Casting for Fish Tales on the Central Coast

By Liz Brannan

Southern California’s coast is a tantalizing and veritable feast for the senses. Gorgeous seascape scenes flash by the car window like clips from an old movie along the twisty route known as the Pacific Coast Highway, the air thick with a briny bouquet that is special to this magical place we call the sea.

The Erna B heads toward Anacapa Island’s iconic Arch Rock. (Photo by Roland Stone)

Not far off the coastal town of Ventura, islands rise out of the water like some ancient guardian beast, keeping a close watch over its territory for the last 10,000 years as races, anglers, and animals have come and gone. Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel make up the Channel Islands, and they are an extraordinary prize waiting to be enjoyed. While the Big Blue stretching out between land and the distant islands may look like a swath of pigment left behind an artist’s brush, full of mystery and loneliness, in actuality the ocean is as busy as Union Square during rush hour. Commercial fishermen, sport fishing boats, sail boats, cargo ships, dive boats, and even tourist taxi boats are all out there attending to that timeless craft of seafaring.

My initial glimpse of Anacapa — the smallest and closest island to the coast — happened during my first ocean fishing experience. My dad asked if I wanted to join him on a charter the night before, and having no clue what to expect, I enthusiastically said yes. After arriving on the boat, I sleepily fell into my small bunk the next morning around 3 am. I woke to an incredible view of orange skies reflecting off choppy waters and Anacapa’s famous arch. That day ended with me having caught my first calico bass, a gnarly sunburn, and a passion for a sport that continues to grow every year. Learning to fish that first year was difficult; there were multiple trips where I never even felt a bite on my line, let alone caught anything, and learning to cast was horribly intimidating for me. However, I found that didn’t matter. Simply being out on the ocean answers some unspoken, primal call within us as humans. In an accidental but personally advantageous feat, I fell in love with my fishing buddy, Mike Riddell, who also happens to be a Captain.

The inevitable morning fog lifts to reveal incredible views of the Channel Islands. (Photos by Roland Stone)

While Mexico and the southern waters of the Pacific are frequently what people think of when they imagine quality saltwater trips, it is not due to chance that so many talented and highly experienced captains end up returning to the Central Coast to run fishing boats. Instead, it is thanks to the richly diverse and thriving fishery surrounding the Channel Islands. These waters have produced world record catches of halibut, white sea bass, sheephead, barracuda, lingcod, yellowtail, and salmon, to name just a few. If the water is warm enough, like it was last year, bluefin tuna and wahoo can be seen and caught in the channel.

Whether you have lived in Ventura County for 30 years, are visiting for the day, are an experienced angler or have never even dipped a toe in the ocean before, there is an incredible experience awaiting you out on the water. While I still think of myself as a newbie, during the last few years of attempting to become a better angler I have accumulated a few thoughts on how to have the best adventure possible, no matter the nature of the outing. I hope there is something here that sparks a desire in you to get out and explore this salty wilderness we call our backyard.

There are innumerable landings and boats available in the Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo County region. Beginning on the next page is a starter list to inspire your sense of adventure.

Hook’s Landing (Ventura County)

Family owned and operated with five different boats in the fleet, Hook’s Sportfishing has been providing new and experienced anglers alike with quality trips for four generations and is considered a cornerstone of the fishing community. Call (805) 382-0402 to book a trip with any of these boats and captains.

Photo by Chris Volaski

The Outrider – Owner and Captain Tucker McCombs offers specialized trips with limited loads of passengers. With the ability to sleep 13 passengers, this boat offers experienced anglers who are looking for multiple-day trips a truly comfortable experience.

The Endeavor – Also owned and operated by Captain McCombs, the Endeavor can take 24 passengers out on open-party overnight trips and is suitable for new and avid fisherman alike.

The Estella – Run by Captain Jeff Katz, the Estella goes out on shorter half-day trips and can take up to 49 passengers.

The New Hustler – With room for 25 anglers, Captain Chris Volaski offers open-party overnight trips (the boat departs at 10 pm), and private charters.

The Coroloma – Captain Volaski runs the Coroloma, as well, and offers a good three-quarter day option for anglers who don’t have time for an overnight trip. Up to 49 anglers can head out along the coast or out to the islands for a comfortable and fun day of fishing.

Photos by Roland Stone and Mike Riddell

Erna B Sportfishing – Run by Captain Mike Riddell, the Erna B ties up and departs out of Channel Islands Harbor. If you’re new to fishing, attach yourself to deckhand Shawn, who has a degree in Marine Biology and has also been working on the ocean for more than 40 years. Experienced anglers will appreciate the effort spent by the captain to get his passengers on quality fish of all species, with a heavy focus on local game fish, season permitting. (805) 382-1612

• Rich Tauber Fishing – If an exclusive trip sounds right for you, Captain Jake Klinshaw will take you and one other person out to the islands for a truly customized ocean experience. Get a dolphin’s view of the water from a fully tricked out 22-foot center console boat, and cruise around the island in style. If you feel like fishing, they have fly rods and traditional bait casters, as well. (818) 439-1154

Ventura Harbor

Island Packers – In 1968 a local family bought a boat and started hauling people out to the islands to hike, camp, and enjoy life. Today, Island Packers has three custom 65-foot catamarans in their fleet that provide a smooth ride out to the islands. Head out for a short three-hour jaunt to Anacapa to see the arch, lighthouse, and hopefully a whale or two. If something a little more hands-on is your speed, reserve a kayak and spend the day out at Santa Cruz exploring the island and paddling through the sea caves. Make sure to pack a picnic and maybe even take a bottle of wine — but just make sure the indigenous island foxes don’t eat your lunch! (805) 642-1393

Photo by Roland Stone

Santa Barbara

Photo by Chris Volaski

• Hook, Line & Sinker – Not far from Santa Barbara Harbor, Hook, Line & Sinker Sport Fishing is a one-stop shop. Head out on an open-party boat, fish with Captain David Bacon on a small charter, or browse tackle for sale while you get a rod repaired. (805) 687-5689

Patriot Sportfishing – Just an hour and a half north of Santa Barbara in Avila Beach, Patriot Sportfishing offers both open party trips and private charters. Salmon, crab fishing, and whale watching are all possibilities. (805) 595-7200

Morro Bay

Pacific Charters Sport Fishing – Owner and operator Captain Shawn Stamback launches out of Morro Bay and offers passengers a truly customized experience with availability for six people. Fish or cruise, the experience is tailored just for you. (805) 550-6448

Photo by Lenny Da Silva

• San Pedro Special Sportfishing & Marine Tours – The San Pedro Special is a 57-foot private charter boat that can comfortably accommodate novice fisherman and veteran anglers alike. Rent a rod or bring your own, Morro Bay is known for its quality rock fishing! (805) 771-5500

Advice for Saltwater Greenhorns:

• Be there early.
Most ocean excursions leave fairly early, but it doesn’t hurt to be there 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Whether you are going fishing or on a harbor cruise, you will need to sign a manifest and leave a contact number in the unlikely case of any emergency. If you’re going fishing, getting there early to buy a fishing license and rent equipment will ensure a smooth departure for everyone.

Photo by Roland Stone

• Bring a jacket. And sunscreen. And good shoes.
Southern California can see some scorcher days come summer time, but it can be chilly first thing in the morning. So can the ride back to the mainland if you’re sporting a fresh sunburn, so make sure to also pack the sunscreen and reapply — even if it’s an overcast day. And while we’re talking about things to bring, wear good shoes! Flip flops are not a good choice if you get bit by a monster fish and you need to quickly follow your line around the boat a few times. Sneakers, hiking boots, or rubber boots are all a great option and have the added benefit of protecting your feet from hooks that might be on the deck.

• Take Bonine. Just in case.
I somewhat smugly thought myself immune to sea sickness, so the first time it happened it was a bit of a shock. Now, I always make sure to have something to eat as soon as I get on board, and frequently I’ll take a Bonine tablet as well, just in case. It doesn’t make me drowsy like Dramamine does, and in my opinion it is always better to be safe than sorry. Most boats have galleys on board, so don’t be shy — order a breakfast burrito with extra bacon! If you start to feel queasy, step outside and stare at the horizon; being inside the boat only makes it worse.

• Put your phone on airplane mode.
Your phone is going to be searching constantly for a signal, which drains the battery, and there’s no guarantee that there will a plug handy for you to charge it up. You’ll want to take photos of the sunrise, dolphins, and all the fish you catch … and maybe even a selfie with the islands in the background.

Photo by Mike Riddell

• Ditch the headphones.
How often do you have the chance to be out in the wilderness without constant city noises? The siren call of waves splashing and sea lions barking inside sea caves off Santa Cruz Island aren’t something you’ll want to miss, trust me. Plus, the captain will be offering suggestions over the intercom, and you don’t want to miss out on the fish of a lifetime (or a breaching whale!) because your playlist was turned up too high!

• Listen to your captain and ask the crew for help.

Working on a boat of any type is a grueling career. The people who have chosen this as their career choice do so because it is their deepest life passion. Instead of sleeping in on a rare day off, they are up and out on the water because that’s how much they love it. If you’re on a fishing boat, the captain wants more than anything for you to catch fish and have a great experience.

Seriously, I live with one; they really and truly care. So when the captain gives you detailed instructions on where to cast, how deep to let your line run, or what bait he thinks you should use, give him the benefit of the doubt. Your success is his ultimate goal. Also, don’t be afraid to ask the crew for help! Most crew members enjoy helping teach people how to fish, and are genuinely excited for you when you start to get it.

Which leads to the awkward subject of tipping… Tipping on a boat is customary, just like any other specialized service industry, and generally, the crew lives off the tips they make. So if you enjoyed your day out on the water, whether you’re fishing or cruising or diving, show your appreciation.