Vermillion rockfish
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On New Year’s Eve, local groundfish might have a reason to celebrate. In the angling community over the past couple winters, our lucky New Year’s baby has been the El Niño conditions that kept yellowtail and tuna close to home in the winter. This winter, as the pelagic species have moved south and water temps are around 60 degrees, boats have returned to target rockcod, sheephead, and whitefish.

Why the deep-water celebration? Recreational groundfish season ends at midnight and begins again in two months on the first day of March. Until then, those anglers wishing to catch lingcod, whitefish, sheephead, all species of rockfishes, cabezon, or greenlings from a boat must go south of the border or do so from shore. In our area, about the only fish on that list a shore-based angler has a shot at catching is a cabezon or maybe a greenling.

In the San Diego area our best bottom-fishing is around the La Jolla/ Scripps Canyon complex or out off the Nine Mile Bank, and it’s really not that great. Of the favorites targeted on the bottom (whitefish, lingcod, vermillion rockfish, and sheephead), the average size has dropped over the decades since the mid-20th century. The stretches of banks and canyons off the Baja Peninsula still hold some of the larger groundfish equal to the ones my grandfather might’ve caught locally on his trusty little 14-foot skiff in the 1960s.

Boats leaving San Diego landings fish those fertile bottom-fishing grounds from the Coronado Islands on down to the cold-water zone that runs from Ensenada to Vizcaino Bay, which begins a few hundred miles south of the border.

For those fishing close to home, sculpin, or California scorpionfish, season opens the first of the year. The local near-shore waters still hold other endemic species this time of year, including sand bass, calico bass, halibut, the occasional barracuda, bonito, white seabass, and “homeguard” yellowtail; those few larger models don’t migrate with schools but rather lurk at the kelp edges on the deeper side awaiting to ambush a hapless mackerel.

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