As you idle up to the spot, you are greeted with one of the most unique environments and fishing experiences available. Rock walls fall into the ocean, the kelp forest twists and turn it’s way to the bottom, the water is crystal clear except for the occasional foam generated from the waves hitting the rock wall. You are taken aback by the enormity of this place until your rod nearly gets taken out of your hand. On the other end is a game fish that is so unique, so beautifully colored, yet so aggressive that a wolf pack of 10 other fish chase the fish you just hooked to get the fly out of its mouth. Head shakes, line slips out of your hand, then nothing it’s gone. One strip, two strips, boom another hit, finally you get the fish to the boat. A Calico Bass.
Calico Bass otherwise known as Kelp Bass are not related to their freshwater bass cousins even though the name says so. They are in the Paralabrax family of just 8 other species. In which 5 of them are endemic to the waters off of California to Baja. The Calico Bass has long been one of Southern Californias premier inshore gamefish and is arguably one of the hardest and toughest fighting fish pound for pound. Living in heavy cover fishing for them resembles fishing for Largemouth bass. They heavily relate to structure and are extremely aggressive. Below are 5 reasons why you should target Calico Bass the next time you find yourself in Southern California.
Image courtesy: Matus Sobolic
Need I say more. At times more than one will launch itself at your fly. With fast strips, large crease, and diver style flies these fish burst out of the laid down kelp to destroy your fly. In the summer months, warmer water, and the right conditions, these fish move up the water column which means more willingness to eat on top. Anything baitfish colored, sardine, mackerel, and anchovy. Crustaceans are also a large part of a calico’s diet making brown, orange, and red crustacean style flies a key. Unlike most topwater scenarios, you actually mess around with a little bit of lighter gear than you typically would fishing a heavy grain line.
People have been sport fishing for Calico bass for decades but fly fishing for them has gained traction in the past 20 years or so. From targeting fish along break walls and heavy hard structures most anglers pursue these fish with 300+ grain line. Big heavy flies are the norm to get to the bottom of the water column where the big fish lay in wait for an ambush. But that’s just one way to pursue these fish. With calicos being such a unique species for fly fishing the creation side and innovation door is wide open for anglers. From targeting these fish in your own unique way to creating oversized bass flies with big heavy wire hooks this fishery is just an open door for creative and passionate anglers.
Now, most wouldn’t call this ultra-aggressive fish beautiful, most would call them spunky and mean, but they truly are a beautiful fish. Their flanks boast big vertical and horizontal bars with the intermittent white spot creating a checkered look while their heads range from dark brown-black to lighter blondes and silvers depending on their surroundings. These fish get thick and broad, their fins are no different either. With big pectorals and a broom of a tail. These fish pack a punch for their size. Calicos are filled with piss and vinegar despite their beauty. With spines and sandpaper teeth these fish will make a new meaning for bass thumb.
Break out the BIG stuff! These fish are no joke. The places they live in are no joke. Bobby Harrison a Southern California local and a calico bass fly angler said that he primarily fishes 9-12 weight rods and 300-650 grain shooting heads. He also stated that “Since the fish will take you back into the structure you hooked them in, similar to a grouper, the reel is just there to hold the line.” “We never put fish on the reel, you have to keep their head turned and constant pressure, horsing them out of cover.”
Whether your fishing the islands, the local coast, or the harbors Calicos tend to live in some pretty spectacular surroundings. As I mentioned prior if your fishing the islands you will be met with vertical rock walls that drop into the ocean, endless kelp forests that house plenty of other species such as, Yellowtail (Japanese Amberjack), Pacific Bonito, Pacific Barracuda, Cabezon, and White Sea Bass to name a few. Whales and Dolphins are also commonly spotted as well as the occasional surprise of a Mako Shark. So if the Calicos are giving you the cold shoulder there are still plenty of other species to target and things to see.
Header photo courtesy: Bobby Harrison