Here’s a more comprehensive “how to” article about how I fly fish the tide pools for rockfish, cabezon, and the occasional perch, since when I began fly fishing in these areas a few years ago I had no idea where to begin looking for help in these matters, since to my knowledge, no one had fly fished the tide pools, and I had to figure this out on my own. Hopefully this helps people with the learning curve in this beautiful, ever changing fishery.
To begin with, I had only seen people catch rockfish on the fly off of jetties or boats, and my only saltwater experience had been limited to fly fishing for cod and mackerel off the icelandic shoreline, so I started off by doing what I knew, mainly long casts off of the rocks into deeper areas and stripping back, but I quickly ran into the problem of getting hung up on the kelp, which is thick in the Central Coast of California. I eventually just started finding openings in the kelp, but that wasn’t particularly productive and only worked in select areas.
The answer to my dilemma came in the form of a video, which showed gear fishermen using swimbaits in the shallow tide pool areas, basically jigging along the rocks. So I sat down at the bench and tied up a couple flies using the largest sculpin helmets from Flymen Fishing Company I could find, and used red and chartreuse zonker strips to make a variety of body types. I found success with these flies off of the jetty wall before I could make it out to the tide pools, so I knew the rockfish liked them. I tie these flies using 1/0-4/0 saltwater heavy wire hooks, because these fish have hard mouths and they can more than handle the hook size. I’m now starting to experiment more with flies imitating octopuses and squid, as up until now I’ve been mainly using attractor/baitfish flies.
The rod I use is an 7’11” 8wt Mojo Bass, which is a very stout little two piece fly rod. The short rod is a great help since it helps with the short, accurate casts using very heavy flies, and it is great to help yank the fish away from the rocks and kelp once I hook up with them. The line I use is a sinking shooting head, but any sinking line will do. You could use a floating line since you aren’t going too deep, but I find that the sinking line helps with keeping the fly in place once the waves and current start moving around in the channels and pockets you’re fishing in. On the end of that I use a short (3 ft) 20lb abrasion resistant Rio saltwater leader and then tie that directly to the fly using a non-slip mono loop knot.
Fly fishing the tide pools is a surprisingly visual game, as most of the time I’ll see the fish come inspect the fly a couple times before committing to it, and I’ll almost always see my fly. It helps both with avoiding snags, and detecting the take. This means you need clear water and relatively shallow water as well. You don’t always need to see the fish, but it certainly helps.
Casting is very minimal, and very short. Most of the time I’m fishing about 3-5 feet of line out of the tip of my guides, as I’m making VERY short casts to rocks very close to me. How do you spot the best rocks? They’re usually slanted a little bit forward, with an area underneath them where the fish can hold. This means that the casts have to go underneath the rocks, and I usually achieve this by lightly bouncing the fly off of the rock, or a nearby rock, to pop into the holding zone. Once the fly is in the holding zone I let it get to the bottom, which is usually very quickly, and then do a short strip, pause, and then resume, and I will cast to the same spot a couple times until either I’ll see a fish come to inspect the fly, or if nothing happens I’ll cast to the next likely holding spots.
Sometimes I’ll not even cast, but simply “dap” the fly into a likely pocket. Usually I’ll do this if I’m standing on top of the pocket, most likely out of the water on top of a rock looking down into the holding zone. When I do this I’ll let the fly fall to the bottom and then basically jig it along the edge of the rock, and you’ll see the fish dart out from under the rock to either inspect the fly or grab it.
This type of fishing can get very dangerous, so it is always best to have a buddy with you and always keep an eye out for the next wave. Make sure to wear wading booties with a good grip, and move slowly, as the rocks are usually very slippery. I’ve also made the mistake of casting to a seal that was a rock, and when the fly bounced off the seal, he turned and lunged at me in a terrifying fashion, and I’ve heard stories about men being dragged under-water by seals, so always double check that your rock is a rock!
This has quickly become one of my favorite fisheries, as the fish are strong and live in some of the most beautiful places on the planet. I’ve seen octopuses, seals, and many species of crabs and baitfish. Usually these places are out of the way and can be secluded, and offer a great wild fishery that is as unpredictable as it is fun!