Matthew Lickona 11:49 p.m., Dec. 10
As the bright morning sun peeked over a hillside just to my east, the large resident kelp forest inside La Bufadora cove appeared to be a shimmering sea of Golden Fleece. Once past the concession stands, dive shop and numerous seaside cottages, I finally pulled to a stop near a rock-strewn section of cliffs at the southern end of the rancho.
Armed with a bucket, gloves and some basic fishing tackle, I carefully made my way down the stony arroyo and around a portion of cliff that was no longer visible from the roadway. A rugged slate stairway, conveniently provided by nature, allowed me to gingerly make my way further downward toward the vast expanse of exposed tide pools near the crashing surf.
On this occasion, my timing happened to be right on target. A minus tide had ebbed far enough from the shore to allow me to easily gather a good supply of mussels to fish the rising tide that was yet to come.
The Pacific side of the northern Baja coast offers hundreds of miles of rocky, volcanic shoreline, punctuated by a seemingly endless number of protected coves, beaches and grottos. Although many of these rural hideaways may seem a bit out of the way, local residents have enjoyed great success fishing them for decades.
Because of the numerous navigational hazards in these places such as thick kelp, boiler stones and large breakers, walking over treacherous rocks to fish from shore is one of the only ways that most anglers can take advantage of these beguilingly ‘fishy’ places.
There are several varieties of surf and rockfishes that abound in those often hidden coastal nooks and crannies. A few names on the list are the barred surfperch, yellowfin croaker, spotfin croaker, corbina, calico bass, sand bass, sargo, cabezon, sculpin and California sheephead. Although most of these fish are unrelated, there is one thing that they all have in common, an undeniable love for fresh, juicy mussels!
Our local sea mussels (Mytilus californianus) are the largest species of mussel on the west coast of North America and range from Baja to Alaska. These bivalve mollusks often form thick beds on exposed sections of rocky shoreline adjacent to the surf zone and spawn throughout the year, with peak activity occurring during spring and fall.
In addition to being an outstanding bait for catching fish, Baja mussels are also considered prime Epicurean table fare during winter months. Coastal Indians have known this for thousands of years, and modern residents can still enjoy feasting on them today. They pair wonderfully with linguini and pesto sauce, are absolutely mandatory when making Spanish paella and are even exquisite when simply steamed and dipped in garlic butter.
During the summer, however, eating these mussels should be avoided because they may become extremely poisonous when concentrations of toxins from the noxious plankton, Gonyaula, build up in their flesh. In southern California waters, mussels are generally quarantined between May 1 and October 31. Despite problems associated with the consumption of mussels during those periods, they remain a safe, effective and viable tool for catching fish throughout the entire year.
For rock anglers, it is indeed fortunate that these highly sought after shellfish are prolifically available near jetties, rocks and tide pools just for the effort involved in taking them. This is, of course, most effectively done during the lowest ebb of the tidal cycle. To avoid injury, always use gloves and a large screwdriver or similar lever when attempting to harvest them.
Freshly cut mussel meat exudes beguiling juices that often prove to be irresistible to a bevy of hungry inshore fishes. Mussels are a bait that can spark near shore action when all else fails. The legendary author and fisherman, Ray Cannon, had this to say in his classic book, How to Fish The Pacific Coast, “For shore fishes, mussels are by far the best all-round bait …but are the most difficult to keep on.”
It’s true; the toughest part of fishing with mussels is adeptly removing the meat from the shell and then successfully securing it to the hook. Its soggy membrane has the texture of raw egg, and possesses only two hard areas to place the hook point. Some anglers tie the mass on with orange or pink thread, which can be quite useful in helping to secure it to the hook’s shank. Just be patient and you’ll soon become adept at the practice.
In my opinion, the best tackle configuration for this type of fishing is a standard surf rig; that is to say; sinker on the bottom (weight will differ with conditions) and one or two hooks on leaders about 15” long, rigged approximately 16” or 17” apart. Another technique is to ‘flyline’ a whole, opened mussel, with a treble hook lodged in the center, and allow it to slowly sink to the bottom and leisurely move around with the current. Fishing around the rocks can be very productive, but also devastating to your tackle supply. Expect to lose a lot of hooks and sinkers.
No discussion of using wild mussels for bait would be complete without mentioning the practice of chumming. On a few occasions, I have been able to substantially increase my catch by tossing a bucket of fresh, pulverized mussels directly out in front of the spot that I intend to fish. As the aromatic oils permeate the water, many nearby rock and surf fish are cajoled into a feeding frame of mind.
As with most inshore salt water fishing, it is best to be at your spot ready to wet your line no later than an hour before high tide; although when working the surf near rocks or jetties, you are usually able to get some kind of action as long as there is good tidal movement. When fishing the rocky points and tide pools it is important to remember that the majority of fish will probably be found in the churning, white water not far from the rocks.
Exploring hard to reach areas with limited access will also increase your chances of being successful. Numerous spots fitting this description can be found between Playas Tijuana and Puerto Santo Tomas. Just a few of them, are the many coves and inlets along the free road south of Rosarito Beach, the jetties near La Salina Marina, Playa Saldamando, the mouth of the estero south of Ensenada Harbor, the northern cliffs along Punta Banda and the outcroppings adjacent to the Rancho La Bufadora cove.
This type of angling may not be as easy as languidly drifting around under a warm sun in Bahia de Santos all day, but there is much to be enjoyed by taking advantage of this more primitive, rugged method of fishing, not the least of which are the exercise, fresh air and the clean, salty spray upon your face. So, the next time you feel like tossing out your line in circumstances that are generally uncrowded and usually rewarding, grab your gear, head for the coast …and do it with mussel.