Calico Bass Basics
Calico bass (Paralabrax clathratus)
The average calico bass is between 1-3 lb. The calico bass size limit is understood to be around 8-10 lb, and any specimen over 5 lb is considered a trophy fish.
LC – Least Concern
Also Known As
Kelp bass or bull bass.
The calico bass is a sea bass fish species with a stout appearance, spiny dorsal fins, a large mouth, and a broad tail fin. Kelp bass have a striking resemblance to freshwater bass species, such as largemouth and smallmouth bass.
Calico bass are “calico”, meaning they have a multi-colored appearance. Varying shades of brown, black, gold, olive, and white decorate their bodies. These colors camouflage the fish from predators and prey in the rocky reefs and kelp forests they inhabit.
An easy way to identify a calico bass is to look for irregular horizontal splotches of white across the fish’s sides. Calico bass have similar features to the sand bass; however, calico bass are noticeably darker overall and don’t have the same elongated dorsal fin that sand bass have.
Calico bass have a “calico” – meaning multicolored – appearance
A Note on Spawning
Calico bass spawn from May through September, with peak spawning activity usually occurring around July. Calico bass are extra aggressive during the spawn, making it the most consistent time of year to target them.
Calico numbers have rebounded significantly since the 1950s, when their population was in severe decline. Anglers should always observe good catch-and-release habits for large calicos during the spawn. Doing so will maintain a healthy population and ensure this unique fish continues to thrive.
How to Catch Calico Bass
Calico bass are a highly sought-after species. Fishing for bull bass will feel familiar for freshwater anglers because of the comparable lures that are commonly used. Calico bass are almost always found in or near underwater structures, another consistent trait with well-known freshwater bass species.
Calico bass inhabit North America’s Pacific Coast, from central California to the tip of the Baja peninsula.
Like freshwater bass species, calicos naturally gravitate to structures. As such, they are commonly caught near rocky shorelines, breakwalls, reefs, and particularly kelp forests (hence their alternate name).
This similarity to freshwater bass is one of the many reasons anglers from across the United States set out to land a calico bass.
Favorite Feeding Spots
As ambush predators, calico bass lurk amongst vast kelp forests or in rocky crevices so they can ferociously pounce on unsuspecting prey.
Popular locations include the harbors and bays of southern California, pacific coastal kelp forests, and many of California’s channel islands. Catalina Island, in particular, has been home to some of the largest calico bass on record.
Catalina Island is a natural haven, and not just for calico bass!
Due to the warm latitudes that calico bass inhabit, fishing for them is productive year-round. To maximize your success, you’ll want to modify your approach based on the time of year.
Summer represents the liveliest fishing period for calico bass, as this is when the spawn is at its peak. The height of the spawning season, paired with warm water temperatures, guarantees aggression from the fish, meaning large numbers of bass can be caught in a single outing.
For the best results, target their usual areas (close to kelp and rocky structures) using live bait or artificial lures. Surface lures are particularly effective in the summer months.
During fall, kelp bass can still be caught from their usual areas using surface lures. At this time of year, the fish will be feeding heavily in preparation for winter, meaning you can enjoy some of the best calico sport of the year.
When winter hits, the fishing will slow down a little bit. Calico bass migrate to deeper water but remain close to reefs, submerged rocks, and wrecks. Using live bait on a dropper rig is my recommended approach during these colder months.
With temperatures improving in the spring, calico bass begin to move back to shallower regions and assemble again in the kelp forest and breakwalls they’re known for. As summer approaches, the spawn will kick off again, the bass become more aggressive, and the cycle repeats.
A stunning calico bass taken near a rocky cliff area
Calico bass can be caught on various baits and lures. These tenacious saltwater bass are apex predators and will readily bite on anything that resembles prey.
Crustaceans and baitfish make up most of the calico bass’ natural diet. Therefore, directly using baitfish like mackerel, sardines, and anchovies, either as dead or live bait, is highly effective. Alternatively, mimicking the color and appearance of these baitfish with artificial lures is another popular option.
Regarding lure choice, paddle tail swimbaits, surface lures, and metal spoons are fantastic options. This is especially true when used near kelp forests, rocky areas, and breakwalls. Some of my favorites include The Tady #45 Surface Iron, The Burkley Gulp! Paddle Tail Swimbait, and Shimano Waxwing Jigs.
If you’re an avid largemouth or smallmouth angler, fishing for calico bass will seem strangely familiar, and you’ll be able to pick it up surprisingly quickly. As with freshwater bass, calicos are almost always caught near underwater features or in areas with heavy cover. The equipment you’ll need is practically identical to that for freshwater bass; it just needs to be tough enough to handle the corrosive nature of saltwater.
Kelp bass are tough fighters and live around thick cover. A stout rod, reel, and line setup are required if you want to bring in those big aggressive calicos.
A 7.6 – 8′ medium-heavy or heavy power rod is ideal for giving yourself plenty of backbone to winch hard-fighting fish from heavy cover. Pair it with a 4000-size spinning reel or low-profile baitcasting reel rated for saltwater use.
I recommend using an 80 lb braided line as your mainline, with a healthy leader of 50–60 lb fluorocarbon.
Calico bass love hiding around kelp and kelp forests, hence the nickname ‘kelp bass’
If fishing with live bait, use a small octopus hook. Too large of a hook will give an unnatural presentation and spook the fish. In this context, ‘small’ is in comparison to the size of the baitfish.
In combination with chumming, cast your live bait on a single hook into your target area. Live bait performs best when fished in water with a reasonably strong current. Additionally, a dropper rig is highly recommended if you want to get your live bait deeper down in the water column. This is a devastating tactic around reefs, submerged rocks, and wrecks.
When fishing around kelp forests with artificial lures, weedless presentations are essential. Here, using paddle tail swimbaits paired with sturdy Texas-rig style offset hooks is a very popular tactic. These weedless lures are capable of being cast directly into the heart of a kelp forest; just ensure your rod and line are strong enough to wrestle the fish out.
Another popular and very effective lure is a light metal spoon, commonly known as a “surface iron”. These spoons can be fished at or just below the surface of the water and drive calico bass crazy.
Look for a combination of active currents, rocks, and kelp
Top Tips for Catching Calico Bass
In addition to looking for underwater structures, you should also always look for currents, too. As we’ve discussed, the best structures include cliffs, submerged rocks, and kelp forests. You’ll know there’s a current present when kelp stalks have a noticeable tilt. Look out for those perfect spots with all these characteristics – a current flowing against kelp and crashing against a rocky cliff is a prime calico bass location. All you need to do next is throw a bait or lure in there and hold on tight!
Fishing for calico bass truly is a unique experience. Their aggressive hard-fighting nature, against a backdrop of beautiful scenery, is hard to beat.