On an early Saturday morning last May, something remarkable happened while inshore fly fishing along Southern California's rocky Palos Verdes coast.
I landed 2 spectacular fish on flies; the first, a 9.4-pound calico bass on 12-pound tippet, then less than an hour later, I sight casted to and landed a 36-pound white sea bass on 20-pound tippet, both official IGFA fly fishing world records.
A record-breaking morning I'll never forget.
Here's the story of the calico bass I caught on that crazy once-in-a-lifetime morning on my go-to articulated sculpin fly, tied with a small brown Fish-Skull Sculpin Helmet.
Fishing for large calicos is not for the faint-hearted.
These big fish live in nasty places that often destroy tackle and sometimes boats. Safety is paramount.
You have to get in tight to fish large boiler rocks in shallow water. Staying alert for rogue sets and keeping the engine running is mandatory when buddy fishing around strong currents, breaking waves, and submerged rocks the size of elephants.
That morning, my buddy John and I were in 18 feet of water in an area where one of my good fishing buddies had gotten some large fish weeks before. We knew we were in the land of giants.
The El Niño's unseasonably warm water temps had killed off lots of the inshore kelp and allowed us to fish places we normally couldn't. This worked out in our favor!
I was prepared to battle a large fish and had tied up a handful of sculpin flies with 80-pound hard Mason weed guards.
I had pre-tied my IGFA leaders with 11 inches of 30-pound fluorocarbon shock tippet. I always like to attach my flies with a non-slip mono loop, which helps the fly sink faster and gives the fly maximum movement when stripped.
Some guys like to fish deep with super heavy sinking lines. I like to fish a simple T14 shooting head system, preferably in 30 feet of water or less, where most of the big fish live. I had 27 feet of T14 attached to an intermediate running line and was fishing a fast, 10-weight Sage Xi3 rod.
The unusual part of that morning was after arriving in the dark, we must have fished for a good hour with nothing to show for it.
I usually like to start out with a large black streamer when throwing into the darkness (remember to wear safety googles when casting big flies in the dark). We'd normally land a few fish in the pre gray light, but for some strange reason nothing was happening.
My buddy was concerned, but I told him not to be discouraged and stay the course; all we needed was one nice fish each to make our day.
As the light started to come up and I could see where I was casting, I cut off my streamer and went to the weighted articulated Sculpin Helmet fly.
I remember when Martin, founder and head product designer of Flymen Fishing Company, sent me out the first samples of the Sculpin Helmet, way before they hit the streets. I remember thinking to myself what great innovative weighted flies they were going make and how they were going to change the way we fish for larger species on the fly.
I also remember handing out these promotional Sculpin Helmet packets at one of our One Surf Fly beach events with the late Shane Chung and seeing our fishing friends' eyes bug out when they received them.
I've always been an advocate of fishing sculpin patterns for calicos even before the Sculpin Helmet hit the market. Now that I use these heads exclusively, I like tying these flies because they are fairly easy to tie, they get down fast, and have great movement when articulated.
The fly that slayed the beast was designed by using a small brown Sculpin Helmet straight out of the package.
Many fly anglers spice them up by powder-coating them all different colors which look really cool but require a little extra pre-planning effort. I like to powder coat the Sculpin Helmets either red or orange, especially when imitating red pelagic crabs!
I articulate my sculpin flies by starting with a separate hook and cutting it at the bend, then tying materials onto it. It serves as the tail or articulated section. Then I reattach this portion to the main hook with monofilament or thin wire loop back at the bend. I know there are new articulated products, but I'm old-school.
For materials you can go crazy with rabbit, bucktail, synthetics, etc.
I like to keep it simple with SF Blend, some web hackles and rubber legs. You can use your imagination to tie many variations, I guarantee they will all work. Don’t forget the weed guards!
After switching to the sculpin fly, we drifted towards a fairly large exposed boiler rock.
My buddy began casting from the front of the boat toward the front of the boiler while I threw a couple of backcasts toward the whitewater in the rear and retrieved the fly untouched.
Then I looked over my left shoulder and spotted the telltale sign of a submerged boiler, water swirling in a circle like someone just flushed the toilet. It wasn’t very obvious unless you were right up on it.
I threw a long cast and let it sink.
I counted to 6 then bumped the fly twice until it felt like I hit a pile of concrete, only the parking lot was moving.
Immediately, I clapped down on the running line with my rod hand and pointed the rod straight at the fish. I knew this game well, she was going to turn and try to get back to her preferred parking spot, and I couldn't give her an inch.
I held fast, thinking, "You will either break my tippet or my fly rod, but you are not getting that space!"
Lifting the rod after the initial hook set would've been a disaster and given her the extra space in the bend of the rod to turn on me and break me off.
It was a tug of war; I held fast and slowly began to use my body to turn and move her while keeping the rod pointed straight at her, and I felt her spirit start to break.
This is where I made my move and quickly let go to make two quick hand strips then clamped back down on the rod and held on for dear life.
This moved her about a foot.
That was the point I won the battle and she began to turn in my favor, she was moving towards me, her head turned and I stripped in more line.
She surfaced like a deflated beach ball and barely fit in the net.
John and I high-fived, yelled a few profanities, took lots of pictures and were all smiles.
It wasn't until we weighed her on a certified scale back on terra firma that we realized we had the largest recorded calico bass on fly to date.
We accomplished what we had set out for: a new world record.
I am proud to say my calico bass and sculpin fly officially made it into the record books this past September!
Thank you Martin for helping me make my fly fishing dreams come true!
Remember when you're big fish hunting, all it takes is one.
If you're interested in reading about the world-record white sea bass we caught later that morning, click here to read about it on my blog.
About Al Quattrocchi:
Al hopes to grow the sport of saltwater fly fishing, by giving back and reaching one person at a time. He lectures and presents to many fly fishing clubs and fly shops in Southern California. He founded One Surf Fly, an event to help promote the sport along the coast in Southern California. Al also created the Double Haul Ball, an educational collaborative effort put forth by fly fishing friends and FFF certified casters, held at the historic Long Beach Casting Club once a year. Al’s articles and fly patterns have been published in Fly Fishing in Saltwaters, Fly Tyer, CA Fly Fisher, and Saltwater Fly Fishing magazines.
Al Q and friend Conway Bowman host the Carp Throwdown at Lake Henshaw, San Diego each June. The tournament is timed around the hopper hatch so anglers can experience dry fly sight-fishing for cruising carp.
Al is currently on the pro tying staffs for Umpqua, Tuffleye, Flymen, Diaichi and EP. The Qs Beach Bug pattern is one of the best selling SoCal surf flies in Umpqua’s Surf Fly Series. Other commercial patterns include, Qs Corbina Candy, Qs Thin Lizzie, and the Qs Ghost Whisper. As an avid fly angler, fly tyer, artist, and photographer, he continues to draw inspiration from the sea.
Al resides in Westchester, CA with his wife Janet and daughter Quinn. He is a creative partner at Tornado Creative, located in the historic Helms Bakery in Culver City, CA.