Rockfish suffer from false identity perhaps more than any other saltwater fish. Mistakenly called snapper, red snapper, and even cod, the rockfish is a versatile species in its own right. The Pacific dwelling fish comes in 70 different, yet closely related species and is one of the easiest saltwater fish to catch.
No matter what you call them, rockfish will hit on just about any live saltwater bait. Minnows, shrimp, squid, anchovies and even chunks of octopus are all good choices for live bait. Heavy lures, colorful spoons, and large lead jigs hooked with rubber minnows also attract rockfish.
It’s also one of the tastiest, often the base of many diverse recipes. Some claim it is indistinguishable from lobster, but aside from that extreme is it a well muscled, flaky fish with a mild flavor making it perfect for all types of seafood recipes.
Rockfish range in size from two pounds to 40-pound whoppers.
If you’re after a hard fighting, tail dancing, darting fish that strips the drag on your reel, well, rockfish aren’t going to provide any of this.
While they don’t battle like largemouth bass, rainbow trout or carp, the joy is in the eating, not the catching with rockfish. Children and novice anglers enjoy catching rockfish since they don’t fight they hard, and they’re east to catch.
What is a Rockfish?
One of the benefits of catching rockfish is that different species readily mix together in the same water. Vermillion Rockfish, Copper Rockfish, Blue Rockfish, Quillback Rockfish, and China Rockfish give you an idea of the diversity of this fish just by their names.
Specific species of rockfish habitat various depths, often living directly above each other on steep offshore cliffs. While the bait is similar for rockfish living at depths over 100 feet, and for those who dwell near the surface, the presentation, and style of fishing can vary quite a bit.
Do Artificial Lures Work with Rockfish?
The good news is that if you find rockfish, they’re likely to hit just about anything that resembles the minnows, shrimp and anchovies they prefer in their natural diet. Rockfish aren’t picky when it comes to feeding, but getting that artificial bait to where they live is the challenge.
You’re not fishing the local ponds, small streams or even the big reservoir a few miles down the road when you’re after rockfish. Their very name indicates the habitat they prefer, the rocky ledges along the ocean coast, or the rocks further out from a boat.
Lures that attract other species of fish work with rockfish, but they’re going to have to either be heavier, or attached to weights to get them to the proper depth.
Which Rigging Works Best for Rockfish?
A short summary is to fish for rockfish with a similar setup you’d use for surfcasting. The big difference is the size and power of the rod. You won’t need a 12 or 14 foot rod to cast a hundred yards or more from shore for rockfish. You will need a strong, salt resistant reel, designed for the rigors of saltwater. A 3500 to 5500 sized spinning reel works, even in a model designed for freshwater, but it won’t last long against the rigors of salt, sand and sun that ocean fishing present.
A baitcast reel in similar, mid-range size is often the best reel for rockfishing applications. Whichever style reel you prefer, either spinning or baitcasting doesn’t matter as much as the line you wind around the spool.
The best line is a lightweight braid. Braided line rated at 15 to 30 pound test is perfect for rockfishing. It handles the nicks and cuts that sharp rocks can make on a line, it’s strong, is smaller diameter than similar sized monofilament meaning you can pack more line on your reel and it is more sensitive, allowing you to feel light strikes far below the surface even in choppy water.
You won’t want to tie your lure directly to the braided line since it is very visible to fish, but instead should tie a four to six foot leader of 30 pound test monofilament onto the end.
Thumper jigs, heavy spoons, metal minnows in bright colors, larger sinking Rapalas and of course, everyone’s secret weapon, the lead head jig all work on rockfish. The bigger the better when it comes to bringing in good sized rockfish.
You’ll need the additional weight since ocean currents can be a challenge. Just because the water is flowing one way on the surface doesn’t mean it won’t swirl through every point of the compass as you drop into various depths.
A heavier lure allows you to maintain bait location easier than a lighter one that can be easily swept away.
Spoons can be dropped to depth, then slowing reeled back in. Metal minnows and Rapalas should be dropped to similar depths, but fished as you would in a freshwater setting, with rhythmic jerks of the rod between rapid cranks of the reel.
The lead head jig is the one lure that can work the depths repeatedly without have to fully retrieve it.
Get a heavier lead jig with a #2 or larger hook attached, slip on a silver and grey rubber minnow in bright, sunny conditions, or experiment with brighter colored rubber minnows if you’re in partly cloudy conditions or if you’re fully clouded over.
Drop the lure to the desired depth and let it hit the bottom. Jig in exaggerated four to five foot swings of your rod. This might seem like overkill but if you’re in 80 feet, 100 feet or deeper depths, the motion of the current, and the stretching of the line will take most of that motion. Jig, let it drop, then jib again, let the current take the rubber minnow where it wants. It there are rockfish present, they’ll hit. If not, move a few feet down the shoreline.
Jigging From a Boat
Your best friend is a fish finder when you’re offshore in saltwater chasing rockfish. A fish finder can determine depth, structure and locate concentrations of rockfish must faster than the trial and error method
Once you’ve found a likely location of rockfish. Drop your lines just as you would from shore. Finding the depth is easier this way. Many rockfishing anglers used metered line to measure how much they have released from their reels. This method lets you count in 10, 20 or 25 foot increments how much line you’ve released.
If you have fish indicated at 80 feet, count out the changing color of the line according, then get after it with your jigs or lures.
What Natural Bait Should You Use for Rockfish?
Rockfish hunt around structure because that’s where the baitfish live. When baitfish come out of the crevices of the rock, rockfish will strike.
Minnows, anchovies, shrimp, and hunks of octopus all work in getting a rockfish to take notice. As with artificial lures, getting the bait to the level of the rockfish is the challenge.
If you’re a fresh water enthusiast, those three 1/8 ounce split shots crimped on your line seem like a lot. That won’t even get your bait to 20 feet in the ocean on most days.
You’ll need heavier weights to get bait to the depths where the big rockfish live. Lead weights of three ounces up to a pound are often used by serious rock anglers. The heavier the weight, the easier it is to reach the bottom, but it comes at a cost.
Heavy weights tied to live bait lesson the sensitivity of the action. A heavy weight requires a heavier strike by a fish for you to feel the action. Finding the right balance between the weight of the sinker, the size of the live bait and the depth of its placement is what separates the great angler from the novice.
Hunks of octopus attract attention since a rockfish will eat other sea creatures that have been torn apart by larger predators. They prefer anchovies and minnows when presented correctly.
Hook the minnow or anchovy through the body so the hood protrudes just outside the fins. Rockfish are not attracted to bare hooks. Even a light covering of bucktail increases your chance of getting a strike with live bait or with lures.
Who Doesn’t Like Calamari?
A final great bait used by rockfishing fanatics is squid. Squid isn’t as easy to obtain as minnows or anchovies are, but if you have a source for it, it is nearly a perfect bait for rockfish.
Squid hides a hook well, is easy to hook and stays on the hook through heavy current and it lasts a long time in the water. If you live near a commercial fishing area, you should be able to find a few professionals that can bring in smaller squid with the catch they sell each day. Getting to know these guys will provide a good source of bait for many outings.
Rockfish are among the best eating fish you can find, they’re easy to catch, but they’re often hard to locate. If you have the perseverance to spend a little time learning the structure of the area you’re fishing, whether with a detailed map, with a fish finder or through trial and error, you’ll soon learn where these delicious fish live. Remember, getting there is half the fun.
My name is Ruben. I love fishing like most guys I know. Fishing is so much more than just an outdoor activity- its an escape, its therapy and so much more. I put together a team of other professional anglers in order to create the most inclusive fishing resource.