How to Catch RockFish Like a Boss

Are you looking to try rock fishing for the first time? The pacific coast-line provides an explosion of fish to target.

Grass Rockfish like these are abundant along the Highway 1 coast. We caught this guy on a high-low rig size 4/0 hooks with squid.

If you’re fishing from shore or jigging from a boat, there are some proven techniques that will guarantee hookups.

But first, let me give you an idea whats swimming out there.

Rockfish species

From Lingcod to Yellow Eyed Rockfish, there’s no short supply of tasty, fun fighting fish along the Western coast.

Cabezon can reach 3 feet in length and weigh up to 24 lbs. Females grow larger than males.

A small cabezon from the surf – caught on a high low rig baited with squid. 3 oz pyramid weight below.

California State size regulations are minimum 15 inches to keep. Cabezon (Cabs) are open year round to shore anglers and closed from January 1st to March 31st for boaters.

Cabezon, like other species dwelling near or on the bottom, are a federally managed ground fish.

Lingcod are a species sought by most anglers.

A lingcod from the surf. Caught on a high low rig with squid.

These sea dragons are found along the pacific coast from Alaska to Baja California.

Mean, hard fighting, and veracious hunters, their diet consists of fish, typically greenling, but virtually anything that swims is on the menu, including squid and octopus.

They’ll even grab a rock fish as you’re reeling it in and hold on all the way to the surface ( They call it a hitchhiker.)

California regulation is a minimum of 22″ to keep with a bag limit of two.

So where can you you find them?

Well, your best chances are from a boat. But some, like the one pictured above can be caught from the rocky outcrops along the shore.

Grass Rockfish These fish reside on rocky bottoms and can be found in shallow water -good news for us anglers, as we have access to them from shore.

Grass Rockfish (grassies) can be identified by their olive green complexion, and dark markings along their flanks.

Pictured above is a grass rockfish caught on a high tide at Pescadero State Beach

Due to their heavy, compact bodies, grass rockfish are hard fighting and fun to catch. They largely feed on crustaceans and other smaller fish.

Brown Rockfish Like the Grass rockfish, browns are commonly located on rocky bottoms and have a similar diet of crustaceans. They are often confused with grass fish due to a similar body type.

But no worries, they both taste great on fish tacos! As indicated by its name, the brown rock fish will have varying shades of brown on its body.

There are dozens of other rockfish species you can catch from shore or a boat, but these four above are pretty common in both scenarios.

Rock Fishing From Shore

When you’re fishing from shore, you have to remember three things:

Swells are waves that are caused by wind friction, and are measured by their height. You want to look for ideal conditions, as you’ll be standing on rocks, cliff sides, and rocky beaches, so the threat of large waves wouldn’t be fun.

If the swells are rough, the fish will have difficulty honing in on your bait. Remember, rock fish like to stick to one place, so getting your bait close and keeping it there is essential.

Your bait and/or lure can also be swept into rocks causing you to snag. Check online before your trip at both tides and swell.

Tides can range from high to low. A rule of thumb is to fish the incoming tide. This you can also check online.

Try to begin fishing a few hours before the high tide – this will bring the fish in as they feed on crustaceans and smaller bait fish hiding in the rocks.

Boulders like these are scattered everywhere and are entirely visible at low tide.

When the tides recede, so do the fish. They can feel the pressure as the tides move and sure enough, they will follow it.

Structure I would argue that structure is the most important things to look for. All of the species I discussed above require structure both for protection and ambushing prey.

Depending on the structure, you may need to adjust your technique.

This is a beach at low tide with an outcrop of rocks behind me. Try casting toward these rocks or even climb out on them and cast from there.

Look for rock structures like the one pictured above and cast near them.

Rockfish like to hide along rock walls and boulders, and once you get your bait near them, the smell of squid or fish should entice a bite.

However, pictured above is a tide of about 3-4 feet. Ideally, you’d want a deep hole of about 8- 15 feet. This will allow you to practice more rock fishing techniques.

The reason being, it provides more real-estate for predator fish to hide and the opportunity to throw swim baits and jigs without immediately snagging.

Whether your rock fishing Oregon, California or even Alaska, these principles all apply.

Tackle Set Up

Your techniques will depend on whether you’re fishing from shore or a boat.

Shore fishing often requires that you fish in shallower water. This increases your chances of snagging.

Understand that you’re going to snag often, its all part of rock fishing. So bring backup gear ie extra surf leaders, weights, and hooks.

With that said, bottom fishing can be effective using a high-low rig with a 2-6 oz weight.

Rod – 6-8ft medium heavy rod with 50-130lb.

Line – Your main line should be at least 40 lb. Braided line will give you a better hook set because it doesn’t stretch like mono or fluorocarbon, and its stronger allowing you to cut through kelp.

Even with heavy line, a small rock fish like the one below can feel like a giant.

Weight – This will depend greatly on the swell. If the water is rough use a heavier weight. I like to have 3-5 oz pyramid weights in my box at all times.

Rig – High-low rig or surf leader and 40-60 lb test. Another option would be a feather rig or shrimp fly rig – this is a high -low but with a little flare.

Pictured above – a Farallon Feather Rig or shrimp fly rig.

Hooks – I would recommend size 2-4 bait holder hooks barbed.

Bait – Squid outperforms most baits – its tough, allowing you to leave it out for 30-40 minutes before re-baiting, and it gives off a strong odor, enticing a near by fish to bite.

Obstacles

Remember, your bait will be surrounded by rock structures and kelp. If you fish shallow water, be aware that your chances of snags are high, so stick to organic bait on a hook.

Shallow water at an incoming tide will have large amounts of kelp also.

What you will see at a medium to low tide along the Highway 1 Coast.

Pictured above is a medium tide. At high tide this area would be mostly underwater and better for fishing.

When reeling in, pull back hard as though setting the hook, and begin reeling fast with your tip straight up. This will bring your rig up and over the rocks and kelp, lowering your chances of snags.

Avoid the snags

You can also use a bobber to stay above the rocks. Just as you would fish fresh water streams, use a steelhead bobber and attach a size 4 hook and a piece of squid.

Lures

Now the fun begins – lure selection! When fishing deeper water, swim baits are a no-fail option.

Big Hammer swim baits are my go-to. They come in different colors and sizes. You’re objective should be to match the natural bait fish of that area like kelp greenling.

You can pair the body with the appropriate jig head as seen below.

A swim bait pictured above is ideal for fishing from shore or jetties.

How to fish it

When fishing from shore, cast out and let it hit bottom. When you feel the hard, rocky bottom, begin retrieving at a moderate pace, occasionally allowing the bait to fall back to the bottom.

These swim baits are deadly for lingcod and cabezon, and virtually all rock fish will bite also.

Swim Baits can be fished from shore, from jetties, and jigged from a boat, and its this versatility that attracts seasoned anglers.

Rock Fish Jig Set-Up

Although shore fishing can be fun, nothing beats jigging from a boat.

Simply put, Jigging is when you drop your bait down to the bottom, reel in a bit to clear the rock or reef, and jig your bait up and down to entice a bite.

This is the technique you’ll use if you take a charter boat out. Jigging can be done using swim baits and/ or feather rigs but if you want to be specific, try swim baits for larger, more aggressive species, and don’t be shy to increase the size.

A 7″ Christmas color swim bat with a 4oz jig head.

When targeting large lingcod or cabezon, a big swim bait like the one above can be deadly. You can even bait your swim bait with a strip of squid for added scent.

A brown Rockfish caught on a high-low rig

Rock fishing is a fun style of angling that you won’t regret trying. If you’re new to techniques above, I would suggest reserving a spot on a charter boat.

Here, they’ll provide all the necessary gear including rods weights and bait.

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