The Giant Black Sea Bass


J. Charles Davis, 2nd, California Salt Water Fishing, A.S. Barnes and Company, New York, 1949  

Picture and text from the author’s 1933 book — Giant Black Sea Bass

Perhaps one of the most underrated big game fish to be found in Pacific waters is the fish commonly, and quite incorrectly, called “jewfish” or the black sea bass.

To the fisherman who has taken the jewfish found in Florida and some other waters the name causes him to think of a huge grouper which has little to recommend it save vast bulk, so he shies away at the mention of it. For this he cannot be blamed but he misses some great sport by so doing.

The black sea bass of California is a true bass. Years ago when Dr. Charles Frederick Holder was pioneering big game fishing as a sport, he wrote of this fish that some considered a greater game fish than the tuna, although he went on record as saying he did not agree with this. In that he was right for, actually, there is no comparison. They are vastly different fish and it is unfair to compare them as it would be to compare a trout with an albacore. Both are great fish but they are not in the same class.

Picture a bass that weighs anywhere from a measly 100 pounds up to about 600 pounds, a bass that has all of the fighting heart of the bass family, and you have an idea of the sport in store for you when you hook one. Forgo your prejudice and take on this largest of the bass family and you will become a strong supporter of the merits of this all-too-little-appreciated fish.

Picture and text taken from the author’s 1949 book 

There are those anglers who do not like the kind of fishing needed for the catching of these big fish, and with them I have no quarrel. It is still fishing and seems slow to many who prefer to troll or to cast. It just so happens that the black sea bass is a bottom inhabitant of fairly deep waters and not always to be easily located. You have to seek out his haunts, rig for him and wait. You may be lucky and get a pick-up almost immediately and again you may go all day, or even several days, without any luck.

Your waiting will be well repaid, however, when your reel sings and you are hooked up. It is what good old Izaak Walton referred to when he wrote of “the contemplative man’s recreation,” a chance to sit and smoke, think and rest, to enjoy the quiet and peaceful life. Of course you need not spend your time awaiting the strike in idleness. You can have your big outfit rigged with the bait over, and then go to the light gear and catch smaller fish. It will not interfere with your chances of taking the bigger game.

Off Anacapa, a favorite spot for the big bass, you will find excellent whitefish grounds. The whitefish is a good bait for black sea bass, and I believe the reason so many of these fish have been taken there is because of the fact that whitefish are present in quantities. Whitefish are very game and furnish plenty of action and if they suddenly stop biting, your experienced fisherman knows this is a sure sign that the big fish are around. Nine times out of ten, it will only be a matter of minutes until your reel will give a warning sound, you’ll pick up your outfit and the battle will be on. It will be a fight that, even if you are using heavy tackle, will last an hour or more. No grouper here to haul in like a sunken log, but rather a fighting fish that won’t give up until thoroughly whipped and unable longer to continue.

It is not necessary to go to Anacapa to catch the big bass. They can be taken from barges and boats all along the coast from Anacapa southward into Mexican waters. I say Anacapa as the northerly limit because this is the known fishing ground. I believe they range much farther north but that remains to be proved when anglers seek them there. Around any of the islands is a good place to fish for them. We’ve taken them at Anacapa, Catalina, San Clemente and the Coronados; off Malibu and in Santa Monica Bay, out of San Pedro and Huntington Beach and off the Horseshoe Kelp as well as along the coast line down to San Diego. They like to be near shore, around rock piles, sunken wreckage and in or near great beds of sunken kelp.

It is my firm belief that a knowledge of the fish you seek is an important factor in the success of any trip. Giant black sea bass are true bass and have the same habits as their smaller relatives. They like kelp and rocks, they like live bait but, due to their huge bulk and consequent slowness, are not always able to catch it and so are forced to eat what they can get. The practice of anglers fishing for them with dead bait gave rise to the belief that they are scavengers and that was another thing against them. They will take dead bait, but prefer live, and if several people are fishing for them from the same boat and all but one are using dead bait the one with the live bait will get the first pick-up every time.

From barges, live bait boats and piers it is almost impossible to use whitefish or mackerel because your bait will swim about and tangle other lines and neither you nor the other fishermen will have any luck. If you have your own boat or charter a boat, you can fish for them properly with live bait.

If you do not have your own boat or do not feel like spending the money to charter one, you can still fish for them with a reasonable chance of success. Before the war when huge barges of 300 feet (and even more) in length dotted the coast line, each barge had what was known as a “jewfish platform.” This was simply an affair built out over the prow of the ship and it was reserved for “Jewfishermen.” No one else could fish there.

Legislation did away with the big barges and now only smaller ones may operate but they still have their quota of “jewfishermen” and they catch their share of fish. If you fish from one of these barges and hook a big bass, you will at once be transferred to the shore boat and can follow your fish and fight it with all the conveniences of a charter boat. It is not impossible to land a fish from a barge or anchored boat and we have repeatedly done so, but it is a lot more difficult and your chances of losing the big fish are far greater.

Let’s take the barge, pier or open boat fishing first.

You should have a heavy-tackle outfit with 9/0 reel, 500 yards of 24-thread line, cable leader of 15 feet equipped with a hook of anywhere from 9/0 to 12/0, belt socket, harness, and a lot of patience.

Attach your leader by means of the rawhide thong as described elsewhere, get a large mackerel and shove a sinker down its gullet, hook the mackerel through the lips and drop your outfit over. Allow the bait to sink to the bottom, reel up until your bait hangs about ten feet off the bottom or, if necessary, allow it to remain on the bottom. Put your reel in free spool and put on the click and wait. That’s where the patience comes in.

It is important that the reel be in free-spool because these bass are very suspicious and if they feel any drag on the line when they pick up the bait they will drop it and leave, never to return. The click gives warning of the pick-up and should be removed instantly when you get a strike.

Now fishing with a dead bait for the bass is a vastly different from fishing with live bait. The bass takes a dead bait very gingerly;n as a rule it will pick it up and move off very slowly a matter of only a few feet and drop the bait. Don’t do a thing. Wait. It may be a matter of several minutes before the bass again picks up the bait. This time it will go a little farther and again drop it. Wait. On the third pick-up get set and after the fish has taken a good run, allow it time for it to get the bait in its mouth, strike and the battle will be on. From there on it is up to you, and a matter of give and take with the bass doing most of the taking and you giving line because you have to. You can’t hold him but if there are kelp beds nearby, and there are sure to be, he’ll head for them and once in the kelp, you will probably lose your fish. If he does get buried in the kelp, wait it out. He may come out of his own accord and if you have 24-thread line you can probably come through this experience with no greater damage than increased blood pressure.

Stop him before he gets in the kelp if you can and when he wants to rest is the time to “pour it on” as the boys call it when you give him every thing your tackle will stand. You will have several runs, each probably a little shorter than the previous one as the big fish gradually weakens and, finally, if all goes well, you will whip him and have to start worrying about how you are ever going to get your catch home.

With live bait you use the same tackle, save that if you are an experienced fisherman you will probably elect to use light tackle. Many really big fish, better than 300 pounds, have been killed on light tackle. If you do break your fish off, there is no need to worry about the damage to the fish. Your pride and tackle will be all that will suffer. I’ve caught them with several old hooks in their jaws and even with pieces of leader wire hanging out of their mouths. There was an old whopper that became famous at Malibu as “Whiskers” because he had so many leaders in his jaw he looked like a catfish. He finally took one bait too many.

But let us get back to our live bait fishing. Once on the grounds you will fish with  light tackle for whitefish and mackerel and when you’ve caught your bait, put it on your big outfit and start fishing for the big fellows. You should have a sinker above your leader to hold the bait down at the desired depth; about 10 feet off the bottom. If you have been lucky enough to catch a whitefish your chances will be better and you won’t have to worry about putting on fresh bait every so often, for the whitefish is a hardy fish and will live all day, even after you have punctured its air bladder to keep it from coming to the surface.

The whitefish should be hooked on the under side back of the vent. This keeps it swimming right side up in a natural position. If using mackerel you can hook it the same way or through the nose, crosswise as you hook a sardine, or through the fleshy part back of the neck and ahead of the dorsal fin. Be careful not to hit the backbone.

Again you play a waiting game but when you get a strike this time there must be no waiting. The bass will grab the bait and start going places and you must strike and set the hook at once. The fight will be the same as previously outlined except that if you have a charter boat the skipper will lose no time in slipping the anchor and following your fish, a necessary maneuver, if you are using light tackle and a good idea even with heavy, unless you are one of those he-men type of anglers who like a good knock-down-and-drag-out fight. It’s a lot of fun but hard on tackle and has been responsible for losing many a fish.

Disposing of your catch presents a problem. several hundred pounds of fish is not something you laugh off. California law prohibits fish caught under a sport fishing license or from a sport fishing boat to be sold. You can take as many steaks as you can use and give the rest away if you happen to have enough friends to absorb a few hundred pounds of solid meat. Or you can do as one angler from Wisconsin did. When he first came to California, being an ardent bass fisherman, he went after the giant black sea bass as soon as he learned about them. He was lucky and caught one weighing around 250 pounds, had his picture taken with the catch and rushed it off to the fellows back at the club he belonged to in the days when they fished the lakes for bass.

In due time came back an acknowledgment but it was not what he had expected. Instead of paeans of praise for his prowess, here was an embossed scroll attesting that they had always thought he was a liar, but now they knew it, and hereby conferred upon him the title of World’s Champion Liar.

It did not strike him at all funny and the more he thought of it the madder he got. He determined to make them eat their words and so fished every day he could get away, determined to catch another one. In time success rewarded his efforts and this time it was a 400-pounder. He took it to a taxidermist to have it mounted. Now mounting a fish in those days went by the scale of $1.00 per pound and 400 pounds meant $400. This the taxidermist explained and suggested that, in view of the cost, he have only the head mounted.

“To hell with the cost,” boomed our fisherman. “Mount the fish and ship it to this address. I’ll show those so-and-so’s who is a liar!”

History failed to record just what the boys back at the bass club in Wisconsin did when that leviathan arrived.

Alas, the quest for giant black sea bass resulted in far too many being caught and eventually the fish was prohibited from capture. Today the fish are making a comeback, many are caught each year from piers and boats, and hopefully all are returned unharmed to the waters. Nevertheless, these old stories and the quest for the “giant” fish still bring excitement and thrill to what was and may become again some day a part of California fishing.




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2 Responses to The Giant Black Sea Bass

  1. Jcinter says:

    We have been catching and releasing giant black sea bass (GBSB) on this southern Calif pier for about 10 years. The largest one we have released was 8 feet long with weight estimated at 500 lb. It took 3 hours and 6 young guys took turn at the pole, to bring it back to the pier. The reel was a Penn 6/0 with 80 lb mono top and 100 lb braid base. I personally have hooked several fish in the 3 to 5 feet range with reels from Penn Long Beach #60 to Senator 6/0, but could not bring in some of them.
    The mostly used bait was a big chunk of mackerel on a slider lead then sits on the sea floor. When the hook was set, the GBSB will start to run to the deep, in a straight line, not stop-able by any reel smaller than Penn Senator 9/0 with 80 lb top mono. We just hopping the giant fish gets tired before we run out of line. A reel with 33 lb of drag may have a better chance not to get spooled, but the 15 lb drag reels are often spooled or line snapped after lock down.
    Yes, they have 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. winds while fighting, don’t give in unless they are exhausted with their white belly up floating on the surface. We then either cut the line or climb down the pier to un-hook them. In less than 5 minutes they were usually recovered and swam away.
    These gentle giants are respected and loved by all of us pier regulars, a true sports fish.

  2. Bryant Wilhelmsen says:

    As a kid I found one over 500 LBS. on the beach at San Clemente California. I have a picture of myself and my great fish atage 10.

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