The chart on my wall resembles a veritable treasure map of coastal Los Angeles. An artificial reef here, a submerged pipe there; green shading for kelp, red for restricted zones. Most of these are confirmed structure; others are just rumors heard from a friend of a friend—some high spot or wreck that has defied the rigor of modern charting. Real or not, what these places all have in common is calico bass. And for those that fly fish in Southern California, calico bass are gold.
Thick and mottled like a smallmouth, the calico takes its adopted name from the pattern of gold and brown that runs its flank. Its real name, the kelp bass, is derived from the green underwater forests in which it so often resides. I began fly fishing for calicos from a SUP, paddling out to reefs and breakwalls with my 10 weight and a few sculpin patterns in hand. If I hooked into a big fish, I’d be in for a sleigh ride.
Los Angeles calico bass
These days, I target calicos mostly at night. As another local guide whispered to me a few years ago, “You haven’t fished that spot till you’ve fished it in the dark.” It only took one trip to verify—working the trolling motor on my boat nervously around submerged rocks in the dead of night, big fish emerged from spots that seemed sterile during the day.
WHEN AND WHERE
SoCal offers a year-round calico fishery (we have our weather to thank in part for that). Tactics change slightly by season, but the fish are typically willing. Best yet, you can find them around most harbors in the region. While our local islands offer world-class bass and dramatic views, the inshore scene can be just as productive. Some brave souls even chase them on float tubes.
Unsurprisingly, structure is king. Breakwalls comprise the prime calico habitat in and around our harbors, while kelp forests, reefs, and “boilers” offer the best shots at inshore and island fish. Calicos will stay as tight as possible to each of these various pieces of refuge, and so you would do best to do the same with your fly. As is the case with most types of saltwater bass, big tide swings, ripping current, and pushing water make for great calico sessions.
These fish can be targeted during the daytime, and particularly at the islands, this approach can be fruitful. That said, my typical inshore program occurs long after the sun has gone down, when the larger fish are more comfortable leaving their lairs. Half-pound bass in these spots have a habit of being replaced by counterparts many times their size in the darker hours.
Particularly at night, the speed of the retrieve (or lack thereof) is often key. Cast tight to structure, remove slack, and strip as slowly as possible, letting the fly fall through the water column with the slightest tension. Many times, these fish will take your fly on the drop, so keeping the retrieve to a minimum can be essential. This makes sense when you look at some of the calico’s main forage: sculpin and pelagic red crab, the latter of which tends to be crushed by gamefish as it drifts and sinks in the currents.
When the calico hits, it will do so like a freight train. I’m so often surprised by the power of a one pound calico, let alone a six or seven pounder. There’s never time to get on the reel—in fact, that’s a sure-fire way to lose the fight. Strip-set, come tight, and horse that bass in faster than it can bulldog its way back into the rocks. If the calico does get back into structure, your leader won’t last long before it’s rubbed apart on the rocks. I’ve seen a lot of hooked fish become “rocks” in a matter of one or two seconds. This fish knows how to use its home to its advantage, and chances are, it’s been caught before. A seven-pound calico might be 20-25 years old.
The author with an older fish caught on an artificial reef
To throw the heavy sinking lines and big, weedless flies that are required to get down to these fish, my favorite rod for calicos is the Exocett SS 350. It has the perfect amount of backbone to keep the fish out of the rocks and bring them to hand, and it makes throwing 3/0 bugs with sculpin heads a breeze. Though I have seen these fish gorge on red crabs at the surface, sinking lines are always the name of the game. You have to be able to get deep.
I like to fish five to six feet of 20 pound fluoro for my leader. Calicos are not leader-shy, but go any heavier than 20 pound, and you will have a difficult time breaking off when stuck. Beyond being an annoyance, this can get downright dangerous when an attempted break-off swings the trolling motor towards the rocks.
T&T Creative Pro Noah Rosenthal with a healthy inshore calico
Flies follow the same consideration as leaders: always go weedless. Big sculpin patterns with heavily-weighted heads are the popular choice, and without stout tags of 100 pound mono weed guards, these flies will jam you in rocks and kelp within a cast or two. You will lose some smaller fish who are not able to push down the guard, but in general, the bigger fish will commit and stick. Besides the weighted head, the most important consideration is volume—these flies must push water and lots of it. A thick upper body and tapered tail always works well, and when in doubt, go bigger. Many a calico has taken a fly more than half its size.
Regardless of your mode of transportation, gear, or location, there is one piece of advice that always holds true for calico bass. As the notice on the front of the Two Harbors dock at Catalina Island reads: “SLOW TO GROW, SO LET THEM GO."