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Surf Fishing the Central Coast - Rockfish and More

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

As a surf fisherman, if you've been in the game long enough, you tend to settle into a pattern that's productive for you. You've got your favorite spots and your favorite tides, and a decent idea what you might catch at those tides. It's incredibly fun, but the old adage 'variety is the spice of life' exists for a reason.

Looking to switch things up, my brother and I put together a plan to spend a night up north, well north of Point Conception. We're SoCal boys, having never fished that far before. The allure of pristine blue water, prominent bluffs, and an ecosystem almost completely unaffected by human development made it an easy decision.

My brother, Kaspar, did his usual online scouting, keying in on three or four zones that we hoped we'd have just enough time to explore. Kaspar loves fishing for rockfish. Compared to Southern California, the natural architecture of the Central Coast is (on paper) better for reef dwelling fish. Taking into account what we've learned about rockfish down south, my brother made an educated guess about where the fish would be. Off we went.

After about four hours of driving, the urban sprawl slowly gave way to the scenic landscapes north of Santa Barbara County. At about five hours, we were at our first spot. It was dramatic, cliff-like. We walked down a mountain via a semi well maintained trail to find some gorgeous water: pronounced troughs with crystal clear visibility, a form of kelp we'd never encountered before, and distant wave breaks indicating significant underwater structure.

I'm more of a halibut fisherman, so I quickly ID'd a hole where I would expect to find halibut (at least in Southern California). Well, I didn't catch a single halibut on the trip. But I got bit pretty quickly!

Casting my 4.8" swimbait into a hole that had a radius of 20 yards or so, I felt a subtle tap. I set the hook. Fish on! It was a tiny cabezon. In my mind, I was like, "Cool there are actually fish here". Tide was outgoing and the amount of water in the hole was dwindling, so I opted for a quick release and kept casting. No bites for a few minutes. Then a solid thump. This fish had my drag singing for a few seconds till it dove right into the reef. I couldn't get him out, so I waded about waist deep to get a better angle. It worked! Not a halibut, but probably the biggest rockfish I've ever caught. Definitely not the longest, but it was extremely thick, and a species of rockfish that neither me nor my brother had seen before!

Big rockfish cruising through a small hole

My brother took the photo, we rejoiced, and he continued prepping his rod for bait & wait. He hadn't made his first cast yet. I kept working the hole. After about half an hour with no more activity on swimbaits, I went to check on my brother who by this point had made his way to the prime rockfish stretch (per his scouting). He was actually pulling up a very small rockfish just as I got there. It was no trophy, but the colors were unlike anything we've caught down south.

Black and Yellow Rockfish; New species for us

While hanging out with my brother, I noticed there were some fish bones next to me on the rocks. They actually seemed to be bones of several different fish, one of them clearly bigger than the rest. Very cool! We rarely see this kind of stuff at our local beaches.

Head of a large cabezon; I'd estimate the fish to have been well over 20"

Over the next hour, my brother caught several more rockfish of the same species, none of them very large. The bite slowed to a halt around low tide, so we decided to walk several miles down the beach and really explore. It was absolutely gorgeous.

Starfish at low tide; Hard to miss with those colors
Dramatic structure typical of the Central Coast

Unfortunately, there were no fish. We felt that there should be fish, but this being our first trip to the Central Coast, we were more than happy soaking up the natural beauty and just learning.

We began our two mile walk back to the car.

A chiton; Found in a tidepool at low tide

At the car, we decided we had enough energy to quickly check out a couple of more spots before the sun set.

Fishing all the way till last light

My brother caught several more of the same rockfish species at the second spot. I didn't get any more bites anywhere. Guess the halibut bite up north is not what it is down south (at least in Winter).

One of a handful of black and yellow rockfish; All under 12"

We went to the hotel, exhausted. It was the kind of exhaustion you welcome: your body is broken, but you feel good and ready to get at it the next day. Though it was only one day's worth of fishing, it already felt like an adventure.

Since we only had time to fish the morning the next day, we went back to the spot where I caught that big rockfish. Tide was higher so there was more water in the hole. Unlike the previous morning, my swimbait was getting no attention. Changing things up, I cast shrimp into the pocket, and immediately got bit.

First of many striped perch on the day

We never target perch. But there were so many of them! These were the first striped perch we'd ever seen; the bite wide open.

My brother with a bigger model

We actually didn't know what kind of perch they were until we looked it up. There must have been dozens of them schooling, immediately picking at the bait as it hit the water. No other species came to play. After a couple of hours, it was time to go home.

We barely scratched the surface of the Central Coast, but early signs are promising. The experience was incredible, and it's one of the cheaper vacations someone from SoCal could experience.

Even if you don't intend to fish, I very much recommend spending a day or two up there. Go out and explore!

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