Gray Ghosts: Targeting the Elusive Southern California White Bass

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Related to spotted sea trout, white bass can reach weights in excess of 60 pounds. This fish tipped the scales at 42 pounds.
Jim Hendricks

Few other fish possess the white bass mystique, especially in the minds of Southern California saltwater anglers. Shiny silver croakers rank among the most coveted saltwater fish on the West Coast. They can reach weights in excess of 60 pounds, and catching just one a fishing day sparks a breathless party among a team of anglers.

The chances of catching one white bass (the daily bag limit per angler from March 15 to June 15) or up to three (the daily limit during other times) increase in spring and early summer, as these fish follow the biomass of opalescent squid which most years visit the waters of islands off SoCal such as Santa Barbara, Santa Catalina, San Clemente, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa. Known as “bait candy,” squid becomes these croakers’ favorite springtime offering. In fact, for many days, squid – live, fresh dead, or thawed frozen pieces – is the only bait that will cause a bite.

Live squid for bait
Filling a squid tank is a virtual prerequisite for a successful springtime white bass trip to the waters surrounding the islands off Southern California.
Ron Ballanti

Fill up

With squid being the keystone to a successful trip, white bass anglers go to extraordinary lengths to fill the tanks with sweet bait. This is called ‘refueling’, and in the past it often involved spending the night wandering around the squid breeding grounds around one of the offshore islands.

Opalescent squids tend to spawn on sandy bottoms in about 120 feet of water, but they often rise up to a light source. So boat fishermen hang bright lights above and below the water to attract squid. Sometimes they form a floating school, allowing anglers to fish with a dip net or use a crowder – a wide, flat, fine-mesh net with a telescopic pole at each end. With one person on each post, the crowder is lowered down, then swung out and lifted to the surface to encircle the school before plunging the captives into the livewell.

In recent years, however, the growing popularity of this live bait has prompted a number of bait boats along the coast to catch squid in purse seines and sell them to fishermen as they arrive on the islands or bring them back to ports along the coast. so boaters can refuel before heading to the islands. A ball made from two brails of live squid now sells for around $80.

Night movements

One benefit of spending the night catching squid is the ability to catch white bass at the same time. Croakers sometimes sail near the surface just outside the ring of lights used to attract squid, eliminating stragglers who wander too far from the main school.

To catch these fish, anglers sometimes use floats to suspend squid bait 6 to 12 feet below the surface. Using a Danielson EDF 1½ Easy Drifter foam float, tie a thin rope around the fishing line using a nail to stop the line above the float pre-setting the depth of the bait. Attach an Owner Aki Twist size 7/0 to 8/0 hook and use ¼ to 3/8 ounce egg sinker that slides up the hook to keep the bait as vertical as possible under the float.

White bass could also navigate under shoaling squid; crafty anglers also drop heavy metal white jigs such as a 4/0 6 oz Tady with a single 8/0 Siwash hook with one or more live squid pinned to the hook. This mimics the spawning behavior of the squid, and when suspended between the glow of the surface light and the bottom, it can prompt a croaker to attack.

Gray ghost caught at dawn
Some of the best white bass action can occur during morning twilight, a time SoCal anglers call the “grey bite.” This also gives rise to a popular nickname for these croakers – gray ghosts.
Jim Hendricks

gray bite

Some of the best white bass action happens on the squid grounds at dusk in the morning. During the time between the first hint of light and sunrise, the croaker may feed profusely, often descending deeper to gobble up dead and dying squid from the ocean floor. This led to a popular nickname for the white bass – gray ghosts.

To target fish in the gray, anglers drop their jig-and-squid combos deeper and try to keep the jigs about 3 to 6 feet off the sandy bottom. This keeps the bait away from unwanted bottom feeders such as bat rays, guitarfish and leopard sharks.

A dropper loop platform also works well in the gray. It consists of a 10 inch loop formed by a spider hitch about 4 feet above a torpedo lead which is attached to the bottom of the platform. Use the double line of the loop to tie a 7/0 to 8/0 Aki Twist with a Palomar knot and attach an 8 to 10 ounce sinker to the bottom to keep the line as vertical as possible in the current. As with a metal jig, place the sinker well above the bottom. If you are fishing multiple rods, stagger the lines at different depths with the aim of having a spread that will catch any white bass swimming under the boat.

White bass caught in a kelp bed
During the day, white bass retreat to the shade of kelp beds, but often emerge from the weeds when coastal currents entice the fish to come out and hunt for food.
Jim Hendricks

coastal patrol

Once the sun is up, white bass often retreat to the shade of the thick kelp beds that fringe the islands. Day fishing on these spots can pay off, especially on days when a good current sweeps through the coastal areas. A primary indicator is a milky colored break extending from the edge of the kelp along a sandy beach. Croakers feed along these breaks at depths of 50 to just 10 feet or less.

Drop anchor to fish on a beautiful beach. Use a 3/8 ounce lead head with a 5/0 to 7/0 hook. You can also use a ¼ or 3/8 ounce egg sinker which slides to a 7/0 to 8/0 Aki Twist. Pin one or more squids, cast them towards the shore and slowly return the bait to deeper water.

If you are fishing a kelp bed, the water is often deeper (40 to 60 feet). Anchor about 50 to 75 feet from the outer edge of the weeds. Using the same rigs as for the beaches, cast towards the shore and let the current carry your bait downstream. At the same time, try to cover the water column using metal jigs and dropper loops to fish the mid-depths and bottom.

As you fish, chop up any remaining dead squid and put on a steady fishing line. Although this may not attract white bass, it does attract other smaller fish, and sometimes large croakers become curious and move on to investigate. If you snag bass, throw in live squid for chums, as these fish often travel in groups. If you can keep them around the boat, you might enjoy multiple hookups.

Read more : Channel Islands Fishing Bonanza

White Bass Fishing Tackle
White bass anglers gear up with 8-foot medium-action rods and conventional medium-sized lever-and-star reels spooled with 65-pound braid and 10-20 foot topshot of 40-40 fluorocarbon line. 60 lbs.
Jim Hendricks

Choice of tackle

In terms of tackle, serious white bass anglers gear up with 8-foot medium-action rods and conventional medium-sized leverage and star-drag reels spooled with a 65-pound braid and 10-pound topshot. 20 feet of 40- to 60-pound fluorocarbon line. The abrasion-resistant braid and fluoro slice through kelp stalks better if a white bass makes its way through the weeds.

Caught white bass near the sandy beach
Croakers feed along milky streamlines on sandy beaches (as seen in the background of this photo) at depths ranging from 50 to just 10 feet or less.
Jim Hendricks

The technique works best if you lower the drag pressure a little bit, if the fish is digging its way into the kelp, so the line can dig its way through. Once the fish clears the weeds, squeeze again and don’t back down until your croaker is on the gaff.

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