Rockfish get little respect; except, perhaps, as fish and chips. Commonly encountered by Alaskan anglers while salmon or halibut fishing, they are frequently caught on heavy tackle, making fishermen think they are pulling up a rubber boot. If this is your perception, I hope the following words will change those thoughts and introduce an exciting fishery that is overlooked and overly abused at the same time.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game sport fishing regulations, there are approximately 32 rockfish species in the Gulf of Alaska, but only about 15 are commonly found in nearshore shelf areas of 100 fathoms or less.
Of these, there are a half dozen or so that most anglers will regularly encounter. Black rockfish, (Sebastes melanops), frequently referred to as sea bass or black bass, are probably the most commonly caught of the surface feeding, pelagic (open water) rockfish. Yellowtail, dusky, and blue rockfish make up the rest of the pelagic rockfish commonly found. Yellowtail and dusky rockfish are frequently referred to as brown bombers.
All of these species may be caught high in the water column. In fact, it is not unusual to see schools of black rockfish flopping all over the surface as they feed. Yellowtail and dusky rockfish are usually in the top thirty feet of water as well and can be recognized by their light tapping bite to your lure as it falls in the water column. They can be an outright nuisance to salmon anglers, or an absolute joy to the light-tackle rockfish enthusiast.
Copper, quillback, and China rockfish are the most common bottom-dwelling rockfish in shallow Alaskan waters. They are frequently taken from 30 to 60 feet and deeper. Going deeper than 60 feet brings anglers in reach of canary, Boccacio, silvergray, and yelloweye rockfish. Yelloweye, commonly called red snapper, are the most sought-after and best known of the deepwater rockfish in Alaska. They are easily recognized by their bright orange color and yellow eyes. Immature yelloweye have two light-colored banks on their sides. Canary rockfish are pale orange on the back, mottled with gray on the sides, and are smaller than adult yelloweye.
Rockfish are extremely slow growing. Depending on the species, they reach maturity anywhere from 7 to 16 years and have life spans from 40 to 200 years. According to ADF&G, yelloweye may live for up to 200 years. However, being a largely territorial species, rockfish are subject to over-fishing and one’s take should be limited. Once a bottom-living rockfish sets up shop in a piece of territory, it will be its permanent home, although it may move to deeper water in the winter.
Rockfish have swim bladders that allow them to hold in the water column off the bottom. This physiological feature creates a severe problem in regards to releasing rockfish taken deeper than 60 feet. Basically, it is like a diver ascending too quickly—rockfish get the Bends. The gas in the fish’s system expands. This expansion in the bladder causes the stomach to be forced out its mouth, and particularly in deepwater, the eyes to bulge. This gas expansion also prevents the fish from being able to return to the depths.
Location and Delicacy:
Pelagic rockfish tend to congregate over rock piles and pinnacles but may be found in open water as well. Rockfish are also somewhat migratory. However, anglers can follow some simple procedures to find productive rockfish habitat.
While the fun is in the catching, rockfish are high on the list as table fare. For the best quality-eating fish, proper care is a necessity. A well-equipped fisherman needs a fish club to stun a landed fish, a knife or kitchen shears to cut a gill arch, and an ice chest or fish box to store the catch.
An excellent rockfish identification site is available at: https://www.afsc.noaa.gov/ABL/MESA/mesa_sa_rock.htm
Information from Fish Alaska Magazine
Fishing for Rockfish:
While bait is always an alternative for rockfish, artificial lures are more efficient for the light tackle fisherman. For instance, leadhead jigs with a six-inch curl-tail plastic worm are surefire rockfish lures. Casting these along the edges of kelp beds and letting them sink until you get a strike or the lure reaches the bottom is a simple and effective technique. When a rockfish inhales a sinking jig, you will feel a slight tick. Set the hook quickly before the fish spits the artificial lure.
If the jig reaches the bottom before getting a strike, jig the lure slowly back to the surface by raising your rod tip and then dropping it, reeling the slack as you drop the lure to the bottom. Here, a steady retrieve is highly effective, and you will most often feel several sharp taps as a rockfish mouths the lure. Set the hook sharply. It is also quite common to suddenly feel a weight at the other end of your line, as a rockfish will have grabbed the lure and turned to run back to the safety of structure, securely hooking itself. Reel down and set the hook with a snap of your wrist.