Hammer Skiff Trip
5/29/09 - 6/6/09
A Great Plan: The best fishing trips are always last minute. This was no exception. Pete at Big Hammer sent me an email a week before the annual Big Hammer Skiff Trip on the Qualifier 105 was set to leave. Through some twist and turns of fate (I didn't take a planned vacation due to jury duty, and Nico had just quit his job to start a new job) we decided to pull the trigger and go. Phone calls went out to friends for advice and loaner gear, last minute orders went in to Tacklewarehouse.com and by Thursday evening after work we were on the road - stopping overnight in Santa Barbara - then heading on to San Diego at 4am Friday with Pete and several thousand Big Hammers in tow.
Travel Time: Loading the Q105 Friday morning we found a very light load of 6 kayakers and 9 skiff-anglers. Our captain was Joe, with Cal, Alan, Travis, and Tim driving skiffs and working deck along with Cappy, and Chris as our cooks. The weather forecast looked great and the seas were greasy calm as we loaded a couple hundred scoops of sardines at the bait dock. Half the guys tossed out Big Hammers and started fishing right then and there. Pencil barracuda and some 3lb sand bass were caught and released. By noon we were all set on bait and headed south to our day one destination - the Sacramento Reef.
At sunset the boat slowed and Joe said we were going to stop on a kelp paddy. Everyone scrambled for rods as the crew tossed bait. You could feel the adrenaline pumping as "fresh one" was called in the corner. It turned out to be 5lb yellows. Not what we were after but a good sign to start the trip. All of the fish were released and we continued south.
Fishing Day 1 - Sacramento Reef: We woke to high fog and flat seas with a decent breeze. The skiffs launched and headed to the reef. Nico and I were on the big boat. The crew set up and chummed the kelp for calico, vermillion rockfish, ling cod, whitefish, and a variety of critters. The bass were quality with everything in the 3lb plus range. Best bass on the big boat was probably in the sixes - everything was on Big Hammers. The 'Hot Karl' color was popular with this reefs' inhabitants. Nico caught a nice ling and we killed a few vermillions for boat lunch the next day. It was a fun morning with consistent action.
The skiffs reported low numbers of bass but outstanding quality up in the canopy. I believe big bass that day was an 8.6lber. It sounded like everyone who was out got fish in the 5-7 range. Unfortunately some commercial panga guys ran us off claiming that the reef was private property (obviously false). Captain Joe did the right thing though by avoiding any confrontation and leaving the area.
With a half-day to kill we headed out to some 40 fathom rockfish stuff to get a few more reds and starries for boat lunch. Pete brought a giant squid to the boat on an iron and several people had holes cut through their baits by the tentacled beasties. Since we had no use for squid, the crew knocked them off the hooks. No water cannon fights on this trip. Next stop was a spot called Canoas around sunset where we fished from the big boat for sand bass and bottom critters. The sand bass fishing was pretty **** easy although the wind made the drifts very fast. I caught them good on the Rob's Bluegill color 5" Hammer. We're thinking of renaming that one 'sand bass spectacular'. Ha. The sand bass were nice quality, 2 and a half to 5 pounds.
That night we ran to the lee of Cedros.
Fishing Day 2 - Cedros Island: By now I was pumped to get in the skiffs. Nico and I were on the morning run with Alan our skiff driver. First cast I caught a 3lb calico on the fourth turn of the reel handle. Bass fishing on the North end of Cedros continued to be great this morning. We didn't have much in the way of size but the numbers of bass up to 4lbs was terrific. Between Nico and I we probably had 60 bass.
While working through some 2lb bass mid-way through our run, Alan hooked up on a 5" Calico Hunter Big Hammer and we turned to watch the 65lb braid melt off his reel. Keep in mind that until this trip Nico had never caught a yellow, and the biggest one I'd ever caught was all of 10 pounds. When Alan's spool emptied nearly to the bottom in less than 30 seconds, we were impressed! Alan worked the fish through several kelps to the boat and I put the gaff to a stud yellow in the high 30lb class.
Our fishing intensity was increased by about 11 notches after witnessing this. The yellows showed on the surface a shortly after that hookup and we chased them but had a hard time getting close. Alan made a terrific cast with a Starman 112 iron and whipped another 35+ yellow to the boat. Alan owns and operates the El Capitan and the Pronto (overnight boats out of San Diego) and it was a real treat to fish with someone with his level of experience.
On the big boat for the afternoon fishing was slow but the yellows did show right at sunset on some huge meatballs of bait. Cappy the cook hung one on a Salas 7x and another passenger broke one off on iron. They were the same big grade of fish. The skiffs did ok on yellows with the evening runs getting 2 or 3 fish per boat. Alan hooked and landed a 55lb yellow on surface iron during this late afternoon run. This was the largest fish of the trip.
When we quit fishing at dark I was bummed that I hadn't hooked a big yellowtail, but I slept soundly knowing that with five more days on the water - good things would happen.
Fishing Day 3 - Cedros Island: Nico and I had the morning run this day with our driver Tim. Ten minutes in to the day Travis' skiff radios that they have a triple on yellows. We run in his direction and stop on birds about 400 yards short. What followed was the stuff of yellowtail dreams with GIANT yellowtail crashing around the boat and devouring our baits. We hooked 16 on our skiff, landing 10. They ate Big Hammers and iron indiscriminately. My first fish was on a Tady 45. It made a huge swirl 40' from the side of the boat and I started winding. By the time I caught up the fish was 50' to the right of where it hit. What power and speed these fish have.
Nico's first or second fish ate a Tady 45 so close to the boat I think we all jumped. None of us were watching (including Nico) but it made a bowling ball style explosion shooting water 6' in to the air - turned and smoked 200' of 40lb off Nico's Trinidad with horrifying speed. Unfortunately that one got through the kelp and broke off. I got savaged as well, breaking off one on 40lb mono and another on 50lb braid. Tim boated a monster 53lber with us that morning on a shad 5" Big Hammer. I put 5 on the boat on Big Hammer and iron to 38lbs and Nico got 2 with both fish in the mid-30's. We had nothing in the boat under 30lbs. That skiff was barely moving on the way in from all the weight.
During the melee, one of our 30 pounders had a huge fish with it free swimming - easily 50 pounds. I have no doubt that some of the fish we lost were in that range. You just couldn't stop them in the first 200 feet of the run, and by then they all found kelp stringers. When Tim got his 53 pounder it was only after he locked the drag and drove the skiff away from the fish trying to yank it out of the kelp or break the line. He got it out. Having never experienced anything like this before, we had a few things to learn about fighting the fish - but overall I felt like we did OK to get what we got. The skiff drivers and crew knew how to get these big ones but we were more in the 'holding on for dear life' mode.
A fun side-story about Tim's 53 pounder; He had borrowed the bait from me in the morning after seeing some silvery colored baitfish in the water and asking if I had anything like that. The bait I gave him came from the same 30 pack of baits that I caught my 18lb largemouth on back in 2003. The color used to be called Prizm Shad, but is just called Shad now. What a testament to the power of the Big Hammer that the same bait could catch a 53lb yellow and an 18lb bass.
That afternoon we ran out to some offshore reefs in the big boat and picked three 15-20lb class yellows. I got two of them on the 5" shad Big Hammer. They had been chewing well in the AM, but were picky in the PM. They didn't want iron but a good cast with a 5" Big Hammer was enough to entice them.
Later in the afternoon we did another skiff run with Travis and had fantastic calico fishing starting on some boiler rocks where Nico boated an obese 6lb 9oz bass and followed that up with long drifts for numbers of bass and a sweet little bite on surface iron at sunset. I landed my biggest bass of the trip on a Hammer at 7.0lbs on this run. We had a number of 5-6lbers on iron and Nico kicked a 35lb class yellowtail's butt on a Tady 45 to cap the night.
Pete had a lifetime day this day, landing a 45lb yellow off a boiler rock on bass gear and a 9lb calico, both personal bests. There were smiles all around the dinner table this night. If the trip had ended right here I would have been 100% happy but there was much more to come.
Fishing Day 4 - Cedros Island: We had the big-boat shift this morning and Capt. Joe took us out to the offshore reef where the 15-20lb yellows were hanging. We pulled in to a solid bird work and proceeded to slaughter the fish while drifting and chumming. With only a few guys on the big boat you could run down the rail and fire on boils or screw around with light line or whatever you wanted to do. My first fish was on a Shimano Torsa 20 with a tuna rod and a Salas CP-105. Since everyone else was hooked up at the same time I bounced it over the rail. Hilarious to boat flip a 17lb yellow!
After it became obvious that these yellowtail had brain damage and wanted to die we started screwing around with the experimental lures. I tossed out a D.A.M. saltwater style popper and a fish came crashing across a wave to eat it. The fish was hooked for about 20 seconds before it pulled off. Before I could say "bent out 2x strong hook" another fish ate the popper underwater and came to the boat. Pete put a Rapala Risto Rap on (balsa) and we both watched it get eaten at boat-side. He manhandled the fish to the gaff and the lure came back so destroyed that I know it will sit on his desk at Big Hammer for years to come. There was one hook point left out of the original six when it was gaffed.
The MS Slammer got a half-dozen bites for me but I only had one hook on it so they kept coming off. It was the kind of wide open fishing where you didn't care about the missed bites. Nico had some strikes on a Miki (striper lure) but they didn't stick either. Cal was trying to get bit on a spinnerbait but not having much luck hooking them. It seemed like they were going after the blades. I wound up gaffing people's fish and taking videos since there was no need to kill too many. We put about 50 fish in the RSW by the end of the melee. If everyone had yo-yo'd with 50lb we could have had 200. Great times.
For the mid-morning skiff run Nico and I swapped with Pete and his skiff partner Rob. Rob and I fished with Tim in some shallow coves and had a few nice bass but nothing major. The bite had definitely changed. We chased birds and found calicos and sandbass but no yellow. There were some brilliant green colored 4 pound calicos in the eel grass up on the beach. I caught a small halibut and a small seabass on this run to add to the variety. Nico and Pete had some 6lb bass during their run if I remember right.
The afternoon session found us back on the big boat making drifts through deeper kelp around birds. The fishing was picky but there were some nice bass caught. One fat 5 and a half pounder sucked in my CP-105 on a fast grind. The big yellows were showing but boat shy. Nico nailed the only one of the afternoon on the big boat on a chrome/blue Tady 45 after laying a great cast right to a boiling pod of fish. It was a 30lb class fish. That was the highlight of that run. Since the bite had dropped off we headed to Benitos.
Fishing Day 5 - Benitos Island: Benitos is a beautiful and rugged volcanic set of small islands situated north east of Cedros. We woke up and found small nocturnal seabirds roosting all over the boat and hiding under the kayaks. What a cool feeling to be in a place so remote that the birds have no fear of man. The crew picked them up and set them loose.
I was anxious to get to the skiffs and sample what several people told me is the best calico fishing for numbers of 5+ calico anywhere. But first we fished the big boat for the morning run, picking small bass in deep water and looking around for condition. The bass were deep and the fishing was scratchy.
For the mid-morning skiff run we fished with Cal and worked some deep kelp where he had just had a great flurry with Pete and Rob on 5-7lb bass. Pete said he had a wolf pack of 20 big calicos on his bait all taking shots at it. We didn't relocate those fish but Nico did hook a yellow trolling a Big Hammer through the big boat's chum line (it got to the rocks and broke off). The yellows at Benitos were 20 pounders.
From there we headed to a little spot called buoy cove where Pete had caught his (until this trip) personal best calico off a boiler. We hit that boiler and had the best run of big bass of our entire trip, landing a half-dozen bass from 5 to 6+ pounds in about 20 minutes. I had a real good one hooked in the white wash but it pulled off. Wish I could have seen that one. This was the most exciting heart-pounding calico fishing of the trip for me. When you cast your Hammer two feet from the boiler and know that in a few cranks a big checkerboard is going to smash it - that's fun. These bass were dark black/orange like the rocks they lived in, and when they hit your Big Hammer - there was no question.
We wrapped up the action with Cal poking around the deep kelp and stumbled in to a foamer of 7-9lb bonita which resulted in an instant triple hookup on iron. Good entertainment there to cap off our skiff run. The other skiffs had a few yellows and reported generally slow calico fishing - but great quality on the ones that did bite.
After that skiff run it was back to the big boat for a tour of the island to look for condition. We stopped once on The Boiler (an offshore rock) but didn't find anybody home. Capt. Joe decided to head back to Cedros in the afternoon since the condition at Benitos wasn't producing the bass fishing he was hoping for. We stopped offshore at Cedros at sunset but the yellows didn't go. I still thought it was a great day.
Nico and I tried some night fishing at Cedros that night but didn't find any nibblers. We were hoping for a big grouper but gave up and went to bed after half an hour.
Fishing Day 6 - Cedros Island: Capt. Joe knew that the offshore reef yellows were on an AM bite and some of kayakers hadn't had the chance to pull on any yellows yet so we headed out there at sunrise. The fish did not disappoint and went off like clockwork on their suicidal bite. There were times when everyone at the rail was bit. Just epic yellowtail fishing.
After roping one in on surface iron I went straight to the experimental stuff and put my MS Slammer back on with both hooks this time. It took a little while but finally a nice yellow smashed my bait at the side of the boat. The fish ate the bait so deep it bled to death on the way to the gaff. Pete got a yellow on the 3" Big Hammer and I'm pretty sure Nico got one on a Miki. Great way to start the day. Yellows were stacked across the deck by the end of the drift.
The mid-morning found us mid-way down the lee of Cedros with the best weather of the trip. We fished with Tim, checking deep shallow, and right up on the rocks. Fishing was slow for some reason although we did find one beach that was holding halibut. Nico had a 20 pounder chase his bait to the boat after short-striking and we had several other definite halibut bites that didn't stick. We picked away at a few tiny calicos on the 4" Big Hammer to keep us entertained.
The kayaks did well on the bass here, landing good numbers to 4-5 pounds, and the big boat saw some signs of the bigger yellows with Capt. Joe getting a 25lber on a Big Hammer. Back on the big boat we set up to drift halibut and put two small ones on. I got one on a dropper loop. Then Cappy hooked up on the bottom with a dropper loop on a 30lb class yellow and some birds started acting suspicious along the beach.
Capt. Joe said, "this place is about to go off" and no less than five minutes later giant yellows erupted off the corner. Chris hooked one on a Salas 7x and Joe called in the skiffs as more fish began crashing the surface up and down the beach. The skiffs arrived and the bite went off. From the big boat it was hard to get a cast on the fish (these bigger grade fish were pretty boat shy) but we had our chances. Nico landed a 33lber on a Big Hammer and I followed up with a 35lber a few minutes later that took me all the way around the boat on bass gear.
The skiffs had 6 to 10 fish per boat, with all of the fish in the 30-38lb range. We watched Cal's skiff get a triple hookup 100 yards off the bow of the big boat. A great run to end our time at Cedros. We left the island at sunset and headed to San Martin.
Fishing Day 7 - San Martin Island: I do believe that our captain had an itch to scratch with the halibut so we rolled up on the lee of San Martin at 9am and commenced drifting with dropper loops from the big boat. Being a lover of flat brown fishes I was stoked to be there because San Martin has a reputation for big halibut. The first one over the rail was a 17lber and that was followed shortly by a 32 pounder. There were some 6lb sand bass and some 5-7lb bonita caught as well.
We drifted here for a few hours, putting four more halibut on the boat. Steve (the guy who caught the 32lber) had the hot hand caught two more 25lb+ fish. I got one small one around 12lbs. It was a fun way to end the trip. We packed it in around noon and drove north, breaking down gear, cleaning up, and enjoying the stellar turkey dinner put together by the cooks for the last night.
The Road Home: We hit the dock at 6am and commenced the fish sorting process. Between Nico and I we kept 18 yellows and 2 halibut. My Tundra was riding low in the back with over 400lbs of fish and 100+ pounds of ice. After a stop at Jamon's house in Dana Point to drop off loaner gear and a fish, and a stop at Wal-Mart to look for a vacuum sealer (they don't sell them) we arrived in Santa Barbara.
I'd arranged with the crew on the Stardust in Santa Barbara to cut our fish and was **** glad to have done it. They were just coming off their trip for the day and charged their regular yellowtail price of $5 per fish. We came away with over 100 pounds of great quality fillets courtesy of Luke and Dane, packed it on ice and headed north. If you're ever passing through King City, El Taco Bravo is where you want to stop for $5 burritos and extra garlicky salsa - just an FYI.
10pm found us at the house where we vacuum sealed and re-bagged fish until midnight. I bought a freezer for this trip and am looking forward to many more yellowtail dinners to come. Not to mention the happy friends, neighbors, and co-workers. There was nearly a foamer at the refridgerator in the break room at my work when I brought in the quart sized ziplocks full of yellowtail on Monday.
The Gear - What Worked: We followed Pete's advice on gear and felt very well equipped.
For the Big Hammer fishing, my favorite setup was:
Okuma Guide Series Swimbait Rod 7'11" XH - Shimano Calcutta TE 400 - 50lb Triple Fish Braid
65lb braid works fine as well. 50 just gets you more line capacity and a little more casting distance. We used the Trilene knot to attach the line to the lure and had good success. No superglue needed on the knot. My only break-off on a yellow was with 200+ feet of line out and I suspect the fish just found something sharp or had me through so much kelp that the line abraded.
For surface iron, a good 9' jig stick is in order with 40lb mono. I was using:
Calstar 850M - Shimano Trinidad 20DC - 40lb Triple Fish Mono (perlon) clear
The 8 and a half footer was on the short side for good casting. You could fish 30lb or 50lb, but it seemed like 40lb hit the sweet spot. I tied the jig on with a San Diego knot. Alan was using a piece of 58lb single strand wire on his jig and it seemed to work well - generating more action from the jig and allowing you to cut through some kelp. The rig went mono -> split ring -> split ring -> wire -> jig. I'd consider that for future trips. The Trinidad Digital Control reel was a slick little setup. My casting with iron is not that great and it felt like the computer assisted casting really helped with distance and (more importantly) with the backlash control.
For yo-yo fishing a 7 or 8' heavy action rod with 50 mono seemed about right. We fished with:
Shimano 6' tuna rods - Shimano Torsa 20 - 50lb Big Game green
We were over-gunned for the yo-yo fishing, but it was fun. If the big grade yellows had been eating it I may not be saying that though. Those Torsa reels have insane gearing. I caught some of the smaller grade yellows on the Torsa and they didn't pull a single foot of drag! When we fished sand bass on the first fishing day I was being lazy and dropping down my yo-yo jig with this rod and it was great - the only problem was that I kept ripping the lips off the fish when I went to reel them in. Oops.
Tackle wise, I'd break the fishing down in to three categories:
Swimbaits: 3 to 6.5" Big Hammers all worked. The yellows preferred baitfish patterns like Rainbow Trout, Mackerel, Shad, or Baitfish although a few of the fish caught close to the beach were on the red/orange patterns. The 5, 5.5 and 6.5" models all got bit by the big yellows. If I were to pick one bait for yellows I'd fish the #13 Baitfish in 5.5" on a 1oz head.
For bass it seemed like the browns and reds were working well along with the baitfish colors. Calico Hunter red flake is hard to beat. Hot Karl caught a lot of fish on this trip as well. A red or yellow leadhead is good and you want a selection of 3/4 to 1.5oz heads. For the smaller bass a 5" bait seemed best since you didn't get as many short strikes as the larger sizes. When the bigger calicos were chewing - size didn't matter a bit. If it came down to one bait for bass I'd toss a 5" Calico Hunter Red Flake on a red 1.5oz jighead.
Pete had recommended bringing 125 baits per person, but we found at the end of the trip that we'd only used 40-50 baits each. If you superglue the head you can get 6-10 bass per bait no problem. With the yellows you either hook them in the lip and they destroy the bait rampaging through the kelp stringers, or you hook them inside the mouth and the bait is just fine. With the braided line we used 10-12 heads the entire trip. You lose a few but no many. Fishing the Hammer is definitely cheaper than senko fishing for largemouth.
Iron: From the big boat I'd have two jigs; a Salas 7x (which I didn't have on this trip) for surface iron, and a Salas CP-105 for yo-yo fishing. When the grande sized yellows showed around the big boat you had to make a long cast and keep your surface iron down a few feet below the surface. From the skiffs you were closer to the water so the Tady 45's didn't tend to plane to the surface as much. I'd have a selection of 45's along with the 7x and the Tady Starman 112 (which is also called a Candybar) for the skiffs. Pete also had good success with a Kicker Candyman SS from the skiffs.
Blue and green colors worked the best for yellows by far. Turquoise and teal colors in particular. Nico did well on chrome and blue. Bass were less picky.
Bait: 4/0 Mustad hooks and a selection of torpedo sinkers from 3 to 12oz is about all you need. There's just no other way to fish halibut on a fast drift in 70' of water but you will want to catch them once you see the first 20 pounder go over the rail.
Things I forgot: Neosporin, hydrogen peroxide and tape that will stay on when wet. Hands take a beating on these trips. By the fourth day, my hands just hurt in spite of the fact that I wore good gloves the entire trip. Washing your hands with the anti-bacterial soap on the boat takes the sting off after handling fish.
A good scale would have been nice to have as well. My old Stren 50lb scale ripped apart on the first day when we put a 30lb yellow on it. Nico's 55lb Salter Digital worked great.
The veterans brought folding chairs for the back deck. A must have item for long evening runs between islands. Something to read might have been nice too.
Special Thanks: Mark Rogers at Okuma for the swimbait rods and the encouragement to pull the trigger and go. Dan Thorburn at Shimano for the loaner outfits and for waking up early on Friday to get it all to us. We felt like true tackle ho's with Trinidads and Torsas on the rack. Jason Diamond for his advice on yellowtail irons. The Salas CP-105 is a good piece of metal. Luke and Dane on the Stardust for sticking around to cut fish for us. Jamon for helping get the gear back to Dan on the ride home. Joe, Cal, Alan, Tim, Travis, Cappy, and Chris on the Q105 - what a stellar crew. And of course my wife Summer who let's me go fishing way too much. Can't say enough there.
Would you do it again? In a heartbeat.