A fish going after a lure underwater.

Calico Bass on the Fly

Article Written by Nick CurcioneArticle Read Time: 5 Minutes

Calico bass may not enjoy the star quality ratings associated with the likes of some of their west coast inshore neighbors like yellowtail, white sea bass, barracuda, and bonito. But in terms of sheer numbers, they are probably the most abundant game fish species in Southern California waters. They are the mainstay of the Southern California party boat fleet and in recent years are growing in popularity with fly fishermen. Not only are they relatively abundant, but calicos also have several qualities that make them an ideal quarry for fly fishers who like to play in the salt. They readily take a variety of offerings, they have an extensive range along the west coast (the bulk of the catch extends from approximately Ensenada off Baja to California’s Channel Islands), they’re available year -round, and make for some exciting sport on fly gear.

A man is holding up a bass.

Photo by Al Quattrocchi Photography

Somewhat like their freshwater counterparts, calicos have a penchant for hitting offerings as they sink below the surface (an experience locally referred to as ‘getting bit on the sink’). Anglers fishing plastic tails on lead head jigs must be constantly alert for a sudden, often subtle pause in the jig’s descent. With fly tackle this part of the contest is easier to react to. Since the line is directly in your hand, the slightest interruption in the fly’s downward drift is readily detected. The reaction to the take is also more direct because you can instantaneously respond and set the hook by simply pulling back on the line with a sharp strip backwards.

Calicos are also referred to as kelp bass so that tips you off as to one of their favorite types of habitat. They also take up residence along rock outcroppings (breakwaters are prime locales) and reefs and you will find them at various levels in the water column. In the winter months they tend to congregate in depths of 30 or more feet below the surface. If there is a moderate current, with a fast-sinking line, it’s possible to connect with them down to about 60-feet or so. At the other end of the spectrum, during the summer months working weed-less offerings in kelp beds can result in some explosive strikes.

A fish underwater and in kelp

Photo by Al Quattrocchi Photography

As with most inshore species, moving water typically provides the best action. Food sources are swept along in the current and predator species like calicos set up feeding stations where they can intercept their prey. If you’re fishing kelp beds an easy way to determine the strength and direction of the current is to simply observe the movement of the kelp. For example, if the kelp strands are suspended nearly vertical in the water column that’s an indication there’s little or no current and you may want to check a local tide chart. A better time to fish is when the strands are almost parallel to the surface which indicates a strong current when calicos are more likely to be feeding.

Their dietary preferences are extensive and encompass a broad range of marine edibles. Crabs and squid as well as baitfish such as anchovies, mackerel, sardines, smelt, sculpins, and Pacific tomcod are among the calico’s major food preferences. For the fly fisher that means that at one time or another you can throw practically everything in your fly boxes and connect with calicos. If I were pressed to pick a single pattern it would be a Clouser Minnow. With absolutely no idea of what the calicos might be feeding on, I would start with a simple chartreuse over white color pattern about 2 ½-inches long tied on a size 1/0 streamer style hook.  Bite tippets are not necessary for calicos. Simply tie the fly to the tag end of the class tippet. If you’re not concerned about IGFA records, you can go as high as a 30-pound test tippet strength as these fish are not normally leader shy. I like Cortland’s Monofilament Nylon Leader material and normally fish it in 16 and 20-pound sections. There are structure fish and if my fly is hung up and I have to break it off, I don’t want the leader to much over 20-pound test. Since this is predominately a sinking line fishery, a 2 ½ to 3-foot leader section looped directly to the end loop in the fly line is all you need. Fly line and rod weight sizes for this fishing generally range from an 8 to a 10-weight. Since in most cases you have to get the fly down, my lines of choice for this fishery are Cortland’s Compact Sink Type 6 and Compact Sink Type 9. If the current is very strong, I go with the Type 9, otherwise the Type 6 will get the fly to their feeding zone. The 28-foot heads make casting these lines a breeze and the intermediate running line sections is very resistant to tangles.

A bass going after a lure underwater

Photo by Al Quattrocchi Photography

Rod size for calicos is primarily a function of the type of flies you’ll be using, not the size of the fish. Most calicos weigh only a few pounds. Those approaching 10-pounds are considered a real prize. But fly selection can vary considerably, from sparse baitfish imitations to large squid patterns and heavily weighted streamers. If you’re throwing smaller patterns and there isn’t much wind an 8 weight would work fine. But for most conditions a 9 and even a 10-weight is more appropriate. Some may question recommending rods this size for fish that may only weigh a couple of pounds, but as stated above, the type of flies you’re throwing also must be considered. If you’re casting ‘groceries’ the heavier weight rods make the job easier. In addition, when fishing the kelp beds, you never know what you may encounter. There’s always a chance of tying into a yellowtail or white seabass and with a 9 or better yet, a 10-weight stick you stand a much better chance of landing it.

 This is a type of saltwater fishery where the rod plays far more importance than the reel. Calicos are more powerful than their freshwater cousins, the largemouth, but they are not noted for making line scorching runs so a reel with a top notch drag system is not necessary. However, the rod is all important. You will be casting repeatedly, and when you hook into one you need a rod with the backbone to muscle the calico from its structure strewn habitat. To do so effectively the best technique is to hand strip the line and not waste time trying to wind line and paly it from the reel. Point the rod low to the side and pull.

Nick is sitting on a boat and holding up a fish.

Al Quattrocchi with an impressive Calico Bass

Calicos can be taken from shore on foot particularly if you’re adept at scrambling over rocks, but the most productive fishing usually involves the ability to cover a lot of water. Kayaks, kick boats, and a variety of craft suitable for open, coastal water is going to afford the best opportunity for a successful outing.

In past years freshwater bass garnered the most attention from the Southern California fly fishing community and I used to refer to calicos as the ‘other bass.’ That is no longer the case as increasing numbers of fly fishers are setting their sights on this very sporting adversary.

About the Author

In addition to his former 35-year career as a university professor, Nick is an internationally recognized outdoor writer, instructor, lecturer and tackle consultant with a lifetime of angling experience. He is truly an ambassador for sport of fly fishing. Nick is especially noted for his casting expertise and instructional clinics and is one of the country’s leading authorities on sinking lines and shooting heads. He is recognized as one of the pioneers in the use of double-handed rods in saltwater. In 2011 he received the IFFF Silver King award for his contributions to saltwater fly-fishing.

Nick has been on the sport fishing show circuit for more than 40 years, where he has been a featured attraction for productions like the International Sportsmen Expositions, The Great Western Fishing and Hunting Shows, Marriott’s Fly- Fishing Fairs, the Shallow Water Expositions and The Fly-Fishing Show.

His fishing travels have taken him to a variety of locales, including all the coastal waters of the continental U.S., Alaska, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America, New Guinea and the South Pacific.

His writing credits have been extensive, with numerous articles in local, national and international publications. He has authored four fly fishing books, The Orvis Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing, Baja on The Fly, Tug-O-War, A Fly Fishers Game and The Saltwater Edge.

Over the years Nick has served as a consultant for several major tackle companies and is currently working with Cortland Line and Thomas and Thomas fly rods.

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