How to Catch RockFish Like a Boss

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Jason Kaefer is on a beach holding a common rockfish found in California

People are always asking how to catch rockfish!  The pacific coastline provides an explosion of fish to target. 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 of what’s 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.


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

Jason's holding a small cabezon rock fish with brown and black patterns on a beach.
A small Cabezon caught from the surf on a high-low rig and a 3 oz pyramid weight.
California State size regulations are a minimum of 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, is a federally managed groundfish.
Jason Kaefer is holding a larger blue cabezon specimen, similar to a rockfish, on a beach in Pacifica, CA.
A legal Cabezon caught from shore in Pacifica, CA.


Lingcod is a species sought by most anglers. These sea dragons are found along the pacific coast from Alaska to Baja California. Mean, hard fighting, and voracious 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 rockfish 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.

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 to crustaceans. They are often confused with grass fish due to their similar body type. But no worries, they both taste great on fish tacos! As indicated by its name, the brown rockfish 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 fishing from shore on any beach, the rules of surf fishing apply. It becomes even more complicated when you add rocky bottoms, dense kelp, large swells, steep cliffs, you get the idea. Anglers lose their lives every year pursuing this sport due to adverse conditions. I like to break it down to three fundamental things when rock fishing from shore:


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, rockfish 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.


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 baitfish 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. I would argue that structure is the most important thing 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.

A low tide like this is a perfect place for rock fishing. The long outcrop of rock reaching out behind me serves as an ideal place to secure yourself and cast out.

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 is, it provides more real-estate for predator fish to hide and the opportunity to throw swimbaits and jigs without immediately snagging. Whether your rock fishing is in Oregon, California, or even Alaska, these principles all apply.

Rockfish 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, it’s 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 hookset because it doesn’t stretch like mono or fluorocarbon, and its stronger allowing you to cut through the kelp.

Even with a heavy line, a small rockfish 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 – it’s tough, allowing you to leave it out for 30-40 minutes before re-baiting, and it gives off a strong odor, enticing a nearby fish to bite.

How to Catch Rockfish: Avoid The Obstacles

Remember, your bait will be surrounded by rock structures and kelp. If you fish in 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 freshwater streams, use a steelhead bobber and attach a size 4 hook and a piece of squid.


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

Big Hammer swimbaits are my go-to. They come in different colors and sizes. You’re objective should be to match the natural baitfish of that area like kelp greenling. You can pair the body with the appropriate jig head as seen below.

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


How To Catch Rockfish: Fishing A Swim Bait

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 swimbaits are deadly for lingcod and cabezon, and virtually all rockfish will bite also. Swim Baits can be fished from shore, from jetties, and jigged from a boat, and it’s 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 swimbait like the one above can be deadly. You can even bait your swimbait with a strip of squid for added scent.


Jason is on a boat holding a large, brown rockfish.
A Brown Rockfish caught on a high-low rig with squid and a 6 oz torpedo weight.
Rock fishing is a fun style of angling that you won’t regret trying. If you’re new to the 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. It’s a style of fishing that’s family-friendly and gets you outside and on the beach and in the surf. 









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  1. Pingback: The 3 Best Rockfish Rigs For The California Coast - Wild Outdoor

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