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FISHING - The Giant Croaker of San Quintin

By Tom Gatch

Capt. Kelly Catian is a fortunate man.   He and his family are able to live their lives next to the rich, picturesque waters of Bahia San Quintin on northern Baja California’s Pacific coast.  This famous bay provides many good reasons for both anglers and hunters to pay a seasonal visit to what has become a prime recreational paradise.  Meandering canals, long sandy beaches, excellent fishing both inside and outside the Bahia and the yearly migration of black brant combine to offer practically endless opportunities for outdoor adventure.

Recreational angling can be enjoyed on a year-round basis in this mild, Medeterranean-like climate. Fishing for Pacific red snapper, lingcod and other bottom species takes place throughout the winter, with calico bass, yellowtail and other inshore surface biters beginning to show by late spring and visiting pelagic fishes like yellowfin tuna, dorado and albacore making their seasonal appearance by late summer and often remaining in the region through late October.  But perhaps one of the most alluring species that is targeted by anglers in-the-know is the magnificent white sea bass, which can grow to over 75-pounds and is most prolifically available during the months of August, September and sometimes even into October.

Says Catian, “Back when we first started out, there were no fish-finders and no GPS units …I learned to navigate using a compass mounted on half a foam buoy and a wristwatch, that was it!”  He adds, “It wasn’t easy.  There were some rough years where we lived pretty much off of the ocean.  We didn’t have many clients then, maybe three a month.  The rest of the time I had to do commercial fishing and diving to make ends meet.”
(Courtesy of K&M Sportfishing)
This 70-pound monster in typical of the quality grade of white sea bass that can be available to anglers visiting Bahia San Quintin between late summer and early fall.

Luckily, Capt. Catian’s innate talent for finding fish, along with his dogged tenacity, eventually earned him a reputation with many visiting anglers as ‘the guy to go out fishing with’ in San Quintin.  But, after joining forces with his new partner, things really began to take off as they acquired their collection of sleek, pilothouse equipped Parker cruisers that were capable of getting further offshore much quicker than their local competition, which was limited by their markedly slower conventional pangas.     Over the years, he has had many exciting days out on the water, but says that there is one trip that is particularly well etched into his memory.

Kelly Catian recalls, “It was in late October.  We had been booking back to back charters all summer long, and we finally got the chance to take a few days off to go out and have some fun late in the month.  There  was  supposed to by a nice swell coming in from a hurricane way down south, and my son, Oscar, and his buddy, Charky, were already down off Socorro Beach a few miles south of the entrada getting in on the action with their surfboards.”   

“It was one of those classic Baja mornings; a clear sunny sky, and warm deep-blue water.   We tore out of the mouth of the bay over glassy seas, and finally pulled up outside the reef where Oscar and Charky were busily riding waves.  My partner, Monte, was also onboard along with K&M crewmembers, Dave Brown and Chris Pierce.”  

“I remember that it was only about 19 feet deep at the edge of the reef where we were sitting when I grabbed one of our surfboards and was getting ready to jump into the water to catch a few waves.   Suddenly, a huge, dark shadow passed under the boat, then another …and another.   For a split second, I stood there stunned by the fact that I was looking down at a school of some of the biggest white sea bass that I had ever seen before; most of the fish appeared to be well over 50 pounds …then the screaming started!”

Catian continued, “Everyone was scrambling over the surfboards trying to grab their fishing pole and get a jig tied on.  Dave Brown was the first to get hit, and wasn’t even able to get ‘I’m ON!’ completely out of his mouth before line started rapidly peeling off his reel.  It was pandemonium.”

“We were all scurrying around trying to follow our line and land the freshest fish we had on while stepping over the ones between 50 and 70 pounds that had already hit the deck.  After an almost timeless interlude of this frenzied action, the tide had risen and the fish were suddenly gone, but so was the big surf.  Our bountiful catch would later yield us a couple hundred pounds of gourmet quality fillets after being cleaned and processed back at the dock.”

Along with his partner, who is based in southern California, Catian owns and operates K&M Sportfishing, and is the administrator of their active fleet of five high-end fishing boats.  Their mini-armada includes a 28ft Amato and a 25ft Parker, both of which are equipped with a pilothouse, a 23ft Parker cuddy cabin and two 26ft Super Pangas.  By regional standards, this makes their sportfishing operation one of the most prominent anywhere along the Baja Norte coast south of the port city of Ensenada.   

This prized gamefish, whose Latin name was recently changed from Cynoscion nobilis to Atractoscion nobilis, is not a true bass at all, but actually the largest member of the drum family on the Pacific coast.  It is a croaker that, at full maturity, is second in size only to the potentially gigantic and protected totuava, Cynoscion macdonaldi, found in the northern Sea of Cortez.   White sea bass can range from Alaska to southern Baja, but are most common south of Point Conception on the central coast of California

Live squid are probably the best overall bait for catching white sea bass, but large anchovies and sardines are also very effective.  At times, larger specimens are more likely to bite on a live Pacific mackerel.  This particular bait can be especially deadly when trolled slowly near the inner edges of kelp beds during dusk or pre-dawn hours.  

Seafood lovers consider the fresh fillets of white sea bass to be a gourmet delicacy, which can be prepared in a number of delicious ways.  One quick and simple technique is to slather a thick chunk of sea bass in melted garlic butter and toss it onto a hot, smoky, mesquite grill for several minutes.  Baste the uncooked top once more, then turn and baste again until the fish flakes when probed with a fork.  Finish off with a squeeze of lemon or lime, and get ready for a little bite of heaven.

Although white sea bass are usually pursued using live bait, they will also attack a fast trolled spoon, or a candy bar-style iron with a whole squid pinned to the hook.  White seems to be one of the most effective colors, no matter what type of lure is being used,

Along the northern Sea of Cortez, which is on the eastern coast of the Baja peninsula, white sea bass are caught during the same months.  Inshore anglers out of San Felipe and Laguna Percibu usually have good luck adjacent to one of the several small artificial reefs in the area, while those preferring to fish near offshore structure will often gravitate toward Consag Rock in the north, and Las Islas Encantadas off of Puertecitos, about 60 miles to the south.  They are also taken regularly during summer and fall at various points around Bahia de Los Angeles in the midriff islands region.

Despite the fact that there seem to be plenty of white sea bass available in Baja at the present time, intelligent resource management will be required to keep it that way in the future.  As an example, there was a time in the middle of the last century when the population of white sea bass off of southern California was thought by many local anglers to be a virtually inexhaustible commodity.  Unfortunately, a bitter lesson was in the offing, as stocks in following decades began plummeting to the point where, today, having even one or two legal white sea bass of 28 inches or more in the fish count of a local ½ day or ¾ day sportfishing boat is considered a bonus.   

Fortunately, in 1983 the Ocean Resources Enhancement Hatchery Program was implemented by a team of marine biologists from Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in San Diego.  This program gained additional support from many other groups and by 1995 an experimental white sea bass hatchery had been built in Carlsbad, California.  It has since become a successful husbandry program that has gradually increased the depleted stocks of white sea bass, and has also increased our knowledge of this valuable species and its life history.  
Once a farm-raised white sea bass reaches the fingerling size of 3 to 4 inches, it is tagged and taken in group to one of the twelve grow-out facilities that are located up and down the California coast.  The juvenile fish are then allowed to grow until they reach a size of 8 to 12 inches, at which point they are released into the open ocean.  Each of these white sea bass has been tagged electronically with a small, coded wire that is inserted into their cheek muscle. Later, when a tag is recovered from a sport caught fish, biologists can determine where and when the fish was raised and released, and how far it had traveled.  Once it has been freed into the ocean, it is virtually impossible to visually tell the difference between a wild white sea bass, and one that was raised within a husbandry program.

Only time will tell whether Baja California will end up needing to use similar biological techniques to bolster their populations of white sea bass at some point in the future as well; the answer to that question is being shaped by the way that recreational and commercial interests handle this fragile resource today.  With diligent oversight by these factions, however, there is little reason to doubt that these potentially giant members of the drum family will continue to freely swim and be caught along both coasts of Baja Norte for many generations to come.    

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