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Salmon Anglers - Make your Day with Rockfish

Salmon Anglers - Make your Day with Rockfish

By Jason Brooks

It is June, the month that marks the start of the ocean salmon season on the west coast. When anglers are focused on catching the mighty chinook, they often overlook the opportunity to put a few Pacific rockfish in their fish box before coming in for the day.

Also known as "seabass', this fish fry favorite is easy to catch when you have the right gear ready at a moment's notice. If you haven't tried it before, rockfish offers a slightly sweet flavor with a little bit of nuttiness and a clean finish. Due to its low oil content, these white filets are light in taste and texture and have the ability to take on the flavor of your favorite companion ingredients. (FISH TACO RECIPE BELOW)

Rain Drops Falling or Rockfish Rising

A few years ago, we were returning from a day of salmon fishing and noticed a peculiar sight halfway back to the marina at Neah Bay. The surface of the water appeared to be raining, but there were no clouds in the sky. It turned out to be rising fish, specifically small juvenile herring being pushed to the surface by feeding rockfish. We quickly grabbed our spinning rods and started casting Rock Dancer jigs, resulting in a frenzy of black rockfish biting. In just ten minutes, we caught our boat limit of 21 seabass.

This experience taught us the importance of always having a pre-rigged spinning rod on hand and ready to go at a moment’s notice. 

Tips for Targeting Rockfish

While many anglers head to rocky pinnacles and steep ledges to catch rockfish, they can also be found near kelp lines, rocky shores, and sunken jetties. A few years later, we were fishing the south jetty near Westport, Washington hoping to catch some lingcod. Tossing rock dancer jigs to catch some kelp greening for bait, we hooked a handful of rockfish as a bonus catch. It is always nice to land a few seabass to add to the fish fry. The best part is that you do not have to have deep sea gear to make it happen.

In Washington, unless you are fishing on days open for halibut, all bottom fishing must be done in less than 120 feet. Shallow water means you can use lighter gear. The Rock Dancer jig in 3/8 ounce and ½ ounce are ideal when you fish at slack tide. Black and white, and black and chartreuse are good colors, as well as cerise.

Another top lure to jig up some rockfish is the Sonic Baitfish in ¾ and 1-ounce sizes. When it comes to colors bright is best with glow pink and glow chartreuse being top producers, but do not overlook blue with silver as it mimics several natural baitfish such as herring.

Fishing the Rock Dancer 

Rigging the Rock Dancer is as simple as tying it onto your line. Cast it out, let it sink and then twitch or dance it back just as the name suggests, letting it hit rocks below and then reel it up. If fishing in deeper water or when the tides are turning, and you cannot get the jig down to the fish, you can rig it with a slip weight. Using a ½ ounce weight or two, tied right on the mainline you can get it down deep.

If for some reason you need to get it deeper than use a two-foot piece of 30-pound monofilament tied to a stainless steel swivel. You want to use a stiff piece of monofilament which is why 30-pound is common and some anglers will even use 40-pound. This keeps the jig under the weight and is less likely to tangle. Add a sliding weight to the mainline, starting with a 1-ounce weight, and if needed, use a few of them, then the jig to the leader. The weights will not interfere with the jigging action of the Rock Dancer or block the tip of the sharp hook since the weights are much larger than the jig. Using the added weight system is good for jigging straight down under the side of the boat as it does not work as well when casting because it is hard to dance the jig while reeling in.

Fishing the Sonic Baitfish

The versatile Sonic Baitfish mimics a wounded baitfish, and you can fish them without any added weight allowing them to flutter and move erratically when jigged. In shallow and calm water attach the lure in the middle ring which causes it to flutter wildly when dropped, but if it needs to go deep then tie it on the nose ring. You will also want to upsize the hooks and switch them out to a single stainless steel siwash or use assist hooks. Assist hooks are tied with a piece of braided line with a loop so you can easily affix it and switch it out if needed. Using a single point hook will help increase hook-ups as well as keep the fish on the lure as rockfish have huge mouths and will bite the Sonic Baitfish by grabbing the entire lure. You want a large hook because it is likely to dig into the bony mouth easier than a small hook that can bend straight. 

If you need to add weight to the Sonic Baitfish, it is best to do so using a short leader and then some sliding egg weights on the mainline. Jig the lure directly under the boat and be ready to set the hook. One thing about using a Sonic Baitfish is you are also likely to catch lingcod and other predator fish including salmon when jigging it. This makes it a very versatile lure and that means less rigging and rods in the boat for different species.

Scent is Essential 

Scent can help get the bite going as it will draw in more fish and create a need to grab the lure before another fish bites it. The top UV Bait Scents are Herring and Bloody Tuna. Pro Gels, in particular, are very sticky and hold onto the Sonic Baitfish and other lures well so that you do not have to have to use different bottles of scent, giving your the choice to use either lure.

PRO TIP: One unique feature of the Rock Dancer jig is the chenille collar it has between the head and the bucktail body. This collar is perfect for holding scent and it will not interfere with the bucktail's action.

When it comes to catching rockfish be sure to know the regulations. Not only depth restrictions but also species restrictions and gear rules. In Washington state, you must use barbless hooks in Marine Areas 5 through 13. In the ocean, you can use barbed hooks but if you catch a salmon, even if the season is open, you must release it as barbed hooks cannot be used to catch salmon. Limits vary depending on areas as well, with Puget Sound closed to all rockfish. In recent years certain species are limited during summertime including copper, quillback, and other species, and in all waters except Alaska, you must release all yelloweye.

Catch and Release

Releasing rockfish can be a bit of a chore and you must have a descender device on board even when fishing shallow waters. This device allows you to lower the fish back to a similar depth that it was hooked and reduces the effects of barotrauma. This is when a fish is caught at deep depths and then reeled to the surface where the pressure is less, and it causes bloating often noticed by the extruded swim bladder. These fish live a long time and can rejuvenate steadily if taken care of, which means releasing them with care and correctly. Be sure to learn how to release them and the rules and limits on where you plan to fish.

Final Thoughts

When you head out to the ocean this season, be sure to pack your light spinning rods, a handful of Rock Dancer jigs, and a few Sonic Baitfish. When salmon fishing turns slow or wraps up early, cruise along the kelp line looking for rockfish. Once you find them, these aggressive fish are easy to catch; they are always willing to bite. Look for rocky ledges and pinnacles, be sure to add enough weight, and drop your gear to the right where they live.

With a little luck, your next salmon fish fry will be even more delicous with grilled, pan-fried, or deep-fried seabass on the menu.


SERVINGS 6 - CUISINE Mexican - PREP TIME 10 mins - COOK TIME 10 mins


4 oz rockfish, sliced into 4, 1 oz pieces
4 corn tortillas
1 avocado, sliced
1 cup shredded cabbage

Rustic Salsa:
Makes 6 servings
1 – 16 oz can fire roasted tomatoes
¼ cup cilantro leaves
¼ yellow or red onion
1 garlic clove
1 lime, juiced
1 jalapeño, stem removed and sliced
¼ tsp cumin
¼ tsp chili powder
¼ tsp sea salt


For the tacos:

  1. Preheat a grill pan or large skillet over high heat with a generous splash of olive oil.
  2. Add fish and sear on both sides, approximately 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat.
  3. Assemble taco fillings by adding homemade salsa, cabbage, and avocado slices, placing each piece of fish on top.
  4. Garnish with extra lime wedges and salsa to serve.

For the salsa: Pulse all ingredients quickly in a blender, to your desired consistency. Store any extras in a sealed glass jar for up to 1 week.

Courtesy of Pacific Seafood

Next article The Story of the Sonic Baitfish Lure - Continued