It's that time of year again... Spring diving in Southern California runs cold, murky, and rough. However, the draw for spearos is that the big white sea bass start showing up in the kelp beds by late February. The big females (40+ lbs) hang around and mingle for some weeks, and then gradually thin out, heading north to continue spawning as our waters warm up. We see smaller ones (up to around 20lbs) nearly year round, although they are extremely rare for us in the winter months. Premium table fare, and once extremely rare due to mismanagement in our fishery, the white sea bass stands today as an iconic Southern California game fish. I am not a champion white sea bass hunter, but I've gotten some respectable ones over the years and had the good fortune to dive with and learn from some of the best.
The one pictured on the left weighed 50lbs after having been gutted, a respectable weight although experienced local divers do take them (rarely) up to 80 lbs. She was taken on a shore dive, on April 3, 2017, from a spot not 45 minutes from my place in Hollywood. Mike Raabe put me on the fish in typical fashion; it was a Monday afternoon and I happened to be free when he called to tell me that he and friend had taken a 50 pounder at the spot yesterday, and 'would like to come along with him today?'
Which leads me to my first tip: Good intel. Cultivate relationships with knowledgeable and responsible watermen and waterwomen in your area. Attend spearfishing and dive club meetings, take a class with an instructor who dives and hunts in the area you'd like to target, and visit brick and mortar spearing shops. The internet and social media are nifty but there is no substitute for knowing your community face to face .
Second tip: Time in the water. This was my fourth dive in ten days, and every time I dove on a spot where fish had been seen or taken in the last 12 hours. White sea bass may hang around one particular kelp bed for a week or more before moving onto another one, particularly if there isn't a constant gaggle of spearos in that area hunting them, but the fresher your intel, the better. I don't ordinarily have time or inclination to specifically target white sea bass, but it had been a few years since I'd taken a big one and I wanted to serve it to our family at a wedding in the fall.
Third tip: Gear. Any respectable southern California spearfishing shop can get you properly kitted out (Neptonics Long Beach offers discounts to my students), and finer points are endlessly debated, but this particular fish was taken with a 3 band wooden mid-handle Andre with a reel and Mori slip-tip, which is a typical white sea bass set-up. Many spearos, myself included, may also hunt WSB with a vinyl floatline (but no float) instead of a reel. We use the floatline without a float in this situation because a float at the end of the line will tangle and drag through the surface kelp, whereas a naked floatline will just snake unimpeded through the water column behind the diver. Floatline should be at least 25% - 50% longer than the max depth of the kelp bed you are hunting, and the diver needs to be ready to, after hitting a fish, immediately grab the floatline and put on the brakes, causing the fish to circle and entangle.
Newer divers can especially benefit from float lines since they can be rigged 'fire and forget', are incredibly simple from a mechanical standpoint, and it is much more difficult for a diver to become entangled in a 3/8" vinyl floatline versus a skinny reel line which is bird's nesting around them in the water. I prefer to hunt my deepest spots with a floatline set-up. At the same time, the baggage of a floatline may complicate entry or exit, particularly when the surf is up (as it was on the day Mike called me), and when hunting structure in heavy currents, floatlines may hang. It's worth noting that spearos occasionally land big white sea bass with small pipe guns/reef guns, flopper shafts, and even pole spears, but these tend to be opportunistic catches by experienced divers.
Fourth tip: Be quiet and very relaxed while hunting. White sea bass have a very sensitive lateral line and can literally 'feel' approaching divers and underwater commotion. They are easily spooked by noise such as surface splashing or bubbles (many SCUBA divers can dive a lifetime in southern California and never see a white sea bass). New divers would do well to achieve flawless duck dives before expecting to see a white sea bass, and learn to inhale air from their mask on ascent to prevent bubbles.
Fifth tip: Approach and hunt from below if possible, particularly when conditions are murky. On the day I shot this fish, viz was a grainy 6' - 10', which we would ordinarily consider not worth hunting, except for the fact that we were positive that fish were in the area--Mike and his buddy the day before had numerous sightings, and on this day we could hear them croaking all around us (a deep, regular grunting that grows louder at you near the bottom, unforgetable and unmistakable once you've heard it). It can vary but white sea bass in kelp beds are usually found in the middle to upper part of the water column, sometimes even just a few feet below the surface. In murky conditions they will usually be impossible to spot from the surface but if you can go down to the middle of the water column or lower and look up, you may spot their silhouettes above you, and if you approach in a slow and relaxed manner they may not see you coming, or may not feel threatened as you approach. It is difficult to appear nonchalant and uninterested while approaching your target with a loaded speargun, but white sea bass will quickly bolt if your posture and attitude is too eager.
Good divers absolutely do spot them from above and close and land them this way, but in murky spring water this may be impossible, or if you are waiting to spot them from the surface they may simply be moving too fast and too deep to be reached in time to get a shot off. Big white sea bass seem to have only two gears--a slowish cruising speed, which can for short distances be matched and overcome by a diver, and a hypersonic speed preceded by tail boom which they exhibit when startled. In particularly murky conditions, you may have very little time to react and line up your shot since you may nearly swim into the fish--startling both of you!
Sixth tip: The big females don't really seem concerned with bait when they're spawning. While following and reading bait behavior is 101 for hunting our other game fish, spring WSB in the kelp may be present whether or not their preferred food (mackerel, squid, sardines, anchovies) is nearby. Early season fish seem to want to be in or near thick kelp. Later in the season I find more them around deep structure or wrecks, although this is usually incidental--it's more productive to target white sea bass in the kelp.
Seventh tip: Aim ahead of your target. This is tricky, and something learned from experience and observation and usually a lot of missed shots, but for most of our pelagic game fish such as white sea bass or yellow tail, if you aim for center of mass, you'll likely get the fish in the tail, if at all. A head shot or shoulder shot is always preferred--the fish will be easier to control, you don't ruin any fillets, and the bones and cartilage in the head provide ample opportunity for your spear to toggle and lock securely onto the fish. For every white sea bass and most yellow tail I have shot in the gill plate, I was actually aiming for a point in front of the fish, a few inches two half a body length (in the case of fish quartering squarely away from me). This includes even stationary/hovering WSB. They seem to feel and react to your spear leaving the gun.
Eighth tip: Just because you can shoot it doesn't mean you can land it. Think ahead before pulling the trigger and don't fire unless you are confident you can safely see this fish through to the end. If you are lucky enough to see how and where your spear landed in the fish, and know you have a good holding shot, you can 'horse' the fish--put resistance into the line, which will motivate the fish to circle and tie up quickly, even as it may be towing you. This is much easier to do if you are using a vinyl floatline. If you are not positive you have a solid holding shot, you will have to allow the fish to run, tangle up, and hopefully become exhausted and give you and your buddy an opportunity to recover it before wiggles free. If you horse the line and the shot is poor, you risk pulling the spear free and losing the fish. (Which will likely grow to world record size in your mind and haunt your dreams for years to come.)
Unless extremely confused or mortally wounded, most all fish open the throttle and head for any type of bottom cover when shot. White sea bass are commonly shot just 20' below the surface, but the biggest ones are most commonly found--at least around Los Angeles county--in kelp beds where the actual bottom is between 45' and and 75'. If shot in the kelp forest they tangle quickly, usually close to the bottom, and they will need to be cut out and before they can be brought to the surface--it will be impossible to pull them up from the surface once they have woven your reel or floatline through the kelp stalks. I cannot overstress the importance of proper safety and buddy diving in these situations; with a trained buddy nearby he or she can put a second shot into the fish to hold it if the first shot was questionable, and you can safety each other through the process of dispatching and retrieving a powerful, angry and desperate fish who, unlike you, breathes underwater. Often a shot fish, tangled in the kelp may appear as you approach to be exhausted and expired, but once the fish sees the approaching diver, she may wake up and fight, presenting a new challenge....
(End of part 1)