I will never forget this one instance when I was ordering lunch at Mitch’s Seafood next to Point Loma Sportfishing. A long range boat, whose slip faced the restaurant’s outside eating area, was getting ready to leave on an 8 day trip. As the crew were busy loading up all the gear, I noticed a nicely dressed man enjoying his fish and chips watching this scene suddenly turn to the person next to him and ask “How many people are they putting on that boat? They must’ve loaded 150 rods by now!” I almost burst out laughing when the other guy wearing a sport boat t-shirt casually replied, “..I don’t know, maybe 20?” Follow along with this long range rod and reel setup checklist.
It’s true that long range fishing can require a lot of stuff, but like my article on personal gear shows, you can do very well when you break it down to the essentials. There is probably no more contentious topic amongst long range fishermen than what should be in your quiver of rods and reels, so let me preface up front that the following discussion is based on the trials and errors of my Dad’s years of experience and my own past ten seasons of trips. Setting up for a typical 3-6 day voyage, I will go over each setup I bring from lightest to heaviest.
Outfit 1: 15-20lb Live Bait/ Small Lure
(Right) Sometimes, light gear is what it takes to get bit. Image courtesy of OneCoolTuna.com
A light outfit that is set up with either 15 or 20 pound test is the starting point for almost any multi day trip I plan. Many times I’ve seen anglers stuck soaking long baits when the lightest outfit they brought is 30lb and the fish are in a finicky mood, wanting nothing attached to anything more than 20lb. A longer, more parabolic rod ideally rated for 12-25lbs paired up with a smaller star drag reel with an excellent freespool such as the PENN Fathom 12 is my go-to setup. Besides being a finesse bait rig, I also use this anytime we’re near structure and fishing plastics for bass or yellowtail becomes an option. Because of this, the type of line and leader can depend on the trip. Sometimes, this lighter outfit is a calico bass rig with straight 30lb braid with a short fluoro leader of 20 or 25 pound test, in which case I’ll use a reel like a Tranx 400 or another type of saltwater baitcaster. Most of the time, I’ll fill up my Fathom 12 with 30lb braid backing, and a 75-100 yard topshot of 20lb mono, which will be better setup for offshore fishing. Some may argue that you can just attach a short 20 lb fluorocarbon leader to a heavier rod and you’ll be set. Not quite. The heavier gear may not allow the casting required for light baits and throws the balance of rod-to-line breaking strength out of whack.
Outfit 2: 25lb Live Bait
This is the first of my three main live bait setups and I use 25lb specifically when either the grade of fish is smaller or they’re in a weird, non-aggressive mood. There seems to be no difference in bait presentation between 25 and 30 pound to the angler, but to the fish, this slight change in line size and the way it allows your bait to swim can make all the difference in getting bit. I’ve created this setup to be very similar to the following two with the idea being that if all my live bait rods are the same length with similarly designed reels, I can develop a sense of familiarity with all my gear even if one outfit gets used more than another one. Unless the trip is centered around big tuna, you’ll be doing the bulk of your fishing with these three rods. Knowing the limits of each of these rigs, like the bend of the rod, the line class to the size of the fish, and which one to choose given the situation is something that can define your entire trip.
The sunrise bite was on and 25lb was the ticket.
The rod I use for 25lb is a Calstar GF800ML which is rated 15-40lb with the Fathom 15XNLD2. The Grafighter 800 series from Calstar have been idolized as some of the best live bait rods on the market, but I realize that they’re getting more difficult and expensive to acquire. I’ve also been able to use the new West Coast rods from PENN called the Carnage III which I’ve noticed have similar actions to the Grafighters and provide a very good alternative at a much more affordable price. Both are composite rods with stiff graphite cores and a lighter, more sensitive fiberglass tip. This is important for live bait fishing because the lighter tip not only helps you cast baits easier, but it also flexes more than the stiff core which absorbs head shakes and keeps consistent pressure on the fish throughout the entire fight. Eight foot rods have been the magic size for me because I’m able to cast my bait far from the boat, but still have enough backbone and power to bring the fish to color during those final crucial moments. The PENN Fathom lever drag 2-speed reels have been the staple of my lineup for years now and I can’t say I’ve had any major issues to date. They did just release a new version which features a power handle similar to the Internationals which can be helpful for bait fishing offshore. I like the feel and stretch of mono when bait fishing so I typically have this set up with 40lb braid as the backing and 50 yards of 25lb mono on top. This is all personal preference though. Fishing with braid and a short leader gives you more sensitivity with your bait, but I’ve seen more fish lost this way due to bad knots and the lack of stretch.
Outfit 3: 30lb Live Bait
Following the same pattern as the previous outfit, my 30lb bait rig consists of a Grafighter 800M(20-40) paired with a Fathom 25NLD2. The reel has around 250 yards 50lb braid backing and then a healthy 75 yard topshot of mono. Looking back through all of my multi-day trips, I can comfortably say that I’ve used this outfit more than any other. Flylining 30lb is always my starting point, and I’ll adjust from there if I need to step up or down in line class. This is also the setup I use for dropper loop fishing in shallow water if white seabass or halibut could be a possibility.
Besides Calstar and PENN, another rod company that’s been taking over the West Coast is Phenix. The Axis series in particular were designed for offshore fishing and features the same blended, composite blank that’s built with the heavy-duty components to make it a quality option for long range. I’ve also been able to use their Abyss rods that have an all-fiberglass build which keeps the action moderate with a whippy tip which makes them great for the lighter line applications when throwing small baits is key.
Outfit 4: 40lb Live Bait
(Left) Even trophy yellowfin like this can be handled on 40lb if you know the limits of your gear. Image courtesy of OneCoolTuna.com
As my final dedicated live bait rig, I use the Calstar GF800H(30-60) and a Fathom 30LD2 or 40LD2 to round out the top end of my bait fishing outfits. The reel is filled with 65lb braid backing and usually 40lb mono, but I can change this out to 50 if the grade of fish requires me to do so. If the chance to fish Guadalupe island ever opens back up, this is the rig to use. I’ve also used this outfit when fishing for big yellowtail over hard structure like the Thetis or Cortez Banks. These fish know the area, and make a beeline for the structure as soon as they feel resistance. The stiffer rod and heavier line gives you a chance to pull on these bigger units before they get you wrapped in the stones.
Outfit 5: 40lb Jigstick
Known as a specialty outfit that is unique to Southern California and Baja, a jigstick is typically a long, fiberglass rod that is paired with a high speed star drag reel. This setup is used almost exclusively to throw surface irons or poppers at yellowtail or tuna, and it’s something I’ll never leave the dock without if the fish are chasing bait up on top. As opposed to my live bait rigs, I use a less sensitive, more parabolic rod in the 9ft range for maximum casting distance. The idea with using a long, all-glass rod is that the entire blank loads up and unleashes at the end of your cast, catapulting your surface iron into the air and launching it far, far away from the boat. In this instance, a composite rod with a sensitive tip is not what you want. Any added movement from the rod will make it more difficult to keep a straight retrieve going and may impact the action of your jig. The Calstar 90J is my personal favorite jigstick, but Seeker and many other West Coast companies produce quality rods as well. I tend to stay away from two-speed reels, as the lower gear ratio is designed for putting more torque on big fish and less about getting the correct action out of your lure. The Fathom 25N star drag features a faster gear ratio, narrow frame and a simpler drag construction which makes it ideal for throwing irons at these mid-sized fish. My reel is backed with 50lb braid, but I make sure to put a large enough topshot of 40lb mono so that I’ll never cast through my knot. Typically I want about 150 yards of mono above my braid.
Outfit 6: 50/60lb yoyo/dropper loop
When the yellows are down deep and they’re biting the jigs, this is the setup to use. Oftentimes yellowtail are suspended just off the bottom and pinning a lively mackerel on a dropper loop or sending a heavy jig down in front of their face can be the only way to get a reaction. In this setting, the fish have the advantage. Being this close to the structure, it doesn’t take much for a quality fish to take you straight to the rocks and break off the last scrambled egg jig you had. To prevent this, I use a short, stiff rod such as the Calstar 6460H(30-80) and a fathom 40LD2 filled with mostly 80lb braid and a short leader of 50 or 60lb mono that’s about 25 yards. The 6460H is a classic 6ft old-school fiberglass broomstick with a fat tip that in this case, works to your advantage. In this style of fishing, you don’t get nibbles. You get bone-jarring strikes that nearly rip the whole combo right out of your hand, and having a rod that’s ready to handle that is very important. Due to this fishing being mostly on the up-and-down, I gravitate towards the shorter rod because the pulling power is much greater and casting is rarely part of the technique. Also, the large size 12 tip keeps the rod from moving unnecessarily which provides greater stability to the angler and keeps the lure swimming in a straight path.
Outfit 7: 80lb Nighttime Jig
This setup is the newest in my line, and it’s becoming more standard with every year as the nighttime Bluefin scene turns into the best way to catch a trophy-sized fish on your own gear. For this outfit I chose a PENN International 16VISX filled with 80lb braid and a 15 yard wind-on leader that’s either 100 or 130lb based on what I think we’re getting into. My idea with going with lighter braid is that it gives me more line capacity and allows my jig to sink faster. Using metered braid or going to the local tackle shop to see if they can mark your line every 100 feet is something that can hugely improve your chances of success. Keep in mind that the schools of Bluefin will be stacked up at a certain depth because they’ve found the bait layer and they’re not going to be interested in anything above or below that line. The captain will be calling out depths where he sees the bulk of the fish, and it’s super helpful to have an idea of where your jig is so that you can adjust. Given the heavy line involved, line counter reels like those used for salmon fishing are not an option here, so marking braid really is the best method to keep your lure in the zone.
(Left) Steve Carson with his personal best 313 pounder caught on a 16VISX.
I was in the market for a rail rod this year and decided to try the Carnage III 80-130. I absolutely love it. Some rail rods have the tendency to have so much backbone and pulling power that it can feel like you’re fighting the rod more than the fish. Not in this case. The sensitive tip and fast action of the PENN allows for the rod to keep a consistent bend throughout the entire fight, without losing any pulling power once you start using the rail. The price is unbeatable too.
Outfit 8: 100lb Troller (Optional)
If your bluefin outfit has trolling lugs, you can absolutely just use that. This is a specialty outfit that’s geared more to the longer trips when long bouts of trolling for wahoo or tuna are something to expect. A short, 6 or 6.5ft extra heavy rod is standard. Something like a Calstar 660XH(50-120) paired with a large trolling reel such as the International 30 is the way to go. Using heavy mono is mandatory. Usually, I’ll have 100 yards of 100 pound mono to stretch and absorb the shock of getting bit by a big fish while plowing through at 8 or 10 knots. Truth be told, this outfit could be left off the list for a trip of this length, as trolling for Bluefin with large plugs is not typically done by long range boats as they simply do not go fast enough to make the lures swim right. And, if the boat is kite fishing for Bluefin, the crew will have tackle for you to use.
Once you get all this together, it’s time to go fishing. The next few articles are going to cover the most popular sportfish on the coast and the best ways to catch them.