Captain Hook’s Gallery: Cruising for Calico Bass
When spring is on the horizon, many anglers along the northern Baja Pacific Coast take full advantage of the increasingly sunny, calm days by drifting near inshore kelp beds in pursuit of calico bass. Technically named “kelp bass,” this colorful, checkerboard patterned fish is a member of the family Serranidae (sea basses), and is also a close relative to the barred sand bass. These and other smaller members of the tropical grouper family are generally referred to as cabrilla in Baja California.
The calico, Paralabrax clathratus, is a prime target of Pacific anglers because of its great fighting spirit, as well as for the quality table fare that it provides. Although most likely to weigh between one and four pounds, these fish can occasionally reach a weight of 12 to 13 pounds when living in a natural, kelp bed habitat.
The coastal region between Playas Tijuana and San Quintin is fortunate to be blessed with thick concentrations of kelp, which are home to the calico bass, one of our area’s most prized gamefish. Members of this species will viciously attack a well-presented live anchovy, sardine or plastic artificial, and have a reputation for hiding behind the cover of kelp strands, and then ambushing unsuspecting prey as it swims by.
When fishing for calicos near kelp beds using artificial plastic baits, try starting out with colors that incorporate brown and golden hues with hologram or metal flake. It is believed that these colors most closely emulate the appearance of juvenile kelp bass, which are regularly cannibalized by larger members of their own species.
During warm summer months, calicos will often boil near surface bait schools, and bigger fish can even be taken using blue and white “surface iron” jigs that might normally be used to catch species such as yellowtail, or big barracuda. Whether using plastic or iron lures, a long rod is often another key ingredient for success, as it allows you to cast farther and get more leverage on the fish.
The colder the water temperatures, however, the more likely it is that your lure will be attacked as it flutters down through the water column. While it is possible to catch calicos throughout the year, the best action takes place in spring and continues on through late summer.
Because they are both territorial and delicious, calico bass populations have diminished drastically during recent decades, particularly in Southern California waters. Unless Baja’s coastal anglers practice great restraint, the same thing could happen here. But one simple practice could change that: When you catch a kelp bass over five pounds, it is very important to release it unharmed.
It is a known fact that large, female calicos are able to contribute millions more juveniles to help rebuild the population than can smaller bass. Fish that weigh between one to three pounds provide delicious fillets, and can be enjoyed without making as much of a negative impact on resources. Of course, responsible anglers never keep more fish than they can readily use. And if properly respected, this relatively slow growing species can offer both outstanding “catch & release” action and occasional table fare for future generations to enjoy as well.
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