Corbina on the Fly
By Richard Jacobsen
These shadows in the surf are even more
challenging than the elusive flats permit…
To the southern California saltwater fly angler, corbina are probably the most elusive, frustrating and most prized fish along our coast. Many consider them a greater challenge on fly than the flats permit.
Three and one half pounds of solid muscle, my first corbina came in late 1997, while fishing for bass and halibut. At that moment, I thought I had been blessed by the fly fishing Gods.
It took about six weeks before the next fish had pity on me and sucked up my offering. Corbina, AKA “Ultra Spookus Maximus”, are found in open surf and marine back waters, along the majority of our southern California/Baja coast. Their primary diet consists of mole crabs, blood worms, small octopi, ghost shrimp, smelt, grunion and least of all, artificial flies.My biggest fish was twenty six inches long and weighed just under six pounds. I have heard of nine pound fish being caught and have seen some real monsters in the surf that would exceed ten pounds.
After my first fish I sought out anyone who had information on corbina. Some said they will take sand crab flies. One article I read stated that sight casting was the only way to be successful since these fish feed using their incredible sense of smell and the fly needs to be presented very close so the fish could see it and that casting blindly, was useless. About the only thing everyone agreed upon was that this species was very difficult to catch on a fly.
“Since that first one, I have caught and released eighty four corbina. Eighteen of those fish were caught in three days.”
Since that first one, I have caught and released eighty four corbina. Eighteen of those fish were caught in three days. On one of those days, three fish were caught on just five casts. On that same day, twenty seven halibut and sand bass were also caught – an added bonus. During one particularly good month, five consecutive trips yielded corbina. There have been numerous two, three and four fish days and many of these were on consecutive trips.
I will now attempt to share what I have observed, how I responded to what I saw and why I think I’m successful.
I began by trying to catch the corbina I found cruising up and down the beach. These fish appeared only as light colored, ghost-like shadows gliding over the bottom, hardly revealing their presence until one would change direction. Nearly each time I raised my rod to cast or moved my hand to strip the fly, they flushed to deeper water. They were as nervous as any bonefish can be.
My first attempts resulted in frustration. I couldn’t buy a fish. Finding them was no problem. Catching them seemed impossible. But my success rate slowly improved. Wearing light colored clothes helped, since bright fishing apparel seemed to alarm them. Fishing fine and far off using small flies and light leaders and side casting to keep the rod tip low, became the order – anticipating where the fish would be and then leading them, hoping for an intercept.
Important is to start stripping before they get to close to the fly. You don’t want the fly to burst out of the sand startling them. Don’t let the fish get between you and the fly or they will feel the leader come tight and will spook. Also try to get the fly to gently pass about two feet in front of their nose, keeping the fly between you and the fish so the corbina tracks it toward you. Use your stripping basket to help hide your hand movements. Short, frequent strips, suggest a shrimp or some small sand critter trying to escape and seem to produce the best results. Keep the fly moving or they will loose interest. If they think that dinner is getting away it makes them more aggressive.
Observation Provides Clues
At first, being able to see the fly on the bottom is a big plus. This will enable you to learn how the fish react to it. It will also raise your heart rate when they turn and start to chase it. I found casting from a sea wall like the one at Corona Del Mar State Beach, where from a higher position, I could watch their reactions provided solid clues. Quite often fish in six or eight feet of water wouldn’t flush when the fly hit the water, but instead were attracted to its splat and would sometimes intercept the sinking fly. This totally different reaction was the first big clue to catching more fish: ply areas where you know there are corbina but fish deeper. Fish in that zone where you just can’t quite see the bottom. Granted, there is nothing like sight casting to these fish but when they are just too spooky, fish deeper water. The deepest water from which I’ve taken fish is about eight feet. It makes sense: if you can’t see them, they probably can’t see you.
Stripping the fly and Setting The Hook
I think it is important to keep the pause between strips to an absolute minimum! A corbina will suck up and reject a fly so quickly you won’t even know it ate. Again, my stripping motion is usually very fast but short. Force the fish into thinking it has to nail the fly before it escapes.
If you’ve gotten the interest of a shallow water fish, you will be tempted to strike when you see the fish rush forward and cover the fly with it’s nose. If you strike then odds are you will pull the fly from it. This is the advantage of using a short strip strike. If you miss, the fly won’t be jerked out of it’s sight, causing it to lose interest. Keep stripping and when it sucks it up (which you won’t feel), you will hook it when your line tightens. Sounds easy, but it’s hard to do when your hands are shaking and you suddenly realize you haven’t taken a breath since the corbina started to pursue the fly.
Unlike bass which usually hit hard, you will seldom feel a take from a corbina. It will usually feel like you snagged a rock on the strip. Everything just stops …for a very brief moment, then all hell breaks loose. A good fish will take you into your backing.
Often the fish will follow the fly nearly to your rod tip. At this time it’s important to remember to breathe, but for God’s sake don’t blink. I swear they can see your eyelashes move and seeing you they will just explode away in a burst of speed you won’t believe.
Corbina Have Personalities
These fish really have different personalities. Fish that meander and occasionally stop to investigate something on the bottom are usually feeding, providing optimum targets. Fish that are swimming quickly in a straight line are usually not feeding and will ignore all tossed at them. Some can be caught with little effort, while others just don’t show interest in any fly. Frequently, I’ve approached the water, seen a fish, made one cast and was hooked up in less than thirty seconds. Conversely, I’ve worked a fish for twenty minutes without success.
Two versions of Boyd’s Mimic, a great all-round surf fly for halibut, calico bass and sand bass. The fly is tied with two splayed rabbit strips for a tail, crayfish style.
Three of the Author’s favorite corbina flies:
Top fly is the surf bug with a tan rabbit strip tail, pink chenille body and a wrap or two of grizzly hen hackle in front of lead eyes. Bottom left fly is standard #2 olive and white Clouser and Bottom right fly is a heavy, 1/8 oz. eye Clouser tied with goat hair instead of bucktail. Both Clousers are about 2-1/2 inches long.
Several fly patterns have worked for me but I’ve had the most success using Clousers, size two, olive over white. These are tied sparsely because if a fly pushes too much water in calm backwaters or gentle surf, corbina will usually run from it. If this happens go to a smaller or a more sparsely tied pattern. However, in our bigger surf, fly size is not usually important. We have caught corbina on flies as large as 3/0. I also use a pattern called “Boyds Mimic”. It’s tied with flame orange chenille body and with rabbit strip claws. It can look like a ghost shrimp, a squid, a crayfish or a pelagic red crab. It’s a killer fly on calico bass and halibut too.
This doesn’t mean that Clousers will work on fish in all areas. I have fished Clousers at the mouth of the Santa Ana River and in Huntington Beach on several occasions and have not yet caught a corbina there on one. Still, using Clousers provides a good chance at catching a corbina because they resemble a number of small food items they eat. They also catch a lot of halibut. I have had several corbina ready to eat the fly only to have a halibut come from nowhere and take the fly away from them. Hate it when that happens. Grin…
Shallow, calm water corbina will usually spook from a #2 clouser hitting the water unless it lands about ten feet away from them. A #6 can safely land three or four feet away. The deeper the water the less spooky they are, which should give you some insight into catching more of these fish. Fish in the surf are not as sensitive to fly size and depending on water clarity, larger Clousers to size 2/0 can be used.
If you find the need for heavier flies, tie up some with heavier eyes. The six inch mega Clousers I use for halibut have 1/8 ounce eyes. Don’t be tempted to use split shot. It will snag on something and the damage to the leader from the crimp will substantially weaken the leader. Split shot also makes casting more difficult unless it is placed right up against the eye of the fly.
One of the best tips I can share with you is the use of 1/16 to 1/4 ounce black cone slip sinkers from Bullet Weights. The type the bass fishermen use while fishing plastic worms. If applied on the short shock leader they stay close to the fly while casting and the corbina love this combo. The faster sink rate while fishing deeper water means more time fishing and less time spent waiting for the fly to hit bottom. The weight also protects the knot from abrasion at the hook eye.
Keen Observation To Details Pays Off
It’s important to keep your eyes open and be aware of what is happening around you. For instance, if two anglers are fishing together, using the same pattern, tied from the same type of materials and one is catching fish but the other isn’t, the reason could be head cement. Yes indeed! A friend I fish with often, used red nail polish to color the eyes of his Clousers and when he opens his fly box the odor will nearly knock you out. He wonders why he doesn’tt catch fish. Do your tying materials smell like mothballs? Wash them before tying up your favorite patterns. Remember, this fish has a super sense of smell and it’s been my experience they don’t like unnatural orders.
Did you wait until you got to the beach to apply sun block or did you apply it at home where you could properly wash your hands? Before fishing, scrub your hands with wet beach sand to remove any oils. Check the color of your leader material. Does it disappear in the water. Or does it glint under water as the light is transmitted down the leader to the fly. I could go on but you get the idea. Learn to be observant. These small but important details will boost your chance of success.
Fly Line Selection
For me, sinking lines are not the answer. They usually spook fish. I have tried sinking and the low visibility, slow sinking “clear” lines on several occasions with almost zero results. Inevitably I switch back to a floating fly line and start catching fish. My friends have experienced the same thing many times. In the surf the surge will wrap a sinking line around every little obstruction on the bottom. You will loose control of the fly and you will seldom feel a strike. This problem is even more pronounced when you cast at a shallow angle to the beach. Another benefit of the floating line is during the strip. Depending on the depth of the water and the angle of the leader to the bottom you can hop the fly off the bottom with a sharp strip or slow the strip down a little and work the fly right on the sand. In my experience, a floating line has proved best.
Finally, fly lines made to fish in salt water are stiffer than fresh water lines and tangle less. In addition, because of salt water’s buoyancy, they are made smaller in diameter and usually cast further. Buy a quality line, they last longer and handle much better.
Keeping the fly on the bottom is essential. I have watched many fisherman go fishless because the fly is not where the fish are – on bottom! They haven’t learned to watch the leader break the surface tension of the water with that little tell-tale “V” shaped wake as the fly pulls the leader down. When the wake stops the fly is on the bottom or a fish picked it up on the sink. If you see a tick or a hesitation in the V wake, a fish may have eaten the fly – a typical tactic of bass and halibut. After you start stripping watch the leader or the fly line where it enters the water. You will see a strike before you will feel it. Don’t be looking around daydreaming. I guarantee as soon as you look away from the line you will get bit and usually it’s too late.
Wave action dislodges food from the sand and disorients small bait fish. If you are wading past calf height the fish are probably behind you. Concentrate your casts almost parallel to the beach in the troughs created by the waves. Most of us tend to fish too far away from these troughs. By all means, search all the water with the usual fan cast pattern but most of the fish will be caught in the turbulent water that is one foot to four feet deep, less than thirty feet from shore. By casting along the shoreline the fly will be in the strike zone much longer, exposing your offering to more fish for a greater period of time.
Consider this: When you see corbina they are usually cruising parallel to shore. If you fish at a right angle to the beach imagine the odds of your fly and this fish coming together at just the right time. However, if you fish the trough at about a 30 degree angle to the beach you can see that your chances of a corbina seeing your fly are greatly improved. With a floating fly line you can mend the line behind the breaking waves or take advantage of a rip current to pull the fly into likely looking holes. Sinking lines don’t provide this option.
Leaders – Extremely Important
Don’t buy little spools of tippet material. They are too expensive! I use Stren Magnathin in the moss green color in four and six pound test in two hundred yard spools. These are about eight dollars a spool. Abrasion resistance is not high with this material but for me the color really helps catch fish. Ten or 12-pound is good for a short, three- inch bite/abrasion leader which you sometimes need because the nose of the fly is constantly being dragged through the sand, bumped into debris or dragged through mussel beds. Accordingly, make certain to check the knot at the fly frequently if you don’t use a bite/abrasion leader.
Depending upon conditions, the longer the leader the better your chance of success. In the surf, depending upon water clarity etc., leaders can usually be shorter – about ten feet or so. But for shallow, calm and clearer back-bay waters, leaders of fifteen feet or longer are best. Why? In aquarium conditions the best way to catch these fish is, as you move a step or two down the beach between each cast, only the leader will extend over new water, keeping the fly line out of sight. Fifteen or twenty feet of straight six or four pound leader is not only stealthy, it is pulled down quickly by the weighted fly. The thick butt section of a tapered leader slows the sink rate of the fly and also causes the fly to plane up off the bottom when you start stripping. Turnover is not a problem because of the weighted eyes on the fly. If you want to fish a deep hole the long leader allows you to do so without making any changes to your set-up. Again, the floating line and long leader allows more efficient presentations than sinking lines and short leaders, in my experience.
Leader Length is profoundly important. The following is a classic example. One of my buddies fished with me for four months without catching a corbina. He just wouldn’t believe the long six pound leader was the reason I was catching fish and he wasn’t. One day we had been fishing for several hours, he was batting zero and I had three corbina and several halibut. Reluctantly, he finally asked for some assistance. The twelve foot tapered leader was thrown in the trash. Fifteen feet of six pound was attached to the same fly and on the very first cast he caught his first corbina. Ten minutes later, after he regained his composure, he started fishing on the other side of the dock and caught his second corbina. That night I didn’t have to pay for my dinner.
A lesson learned: When you aren’t catching anything and you know the fish are there, ask yourself why aren’t you catching them! You need to change something. Find out what that is and try it. Don’t give up!
I have gotten lazy on several occasions and let my leader get too short. After several hours of no fish I lengthened the leader to sixteen feet and immediately got bit. Several of my friends that now fish long leaders have had the same experience.
Adjust Your Casting Style
The longer leader will require some modification to your casting style. Wait longer for the line to straighten out and slow down the stroke a little. It’s ugly at first but give it time. Don’t slap the line down on the water and pick it up and cast it again. Learn to keep false casts to a minimum. Each false cast has the potential to spook a fish.
Look Behind You before Casting – Safety tips
A word on casting safely: Look behind you prior to every cast to make certain no one is standing behind you. It’s amazing how many people, interested in what you are doing, will quietly walk up and stand behind you. While this seems less than intelligent to us, it is our responsibility to cast safely.
Always wear glasses. Getting hit in the eye with a weighted clouser will really spoil your day. You will need Polaroid glasses to see the fish and the drop offs anyway.
Five to eight weight rods do nicely. The lighter lines required to load these rods are less likely to spook fish. Almost any corrosion-resistant reel designed to be fished in saltwater will suffice, provided it has a decent drag and holds your fly line and a couple of hundred yards of backing.
A stripping basket is an absolute must. Trying to fish without one in the surf could be dangerous. The waves will wrap the loose fly line around your legs and you could become entangled, resulting in a fall. Beach sand is hard on fly lines and the basket will reduce the wear and tear on the line and pay for itself quickly. Fly line management is important to good casting and a stripping basket is invaluable.Here’s an important tip on what to do after you set the hook when using a stripping basket:. After you have used your basket for awhile you will learn they have one drawback. The line tends to tangle. Not an ideal situation when the fish heads for
Catalina Island . When you hookup, back up the beach away from the fish while you get the fish on the reel and attempt to get all of the line out of the basket. If you get a snarl in the line you can walk or run toward the water and the fish, possibly preventing a break off while clearing the tangle.
If you fish long hours, hiking on the sand in breathable waders is less tiring and much cooler than neoprene waders, especially during the hot summer months when corbina are most plentiful. Gravel guards are a must to keep the sand and rocks out of your boots. I use those with the Velcro strips made by Simms. Big surf has a tendency to peel them off so a second strap over the guard, around the top of my boot really keeps them on and the sand out. Two straps are even better. [Editor’s note: Many experienced surf fly fishers opt for boot-foot waders.]
All my flies, cameras , certified scale, etc., are carried in two fanny type packs that I had sewn together at a shoe repair shop. This fits snugly around my waist, just above the belt on my stripping basket. If a big wave knocks me down these belts afford some resistance to the water filling up my waders. Make certain you know how to unbuckle and remove anything in a instant in case you get knocked down or slip into a hole. Don’t wade at night in unfamiliar water. If your stripping basket is one of the solid plastic types that won’t let the water out quickly, drill it full of holes. Plan ahead for these possible events.
Best Tides and Times
Tidal movement produces more fish. At slack tide we eat lunch and compare notes. Find areas that fish well at varied tidal stages. Doing so allows you to fish longer. Early morning or late evening with an incoming or outgoing tide and some wind chop on the water is my favorite time to fish. The fish will often follow the mud trail your wading created, right to your feet. It often pays to fish this turbid water.
In summer the evening air temperature is just right. The beach crowd is gone. As the sun sets, the fish are more active and move up onto the shallow flats and cruise the edges of drop offs. I have seen corbina on the edge of a drop off with their tail in two feet of water and their head resting on the sand in six inches of water slowly working the bottom like a trout sucking up a bead head nymph!
I have occasionally caught fish while not using my usual methods, which means nothing is cast in iron. It’s up to each of us to find that portion of a technique that works for us and in our area. So I suggest you use this information as a guide. I can only relay to you what has worked for me and what hasn’t.
On a conservation note: please treat these wonderful fish with care and always consider releasing them to fight another day.
I would like to hear from anyone who has any additional tips on catching these great fish. If you discover a hot pattern, have a question or just want to chat about surf fishing my e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
See you on the beach. Tight lines!