California Ocean Fishing All About Calico Bass
Calico Bass (Paralabrix clathratus), or more properly called, Kelp Bass are the mainstay of the Southern California inshore recreational fishery. This grouper-like sea bass is popular for excellent table fare and skill required hooking and landing them consistently. Easily recognized by the squarish white spots all over the fish, Calicos are the most numerous fish inhabiting the extensive kelp forests of Southern California. Any half-day party boat in the summer months will generally target either Calico Bass or their cousins, Sand Bass.
Calico Bass range in size up to nearly two feet long and 18 lbs. Any fish over about four pounds in California and seven pounds in Baja is considered a real trophy. They range from Central California to central Baja but are common only from Point Conception to Punta Abreojos. Some of the better Calico Bass spots include the kelp beds near the offshore islands in Southern California and the Mexican Islands of Guadalupe, Cedros, and the San Benitos island group. Along the coast, the kelp beds near La Jolla and Point Loma, near San Diego are the best places north of the border for Calico Bass. South of the border, along the seldom fished, desolate, Mexican coast, any of the near shore kelp forest stands can be extremely good for Calico Bass fishing. Though Calicos are predominantly a summer fish, they do not migrate and can be caught all year round near many of kelp beds. The farther south you go, the less seasonality the fish seem to show. Catching Calico Bass
Kelp Bass are voracious feeders. Many a fisherman has had the experience of tossing an 8 or 9 inch long brown bait (herring) right into the fringes of the kelp bed thinking he would hook a trophy sized bass, only to have the huge bait inhaled by an 11 inch fish (too small to be kept). Calicos readily take any of the more common live baits including anchovies, sardines, brown herring, and squid. In certain times of the year, they'll eagerly snap up strips of cut squid as well. Most Calico fishermen fly line for bass, that is use no weight, simply a hook tied to the end of the line with a frisky live bait hooked such that it will swim easily. This is gently tossed to the fringes of kelp beds and allowed to take line freely.
In addition to kelp beds, Calicos often inhabit shallow water reefs and can be caught at many of these techniques by using a sinker to get bait down into the structure. Sunken ships are great places to locate Calicos. They also frequent the seawalls in and around harbors and many bays where moorings or other bottom structure provides suitable shelter.
As for lures, many fishermen toss heavy iron, that is, candy bar or bone jigs along the fringes of the kelp beds to lure the bashful bass from their leafy homes to snap at a well presented jig. In addition, lead headed rubber swim baits, particularly the single tailed shad bodied lures in blue & silver or green and white are an excellent choice for Calico Bass. The effectiveness of such lures is improved by the addition of a long thin strip of squid to the hook of the lure. A thin strip will usually outperform a chunk, since it doesn't restrict the natural swimming action of the lure.
Some fishermen use swimming plug lures such as Rapalas, Rebels, and the like, for these bass. They take these artificial lures readily. A few private boat fishermen who use tackle and techniques very similar to fresh water bass fishing have some success, toss and crank, toss and crank, but most ocean fishermen seem reluctant to abandon their tried and true salt water techniques.
There are a number of old pros at Bass fishing that use small boats and trolling techniques running right close to rocks and underwater structure and really catch lots of quality fish. The secret is to keep your trolling line short, like maybe 15 feet or so and slow troll as close as you can to rock walls, boiler rocks, semi submerged wrecks, etc. - anywhere where there is shallow structure and places for Calicos to hide. Rapalas, jointed Rebels, and other swimming plugs are the best ticket for this type of fishing. This is not for the faint of heart and the bashed up bottoms of the aluminum boats these fishermen use are testament to the caution needed.
Kelp Bass also take flies. Larger, blue and white streamer flies imitating anchovies such as Clouser minnows and Lefty's deceivers seem to do the best coupled with a shooting head, sinking line. Though they'll sometimes boil on the surface to feed they usually prefer to stay from a few feet below the surface to the mid water depths. Calicos are ambush feeders unlike many surface fish who run down heir prey. Calicos tend to sit in cover waiting for an unsuspecting prey to happen by, so the most effective technique when fly fishing is by presenting the fly as a nervous but unsuspecting bait fish with twitchy but slow movements as opposed to fast ripping retrieves so many other ocean fish seem to enjoy.
Preparing Calico Bass
Calicos are almost universally filleted. They're rarely cut into steaks owing to their small size and low oil content. For this reason, they're generally not prepared whole since the belly meat, head, collar, and other parts contain little worthwhile. The roe is hardly worth picking out of the viscera.
Eating Calico Bass
Calico Bass is considered tops eating by many people, especially those who like extremely mild, low oil content fish. They're probably best fried since oil is added during the cooking. They're also great baked, especially when butter or olive oil is added. Sauteing is another great option since it, also adds flavorful oil. You can eat them raw as sashimi, especially if the fish is filleted and iced down quickly to tighten the meat, but it's too mild for many a sushi aficionado's palette, and it will pickle as in ceviche, but again, the low oil content makes then a bit mild for this also. For the same reason, they don't smoke very well. Stick with frying, sauteing or baking for best results.
Jeff Spira is a fishermen and writer of fishing and seamanship books. His web site Southern California Ocean Fishing offers further insights into this fun sport and has links to online sources for his books on the subject.