February 2019: Bug & Bass Combo Trip with Bight Sportfishing
Anticipation. I don’t know what it is about fishing but the anticipation leading up to a trip is enough to drive an easily excitable guy like myself nuts. This trip was no exception as it had already been rescheduled and dates shuffled around a couple times (on my end) plus now I was tormenting myself by looking at the weather forecast damn near a full week ahead of. I knew better but multiple days of heavy rains, big swells and nasty winds looked to possibly spoil plans. But being a hopeless optimist, I texted my crew that was joining in on this one and put in my heart that we were committed to seeing it through unless conditions day of absolutely shut us down.
Typically for me in years past, fishing gear is stashed away in late fall and winter revolves around snowboarding trips to the mountains. Well, this year I decided to balance my time chasing powder with the goal of spending some time learning our local inshore fishery better. To me, the biggest prize for this type of fishing is White Sea Bass aka the “Gray Ghost”. In an effort to learn this elusive species, who better to fish with then Brandon Hayward and the Bight Sportfishing team.
“What’s going on Brandon? Interested in setting up a Catalina hook and hoop combo trip, what would you recommend for that?”
“….I’d say hoop, epic lobster dinner at The Lobster Trap in Avalon, sleep, fish wsb the next morning and head home late afternoon.”
A few more texts back and forth setting up the cottage at Seacrest Inn in Avalon and the trip was officially a go. We would be fishing with Captain James Lega, who I’ve had the pleasure of “fishing” (really more of a boating trip since the day we went the fishing grounds were completely blown out) with on a Bluefin trip over summer. Just a quick side note – I can’t recommend these guys enough. Brandon and James are both super awesome to work with and really accommodating when setting trips up. True pros from both a fishing and business/customer perspective.
I always try to consider the itinerary and nature of the fishing trips when putting together my crew. For this one, I knew it required dudes who were not only fishy and willing to put in the time to try to find the right species (white seabass) but also well qualified as a good timing crew and fun to throw back some beers with. After all, this was the first trip of the new year and what else do you do when letting your hoop nets soak? My brother in law Chase and buddy Juan check both boxes and without hesitation, were in.
Day 1: Catalina Bug Crawl
Probably to no one’s surprise the weatherman was dead wrong and day of the trip partly cloudy conditions gave way to beautiful sunny skies. We quickly loaded the boat, made a pitstop at the bait barge for some fresh live squid, cracked our good luck dock beers and motored west toward Catalina.
“I had some buddies that spotted bluefin foamers just a few miles off the beach earlier this week.” Captain James noted. “Honestly, with the way the fishing has been this year, nothing would surprise me. I wouldn’t be surprised if we heard someone catching wahoo tomorrow. So, once we get outside into deeper water let’s start scanning the zone for foamers, birds, any signs of life as there’s a decent chance we could find bluefin or kelp paddy yellowtail.” No doubt we Southern California anglers are getting blessed with some unprecedented fishing.
Sure enough, as we crossed into the deeper fathom zones things start coming to life. We rolled through a pod of dolphins and stopped on a few dry paddies before spotting some life under birds. I had been watching a few birds coming together and starting to circle. Not long after saw breezing fish under. We pointed that direction but before getting anywhere near close enough to fish, they sunk out and no signs of them on the surface or sonar. A few more small spots of breezing bluefin in the 30-60lbs class popped up but were far too boat shy to actually fish. With not enough bait or time to try to shut down in this zone and properly fish, we opted to push forward to the island to get prepped for lobster hooping.
Conditions and weather were turning out to be epic. As we prepped our bait and equipment for lobster, the sunset lit up the sky orange and red. The rains and winds from the days prior had washed away all the typically LA smog and house windows from the shoreline sharply reflected the sunset rays. It was insanely clear and hard to believe that it was only us and 1 or 2 other boats that made the journey across. The sun went down, and our first set dropped. We threw on our wet gear, threw back a few more silver bullets and it was time to start pulling. Our goal was to get in 3 sets or limits, whichever came first.
Chase and Juan had never been hooping so I pulled up the first trap, but it didn’t take long to get our team’s system dialed in. We all started to rotate and quickly found our groove and started chewing through sets pretty quickly. I had seen plenty of pictures on Bight Sportfishing’s Instagram of the Catalina grade bugs but seeing firsthand was even better. We never had that “one and done” monster trap but consistent 1-2s on good size keeper bugs ensured we were going to be well fed that night and plenty after. Juan pulled the jackpot hoop with a jumbo 4-5 pounder in it. We finished up our last hoop of set 3 and ended up tallying a total of 19, 2 shy of limits.
As we passed around a flask of whiskey to both celebrate and help keep us warm, we again looked eastward to the coastline. Lights in Long Beach, Newport, and Dana Point looked like they were just a stone’s throw away. We were even treated to the Disneyland firework show, from all the way across the water. We pulled up to the dock, grabbed our overnight bags and snagged 3 of our fresh caught bugs for tonight’s dinner. I have to say, walking into The Lobster Trap in Avalon with a 5-gallon bucket of fresh caught live lobster, still soaked in our Grundens wet gear felt pretty damn salty. We dumped our bucket of bugs, opened up the Seacrest cottage, took a quick hot shower and back to the Trap for our dinner. We ordered a round of beers, cheers to a good start of the trip and dug into an insane lobster dinner cooked to perfection.
Day 2: Ghost Hunt
Maybe the one downfall about staying in the Seacrest cottage on the island is that the 4AM wakeup call felt like it came as soon as I had laid down. No doubt there is a certain level of bougie-ness with this trip that the hardcore anglers might frown upon. But at the end of the day, having a hot shower, a warm bed and a freshly cooked lobster took this trip and experience to the next level in our book.
It was a calm, damp morning with not a breath of wind when we met Captain James for day 2, the hook portion of the trip. We headed out and motored around the point to start scouting conditions and potential areas we might fish. While we waited things out to observe the currents and come up with the general game plan we were treated to a fantastic sunrise that painted the sky cotton candy pink and red.
“Oh man, we are in for a good one boys!” James exclaimed with a legitimate and authentic level of excitement only the most passionate angler could achieve. “We got a solid uphill current, so we are going to go fish one of my favorite spots. I think things are going to be good.” He wasn’t wrong.
We anchored at the edge of kelp bed in the zone we really liked. It didn’t long before things started popping up on the sonar and shortly thereafter the bite began. I think we picked through maybe 2-3 calico or other non-target species at most before we found what we came for. Chase had the hot stick right off the bat and seemingly was getting bit on every single drop. “This is a nicer fish for sure!”. The bend in his lightweight rod definitely validated that this wasn’t the same calicos we were just into. Sure enough, our first ghost was in the boat but unfortunately was just short coming in at around 24-26 inches.
We all agreed that any White Seabass we were going to take was well over the legal limit of 28 inches. I’ll admit I don’t know a ton about this species and completely green when it comes to fishing them, but I do understand the respect they command. Conservation and ensuring healthy populations are equally if not more important to me than simply just throwing them into the kill bag to brag to friends or social media that we slayed what we came for. I’m glad we all shared this same philosophy and ensured a clean release on Chase’s first seabass of the day.
Chase continued to put us all to shame with steady action on fish the rest of morning. Last summer it seemed to be Hot Hand Juan that was the first to get bit and reach limits, but this trip was definitely one that ranked as a “putting in your dues” type trip for us both. I hooked into several nice calicos and one nice but short flatty (halibut). No luck on the ghosts for anyone but Chase who managed to pull at least another 5-6 over the side. All of which were in the same grade of his first, 24-27 inches. We marked a few groups of larger grade fish that looked like small packs of Yellowtail and a few nicer grade Seabass that would have wound up coming home.
A south, southeast wind slowly started to pick up as anticipated which on top of a big long period northwest swell was going to make for a washing machine sea state later in the day. We opted to batten down the hatches and head home instead of beating ourselves up. We cruised east towards the coast, with a little live squid left in the tank. We of course had to stop on the few paddies in route but again all turned up dry. We all shot the shit and talked fishing, surfing, and mountains up in Mammoth and June Lake where James has a cabin. Again, if you have a chance to fish with Captain James, I have to say don’t pass it. He’s not only an avid saltwater fisher but an overall rad guy who splits time as a fulltime fireman, Bight Sportfishing charter captain, and all-around badass outdoorsman.
Back at the docks we took our obligatory Instagram picture with our remaining bugs, offloaded our gear and immediately started reminiscing about the trip we literally just had. The combo of lobster hooping, staying on the island and then ghost hunting the next day was definitely an extremely unique experience. Plus, it’s still only January so the seabass bite should only get better as spring approaches.
I learned a ton about the rigging, what water conditions to look for and other tactics that some of the best in business use for White Seabass but what I took away the most is this – I have a lot of work to do to be successful catching this species. To me, this a somewhat technical fishery that requires a high level of know how (and probably as importantly, know when) if you want to consistently be successful. This will only come with spending time on the water. Learning the local spots, fishing and tracking through different moon phases and then staying on top of schools when the big females roll through. I greatly look forward to the challenge and am making it a priority this winter into spring to dedicate more time to learning it.
Thank you, Brandon and James, from Bight Sportfishing for putting together such an epic trip. I get why these guys have such a high reputation in our So-Cal fishing community. Both true anglers with an unmatched passion for White Seabass fishing but just as importantly, overall awesome guys that are there to make your trip fun. The epitome of what fishing should be.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Jordan Jennings grew up boating and fishing the lakes of his home state of Michigan. Cutting his teeth on the bass, salmon, perch, and pike of local inland lakes. His passion grew into saltwater fishing on the Gulf of Mexico when visiting family in Florida. He was lucky enough to come from a family of outdoorsman who taught him fishing, hunting and the beauty of nature. Now, Jordan is a fishing fanatic that spends as many days on the water as possible chasing new species, learning new techniques and enjoying the journey along the way.
Jordan is an experienced entrepreneur and sales and marketing professional within the boating industry. He currently works for Freedom Boat Club as their Global Director of Franchise Sales, which is just a fancy title that means he’s focused on starting and growing their network of boat clubs both domestically and internationally. He is a big ambassador and believer of promoting new boaters and fishermen into our sport.