Calico Bass Description
Calico bass (also known as kelp bass) live in kelp forests primarily in Southern California and Baja. They are a scrappy fish that averages about 1-3lbs and maxes out in the low double digits. They hit hard for their size and if you aren’t careful they will go back in the kelp and wrap up your line. I have fond memories of scrambling on rocks in Southern California and Baja Mexico trying to find good spots to cast for these guys. Later on I fished for them from party boats in Southern California and pangas in Baja.
Calico bass taste good but they are slow-growing so I generally release them. You can handle them easily by grasping their lower jaw similar to what you would do with a largemouth bass. They have larger teeth than largemouths so if you plan to handle a lot of them you might consider wrapping your thumb with a bandaid or some special tape created for this purpose so your thumb doesn’t get shredded. They have sharp spines on their back so be careful with those.
Calico Bass Tackle
I usually use a medium weight saltwater baitcasting setup. I like to use a 7′-8′ rod rated 15-30lbs and a good baitcasting reel with a fast retrieve ratio like a Daiwa Pluton or a Shimano Curado. I always use braided line as this can sometimes cut through the kelp if the bass go back in there and wrap you up. A 30lb-50lb fluorocarbon leader can be useful sometimes if they don’t bite straight braid. If you are not fishing next to the kelp you can get away with a 12lb or 15lb leader.
Calico Bass Techniques
Calico bass can be readily caught on both bait and lures. You can catch them from shore, but like most fishing your chances are better from a boat. Chumming with small anchovies is an effective method of getting them in the feeding mood if you have a large bait tank. Once they are actively feeding near the boat you can cast either lures or bait to them.
Calico Bass Lures
Calicos readily bite a number of artificial lures that imitate small fish but I have caught most of my Calicos using 5″ plastic swimbaits. My favorite ones are made by a company called Big Hammer. I like them in Halloween, Mackerel, and Sardine colors. You just attach them to a lead jig head of 1/2oz-1oz or so and cast them into the kelp. Let them sink a bit and then retrieve them steadily. When something bites, set the hook immediately and crank like crazy to get them out of the kelp before they wrap you up. Don’t fall asleep on the sink as they often get bit while sinking. A weedless leadhead can help reduce snags in the kelp. You should vary the time you let them sink until you find the water depth at which the fish are hanging out.
I have had some luck catching Calicos on Krocodile spoons when they are feeding on anchovies. However, I usually prefer to fish plastics because the single hook makes for an easier release.
In the last few years many expert Calico anglers have used large plastic slugs to target the trophy fish. I have not tried this yet but I plan to next time I go to Baja.
Calico Bass Baits
For smaller Calicos one of the best baits is a live anchovy. Find a lively one and cast it into the kelp. If the calicos are around and hungry you shouldn’t have to wait long for a bite. Set the hook immediately to avoid having the fish swallow the bait and get gut hooked.
Sardines are also a good Calico bait. If you are just targeting the larger ones then a live mackerel is a good choice. Many big Calico hunters like fishing “brown baits” – larger perch, croaker, and other fish that sometimes get mixed in with the anchovy or sardine baits. Stick a larger hook in one of these, cast it to a promising spot, and get ready.
If squid are around these make good Calico baits either live or freshly dead. You can stick these on a leadhead.
Where to get the big Calico Bass
Some big fish are caught in Southern California each year (San Clemente Island can be good) but if you want to maximize your chances you should fish Baja spots such as the kelp south of San Quintin, Cedros Island, and farther south. Any area with kelp down there should hold some big Calicos.